Labour’s war of position

Many of the Labour Party’s economic proposals are now supported by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. A ComRes poll conducted after the 2017 general election revealed tremendous popular support for policies like banning zero hours contracts, (74%) increasing income tax for those on more than £80,000 a year (71%) and renationalising the railways, (53%) the Royal Mail (52%) and the energy industry (50%).

Socialism is no longer a dirty word

Only ten years ago, the notion of renationalisation would have been dismissed as socialist rubbish from a bygone era. But the context has changed and socialism is no longer a dirty word. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis was, no doubt, central to this shift. In the wake of the crash, many have come to feel that the system is rigged against them.

After eight years of fiscal punishment, there is now a growing appetite for a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth and income. Given this fertile ground, it is important to ask why Labour is not miles ahead in the polls?

We often see the finger pointed at Jeremy Corbyn and at the apparent lack of trust in the Party’s ability to lead the country. It is argued that crisis after crisis have been managed poorly by the leadership. The recent row over anti-Semitism is a perfect example. It could have been dealt with in its early stages but instead culminated in Labour’s lost summer.

The enduring hegemony of Thatcherism

But this is not the whole story. We should not be drawn into the personalisation of politics promoted by the mainstream media, a group whose stranglehold over public opinion is dwindling in the face of alternative sources of information. If we look beneath the superficial, could it not be that the real barrier to a Labour government is the enduring hegemony of Thatcherism?

We inherit this explanation from Antonio Gramsci who argued that rulers do not maintain their grip on power simply by appearance or coercion but by winning the general consent of the population. This consent is generated when one group wins the battle for the hearts and minds of the society. Hegemony is when one group’s ideas becomes the new ‘common sense.’

Margaret Thatcher rose to power in 1979, defeating a Labour government that under James Callaghan was already on its last legs. Her real victory was in overthrowing the hegemony of communitarianism that had dominated British politics since the war and replacing it with her own brand. Thatcherism is a set of ideas that prioritise the individual over the collective, the private over the public and the market over the state. Despite having been out of power for almost four decades, many of these ideas are still viewed as common sense today.

We see this when people respond to new policies by asking ‘how will this affect me and my family?’ Debate of government policy used to centre on how communities will be affected; now it centres on individuals. Thatcher famously said ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’ (1987) Although attitudes may be starting to shift, it will take something greater to overcome this individual bias in how we think.

Hegemony is about a set of ideas that appear to us as natural, orderly and common sense. In 2010, austerity seemed like common sense. Today, we can see that it was nonsense. The Labour Party must use this as an opportunity to launch its own counter attack.

If it continues to get caught up in the superficial arguments, there will be no room for the economic and political arguments that are necessary to create a new common sense.  This seems like a better explanation of why Labour continues to struggle electorally. It’s fighting on someone else’s terms and from that position, any effort to establish a new hegemony will be found wanting.

Richard Dawson is a journalist based in the North East.

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