It is clearer by the day that this election, like all British elections, is to be about class. Social class is the unspoken but all pervasive context for every policy disagreement, every press release and every manifesto pledge. Of course to explicitly acknowledge this is forbidden by the bourgeois cultural rules of our deeply class-based capitalist society, which prescribes that class politics must always shroud itself in the universal language of ‘opportunity’, ‘fairness’ and ‘aspiration’. But there can be no mistaking it; this election is to be centrally about class in a way that no election has been since 1992, because there is a major class realignment afoot. The recent letter signed by 80 leaders of large businesses in support of the Tory proposal to reverse Labour’s increase in National Insurance, illustrates very nicely what is actually taking place in terms of class relations and political power.
The 1992 election was the last one in which the Tory party still clearly represented the interests of capital, of the ruling class and their upper middle class allies, and the Labour party still broadly represented the interests of labour, of the working class and their lower middle class allies. Shortly after that election, the Tories lost the support of the ruling class. Their slow but determined political suicide, committed through recurrent sleaze, infighting over Europe and economic incompetence, rendered them unfit to continue to be the vehicle for the ruling class to exercise their hegemony over the political system. Blairism emerged to fill the vacuum. It represented a class counter-revolution within the Labour party itself, allowing the ruling class to resume its political hegemony through the Labour party leadership whilst also fatally outmanoeuvring its class enemies by denying them political representation altogether and crushing dissent internally within the party. It was this strategy that produced the landslide Labour victory in 1997, and it was this strategy that ensured class rule for the next decade.
But things have changed. The financial crisis of 2007-08 was not just a banking crisis but was a structural crisis of the capitalist system, which teetered on the brink of collapse, and which had to be bailed out by nation-states on a colossal scale. In effect the public sector and the taxpayers wrote a blank cheque for private capital, subsidising its activities on a scale so massive that it defies conceptualisation. We were told that there was no alternative, that without a banking system the economy would collapse. But now, having happily taken the money with very few conditions attached, we find that these institutions are back to paying grotesque bonuses to risk-takers whilst denying essential loans to small businesses and charging their customers for small overdrafts.
Hardly surprising then that the depth of public resentment against the banks is unprecedented. So much so that any political party would surely benefit hugely from adopting punitive measures directed against the banks, systematically tightening regulation across the board and clawing back the money in far more than just the symbolic and piecemeal way so far attempted. Obama has gone considerably further in the US, but no British party will do more than pay lip service to this, because all the main UK political parties are too closely bound up with the interests of finance capital and the City. The moment for popular class war is here, but there is no working class party to fight it.
In this context the central issue of the election has become the question of where the axe will fall; who will pay for the bailout. This is also a class issue. And herein lies the difference between the two major parties, despite all the convergence between them in so many areas during the last fifteen years – their very different histories and their different class compositions make it impossible for them to ever become fully identical. So whilst both parties state that there will ‘have to’ be public sector cuts and pay freezes, the Tories have made a crusade against public sector ‘waste’ a defining part of their agenda, going much further than Labour in identifying supposed ‘efficiency savings’, and proposing that public sector jobs which become vacant should not be filled.
All of these measures are, of course, merely convenient euphemisms for what in practice will mean public sector redundancies, pay cuts, reduced services, higher unemployment and intensifying exploitation. Whereas Labour have increased National Insurance as a small measure to begin to pay off the deficit, the Tories propose to reverse this, and to pay for this de facto tax cut with further, faster and deeper cuts into the public sector. So Labour proposes tax rises to maintain public services as much as possible, whereas the Tories propose tax cuts paid for by harsher cuts in public services – it is 2010, but it could be the 1980’s.
On one level this is a spurious debate, since no party is proposing to make finance capital itself foot the bill, which is the only just solution; but put this matter of principle to one side and it could not be a more traditional party divide. It is also a divide in which the ruling class have belatedly returned to their natural political representatives, having now firmly allied themselves once again with the Tories, and with their insistence that the very public sector which bankrupted itself in bailing out private capital should now be made to pay the bill in its entirety, in order to leave capitalist profit-making unfettered. Even given the impoverished nature of the democratic choice it represents, if this is what it pragmatically boils down to, then I know which side I’m on.
Richie Nimmo is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. His first book, ‘Milk, Modernity, and the Making of the Human’, was published by Routledge in February 2010.
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This post was written by Richie Nimmo