Britain: no to Paul Mason’s culture war, yes to socialist policies!

Following Labour’s election defeat, a massive battle has opened up to determine the future direction of the party. With the right-wing seeking to regain control, all sorts of ideas are being put forward, sowing confusion on the left. So not to be left out, the so-called left journalist Paul Mason, already discredited amongst a wide layer of activists, offers his contribution in a 21-page pamphlet: “After Corbynism, Where next for Labour?” His answer, unsurprisingly, is a shift to the right!


He underlined this ‘strategy’ by endorsing Sir Keir Starmer in the ongoing Labour leadership contest: the clear favourite of the right wing, who enjoys the support of the two main Blairite organisations, Progress and Labour First. How does this former, self-styled Corbynista journalist justify this endorsement? Because Starmer supposedly has the “personal attributes of integrity, professionalism and leadership”. This meaningless assessment is a thin cover for the real explanation: Starmer is a consistent supporter of remaining in the European Union, and was the author of Labour’s 2019 election Brexit policy, which essentially promised a second referendum.

Over the past period, ex-left Paul Mason was one of the most vocal champions of the “People’s Vote” campaign within Labour. As well as pushing for a second referendum on remaining in the European Union, he enthusiastically argued Labour should line up with the liberal establishment in campaigning for Remain. Mason even went as far to argue that in order to defeat the Tories, Labour must enter a “popular front” electoral pact with all so-called “progressive parties”, including even the Liberal Democrats: the so-called ‘centre ground’ party who propped up the Tories and oversaw vicious austerity as part of the 2010 coalition government!

With Labour’s defeat in the 2019 election, it is clear to anyone with eyes to see that Labour’s Brexit policy (as championed by Mason) cost it dearly in working-class Leave areas. However, Mason seems blind to this fact. Rather than learning the lessons from last year’s defeat, he has doubled-down on his long-held erroneous positions.

His latest pamphlet analysing the defeat, with a list of suggested fixes for Labour, is in reality nothing but a long-winded attempt to justify his mistakes, in order to maintain some sort of relevance in the movement. It is a recipe for shifting the party to the right, but presented with a left-wing gloss.

Why did Labour lose?

Mason argues that we must not fall for the “simplistic narrative” that Labour “lost because our Brexit position alienated the working class”. Mason cites a report by Datapraxis, which estimates that “a maximum of 800,000 Labour voters switched to the Tories. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems gained at least 1.1 million votes from Labour, the Greens 339,000, and the SNP a quarter of a million”.

Mason nevertheless hammers home the point that “Labour, in short, lost twice as many votes to progressive pro-Remain parties as it did to the parties of Brexit and racism” (our emphasis). This is used to justify Mason’s previous calls for Labour to have entered into an electoral pact of so-called “progressive parties”:

“We were facing an alliance of the right and far right, with one relentless message. But the progressive parties refused any kind of tactical unity and fought each other instead.”

Mason goes on to argue that Labour’s adoption of a second referendum position at the end of May 2019 was correct, but carried out “too late” to be effective. And that, even with this “sellable position” (by which Mason means the promise of a second referendum), “Jeremy Corbyn and key members of the shadow Cabinet refused to sell it”.

Mason turns the reality of the election on its head, presenting the main problem for Labour (its Brexit position) as its salvation. At the root of this is Mason’s absence of a scientific class analysis, and his rejection of the struggle for socialism. Instead, he ends up in the camp of middle-class liberalism, portraying the main divide in society as a cultural battle between “globalist progressives” and “authoritarian nativists”, rather than between capitalists and the working class.

“Progressive”

It appears that, for Mason, the criteria for whether a party or person is “progressive” is whether they supported remaining in the European Union (EU). The real face of the EU is very clear right now, considering the Syrian refugees holed up in concentration camps on the Greek islands; and the borders Schengen countries have been throwing up in the course of the coronavirus pandemic - withholding essential medical resources from severely affected countries like Italy. There is not, and nor has there ever been anything progressive about the EU.

But how else can he justify giving the Liberal Democrats this “progressive” label? This is fundamentally a party that seeks to represent the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie. Has he forgotten that they jumped enthusiastically into government to prop up the Tories in carrying out a brutal austerity programme? A programme that is about making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism!

Although Mason states that “the central issue we have to face is class”, he is incapable of actually adopting a working-class position in any of his analysis. Instead of advocating that Labour fight on a socialist programme – one that addresses class issues such as unemployment, the housing crisis, healthcare, etc. – he seeks an alliance of so-called progressive (i.e. pro-EU) “social forces”.

New class dynamics

All that Mason has to say in his pamphlet about the reasons behind the 2016 Brexit vote is that: “part of the former industrial working class in the Midlands and the North has detached itself from the values that are now core to our party. This is the result of a decades-long process, which began under Tony Blair, and was never going to be turned around in six weeks.” He continues: “Let’s be frank: a minority of the working class abandoned Labour for authoritarian conservatism and nativism”.

This seems to suggest that the Brexit vote was solely down to the ‘working-class’ moving to the right. Mason rejects the possibility that working-class communities, who were left shattered by years of cuts and austerity, often carried out by Labour-run councils, looked to Brexit (rightly or wrongly) as a way out. Or at the very least, as an opportunity to shake up the hated political establishment. Nor does he give any weight to the fact that Labour was able to win back a large section of UKIP supporters in 2017 on a left-wing, anti-austerity manifesto that (crucially) accepted the result of the 2016 referendum.

No, according to Mason, the only way to explain this development is by understanding “the new class dynamics of our busted neoliberal system”.

Neoliberalism

As is typical of reformists, anything they don’t like about capitalism is simply written off as “neoliberalism”. The implication being that this is simply a nasty, or “busted” form of capitalism, and that if we went back to the Keynesian policies of the post-war boom, everything would be fine.

Mason goes on to argue that neoliberal capitalism “exploits us through many channels, not only work. In fact the financial channel – through rents and interest payments – is arguably more important to capital than work itself.”

As if the ruling class exploiting workers through rent and interest is anything new! As Marx explained long ago, the capitalist class exploits the working class through the production process, since labour is the source of all value. Of the value produced by the working class, a portion goes back to workers to maintain them at a certain (usually low) standard of living, and a portion (termed “surplus value”) goes to the ruling class in the form of profit, interest, and rent.

Due to competition, the ruling class must constantly attempt to increase its share of the surplus, whereas the working class must collectively organise even to maintain a semi-civilised standard of living. This battle over the share of the surplus forms the basis for the class struggle. Giving the label “neoliberalism” to capitalism, changes nothing of this fundamental dynamic.

Mason continues: “If you accept that capital exploits us through many channels – work, credit cards, student loans, mortgages, rents, culture, data extraction and technological control – you begin to understand what’s fragmenting the loyalty of Labour voters”.

Really? How? None of this is explained, it is simply asserted. Mason concludes that “over three decades of relentless class struggle and indoctrination, this multi-channel form of exploitation has produced a mindset prone to fatalism and atomisation”.

But the only fatalism appears to come from Mason and reformists like him. No amount of “indoctrination” could stop the surge of support from workers and youth behind Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s left-wing manifesto, promising free education, nationalisation of the railways and utilities etc. After a decade of austerity (to which the Blairites offered no resistance) Labour enjoyed a huge influx of members and support when it presented itself as a genuine alternative. This was finally derailed by Mason and his ilk’s insistence on pressurising the leadership further and further towards a Remain position. It had nothing to do with the “mindset” of the working class.

Leadership

If anything has contributed to producing a “mindset prone to fatalism and atomisation”, it is the treacherous role played by labour movement bureaucrats over the past few decades.

Rather than providing a bold lead and organising workers in the struggle to transform society, most trade union and Labour Party leaders have poured cold water on any militant struggles of workers. They have done their utmost to curtail workers’ confidence in their ability to fight and change the system, and instead preached class compromise. Since they accept capitalism, these bureaucrats have dutifully carried out counter-reforms, and have implemented vicious austerity when in power. Is it therefore any wonder that millions of people feel alienated from the labour movement?

No return to Blairism Image Socialist AppealMost trade union and Labour Party leaders have poured cold water on any militant struggles of workers / Image Socialist Appeal

But to Mason, Brexit was simply a result of a cultural shift amongst a layer of the working class, who have abandoned Labour’s values. Such a shift, he argues, was simply an inevitable outcome of “neoliberalism”. In reality, it was the Labour Party under decades of right-wing control that abandoned the working-class, and not the other way around.

Brexit

The question of Brexit has long tormented the Tory party. Fundamentally, it represents a split between two sections of the British ruling class over the way forward for British capitalism. From the standpoint of the working class, there is nothing progressive in either remaining in a big-business trade bloc, or leaving on a capitalist basis.

However, following the crisis of capitalism in 2008, the idea of leaving the EU went mainstream. With no socialist alternative being presented by Labour, millions of working-class people saw in Brexit a way to transform their lives. After decades of de-industrialisation, unemployment, insecure low-pay work, and social decay, many were desperate for change.

The liberal establishment (including Paul Mason) frantically tried to convince people that the status-quo with the EU was fine, and that leaving would make conditions worse. But millions felt that conditions couldn’t get any worse, and that the establishment deserved a good kicking.

Over the course of several decades, the dominant wing of the British ruling class – that of most big businesses and banks – lost control over the Tory Party. To their dismay, Boris Johnson and the bulk of Tory MPs enthusiastically backed Brexit, and as such were able to present themselves as “anti-establishment”, in contrast to a Remainer liberal elite.

Establishment

Although the ruling class also lost control over the leadership of the Labour Party under Corbyn, they still had a reliable base of agents in the top of the party in the form of the Blairite MPs. It was these MPs (echoed by a layer of “lefts” such as Mason) who forced Labour into adopting a Remain position, and later into backing a second referendum. It was therefore the Labour Party, and not the Tories, which appeared to many as propping up the rotten establishment.

Mason argues that had Labour supported Brexit, it wouldn’t have won working-class Leavers over, since apparently their main concern is to “stem economic migration”. Whilst it is true that the issue of migration is a large element of Brexit, it must be explained why. At the end of the day it comes down to the artificial scarcity produced by capitalism, and the absence of a class-based alternative. If Labour presented a socialist programme that could guarantee employment, housing, and well-funded services for all, the issue of migration would fall by the wayside.

According to Mason, had Labour supported Brexit, “it would have collapsed our support among what is now the core of our vote: the skilled and educated workforce, the BAME communities, and the youth”.

This is clearly not true, as Labour’s position in the 2017 general election was to honour the Brexit referendum result, whilst implementing far reaching social reforms. Far from alienating young and BAME people, millions enthusiastically backed Labour. It was still not enough though to win over enough working-class people who identified Brexit with the Tories, or who were disillusioned with Labour following decades of Blairism. But it succeeded in making some inroads with these voters, as evidenced by the biggest swing to Labour since 1945, whereas under the leadership of the right wing, the party had hemorrhaged 5 million votes since 1997.

Socialist Europe

Many of these artificial divisions could have been cut across had Corbyn come out early on for an independent class position on leaving the EU: for a Socialist United States of Europe. Had he explained that the EU is a bosses’ club that exists to defend the interests of European big-business (and not “workers’ rights”), he could have dispelled illusions on the left about the EU being a “progressive” force of “internationalism”.

To take back real control, Corbyn should have argued that leaving the EU would be a beginning, but not the end. The status quo could only be shattered by taking power out of the hands of the bankers and billionaires that really run the economy, and planning production for need and not profit. Of course, this couldn’t be done in just one country, but would require the working class to cooperate across Europe, and ultimately the world.

Mason is of course blind to this, since he sees things not in class terms, but simply in terms of a conflict between “globalism” or “nativism”. He has no conception of a fundamental transformation of society or socialism, since he has no confidence in the capacity of working-class people to actually take power and run society themselves. Since he accepts capitalism, he therefore accepts the interests of the capitalists, but attempts to dress them up as “progressive”.

Instead of proposing the one thing that could have united working-class Leavers and working-class Remainers – the adoption of a socialist programme to change society – Mason instead proposes a cross-class unity of workers and the “progressive elite”.

“Progressive Alliance”?

In reality, it was precisely such cross-class unity over the question of a second referendum that played a major role in Labour’s defeat. Although Mason is keen to emphasise the number of votes lost by Labour to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, the reality is that it was the shift to the Tories that was the decisive factor in most seats lost.

Of the 60 seats lost by Labour, 52 were lost in seats that voted Leave in 2016. 24 of the so-called “Red Wall” seats were lost to the Tories for the first time in their history. Although Labour lost some votes to the Lib Dems and Greens in these seats, by far the biggest swing was to the Tories. For example, Dudley North, the seat with the largest Tory swing, the Lib Dems gained 2.4 percent of the vote share compared to 2017, the Greens 1.4 percent, whilst the Tories gained 16.6 percent. A similar picture is found across the rest of the “Red Wall” seats: the swing to the Tories is far higher than to the Lib Dems or Greens.

According to polling by YouGov, only 52 percent of those that voted Leave in 2016 and Labour in 2017, stuck with Labour in 2019. A third moved to vote for the Tories, whilst 6 percent voted for the Brexit Party. It is true that Corbyn’s perceived weakness was a factor in this. In large part this was due to the constant abuse hurled at him by the Blairites and the media, combined with his timidity in fighting back.

But one of the most significant factors according to polling by Lord Ashcroft was clearly Brexit. Participants in Ashcroft’s focus groups stated the following: “It wasn’t so much Brexit, it was democracy. It was that they wouldn’t honour the referendum”; “I felt let down. 17.4 million people voted leave, and we’re supposed to be a democracy. They threw spanners in the works and did everything they could to stop it. It was arrogance. They were no longer listening to the people.”

How a “progressive alliance” electoral pact to support a second referendum would have reversed this feeling is something only Paul Mason knows. In reality, it would have simply added fuel to the fire, as Labour would be firmly identified with the establishment.

Cultural insecurity

Mason praises Corbyn’s legacy of rebuilding Labour as a “left leaning mass party”. But he argues that the left needs to “think beyond Corbynism” to weld together a “new social alliance that can achieve victory”. To do this means forging a “temporary alliance of the centre and the left”. In plain language, this means shifting the party to the right.

To win back the layer of the working class that “detached itself from the values that are now core to our Party”, Mason argues that Labour must “provide answers to the cultural insecurity being expressed by people in ex-industrial towns”.

In typical postmodern fashion, Mason argues that to do this, we need to harness “narrative power”. This is because: “policies don’t win elections, narratives do”.

Instead of providing class-based answers to those left behind by capitalism, Mason argues that Labour should get behind the institutions of the capitalist state such as the police and the military. In other words, the way to cut across the influence of the right is to simply echo what they have to say, and dress it up as left-wing. This policy of trying to out-Tory the Tories, or dress up in their clothing has a miserable history under New Labour and later under Ed Miliband. As it turns out, if people want Tory policies, they will simply vote for the Tories!

Mason’s suggested “narrative” for the left includes the following:

“We will reassure those communities that we support NATO, the nuclear deterrent, a well-equipped military rooted in civil society, a police force that cares about the victims of crime, and an intelligence service that can fight terrorism effectively.”

This flows from the logic of abandoning a class position and the struggle for socialism. If you can’t beat the capitalists, join them! Despite arguing that “it is all about class”, nowhere does he suggest raising class consciousness by exposing the ruling class’ interests served by these institutions. Or what the state could look like if the working-class took power into its own hands.

Paul Mason 2018Mason’s whole approach is to give a left cover for a policy of conciliation and compromise with our class enemies / Image: fair use

Mason’s narrative continues: “To the beleaguered ex-industrial communities, we have to offer hope and the means to rekindle it through local action”. What “local action” he has in mind is not explained. He perhaps refers to the recent vogue in “community organising” on the left - in other words, abandoning the struggle for political power in favour of “grassroots” activism through food banks, community unions etc., essentially turning Labour members into charity workers. This is a step back, which reflects the demoralisation and disorientation of a layer of the labour left, who have been traumatised by the defeat of 2019 and see no route to power nationally, so are devoting themselves to making whatever small difference they can in their neighbourhoods. It is certainly no shortcut to winning back the trust of disenfranchised voters in ex-industrial towns, fed up with Labour politicians paying lip service to their interests while carrying out attacks.

Marxists are of course in favour of workers being empowered to collectively decide and enact policies on a local level. But if this is not done as part of a wider socialist plan of production, it will lack the ability to actually carry out any sweeping changes. For example, will local action alone re-open the heavy industries that have been closed down due to the worldwide crisis of capitalism?

If it is a narrative that Mason requires, how about “for a revolution against the billionaire class”! Labour must tell the truth. That for decades, the working class has been squeezed in order to pay for the crisis of the bankers and billionaires. Our living standards are constantly attacked, so that the rich can get richer and richer.

Labour must say, no more: make the rich pay for their crisis! This can only be done by taking power out of their hands, and by the working class democratically planning production for need and not profit. But a “narrative” is only believable though if it is backed up by the policies required to put it into practice. These would require nationalising the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control.

Alliance

In reality, the Labour Party has existed as an “alliance of the centre [right wing] and the left” for a very long time. Under Corbyn’s leadership, the scales tipped enormously to the side of the left-wing mass membership, in contrast to the right-wing parliamentary party and councillors. Far from being a happy alliance, as Mason imagines, the right-wing did everything it could to sabotage the left, and tip the scales back in its favour.

One of the main limitations of the leadership around Corbyn was precisely the fear of upsetting this fragile balance, lest the Blairite MPs leave the party. Rather than lead a struggle to replace right-wing MPs with left-wing alternatives, their whole policy was one of conciliation. Hence the retreats over mandatory reselection, Trident, alleged “institutional anti-Semitism”, and Brexit.

But the right-wing will never accept the left in control of the party. The Blairites are the agents of the ruling class within the Labour Party! The only way to carry out what Mason desires – unity with the right - is to water down a left programme, until it presents no danger to the interests of the ruling class. This is the real lesson of such “popular-fonts”, which Mason conveniently ignores.

But what do to about the left-wing membership of the party, which would resist any shift to the right? How to prevent it from upsetting its new “allies”? Mason’s solution is simple. To curtail the internal democracy of the party! How? By atomising its members, limiting their ability to formulate policy, and removing the selection and accountability of the leadership.

This is to be inferred from Mason’s assertion that “CLP meetings are unwieldy and bureaucratic, and we need to streamline the business of policy formation”. His answer to this is to “adopt the Momentum organising style throughout the party”. In other words, for policy to be tightly controlled by an unelected leadership, with no accountability, nor real internal democracy. Such a structure would be an absolute gift to the party’s right wing!

Fight for socialism: for working-class politics

The crisis of capitalism has given rise to an unprecedented social and political crisis, recently expressed on a whole new level through the coronavirus pandemic. The so-called centre-ground is collapsing everywhere, as people desperately seek a solution. But as a typical liberal, all Paul Mason sees in this is a terrifying shift to the right amongst a layer of the working class.

By framing the polarisation as a clash of “cultural values”, Mason’s solution is to “pay attention to the cultural insecurities” of those in ex-industrial towns. To Mason however, this doesn’t mean drawing out the class issues in society, but simply tail-ending the ruling class in support for its institutions of power.

In reality, there is a massive anti-establishment mood under the surface of society. But instead of harnessing this mood to carry out a fundamental transformation of society – i.e. socialism – Mason instead is looking towards the very same establishment to form an alliance with to beat the right.

Whether he is conscious of it or not, Mason’s whole approach is to give a left cover for a policy of conciliation and compromise with our class enemies. This is nothing new. But if the general election defeat proves anything, it is that this policy has failed. Only a genuine socialist programme can cut across the polarisation in the working class, and unite it in struggle. For this, an uncompromising fight against the right wing of the Labour Party is necessary. Our slogan must be to finish the Corbyn Revolution!