George is 36. He works for Hackney council as a welfare rights adviser. Before that he had a job with the Labour Research Department; and before that he was doing a doctoral degree (in urban sociology) at the LSE. He did his first degree at the University of Essex. It was there he met his wife. Sue, who is now a teacher. At the time, he was in the International Marxist Group and she was an anarchist. They used to argue about Kronstadt before making love, and were involved in a lot of demonstrations and sit-ins.
Things quietened down a bit when they moved to London in 1971: but George stayed with the IMG for another five years, still convinced that the British revolution was imminent. Sue continued to see herself as an anarchist, but mixed increasingly in women's movement circles. She enjoyed the consciousness-raising. In 1976 George resigned from the IMG over what he considered a deviationist turn from the class. He was unattached for a while, then joined the Labour Party when he and Sue moved out of their housing association place in Stoke Newington and into a flat in Islington which Sue had bought with some money from her grandmother.
Inside the Labour Party, George made swift progress. He soon found himself on the General Management Committee of the constituency party, and within two years lie was membership secretary. He became a stalwart of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy; as a delegate at conference he made many an impassioned plea for constitutional reform. After the election defeat of May 1979 his efforts redoubled. He was heavily involved in the manoeuvring behind the scenes at the 1981 constitutional conference at Wembley, spent long hours on the Benn deputy leadership campaign, and worked hard for a Labour victory in the 1981 GLC elections. (He had been approached about the possibility of standing for a GLC seat but he decided against it).
Meanwhile, Sue was beginning to feel isolated in her feminist group. She started going to Big Flame meetings but that didn't seem to make much difference. Next she got interested in the Communist Party, but they seemed slightly old-fashioned. And then, after the Beyond the Fragments conference in Leeds, she swallowed her pride and joined George in the Labour Party. Somewhat to her surprise she took to it like a duck to water; the women she met through it were just her sort of person. There were even a couple of teachers with whom she set up a “Women in education” discussion group.
And so to the present. Despite the poor showing of the Labour party in the 1983 general election, George and Sue are happier than they have been for a long time. They have active social lives with their political friends; they know everybody worth knowing in the 1ittle world of GLC committees and north London “radical socialist boroughs”. At home they spend their leisure hours reading Marxism Today and London Labour Briefing, or relaxing in front of Channel Four. They feel that they are doing their bit in the struggle for socialism – indeed, they feel they are leading the struggle for socialism. Of course, there is still a long way to go. After all; the vicious lies of the Evening Standard might just result in Ken and the comrades being defeated in 1985, to say nothing of the threats to abolish the GLC in the Tory manifesto. But until then everything is on course for the New Jerusalem.
As you may have gathered, George and Sue are fictional characters. Any resemblance to real people and events in their story is not, however, entirely coincidental. George and Sue are typical members of the social group that now dominates the left political agenda in Britain. They are highly educated people, radicalised in their student days, whose main hobby for more than a decade has been politics. They began their political careers on the far left outside the Labour Party, but with the passage of time more or less willingly joined its left wing. And they are reliant upon the welfare bureaucracies – within which they occupy high-status managerial, professional or semi-professional positions – for employment.
What are we to make of them? There are some who see the growing predominance of people like George and Sue within the Labour Party (and to a lesser extent the trade unions) as indicative of nothing more than the shift from blue-collar to white-collar employment in the British economy. That such a shift has occurred is certainly true; anyone who sees the modern working-class as composed mainly of horny-handed manual workers needs new spectacles.
But it is not particularly relevant here. The Georges and Sues are formally white-collar workers, insofar as they sell their labour power for a wage and have no other significant source of income. They are, however, no ordinary white-collar workers. Unlike the average clerk or typist they are order-givers rather than order-takers. Their jobs often have professional or semi-professional career structures, in that entry is restricted to those deemed to hold relevant qualifications, and their job security is much greater than for most workers. Their culture, too, is not that of most workers: people like George and Sue are in certain crucial respects members of the middle class.
And yet they are members of the Labour Party – traditionally the party of the working class. They are, moreover, in positions of power within the Labour Party: in many local LPs people like George and Sue hold all the key posts. What is more, they have reached such positions of power not as a result of working class deference in the face of apparent expertise – as the middle-class socialists of a previous era did – but by gaining majorities at the “grass roots” of the Labour Party, often against the wishes of working-class members, and often in an extremely manipulative way.
It is not how the people like George and Sue did all this that is really at issue. The membership of the Labour Party has been declining steadily for years: in Glasgow, for example, it is estimated that there are now only 50 or 60 paid up members in each constituency (outside one with a Labour club), most of whom are inactive. The reasons for this decline are varied. On one hand, since the late 1950s television broadcasts have replaced door-knocking canvassing as the main means of electoral campaigning, local Labour parties have increasingly lost touch with the people they once would have recruited as the need for a mass campaigning party has receded. This tendency has been particularly marked in “safe” Labour areas.
More importantly, working class commitment to Labour has steadily disintegrated since 1945. The traditional working-class community that formed the social base for Labour's support has been dispersed, by consumerism, by rehousing (ironically, often initiated by Labour politicians), and the changing character of work. Finally, many once staunch Labour Party members have been irrevocably alienated by their experience of Labour in office. The stultifying bureaucracy of the welfare state, the corrupt machine politics of Labour town halls, the stark capitalist reality of having the state as an employer, wage control – all have encouraged the flight of the working class from the Labour Party.
The results of this decline in Labour Party membership are obvious: it became very easy for a small number of people to take over a local LP, particularly if they were adept at political manipulation and were prepared to put a lot of work into committees. And that is precisely what the Georges and Sues have done -with the unintended and ironic effect of further alienating working-class Labour members. Why, though, have they done it?
If you ask them, their answer will be simple: they have taken over the Labour Party because they believe passionately in the desirability of “socialist policies”. And indeed there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of their commitment to what they see as socialism. But what the new middle-class left sees as socialism is not just a heady ideal. If you look at the content of their ideology and practice, you find it very much in tune with their economic self-interest.
This becomes particularly apparent in areas where the new middle class left have come to control local government. “Socialist policies” in such areas have been characterised by the creation of a multitude of committees and grant-aided autonomous bodies which are supposed to monitor and control the police, work against racial and sexual discrimination, encourage the development of cooperatives , stimulate “people's culture”, attempt to decentralise the functions of local government, and so forth. This is not the place to attempt a full-blown critique of such innovations; it suffices to say that the majority have failed even in their limited (and in many ways unsocialist) avowed aims, largely because they have not had the support of ordinary people. What they have succeeded in doing is providing highly paid employment for scores of middle-class leftists. One does not have to be a cynic to suggest that the main beneficiaries of “socialist policies” in local government have been those employed to manage their implementation, and that the middle-class left's pursuit of “socialist policies” is at root a pursuit of class interests that have little to do with the class interests of the majority of ordinary people.
As yet, however, only a small – though growing – number of the Georges and Sues are employed in the jobs created by left local government. Far more work in the more traditional welfare state, as social workers, teachers, college lecturers, administrators, and so on. Unsurprisingly, with their jobs under threat from central government cuts, they have campaigned vigorously against attempts to prune the welfare state.
Up to a point, of course, there is no conflict between their defence of welfare expenditure and the interests of the wider population. Cuts in the welfare budget mean cuts in services for ordinary people, as well as fewer jobs for social workers, teachers and administrators. Nevertheless, there is no necessary link between preserving welfare expenditure and preserving services: much welfare expenditure acts only to sustain a parasitic bureaucracy. What is more, the “services” provided by the welfare state are in many cases as much means of social control as they are beneficial to ordinary people.
Yet we hear no substantive criticism of welfarism from the new middle-class left. Rather, they give us the uncritical “fight the cuts” slogans, and a vision of the future in which the welfare state takes control of every aspect of our everyday lives. Once again, it does not seem cynical to suggest that we are witnessing the pursuit of a class interest under the banner of “socialism” that has nothing to do with the interests of the working class. The generation of 1968 has, it seems, grown up to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.