Consumerism or class struggle? The General Election and young people

This was a speech originally delivered at the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory launch in January 2015. It was then adapted for publication on the blog of the same name on the 13th March.

Two things have happened recently which have confirmed for me the need for a Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, particularly amongst young people.

The first is that over the past few months I’ve discovered that a lot of the young left-wing activists I know are Secret Labour Party Members. Clearly they think that it’s worthwhile being in the party. But they’re not willing to admit it. Or if they do admit it, it’s under their breath and sheepish, as though they’re outing themselves as big fans of Coldplay.

The second thing that has happened is the so-called ‘Green surge’. Lord Ashcroft’s most recent national poll puts the Greens at 11%, the highest they have ever reached in a general election poll. These Green voters are likely to be young and left-wing: the type of people who would have traditionally voted Labour.

This poll is impressive, and it’s unlikely to be replicated at the General Election. In fact, it looks like the Greens will only manage to hold onto their existing seat in Brighton.

But that’s not to say that the Green vote won’t matter. It looks like the votes that the Greens win from the Labour Party could make the difference between a Labour or a Tory/Lib Dem victory in some seats. So even in for the narrow goal of kicking out the Tories, the young Green voters matter a lot.

But there is another reason why these two phenomena – the Green surge and the secret Labour Party members – confirm for me the importance of this campaign. For me, these represent the strength of individualism, consumerism and brand identity when it comes to politics, even for those on the left. I want the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory to be a vehicle for persuading young people that class struggle is the primary axis of politics, and that if you’re serious about fighting for socialism then you need to prioritise engagement in the labour movement.

I want to put forward two frameworks that compete to explain the role of the Labour Party. The first is consumerist, the second is socialist.

The dominant of the two, the consumerist framework, sees the Labour Party as a brand. Maybe you support it, maybe you don’t. Maybe you prefer a supporter of a smaller brand but opt for Labour out of the ‘big two’.

The brand* is managed by its leadership and your support it is part of your individual identity. If the brand image worsens then you have to choose between sticking by it anyway, out of a sense of loyalty, or you go and find a brand identity with which you’re more comfortable.

If you see politics through this dominant framework then the Green surge, and secret Labour membership, make a lot more sense for young people.

Young people are, on average, considerably to the left of the Labour leadership on a whole range of issues: austerity, privatisation, tuition fees, migrants, etc. When the Green Party comes along offering an alternative set of policies, the young lefty is faced with a choice of getting behind them, or staying with Labour for tactical reasons. In the short term, these tactical considerations can convince people to stay Labour, but they are superficial and in the long-term they evaporate.

The central problem with the consumerist framework is that politics happens elsewhere. We are not political agents: even the most active party members are just supporters of politicians and potential politicians. It means that we ourselves are almost powerless, the only power we have is consumerist: we can choose to support or boycott a particular party or individual.

I believe that the SCLV can put forward a different, socialist framework. One that positions all of us as political agents capable of effecting change. And one that re-emphasises class struggle as the dominant theme of politics. And one that therefore starts from a position of building working-class power.

This point has already been made by the first speaker, but it bears repeating. The Labour Party, for all its flaws, remains the only political party that is in any way a representation of the labour movement. Fighting for the Labour Party, whilst fighting for socialism and for working-class policies inside the Labour Party, is an important way of building working-class power. Fighting for the Labour Party does not mean fighting to defend the Labour leadership, or even the parliamentary party. It means fighting for the labour movement to have political representation.

When I was younger I supported the Labour Party because they weren’t the Tories. At University I changed my mind, I was a confident left-wing activist and I couldn’t see anything to support in the Labour manifesto. So I joined the Greens. I suspect that that’s a journey that a lot of young people will go through.

But then as I moved further leftwards and learned more about socialism and class, I came back to Labour. My hope for the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory is that we can play a part in supporting other young people to do the same.

[* When I delivered this speech, I used a football analogy. It was pointed out to me that this isn’t very accurate as football allegiance goes much deeper than brand loyalty, and arguably deeper than party politics!]