Donald Trump rails against the ‘establishment’. On the Today programme on 10 November so too did Yanis Varoufakis. The specific debate was on international trade agreements. ‘Took your jobs away’ cries Trump. In Europe a huge campaign of the Left has been against agreements such as CETA and TTIP. For Varoufakis the worst evil of trade agreements is the siphoning of profits to tax havens where wealth is locked up and not invested in the countries where they were made. But does anyone seriously think that the man who boasted that it was ‘clever’ not to have paid tax is going to crack down on tax havens?
The anguish of the handloom weavers that gave rise to the Luddite movement was very real. The conditions in the factories that replaced them were dire, but what overcame that was the growth of trade unionism and factory legislation. The pace of change was grindingly slow, which turned many to look to gaining power through universal suffrage and winning the levers of power. The welfare state is perhaps the greatest achievement of that approach, using political power to create its structures and fund them through redistributive taxation. In doing so public attitudes were also fundamentally changed, at least so far as the National Health Service and universal education were concerned, making it much more difficult to roll them back.
There are many, especially in the older industrial areas, who are in much the same position as the handloom weavers. Skilled jobs replaced by call centres, distribution warehouses like those of Sports Direct, and the ‘self employment’ of Uber and Yodel. Can we turn the clock back? ‘Bring back the coal’ as Trump suggested in some speeches? Or should our focus be on sensible regulation of these new sectors, protecting pay and conditions? Trump, the man who wants to scrap regulations, is not the man who is going to do this.
Railing against the ‘establishment’ has become a commonplace. Often it becomes identified with a place – ‘Washington or Westminster (or ‘Westmonster’ as it is to many cybernats). To those who hailed the breakthrough of the first black president in 2008 it may come as a surprise that he and his supporters are now also ‘the establishment’, trade unions, too. As a result Barack Obama’s administration is seen as having done ‘nothing’ for ordinary people. It is much the same here where the Labour government is routinely condemned for having achieved nothing. And somehow against this backdrop listing the achievements, real falls in pensioner poverty, tax credits, increased NHS spending, building new schools and raising educational attainment, devolving power from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, falls very flat.
This is not that old chestnut about the extremes of left and right in the end being much the same. They are not. But when we use the same simplistic slogans we are inadvertently contributing to that which we abhor in the rise of ‘Trumpism’. For instance is all the media part of the same establishment conspiracy – the BBC in it with Fox News?
To talk of an undifferentiated ‘establishment’ is to reduce politics to slogans. The risk is that we as the Labour party find ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of this divide. After all we have formed the government (or ‘governing elite’) for 13 of the last 20 years.
Let us be more precise with our criticisms . We must ‘listen’ but we must also act on what we hear. Party members and elected representatives who have reported back from their daily work in their communities telling of concerns on immigration or on ‘welfare’ going to the ‘wrong ‘ people have too often been categorised as rightwing.
And we will be judged by our actions. In oppposition in parliament that is more difficult, but we have huge opportunities in local government and where we have elected mayors to build on the work already going on and publicise it. Then we can say clearly ‘this is what Labour is and what we do’.
Sheila Gilmore is a candidate in the general members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. She tweets at @SheilaGilmore49