Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Political field wide open to challengers

Posted by Left Luggage on June 4, 2009

Well, the votes for the Euro elections are in. Apparently we will learn of the results on Sunday. In the meantime, and away from the latest in the macabre spectacle from the living dead of Britain’s political classes, we came across this interesting report by the University of Manchester on support for the far-right.

What’s remarkable about this survey is the size of the sample: close to 200,000 people were interviewed by polling company Ipsos Mori. So it can be considered fairly reflective of attitudes among the British population. Apparently the study showed widespread support for many British National Party policies among the population, including “the re-imposition of the death penalty, a total halt to migration and large expansions in police powers.” However, the study found that the BNP suffers from an “image problem” insofar as when many people learn of a connection to the party, they immediately become more hostile to a policy. One of the researchers, Dr Rob Ford said:

The data shows that many Britons are in favour of the sort of draconian measures regularly proposed by the BNP, such as a complete halt to migration, the denial of benefits to migrants and even repatriation of settled migrants. It suggests the BNP could appeal to an electorate far larger than it currently wins over – perhaps as many as 15-20 per cent of voters. […]

Most British voters hold very negative views about the BNP, and one recent survey suggested that British voters become more reluctant to endorse a policy when they become aware of a BNP connection.

This would seem to give some support to the advocates of anti-fascist strategies that focus on “exposing the BNP” or “unmasking them as Nazis” etc., contrary to the approach we have advocated. Yet this was not the most significant part of the findings, because the research shows that even with this so-called “image problem” the BNP is theoretically capable of building support among as much as a fifth of the electorate in the future. Clearly to prevent the far-right reaching this level of support, we require other strategies such as filling the political vacuum left by Labour’s desertion of the working class.

The study also found support for the BNP was (quite obviously) concentrated in the North, among older manual working class people and those living on state benefits:

In our sample we find that like in the 1970s, support for the extreme right continues to be concentrated heavily among the working-class. However, the strongest support now arrives from those at the bottom of the economic ladder, namely unskilled manual workers and the residual class of those who are dependent on state benefits.

This is contrary to the findings of other polls we have mentioned previously, which have indicated strong support for the far-right among skilled manual workers, rather than the lumpenproletariat.

Dr Ford also spells out in stark terms the political stakes over immigration, an issue the Left has been unable to approach effectively:

The salience of immigration has since 2006 been at or near the highest levels ever recorded by Ipsos MORI since it began tracking public political priorities in 1974. Voters are also not impressed with the solutions offered by the main political parties in these areas and are losing faith in their general ability to respond to and resolve the problems they care about. Party identification, membership and activism are at their lowest levels for decades, and voter volatility is at a post-WWII high, all of which mean the British electoral market is more open to new entrants than it has been in modern history.

The final sentence here should be ringing alarm bells with the whole of the Left, for two reasons. On the one hand, political culture and working-class self-organisation has reached a historic low. On the other, the electoral market, and therefore people’s openness to new forms of politics and new ideas is “more open to new entrants than it has been in modern history”. That’s quite a statement. Unfortunately, there is no “new entrant” from the Left to speak of and the BNP are proving effective at filling the vacuum from the far-right. The opportunity is there, however, the stakes are high, and the Left needs to rise to the challenge.

5 Responses to “Political field wide open to challengers”

  1. modernityblog said

    “should be ringing alarm bells with the whole of the Left”

    Indeed, it should be, but the depoliticized nature of much of the British Left (repeating the same old guff, rarely open to new ideas, etc), means that it will shoot over most people’s head and be missed.

  2. history tells us things said

    ‘which have indicated strong support for the far-right among skilled manual workers, rather than the lumpenproletariat.’

    well, LL it could start with abandoning patronising 19th C terminology like ‘lumpenproletariat’ or that other one ‘layers’, for example, if it matters, plenty of graduates are on benefits, many who are disabled and just cannot work, are they ‘lumpen’

  3. Thanks for your comment HTUT.

    Could you explain why you think this terminology is dated (“19th C”) and patronising? Do you mean it referred to something existing in the 19th century, but no longer applies? Or do you think it is an unhelpful category then as now? Or is it perhaps the tone of the word itself you dislike? (Crucially we do not refer to anyone as lumpen as you suggest, which seems rather more patronising.)

    I don’t think we mention “layers” in this article and I’m a little unsure of what you mean by this. If you’re trying to say there aren’t differences in economic class at this level, I don’t agree.

    While the point you make about some individuals who cannot work is true, this doesn’t defeat the idea of non-workers as a whole having a different relationship both to the state, to other classes and, most crucially, to the working class. (Incidentally, graduates who cannot work through disability would be a tiny percentage of this group in any case.) Just like it’s clear that through their position in the structure of the economy and some of the inherent properties of their work, the petite bourgeoisie – traders, taxi drivers, shopkeepers etc. – occupy a different class position.

    So the term isn’t meant as a moral judgment, but a simple statement of fact regarding society and the economy.

  4. c0mmunard said

    Hi LL. I see what you’re getting at, but I think the use of ‘lumpenproletariat’ in this context is arguably innacurate. Marx uses it to refer to “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society” in the Brumaire. It is not analagous to the modern sociological ‘underclass’. Nor, in my understanding of it, does it even refer to a section of the proletariat which can easily be won to reactionary or fascist ideas, simply due to its dissociation from the ‘discipline’ of organised labour. Marx believes that ‘the reserve army of labour’ – i.e the unemployed – have a revolutionary role. Since the Welfare State was only beginning to emerge during Marx’s time, the term doesn’t really relate to unemployed people on social security either way.

    The context of the use of the term does imply – though admittedly it does not necessarily require – that you identify the ‘lumpenproletariat’ roughly with “those at the bottom of the economic ladder, namely unskilled manual workers and the residual class of those who are dependent on state benefits.”

  5. Hi Communard

    Thanks for the post and sorry for the very late reply.

    I take your point about Marx’s use of the term, and the use in this article may not map onto it. But surely we do not rely solely on Marx’s usage to determine a term’s validity or helpfulness! You say Marx was writing in a context before the welfare state was established, but does this mean we can’t apply terms of analysis used by Marx to new situations?

    What was it that separated the “lumpenproletariat” from other classes in Marx’s usage? Surely it is only their relation to the means of production that distinquishes this class? They thus cannot be identified with the proletariat. Is is not about the “discipline of labour” in some moralistic sense, but about the reality of class structure.

    From what I understood, there is some debate around the “underclass” as a term in sociology and indeed whether is is useful and whether it is analogous with “lumpenproletariat”, though I may be wrong on this.



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