By Kevin Devine
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The Meaning of David Cameron

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
Richard Seymour, Zero Books, £6.99
Issue 349

This short, provocative and timely book by the left wing journalist behind the Lenin’s Tomb blog brilliantly deconstructs the Tories’ attempts at repackaging. Seymour shows how the Tories, in a similar way to New Labour, have captured terms like “progressive”, and even “radical”, for what is essentially a right wing, neoliberal agenda.

The book deals with the ideological underpinning of the Tories’ plans for public services. Seymour explains that David Cameron and Co regard private charity as superior to state welfare, and goes on to show how “compassionate Conservatism” is perfectly congruent with more Dickensian descriptions of a vicious contempt for the “undeserving” poor.

However, brilliant as much of the book is, I didn’t agree with all of it. In particular, Seymour argues that the Thatcherite project to break the power of organised labour was “successful in its own terms”. While the unions were weakened by the Tories’ attacks, that’s not the same as having their power “broken”. Seen in historical terms, the current levels of union membership are not that low, and are higher than for almost the entire period prior to the Second World War. Of course, the workforce has grown since then, which is the reason why the proportion of unionised workers is lower, but this doesn’t preclude the possibility of the unions growing again.

His view is that the Tories somehow succeeded in “fundamentally recomposing the working class”. He points to the growth of services at the expense of manufacturing, “financialisation” and the huge increase in private debt. He links this to a suggestion that neoliberalism could represent a “hegemonic regime”.

I find much of this problematic. Manufacturing workers, though important, haven’t always been in the vanguard of the working class movement. Transport and distribution workers were central to the struggles that built the “new unionism” at the end of the 19th century, and they’re increasingly important today. As capitalism restructures, this changes the shape and composition of the working class, but the basic social contradictions remain.

In the end, the main problem with the book is that Seymour’s assessment of the balance of class forces often misses the mark. At one stage he writes, “That the Tories have finally overcome the taboo on ostentatious elitism is likely to result in a greater taboo on the very idea of class politics.” I’m not sure I buy this. Labour’s rally in the polls had a class aspect. Many voters had the image of a smug, self-satisfied and very rich young Tory foremost in their minds, which ensured that the Tories didn’t get a majority.

At a time when the media is full of guff about the “new politics” of the Con-Dem coalition, this little book is a welcome antidote. But for a detailed analysis of the respective strengths of their side and ours, a different and much longer book is required.

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