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Politics in the platform age

The election marked a turning point and a radical Labour victory is now within grasp, argues Jeremy Gilbert What made the extraordinary and unexpected result of the 2017 election possible? Several popular explanations have been widely circulated. The first attributes the result...


The election marked a turning point and a radical Labour victory is now within grasp, argues Jeremy Gilbert

What made the extraordinary and unexpected result of the 2017 election possible? Several popular explanations have been widely circulated. The first attributes the result to contingent decisions and the effects of personalities. According to this story, it was all about the campaign, there was no problem with the polls, if the election had been held in April then Theresa May would have won a landslide. Corbyn is a very good campaigner and she is a very bad one, the Labour manifesto was popular whereas the Tory one was uninspiring: case closed, upset explained.

Few historians would take very seriously the proposition that, for example, the 1945 election was won by Labour just because they had really great poster designs or Churchill sounded a bit tired on the radio. There is no reason why we should assume that any such explanation for the 2017 result is adequate either. Apart from anything else, such an account simply ignores two key issues. It ignores the existence of the mass mobilisation which was so obviously crucial to Labour’s success, and it ignores the crucial question of how it is, and what it means, that the most relentless media attack on Labour in its political history (and that is saying something), which is what could be seen in the pages of the Sun, the Express and the Mail during the last weeks of the campaign, proved incapable of reversing Labour’s forward march.

There is a slightly different explanation on offer, which is far more credible, albeit not wholly adequate. From this perspective we are, more than ever, in an era of extreme voter volatility, with non-voters mobilisable, and swing voters swinging, in greater numbers than ever before. Perhaps a better way to describe this situation would be to say that it is one of greatly increased reversibility. Political outcomes and events which looked like they could not be altered any time soon can now, it turns out, quickly be turned around. The return of the Tories in Scotland surely stands as some evidence for this idea – nobody saw  it coming, and nobody really thought that it was even possible. But this leaves open the question of why this peculiar form of reversibility has emerged, and should draw our attention to the fact that ‘voter volatility’ is not a new political phenomenon. Commentators have been commenting on it since the early 70s.

From the factory to the platform

We can shed light on the current situation if we consider the explanations which have been offered for voter volatility throughout that time. These explanations have often pointed to the emergence of a more fragmented, pluralistic and individualist society than the one which preceded it, in which old class loyalties are weakening and a more consumerist attitude to politics is prevailing among voters. Long before British commentators recognised the existence of something called ‘neoliberalism’, these shifts were understood, by writers such as Robin Murray, as consequences of the emergence of ‘post-Fordism.’

This was the name given to the new systems of production and distribution enabled by the spread of robotics, electronic communications and rapid global transport. These encouraged companies to break up into specialised units, outsourcing many aspects of their activity, servicing ever-more specialised consumer niches, breaking up supply chains into series of short-term contracts, promoting competition between firms seeking market share and between workers looking for employment. The break-up of political blocs, the appearance of smaller parties, the rise in the number of swing voters, were all seen as expressions of these underlying economic tendencies to fragmentation, specialisation and individualisation.

In the 1980s, the influential magazine Marxism Today famously theorised the success of Thatcherism in terms of it capacity to capture this new terrain and turn it to its advantage. This was compared with Labour’s success in the 1940s, building a social democratic order on the ‘Fordist’ foundations of manufacturing industry, full employment and faith in the future; all infused by a conformist mass culture which discouraged excessive individualism. The two great epochal elections of the past century – in 1945 and 1979 – can therefore both be seen as having been, in part, responses to more fundamental shifts in the way in which capitalism was organised, shaped as much as anything by changes in the available technologies of production and communication. So can the 2017 election be understood in comparable terms?

I think it can, and must be. In recent years, post-Fordism has itself been increasingly displaced by a new form of capitalism, relying on a new generation of technological innovations. The corporations which define our age – Facebook, Google, Apple, Uber, YouTube – do so not through their specialised fragmentation in pursuit of niche markets, but through the constitution of massive monopolistic platforms which enable them to profit directly from the creative activity or labour of their users.

What kind of culture they are producing in the process, and what the consequences might be for politics, we are only slowly beginning to discern. But what seems clear is that this new context enables certain forms of aggregations and collectivisation to take place on certain scales – for example facilitating hundreds of thousands of people joining a single political party in a short space of time – while also encouraging fluidity, mobility and dispersal on other scales. The ‘viral’ logic of social media culture displays both of these qualities at once, and we’ve learned in recent years that it can also apply to the domain of electoral politics. Just look at how rapidly Scottish voters swarmed behind the SNP in 2015, and how many of them have already taken their votes elsewhere.

But this new context is not only characterised by the changeability of the electorate and the power of Californian corporations. The same platform technologies which generate billions for Silicon Valley also proved decisive in the election. Online and mobile apps enabled hundreds of thousands of Labour activists to mobilise in a manner quite unfamiliar to those of us who remember the ‘control freak’ campaigns of the 1990s, when every canvasser worked to a script and disciplined ‘message control’ was exercised throughout the party. Often effectively self-organised, they travelled to marginals in their thousands, and, genuinely enthused by the manifesto, knocked on doors to persuade people to vote Labour.

Does this mean that we have entered a new era of mass democracy, in which the triumph of a new wave of democratic socialism is all but guaranteed? Yes and no. We clearly are in a new era. But the persistent fluidity of this new context means that we can’t dismiss the significance of some of the localised and contingent factors which helped Labour to achieve the result that it did, and the possibility that they may alter soon too. One thing that is now evident from the election result is that May’s strategy of appealing to socially conservative, pro-leave Labour voters proved catastrophically unsuccessful outside of the Midlands. Across the country Labour achieved its result by inspiring a new social coalition which included working class voters from all but the most traditionally conservative of the Labour heartlands, young voters of almost all class backgrounds, across every region, and many affluent voters frightened for their children’s future, at a time when even the offspring of the professional classes have seen their historic privileges eroded out of existence by neoliberalism and austerity. In this context, May’s implicit rejection of cosmopolitan culture proved to have a far narrower appeal than expected, and actively turned off swathes of wealthy voters who voted Remain and had voted for Cameron only two years previously.

Challenges for Labour

This fact has not been lost on the Tories. The advisers credited with authoring that strategy have already been dispatched, while George Osborne has been openly crowing about the failure of May’s rejection of neoliberal, cosmopolitan globalism. Under these circumstances there is a very obvious danger for Labour. If a new Tory leader – Boris Johnson or whoever else – explicitly opts for a different direction, committing to soft Brexit and a return to Cameron’s social liberalism as well as a public end to austerity, then there is a serious danger that large numbers of those affluent voters could return to the Tory fold. Labour needs to keep them onside by continuing to push an agenda that looks modern, optimistic and in tune with the times. The ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ paper published shortly before the election, arguing for new forms of employee owned company as a progressive way forward in the age of platform capitalism, represents an excellent start. We need much more of that. Our socialism must look like it belongs to the 21st century, or those voters will abandon us for something that does.

At the same time, there is no getting away from that fact that, in the Midlands above all, the Tories did take voters from Ukip who had been Labour up until very recently. Must we abandon them as relics of an old world that we can leave behind, now that we can win votes in Kensington and Canterbury? Not only can we not afford to do that if we actually want to win an election; to do so would be an abdication of Labour’s historic moral mission to defend the vulnerable and offer security to those who lack it. I don’t think that tacking to the right on immigration can work for Labour now, especially when so much of its new coalition is motivated by a rejection of May’s appeal to social conservatism; but neither will patronising the ‘left behind’, or ignoring them.

These are the communities in which Labour’s new campaigning spirit will be needed more than ever before. We will have to work there day in, day out, to make our case that it is neoliberalism and deindustrialisation that has wrecked their communities, not immigrants in seach of a better life. If we can do that, enabling these voters to feel that they too have a real stake in a democratic, egalitarian future for Britain, then there is every possibility of a historic radical Labour victory within the foreseeable future.


Jeremy Gilbert

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London.


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