Bluewater Labour: shopping has sucked the joy out of misery

by Dan Hodges

I have decided to create a political movement. It will be called Bluewater Labour.

I intend to take the traditional  values of blue Labour, and recast them in a modern setting. Not where working class Britain used to live, but where it lives today. Or rather, where it shops, and works.

In the name of political research I went to conduct a detailed socio-economic analysis last Saturday morning. That’s because I believe the  path to Downing Street lies in a former chalk quarry just off junction 2 of the M25.

I went by car, a sin admittedly, and an unnecessary one, given the store’s commitment to sustainability. But yes, I shunned the bus interchange. Shoot me.

As I set foot inside, I realized that to many on the progressive left I had not entered a shopping centre but crossed a boundary into enemy territory. Bluewater represents the blackest recess of the dark underbelly of capitalism. Or it’s evil twin cousin, consumerism. At some point, I’m not sure when, the later supplanted the former in the hierarchy of oppression. The mill owner elbowed aside by the purveyor of the decaf caramel latte.

Laid out beneath its glistening rotunda, prime retail space extends as far as the eye can see. It is probably an optical illusion, but it appears that you could shop into infinity.

I can’t help thinking of my good comrade, Neal Lawson. To him, Bluewater is the Seventh Circle of Hades. An engine room of “turbo consumerism”, a modern phenomenon in which our lust for, “consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping” create “the driving force for crime”  in a society where “failed consumers will lie, cheat and steal to gain the trappings of success so that they can be regarded as normal”.

It didn’t used to be like that. Before Bluewater, “The poor of the past had each other in a community of poverty. Misery could be shared and countered through class solidarity and the hope of a different life”.

Not today. The bonds of community lay shattered; class solidarity fractured. Bluewater has sucked the joy out of misery.

But I do not intend to be defeatist. Bluewater Labour will have its day.

Looking around at my fellow shoppers, they look, well, quite happy actually. Some are smiling, some are even laughing. This oppressive consumer gulag has not yet broken their spirit. And the pickpockets and steaming gangs, for whom one would have thought Bluewater represents fertile territory, are mercifully absent.

On a whim, (or possibly lured by sinister market forces beyond my consciousness), I enter a store that epitomises all that is wrong with turbo consumerism. Waterstones. Though temptation, in the form of a glistening new copy of Anna Karenina, beckons, I resist the Tolstoy bling. Do they stock, I ask the exploited proletarian behind the counter, All Consuming by Neal Lawson? I explain that it contains my  chance to break this all-consuming cycle by offering me everyday ways to start kicking the habit and put down my basket for good.

They do not. It was in stock, but it’s now sold out, and out of print.

Neal fought the law, and the law won. But fair play to Bluewater. At least the law let him into the ring.

Outside, the turbo consumers are voting with their feet, and wallets. The Vodafone shop is full of young people. To my surprise they are not sitting on the floor, waving placards, or spray-painting the walls. Instead, they appear to be buying mobile phones.

In Top Shop the story is the same. None of the customers is dressed in black, and there are no balaclavas. They do sell boots, but I suspect a cream fringed cardy UGG would look out of place at a riot.

Bluewater attracts a diverse clientele. A couple walk by in matching Union jack tops; their celebration of St George’s day. A woman steps out of the lift wearing a niqab. On the left bank of Paris she would be liable to arrest. In Bluewater, for today at least, she is safe. Two gay men enter John Lewis  hand in hand. They snatch a kiss. As far as I’m aware, unlike some parts of Soho, no one asks them to leave.

These are not creations. They are just some of the people I saw within the space of 20 minutes on a normal Saturday. This is real life. As many real people live it.

Every week half a million people visit Bluewater. According to the centre’s own data, 140,000 of them are from the C2DE social demographic; though the web site inverts that figure, to emphasise the percentage of customers in the coveted ABC1 consumer group.

But the working class is here. And in numbers. Faith, flag and family. Come to Bluewater and you will, in an oblique way, find them all.

Families abound. Mother and daughter, husband and wife, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Some families do spend the day in a national forest, or their local library. Many others come here.

There are flags too. That traditional male standard, the football shirt, is in evidence. But so to are the Whistles dress, the Ted Baker jacket, the pair of retro Air Jordans. These are the flags not of our fathers, but of our children, and our children’s children. Symbols of an identity that is chosen, rather than inherited. We may question some of those choices, but we ignore or dismiss them at our peril.

And yes, there is even faith. Not necessarily religious, though you will see racial, and presumably, spiritual diversity.  But a shared understanding. A value system. In the passers-by who guide the lost child to her mother. The parents who explain to their own child that the toy they hold in their hand must be placed back on the shelf until their birthday. The casual conversations amongst strangers sharing tables in the café.

These are obviously not products of Bluewater, or the companies that exist within it. The name of their game is building profits, not building communities. But just because these values are not nurtured, and in some instances challenged by modern consumerism, it doesn’t mean that they are cowed, or subjugated by them.

And when we pretend they are, we lose touch, rather than build empathy. Especially amongst those who do not think a days shopping is at best a surrender, and at worst, a form of class betrayal.

Recently, Ed Miliband went down to Billingsgate to meet the fish porters. Good for him. But if he really wants to reconnect with Labour’s lost working class he needs to get himself down to Bluewater. Quickly.

In last Sunday’s Observer, a spokesman for Labour’s leader, recounting his visit to the east London fish market, explained how impressed he was with the pride of the workers when they received their porters licenses. “We have nothing against people in call centres”, said the aide,  “but I am not sure there would be the same emotion on being given a first telephone headset”.

If Labour draws a dividing line between the worth of a fish porter and the worth of a call centre worker we are dead. Stone. Cold. Dead.

There are too many call centre workers, and not enough fish porters. By all means, let’s identify with  the people  of Billingsgate as a way of helping frame a political  narrative. But if we want to construct a winning political strategy, we will need to identify with the people of Bluewater. And the Arndale. And the Metrocentre.

Part Purple Labour, part Blue. Part Old Labour, part New.

Bluewater Labour.

I’ve seen the future. And it shops.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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14 Responses to “Bluewater Labour: shopping has sucked the joy out of misery”

  1. Chloe says:

    This article is spot on. It sums up all that is wrong with ‘Blue Labour’, looking backwards instead of forwards.

  2. For consistency, you also need to follow them home and be sitting there when the store credit agreement payment schedule comes through the letterbox. I’ve worked in a call centre, we pretty much all hated it; won’t lose many votes from call centre workers by admitting that it’s a pretty crappy job.

  3. Antigone says:

    I missed the comment about call centre workers. The truth is we are class snobs as bad as anyone. I used to work for a retailer that employed 20,000 people, almost all working or lower middle class young people, mostly aspirational and all proud of promotions and the small or large achievements they made in their careers. And did we praise or admire them, not a bit of it. Only politician that ever visited was Portillo. Labour just made snide remarks about the Tory supporting chairman despite gis having created a stunning british business and being an early supporter of the minimum wage. Dan’s right. It’s high time we shook off inverted snobbery and grew up.

  4. Roger says:

    Excellent piece

    And the grim and almost invariably hypocritical anti-consumerism of the Greens and the Guardianista pseudo-leftists will indeed destroy us if we let it fill the void left by New Labour.

    Rather we need to brush off our Communist Manifestos and read what The Man himself had to say about the sweeping away of antiquated petit-bourgeois peasants and shopkeepers and artisans – and this more than anything is what both Bluewater and the call centre represent.

    It may not feel progressive, but ultimately capitalism is destroying all those intermediate classes and their comfortable illusions and will ultimately leave us all cowering naked and terrified before the great multinational idols of Mammon.

    And then and only then might we be able to topple them for good.

  5. iain ker says:

    ‘I can’t help thinking of my good comrade, Neal Lawson. To him, Bluewater is the Seventh Circle of Hades. An engine room of “turbo consumerism”, a modern phenomenon in which our lust for, “consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping” create “the driving force for crime”’

    Yeah. Woddevva.

    Tell him to seek help.

    He reminds me of one of the Tired Old Trots on our national excuse for a broadcaster who could see the direct line between bankers’ bonuses and an 11 year old kid getting shot dead in Liverpool.

    There must be an unwanted island somewhere, perhaps laid waste by NBC tests, that we can shunt such types off to and they can create their own wonderful little community with no shops and no bonuses.

    They’d want a subsidy of course.

    These types always do.

  6. Neal says:

    come on comrade Hodges, you know ill never sell out.

  7. Dan Hodges says:

    No, Neal, that’s one thing no-body can ever accuse you of.

    You’ll stick to your guns long after they’ve stopped firing.

  8. Dan Hodges says:

    Chloe,

    I think Blue Labour has a lot to offer.

    But it needs to be focused on today, not yesterday.

  9. steve akehurst says:

    Well written as always, but seems to be a riposte to a charge never made. Very few progressives are against shopping – they have just been discussing (via the Blue Labour debate, since that seems to be what you are referring to) how local communities, where they feel threatened by the domination of big business can resist it in democratic ways. It’s hardly Das Kapital, and if I were being cynical this piece reads a bit like a rather reductivist attempt to close down any debate or reassessment whatsoever over the balance between the state, civil society and capital with the standard Blairite line of saying it’s an electoral cul-de-sac. Which is not necessarily the case, if it’s done sensibly.

  10. james says:

    Interesting you mention John Lewis, Dan. As an employee-owned firm, it both builds profits and a community necessary for the brand’s success.

    On the call centre thing, surely the point was about the labour process rather than the labourers? If the conditions of being a fish porter were like that of a call centre, there’d be the level of staff turnover you get at a call centre.

    Roger – you know what most people aspire towards achieving in terms of work? It’s not working in a call centre or a chain store – it’s being an owner-operator of a small business, a shop or a pub, the freedom from control that it might bring and the chance to pass it on to their kids.

  11. Roger says:

    James,

    I come from exactly that sort of family – a father who was self-employed all his life and who had an enormous extended family with professions ranging from market stallholder and scrap metal dealer to conman and armed robber – not one of whom had a ‘normal’ 9-5 job.

    (And if they had any politics at all most were probably Tories – particularly the criminals).

    Technically I am self-employed myself right now and it is a terrifying place to be as you have zero security and there is just not enough work to go round in my field and far too many well-qualified people chasing it.

    So my invoking Marx was only semi-ironic: yes I know what it is to aspire to petit-bourgeois independence, but I also know it is mostly an illusion in pursuit of which my father literally worked himself to death at 49.

    And politically it is poisonous to Labour.

    There may once have been radical blacksmiths and doughty socialist artisans like Robert Tressell, but the data seems to show that ownership of a home and above all of any business (however meagre) is a huge political force pushing you to the Right.

    Sure Blair (with a huge amount of help from John Major) proved that we can win over part of the so-called Middle Class – but just look at the price we – and by ‘we’ I mean the whole country and not just the party, paid for that desperate pursuit of what are fundamentally Tory voters.

    Obviously we can’t even go back to the 1950s when like the famous sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett we all knew our place and voted accordingly.

    Mass home ownership has come and we need to further extend it through new models of joint ownership so that it ceases to be a major political signifier at all.

    As for the self-employed the real task is to re-integrate them into some form of collective life – reviving mutualism and the co-operative ideal would be the time-honoured way – but this is so vastly easier to say than to actually achieve.

    The other alternative is to exploit their innate Poujadism and direct it against the corporations and the local authorities in thrall to big business that are their real enemies.

    This may also sound far-fetched but we just had a rather significant riot in Bristol over precisely the issue of whether Tescos should be allowed to lay waste to another swathe of local shops and businesses.

    But we still have to accept that this is the wave of the future – ultimately every high street that is not in an affluent enclave will be either reduced to boarded up windows and charity shops or be completely colonised by chain stores – because in the end consumers will always prefer cheapness and choice (however illusory) to ‘community’.

  12. iain ker says:

    because in the end consumers will always prefer cheapness and choice (however illusory) to ‘community’.

    ***************************************************

    The criminal rioters rioted because they like to riot. The ’cause’ is immaterial. If it wasn’t Tesco it would be something else – anything else.

    There are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, in this country for whom ‘cheapness’ is not some kind of lifestyle choice it’s an absolute necessity.

    But, no, the pretrendy left can’t see this, they would rather just have a serial mass weepathon about Tesco and the nasty ogre of ‘Big Business’.

  13. Roger says:

    I actually agree.

    This is basically the Wal-Mart syndrome: it simultaneously provides poor people with cheap stuff and makes them poorer by destroying all local businesses that aren’t Wal-Mart.

    Being poor at the moment I myself shop at Asda and Lidl although being a well-informed leftist I know perfectly well that they are lousy employers and in the case of Asda part of an evil global entity.

    And if I get a proper job again then I’ll no doubt go back to Waitrose…

    The point about politics is that you don’t always have to be completely consistent on every single issue.

    As one of the last Marxists in England I can both accept that big business will eventually destroy the petit-bougeoisie (other than those in the Potemkin villages where the haute-bourgeoisie will buy their organic vegetables and ethnic knick-knacks from hippies playing at shopkeeper) and that this is historically progressive – as well as being thoroughly pissed off about it while it is happening.

    So you tactically vary the message according to the audience – in Bristol you can play the anti-Tescos card – in Essex you can celebrate Bluewater.

    As long as you are building the workers movement and bringing infinitesimally closer the day when we can finally settle our accounts with capitalism both are equally valid tactics

    And in the short and medium term Tescos are going to win anyway whatever we say and however many rocks a few Bristolian crusties might throw.

    If only more of you understood dialectical materialism this wouldn’t be so difficult….

  14. james says:

    Ian, I’m not sure we can read the minds of people causing criminal damage, but irrespective of their motives, there is always a lot of concern from independent retailers and people living locally when chain stores expand. That so many are struggling to get by has a lot to do with big business, surely?

    Roger, it might be easier to say we should revive mutuality and co-operation than to actually achieve it – but it’s still worth saying. You might be interested in this article: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=8076

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