The present Conservative government is almost Maoist

November 18, 2012 6:06 pm

It is a commonplace that political ideas should be interpreted in terms of their location in political space – how far they are to the left or right, their distance from the centre and so on. But such ideological map-making labours under a misapprehension. Political ideologies are best understood not by their location in space but by their relationship with time. For instance, it is tempting to ‘explain’ current Conservative government policy by establishing just how right-wing it is. But the key to the Coalition is in fact its attitude towards the future.

Traditional Conservatism was wary of the future, thinking it the business of divine providence and no concern of government. That was a long time ago. Contemporary Conservatives are self-consciously a ‘vanguard’ movement. Convinced that they have glimpsed the future and what it must be they are committed to doing everything they can to force it into being. Thatcherism aggressively used state power to eradicate communities and interests that stood in the way of neo-liberal utopia. The present Conservative government is almost Maoist. In thrall to an abstract and ideological vision of ‘the post-bureaucratic age’ it wants, as David Cameron has put it, to ‘use the state to remake society’.

In a remarkable recent speech Michael Gove bluntly rejected Conservative ideology, passionately embraced neo-Blairite globalisation and outlined a distinct vision of a future world led by networked entrepreneurs united by their shared commitment to endless ‘innovation’ and ‘openness’. Gove’s utopia is like a never-ending TeD talk, in which heroes straight out of an Ayn Rand novel permanently blow each other’s minds with their ‘radical’ new ways of seeing the world and their daringly original ‘solutions’.

Gove is a thoughtful man and chooses his words very deliberately. He doesn’t talk about autonomy, the freedom to govern ourselves as we choose, but specifically about the freedom to innovate. And when he talks about openness he doesn’t mean being warm-hearted and welcoming of the plurality of ways people live in the present and face their futures. What he means is the removal of barriers to the transfer of common property into the hands of ‘innovative’ and ‘open’ people like him. “Open-ness” in education, health and welfare is about removing legal and practical obstacles to their transfer from the many to the few – reducing or removing employment rights and abolishing pension obligations for instance. “Reforms” in these domains have not involved a transfer of power to regions or localities, or new collaborations between people who work for, use and own our common goods. They have involved a transfer of control and funding to A4E, G4S and Apollo Global.

This is not only bad ideology. It is bad government. When gripped by a vision of the future political movements can no longer see the past that brought us here or the present within which we must act. Determined that the world be remade as they imagine it such movements lose all feel for the subtle variety of humanity. They blithely impose generic prescriptions without stopping to find out the true nature of the problem. Their acts are blunt and blundering. Ill-adapted to the world they end up in omnishambles.

These mistakes are not made only by Conservatives. They were a part of new Labour too. And it is this which “one-nation Labour” must put behind it. That requires, firstly, a better understanding of the varied cultures and traditions that make up the United Kingdom. This has nothing to do with nostalgia. Our country is made up of many different histories some of which overlap and some of which contradict. Ynys Môn, Accrington and Aberdeen certainly do share a common past. Some of it they share with other parts of the world. Some things they do not share at all. The history of Scottish men and Cornish women, Welsh miners and Cumbrian farmers, Manchester Catholics and Leicester Muslims is not made from a single thread. Good politics and good government recognise and appreciate the texture of our common life and do not imagine it can be flattened out.

Secondly, it must look to the future with a clear eye rather than a crystal ball. There are some things ahead that we can see very well: fundamental challenges in the provision of food and fuel for all; an aging population in need of care and support; further changes in the nature of work that, if not addressed, will leave too many out of a job. The solutions to these will not come from a new app on an iPhone. It will require government action and regulation. But as these are problems of collective action their solution will also require individuals and communities to participate, to work out what they can do (and thus to have power to do it).

Thirdly, one-nation Labour has to live in the present. In his conference speech Ed Miliband said his goal was not to ‘reinvent the world of Disraeli or Attlee’ but, to find a ‘shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together’. That cannot be wished into being. There is great anxiety, suspicion and fear in the country and these do not breed fellow feeling. The Labour Party, at its grassroots, has a job to do here. A shared destiny is not one that a political party delivers to a people. It is something a party plays a role in forging alongside others in its communities (and sometimes alongside other parties). That starts with opposition to the common ruin forced upon us by the Coalition. It ends with a politics which takes strength from its past, to act in the present, remaining open to the varied futures we will build for ourselves and with each other.

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia where he researches political ideologies, rhetoric and the theory of democracy

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • Alexwilliamz

    excellent

  • TomFairfax

    V.Good. Hopefully a few more people will imitate thiis style. Clear, concise and not a selection of cliches strung together semi randomly.
    I hope at least Ed’s speech writers read this.

  • http://twitter.com/Bickerrecord Paul Cotterill

    This is a good piece, though the headline does not reflect the main content, or the main point, which is about the political practice Labour should develop.
    But on the ‘Maoist’ point, why do you not suggest that Gove’s drive for an authoritarian, ‘modern’ state in which public interests are subjugated to the private operating to his diktat (corporatism), ‘nearly Fascist’ instead?

  • Dave Postles

    So, Gove has overspent by £1bn on academies so is cutting back support for other schools. Isn’t that ultra vires?

Latest

  • Video Watch Labour MPs get drenched for the Ice Bucket Challenge

    Watch Labour MPs get drenched for the Ice Bucket Challenge

    Over recent days, the Ice Bucket Challenge has swept across the internet, taking with it celebrities as diverse as Anna Wintour, Cristiano Ronaldo in his underpants and George W. Bush. Now even Labour MPs have been dragged in to the viral phenomenon. Yesterday, Liverpool West Derby MP Stephen Twigg filmed himself being doused in ice cold water: Twigg kindly nominated his fellow Merseyside MPs Luciana Berger, Steve Rotherham and Ali McGovern to do their bit in raising awareness for the […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Labour’s London bias causes more harm than we realise

    Labour’s London bias causes more harm than we realise

    Yesterday’s National Executive Committee (NEC) election results was yet another confirmation of a London bias in the Labour Party. In his analysis of the results, Mark Ferguson noted that only one of the eight candidates elected lives outside of London and the South. This is by no means a new trend, and I’m not looking to attribute blame (and by no means am I criticising the successful candidates), but we should acknowledge this as a problem. When those who represent […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour lose control of county council after resignation

    Labour lose control of county council after resignation

    Labour appear to have lost control of Nottinghamshire County Council following the resignation of a councillor from the Party. Cllr Ian Campbell last night confirmed on Twitter that he was resigning the party whip, but would continue as an independent. The resignation leaves Labour with 33 seats on the 67-seat council, just shy of an overall majority. It is not yet clear why Campbell has decided to resign – although last week he did announce that he was opposed to the […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The reality behind IDS’s unemployment figures

    The reality behind IDS’s unemployment figures

    Figures released earlier this month by the Office for National Statistics show the number of people unemployed falling by 132,000 to 2.08 million in the three months to the end of June.  At 6.4% this is the lowest since late 2008 and down from 6.5% in May. These figures had the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, rushing into TV studios to claim that the Tories’ long-term economic plan was ‘working’ as people were no longer trapped in unemployment […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Scotland How could Labour tackle inequality in an independent Scotland?

    How could Labour tackle inequality in an independent Scotland?

    Labour has worked to reject a central claim of the pro-independence campaign, that an independent Scotland would be a fairer and more equal country. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has insisted that Alex Salmond doesn’t care enough about social justice to reduce inequality, and Gordon Brown has predicted that SNP policy to lower corporation tax will start a race to the bottom on wages. Despite growing support for independence in working class communities, Labour’s argument seems to resonate. Writing for […]

    Read more →