Jon Cruddas: Labour is lost in England

22nd September, 2015 7:09 pm

This is the full text of Jon Cruddas’ lecture at the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London this evening.

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Thank you for inviting me here to talk about England and the Labour Party. Thank you Mike  for organising it.

Big organisations often require cathartic moments to change and renew themselves. Well this certainly is Labour’s moment.

Personally, I had assumed that the defeat in 2010 was of a piece with 1931 and 1983- the three worst defeats in our history.

Yet 2015 was worse still.

So in the last few years two terrible defeats and then a Party turned upside down. The first obvious question now is do we rebuild our party and politics or do we spin out of control?

So the first point to make is that this moment needs careful consideration given the scale of defeat.

Today political parties need a strong core in order to hold them together. In my party’s case, Labour needs to be connected to the common sense of the British people to import ballast and resilience.

Let’s start with a simple statement of fact.

Nobody in the Party has a monopoly on ideas. No-one possesses the solution to Labour’s crisis; there are no tablets of stone.                  

During the Policy Review between 2012-2014 we began the project of Labour’s political renewal. There’s a space in the party that stretches across the political spectrum for developing this collective work:        

  • rethinking Labour’s politics                                       
  • connecting up with our Council and City leaders,
  • building up our community organising and networks of  thinkers, social entrepreneurs, and policy makers.                                        

But to develop this is a huge task given our electoral failures and global crisis of social democracy.                

How do we learn from our traditions; understand the present; build a politics for the future.

Tonight I want to talk a bit about this with reference to what we know about our recent defeat, and do it with specific reference to England.

So let’s start with some of Labour’s English traditions.

180 years ago in June, the great radical and journalist William Cobbett died. He is best known for his book Rural Rides describing his travels in 1821 through Southern England.

Not a bad departure point given Labour’s present discomforts. It was the Industrial Revolution. The countryside and its economy were in upheaval. Cobbett was a farmer’s son. He writes with a deep love of the land and its people. He feels the dislocation and their pain at the loss of their common culture and the breaking up of their way of life. He wonders at the gardens, fields and woods he passes. He watches the clouds overhead and learns the histories of the parish churches that populate every village. He contrasts all this with the noise and the strife of the cities. He sees before him a rotten government, an oppressive state and an economy that exploits people’s labour. He calls this system the Thing.                                    

Cobbett is conservative and a traditionalist and this paradoxically makes him into a radical. He champions the cause of the people against injustice and Old Corruption.

‘I, as far as I am concerned, am quite willing to trust to the talent, the justice, and the loyalty of the great mass of the people – I am quite willing to make common cause with them, to be one of them.’

A simple creed. It is for me the source of Labour’s political renewal. Not doing politics for people or to them, but with them. A politics that grows out of the people it represents.

Labour’s history lies in working people organising to protect their families from dispossession. To struggle for fair wages and a decent home. To create a better future for their children. A politics about work, family, home, and country. And against all that threatens them: the arbitrary power of the state; the brutal, anonymous forces of Capital.

At the heart of our Labour movement remains a deep instinct to protect our common life, our neighbourhoods and the landscapes we belong in. An instinct that has led us to defend our freedom from the domination of the market and the state – a politics of conservation, if you will.

In England it forged a unique brand of socialism that owed a profound debt to romanticism; one that was anti-scientific and artistic in orientation. One barely visible on the left today.

Obviously since the Nineteenth Century society has changed.                                                              

The economy is transformed. We are living in a post industrial age; new kinds of work, a changing class system. Labour has struggled to change with the times. It has lost its connection with the English people. Many do not know what the Party stands for. In May we lost everywhere to everybody.   

Inquiry  

We set up an Independent Inquiry into why Labour lost.                                                       

We wanted an objective, empirical analysis of what happened at the election.                                         

We didn’t want the results compromised by being run through the party machine.

In 2010 there literally was no inquiry as to the nature of the defeat.                                                                      

In 2015 we all need to know the worst; to own the defeat.

Over the summer we released our findings for England and Wales. You can read them on online – and lots more is still to come. There is no way to dodge around this: it tells us a deeply worrying story.                        

Of a Labour Party that is out of touch with the country and becoming progressively more so.

This is what we found:                                                    

First. It was pragmatic-minded voters who dealt Labour its devastating electoral defeat.

Voters whose main concern is their personal financial  circumstances abandoned us; many at the last hour. We lacked economic credibility. They didn’t trust us with their taxes.

Second. We lost because voters believed we were anti-austerity. 

The Tories won because of austerity. Voters did not reject Labour because they saw it as austerity lite. They rejected Labour because they thought the Party was anti-austerity lite. The Tories message on the deficit was clear, Labour’s was not. The Tories were trusted to manage the country’s finances, Labour was not.

Consequently, an anti-austerity alliance with the SNP does not have support in England. Labour’s defeat in Scotland did not set a precedent for a leftward shift in England. The SNPs anti austerity politics only increased the risk that Labour represented to English voters.

This is of course difficult to swallow. This does not mean we accept the Tory economic strategy; rather it means we failed to effectively contest that story.

Third. Labour is losing its working class support and UKIP benefits.                                                  

Since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They want a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. Labour no longer represents their lives.

These small c conservative voters are twice as likely to be from socio-economic groups DE as AB. Their desertion represents the collapse of Labour’s traditional working class base.

It fundamentally challenges the assumption that the emergence of UKIP damaged our Tory opponents rather than ourselves. Actually, it suggests it was the other way around!

Fourth. Since 2010 Labour has marched decisively away from the views of voters on issues that are fundamental to our electoral prospects: immigration, personal financial interest, welfare, public services, and business.                                                                                  

In short, that Labour is out of step with the wider electorate and this divide is growing.                              

We asked the 3,000 people we polled: ‘what was the main reason you voted for party x?’ An open question, no prompting. Here is what they said about why they would not vote Labour:

‘Give everyone who isn’t working as much money as they want from the people who work their asses off. Let everyone in the country.’                                                                                             

‘A free for all on benefits.’                                                                                        

‘Still preaching the welfare state pie in sky politics….’                                          

‘Will spend all your taxes on benefit scroungers !!!!’                                       

‘Benefits for all.’                                                                                                     

‘Tax those that work and pay high benefits to those who don’t want to work.’                                                     

‘Want to take from hard working people and distribute it more evenly to the poor on benefits.’

This was the drumbeat heard time and again. It is tough stuff.

This is not to accept these sentiments.

Put simply, we can seek to change the minds of the public but we should not ignore them.

Fifth. Labour is becoming the toxic party.                                                                                             

We asked voters a question about their voting preference. Did they, ‘always vote’ for a particular political party, ‘sometimes vote for it’, ‘consider voting for it’ or, ‘never vote for it’. The toxicity score for each party is measured by the proportion of the electorate that say they will ‘never vote’ for it. Labour is now as toxic in the South as the Tories are in the North. Among the over 60s, 45 per cent say they will never vote Labour – and the significance of this age demographic will grow over the coming years. And Labour is more toxic amongst socially conservative voters than either UKIP or the Conservatives.

I take three lessons from these findings in England and Wales:                                 

The first is that the electorate is economically radical and fiscally conservative.                          

The English electorate holds radical opinions on the economy. 43 per cent agree that, ‘I am most likely to vote for the political party that redistributes wealth from rich to poor’. 60 per cent agree with the statement, ‘the economic system in this country unfairly favours powerful interests’. This rises to 73 per cent amongst UKIP voters and 78 per cent amongst Labour voters.

But fiscal responsibility trumps economic reform. Voters understand the Tories are unfair on the economy; there is no liking for them. But they do not trust Labour with their taxes and with the country’s finances. Until their trust is restored they will never support Labour’s radical economic policies. Labour needs to understand that the electorate is both economically radical and  fiscally conservative.

This could well prove to be a major opportunity for Labour if we use this insight effectively.

The second lesson is that identity and belonging drive politics. 

The response to the SNP amongst Welsh and English voters reflects the growing politics of identity and belonging, and the increasingly federal nature of the UK. Labour needs a more federal politics to accommodate our national differences. There is a need for a Labour politics of recognition here; that there is a space for an English Labour Party to represent the interests of the English people.

It would also compliment the existence of the Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour parties in our rulebook. 

The third lesson is that Labour is becoming an exclusive cultural brand.         

The desertion of socially conservative voters heralds a broader trend of working class detachment from Labour both in the electorate and in party membership. Labour is now overwhelmingly a party of the socially liberal and progressively minded. They express Labour values that tend to be universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice.   

The party is losing connection with two thirds of the electorate who are either pragmatic in their voting habits or who are social conservatives and who value work, family, and their country. The idea that  Labour can recover its lost voters by winning non-voters has no grounding in English political realities. To win Labour has to take them from the Conservatives.                                   

Labour is dangerously out of touch with the electorate. It stands on the brink of becoming irrelevant to the majority of working people in the country. It must renew its essential character in the eyes of the great majority of the people. Not in isolation from them.

So then onto the challenges of the future                                                

Our first challenge is political economy.                              

Labour needs a new political economy that is pro-business and pro-worker. We have to re-establish relations with the business community and build a coalition of support amongst the self employed, private sector workers in key sectors, and forward looking businesses.

Labour’s old central state driven approach of redistribution, regulation and macroeconomic management will not solve our economic problems. Tax and spend is no longer the radical option. We need a political economy that combines financial prudence with economic radicalism: 

  • reforming the institutions of economic governance,
  • of economic and industrial democracy                                          
  • reforming corporate governance,                                                                     
  • creating employer/employee partnerships
  • putting workers on boards,                                                                
  • pioneering new models of services, production pioneering new models of services; production and ownership that give individuals and communities power and control,   
  • supporting people to develop the skills, power  and knowledge they need to act as economic citizens.      

Our second challenge is an English Labour Party and a federal and democratic UK .              

We have to break out of the traditional top-down, Whitehall knows best approach, and  take decisions about England out of Westminster and hand them to our regions, cities and communities.

So we need a broad alliance for change – constitutional reform, devolution of power, and citizen empowerment that stretches from Clacton to Bristol, Newcastle to Penzance.                                                     

The corollary is a more federal UK Labour Party. More autonomy for Scottish and Welsh Labour to respond to their own national  politics. An English Labour party to help identify the politics and policies we will need to win a majority of English seats.                                                                 

England will decide Labour’s future.

Our third challenge is a Labour politics of shared responsibility and contribution. 

Labour’s politics need to recognise the power of  relationships to transform people’s lives for the better. We talk about childcare, equality, rights, but not enough about family and relationships. We tend to be paternalistic, technocratic and statist. We talk about retail offers and ‘delivering services to people’ and neglect to ask how we can help people to help themselves.

Associated with this: high levels of immigration have created a demographic revolution which has happened in a very short time span.

For example, the insider/outsider questions that are thrown up pose real challenges to how we approach the contribution to and consumption of public services. We have one of the most segregated school systems in the rich world. Our housing policy locates rich and poor households in separate enclaves. Confronted with dislocation and insecurity we don’t ask, ‘how are we to live together?’ but celebrate people’s differences- we have no notion of the Common Good.                                                                               

In general, we avoid talking about culture and identity and instead talk about an instrumentalised economics. Our failure has allowed UKIP to speak for those who feel dispossessed and left behind. 

So Labour needs a politics of social integration. England needs to rebuild a common life recognising our different identities with a sense of mutual obligation and national renewal.

Our fourth challenge is to own the future of technology and innovation. 

We are just at the start of the internet revolution. Our new digital age is changing society and  modernising the whole base of our economy. Technological innovation is facilitating new cultural practices and models of production. People will be able  to design and make the things they live with.

Digital government can create better communication, more collaboration and sharing of data between services. It can make services and transactions more efficient, and simpler for people to use. And it can be used to rebalance power between citizens and the market and between citizens and the state. This is the future and Labour must lead the way- how these epochal changes can allow us to re-imagine the very notion of modern citizenship, democracy, hierarchy and accountability.               

The fifth challenge is a strategic foreign and security policy for Britain.           

The UK lacks confidence in the world. We lack a coherent foreign policy. Labour needs to reclaim a sense of direction for the country both internally and externally.                                   

We need to strengthen our pro-European politics with a clear position. We should recognise the reservations many of our citizens have about giving up our sovereignty to Brussels

  • about joining the European currency,                                                                                           
  • submitting to overseas jurisdiction,                                                                                      
  • and being exposed to the free movement of labour and open immigration.

We need two categories of EU membership. The first category of core nations in the Eurozone signed up to full union with its own distinct fiscal policy and democratic governance. The second category, which would include the UK, for countries who do not want full union to be their final destination. Britain will then be free to play a leading alliance building role in Europe.                            

The final challenge is simple. It’s about us. The Labour Party.

Do we possess the will, the energy, the political judgment  to transform the Labour Party and make it fit for the 21st Century? Outside of a few urban centres Labour is in a state of political decay. The fantastic recent growth in our membership and supporters does not change this reality. Our structures are broken, our culture is decaying. If we don’t change we will lose those who have joined us.

Political parties are hollowed out. Faced with complexity and unpredictability, they are losing their role in society. Innovation and change happen outside them. The  traditional tools of policy makers – regulation and money – are limited in solving complex problems and when money is limited. Westminster and Whitehall are like a giant publishing houses churning out reports, policy documents and papers that few read. Policy making is removed from the people who implement it and from those it will affect.                

There is no one big idea or single grand reform that will rebuild the Labour Party and renew our politics. We need comprehensive but incremental change. Empowering the membership to participate won’t work if the party is inward looking, generating its own pet policies that voters reject. Labour has to turn outward. Task its members to:

    • build community organisations,
    • set up and work with social enterprises,                     
    • create policy with the public in deliberative and open fora,            
    • co-design public services with front line workers and users,                                                            
    • collaborate and support Labour City and local authorities for real time change.

Labour must become an organisation that convenes, creates and spreads power amongst those who have none.

In conclusion, I want to a couple of points about what Labour stands for.

The  traditions of English liberty that William Cobbett championed are about self-determination. Their conservative instinct raises the question of equality because each individual is irreplaceable in our mutual dependence. Equality is the ethical core of justice. It is the necessary condition for social freedom which is the basis of a settled life. Edmund Burke describes it as ‘that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint’. In the past we called it fraternity.

But why is it that the notion of fraternity – the cornerstone of a specific English socialist tradition- and wider ethical concerns are so rarely discussed within Labour?  Because they used to be. Their omission is not accidental.

Today we talk a lot about money transfers and economistic concerns for distributional justice. This can appear as over rational, utilitarian, cold and technocratic; remote and bureaucratic.

Today we also talk a lot about rights; the need to confront economic and social disadvantage with codified redress to the law- often described pejoratively as the preserve of the  ‘liberal left’ with their concerns for democracy and liberty. Yet we can also trace this thinking back to 19th century radical liberalism, Tom Paine, Chartism, to John Lilburne and to the Levellers.

Here is the basic point.

These two dominant frameworks within the left speak to specific philosophical approaches to questions of  justice; of how we should build our society. One approach concerned with welfare and utility the other with questions of freedom and rights.

But there is another tradition– more ethical in orientation. Concerned with nurturing the human characteristics upon which a good or just society is formed. Concerned with questions of virtue, fraternity and the Common Good. It is one most closely associated with William Cobbett, Richard Blatchford, and most importantly with William Morris.

This approach to justice lies deep within the history of English socialism and the fight against human dispossession but today  lies exiled from labour thinking.

I would argue that this exile speaks to Labour’s  detachment from England that our data and our enquiry reveals.

Sure it will be a difficult task to retrieve this tradition and re-establish an authentic English Labour voice.

Charlie Mingus once said ‘anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple’.

Where might we start?

Well we could start this project of renewal with a return to the legacy of Tony Blair. Early on Blair  quite consciously drilled into the history of ethical socialism to establish an approach to justice anchored around the notion of the Common Good and a uniquely English socialist arc; it would not have been unfamiliar to Cobbett.

He refracted these concerns into a story of English national renewal and shared sacrifice; a modern patriotism.  It created energy and power because of its humanity; by the way it bent its ethical properties into those of the country and successfully contested the national story.

The genius of the political project was the way it blended its specific approach to justice with a renewed left patriotism. People responded. Tragically by the second term Blair had collapsed these insights into an uncritical support of globalisation and a utilitarian politics.

So today we have lost our language and existence in the everyday lives of the people. We can account for this historically. Modern left rationalism is not accidental. It expresses the victory of economistic and technocratic thinking. Ethical concerns have lost out to utilitarian and rights based models of justice.

In 2015 we woke to a country we could barely recognise. So the task today is to learn from these mistakes and build a new Labour politics of the Common Good specifically here in England.

To conclude Labour is not in good shape in England. We collided with the electorate in May and our post-election research has empirically exposed the scale of our problem.

We can either ignore it or try to understand it.

The clock is ticking we had better change tack soon or face the consequences.

Thanks very much.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]

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