Labour’s new battleground: What matters vs. what works

Anthony Painter

Rose in water

The Labour movement column
By Anthony Painter

There is a fundamental political divide in British politics that is finally finding expression. It is also a social divide. Globalisation has refracted the politics of our time to the extent that it is no longer clearly a case of individualist vs. collectivist, left vs. right. We are now divided by security vs. opportunity, local vs. global, stability vs. change. The degree to which Labour can make sense of a world of abundant yet high risk opportunity sitting alongside a world of enduring cultures and values will determine its ability to build a renewed case for power.

At one end of the spectrum are the communitarians: increasingly referred to in the Labour context as ‘conservative Labour’ or ‘blue Labour.’ Here we find figures such as Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman, and Jonathan Rutherford. Cruddas and Rutherford lit the blue touch paper earlier this week by arguing that Labour had presided over a ‘leeching away’ of common values. It must:

“go out to the people and once again find its place as an organising force in the life of our country, from the cities to the market towns and the villages.”

This is ‘what matters‘ Labour.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘progressives.’ They preach a less flighty, more pragmatic vision. Sure the global financial markets collapsed. Yes, there must be a rebalancing of the economy away from financial services – but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater is the plea. Prosperity ultimately relies on creating the conditions for growth in a open and free global market. Diversity is our common strength and we should celebrate it. Phillip LeGrain, in response to Rutherford/Cruddas, argues against exclusive notions of identity and history:

“Since modern Britain is inescapably diverse, any definition of shared identity that fails to recognise this inevitably excludes some members of society and thus divides it.”

Included in this latter group is Tony Blair himself. It is ‘what works‘ Labour. Its values are liberal; its justification is pragmatism. It is unsentimental and starts with the economics. What fosters growth? That is what is right, what is socially good, and the political narrative will flow from that.

Strangely, this is not where New Labour started out. It is fashionable to characterise New Labour as an accommodation to the liberal global market with a balancing commitment to a redistributive state. This is where it ended up by its second term of office. However, there was an earlier version of New Labour and it was the version that secured the landslide victory in 1997.

Early New Labour was a combination of an acceptance of markets, belief in the virtue of the state to secure beneficial social outcomes, and a conservative message on community, nation, and family. Ultimately, it is impossible to reconcile conservatism and economic liberalism. Thatcher discovered this as instead of a rediscovery of the virtue of Grantham duty, a crass materialism swept the nation instead. And Labour discovered that global markets can desolate communities and turn patriotism – when whole towns are effectively abandoned or face convulsive change – into often violent strains of nationalism.

Economic waste and social despair foment a crisis of identity that can either tilt towards nostalgia or, at worst, become virulent and turn people against each other. Whenever the need of community for stability has come up against the free market, it is the latter that has won for almost half a century. The English Defence League are simply a striking aspect of this dispossession. Their current focus is Muslims but – and those ethnic minorities who ride with them should be aware of this – they will just as easily turn on other groups or some other grotesque adaptation of their line of thought will.

So New Labour always retained a degree of ‘conservatism’; it just tended to express itself in tough words on crime rather than as resistance to convulsive economic forces. This is the error that progressive Labour makes. Regardless of the fact that the social energy is behind liberalism – as the winners from the global free market expand – there is a basic problem for Labour as it considers its renewal. If Labour re-adopts progressive liberalism then what is its point? It feels more of a natural fit with Orange Book liberalism and Cameron conservatism than with a Labour Party with some regard for its social origins and history. There is something crazy about offering a softer version of what the coalition is already offering. That is deeply disempowering for millions of voters and, unless the coalition implodes, would leave Labour as a marginalised and insipid alternative to the coalition.

Instead, it is more responsible to pose some of the original questions that were posed by New Labour. How can Labour build a coalition of a conservative tradition focused on community, family, and flag (we don’t do God), defend high quality public services and a modern welfare state, and make the right moves to foster opportunity and economic growth?

Many of the answers will be different to New Labour’s. The type of opportunity offered by the global free market is high risk with too many losers and too much inequality to be sustainable. Public services have to be more responsive to those who use them and more creative in how they achieve their ends. The welfare state should abhor rather than compensate waste of human potential.

But the basic components of a renewed Labour majority are to be found in the foundations of early New Labour. It is not triangulation. It is pluralism. It is about creating a party that can provide some meaningful answers to a diverse nation with complex needs. It is not a question of New Labour or blue Labour. It is about creating a party that is capable of coping with a plural nation of complex and divergent needs.

And yes, this will constitute a vision that reclaims Englishness – and Britishness – as something of value and meaning; a commitment to govern in the interests of all not simply for the benefit of the strong. That is the meaning of a left concerned with shared identity: ‘what matters’ not simply ‘what works.’

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