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