The long read: We need a political centre ground within Labour before we can build a Labour coalition in the country


English socialism

Labour is sinking in the polls. There is still some way to go before we hit the bottom. In the meantime the task is to start developing a new revisionist project to win power in the twenties and thirties.

Anthony Crosland opened The Future of Socialism with the comment: “Socialists in the 1930s, whatever their disagreements on long term questions, were united on the immediate objectives of a majority Labour Government”. Philip Gould began The Unfinished Revolution, his definitive account of New Labour, with an anecdote: “As a boy I used to walk around my garden planning political campaigns”. Two eras, two very different books, and two profoundly different sensibilities. But both were revisionist projects that shaped their time and defined Labour’s political history.

The beginning of a new project of revisionism lies in the national and political traditions of England.

There is a long tradition of English socialism which Labour needs to revive in order to restore its fortunes. It’s a socialism that is about family, work and the places people belong. It is a patriotic socialism based on the social virtues – loyalty, kindness, reciprocity, fraternity – that govern how we each live in relation to others.

English socialism is about progress and radical change. But it is also about protecting our cultural inheritance and so it is also traditional in it sensibility. Reform is needed to conserve as well as improve what is good. English socialism is moderate in character. There are no ultimate solutions in politics only the achievement of balancing interests for the common good.

English socialism is shaped by an English modernity which historically has been at odds with Enlightenment rationalism and the avant-garde of continental modernism. English modernity is as much about moral sentiments as it is about reason. Its social ethic of ‘fellow-feeling’ encompasses Samuel Coleridge, Mary Wolstonecraft and Edmund Burke as well as John Ruskin, and William Morris, whose conservative socialism stood for ‘love and work, these two things only.’

Progressive politics

Each new political era must find its own balance between radical change and protecting what matters to people. The financial crash of 2008 was the beginning of the end of a thirty year period of social upheaval created by radical liberal market economics. In Britain its aggressive dynamic of change created both ‘the best of times and the worst of times’. It has produced unparalleled amounts of wealth, but low economic growth, damaging levels of inequality, unaccountable concentrations of power, the destruction of traditional forms of work, and the uprooting of settled ways of life.

Labour’s Whig view of history shaped its response to this period. For Crosland in the 1950s the future would be the orderly and gradual fulfilment of Labour’s traditional objectives. For Gould it was about modernisation – “things can only get better”. He was inspired by the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign, and he echoes the New Democrat hymn to change: ‘in the twenty-first century the pace of change will be so fast, so all-embracing, that it will in effect be an age of permanent revolution’.

Labour responded to liberal market economics with the progressive politics of Third Way social democracy. The Clinton government had embarked on the construction of a US led liberal market globalisation. Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of Labor, described this progressive globalisation in his book The Work of Nations. ‘There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept.’

Progressive politics embraced a capitalist modernity that celebrated the borderless and the mobile and those who uprooted themselves in the name of aspiration. The world consisted of individuals, the market and the state and not much in between. It became a deracinated politics that associated patriotism, tradition, and people’s need to belong, with intolerance, chauvinism, nostalgia, and market inefficiencies.

Progressive politics created its own moral culture which the American, political writer Michael Lind describes as “open borders progressivism”. The favouring of citizens over foreign nationals is the equivalent of racism. National borders impeding the free flow of labor and goods are both immoral and inefficient. The goal of trade and immigration policy should not be the relative security or relative wealth of particular countries, but the absolute economic well-being of all human beings.

The intolerance of liberal progressive moral culture toward customary ways of life and tradition helped to disentangle individuals from their social ties and facilitate the commodification of labour and the expansion of market transactions into society. Today this culture is concentrated in the big cities amongst the higher educated and salaried classes where social democratic parties retain their strength. But in the towns and country across western market economies it is being rejected by the mainstream middle and working classes, whose values tend to be located closer to home in family, work and community.

The class and cultural faultline that now divides progressive globalist culture from conservative national culture has been defined by the Brexit vote. It was a vote against large scale market driven immigration because a free market in human labour imposes social and cultural costs in the same way that a free market in capital does. It was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites. It is the beginning of a new political era of nation state politics in difficult circumstances.

Labour enters this new era in disarray. The rise of Corbynism far from heralding a radical challenge to the status quo is limiting Labour’s appeal to the narrow class interests of progressive globalist culture. The party has never been so distant in its politics and culture from the country.

Labour defeated

Three leadership contests in six years have progressively revealed that Labour has no idea how to reverse its decline. Amidst the booing and name calling of the summers contest the party had nothing of substance to say about the profound shifts in politics and culture taking place in British society.

The party brims with the enthusiasm of a large membership but it lacks any sense of where it is going. The leaderships rhetoric of socialism is peppered with vague platitudes, recycled policies and promises to spend huge sums of money. The public has taken notice. Earlier this month, a YouGov poll on LabourList reported that an extraordinary 66 per cent of voters don’t trust the Labour Party. They don’t trust us to lead the country. They don’t trust us not to waste money. They don’t trust us with the security of the country, nor with immigration, nor the economy.

Labour is on course for an epic, shattering defeat in the next general election, but its decline as a national political force has been years in the making.

Three failures of Labour

For most of the 20th Century Labour was the party of the labour interest in Britain. Reciprocity was at the heart of its relationship to its working class voters. In return for their commitment to their work and their contribution to the country, its obligation was to protect the interests of working people. This mutual sense of obligation has broken down. Labour has lost its historical role redressing the inequality of power between capital and labour.

Labour was the party of the people. It grew out of the mutualism of the trade unions and the vast popular self-help and self-improvement movements of the nineteenth century. The PLP represented organised labour power within a parliamentary democracy.

How should Labour express this popular power following its great victory in 1945? In 1948 Michael Young published a pamphlet Small Man: Big World. He argued that Labour should stay true to its tradition of reciprocity. It should embrace an active democracy and the radical devolution of power to people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Anthony Crosland’s revisionism aimed for a different approach. Power should be exercised through the state. Labour’s social democracy was about economic growth and state managed redistribution. Labour chose the path of state management.

By the first decade of the new century it had become a managerial party. It monopolised power in order to do things to and for people. It led to a habit of thinking it knew best. By 2016 the party had become both more middle class and more socially liberal and its managerial politics took a moral turn to altruism. Minority groups oppressed or in need took precedence over the majority labour interest.

From being the representation of a collective independent power, Labour has been reduced to a party of sectional interests promoting a dependency culture of clients.

Labour was the party of the Union. But politics in the UK is no longer solely defined by the territory of Britain nor the identity of British.

Labour granted a Parliament to Scotland and an Assembly to Wales and so more by accident than design, it has contributed to the growing dynamic toward greater national autonomy within the UK. The Union is becoming increasingly federal. But the Labour Party’s roots are in unionist politics, and its social democratic politics has depended upon the unitary British State. Devolution has undermined its political foundations.

The SNP created a modern, inclusive sense of national belonging. It defined Labour as the party of Westminster and excluded it from the Scottish family. In Wales, Labour is barely holding its own and it has been beaten in England. With the party’s devolution of responsibilities and functions to Welsh and Scottish Labour there remains the unspoken name of an English Labour Party. Labour’s future lies in England but it can barely bring itself to acknowledge the English or their emerging polity.

Who Labour is for, how it discharges its political obligations, and the geopolitical terrain on which it constructs this politics have each dramatically changed and undermined the party as a national political force. Labour’s Whig view of progress once defined its patriotism of British exceptionalism. This view was undermined by historical defeat in 1979, the rise of identity politics, the loss of Scotland and in our latest political debacle, the leave vote in the EU referendum. Despite, or perhaps because of, its liberal progressive politics, Labour is stuck in the past and without a sense of its own historical purpose. Its language is tired and it has no story to tell the country about its heritage and what it means to be English and British. In the last six years it has proved unable to confront the scale of these challenges. It has lacked the leadership, the sense of its own traditions, and the institutional means, to renew itself.

Political Renewal

Who will undertake political renewal? The left of the party has usually played a key role. Momentums event that ran alongside Conference in Liverpool took up the challenge. But Momentum is divided between those who want to rethink a politics of the labour interest that will work for the country, and those who are engaged in a party factional battle for the hard left.

Uncertainty about its role hinders its development of an intellectual culture that can shape a new politics. Owen Jones, in a number of essays, has outlined a number of key questions. Compass holds an important political space for soft left innovation. Jeremy Gilbert has been at the forefront of its political thinking. Ken Spours has done interesting analysis of the present conjuncture. But the soft left of the party lacks a credible national politics. Its idea of a progressive alliance ignores its limited appeal in England and Wales, and the hostility to any SNP representation in a British government.

In recent years there has been a revival of local government and Labour’s best council leaders have pioneered innovative approaches to institutional and public services reform. In places like Lambeth, Plymouth, Oldham and Stevenage there have been radical attempts to reconnect people with politics. The new metro mayors could consolidate a more devolved style of Labour politics, but without a political philosophy to make it more than the sum of its parts it risks balkanising the party in the country.

The only intellectual innovation within Labour in the last decade that offers a majoritarian politics has been the English socialism of Blue Labour. Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour was an attempt to takes it into Labour’s mainstream but it failed. Theresa May has stolen some of its ideas just as George Osborne took the English devolution of Labour’s 2012-14 Policy Review for his Northern Powerhouse. Despite this it provides Labour with the building blocks for political renewal.

The first task of renewal is to create a dialogue to build a political centre ground within the party. The Red Shift team of Liam Byrne, Shabana Mahmood, Nic Dakin, and Caroline Badley have been pioneers. Their new report, England in 2030, calls for a ‘New English Socialism’, and identifies the big issues facing the country.

Work and working life is being transformed. The rise of the robots, the increase in self-employment, and the growing number of older people demand that Labour create a new political economy around work and working life. We need new models of labour solidarity and innovation to help the English working class to prosper.

The country needs a renewed public realm. Our national institutions belong to the industrial age. We need to reform existing ones and where necessary create new ones to provide for us in old age, deliver personal healthcare, and govern public goods such as big data.

The renewal of the public realm requires a new approach to collective politics. Instead of using the central state to do things to and for people Labour needs to develop a non-statist, cooperative and mutual politics to tap into and support the power of individuals to help themselves and one another achieve a good life. As the authors of the report describe it, ‘how can doing things together benefit me?’

Finally, post-Brexit England needs a new approach to defending its interests in an increasingly multi-polar world with its new kinds of risk and its unpredictable threats. As Liam says in a short video, Labour’s future is about renewing our national institutions to make globalisation work for the majority of voters.

The Labour Together conference on November 3 aims to help generate collaboration on a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.

The task is to build a political centre ground within Labour and then a Labour coalition in the country around a politics of earning and belonging. The party needs its leadership to be capable of linking together big cities, small towns and countryside, north and south, business and workers, social liberals and social conservatives, young and old, in a sense of national community.

Jonathan Rutherford is an academic, and was a member of the independent inquiry into why Labour lost. He also worked on the party’s policy review 2012-14.

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