Labour needs a politics of earning and belonging

Jonathan Rutherford

“This is the dawn of a new era,” declared Boris Johnson an hour before Brexit. He has exploited the opportunity of Brexit and realigned British politics. The Conservatives have political domination but not yet hegemony. It took Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1983 to secure the hegemony of the neoliberal settlement. Can Johnson follow her success with his own brand of one nation Conservatism? It will require the consolidation of popular consent for his rule at the next election.

Is Labour capable of stopping a Conservative decade? To answer yes, the party will have to recognise the scale of its fourth successive defeat. Matthew Sowemimo has made an important contribution toward this end with his comprehensive analysis of the 2019 election, published by the centre left organisation Compass. He describes the new Conservative coalition as ‘the most diverse electoral coalition in the mass franchise era’. It includes those on low incomes, the suburban middle class, rural voters and the very wealthy.

In contrast, Labour’s vote fell across all social classes. It fell by 11% amongst the younger working class who had shifted to the party in 2017. It fell by 7% amongst mortgage holders, by 12% and 13% in the North East and Yorkshire, and by a further 8% in Scotland. It fell most sharply in English towns where the Labour movement was once a way of life. And to compound this estrangement of the working class, 47% of DE social classes – those on the lowest incomes and who bore the brunt of austerity – voted Conservative.

Only two significant electoral groups, the highly educated and ethnic minorities, resist Conservative hegemony. Labour thankfully had another good general election in London. And across the country the 50 constituencies with the highest population of professionals moved toward Labour. This reflects the profile of the party’s membership. 77% are in social classes ABC1.

The party, Sowemimo argues, now rests perilously on a narrow electoral coalition primarily based on the support of ethnic minority communities in the big cities. However as he points out even Labour’s support amongst ethnic minorities fell by 9%. A further swing to the Conservatives under the first-past-the-post electoral system could see a repeat of Labour’s 2015 Scottish annihilation in England. He concludes that the next election could be the party’s last stand.

Labour’s predicament

Labour’s centrist politics inherited from the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been irrevocably beaten. First by the electorate in 2010 and 2015, then by Jeremy Corbyn in two party leadership contests, and again by voters in the EU referendum.

The soft left, once Labour’s engine room of ideas, is ineffectual and without leadership. Despite the historical scale of the current leader’s political failure, Corbynism still dominates, defining the boundaries of debate in the leadership contest.

Some on the left believe that the path to Labour’s recovery lies in a politics of participation and democracy. If Labour devolves power and ‘gives back control’ it will restore the trust it has lost. But this argument offers a technocratic solution to an existential political problem. The party has to ask itself why it has lost the popular vote in England in every election since 2005. Why do the Tories keep winning? Blaming Brexit, the right wing media or English voters doesn’t count as an answer.

The new political era

In creating a new Conservative cross-class coalition, Johnson has ended the neoliberal consensus of the last four decades. In doing so he has inadvertently changed the primary agents of British politics. Agents are those forces, groups or classes that play a leading role in producing a political settlement.

When Blair and Brown won New Labour’s landslide in the 1997 election they had adapted Labour to the four primary agents of the neoliberal settlement which were shaping British politics. These were globalisation, the rise of the metropolitan middle class, social and market liberalism, and a managerialist and technocratic approach to politics.

David Cameron and George Osborne followed a similar political logic with their attempt at compassionate Conservatism. Theresa May tried an alternative – she failed in short order, but the 2017 election laid the groundwork for the 2019 Conservative victory.

The four agents of the neo-liberal settlement are now being superseded by new ones which are contesting their dominance and shaping the new era. These are the nation state, the working class, social conservatism and democracy.

The liberal progressive politics of the Labour Party and the market liberalism of the Conservatives belong to the previous political era. They are ill equipped for this new period. The political battleground has shifted away from the middle classes in London and the large cities, to the new Tory working class seats and the 36 Labour marginals in the North and Midlands. For both parties it is terra incognito. Here the new political settlement will be won or lost.

A politics of earning and belonging

To be an effective political force, Labour needs a politics of earning and belonging. It must become once again a patriotic and internationalist party renewing the nation state, particularly in England, and refounding the union.

The 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession slowed down the rate of globalisation. From 2015, it flattened out. The disruptive forces of hyper-globalisation are starting to be redressed. Capitalist democracies are beginning to respond to the revolt of their populations by repairing their domestic social contracts. Labour’s own campaign, ‘Rebuilding Britain’, has been an exemplary of this trend.

David Edgerton in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation described how an economics of national development flourished between 1945 and the 1970s as the country rebuilt itself after the Second World War. He associates this period with a developmental state, an “unusually strong” labour movement and the integration of the working class into the democratic system.

Labour’s 1945 and 1950 manifestoes were programmes of national economic development – Edgerton argues: “There is a need to rethink the case for a national capitalism in this age of economic inequality, political fracture and geopolitical uncertainty.”

The focus of a national economic development approach should be on what matters most to people – work, family and the places they live. It should begin by addressing daily life and modernising the everyday economy of child and elder care, health, education, utilities, and the low wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets. These are the basic building blocks of a more united and secure society. By developing a national strategy around the everyday economy, Labour can start to bridge the divisions between towns, cities and regions, and between different classes and ethnic groups, and so rebuild its own coalition.

The party needs to prioritise a sense of belonging which is the task of living together in our multi-ethnic society. Developing a shared sense of national identity is fundamental to social cohesion and upholding our democracy and the equality of citizen’s rights and obligations.

Labour has to afford recognition to those voters whose small-c conservative values extend beyond the concerns of liberalism and who do not always share its priorities. These values are about attachment to a shared inheritance, to a society shaped by decision making from below, and to the making of a place and way of life which people can call their own.

The English are both conservative and liberal in our sentiments. These dispositions are not party political. They are qualities of mind and character that are woven into the fabric of our national culture. The liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill understood that a balance of both these dispositions is necessary for a society of individual liberty and human flourishing.

Liberals tend to view human progress as an act of individual will. Conservatives believe inherited authority, institutions and traditions are essential for a harmonious and just social life. One presses new ideas to their utmost consequences. The other reasserts the best meaning and purposes of the old. A Labour coalition capable of winning in England will be both radical and conservative.

Labour today is a party of the previous era. The leadership debate speaks the language of yesterday. As the country moves on from Brexit and looks to the future, Labour risks being left behind. To become a party of the new conjuncture and to begin its journey back to power Labour needs a politics of earning and belonging.

The party needs to embrace both liberal and conservative dispositions and so build a new, post-industrial national coalition. To succeed in this task it must dig deep into its own traditions and history to rediscover some of its core values that have been marginalised in recent decades. They are widely shared in the country.

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