Monday, 23 May 2011

Don't Get Any More Big Ideas

Liberated or cut loose (it all depends on your perspective) from the apron strings of Blair and Brown, the Labour party is in a period of identity crisis. Dismayed by election defeat and the prospect of five years in opposition, it has been forced to decide what and who it is for, to search for a new vision to inspire voters to return them to power.

The leading contender in this fight for the soul of the Labour party is a movement called ‘Blue Labour’. It is the product of Labour peer Maurice Glasman, ennobled by Ed Miliband, and the Oxford Political Theorist Marc Stears, an old college friend of the party leader (who also happens to be one of my tutors).

Last week saw the clearest statement of Blue Labour’s principles and ideas. An e-book, The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox, collecting papers from the set of conferences where the doctrine was developed, was released. Most significantly, Ed Miliband provided his clearest endorsement of the group to date, by contributing its preface.

Before discussing the substance of Blue Labour, a couple of points about its presentation. Firstly, the name is awful. The people behind Blue Labour clearly enjoy the idea of paradox (judging from the title of their book, and the tendency to describe their position as ‘radical conservatism’), and so seem tickled by the possibility that the future of the Labour party is to embrace (small ‘c’) conservatism. But to an electorate that thinks politicians are already too similar, and many of whom despise the Conservatives, emphasising cross-party agreement, however superficial, seems like a bad move. Moreover, the name is an allusion to the ‘Red Tory’ movement in the Conservative party. This a) makes it seem like Labour couldn’t even be bothered to come up with its own modernisation process, so it nicked the Tories’; and b) highlights the similarity of Blue Labour to an ideology that really isn’t all that different, undermining the originality of the philosophy.

Secondly, much like the Big Society, this complex intellectual trend risks being utterly lost in translation. A friend described his impression of it as being ‘Labour, just more racist’, a notion not helped by all the talk of ‘family, faith and flag’. Blue Labour, like the Red Tory movement, is critical of both the state and capitalism. However, if, as with the Red Tories, only the first part of this message is heard, they will be seen as traitors to the left. To many people politics is still just about left and right, and the inevitable inference will be that this is a straightforward move to the right. Indeed, Billy Bragg’s knee-jerk response is probably a reasonable preview of how Blue Labour will be received by the left.

My focus here, though, is not how Blue Labour will be perceived, but what it actually stands for. Stuart White helpfully draws out five core elements of the Blue Labour philosophy:

1) Decentralised ownership
2) The conservation of English identity[1]
3) Community organising
4) Hostility to moral abstraction
5) A desire to limit the welfare state

The separation of these ideas fails to reflect how interrelated they are. The argument is that Labour’s excessive abstraction and recourse to the bureaucratic state has alienated grassroots membership. An approach emphasising a common identity and decentralised ownership is offered as an alternative, to organise and galvanise the left. However, it is analytically useful to take them in turn.

Decentralised ownership seems to me the least problematic element of the Blue Labour manifesto. There is a lot to be gained from distributing the ownership of wealth, not least as a corrective to power imbalances. This is closely tied in with demands for greater workplace democracy, and a greater stake for employees in their firms. The main problem with this commitment is that it is hardly distinctive, given David Cameron’s apparent desire to spread mutualism. However, if Blue Labour can demonstrate that their dedication to this ideal is deeper than that of the Conservatives, this may well turn out to be one of their strengths.

The strident nationalism of some of the Blue Labour writers is its most eye-catching and alarming feature. Maurice Glasman has fanned these flames with his claim that the Labour party ought to do more to engage supporters of the English Defence League. Jonathan Rutherford, proclaiming that ‘The future is conservative’, has argued:

“In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no-one. It champions humanity in general but no-one in particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values but nothing specific.”

The trouble is that there is little indication of what, behind the rhetoric, they are really after. Immigration is usually held up as the clearest example of Labour’s lack of connection with its working class support base. Yet for the past few years Labour has been leading a risible race to the bottom over which party can out-tough the on immigration. If Blue Labour want to further restrict the opportunities of those born in less favourable circumstances to better themselves and take advantage of the things we take for granted, that alone is cause for shame.

Connected to this is an emphasis on social conservatism, which seems more closely associated with Glasman than the other theorists. Again, it’s not apparent what he wants. If it is toughness on crime, Labour are already the most authoritarian of the major parties. If it is to roll back gender equality and gay rights, well, that’s deeply worrying.

Most bizarre is Glasman’s Tudor obsession which almost seems like a parody of conservative nostalgia. A man who says things like ‘Selling Dover to the French is mad. I wonder what Henry VIII would really think about that’ is beyond satire.

Blue Labour is on much surer ground with its focus on community organising. After all, it has strong links with the successful ‘London Citizens’ organisation. Marc Stears makes a persuasive case for a vibrant grassroots Labour movement. He observes that in the past the party has tended to swing between ideological purism, with total disregard for electoral consequences, and a desperate willingness to do anything to win power. Focusing exclusively on means has prevented Labour achieving its desired ends. Yet allowing these ends to justify any means has distorted the party’s character. Stears insists that means and ends can be reconciled by authoritative leadership that is willing to delegate power to the broader party, and release the political potential of the mass membership. He looks to the example of the early Labour movement when:

“Constituency parties provided meeting places for those with different opinions and different interests who nonetheless wished to discover shared interests. The broader party then brought these geographical groupings into alliance with industrial groupings through its connection with the trades unions. The socialist societies and affiliated organizations then further brought people with other differences in aspirations and outlooks into the coalition. A series of meetings, rituals, events, and struggles cemented the relationships, ranging from annual conference to festivals, picket lines, marches, galas, and demonstrations. In the early years of the party, commentators even talked of developing a ‘religion of socialism’.”

Stears argues that unleashing this potential will not just improve the party’s prospects of power, but help it to live its ideals in opposition. Through the struggle and development of this mass movement, Labour will develop the solidarity and strong relationships at the heart of its ideology.

Stears’ vision is certainly an appealing one, but I am sceptical about its achievability. Essentially what he requires is for the Labour party to inspire collective action. But as Jon Stokes realises, this involves reforming a general cultural of apathy and disenchantment: “Currently, more people seek meaning and purpose from reality television and celebrity role models than they do from politics. The explosion in life coaching and coaching in the workplace is similarly driven by the desire to make sense of things for oneself, in order to have more control and influence over one’s life and experience”. I think Stears and Stokes have succeeded in identifying a major problem in British society – excessive individualism, collective distrust, a genuine lack of meaningful relationships. Stears complains that far too many of our interactions are ‘transactional’ – we do business with one another, rather than engaging at a deeper level, and he is absolutely correct. My worry is that it is beyond the means of the Labour party to redress this issue.

Primarily, this comes from pessimism about the capacity of politics to resist these powerful social forces. However, in their rejection of abstract arguments, I think Blue Labour have only weakened their ability to inspire people into action. The theorists seem fairly unambiguous on this point: the route to grassroots revival is to engage with specific, concrete, local fights, rather than appealing to big ideas like ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, or (they really seem to hate this) ‘equality’. Stokes says, “if Labour is to have a future, it will be not so much as the meaning-maker itself, but as the facilitator or enabler of meaning-making, of the human capacity to identify problems and to create solutions from within”. And Stears cites approvingly the fact that

“Walt Whitman, once said that in a democracy citizens ‘look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, “Who are you?”’. And that is the question that Jonathan [Rutherford] urges us all to ask too. Who are you to tell us what to do? Who are you to tell us what social justice involves, or fairness, or freedom, or equality? Who are you to say what people should aspire towards and what they should seek to avoid? These are decisions that must be made by real people in the contexts of their real lives. They are not to be answered for the public by anyone else, be that by well-meaning academics or politicians or other experts”

This approach strikes me as mistaken for two reasons. Firstly, I think it will be really difficult for the Labour party to attach itself seamlessly onto such grassroots movements. Stears is seems desperate to institutionalise spontaneous action. But any effort to co-opt groups campaigning for things like saving public libraries is likely to be seen as cynical opportunist party politics and resisted. Stears’ broader point, of course, is that it is an awful thing that the Labour party should come to be viewed with such suspicion, but I don’t know how that can be changed in the short term.

My second objection is that in their haste to junk abstract slogans about justice and equality, Labour would be rejecting one of the best resources at their disposal to develop enthusiasm. I’m just not convinced that the small-scale everyday injustices that people face are really more motivational than the big picture. To really inspire people, I would have thought it would be better to offer a grand vision of how to really make things better, fairer, more just.

Notice that I called them ‘everyday injustices’. One problem with the Blue Labour war on abstraction is that it seems to rely on a false dichotomy. The concrete, specific problems that people face are instantiations of the things that people invoke these big concepts against. I would have thought that the art of a great leader would be to connect the two: to show how the small struggles we can fight together form part of a broader fight for justice, equality, whatever.

The worst example of this type of thinking come in the form of the repeated objections to Labour’s apparent obsession with the Gini coefficient. (Odd, given that the Gini coefficient increased under the Labour government). Jon Wilson complains:

“On the left, our idea of equality is based around the measurement of the average statistical attributes possessed by this or that section of the population, rather than the real experience people have of hardship in particular places at particular points in time.”

This seems to rather misunderstand the point of statistics, which are there to systematically collect and compare different ‘real experiences’. Nobody cares about the Gini coefficient per se - they care about the hardship represented by rising inequality.

The final big plank of Blue Labour is an attack on the centralised welfare state. Labour’s obsession with using bureaucrats and technocrats to achieve their goals, they say, has left people passive and disempowered. This argument is another which could have been lifted straight from David Cameron, and indeed it is the rationale behind his ‘big society’ project. The political dangers of this argument are obvious: not only does it mean agreeing with the Conservatives, but agreeing with their wildly unpopular efforts to break down the state. Like Cameron’s plans, the idea is more or less reasonable as a corrective to Labour’s obsession with the state, but needs to remember that there are certain things that the state is best equipped to do.

In fact, this seems like a good summary of the Blue Labour project in general. It has identified certain flaws in post-war Labour thinking – excessive centralisation, abstraction, and statism – and reacts against these. However, taken too seriously, Blue Labour risks throwing away hard fought and valuable achievements.

[1] There is an unfortunate tendency in the Blue Labour papers to address England, as opposed to the UK, one that the Labour party would be advised to avoid, given their dependence on the support ofthe rest of the country

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