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Red Tory – A Lesson for the Left?

The Labour Party is facing wipe-out. Politically, a defeat looms every bit as significant as that inflicted upon the Conservative Party in 1997. The potential damage, however, extends well beyond projected numbers of seats the Labour Party may come to hold post-election. More worryingly, Labour is losing the battle of ideas, not against the Conservatives, but against the people at large. In short, Labour has ceased to believe in those things that once defined it, and that still defines large swathes of those it has ceased to represent.

If there is any truth in the old rule-of-thumb that the British people are economically left-wing and socially conservative, then the left nowadays is always halfway short. Of course, this has not always been the case, and were the founders of the Labour movement to be magically transported into the present day then they would no doubt be ferociously denounced as rabidly right-wing. The militant modernisers, it would seem, must portray their heritage as an uncomfortable aberration from a less civilised past, so fanatical are they in pursuit of what they arbitrarily term the ‘progressive’ agenda. The unease, however, speaks of a transformation of the ideological underpinnings of the Labour movement: what is now pejoratively dismissed as ‘social conservatism’ was once authentically expressive of left-of-centre accounts of the social sphere. Emphasising communal unity and well-being over individual desire, left-of-centre thinking offered strongly relational accounts of the social that sought not to enshrine the particular rights of the individual over against society, but rather contextualised individual identity through shared bonds of kinship, community and social custom.

This is an insight explored for some time now by Phillip Blond in his Red Tory project. To crudely characterise, the post-1968 embrace of social liberalism has inculcated an atomistic individualism that, policed by an authoritarian state, undermines genuinely social society. The question becomes, then, whether one constructs the individual through the social, as a relational being, or derives the social from the individual, as a large-scale version of a (particular kind) of individual: authentic left-of-centre thought ought to pursue the former, whilst the individualism of contemporary liberal thought does the latter. Of course, such a charge is painful to the ears of the contemporary elite, who would prefer to read into communality the oppression of the individual. This is because, as Blond has suggested, the cherished liberalism of the elite descends from an account of societas that must homogenise the social as a means of protecting individual ‘freedom’. The individual, then, comes prior to society, and the latter is really just a loose collection of the former – and where difference exists, and values clash, it is the autonomy of the individual that must be championed by the state.

Of course things are different now, we are told, we live in an individualistic world, this is ‘progress’: except for many it really isn’t, and insofar as the consequences often denigrate precisely those beliefs which many still hold dear, so does this mode of thought refuse to sit comfortably with large segments of the population, wise enough to see the sinister side of this particular utopia. By destabilising those foundational joists still cherished by those who see the oppressive nature of the individualist ruse, joists that have for so long have been the preserving agent of the most vulnerable, it really is the case that Labour is pursuing the path of its own annihilation; to quote Blond once more, ‘the Labour Party is being rejected by society because it has repudiated and vilified the very structure and basis of society itself’.  The culture clash is not just coming; it has already arrived, and it is causing chaos.

For those that sneeringly dismiss such thinking as dark and oppressive conservative forces, who recoil in disgust at the lingering presence of it within what might be considered their core vote, who elect merely to turn their heads when the disastrous consequences of their cultic adoration of the ‘I’ wreaks havoc amongst the most vulnerable; all they really do is elevate their own ideological prejudices above the chorus of cries emanating from the dispossessed, and diagnose the ‘regressive’ parochialism of the barbarous lower classes as a thing to be persecuted, not understood. The vilification of the plebiscite does little more than reassure those at the top of their own superiority, and harass those at the bottom into silence lest their ill-articulated yet heartfelt concerns are used as evidence to demonise and even criminalise them all the more. ‘We’re all in this together’ is the slogan they would have us cling to; truth is, some of us are in it more than others, and some are not really in it at all.

Of course, for the more philosophically inclined, the liberal project is underpinned by visions of a complex society united on the macro level through common adherence to a fixed set of overarching values.  The problem remains that these values, or rather the manner in which they are understood, are overwhelmingly a manifestation of the way in which the already-empowered would wish to live, rather than an organic vision of society that equally empowers and protects all. For those that do not submit to the aggressive individualism of the liberal vision, who resist distorted accounts of ‘freedom’ and dare to cling to their outdated social customs that so offend the sensibilities of the liberals, there can only ever be extermination, or, to use Orwell’s words, ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

Whilst this continues, intimate relational accounts of society will be subsumed under an individualistic account of common good, whereby what is good for society must be synonymous with the liberty of the individual over and against society. Accordingly, the more provocative questions are rarely asked: Does the common-good have more legitimacy than individual desire? To what extent are ‘rights’ constructive or destructive of responsibility? When do the interests or beliefs of the community trump the universal ‘right’ of an individual? What should happen when the ‘rights’ of an individual is corrosive to social harmony?

In short, has the post-1968 embrace of hedonistic liberalism not caused the left to unwittingly surrender its ancestral heartland, and with it those insights that were historically its greatest strength, and indeed its greatest contribution, to post-industrial political culture? The empowered elite will, of course, shriek with all the shrillness of an anxious oligarchy that such thinking is oppressive, undemocratic, authoritarian, bigoted, regressive, and endless other desperate accusations. And well they might. But the point remains that it is at least more authentically representative of left-of-centre thought, and indeed of those they have ceased to represent, and if it offends the palette, then maybe the ‘libertarians’ ought to cross the floor. Thus far, Red Toryism has become a lucky charm of the right; one wonders whether or not it has crucial insights for the left also.

This article first appeared on LabourList on November 15, 2009.

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