The temptation must be excruciating, it really must. Imagine: you’re the leader of a political party that, historically at least, has been on the side of the workers, of the poorest in society, of the dispossessed and the downtrodden. And facing you, on the other side of the chamber, is the clean-cut Tory leader, with his easy aristocratic manner, his multi-million pound fortune, and a close cabal of similarly well-heeled and, to your own mind, plum-mouthed friends. You’re desperate to land a blow, to finally walk out of PMQ’s as the undisputed winner by way of unanimous verdict, so when you glimpse a weak spot in your opponents guard, you go for it… ‘I have to say, that with him and Mr Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.’
One can only hope that such an approach was spur of the moment, an exuberance permitted to a Prime Minister who has had it so tough for so long, but which will not set the tone for upcoming election campaigns. Unfortunately, I suspect this won’t be the case. Those with little else to lose seem to be willing to go tribal and in so doing will, like Samson, bring the whole edifice down with them. Reverting to the ‘class war’ mindset will backfire, and harm parliamentarians as a whole.
Of course, this is quite a bold claim, but it is a real danger. The reason? Because in the minds of many of the voting public the real class divisions are drawn not between Labour and the Tories, but between politicians and everybody else. The language of us and them undoubtedly still has traction, but New Labour have rapidly become an intimate part of the ‘them’ against which they now cry foul. The expenses scandal, if anything, merely crystallised the widespread malaise; in seeking to offer such dividing lines, Labour risks stoking those very fires that Parliament has tried so very hard these last few months to put out.
In essence, the whole narrative is lose-lose for Labour, and indeed for Parliament as a whole, because every time it tries to depict the Party opposite as particularly ruthless and uncaring, as only looking out for its own interests, they will be countered with the inevitable ‘yeah, but…’. And this will be followed by a string of difficult to answer objections, from the 10p tax debacle to the EU referendum, from Damian McBride to Cash-for-Peerages, that will only serve to undermine the Labour Party’s credibility in the ‘we’re on your side’ stakes. In the mêlée, it will be the fringe parties that profit disproportionately, as the only ones appearing untarnished by the toxic associations of Westminster politics.
For this reason, Labour would do best to avoid such language altogether, not least because the number of privately educated and grammar-school educated members upon their own benches hardly lends legitimacy to the argument. Indeed, it might even smack of hypocrisy, and for those grassroots campaigners struggling to explain to a cynical voter why they should vote Labour instead of Tory, it might well prove one more headache they could well do without.
Politicians as a whole are, in the eyes of many, in the dock; they would do better to present their own case clearly, rather than trashing their co-defendants. Otherwise, the verdict pronounced will inevitably be ‘you’re all as bad as each other’, and this would benefit precisely no-one.
This article was published on LabourList on December 6, 2009.
Now that the temporary euphoria surrounding the ‘rogue-poll’ has ceded, Labour must have the courage to continue asking itself the uncomfortable questions; why are people deserting us? And what can we do to get them back?
Often, the response is that the party needs to reconnect with its core vote, that it needs to reach out to those who feel abandoned. I absolutely agree. The problem is that any return to the ‘core vote’ is only ever conceived in economic terms. Whilst there is undoubtedly value in this strategy, it can only ever have limited impact, because it only ever addresses a limited part of the problem. For the truth is that for those who feel alienated, pushed to the outside of public life, the dispossession is cultural every bit as much as it is economic. The establishment has embraced a bourgeois social ethic, and those at the bottom are fatigued, exhausted at having to defend themselves against the relentless onslaught of the sneering classes.
It is perhaps best, in order to illustrate the point, to take the vexatious issue of the racist BNP. Communities that have been staunch Labour strongholds for generations appear to have suddenly transformed into ‘far-right’ groupings overnight. The terminology is misleading though, because in reality there has been no such fundamental shift in political ideology from centre-left to far-right; rather, the very same people who once voted Labour chose to hold their noses and vote for a racist party because it alone attempted to articulate their anxieties in a way that no other mainstream party attempted to do. Whole communities feel dispossessed, trapped in a country that is changing at a rapid pace – a transformation that affects the poorest communities more than anyone else, but over which they feel they have had less of a say than anybody else. The predictable reaction of the metropolitan classes, to mourn the rise of racism as if all the voters were simply racist, to imply the electorate are too foolish to use their vote wisely (‘and this is why we shouldn’t have PR’), does little but demonstrate with crystal clarity precisely what it is people are angry about – ‘these are our concerns, but none of you will listen’.
And of course they won’t. Because at root this is a clash of cultures. What causes concern amongst the poorest can often be the same thing that is succour to the not-so-poor. What is new is that today’s ruling classes now feel it is their duty to eradicate all that does not adhere to their own manner of seeing things, precisely in order to protect their own interests.
What I’m suggesting is that the disillusionment of the electorate is at least partly down to the fact the Labour Party has embraced an ideology that actively undermines the beliefs and culture of ordinary working people. Immigration, whilst the most topical, isn’t the only battleground. One by one, it seems that the social and cultural outlook of many is scorned upon by an elite who, whilst laughably painting themselves as on the side of the ‘oppressed’, choose to studiously ignore this particular subjugation. On issues ranging from school/parental discipline (‘child abuse’), to capital punishment (‘barbaric’), to patriotism (‘Little Englander’), to euro-scepticism (‘xenophobic’), to immigration (‘racist’), to morality (‘bigoted’) – across all these issues and more, the general beliefs of vast swathes of the electorate are demonised and ridiculed by an elite interested only in securing the dominance of their own particular worldview.
In essence, it often appears that the Labour Party has chosen to sacrifice its traditional roots in defence of a shiny new social creed it likes to call ‘liberalism’. Truth is, the cultural underpinnings of this creed, originating in the post-1968 student ‘resistance’ movements, are thoroughly middle-class, individualistic and bourgeois – and except for those that are already ‘free’, it delivers anything but ‘liberty’. Thus, one can only look on with sadness at the relentless vilification of what Ferdinand Mount has called ‘the Downers’, their beliefs, their habits, their customs, their social codes. The tragedy is that, were those in power to open their eyes for just one moment, they would see in the faces of the demonised those with whom they once stood shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of a better world.
This article first appeared on LabourList, with a different heading, on November 26, 2009.
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.
There appears to be a hardening consensus behind the opinion that David Cameron, conscious of his electability in the key marginal seats that will decide the election, is seeking to present a Tory party sterilised of the toxicity that has plagued the Tory brand since the downfall of Thatcherism. In the economic sphere this quest for de-toxification has yielded positive results, for with it has come a limited realisation that the Thatcherite acceptance of neo-liberal economic policy was, in a sense, not really conservative at all, since it failed to protect against the excesses of blind markets and monopolising oligarchies precisely those things that conservatives are purported to cherish: the individual, the family, the community. This is a genuine development, and allows reclamation of a conservative thinking that is champion of the people, and protector of the civic realm.
However the development seems to have become stunted, for the Conservative Party seems to have become enchanted with talk of ‘progressiveness’ and the benign persona it bestows, an allure that has proved irresistible even whilst its possession requires the acceptance of the left-liberal worldview that underlies it. This capitulation speaks of a lack of confidence of the merits of genuinely conservative thought; Mr. Cameron has focussed instead, to use the words of Tim Montgomery, on ‘proving progressive credentials to the Left’. Quite why the Conservative Party should feel the need to do this is the point at issue; the answer, one suspects, is because it has accepted the left’s account of what ‘progressive’ thinking looks like. In accepting the terms that frame the debate, the right really has yielded its ideological foundations, and ceded to the interests of the status-quo.
Whilst this might all seem a little cerebral, the point is an important one, because at stake is a genuinely conservative appraisal of the problems that face contemporary society. As Phillip Blond’s Red Tory project has convincingly argued, the homogenisation currently afflicting the political parties consists chiefly in the continuing adherence to a ‘post 1945 embrace of the state and the post 1968 embrace of the individual’. The argument is convincing, for the evidence is there for all to see. Conservative thinking has accepted an authoritarian statism that proceeds under the presumption that the state holds a monopoly on power and is therefore the only legitimate generator, dispenser and guarantor of it (note here how all three parties currently talk of pushing power ‘outwards and downwards’). In addition, for all the Thatcherite talk of ‘small state’ theory her reign brought no perceptible shrinkage of the public sector, and little was done to address the real issue, both then and now, which is the wielding of unwarranted power by a cultural and political oligarchy over a dispossessed majority – a power that needs dissolution, not mere relocation. With regard to the individual, Conservatives have done little to challenge the wholesale adoption of freedom defined as the liberty of the individual to pursue unfettered his or her hedonistic urges so long as no other individual gets hurt, an account which ignores its own rich traditions of the individual as a relational being, from which come notions of personal duty and responsibility that the contemporary liberal consensus finds so abhorrent.
If Blond is correct, and the Conservative Party needs to cultivate its own conservative politics, then there are numerous more pragmatic examples of a similar retreat from the ideological battlefield. To name but a few of the most recent; the imposition of 50:50 shortlists upon local conservative associations, which demonstrates a centralising power-grab by CCHQ and a disempowerment of the rank-and-file, in addition to an embrace of the ‘equality of outcome’ agenda; coolness toward grammar schools, which condones the left’s envious vandalisation of excellence in its own unique attempt to ‘widen access’, despite all the evidence that this protects class interests and denies opportunities to the poor; the uncritical acceptance of the man-made and man-solvable climate change agenda, which reveals a lack of perspective with regard to both the world and the place of the individual within it, and which makes the poor disproportionately liable as a solution; and much more besides.
Whilst Red Toryism has found favour, it has also attracted its fair share of legitimate opposition. Nonetheless, it has least drawn an ideological battle line and sought to offer a unique brand of conservatism that challenges the liberal status-quo and the power interests that reside there. For the electorate, however, there is no such luck. The choice facing us might mischievously be depicted as between a left-liberalism that calls itself Labour and a left-liberalism that calls itself Conservative, the only distinction between the two being the manner in which they choose to enact their homogeneity (‘we believe the same things, but we’ll use conservative means to achieve them’). If the electorate, possessing the wisdom that the intellectuals of Westminster so often lack, continue to desert the current political settlement as offering no real choice, as being unrepresentative of common opinion, as defending nothing but the interests of the cultural elite, then one would have to commend their perception and hope that their justifiable apathy might eventually translate into a genuine change within the political classes.
In the meantime, for those concerned with how conservative thinking might rediscover its vocation and offer the electorate that genuine choice, one is left with the question posed at the outset; could Red Toryism insert a dose of conservatism back into the Conservative Party?
This article appeared on ConservativeHome on September 21, 2009.