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Losing the Working Class

Re-posted from the Catholic Herald blog. The original can be read here

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Labour is the party of the working class. We weren’t supposed to end up despised by them. We weren’t supposed to end up despising them.

But here we are. After decades spent embracing the creeds and infrastructure of liberalism, we are at a juncture which threatens our very existence. Labour’s doctrines have delivered a fractured civic space – we can no longer build coalitions, for where we once saw comrades we now convince ourselves there are only villains.

It is the startling descent into misanthropy and insult which hurts most.That moment when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a “bigot” was but a scratching of the surface. The demographic most enthusiastic about voting Leave have been dismissed as racist or xenophobic for years, but it is only in the last few days, following the referendum, that I have seen the very legitimacy of their suffrage questioned – the prosperous, well-educated liberal left, summoning Victorian-era paternalism to question the wisdom of giving votes to the ill-educated.

Of course, this chasm between party and people is of surprise only to those cloistered away amongst the like-minded. Much has been made of the demographic divide between the two competing mindsets prior to the referendum. But turning this into one-dimensional face-off between the haves and the have-nots presumes an irresolvable conflict. That’s too pessimistic: there is a way out of our current malaise.

But we first need to understand what has gone wrong. It can be summed up in a word: liberalism.

This has been the central insight of the movement that coalesced around the name Blue Labour. Building upon foundations laid by Phillip Blond and his Red Tory analysis, its central claim was clear: to use the succinct words of Maurice Glasman, ‘Liberalism is alive – and it’s killing us.’

Blue Labour provided an account of the impact of liberalism upon our relationships, from the economic to the social to the romantic to the filial.  Liberty defined over and against the duties and obligations we owe one another, we contended, served only to loose the ties that bind our futures together. In a barren, empty landscape, free of obstructions, cold winds blow unfettered – and it has been the poorest who have felt the chill most keenly.

In a world in which our futures compete and do not cohere, we have found it difficult to forge a politics for all, since we have convinced ourselves that not all have a place in our politics. Labour embraced the new liberalism more keenly than any, first socially, and then in the realm of economics, in so doing surrendering its conservative defence of the family and society against the excesses of market and power.

Offering to patch up the victims with state largesse has proven insufficient. People want livelihood, stability and dignity, whilst all we offer is low-grade subsistence delivered with a slight sneer at a class of people quietly deemed unfit for this newly globalised world. It is quite an irony: in proclaiming “diversity”, we have become homogenous, no longer able to even understand the language of our comrades, let alone speak it.

Until it boils over. And then everybody has a theory about what has gone wrong and why. Most of these analyses consist in reinforcing much of that which has brought us to the precipice. Those who presided over the years in which Labour became so very distant from its core communities are now the ones seeking to lay all the blame at the door of its current leader. By trying to make this about Jeremy Corbyn, Labour are leading themselves away from a truth they must confront: this is about Labour.

And so the gap lengthens, and the people have turned from exasperation to active hostility. And we, as a party, have made ourselves unable to respond. Whatever happens next will be historic in the future of Labour. If, after whatever happens next, we still have a party called Labour. Either way, one thing is certain. There is a new politics. One wonders if a new party might be needed to meet it.

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#IVotedLeave

What follows was originally intended for publication on the TES website. Following concerns about the phrasing of a particular paragraph, specifically the comments of Ann Mroz at the TES Awards evening last night, this did not happen. Whilst taking on board those concerns, I have decided to publish here the final draft suggestion as it stood, in addition to the original comments to which a modification was offered. Whilst I accept that there is ambiguity, I also maintain that my paraphrase is broadly justified. I will also post the video of Ann’s speech below – please do watch and form your own judgement. If, in time and with further reflection, I come to the view that I have indeed misinterpreted or misrepresented comments, I will happily amend accordingly.

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Great Yarmouth, 71.5%. Middlesbrough, 65.5%. Blackpool, 67.5%. Blaenau Gwent, 62%. Thurrrock, 72.3%. The North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, the East Midlands, the West Midlands, the South West, the South East, the East, even Wales.

This is not some rump. This is a majority, spread across an entire country.

The reaction of some amongst the teaching profession has been disappointing. Racism, xenophobia, Leave voters as thick, or deluded, or misled – nothing has been off the table. For some, there evidently exists the belief that only they can see through media spin and cast their vote rationally, an act beyond the abilities of the poor dupes voting Leave. One need not dwell too long on the dangers inherent in such thinking: the demonization and viewpoint delegitimisation of a whole swathe of people is probably not a value that, in our more sober moments, we would seek to pass on to our students.

For some, it is worse still. Alongside the various proclamations that teachers must now work to (re-)educate our students to eradicate such impulses from our schools, I am also told that [edited out once the video became available] the opening of the TES Awards included suggestions from the editor of this publication that teachers must address the kind of thinking that underpinned the arguments of Leave it was the responsibility of teachers to counter the kind of thinking that could move someone to vote Leave. The motivating factors, it appears, could only have been malign. Like a real-time exemplification of Haidt’s Righteous Mind thesis, that there might exist a worldview, indeed a value system, that might hold legitimacy beyond the majority mindset of the teaching tribe, is clearly anathema to some.culture-war1

On one level this might not be surprising – EU support correlates strongly with educational background, with a strong majority of graduates in favour of Remain, and teaching is of course a graduate profession – though the ferociousness of the reaction is nonetheless an issue of concern. Look at those figures for Great Yarmouth again – are we, as a profession, comfortable in being so far distant from those we serve? Might there be dangers in it?

Of course this brings uncomfortable questions. Does this political chasm between the teaching profession and those we serve point toward a bigger phenomenon? Does the (I would argue) liberal uniformity of the teaching profession sit well with the socially conservative values and worldview of large chunks of those we serve? Might we need to consider if this latent orthodoxy has shaped a school culture and values system that is not only alien to some, but might even alienate? Might we see some potential new perspectives for that stubborn underachievement of the ‘white working class’?

One might also urge caution for more pragmatic reasons: there is every chance a majority of parents in our school communities voted to Leave the European Union. It would be unwise to so publicly dismiss and disparage such a large group, whilst refusing legitimacy to alternative viewpoints might just reinforce that sense of dislocation. As the dust settles, more sensible minds will urge that we come together and seek to find a way of healing the social and cultural wounds that this referendum has laid bare.

Politically, this is already happening, even if it has not yet taken hold – speaking for my own party, the work of Jon Cruddas in seeking to understand the different political tribes, and what motivates and enlivens them, will no doubt prove invaluable, whilst Blue Labour has long narrated this disastrous socio-cultural disconnect and what it means for both Party and country. As the excellent John Harris recently wrote in the Guardian, ’what is now happening elsewhere in the UK underlines a tangle of other stuff – to do with culture, belonging and community – that is going to require a completely different level of response.’

ClqVA1IWEAEz32Y.jpgPerhaps we in teaching might also need to undertake a little of that self-reflection. Explaining the current milieu away by appeal to the superiority of the educated over the vices of the masses is unlikely to prove fruitful. Before we rush to judgement, we must see that those who tread different paths to the ones we walk nonetheless have legitimate concerns and arguments too.  And indeed some of those arguments – for democracy, perhaps, or sovereignty, or subsidiarity – hold intellectual legitimacy and appeal across the social and political spectrum.

Again: this is not some rump. This is a majority, spread across an entire country. We have a duty to engage with it.

 

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*I should also add there has been one small modification – the changing from Moral to Righetous, when referring to Haidt.