Since 2009, Blue Labour has been exploring and detailing the growing disconnect between the Labour Party and those whom it has traditionally sought to represent. At its heart has remained a consistent, core insight: an all-out embrace of liberalism, both social and economic, has alienated the Labour Party from its traditional working-class support. This conference aims to further explore those key insights, discerning where common cause might be found beyond the confines of current party orthodoxies, assisting the Labour Party in once again becoming a broad coalition of diverse interests and aims.
Tickets for this event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blue-labour-forging-a-new-politics-tickets-28306180548
Panel 1: Who are the postliberals?
For its advocates, to be ‘postliberal’ is a very different thing from being ‘anti-liberal’. Whereas the latter might seek to employ authoritarian politics to roll back the social change of previous decades, postliberals would instead pre to embrace where and who we are and think instead of how we shape the future. Quite what this future ought to look like elicits honest and constructive debate, though one common theme emerges: to be postliberal is to seek to re-root politics in traditions of mutualist thought over and above the contract-liberalism of contemporary society and its embrace of negative liberty. For this reason, postliberalism claims to build upon positive accounts of freedom, seeking to rehabilitate notions of tradition, reciprocity, rootedness, mutuality, sacrifice and service into our political discourse, and to recover the language of the particular over the exclusively theoretical and universal.
Though not all postliberal thought sits here. For some, the advance of postliberalism signifies a moving beyond the restrictive dogma of contemporary liberal thought and its current draconian instincts: a liberal culture that has embraced authoritarianism as the gatekeeper of its creeds. Whilst postliberals of a different hue might argue that this is precisely what accounts of negative liberty require, others might instead suggest that postliberalism entails a new loosening of the chains, both intellectual and formal, against a creaking liberal order finding itself exposed by the unresolved tensions of its own accounts of liberty. It is here, then, that the postliberal moment can find its expression, in articulating new accounts of the relationship between individual, society and state.
In this discussion, panellists will explore the meaning of the term postliberal, explore the question of to whom the term applies, and consider ways in which postliberal thought might offer valuable insights for political thought and policy-making.
Panel 2: Treasures of the Left?
Following an edict of persecution, St. Laurence was instructed by a Roman prefect to bring forth the treasures of the Church. In response, he rounded up the poor and marginalised, the alienated and dispossessed, and presented them to his Imperial antagonist. For such impudence Laurence would forfeit his life, but he was making something clear: our value rests with how we treat and cherish the least amongst us.
Today, Labour finds itself at odds with those communities that might be characterised as the alienated and dispossessed of today. Be it mild embarrassment from the knowing ‘centrist’ or the full-throated denunciation of an activist class ill-at-ease with the values of the communities they purport to represent, Labour has too often failed to appreciate the working-class as a jewel in the crown of our collective movement, but instead as the “awkward squad” to whom we must occasionally pander for reasons of electoral viability. Whilst not wishing to sentimentalise or lionise the class identity of the poorest, we have nonetheless found ourselves in consistent antagonism with it.
The fallout for Labour has been punishing. Whilst some blame the party’s embrace of liberalism, others would suggest that the alienation is economic as much as cultural, and almost certainly educational, with sharp value divides coalescing around level of educational attainment. Whilst some, post-referendum, would use this to suggest that those without degrees are the problem, with their (broadly) socially conservative outlook, still others respond that perhaps it is people with degrees that are the problem, and their (broadly) liberal, cosmopolitan outlook.
This neatly encapsulates the central tension: a culture clash has emerged, and it pits the party against its traditional supporters. The values of community solidarity that have stood firm in traditional working class communities for centuries, and which have flourished in stable neighbourhoods where people know their neighbours and live close to extended family, struggle to reconcile with the progressive, liberal, diverse, university educated, urbane class that runs the Labour party.
And so the question must be asked: how has this come to pass? And must it necessarily be so? Or might there be a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ from within, re-uniting a tradition that always cherished the contributions of its working-class base, with one that has come to fear its voice?
This panel will explore how Labour envisions the status and role of the dispossessed and alienated in society, how it pictures their role and contribution in contemporary society, and explore concrete ways in which Labour might seek to rebuild those fractured relationships.
Panel 3: The Greatest Threat to Labour?
Labour are losing. Not only elections but, increasingly, their credibility. From a political tradition that has produced some of the finest politicians and indeed politics in recent history, we find ourselves in choppy waters. An electoral and political prominence that seemed to be guaranteed, regardless of personnel change, is showing itself to be far less resilient than many had thought. Commentators have offered a plethora of explanations as to why this might be the case, and there would be a high price on a proven analysis, complete with policy solutions.
For some, it is the economic policies of the current leadership that will prove disastrous for Labour, convincing a broadly austerity-accepting electorate that Labour cannot be trusted to govern within the newly restrained expectations of the general public. For others, Labour’s demise is primarily cultural, an all-out embrace of social and economic liberalism which has brought with it a winnowing away of the ties that once bound whole communities into an emotional attachment with the Labour movement. For others, the great danger for Labour lies in lurching toward policy defined by a set of arguments that Labour have passively accepted in a panicked desire to reconnect – particularly in the face of the UKIP surge – but which, in their view, only serve to undermine a left-wing vision of the good life. Whilst for others still, Labour’s manufactured identity crisis is itself the problem, adding unnecessary complexity to a simple problem, that being finding ways to help people overcome the obstacles to the pursuit of the good life: house prices and hospital waiting times, wages and school places, crime levels and food prices.
Maybe it is all of these. Or an intermixture of some of them. Or none of them at all, and something else entirely. Whilst Blue Labour has its own account of the emergence and roots of this problem, their analysis is by no means universally accepted, even if it is starting to find traction across a more diverse range of party opinion. Nonetheless, that we have come to accept that a problem exists, and that we must confront it, is itself an encouraging sign of progress and source of hope.
This panel will consider where the greatest threats lie for the Labour Party, explore the precise nature of those threats and the manner in which they arose, and begin to suggest possible ways in which those challenges might be addressed.
Panel 4: Can Labour Win the (Postliberal) Future?
Since her ascent to the role of Prime Minster, Theresa May has won both enemies and admirers at both ends of the political spectrum. In pitching her government programme explicitly at those feeling most alienated by political discourse of recent years, May has sought to reposition the Conservatives as a credible option to that left-behind segment of society long exasperated with the politics and policies of the political left. For a Labour Party confident that only it can advance working-class interest, this is a stinging rebuke: May’s growing popularity amongst working-class voters is proving a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, some believe the reason for this growing approval is clear – politics has changed, the era of liberal dominance is at an end, and Theresa May is reaching out beyond the orthodoxies of yesteryear.
This does not elicit universal admiration, of course, and there is every reason to believe that an authentic left-wing politics would narrate this change in a more constructive way. Just as we might claim David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ proved little more than an intellectual fig-leaf for an austerity politics, so some also see in Theresa May’s embrace of the ‘postliberal’ the same Janus-faced platitudes. It is here that Blue Labour find its voice, to claim that the left can truly own the future: that historic left-wing accounts of reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity – and indeed of the individual, the family, the markets and society – can offer a healthier One Nation politics than anything the Conservatives have to offer. Either way, many now accept that political discourse has entered a new era, even as we struggle to define exactly what it is. So the question presents itself: does Labour have the ability, or the inclination, to change with it?
In this discussion, panellists will consider what challenges are presented to Labour by the transformation of the political landscape, explore ways in which Labour might seek to respond to that transformation, and determine how well placed Labour are to flourish in this new political era.