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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.
So, Corbyn wins. And lots of people are unhappy about it. We know this, because lots of people are tweeting and blogging about How Very Unhappy they are about it. Some have even taken the time to curate their tweets into mini-testimonies, kindly enunciating the precise reasons for their discontent, laced with gloomy predictions for the future. They love Labour, you see – let there be no doubt – and they can’t bear to see what is happening to it. It is surely better, then, to abandon it altogether.
And so, they leave. Noisily. With all the fanfare that can be mustered.
But the question is: why now? What makes the party so unbearable, at this precise moment, that you cannot stay? Oh I know you feel marginalised and disillusioned – so do I – but that’s normal in politics right? I mean, it’s not as if this hasn’t been going on in the Labour Party for the last couple of decades. Indeed, some of you actively cheered it. The price of ‘modernisation’, apparently.
Or maybe we could come at this from another direction: why did you not resign when the party was decimating its working-class support? Why did you not feel so strongly when traditional Labour communities were feeling so systematically ignored? Indeed, so systematically despised? Why did you value your membership over your conscience then?
What you’re feeling now, you have put others through. And many of them left, often into the arms of UKIP, abandoning the political inheritance of their forefathers in the process. The result? To further embolden those who had brought about that very alienation, to give them a free pass, thereby turning Labour into a puritanically liberal party, no longer able to reach out to that core base, nor even deem it desirable to do so.
And the results – socially, politically – have been disastrous.
Do you expect your departure to be any different? Do you expect it will bring forth a bout of reflection, of regret, of penance from those who wave you goodbye? Do you expect that reason will pierce through the groupthink and sense will suddenly dawn amongst the newly victorious? Not a bit of it. It didn’t then, and it won’t now.
And only one party benefits from that.
In other words, walking away really doesn’t help. I’m not saying I don’t understand it – we give our limited time freely, after all – but the oh-so-very-public departures have more than just a whiff of showboating about them. To the outside, it looks like a group of people who hollowed out our party are flouncing off now that their own dominance is under attack. Unfair? Well, prove otherwise. With actions, not words.
We can all beat our chests and mournfully declare the party is going the wrong way, that we’ll never win an election, that the future holds nothing but defeat and despair. Which may well be true. But that likelihood takes on the character of certainty once we all walk away from it. Besides, you helped create this mess; you have a responsibility to stick around and fix it.
Or leave. But save me the pious speeches as you slip out of the exit door.
So you feel disenfranchised? Alienated? Like your party has been stolen from you? That you have no voice? That you are not welcome? Not valued? Feel that nobody is willing to listen, let alone talk about your concerns? That your political home has been taken over by those hostile to you? That your contribution to the history and indeed DNA of the party has been re-written? Ignored? Mocked? Despised? That without your help, and your support, the party would never have had the success it has? And yet your party now scorn people like you? Call you appalling names? Render your views outside the mainstream?
Sh*t, isn’t it?
But you did that too. Whilst you were in charge, you did the very same. And here’s the thing: given half the chance, you still would. Indeed, you still do. You’ve learned nothing. If the response to the referendum has shown us anything, it showed us that. You might wail now, but you are simply on the end of the same treatment you dished out to others for so long. You remain as convinced of your own superiority as are those that now displace you; if you hadn’t been, they would never have had chance to replace you. And every time you seek to grab the party back, to regain the levers of power, you do it whilst re-asserting the same. For those you disenfranchised, you are no better option. The worm has turned – you need those whom you made feel so unwelcome for so long; but they no longer need you. So many of them have somewhere else to go now. And the guilt and blame for that lies at your door as much as anyone.
The new politics isn’t left and right. The new politics, and a lot of the old politics, is defined by this:
But here’s the thing – if your politics is solely about clubbing together with those in the right-hand column against those in the left, then you’ve already lost. And this is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve defined yourself, measured yourself. Any appeals to common ground that cannot bridge this divide is no appeal to common ground at all. You wouldn’t even be willing to unpick the threads, to see what’s going on. Your only explanation is moral degeneracy or intellectual retardation or both. Bigots or blaggards, all of them. You smugly proclaim, eyebrows raised, that the Hard Left would sooner die in a ditch that compromise on their ideals. But so would you. Every bit as much. Indeed, this is exactly what you have done. Exactly what you are doing.
And yet, for all that, you are right. The country needs a Labour government. An actual Labour government. Which means we need you. Those who put themselves on the left need to come together. Which means you need those you despise. To find common ground, as the cliché goes. Though to be honest, for all you proclaim it, I’m not convinced you really believe those words. Or could deliver on it. Or would deliver it, even if you could.
And so we have a mess. Labour is dead. Long live Labour.
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.