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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.
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.
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.
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.’
Perhaps 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.
*I should also add there has been one small modification – the changing from Moral to Righetous, when referring to Haidt.
A toxic new phenomenon is hitting our universities and is causing concern amongst the commentariat. It is the increasingly muscular determination of student culture to shut down viewpoints with which it disagrees, which usually breaks along lines defined by an evolving identity politics. With the no-platforming of individuals long-associated (in the minds of a certain generation) with free-speech and the challenging of social injustice, the situation has taken on a new urgency, with more and more sharpening their nibs and drafting the same conclusion: the kids are out of control.
And since these students arrive at university following 13 years in the state education system, one is forced to consider the question: have we helped create this phenomenon?
In our schools, the importance of ‘safe spaces’ is something that has long been recognised. Perhaps not in the way that term has come to be applied in our universities today, but certainly in the recognition that the learning process requires a certain protection which allows us, and our students, to address challenging issues honestly and openly. In short, one is less likely to get kids to engage with a discussion if there is a fear of mockery and shame associated with it.
And in a way, this is unsurprising – we rightly promote tolerance, respect, and equality, all of which directs the outer limits of both how and what we communicate. Kids need to have a comfortable environment to grow, develop, to be – it is our duty to provide that.
But if the outcome is what we have now, then we must surely ask: are we getting it wrong?
Now, to change tack a little, a question: how often, during their whole thirteen years year at school, do students receive a consistent socially conservative message? How often in thirteen years do students have a sustained critical engagement with socially conservative viewpoints? Indeed how often, during their entire schooling, do students ever receive socially conservative viewpoints presented in sensitive and sympathetic tones?
Answer: very rarely. And when they do, it is too often framed in the language of rejection. The socially conservative viewpoint has been ‘othered’ – something to be acknowledged, for sure, but usually to deny. Such that the fundamental legitimacy of these beliefs are rejected, the property of ‘others’, people not like us, with our education and our civility and our morally superior ways. In other words, mirrored in our schools is something of what Jon Cruddas has diagnosed as Labour’s alienation of ‘the Settlers’, ‘who are socially conservative and are concerned with home, family and national security. They value safety, a sense of belonging, their own cultural identity and the continuity of their way of life. They want to avoid risk. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.’
The problem is this creates a cultural vacuum between schools and home, since it means students are only ever likely to come across socially-conservative viewpoints at home, and most likely to hear them challenged at school. Whilst one might think this natural, indeed defensible, it also inculcates a subtle prejudice against social-conservatism as being anti-intellectual, the articulation of ignorance, something ill-associated with the scholarly. It not only forces a choice upon a student, but also reinforces a sense of intellectual superiority in having made it in a particular direction. To be liberal is to be more intelligent. Haidt’s dilemma plays out in our schools every day.
Which is ironic, since there is little doubt that the cry-bully phenomenon is a deeply anti-intellectual movement, with the collapse into the personal really representing the disregard of the academic. But this also interweaves with wider educational presumptions and forces us to ask another difficult question: does our child-centred approach elevate the self-referential as beyond critique? Does it mean our students are less likely to be challenged, to be told they are wrong, their views lacking validity, having been elevated well above their role and status (student interview panels, anyone?)?
One might be inclined to say yes, but there is an obvious caveat here: those students with socially conservative views, which (as a rule of thumb) quite often means the poorest and the religious, will very much be challenged when they are perceived to be wrong. In other words, safe spaces tend to exist in one direction, defined by a hierarchy which takes particular form according to wider social mores, and that overarching injunction to provide a safe space, which usually means for the expression of the transgressive against presumed historical norms and prejudices. This elevates the perceived transgressive to the progressive, for which we are morally obliged to provide platform and a ‘safe space’ for expression.
Of course none of this explains the cry-bullies phenomenon, which is as much about methodology (no platforming and denying freedom of speech) as opinion (why students are embracing this way of thinking.)
But I wonder if, putting the two together, a potential perspective emerges: a new liberal ethic which demonises impediment to personal gratification and agency, combined with a moral demand for safe spaces which castigate the closing down or challenging of this new liberalism (again, this tends not the case for socially conservative viewpoints – except for the issue of abortion, perhaps, which has proven more resilient), which produces a sense of both entitlement and superiority that renders alternative narratives simply beyond the pale. Such that we send students off to university with all the mission of a moralist but none of the skills the apologist. Their views appear self-evident, having been incubated in an environment in which schools are more inclined to protect them from scrutiny. Or, in the words of one American student, in a recent iteration of this phenomenon: ‘it is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here.‘
And so we observe the new phenomenon, of ‘cry-bullies’ in university shutting down any and all expression they dislike. Feelings of community override intellectual dispute, precisely because for those who hold to it, the alternative lacks intellectual merit and is solely an expression of malice or prejudice designed to hurt feelings.
In other words, exactly the kind of thing over which schools would (rightly, I think) intervene.
But it seems to have become something else. And now we’re hearing about it. Not because it is terribly new – it has been an issue for years depending on your moral and/or political compass – but because it is turning upon itself and putting into the firing line precisely those who, historically, were at the forefront of challenging the prejudices of a previous generation with their own cries of ‘bigot!’. In other words, the hunters have become the hunted. And yet now, perhaps, both must stand together, to combat a more pernicious anti-intellectualism that risks the dignity of something bigger than both: the point of having any education at all.
Labour is in danger of becoming toxically progressive to the majority of people who do not identify with 1968 derived politics. ‘Left-wing’ is already a derogatory term in many working-class areas of South-East England, not because people oppose the idea of greater equality, or fairness, helping the weak or protecting workers’ rights, but because the left has become associated with obscure and intolerant sexual politics, utopian universalism, nonsensical doctrinal purity and state-enforced equality of outcomes.
Writing on the evils of racism is fairly easy – one can assume with relative certainty that most of those who read it will agree with it, whilst there is little risk involved socially or professionally to those who do so. Which is good, since racism is wrong, and must forever be denounced, lest it creep back in through lack of watchfulness on the part of those who thought they had defeated it.
However, writing in defence of those who have been wholesale denounced as racist is a little trickier. In what follows, I hope folk take this as it is intended to be – an honest attempt at trying to grapple with the difficult questions we must all face, on an issue that is in one sense very clear cut (racism is wrong) but at other times rather more difficult to disentangle (people who say x are racist).
This blog first took seed when I noticed this post by @Samfr on Twitter:
In Cornwall. At a cafe in which people are actually debating whether saying “chinky” is racist. This doesn’t happen in North London.
— Sam Freedman (@Samfr) December 21, 2014
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sam was falling for the temptation, into which so many fall prey, to point mockingly at the rustics whilst lauding the perceived multicultural and tolerant London. Rather, he was identifying an occurrence that neatly illustrates the grey area over which so many in the commentariat would blithely march in their single-minded determination to head for the moral high ground – in reality, where certainty exists for some, debate and disagreement exists for others.
Not that certainty, and strong denunciation, is always a bad thing – after all, shame and social censorship is a long established way of ensuring members of a society uphold its moral norms. However it is tinged with danger as ratcheting up the rhetoric can entrench attitudes, leading one side to think it monopolises tolerance whilst the other grows more and more resentful and willing to contravene precisely those codes in response. It is one thing to tell Joe Bloggs we ought not use certain words because of the harm they can cause – it is quite another to tell him that his mother and father, grandparents and siblings are all racists, because they use a word Joe thought everybody used, and certainly not with any intended racist connotation. If our recent political history tells us anything, it is that such an approach drives essentially good folk away from the mainstream and toward those with more malign intent.
Besides which, allowing one side to think they own this debate might just mean we miss the evils of racism when it lurks in precisely those places where we would last expect to find it. Liberals might think their noisy denunciations make them impervious to accusations of racism – in reality they have their own charges to answer.
And now for the difficult bit.
My childhood was split between army camps all over Britain, old Lancashire (Salford) and North Yorkshire/County Durham (Stockton-on-Tees). Speaking to a teacher colleague, who grew up in an entirely different part of the country, we were discussing the latest UKIP fiasco and went through the words we used as kids which we would never consider using, or endorsing, or condoning today. And, in truth, it was appalling. Words long since abandoned, and thankfully so, were just a normal part of our lives. They may make us wince now, but not then. They were the norm, used by adults and kids alike. Part of this might have merely reflected our backgrounds (‘northern, respectable working class’) but more likely it spoke of our time as children of the 80s and 90s. And I’d wager that, if we felt able to be honest, most of us would admit to the same.
Some examples. Well, when I was a kid, it was standard for any show of tears to be greeted with the phrase ‘don’t be a poofter,’ meaning stop showing emotion and being ‘soft.’ I vividly remember being in junior school, where a group of us were perplexed as to why one of our number had just been told off for calling someone a ‘spas[tic].’ I remember a colleague of my father’s in the army was called ‘Midnight’ and introduced himself as such. I remember the word ‘paki’ was common currency, less so as an insult, but more often to refer to the ‘paki shop’. Indeed, when I took my Indian heritage then-girlfriend (now wife) to first meet the family, one older relative (whose identity I shall keep concealed) asked us ‘would you nip to the paki shop [in which this relative worked] and get us some flyers?’ Flyers, for those unaware, were tubes of liquorice with sherbert in the middle. About thirty seconds later, the blood drained from this person’s face as they realised what they had said and apologised profusely – the language was racist, but the person really was not.
And I could go on, and on, and on. Granddads and generally older male relatives are particularly rich sources for examples – perhaps unsurprising, certainly according to this article here, painting older, northern males as being particular culprits – but I could include examples from male and female, teachers and professionals, sports clubs and public figures, tv shows and celebrities. Indeed, recent years have been particularly plentiful in the ‘gaffe’ department, particularly from football culture (itself often associated with the working class male) – be it Joey Barton’s apparent sexism, or Robbie Fowler’s taunting of Graeme le Saux, or Alan Hansen referring to ‘coloured’ players, or Jose Mourinho’s use of homophobic language (though, to illustrate the point I am trying to make, using a word that still features in one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time).
The easy response here would be the ahistorical and hysterical – to denounce everyone as bigoted and refuse to try and understand what is going on here. But in reality, what is actually playing out is time itself, and the ways in which conventions and etiquette shift with it. And that change is rarely universal, let alone uniform. In other words, times change, and oftentimes for the better, but it changes at different paces in different places, and sometimes folk get caught on the wrong side of that step change. Nigel Farage may well get be greeted with howls of disgust when ruminating on use of the word ‘chinky’, but the awkward truth is that until very recently, certainly well into my adulthood, that was (and in some places no doubt still is) the standard word used to describe a Chinese take-away (though in Lancashire it tended to sway between that and ‘chinee’). If Dave Whelan’s comments show anything, it is (probably) not that he is racist, but that he was formed in a society that used racist language – perhaps some of it with racist intent, but for the vast majority not so. Racism did and in places does exist, and must be challenged forcefully – but we need a more nuanced litmus test than what words somebody chooses to use, which makes it easy for racists to escape detection and non-racists to be unwittingly caught up in something they had neither intended nor suspected. Or, as Simon Danczuk has said:
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsAnd this is the thing – despite all those terrible examples I cited earlier, I always knew racism was wrong. We all did. And can honestly say that we did not see those with a different colour skin as essentially different. And yet we used racist language. And were not at all unusual in that. We were children (and adults) of the time, in a country that was changing and in many ways has changed for the better (except for derogatory terms for the traveller community, attitudes and language toward whom are terrible but which we rarely challenge with the same gusto).
Maybe, then, hidden away amongst the angry words and insults is actually a social and political reality of two nations, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.’ When those two cultures collide, they see things about each other they don’t like. The outrage of the culture industry at use of certain terms demonstrates a lack of awareness that, for many people, these are common currency. What is obvious in Haringey might not be so obvious Hartlepool. And if the two nations theory is true, then why would it be obvious? Lack of awareness and understanding at the attitudes and thoughts of the other can clearly swing both ways.
The story here, then, is as much one of a dominant culture being appalled by the habits and attitudes still ingrained (and long thought erased) in the less dominant. Those attitudes and that language will, in time, change – lest those who would expunge succeed in only entrenching them further.
Throughout the country, beyond particular urban strongholds, Labour is in a perilous position. The natural advantages so long enjoyed in certain areas have made it presumptuous, whilst electoral security has rendered safe constituencies the fiefdoms of (often incoming) architects and guardians of the progressive, liberal- left project. As such, Labour has become sluggish, but also detached – in all too many places it has failed to hold its voice at the heart of the communities from which it originally sprung.
This presents a problem in the face of the new political realities before us. Put simply, Labour is in no position to fight UKIP in its heartlands. Or even to speak with authenticity to that social and cultural angst from which UKIP is siphoning support. Our initial reaction, to disregard UKIP as a Tory problem, has left us vulnerable as the roots of revolt have crept into lands once occupied by the left – we did not conceive that we might need to build an alternative offer of our own.
Alas, the penny has dropped, and the response has been typical of a party that does not accept the legitimacy of that which it seeks to combat – when we listen, it has been the job of those who are part of the problem to provide diagnosis and solution; when we speak, it has been in tones of that which is being rejected.
Thus Labour has too easily condemned itself as part of the problem it is claiming to solve. Worse, it often does not have the resources or the rootedness to even imagine that there exists a legitimate alternative. For all our talk of reconnecting with the disaffected, one cannot help but wonder how many in the formal organisation of our party have the capacity to recognise the extent of this cultural deficit – the once rich chorus of the Labour tradition has long turned to a shrill, castigating shriek. At root this is a culture clash, and there has been little sign that those with their hands on the levers are willing to budge.
So Labour is poorly placed to fight UKIP. It needs a different voice, which presents a problem to a party that has spent so long rooting out difference. The critique-free liberalism that has delivered the party to its current predicament must now accept challenges to its narrative – doubts over its ability or willingness to do so remain.
Yet the picture is not as bleak as it might be. For all the homogeneity of the professional arm of the party, the Labour tradition nonetheless has within its heritage precisely this alternative voice. It still exists as a cultural phenomenon, in the hearts and minds of many a Labour voter, and many more an ex-Labour voter, and indeed in many an activist feeling increasingly alienated within the changing landscape of the local associations they helped build. By a rule of thumb, this might well be more economically to the left – it is certainly more socially conservative. Either way, it can naturally articulate a legitimate Labour vision of society that not only pitches for that sizable band which is deserting us for UKIP, but can do so in a way that is more wholesome and hopeful than anything UKIP – with its misanthropy and its myth-peddling – has to say.
This offer, which up until now has remained in the background, a loose coalition, informal and ultimately unloved (despite early signs of interest), is perhaps best articulated by the group now given the moniker ‘Blue Labour.’
Yet substantial obstacles block its advancement. Even if the Labour hierarchy were to accept the need for diversity, party infrastructure is hostile enough to its delivery that those who might just provide it will rarely break through to the front line. The party has become an echo chamber – it would require something drastic for those with another tale to tell to walk the gauntlet and come through successfully on the other side. Or, as I have written previously,
‘To exacerbate the problem, engagement with the party on a local level too often offers little opportunity for the excluded: the arteries are clogged up. Those that Labour recognise they have alienated are not the kind of people who tend to advance through the party, either by selection or appointment. Those who are opposed to the traditional views of what is in effect the Labour dalit class generally are the kind of people who advance through the party, both by selection and appointment… [so] the old grassroots might well be socially conservative, but it is highly unlikely that any such individual would gain any position that would allow such views to be honestly represented, whilst those who expend such effort in shouting them down regularly do so. As such, even in the event of recognition of this representation deficit, there is unlikely to be any concerted action to address it – it remains a fact to be confronted that it was/is during the ‘diversity years’ that the Labour Party has become so very ideologically narrow.’
Perhaps, then, the UKIP moment presents an opportunity. If Labour has within its tradition the ability to respond to UKIP, if there exists within the party a group already articulating this alternative, if that articulation currently finds little direct representation because of structural barriers to advancement – might part of our solution lie in giving Blue Labour a more formal voice? Can an affiliate grouping be created which would assist Blue Labour in getting its message to the front line? Might direct intervention be justified?
It has long been the paradox of Blue Labour, and the postliberal movement which it represents, that for all its reverence of institutions it has yet to form an effective one of its own. Perhaps it has lacked the incentive, or the support, or indeed the will.
Well, times have changed. The answer to the ‘Purple Revolution’ might just be a bit red and a bit blue. Which means the Labour Party needs Blue Labour, just as Blue Labour needs the Labour Party. It is time to formalise that union.