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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.
Below are the outline notes of a paper I gave at the Blue Labour conference at the University of Nottingham yesterday, on what Blue Labour can offer education.
‘Liberalism is alive and it’s killing us.’ Maurice Glasman.
When Goodhart decided to turn his critical eye on the assumptions that lay behind the support of mass immigration, he would have had the instinctive support of many a Labour voter – and yet he acted as a lone wolf, a cry in the wilderness provoking a reaction that would have (and often did) encourage many other a sceptic to keep their head down.
All of which gives the impression that any challenge to the liberal establishment is itself the action of either a defunct intellect or a defunct soul. And so, years since this (still-)emerging critique of liberalism began to find expression (I’d go back generations, but for the sake of argument…), there yet exists no discernible outlet for its expression beyond the courage of the few who are granted a (usually hostile) audience. Those who take on the mantle of agitating against the zeitgeist mostly find themselves calling out to a loose and anonymous coalition of the aggrieved. And with it another irony: a group of folk who instinctively cherish institutions have proven useless at reclaiming and, more pressingly, generating them.
Which means that for those who find postliberalism articulating something close to their own concerns, there are no discernible structures through which to channel their energy – no mere coincidence, then, that postliberalism often identifies with and shares the assumptions and concerns of precisely that group of people who have long abandoned politics in despair. Zeal of the converted wasted, resilience of the believer squandered.
And so postliberalism loses its relational edge, possessing no formal organ (for it is not a formal movement) for engaging or galvanising those, of many a political hue, who share their analysis. That group who instinctively appeal to the relational as an alternative account of the social and the civic yet have no wider structure to generate and facilitate relations between those of a similar mind. For any individual critical of mainstream liberal presumption, establishing connections with the similarly-minded is a minefield with real consequences for misjudging a situation and expressing a heretical opinion (small example: the amount of people I know, of both genders, who are critical of AWS yet dare not utter it publicly). Perhaps we postliberals, then, need our own version of the Ichthys. Perhaps we should look to create it.
Of course, the very nature of the postliberal outlook means that the criteria for success are somewhat different from the standard political trinkets signifying orthodox power and influence. Whilst one might become frustrated at the manner in which challenges to liberal presumption are still presented as the quirks of the mad or mean, nonetheless valuable work is taking place reconnecting with grassroots, influencing particular kinds of institutions from the ground upwards, forging relationships around a vision of what would make life better. This, understandably, stays below the media radar.
Yet higher structures and organisations are important too, from the perspective of both civic society and political calculation. After all, it is through institutions that one reaffirms an existence within, and commitment to, the civic and those initiatives designed to enhance it, as well as constructing a shelter from which to challenge lazy liberal presumption in a manner less akin to sending Daniel wandering, lonely, into the Lion’s Den. Some are cut out for that, and will reappear unharmed to influence the wider debate, but not all are, and might rediscover their voice, and their interest, in the company of the like-minded.
And so the Long March must commence, both through the institutions and, where they do not exist, through new ones. And since liberalism is at the core of the three mainstream parties, so its intellectual critique draws support from all political traditions and none. But then, that’s the nature of a movement – establishing communities of interest that unite a diverse range of folk in pursuit of a better alternatives to those currently available. All of which those who identify as postliberal instinctively understand. Meaning that the postliberal paralysis might just be cured by putting into practice its very own insights.
“We are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility. We have got to stop treating children like adults and adults like children. It is about everyone taking responsibility.
“The more we as a society do, the less we will need government to do. We will have to tear down Labour’s big government bureaucracy — ripping up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense.”
That from a speech by David Cameron in 2011, trying to reach out to those in his party, and out of it, who cling to traditional conservative instincts regarding the role of the state and the role of the individual.
A few quick words on Thatcher.
Secondly, on the wider debates taking place, it is wrong to analyse the reaction to Thatcher’s death through the prism of the debating society. Turning this into an -ism is to already be detached from what it is and was that many were so angry about. It is a gentrification of reality, not the blood and guts version that many lived through and about which feelings remains so raw. This is not mere anger at intellectual defeat. This is not rage about losing a popularity contest.
To suggest and really believe so is either ignorant or arrogant. Take your pick.
Thirdly, the rise of postliberalism, indeed even of UKIP, can help us understand the response of many. These new movements recognise and tap into a sense of mourning, a sense of nostalgia for a society now lost. They know many feel a sense of sadness at a changing and changed world, enough to be radicalised by it. Sadness that their country is changing and they feel they can do nothing about it, sadness that they feel strangers in their own lands, sadness that the strong communities and identities of the past are no longer available to them. This feeling incites genuine rage in some, bitterness in others, regret in still more.
Yet when casting about for a cause, there is little tangible for them to point at and the shifting culprit tends to be some nebulous concept – liberalism, or unrestrained capitalism, or globalism, or the EU, or immigration, or just politicians generally. Some will project onto a face the cause of their anxiety and despair, (Herman van Rompuy, anyone?), but this usually speaks only for a small segment, not all.
The North (and of course not just the North) too mourn changes over which they had no control. They too feel their communities have been rent apart, their shops closed, their employment threatened (or wiped out), their way of life decimated. They too mourn a way of life now lost forever and find their new alternatives uninspiring and less dignified than their old. Powerlessness and poverty mark a proud people, and it hurts.
Only, they do not feel they need to point to a vague concept as an explanation. For them, there is no need for vicarious pantomime villain as there is no doubt who was the cause of this. It was Thatcher. They were there, they lived through it, they know what happened, they know it was her. Whereas others might be marked by apathy and alienation for lack of a defined and definite foe, so the anger and radicalisation of others can be explained by the feeling that they know precisely who their enemy was.
Quibble with their comprehension of politics, indeed history, by all means, but for many there is a face to their demise, and that face is of Margaret Hilda Thatcher. Making placatory appeals to progress, to the necessity for the economy to modernise, simply won’t cut it. And to be fair, if the North (and many other regions) was sacrificed on the altar for the wider good of the country, then little surprise that bitterness still exists towards the one who wielded the knife.