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Blue Labour could help Labour ‘get in the game’

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. 

Blue Labour and Education

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. 

For those who asked for copies – hope this helps!

Vocational Education

The first area Blue Labour might look to challenge contemporary orthodoxy can be summed up with the simple question: ‘what do we educate our children for?’

It seems straightforward, perhaps tedious, but I’d argue that for too long we have transformed that question and actually answer a subtly different one that can more accurately be rendered ‘for whom do we educate our children?’

The shift is slight, but telling – if the first suggests inherent virtue, then the latter points toward an outside demand. And once we define education through the service of an outside demand, we shape its offer to better support our preferred outcomes in relation to that demand.

It is in this spirit that Labour have for too long bought into an error. An understandable, perhaps even noble error, but an error nonetheless.

They have bought into the idea that our children are split into two types, the academic and the non-academic. In so doing, we have tacitly supported the notion of vocational training not as a good in itself, but actually as a good for kids who are deemed to be non-academic.

The corollary has been the idea that for everybody else, only an academic pathway was legitimate, one that followed naturally to completion of a degree. The natural consequence was an excess stress on degree level education, deemed good in so far as it services our service economy.

In other words, we submitted education to the demands of the market, and in so doing segregated our children according to which aspect of that market they might service. And you can be sure that this has influenced what we teach our kids and how we assess its delivery.

This has nudged schools and society toward a similar segregation, reinforcing a subtle denigration of the very socio-cultural classes with whom Labour traditionally stood shoulder to shoulder. The contribution of those in the vocational is less valued than it might be, even despite frequent protestations otherwise, because we have accepted the notion that the vocational is the other side of the coin to the academic, which is at any rate the more desirable.

Put frankly, this stinks.

Yet one can see where it comes from. The romantic ideal of hands-on work is replete with core ideas of relationships, reciprocity, contribution – but also, and importantly, with pride and dignity in work. And rightly so. Yet as a movement our stress on vocational schooling seems too often to have been less a recognition of skill and production as a virtue in the pursuit of the good life, and instead the acceptance of the pernicious idea that our workers cannot also be educated – or at least not in an academic sense.

In other words, we have given ownership of the educated to the service economy, when we should instead be claiming it back, for all.

Social Mobility

But Blue Labour’s challenge of orthodoxy doesn’t have to stop there. With its stress on rootedness and place, it can also challenge this omnipresent fad of the professionally concerned: ‘social mobility.’

Put simply, it has become a fashion for every change in education to be justified with a hand-wringing appeal to social mobility. It must be said Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change

Thus we’re no longer in the game of developing intellect to help human flourishing, but have instead turned education into the harlot of the markets. What use, after all, within a marketised utilitarianism, for appeals to refinement of intellect? For human flourishing? For the feeding of the soul?

Or, to quote a leading Labour figure: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’

No desperate romantic, he.

Yet the objection to social mobility is more than than the cold-fingered grip it places round the throat of any sort of expansive view of learning. For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and such definitions of social mobility will always exists whilst the regions are effectively supplicant to the economy of the South-East. But at the same time, we cannot scratch our heads and wonder at atomisation whilst we have spent a generation and more telling anyone with talent that the reason we educate ourselves is to walk away from who we are, or at the very least from where we are from.


Which brings me lastly to institutions.

Now I should say to start us off – I support free schools, and I think Blue Labour should too. They are the embodiment of Blue Labour insights into associative society. The left, understandably perhaps, are broadly more critical, wedded as we are to an idea of tiered central control – this does, after all, give political power to influence outcomes but also help create infrastructure to guarantee standards.

However, as a movement we ought to be comfortable with and full of admiration for those who, driven by common interest, create a learning community. Of course there are checks and brakes needed – a minimum standard and protection against the growth of conglomerates – but the idea of communities coming together to share in the education of their children also has this virtue: it reminds us of the primacy of the family and the community to self-regulate and create with the support of the state, rather than in sole dependence on it. Education done with, rather than done to.

Thus it’s a lesson in humility for the left, but also of liberty, and the importance of horizontal and vertical ties (both generational and social) that can more closely wed folk to a place and a common purpose – and therefore each other.

And when our collective futures are interdependent – and when we see that up close – then we work for one another, and not just ourselves.

This is Labour.

But… whilst there is implicit in this idea that institutions embody virtue, we must be weary of thinking that these become virtue manufacturies.

Virtue can indeed be passed through institutions, and be embodied within them, but it is a not a static product passed to an individual. It is instead something generated through the spirit and circumstance in which it was created and then supported.

In other words, the cart must follow the horse – high-minded notions of schools instilling virtue in our young must first consider the possibility whether our institutions possess virtue themselves, before then asking where this comes from (there can be little doubt our schools have lost this, which I hope we can discuss later).

Thus, when we hear about a virtuous elite reinvigorating society through some sort of Reaganite trickle-down effect, I’m more inclined to wonder if this is precisely the wrong way round – that virtue is in the bricks and mortar in the sense that it was embedded with the sweat and tears of those who toiled at its creation, and thus its ongoing legacy. 

When we contracted this out to the state, we lost something important here.

This being the case, it is associative relationships – or to use the more straightforward terms of love and honour and pride and dignity – that generate virtue, and our institutions stand as testimony to them, rather than factories of it.

(For which reason you’ll gather I’m a fan of faith schools. Though I deeply fear for their future, partly because of Labour’s inability to value tradition and lived lineage over sterilised accounts of equal access to goods and services. The only thing that will preserve them will be pragmatic, rather than intellectual, support. – as I have said in the past, the government could buy all our schools if they like, but it’ll cost them a fortune and we’ll only use the money to build a whole load more.)


So, to sum up, what can Blue Labour offer education?

Well we need to be able to situate education within a healthy vision of the good life, and not just talk about the pernicious effect of coldly utilitarian systems but also to live out the consequences of that thinking too – this means a recovery of the value of the vocational, sure, but without excluding from the beauty of our cultural inheritance those whom we deem to be non-academic.

Blue Labour can also recognise the vital role of schools in forming our young and instilling within them the virtues that we have decided ought to be cherished, even where they might be rejected by wider society – but we must not think that such a thing can be contracted out over and against the family and the communities that act as both creator and guarantor of these institutions .

And lastly, Blue Labour can reject this obsession with social mobility as the judge and jury of educational success and offer an account of flourishing set within rootedness and love, rather than atomised and essentially selfish conceptions of success.

Catholics between the (spread)sheets

In the last couple of days I’ve been chewing over some poll data published by YouGov, commissioned by Lancaster University and linked to the Westminster Faith Debates initiative, which popped on to my radar through a link to this article in the Tablet written by Linda Woodhead, who uses the data to makes claims about what most Catholics think ‘about sex, the family and ethical matters surrounding it.’
From the outset, it should be said Catholics and those who care about the Church should welcome studies like this, engaging with the information they reveal about our Church and our people.  Whilst we might, with the help of a certain Roman Prefect of Judaea, point out that Truth is not a thing determined by the numbers of those who assent to it, that doctrine is not developed or revised on the transient whims of plebiscites, nonetheless there are valuable lessons to be learned, be it for the catechist, or or the parish priest, or the church hierarchy generally. Numbers can, when reliable, add specific texture to what might otherwise remain a hunch – anything that might add substance to the usual cliché of ‘nobody believes x anymore’ ought to raise an eyebrow of interest.
And so we come to the polls, reported on by Professor Linda Woodhead, fast becoming the public authority on the country’s religious habits. The written report is detailed and fairly extensive, and generally confirms those societal trends and changes in attitudes about which we are regularly told, and of which most of us could acknowledge as probably broadly true.
So far, so uncontroversial.
And yet, on reading the article, one cannot help but feel that between the numbers and the conclusions drawn there exists an epistemic gap bridged with an interpretative vigour lacking in the sobriety one might expect to find in such a high profile piece of research. To declare an interest, I am a Roman Catholic: maybe it is the recusant DNA, but I’ve long been wary of accepting at face value any official information about who Catholics are and what they believe. Yet in this report, non-sequiturs and questionable inferences seem to jump out of the page quite apart from whether one is predisposed to look for them.
One holds back, of course, from accusing Woodhead of intentional bias, since there is no reason to doubt her integrity in these matters (though I’m inclined to think the Tablet would welcome such findings with analysis-free glee) – still, the eyes through which one looks will indubitably mould the way something looks. And if the overarching analysis of socio-religious climate is one of culture clash between the religiously orthodox and everyone else, then perhaps we ought to be sensitive to the possibility that such conclusions might just find themselves as the tease and temptress of the data analyst charged with interpreting the mass of numbers on a screen before them.
And so, to choose just a couple of examples, we read that, on the basis of the fact that almost three-quarters of British Catholics think sex is important for a fulfilled life, therefore ‘traditional teachings about the value of celibacy have largely been abandoned’. Really? Can that interpretation reasonably be drawn? Or again, ‘Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children.’ Such a conclusion strikes one as being so obviously flawed that one wonders how it was able to be drawn in the first place. And there are numerous other examples where an interpretation might fit snugly into pre-existing assumption (‘ordinary Catholics ignore church teachings’), but cannot reasonably be drawn from the data presented in the article. It must be acknowledged, of course, that Woodhead is trying to distil large chunks of data into a small article, and so broad brush strokes are to an extent inevitable – but such statements are at least enough to encourage one to probe further rather than take such statements at face value.
At which point, other issues begin to appear.  For example, we are told that ‘Catholics also depart from church teaching when it comes to contraception: only 9 per cent say they would feel guilty using it, and 12 per cent of weekly churchgoers.’ That sounds fairly conclusive, fairly authoritative. But looking at the three polls commissioned, the only reference I can see to the issue of contraception is the first poll commissioned, of 4437 adults, of whom just 354 self-identified as Catholics. Of this 354, which was weighted up to 391, only 125 (of the weighted number) said they ‘currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people’ (which might not include Mass) and of whom 65 (weighted number) said they do this at least once a week (again, which might not include Mass).
Thus, use of the phrase of ‘weekly churchgoers’ is already a doubtful one, whilst the broader claim being made is substantiated by the responses of just 57 people.
One need not be a looking for mischief, or even questioning the truth of the broader argument (that most Catholics do not follow church teachings on contraception), to point out that as far as evidential basis goes that really is wafer thin.
Of course, such claims might be given the weight of other studies, and indeed of generally accepted social norms, enough to allow a certain amount of confidence in reporting them in such robust terms. But that in itself can lead one to question the moderation of the reporting. And if a suspicion exists of a certain exuberance in dealing with the numbers and what they tell us, then it is only heightened when one notes some of the language used: we read, for example, that differences on sexual ethics is a ‘rift runs right through the Catholic population in Britain, isolating a minority who hold fast to the current official teaching from a majority who do not. [my emphasis]’
Setting aside the already questionable phrase ‘current official teaching’, and letting slide the fairly provocative description of those who remain orthodox Catholics, it must be noted that any talk of a rift, age-correlated or otherwise, is more of an insight into the one reading the numbers than anything else – to make such a causal link is entirely unwarranted.  Indeed, perhaps it is the use of that word, ‘rift’, which best encapsulates the question of whether Woodhead’s interpretations come from the prior acceptance of a culture war narrative – it evokes an image of people in the pews being engaged in personal conflict with one another about the truth and observance of fundamental church doctrines, with all the younger liberal folk on one side, and older conservatives on the other. In my experience at least, this is simply not true (the only ever issue on which I have experienced anything even remotely similar is the issue of liturgy).
Most people in most pews simply don’t know what most other people in most pews believe about most things. To say there is a rift is to either misuse the word, with its related connotations, or to submit lived reality to the expectations of a macro-level sociocultural analysis. And all that on the basis of some pretty feeble numbers (the questions that make up the sexual ethics category largely appear in the two general polls, which have small Catholic numbers, and even smaller active Catholic numbers, and are largely absent, curiously, from the poll aimed specifically at Catholics.)
One can speculate as to why that might be, but for those slowly inclining toward suspicions of bias, unwitting or otherwise, then the wording of some of the questions asked is unlikely to disabuse the cynic of such a notion. For example, in the third poll aimed specifically at Catholics, two of the questions which might conceivably, though tangentially, be linked to any category on sexual ethics (Catholic adoption agencies and the Peter Hazelmary Bull B&B case), are so appallingly worded (and factually inaccurate)and so obviously weighted toward a particular response that they should be classed as junk, with no conclusions to be drawn from them (*see below). Indeed, when a question is so hostile to a presumed target, one really cannot but help question either the motives, or the unwitting but thorough bias, of those asking the question. Peter Hitchens once said that polls were often used to drive public opinion, not inform people about what it is. I suspect that this data is a case in point.
And so, whilst the polls make interesting reading, they must also be approached with an element of caution – one would surely be foolish to draw too many concrete conclusions from them, despite the authority one might expect of data coming from a well-funded and high profile organisation, publishing their research in mainstream media. When probed, the data can tell different stories, stories which will, of course, never be told. We also see, for example, that those who identify as humanist/secularist are more likely to feel bad about contraception, support gender segregation in worship and education, and feel guilty about premarital sex than Christians are. We see that Labour voters are more like than any else to look for support or guidance from God or a higher power when making crucial decisions, and we see that euroscepticism seems to be the preserve of the less well qualified in educational terms. Lastly, we see that only Londoners think society has got better since 1945, whilst most of the rest of us think it has got worse.
All of which I’ll take with a pinch of salt. Except for the last one, which pretty much confirms my pre-existing biases. And if I was so inclined, I might even jump on it to substantiate those pre-existing biases, using it to reinforce a narrative I have long cultivated, about London getting all the best of everything whilst the rest of us get shafted. ‘See!’, I’d say, ‘I bloody told you southerners were spoiled – this proves they’re smug about it too. I was right all along. We need to abolish London.’ But then, that would be a questionable conclusion. Drawn from a questionable interpretation. Drawn from a distinctly squiffy evidence base. 
*Q1 – Do you think that bed-and-breakfast (B&B) owners should or should not be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality?
Q2 – In 2008, a gay couple were refused entry to a bed-and-breakfast on grounds of their sexuality based on the Christian beliefs of the owners. The bed-and-breakfast owners have since been ordered by the courts to pay damages of £3,600 to the couple. Do you think it was right or wrong that the bed-and-breakfast owners were ordered to pay damages to the couple?

Twigg and Hardworking Families

‘Liberalism is alive and it’s killing us.’ Maurice Glasman.

Teachers have long been acutely aware that schools are expected to cure the ills of the society in which they operate, whilst simultaneously being at fault for their existence in the first place. Schools, you see, are solely responsible for the development of our children, so when anything goes wrong it must be because schools have not taught x, or because they have taught y, or because they’re institutionally opposed to z, and so forth. There was a time when schools were deemed to exist in order to assist parents in the education of their children. For our political classes at least, that time has long gone  – a consensus has emerged that schools exist to actually parent our children, too.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago when Michael Gove announced his plans to further nationalise parenting, were he to receive anything like a critical analysis from his own benches then ‘small c conservatives’ would have been implacably opposed to plans to turn schools into childcare units, complete with longer days, shorter holidays, summer camps and sleepovers. They would see that Gove had once again overstepped the line between parental responsibility and state assistance, and been suspicious of the pious cries of ensuring kids ‘get a good start’ or helping families ‘juggle family life and work commitments’.  As I argued then, were this proposed a decade ago by a government of the left it would have been greeted with wild speculations as to the sinister intent of the state wishing to insert itself further into family life, inching further toward the nationalisation of parenting.

Well, Stephen Twigg, never one to knowingly oppose the substance of any Govian doctrine, has chosen to follow in his idol’s loafered wake.  For Twigg, schools are not places to educate children, but childcare facilities where children also get educated. This means that schools should be supporting families by ensuring their own organisation doesn’t make life any more difficult for the needs of their customers. So far, so tiresomely predictable – one liberal supporting the analysis of another. But in so doing, Twigg demonstrates the extent to which the current Labour crop have long given up the intellectual fight with that which they claim to oppose.

And so, in the interests of keeping the markets serviced with reliable labour, Twigg thinks the state should take on more parenting, since the demands of parenting are after all inconvenient for the employers of those who were self-absorbed enough to have had children in the first place.  In a world where people have to work longer for diminishing returns, fewer and fewer have the economic freedom to reject the call of the factory floor. Twigg’s response? Use the power of the state to ensure that any lingering impediments to that call are removed or mitigated.  

This is not the Labour tradition as I know it. Labour of old recognised the central importance of the family and looked for ways to facilitate the flourishing of it, not bypass it as an inconvenience to an employer. Indeed, Labour once criticised what it then referred to as ‘the capitalist system’ precisely in the name of defending the family from the demands of the market system. Or as one tweeter neatly put it, Twigg seeks to help ‘hardworking families’ by concentrating on the working rather than the family.
To be fair to Twigg, Labour have form on this – they have long thought helping the family is achieved by paying for parents to spend less time with it. It’s why that huge swathe of people who desperately wish they had the freedom to choose to spend time at home with their kids find little solace in Labour, entirely focused as they are on making external childcare cheaper instead.

And as with all irony, there is an element of delusion in this: Labour genuinely seem to think that in offering such a solution they are putting themselves on the side of working people. Mr Twigg says as much himself: ‘This will give all parents of primary school children the certainty that they can access childcare from 8am-6pm through their school. A clear message to hard working parents: Labour is on your side.’ Unless, of course, those hardworking parents happen to wish they didn’t have to work so bloody hard and miss their children growing up as a consequence. Indeed, the mournful lament of parents wishing they could spend less time with family and more time at work is all one hears at the school gates. Well, drinks all round: their prayers have been answered today.

If ever there was a bogeyman capitalist, a snarling, moustachioed, pocketwatch checking factory owner who resented the existence of anything that might stop workers from being co-opted into ever longer hours on the factory floor, then that man would be sending a thank you note to Mr Twigg right now. One gets the impression that were a contemporary Bob Cratchit to complain about having to work on Christmas Day, Mr Twigg might just think the best way to support him would be to abolish Christmas.

Of course, this will matter little to Twigg – he has convinced himself that this is what will help families, trapped as he is within a liberal paradigm that sees the duties and commitments that real life brings with it as inconveniences to be overcome rather than the things that given any meaning to life whatsoever. No, freedom is the freedom to work, which means freedom from any obstacle to doing so, to becoming a productive economic unit, to helping Britain get ‘back on track’.  And those staff, most likely low paid, who will end up staffing the school during the extended opening hours, seeing less of their own family as a result, are collateral to that – but then, Labour has long become comfortable in using the low paid to service its liberalism.
And so we have it, that on the same day that Ed Miliband announced that his vision of education is the precise opposite of Michael Gove’s, Stephen Twigg issues details of a speech whereby he not only embraces a Govian policy of his own, but accepts wholesale the analysis to which it is a response. A Tory Education Secretary that wishes to further nationalise parenting sharing an analysis and a proposed solution with a Labour shadow Education Secretary that wants to put the demands of market over the demands of loved ones.

And they say they’re all the same, eh?

Postliberal Paralysis

Reading through David Goodhart’s recent Standpoint article the other day, an old irony lying at the heart of the postliberal impulse presented itself once more – those who represent the views of a great number all too often find themselves presented as extreme and outside the mainstream.

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.   

Tories, conservatives and Gove

“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.

And the words had power. The very presence of Blue Labour testify to that. For many, Labour had become statist, authoritarian, and were too often an obstacle to a family trying to get on in life, poking in their nose where it was neither welcome nor needed and often making things worse in the process. The Broken Society was real – it was the State, and its leeching of responsibility from individuals, which had caused it.

Indeed, often there was a more sinister edge to the analysis. Since people had lost trust in the state, so they had also lost trust in its motives, meaning that any move to insert the state into realms traditionally belonging to the individual or the family were treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision. As such, if Labour had ever suggested that schools open earlier, and close later, and have shorter holidays, and hold summer camps, and even offer sleepovers for children, then we could have expected to be greeted with cries of derision and uncharitable suggestions as to why the Labour government wishes to insert itself as surrogate parent to the nation’s children.

And yet, today, this is exactly what the Department of Education is proposing. And outrage/derision/mockery/suspicion came there none.

Why? Well, because the DfE is Michael Gove’s gig, and Tories tend to suspend all critical judgment when it comes to Michael Gove, primarily because they (wrongly) see him as a Burkean hero slaying the forces of Leftism with his sword of righteous radicalism. For them, what Gove says and what Gove does must necessarily be right, primarily because of whom it appears to upset. If they spent more than five minutes actually considering what Gove says and what Gove does, they would see that quite often it is they themselves who are out of tune with his political instincts.

And so, with an appeal to making being a parent fit more conveniently around working hours and a busy modern life, so the Tories propose to insert the state far more intimately into family life than Labour ever did. And those that call themselves Tory either stay silent or cheer wildly, convinced that he who pulls the rug from under the feet of their intellectual tradition is actually one of their own.


A few quick words on Thatcher. 

Firstly, an old lady has died. She was a mother and a grandmother. Don’t trample over the grief of those who have lost one whom they dearly loved.

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. 

Some would argue that this is simplistic, that time has passed and we must assess Thatcher’s legacy within the broader sweep of history. And they’re right. But it is important to recognise that those who grew up detached from the pernicious effects of her rule tend to find it rather easier to be magnanimous about her legacy. Indeed, Tories falling over themselves to beatify Thatcher are succeeding only in demolishing any gains David Cameron was ever likely to make in setting up his Let’s Take Back The North style campaigns. Perhaps, then, this will be the enduring legacy of Thatcher – to have shaped a new breed of Tory MP who will remain forever strangers in the lands of the urban North.