Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Left Disorientated?

After the parliamentary elections in May 2010, with more Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP MPs than Tory ones, it appeared that the UK had leaned left rather than right. But the left was fragmented, and the Lib Dems even decided to form a coalition with the Tories. At that point, the left went from being a political rallying point to becoming a vortex of disorientation – though, admittedly, a most colourful one.

Red Labour was served up as the bogeyman to be avoided. Green Labour was suggested as the hope for the future. Purple Labour was promised as a nicely revamped form of New Labour. And then there’s Blue Labour – now with its own book of essays published with a supportive foreword from Ed Miliband himself.

So maybe ‘Blue Labour’ is going to be the new brand to be stocked in the supermarket of politics. Or, as its proponents would probably prefer to put it, a Labour Party deeply appreciative of people’s conservative feelings would be reconnecting with the British public. A key strand of Blue Labour is to distance itself from the obsessive market-speak of New Labour and cultivate instead a more tradition-based language and relationship with the voters.

In the book, ‘The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox’, edited by
Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, and Stuart White, the contributors (including David Miliband, Hazel Blears, and Jon Cruddas) discuss what this approach might mean. There is a broad consensus on what to reject: obsequious worship of the market system; unrestrained dominance by capital over everyday lives; policies driven by abstract language and statistics which do not connect with people’s experiences; constant obsession with changing public services without appreciating communities’ yearning for security and stability; and a top-down approach that ignores the importance of relationships built from the bottom-up.

Many on the left – especially those of us who as progressive communitarians or eco-socialists have made similar points for many years – would agree with these suggestions of what Labour should jettison. There will also be broad support for the collaborative leadership approach outlined by Marc Stears so that politicians, community activities and concerned citizens can develop closer relationships in devising campaigns and policies for the common good. The challenge comes with what should form the agenda for the future. Here ‘Blue Labour’ provides less of a vision than a debating platform. There are at least four critical issues to consider.

First, it’s all very well invoking the value of traditions, but much depends on what self-image we want to link to the past being reconstructed. Contributors to the book are themselves divided between those who, like Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford, keep glancing back to what appears to be a predominantly white, patriarchal Englishness, and those who insist that cosmopolitan, multicultural, feminist, values are important elements of the Labour tradition. Of course there are good traditions associated with “flag, faith and family”, but they should not be embraced without a clear stand also taken against jingoism, fundamentalism, and chauvinism.

Secondly, while there is agreement that we must defend ourselves against the “destructive impact of financial power and unaccountable corporate power”, some contributors stress that this should be done with less emphasis on redistribution by the state. Yet however much community organising can achieve in curtailing the excesses of irresponsible business executives, all the evidence points to the power gap between the corporate elite and the rest of society widening without adequate state intervention. It is worth noting that a number of contributors believe inequalities have to be actively tackled by the state. For David Miliband, “relationships of reciprocity and equality are helped or hindered by the equality, or lack of, between the participants (legal rights, income, wealth, social and cultural capital).” And Stuart White made it clear he could not subscribe to downgrading the redistributive role of the state. After all, it’s a role any Labour government should be proud and not ashamed of fulfilling.

Thirdly, it is said that Labour handled a number of major policies badly. In backing the US attack on Iraq and sustaining Tory deregulation of the financial sector, it certainly made two terrible mistakes. But two other key ‘failures’ cited by ‘Blue Labour’ proponents are over crime and immigration. What exactly were Labour’s errors? It brought crime down and it had a tight regime to control immigration. But for the conservative-minded, criminals are never punished enough, and there are always too many immigrants. Labour should certainly do more to engage with the public in cultivating a shared understanding of how best to deal with criminals and manage immigration, but if ‘Blue Labour’ is code for getting tougher in dehumanizing convicts and demonizing immigrants, then it must not go unchallenged.

Fourthly, apart from helping to grab a few headlines, how helpful – or not – is it to hoist the banner of ‘Blue Labour’, trumpeting the pursuit of conservatism? If what is being promoted is more extensive and effective community development to help build up citizen involvement in tackling the excesses of corporate powers, then as Andrea Westall observed, it would be better to talk about bottom-up socialism. And as Hazel Blears pointed out, Labour’s historical mission has often been to stop the oppressive arrangements in society being conserved, and to press for changes to improve life for ordinary people. Positioning itself as conservative in protecting the status quo would either be misguided if true or misleading otherwise.

Worryingly, Glasman regards Labour’s 1945 victory as “the trigger for its long term decline” as though it was regrettable that a political party had been so successful in using the state to help people who would on their own have suffered severe squalor and neglect. This did not escape the critical notice of other contributors such as Ben Jackson. The NHS and the welfare state did not emerge out of conserving any prevailing social arrangements or long established traditions, but were founded to enable people – old and young, men and women – to live in communities not afflicted by disease and poverty.

It is curious that Blue Labour advocates should accuse the last Labour government of forgetting about the values of community and mutuality, when they themselves are gripped with amnesia about what that government actually achieved: investment in community organisations, promotion of community development, New Deal for Communities, Participatory Budgeting, Community Shares, Guide Neighbourhoods (run by local people), Community Ownership of Assets, Neighbourhood Policing, and many other community empowerment initiatives which were greatly valued by local residents and community activists across the country. Apart from a few tokenistic gestures, the Conservatives have largely shut down such support. To intimate that Labour has to reclaim the community agenda from the Tories is to seriously confuse rhetoric with reality.

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