The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox
The outcome of four seminars
organised between October 2010 and April 2011. The seminars
were held in Oxford and London and involved politicians and
intellectuals whose politics ranged across the spectrum of the
Labour Party to ask some fundamental questions about the condition
of the country and the predicament of Labour following its defeat in
the May 2010 general election.
[…] The starting point of these seminars would be the paradoxes of Labour’s tradition.
Ed Miliband : ”.. both the statists and the pro-market voices underplayed the importance of the aspects of our lives and our communities that must be protected from the destructive effects of both markets and the unresponsive state. ” [pp.7-8]
However, partly through its unshakable commitment to justice through the state, Labour had lost its practices of association and action. A corporatist, localist, federal and institutional form of politics came to be replaced by a liberal and consumerist one that ceased generating the leadership necessary to sustain a democratic movement. [p.11]
There was ominously little growth during Labour’s period in office in the regional and productive economies, and where there was growth it was largely due to the expansion of the public sector.
The Labour tradition was rooted in a politics of the Common Good, a democratic movement that sought its rightful place in the life of the nation. The Labour tradition has never been straightforwardly progressive. [p.15]
The English tradition of liberty is far older than liberalism. Within three weeks of the Norman Conquest, more than half the land in England was owned by eleven Norman aristocrats, and it has been pretty much uphill ever since. Labour takes its place within a far longer national tradition of resistance that values a legal and a democratic order, that is both reforming and traditional, in simultaneous motion. [p.17]
Labour’s response to globalisation after 1992 was a move […] from the Common Good to progressivism, from organisation to mobilisation, from democracy to rights, from self-management to scientific management. [p.24]
The way that Labour reconstructed its identity and retained its
sanity was to hang onto half of the third assumption concerning
scientific management in pursuit of progressive ends, and transfer it
to the state. [...]
Flexibility became a workforce virtue. […] Tradition is synonymous with conservatism, an inability to adjust to new circumstances and an acceptance of prejudice. [..] assumption that transferrable and not specific skills are the best way to intervene in the market logic of globalisation, then what results is the biggest paradox of all, which is that contemporary socialism has no effective category of the social.
Put another way, social democracy has become neither social nor democratic. This is the land that Labour has vacated and is now being filled by the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’
By 1997, unmediated globalisation in the economy was combined with an identification of Labour with justice, abstractly understood in terms of pluralism, rights, and equality of opportunity. [p.26 -27]
Simultaneously, the organisational base of the labour movement has been hollowed out. While all this goes on, the universal welfare state, once the greatest achievement of cross- class solidarity, is being dismantled in the name of progressive ends, targeting the poorest and most vulnerable for favourable treatment. The integrity of family life and the upholding of a Common Good is the strongest way of responding to this, but it does not sit comfortably with progressive arguments. [p.28]
What was forgotten politically was that the welfare state was not a right fulfilled, but an achievement won through sustained organisation and political action, and that was the only way it could be sustained. What was forgotten economically was that capitalism is a volatile system, based upon the exploitation of human beings and nature, and left to itself, will eat itself and the world around it. [p.29]
The consequences of its failure led, under both Blair and Brown, to an uncritical embrace of the market, in terms of its internal logic and consequences. [p.31]
And, most importantly, [of the Labour party victories of 1945, 1964, an 1997] each of them led to the greater domination of the City of London, of finance capital, in the economic life of the nation. Labour did not change the balance of power in the economy or disrupt our developmental pathway.
He won a scholarship to the City of Islington School. It was a boarding school, and during term time he learned how to make an argument in Law class; he learned new communications techniques in Media Studies; and most of all he learned about empowerment in Modern Public Service Management.
The cause of Labour’s bipolar attitude to leadership lies in an even more fundamental difficulty for the party. Labour has struggled of late to relate its values to its practices, or, in other words, its ends to its means. [p.59]
As the political theorist Bonnie Honig explains, some political causes do need to be ‘fought for on judicial or formal institutional terrains. But they also need to be lived [... ]The work of institution-building simply cannot succeed without the support and perspective of life lived otherwise.’ That is why Eduard Bernstein said that the ‘movement is everything’. [p.63]
The crash in the financial sector and the resulting deficit came under Labour’s watch. The party and its leadership is thus always going to be popularly held to be at fault, whatever the disagreements on macro-economic policy. An acceptance of responsibility – an acknowledgement of weakness in this regard – would not make the crafting of new relationships between Labour’s leaders and its people harder, as is currently implied. It would make it far easier. Pride in our party’s achievements should not prevent us from acknowledging our mistakes [p.67]
Leadership requires an ‘emotional aliveness’, the capacity to put one’s self in the shoes of others. It also requires the resolve to exercise authority and to squarely face conflict [...] Poor leadership creates a ‘parentless organisation’ that is incapacitated by indecision, fear, anxiety and drift. [...] Labour currently lacks a strategic political direction and it is searching for an intellectual basis for renewal. [p.72]
The party has become a kind of ‘cartel’ geared to office seeking. Party politics is more instrumental, and geared to management, efficiency, performance and delivery. […] At the same time party politics has been incorporated into the media world of instant reaction, branding and celebrity culture. Political leadership has been personalised, encouraging leaders into an intimacy with the electorate: speaking about what were once private feelings and thoughts. […] Three styles of leadership: Machiavelli’s charismatic leader; the ideologist; the post-modern shape shifter. A successful leader needs competence, but also a combination of all three styles. [p.74]
Labour fought the ’97 election faced with a very powerful, centralised broadcast and print media. We responded with centralised control of ‘the message’ and by closing down opportunities for people to depart from that. Meanwhile, our funding model was based mostly on a small number of large donations. Having won the election, we inherited a centralised state and, despite devolution, centralised it further in many areas. [p.76]
The fatal attraction that most leaders – including leaders of the Labour Party – have to charismatic styles of leadership is in sharp contrast to a rhetoric about ‘empowerment’. [p.78]
Over the past forty years we have learnt a great deal from a scientific perspective about what enables human development. From the fields [...] a common central finding emerges. We now know that the central common essential ingredient in any effective helping relationship is an experience in which the client feels properly listened to and understood. [..]It seems to me that we need more politicians who have grown up as community activists. [p.80]
Currently, more people seek meaning and purpose from reality television and celebrity role models than they do from politics. The explosion in life coaching and coaching in the workplace is similarly driven by the desire to make sense of things for oneself, in order to have more control and influence over one’s life and experience. [pp.80-81]
Perhaps Labour’s biggest failure is that it never worked out its own practical theory of power. The bipolar oscillation between leaderless paralysis and cultish followership that Marc [Stears] identifies is a consequence of that failure. [p.82]
The last Labour government seemed stuck in a loop that never touched the individual experiences of real people. And despite talking about the post-bureaucratic society, its Liberal Conservative successor seems no different. […] Rather than trumpeting abstract but often meaningless concepts like individual rights or equality, Labour politicians need to tell stories rich in the concrete details of individual lives, times and places. [p.82]
What has changed is our idea about the kind of power we have. In government, Labour relied on what I’d call statistical power – the power to alter big numbers through tiny acts [...] It happens when politicians tell paid bureaucrats to change a rule or regulation somewhere, [...] If all power really lies with the bureaucrats, the ordinary Labour Party member is truly disempowered. [pp.83-84]
Every leader is made of crooked timber. This is one of the reasons why the party needs lots of leaders, at all levels. The issue of leadership is not only about the person at the top. A group of leaders can form a team with a common purpose that, collectively, makes up for their individual weaknesses. [p.85]
Policy-making needs to change dramatically too. Currently it is dominated by small groups of similar people who think like each other, live similar lives, and who mostly do not have relationships with the people their policies affect.. [p.86]
In thrall to
unilateral power for decades, hoping to capture the state and use it
for agreed ends, the party has forgotten the magic that was part of
its beginnings: the power that people generate together when they
know one another and act together. [...]
For years there has been a growing sense of disconnection felt by party members and supporters, arising from the prioritising of the short-term media ‘message’, the centralization of power in the leader’s office, the focus on electoral machine rather than political action, and policy-making by focus group and elite special advisers. [p.87]
What has Labour lost? It has lost five million voters and an election that fell just short of a catastrophe. It has lost touch with a generation of younger voters many of whom will never vote Labour. Scores of thousands of party members, embittered, disillusioned and ignored, have left. Many people no longer trust that the party is on their side. What is Labour’s historical purpose? The answer is unclear. And it has lost its traditional values and an identity. In these predicaments Labour shares a political crisis of social democracy with its sister parties across Europe. [p.88]
This is a story that Labour has lost in the last decade. The early years of New Labour – the pluralism, the ethical socialism, the stakeholding economy, the idea of a covenant of trust and reciprocity with the people, the emotional language that reignited popular hope – created a powerful and successful story. But today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and of the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no-one. [p.91]
The experience of dispossession is most evident in former industrial towns and amongst the working class who have either lost their economic role or feel it threatened. Men who were the agents of its culture of work and solidarity have lost their standing and authority. [p.92]
By 2005 Tony Blair had embraced globalisation as a positive force for change: [...] ‘there is no mystery about what works: ...The new world rewards those who are open to it .. not to resist the force of globalisation but to prepare for it, and to garner its vast potential benefits’ (Blair 2005). Blair, Tony, Conference Speech, 2005, <*>
Labour’s role was to prepare individuals for the global economy not protect them from it: in effect society should be subordinate to market forces. [...] New Labour ended up with an abstract and jargon filled language, imposing targets and measurable outcomes on the complexities of institutions and people. Its micro-management got results but their permanence lay in league tables and measurable outcomes, not in human hearts. [p.93]
[Labour] abandoned people to a volatile market in the name of a spurious entrepreneurialism. […] In its impotence as a social movement it tended to idealise the dynamism of the market. [p.94]
English socialism [:.. ] Its aim has always been a militant defence of a common life as well as individual liberty, and of ethical life and creativity against commodification and against the usurpation of the state. [p.97]
The counter-movement against capitalism that originated in the nineteenth century suffered its historic defeat in the 1970s. [p.98]
The neoliberal model of capitalism was underpinned by a popular compact between the individual and the market. [p.98]
Financial capital did not create wealth so much as redistribute it
on a massive scale, from the country to the City, from the public
sector to the private, and from individuals and households to a rich
The neoliberal compact promised freedom through individual market choice and cheap credit. It was a vote-winner, providing rising living standards and new avenues for many, particularly in the South. But its housing market consumer axis was a dysfunctional model of economic development. […]
In government, Labour dodged these structural issues. It allowed City excess and redistributed the tax revenue via health and education expenditure to the de-industrialised Midlands and the North. [pp.98-99]
Labour’s future will be conservative because the decade ahead requires a reparative politics of the local, and a re-affirmation of our human need for interdependency. [p.104]
In effect, the implicit neoliberalism of New Labour limited what was possible. We know that there was a tendency to use business language and approaches in non-market places. [… P]artly because of the language (and its connotations) and partly because we had ceased to recognise anything other than individualised approaches to anything – [it ended up] being mostly about isolated start-ups. [p.111]
I think New Labour is guilty as charged. Its main proponents did always sound like they were in a tearing hurry. I was always concerned that ‘change’ was elevated to a principle in its own right. [p.114]
I don’t think there is anything left of the social democracy that came out of the Labour heartlands. I think it’s a historical curiosity – perfectly comprehensible in its day and not without either appeal or success. But of no real value as a guide to the future. [p.115]
[E]everyday customs and traditions of life in Britain can offer powerful opposition to the commodifying tendencies of capitalism. [p.119]
The power of tradition, on this account, is the power to resist commodification; the power to assert our own relational humanity. Once seen this way, the struggle to maintain these traditions – to save a space for them in an increasingly transactional world – becomes at once both a conservative and a radical one. [p.120]
The great weakness of New Labour was its lack of a clear political economy or critique of capitalism. This fed through into a reliance on an increasingly exhausted statecraft and a whiff of elitism and disrespect for ordinary ways of life. Blue Labour is an eviscerating corrective to these tendencies. [p.139]
At its best, New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time, however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end, it embraced a dystopian, destructive neoliberalism, cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour. ‘Leave the past to those who live in it’, Blair said in 2004. But what about the victims of this change. [p.142]
Link to a debate and review article: A new road map for the British left. by Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman 25 July, 2011.
There is very little written in Finnish about "Blue Labour" or "Red Tory". - Yksi on
Rauno Räsänen (24.02.2011): John Milbank ja radikaali-ortodoksisen liikkeen paradoksaalisen politiikan paradoksaalinen kahtiajako: Blue Socialism and Red Toryism
Neither is much written about "Blue labour" in Swedish (in Finland): Det finns nog en av Henrik Helenius: Gör Labour comeback? Jobben och sysselsättningen i centrum (Arbetarbladet 18.11.2013)
In Sweden there has been sparse debate:
" Men det konservativa är ett nödvändigt korrektiv till en okritisk utvecklingsoptimism. Under lång tid har ´anything goes´ varit normen i europeisk vänster."
"´Blue Labour´ är ett svar på Tory-partiets ´Big Society´, ett försök att återgå till gamla konservativa traditioner efter nyliberalismens värsta excesser."
Håkan A Bengtsson: Tredje vägen ut, Blue Labour in? Dagens Arena 10.4.2011
"Såväl högern som vänstern i Europa idylliserar det förflutna, men av olika skäl. I stället för göra politik av nostalgin gäller det att odla en kritisk utvecklingsoptimism."
Håkan A Bengtsson: Röd-blå konservatism Arena 14.6.2011