In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging


1:10 pm - February 13th 2011

by Guest    


      Share on Tumblr

contribution by Marc Stears

Probably for the first time since the mid-1990s, a loud debate is taking place within the Labour party to reshape its core identity.

One key effort in this process is encouraging the Party towards a celebration of tradition, locality and even some forms of social conservatism. It is urging a shift away from the focus on the left on material redistribution and the need for public services always to be delivered directly by the state.

The emerging new identity, on this account, will be more localist and less statist than we have been used to. It will also be more focused on questions of belonging and identity and less concerned with issues of material equality.

This new identity is being most powerfully articulated by Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford, and Maurice Glasman. They have called for Labour to re-establish its relationship with the British people. They insist that the Party must learn to care about the places where people live and work, to appreciate the customs and traditions they hold dear and dedicate itself to fighting for their protection.

This effort at reshaping Labour’s identity already has powerful advocates. It has been dramatically evident in the recent speeches of Ed Miliband.

He has emphasized the need to build a “good society” in Britain, rather than simply pursue material redistribution, and has also insisted on the need to anchor the Party’s vision in the aspirations of the British people, rather than in the idle abstractions of an eager Party elite.

But not everyone is happy with what this new thinking. Two potentially noisy groups of internal critics are already making themselves heard. First, there are liberals, who worry that this new identity is dangerously conservative and contains too little to attract many of the minority groups with whom Labour has come closely to identify.

Second, there are self-described “progressives”, who see the new identity as backward-looking and nostalgic. Labour, to them, should be about equipping Britain for global economic competition, through dynamic technology and transferable skills, rather than seeking to re-establish community life at a local level.

A powerful battle thus lies ahead, one that is likely to dominate debate in the Party for the first few years of Miliband’s leadership.

But the real hope for a resurgent radicalism cannot lie with either the liberals or the progressives acting on their own. Neither acknowledged that the Party under Blair and Brown ceased to articulate the hopes and fears of the bulk of the British people, coming instead to be associated with a distant Westminster elite who pursued their own idiosyncratic agenda through the managerial mechanisms of an increasingly centralized state.

Labour’s revival must begin with a commitment never to repeat that mistake. But it must also go further. If Labour is to recapture its former glory, it must remember that it is at its best when it is a force for the common good.

It is at its best, therefore, when it has deep roots in communities and when it gives voice to the understandings of people stretched across the entire country. Those who are shaping Labour’s newly emerging identity are seeking to do just this. We should do all we can to assist them.

—-
Marc Stears is Fellow in Politics at University College, Oxford

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
This is a guest post.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Westminster

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


The Labour Party was once in many respects very conservative. Unless I’m mistaken wasn’t Attlee a big supporter of the Lords for example? And its working class supporters were strongly monarchist.

Will be interesting to see how things develop if this tendency reasserts itself.

This is a bit blinkered, if well intentioned. I strongly support what Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman are talking about in terms of community and the good society- but since when did that involve alienating minorities and refusing to engage with the modern era?

These ‘divides’ aren’t mutually exclusive at all.

Just when you thought the Labour Party couldnt get more right wing or stupid …

I’m not sure what these ideasactually mean. Is this just a change of mood music? Perhaps if they were expressed in more concrete ways we might be better placed to comment.

Will local parties have more influence?

Will Trades Unions have more influence?

Will there be more positive steps towards rebalancing the economy and improving regional development?

Will there be fewer weasel words and less kow-towing to The City?

I have to admit, I’m a little concerned about the situation of minorities in this grand scheme. Not so much about ethnic minorities themselves, but about minorities within minorities.

Need to think carefully about how to preserve individual autonomy within communities – For example, I certainly don’t want my access to services dependent upon membership to a faith community.

Jeez, public money goes to idiots like this to do fellowships at our top university?

Ooh, new buzzwords! We’ve done ‘choice’ and ‘opportunity’ and ‘reform’ to death; now it’s the turn of ‘localism’, ‘identity’ and ‘community’.

What this means in policy terms is anybody’s guess. It sounds horribly like the language of the Big Society – public services being farmed out to businesses, churches and self-appointed ‘community leaders’, a wholesale expansion in the ‘postcode lottery’ model of service provision – all washed down with some similarly Tory flag-waving rhetoric about Traditional British Values.

As for being “more focused on questions of belonging and identity and less concerned with issues of material equality” – two pretty glaring points here:

1 – Labour need to be a good deal *more* concerned with material equality (as opposed to poverty alone) than they have been recently, which is one of the big reasons I voted for Ed M – who seems to ‘get’ inequality

2 – the Spirit Level evidence suggests pretty strongly that equality and a sense of ‘belonging’ go hand in hand – the people who ‘belong’ least to mainstream society are precisely those whose incomes are furthest from the mainstream. (It’s the very poor who don’t feel school/uni/careers are for the likes of them, and the very rich who don’t have any real stake in many public services and generally don’t understand what life is like for ordinary people).

The rhetoric is wooly enough that some good policy ideas could reflect these ideas, but my initial impression is not positive.

The interview with Glasman in Observer (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jan/16/maurice-glasman-peer-labour) sort of worried me… Family, Faith, and Flag? Blue Labour? Last time I heard the former phrase I was reading about Sarah Palin.

I do not want a British National Identity debate (look how well that went for Brown, and Sarko in France) – identity is fluid, and depends on where you live, who your friends are, and your social situation. There isn’t one Britain (and neither is there one flag, faith, or family type!) so let’s scrap all the populist fakery and get back to what really matters: improving communities, increasing opportunity, and exposing Tory hypocrisy.

@1: “wasn’t Attlee a big supporter of the Lords for example?”

The basic fact is that after the Parliament Act of 1948, the House of Lords has little legislative power. In international surveys, it usually rates as a weak second chamber when comparing the blocking or amending powers of the US Senate or the German Bundesrat. The HoL is prevented from debating finance bills, since the Parliament Act of 1911, and since the Parliament Act of 1948, it can only delay government legislation for a year. But it does have the power to block an extension of the life of Parliament beyond a maximum of 5 years.

The substantive functions of the Lords are to more carefully scrutinise legislation going through Parliament and, since Britain’s accession to the EU in January 1973, what comes out from Brussels as the House of Commons has too little time – or inclination – to do either of those jobs effectively.

Governments of all colours routinely use the Lords to amend legislation in progress in consequence of lobbyng or further reflection. As for the debates in the Lords, these can influence the climate of general opinion, partly or mostly because of the many informed crossbenchers in the Lords with experience or expertise gained in professional careers.

Some of us think it would be better to leave the Lords as presently constituted or to just remove the residual hereditary element. The Lords would be much less valuable as an elected, wholly partisan second chamber without its crossbenchers, who would be unlikely to survive as independent candidates in partisan elections.

Btw many political studies/science academics and historians rate Attlee’s government of 1945-51 as easily the most radical in its achievements compared with other post-WW2 governments.

“He has emphasized the need to build a “good society” in Britain, rather than simply pursue material redistribution, and has also insisted on the need to anchor the Party’s vision in the aspirations of the British people, rather than in the idle abstractions of an eager Party elite.”

Er, right – New labour in other words. Wasn’t that called ‘stakeholder society’ in the late 90s? Tweak. Rebrand. Spin.

How refreshing… pass the mogadons.

Stears remains quite vague in his assessment of Labour’s change of direction, but he has grasped the political consensus of empowering local communities.

The different parties have different ideas of just how to empower communities, but it is worth pointing out that socialism doesn’t have to be statist. Labour needs to find a way of marrying the aims of material redistribution and greater equality, with achieving more proactive communities and greater engagement between Party and local community.

Stears omits to consider how mutualism and the Co-operative movement could play a role in Labour’s renewal.

Bob B – My point was that Attlee believed in the continued existence of the institution as opposed to Labour’s constitutional reformers of later years. Not sure how the rest of your post is relevant.

13. David Nowell Smith

One point regarding the (ethnic) minorities / national identity thing. I tend to think, perhaps optimistically, that the Cruddas-Glasman approach is less bad than what we saw under New Labour. As I see it, New Labour co-opted from the Tories free market neoliberalism, which involved being very open to economic migrants (especially those who would increase the labour supply push down wages), which caused a lot of understandable anger among C2 voters or whatever they’re called (‘the white working class’). So, as a counter force they occasionally resorted to tabloid-pandering soundbites with thinly veiled xenophobic scapegoating. It was a disgrace. And then, straight after the election, and the ‘Gillian Duffy’ debacle, they got worse (see Ed Balls’s article in the Guardian in late May/June).

But this ‘Blue Labour’ take on small-‘c’ conservatism I think sidesteps this. Cruddas in particular has argued that anger directed towards ethnic minorities and the desire to create an exclusivist national identity actually arise from more local problems — stagnating wages, limited access to local housing (due not to immigrants stealing them but the shocking lack on investment in social housing over the last thirty years), and the impact of neoliberalism on communities (small businesses being replaced by chains, house prices or lack of work forcing people to move out, etc.). The more a society becomes unstable, the more people are atomised, the more questions of ‘identity’ are asked — because people lose this sense of belonging.

This means that instead of setting up some spurious national identity debate, à la Sarko, we should act to counter the atomisation and socio-economic precariousness at the bottom on it. On this account, economic equality isn’t simply compatible with the kind of conservatism that they are tapping into: it becomes a prerequisite for it. This does leave a lot of questions to be answered (e.g. what kinds of community are valid? what about people who don’t belong to these kinds of community?), but it’s certainly an improvement on the Michael Howard impersonations of the last Labour government.

@12: “Not sure how the rest of your post is relevant.”

The future constitution of the Lords used to be a regular issue in controversies about the reform of Parliament although interest seems to have waned lately.

Perhaps the more astute political observers noted the enthusiasm with which William Hague used to trumpet the cause of a democratically elected House of Lords and paused to reflect on what motivated such enthusiasm at those times during the Blairite ascendancy when Alastair Campbell, as government communications chief, would whip up the Labour constituency into frenzies over resistance in the Lords to the banning of fox hunting.

IMO the Lords is best left as presently constituted for fear we would lose the independent crossbenchers.

Btw I’ve never seen a fox hunt and can only marvel that Parliament debated the banning issue for more than 700 hours. Would that it had spent more time debating the better regulation of banks and the financial system instead.

@13

The main trouble with New Labour government is not that it was too “right-wing” or too “left-wing” but that it was much too incompetent. The fact is that supposedly “good intentions” are nowhere nearly enough for good governance. Ted Honderich’s assessment of Blair was on the correct lines IMO:

“Honderich is also a consequentialist, which partly explains his hatred towards Tony Blair. ‘He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,’ he spits. ‘He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.'”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/mar/22/academicexperts.highereducationprofile

Ted Honderich was Grote professor of mind and logic at UCL. Roy Jenkins, at one time Blair’s mentor, also remarked on his second class mind.

Between the 1997 and 2005 elections, Blair lost 4 million votes and at least half the membership of the Labour Party.

This sounds like a puff piece for Compass.

“he has grasped the political consensus of empowering local communities.”

But what does this mean? What does it amount to?

I suspect somebody has tried to ’empower’ me lately, because I keep getting mailings through from my local hospital (where I’m treated for an eye condition) asking me to get involved in running it. But what the hell do I know about running a hospital? Am I supposed to go along to meetings and demand more money be spent on the eye clinic, while other people demand it’s spent on cancer treatment or paediatrics? I just can’t see the sense in it. The people running hospitals should be accountable to the people they serve, but essentially disinterested and able to see the ‘big picture’.

I can’t help thinking that if you set out to ’empower local communities’ – other than through basic democratic means, i.e. encouraging people to participate in local elections etc – you are just going to end up with self-selecting, unrepresentative groups of do-gooders getting their own way and perhaps even being tasked with the delivery of services. As a user of such services, that is just about the last thing I want. (Bad enough that my kids’ school’s governing body is crammed with representatives of a particular religious denomination, all ’empowered’ to make decisions about my kids’ moral education.) Give me bunch of pen-pushing bureaucrats any day.

@17 “But what does this mean? What does it amount to?”

Liverpool’s council may dropped out of piloting the Big Society but Sutton council hasn’t. Never mind all that Big Society guff, a little googling on the web has established that social enterprise can flourish in Sutton:

http://www.themassagerooms.com/newtherapists/newtherapists.html?gclid=CM7Bx-ymh6cCFQZO4Qod01lbeg
http://www.northcheammassage.co.uk/home.html

There’s even celebrity endorsement by a satisfied ex-employee:

An MP’s wife has allegedly been selling sex for £70 in two massage parlours in Sutton and Cheam.

A Sunday paper claimed Mike Weatherley’s Brazilian wife Adriana Alves had been working at North Cheam Massage in Lavender Avenue and Sutton Angels.
http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/8381112.Sex_shame:_MP/?s_wife_in_North_Cheam_massage_parlour/

“When asked whether she minded selling her body Carla replied: ‘I like it here, nice clients, nice people, nice place and good money.’”
http://www.thehouseofblogs.com/articulo/pictures__hot_carla_adriana_weatherley-146493.html

Just read that interview with Glasman and found it a rather bewildering mix of the appealing and the terrifying. He seems deeply suspicious of ‘markets’ and privatisation, and very attached to mutualism – which all sounds fair enough – but then he starts talking about values based on ‘family, faith and flag’, which just chills my blood, frankly.

I suppose that is partly because patriotic language has been allowed to become a language of the right; if Labour can reclaim that language as a way of talking about the things we jointly cherish (whether our forests or our health service) and the need to keep them in the hands of the British people rather than private individuals and ‘market forces’, maybe there’s something in it. But it’s a dangerous game; rightly or wrongly, flag-waving rhetoric about the defence of one’s land tends to alienate many decent people and attract many deeply unpleasant ones.

And I can’t help thinking there is a risk of simply replacing one set of market forces with another: instead of a market in which the richest people win out, we get a market in which the best-organised, most PR-savvy, most articulate people win out (whether or not they genuinely represent the views of people in their local communities). Inevitably some groups are going to be more successful in making their voices heard than others, and potentially what you end up with is NIMBYism running rampant and self-selecting, unrepresentative groups of activists -especially those, like church groups, with ready-made support structures – dictating the agenda.

@19: “But it’s a dangerous game; rightly or wrongly, flag-waving rhetoric about the defence of one’s land tends to alienate many decent people and attract many deeply unpleasant ones.”

Quite so. Try the passages describing the grave threat to Britain from Saddam Hussein in Iraq as released to a special session of Parliament held on 24 September 2002 :

Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction
http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2002/09/24/dossier.pdf

It is intriguing that many people focus on the socially conservative aspect of the current thinking rather than on the radically democratic aspect. What Glasman, Rutherford, and Cruddas are primarily calling for is a style of politics that directly engages with citizens across the country. What they are rejecting is a style of politics in which established elites to claim to speak on the people’s behalf without directly involving them. This call is reminiscent of neither New Labour nor Compass, at least in their standard form. It is, instead, a demand for a politics that admits our own limitations as commentators and the limitations of those in power. The task of identifying and working towards the common good across the whole nation is, of course, a hard one. It will require many years of helping to build new structures of democratic engagement both inside the Labour Party and outside it, and it will require citizens to take up the opportunities that are offered to them. But, at the same time, it promises so much more than a state- and elite-centric politics ever can.

Cant see any big differences myself. Labour has always been Conservative, Authoritarian, Collectivist & deeply Nationalist. New Labours Progressive/Liberal tendencies were always skin-deep, more style than substance.

Marc –

“What Glasman, Rutherford, and Cruddas are primarily calling for is a style of politics that directly engages with citizens across the country. What they are rejecting is a style of politics in which established elites to claim to speak on the people’s behalf without directly involving them.”

…which sounds great in principle. What worries me is that when you set out to ‘engage with citizens’ and directly involve ‘the people’, the individuals and groups you inevitably end up engaging with are themselves members of an elite. It is always going to be the best-organised, best-resourced, most articulate, most PR-savvy individuals and groups who get a hearing. But how can you be sure that the Birmingham Christian Society, or the Edinburgh Parents’ Forum, or the London Road Users’ Campaign Group, actually has a plausible claim to speak on behalf of ordinary Birmingham Christians, Edinburgh Parents, or London Road Users – any more than the TaxPayers’ Alliance has a plausible claim to speak on behalf of ordinary taxpayers?

Look at the Free Schools nonsense. This is a prime example of how the provision of public services can be directed at grassroots level by users of those services rather than by a remote political elite. It also makes a mockery of democracy, since it amounts to little more than redistribution of resources to those who shout loudest. Where is all the money going to end up under this model? In schools run by the best-organised, best-resourced, most articulate, most PR-savvy individuals and groups: consortia of well-educated middle-class parents, church groups etc.

(This is where the concern about this form of ‘radical democracy’ ties up with the concern about ‘social conservatism’: the best-organised, best-resourced, most articulate, most PR-savvy groups are very often going to be religious organisations with a socially conservative agenda.)

Obviously we can’t have decisions taken by a wholly remote policitical elite that’s completely divorced from the concerns of real people, but there are dangers in putting too much power in the hands of self-appointed ‘community leaders’ too.

And how radical is this ‘radical democracy’ anyway? Traditionally, it was precisely Church groups, charities and the like which decided how schools and hospitals should be run etc etc. The radical step was taking that power *out* of their hands and putting it in the hands of state institutions that were directly accountable not to self-selecting groups of citizens, but to citizens who each counted for one.

G.O.

That analysis only works if you can show the state distribution of say schools is democratically-determined now. Since it is mostly controlled at arms length by bureacracies who do not report directly to the democratically-elected bodies, you might have trouble with that narrative.

No waffle from me – if I am to vote Labour then issues like the following need to be dealt with:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mauritius/8320609/Ben-Fogle-My-fight-for-the-forgotten-islanders.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/13/nick-clegg-protection-freedoms-bill

The first article is about the Chagos Islanders and the second about civil liberties.

“It will also be more focused on questions of belonging and identity and less concerned with issues of material equality.”

So more on meaningless catch phrases and less on reality – a lot like Blairism then. Hope this article is wrong.

Let’s be honest, the entire article above is a list of meaningless catch phrases used to avoid specifying any policies.

I presume that Marc thinks that elite political actors pursuing policies of redistribution by stealth completely fails to engage the public in creating a story of why this might be important. I’m hoping that, for him and Glasman, this is the problem rather than material redistribution itself. Unfortunately this is not the way it reads. If you’re on the left presumably you would be extremely concerned about accelerating inequalities in income and wealth.

btw and slightly off track (although not entirely), in tune with recent discussion about the precariat, the people to be most concerned about are not public sector workers whose pensions have been cut. Rather it is those without any hope of building a reasonable pension at all, or of living in decent housing. Housing, and some kind reasonable pension outcomes for those without ‘career’ jobs, should be right at the top of the policy agenda of any left of centre party.

It’s a tough call, but i think it was somewhat more the absence, over 13 years, of radical policy offered by New Labour rather than the elitism of the party that was most depressing…..


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging http://bit.ly/htvysW

  2. Jan Bennett

    RT @libcon: In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging http://bit.ly/htvysW

  3. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging: contribution by Marc Stears
    Probably for the … http://bit.ly/fy6VlH

  4. Stewart Owadally

    In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/oU6JMup via @libcon

  5. Tim Moore

    My comment online on: In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging | @libcon http://t.co/oU6JMup #Labour #Cooperative

  6. cutsandgrazes dotcom

    RT @TimothyJMoore: My comment online on: In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging | @libcon http://t.co/oU6JMup #Labour …

  7. Lynn Hayes

    In the battle to reshape Labour, a new force is emerging | Liberal …: February 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm. contributi… http://bit.ly/gpjIJU





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.