Jon Cruddas may have been asked to lead the Labour opposition’s policy review but the Dagenham MP is not, truth be told, especially interested in policy. ‘What interests me is not policy as such; rather the search for political sentiment, voice and language; of general definition within a national story. Less The Spirit Level, more what is England’, he said, speaking on ‘the good society’ at the University of East Anglia (Cruddas, 2012).
The public lecture series was entitled ‘Philosopher kings? How philosophy informs real politics today’, making contributions from Cruddas and Conservative David Willetts perhaps inevitable. But the utility of philosophy in political battle is not universally acknowledged. ‘Perhaps when they find out what is England they will let us all have the answer’, said Chancellor George Osborne, deploying this Cruddas passage for a little partisan political knockabout. The mockery will have chimed with Labour MPs who worry about whether their new policy chief leading Ed Miliband on an elusive quest for the essence of national identity will prove a particularly direct route to a winning agenda on the deficit, growth, jobs and housing.
Ed Miliband has placed a significant political bet on Cruddas as Labour’s philosopher king. It was not just a bet on the man himself, and his ability to somehow cajole the disparate actors within the byzantine, opaque, and dysfunctional Labour policy review and manifesto-making process into some sort of coherence. It was also a significant endorsement of the Cruddasite disposition about what matters most in politics, a view with which his leader has increasingly come to empathise.
That Cruddas world-view is well captured by his contrasting the state of England, an allusion to his political hero, the 1930s Labour leader George Lansbury, with The Spirit Level (2009), Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential best-seller which was hailed by many on the left as the most important book for a generation. It tells a story through comparative data, painting its picture by amassing graphs demonstrating correlations of various social harms associated with increased inequality.
This enabled Guardian and New Statesman columnists and leftish wonks to declare that they had found the Holy Grail: knock-down proof so that, surely, anybody could now see why the left was right and the right was wrong about inequality all along (Hattersley, 2009) (1). Mysteriously, these factual proofs seemed altogether less convincing for Telegraph or Spectator writers, and wonks on the right proved curiously stubborn in refusing to concede the argument (Saunders and Evans, 2010). This fierce partisan battle over the book’s merits demonstrated what the emerging application of brain science to political psychology would predict: that very few political arguments can ever be settled by appeals to ‘the facts’.
Rather, evidence tends to be used as ammunition to reinforce existing views, while even contrary counter-evidence will very often reinforce long-held views too, once the motivation behind its production is brought in to play. Every quarter’s economic statistics on growth, jobs, and unemployment shows us much the same phenomenon. Any expert analyses of the evident need for austerity measures, or their evident futility, will usually repolarise and rehash the existing debate, rarely bringing rivals together in the disinterested pursuit of evidence-based policymaking. If the facts don’t fit the frame, it is the facts that get rejected, not the frame.
Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain (2007), has characterised much liberal progressive advocacy as demonstrating an ‘irrational commitment to rationality’ in seeking political support through policy arguments, based on a belief that appeals to the evidence are a political trump card. Jon Cruddas would see these research conclusions from political psychology as providing further ammunition to reinforce what had long been his own gut instinct, that for Labour to connect, it needs less of the spirit of the LSE and rather more of that of Lansbury.
As Cruddas put it in the UEA lecture:
Politics for me is not a variant of rational choice theory. It is about base, visceral connections, sentiment, themes and language that grip people; stories and allegories that render intelligible the world around them.
This demands that his party understands politics as being driven by questions of identity as much as interests; to see persuasion as depending more often on stories than facts, and to put policy in its proper place, by understanding that the policy manifesto pledges which provide a necessary route-map of priorities for government will not resonate unless they fulfill a vital symbolic purpose too, speak to ‘political sentiment, voice and language’, so as to explain what motivates a political party and how that is reflected in what it wants to say about the nature of the country which it seeks to govern, and what its ambitions to change it are.
This is the Cruddas starting point: identity matters. And it matters for party and country alike. He sees the 2008 economic crash and 2010 election drubbing as creating Labour’s third ‘great identity crisis’ in not much more than a century of existence, comparable to its lost decades in the 1930s and 1980s.
There is a crisis of belonging in society, with a particular concern for the sense of social and political dislocation arising from the loss of traditional class identities among those who were once solidly Labour. In response to the dizzying changes of the global era, there is a foundational question about national identity, and how the form that it takes may shape the possibilities and contours of partisan political competition.
If Dr Cruddas has diagnosed the identity crisis facing Labour, he feels it much more viscerally and directly than that. His own personal political journey can be seen to represent a living out and working through of the strands, tensions, and contradictions of the Labour tradition in an attempt to discover, or to forge, its contemporary meaning and mission.
This is the intro to a long essay published by Renewal Magazine. The longer version is here.
Just who is a “Plastic Brit”? That question is provoked by the Daily Mail’s sustained campaign against some of the athletes who will be competing for Britain in the Olympic Games this summer.
The newspaper today rails against the choice of Tiffany Porter as athletics captain.
It also offers a handy montage of its previous headlines against “Plastic Brits”, such as “Team GB have ended up with a bunch of foreign wrestlers. I wish they would all SHOVE OFF!”
So each of the Coalition parties are currently entertaining the theory that they would be better off dividing a good way before the short election campaign. But it is less obvious that they can both be right.
The shared problem for each is the threat of a General Election.
The Conservatives are more nervous about the path to a Parliamentary majority than they appear in public – not least because none of their leadership team shared the confidence of the party and its press supporters that it was heading for a clear victory next time.
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September 11th 2001 was the day the world changed.
That journalistic truism will be endlessly repeated this week in the wake of the killing of Bin Laden, some 3520 days after Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York on Washington. This will now symbolise closure for many people on those terrible and shocking events.
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A General Election in 2011 is no longer unthinkable, argues Jackie Ashley in The Guardian. Few LibDems would relish the prospect.
But how many realise that, if such an election took place, they would face a serious risk of ending up with no women MPs at all?
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The News International statement admitting culpability over widspread phone-hacking at the News of the World – and the failure to properly investigate it even after a reporter was sent to jail – was an extraordinary development.
However, the most troubling questions are not for News International, but for the police (non-) investigation. Why the Metropolitan Police appear to have had a quiet determination not to notice evidence and to ignore leads raises more troubling questions about the effectiveness and non-partiality of the rule of law in this country.
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I have been deeply sceptical about ‘whataboutery’ when it is used an argument for consistent inaction on human rights everywhere.
Nicolas Kristof captures a central point in his last New York Times column:
Just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?
Mayor of London Boris Johnson badly overstepped the mark yesterday, ludicrously claiming that Labour leader Ed Miliband will have been “quietly satisfied” by the violence in the capital which risked overshadowing the TUC’s March for the Alternative on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Boris can hardly be surprised to be accused of silliness and hypocrisy for a response in the lower traditions of student politics, though Shelly Asquith misses out what is surely the most hypocritical about the claim….
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Is this the latest “big society” paradox? The Observer reports that senior academics are deeply concerned about the way in which a department of state is alleged to have insisted on the ‘big society’ as a major academic research theme as a condition of renewing academic funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
This report of about rather top down insistence on studying the bottom up doctrine speaks to a recurring tension as to how government can get traction for its ‘big idea’ without undermining the point.
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Osborne will use the increase tax threshold to claim that he has lowered personal tax bills, and is trying to take the poor out of tax.
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