After its crushing defeat in the 2015 General Election, Labour faces an existential crisis. Wiped out in Scotland, pushed back in Wales and rejected in England, the party could head for electoral extinction and die. Labour has abandoned the people and nations of Britain, and now they are abandoning Labour.
At the heart of Labour’s present predicament is not so much an ideological confusion as a moral void. It no longer defends the people it was set up to represent and protect. Nor does it reach out to other groups in society. Instead, it stands for the more affluent, secular and metropolitan elites as well as certain public sector workers and some minorities because the focus has been on ‘equality’ and other abstract, formal values such as ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ that do not resonate with most citizens. That is why Labour did well in parts of London but had little appeal across the rest of the country.
In Scotland and Wales, Labour was hammered on its association with Westminster centralism. In the north of England, it haemorrhaged support to UKIP who speak to the concerns of traditional Labour supporters, especially older white working class voters who have been left behind by the collapse of industry and the impact of globalisation. In the south, it offered nothing to people who are patriotic and feel that English identity is under threat from Scottish nationalism and the EU’s brand of abstract cosmopolitan utopia.
Common to all these woes is the lack of relating to people and their fundamental values: a sense of belonging, obligations to others, mutual recognition as the pre-condition of both social status and economic security. Labour has spoken too much about individual rights and entitlements and too little about the relationships that give meaning and content to these notions. People aren’t rational-choice animals who try to maximise power, wealth or utility. They seek a role in society and the possibility of providing for their loved ones. Family, work, community, loyalty, pride in place – both the locality and the nation.
In the aftermath of defeat, Labour is tempted by two equally misguided paths, which would lead the party down the road to perdition. The first is to embrace the anti-austerity politics of insurgent parties such as the SNP and to form an alliance with ‘progressive partners’, including the Greens and Respect. Quite apart from the need for fiscal discipline and for paying down the national debt, this ignores the growing popular backlash against the large institutions of both ‘big government’ and ‘big business’, and the desire for greater accountability through local control and civic participation.
The second is a reinvention of New Labour. But the trouble is that after 1996 New Labour eschewed communitarian thinking and Christian socialism in favour of liberal ideology – individual utility and the greatest happiness of the greatest number rather than individual virtue, public honour and mutual flourishing. Whatever Blair’s and Brown’s professed principles, New Labour helped create a cold, transactional, utilitarian type of politics which is rationalistic and soulless.
Those, like the Times lead writer Philip Collins, who say that New Labour is not about looking back but instead about ‘permanent revolution’ haven’t understood that the people of England are much closer to Burke than to Blair in opposing revolutionary politics and defending a politics of virtue. In a review of a book on Burke by Jesse Norman MP, Jon Cruddas praises Norman as one of the few true Conservatives for recovering the notion that “[p]olitics is about the nurturing of virtue: honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom. It is not about atomised exchange”.
Labour has much to learn from such Burkean thematics and from small ‘c’ conservative thinking. Faced with growing social dislocation and cultural insecurity, it needs to recover a sense of moral purpose and a story of renewal for both party and country.
So even an updated version of New Labour cannot renew the demoralised party or the divided Kingdom. It would offer nothing to traditional supporters in Scotland and Wales. It would further antagonise ex-Labour voters in northern England who are voting for UKIP. And it would like a pale imitation of the Tories in the south, and people always prefer the original to the copy. Cameron is the true heir to Blair, and Labour can’t win by imitating the liberal Conservatives.
Moreover, Tories such as Robert Halfon are urging his party to embrace the tradition of One-Nation and blue-collar conservatism – something which Ruth Davidson has begun to do in Scotland. This is the new centre ground of British politics, and now Labour is nowhere near it.
That is why it needs to go blue. Blue Labour takes a firm position in the struggle between two rival traditions of politics – one rationalist, utilitarian and transactional and the other romantic, principled and transformative. The former may have triumphed at crucial junctures and dominated the twentieth century, but it never caught the imagination of the people. Whether in 1945, 1979 or after 1997, it was the planners, managers, and bureaucrats who won out over the visionaries and the creators. But now this cold rationalism is in crisis, and the tide is turning.
More than any other force within the wider Labour movement, Blue Labour has owned the scale and nature of Labour’s crisis, forged new coalitions of interest and urged the party to abandon its comfort zones – a position stated more fully in Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics.
Blue Labour is about shifting the emphasis from abstract values to the practice of virtue. For Blue Labour, ‘virtue’ is not an empty slogan. Ethics is neither a simplistic moralism nor an optional extra that we can add at will to economy, politics or social relations. Instead, virtue is about pursuing the goods internal to each human activity. It is about promoting a politics of the common good and mutual flourishing – beyond individual rights, personal utility or private happiness. Less Hobbes, Locke and Bentham, more Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Morris, if you like.
Blue Labour acknowledges that the crisis of Labour is about the death of an old left-wing politics, and the loss of millions of people who have deserted the party. And it is about reconnecting with people as they are – as human beings who belong to families, localities and communities and who are embedded in shared traditions, interests and faiths. Neither as lone egos nor as anonymous mass but as relational beings who desire mutual recognition more than wealth and power. If Labour wants to reconnect with people, then it needs to renew and extend its own best traditions – in particular the ethics of virtue inherited from the cooperative movement, Christian socialists and the early trade unions. The Blue Labour paradox is that the old is the new and that tradition shapes the future.
In the early 1970s, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Norman Kirk laid out a political philosophy that Labour would do well to heed. People, he said, don’t want much. They want “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. Relationships and a sense of community, a secure home; a fulfilling job that provides for the family – the building blocks of ‘the good life’.
Labour’s soul-searching has already descended into a messy mix of denial and anger. Now is the time to listen to Britain’s peoples and nations, starting with England.
A longer version of this article can be found here.