by Sebastian Milbank
Blue Labour is frequently accused of being ‘sentimental’ and of ‘romanticising’ everything from the working classes to British history. This accusation is not uniquely levelled at us however – it’s thrown at anybody who challenges the prevailing liberal consensus on everything from migration to marriage and the family. It isn’t just hurled at people as a disingenuous smear (though it’s that too), it represents certain intellectual and ideological limitations. Tradition, as a concept, lies somewhere beyond the horizon of the liberal worldview – it’s an impediment to be overcome, detritus to be broken down and scrubbed away. Simply put tradition is not really understood by those who attack it as ‘sentimental’.
What such attacks ignore is that political radicalism itself has traditions. From the radical agrarian and democratic politics of the levellers and diggers, to the long history of trade unionism, which goes all the way back to machine breakers and luddites. These groups were certainly traditional (and often highly religious too), strongly seized of their traditional rights, the importance of community and family, and a sense of patriotism. They too were mocked at the time by privileged ‘progressives’ whether they be the parliamentarians or the later Whigs, who attacked them as impediments to progress. Whether it was the ‘improvements’ involved in the enclosure of common land or the industrialisation that cost many workers their jobs, the destruction brought about by technological change was presented as natural and inevitable. Political radicals had the daring and the vision to see that these changes were far from neutral and inevitable, but that extreme and far-reaching political projects were being piggy-backed onto technological shifts. Rather than placing technology in the hands of ordinary people, both agricultural and urban workers were losing valuable political rights and powers, especially in the workplace. Movements like those for universal suffrage and the redistribution of wealth were not borne forth by a triumphant tide of progress, they were great popular reactions to a vast expansion of power by the upper classes. The great struggle of socialism and left politics has always been not just about redistributing resources, but far more fundamentally about taking power back from the strong, and giving a voice to the weak.
By denying that the Labour movement has deep roots, modern day progressives are cutting themselves off from a vast and rich source of knowledge and strength. Nor is attachment to tradition a fringe concern of a few, it’s a fundamental driver of political behaviour across the political spectrum. The failure to root the remain case in tradition and patriotism (a hard sell admittedly) helped seal the leave vote in the Brexit referendum. Nor is this just a matter of white working-class sentiments. The Labour membership became deeply alienated from the party under Blair, not just because of Iraq, but because he represented a loss of integrity and identity for the Labour party. The sense of being part of a project that was more than being a ‘party of government’ but was about actual values and ideals, a sense of being part of a movement that challenged corruption and exploitation, was entirely lost over the course of the Blair government. Communitarian politics hovered like a ghost over Blair and Brown’s time in office, but the promise of a ‘third way’ never materialised, instead degenerating into a sordid compromise between government and big business.
This tremendous sense of alienation came not due to a lack of political achievements, but because the government ceased to speak the traditional language of Labour, instead adopting the jarring rhythms of tabloid vindictiveness towards criminals, the unfamiliar dissonance of liberal identitarianism and the flat tone of technocratic managerialism. The Corbyn revolution seemed like an alien intrusion to many in the press and leadership of the party, but for many ordinary members (a large proportion of whom had voted for Blair back in the day), it was widely seen as a return to Labour fundamentals and a restoration of their identity. Corbyn’s unpolished, forthright and unapologetic articulation of basic Labour values and traditions, helped him secure not just the leadership but also the better than expected 2015 election result.
Whilst a large part of the membership has been strongly re-engaged, an important part of the Labour vote was also alienated by the Blair government – the white working classes. Labour took their votes for granted and Gordon Brown’s reaction to one voter’s mild-manner question about immigration – ‘bigoted woman’ – came to symbolise the contempt of the political classes for ordinary people’s concerns and interest. Corbyn has a tremendous challenge, as does the party as a whole, in bringing these voters back and not just rhetorically reflecting their concerns, but recognising that globalisation, uncontrolled migration and family breakdown have done untold damage to the working poor, and working to reverse that damage. Right now only Blue Labour is daring to tackle these issues head on, and seeking to articulate a left-wing response to Tory failures on all of them. The sad thing is that the party is actually well placed to effect positive change in all these areas. Corbyn’s promise to end freedom of movement and his call for a ‘fair’ and ‘managed’ system of migration suggested some level of willingness to listen to Brexit voters on the issue of migration. The Labour platform on a range of polices from the child benefit cap, to strengthening labour protections to challenging the bedroom tax, is actually far more pro-family and pro-country than the increasingly rootless, crony-capitalist politics of the Tory party. But despite all of this there remains an almost allergic reaction to pressing the advantage Labour has on these issues, and speaking a language that has the potential to reach millions of voters who feel neglected and let down by mainstream politics.
It all goes back to the issue of tradition. I said before that radicals have traditions too, and that’s true. But it’s also the case that the perspective of tradition itself is more suited to radical politics than a whiggish progressivism. The progressive criticises the present from the perspective of a possible future. This isn’t wrong, but it is uniquely open to being misused. The future that the progressive promises is unrealised and imaginary, by its very nature it isn’t open to being itself critiqued in the way it can critique the lived reality of a present political or economic regime. More sinister than the proposal of a future utopia is the insistence on inevitable change, independent of human volition or individual conscience. When a particular idea is labelled as ‘progressive’ it is doubly lifted above critique. On the one hand it is perpetually ‘on its way’, so the extent to which any criticism is recognised by the progressive as having truth, it is only a criticism of a flawed early stage of a future promise. On the other hand, the costs of the idea may be fully recognised, but are recast as ‘inevitable’ – and the political discussion is shifted to one of how to ease the implementation of the proposed step. This dangerously shifts the idea out of the realm of politics, and even if it is a good idea, makes it an instrument of power to be wielded by those who dominate progressive discourse (thus bringing to pass Mill’s feared ‘tyranny of opinion’).
As we see with the issue of automation, technology that has the potential to empower an individual artisan, make a worker more productive and strengthen communities, is wielded as a weapon to control and regulate individuals. Whilst the ‘progressive’ view demanded a tight script and a timetable, the ‘traditional’ view dared to envisage technology being employed in a more democratic and egalitarian manner from Morris’ championing of craft to the workplace democracy of the Mondragon Corporation. That liberative and exploitative potentials exist in all powerful technologies is a perception that the many ‘progressives’ tends to exclude, precisely because they wish to reduce politics to being reactive to technological shifts and to ‘historical forces’ more broadly.
Tradition does not mean, despite how it is usually misrepresented, the unquestioning transmission of unchanging ideas and practices down the ages. Rather tradition is an intergenerational transfer of knowledge, rituals, and power that never fails to change and add in the process of transmission. At a very deep level tradition is a kind of collective memory, and like the memory it is constantly changing with the addition of each new memory, inflecting and rearranging all the ones that came before. In relation to politics this is tremendously important. Rather than referring to a possible future, we can ground our critique in an actual past. It isn’t about seeking to reproduce a past context (a thing both impossible and undesirable) but about rooting our critique in lived reality. There’s nothing wrong with conceiving a possible future, but it is far more radical to do so in reference to an actual past.
The knowledge that it didn’t use to be this way is a deeply radical sentiment, the seed of protest, democracy and real political change. For Labour voters and members, the knowledge that Britain was once a far more equal country, that homelessness was once far rarer, that working-class people have effected massive political change, is a vital spur to action and a powerful counter to those who say it has to be this way. If anything embodies the truly authoritarian and anti-democratic reality behind many supposedly ‘progressive’ viewpoints, it’s the continual cry of it has to be this way. To be rooted in tradition is to know politics as a contingent thing, an open field, a space of freedom. A person not versed in the technocratic jargon of modern politics can’t argue in the same language with those who say the markets must be left alone, or that mass migration is economically desirable. But they have access to the kind of knowledge that is inherent to tradition; they know they used to be paid a better wage, that they could once afford a house, that we didn’t used to have large scale immigration and life went on perfectly well without it.
When we try to turn politics into a science rather than art, when we try to drag people to where we’d like them to be rather than speaking to them where they are, we are not being radical. I have great pride in the achievements of Labour in 1945, but we must ask ourselves why all that was gained was lost, why policies that brought prosperity and equality were so easily swept aside. The next great Labour revolution must look to tradition, learn from the mistakes of the past, and leave its legacy not just in Whitehall, but in the hands of the British people, never to be stolen or forsaken again.
Sebastian Milbank is the Blue Labour coordinator for Cambridge and a graduate student studying political theology