The British Labour Party is approaching a natural, if in any case farcical point in its 30-year turn to the right. Impelled towards the liberal-left on largely symbolic social matters in a vain effort to stake a claim to progressivism, the party remains hemmed to its right on matters economic. These narrowed ideological bounds continue to find spirited defence in the dimwitted mainstream media, and largely go unchallenged, either by ineffective unions or the members of the parliamentary party.
In the 15 years after the global recession of the 1990s–a period marked by an unprecedented, if unsustainable, credit-fuelled boom in the OECD, and in particular in Britain–the collective delusions of the pensée unique at least made temporary, fitful sense. These ideological blinders persist even now, in the fifth year an apparently intractable economic crisis–the longest depression in perhaps a century.
Both the Leader of the Opposition and his Shadow Chancellor have argued that Labour would have to make ‘tough economic choices’–that’s public sector/welfare cuts to you and me–in order to capture and harness political power in 2015. Austerity is condemned and co-opted in the same breath. Labour still believes in the mirage of market confidence, that dimming lodestar of neoliberalism. The accumulated confusion of a 40-year counter-revolution hasn’t been swept away despite the greatest economic crisis in the capitalist core in over 80 years.
Labour’s increasingly regressive pronouncements in relation to welfare follow over two years of spending cuts gleefully pursued by the Coalition Government. Failing to deliver a credible alternative to these self-defeating policies, Labour’s pantomime internal battles follow the same script they have for decades. The discontent at the lack of direction in the party (or outright capitulation to the right) usually bubbles underneath the surface among party activists until, in a fit of gall, Labour’s union ‘paymasters’ launch blistering attacks on the party they created. The parliamentary party, in turn, take these criticisms in stride before pushing forward towards ever closer union with the Conservative party. The past is prologue.
The UK is therefore set to be governed for most of the rest of this decade by a tripartite consensus, that austerity is ‘necessary’ in the teeth of a stagnant economy which will remain below its pre-crisis economic peak (measured by GDP on a per capita basis) until 2018. This dismal lost decade makes Japan’s crisis in the 1990s look enviable by comparison.
It is in this context that we must understand a document which may come to define Ed Miliband’s stewardship of the party: One Nation Labour – Debating the Future. A desultory attempt at analysis of the party’s future prospects and direction, the pamphlet is part of a wider Policy Review spearheaded by three ominous-sounding committees of the shadow cabinet: One Nation Economy, One Nation Society and One Nation Politics. Yes, a shudder is in order.
The pamphlet is the brainchild of Jon ‘Labour luminary’ Cruddas, whose introduction lays the ground for the dead intellectual marshes to come. Witness his fourth principle of a One Nation politics:
‘…it is a politics of being together. The traditional phrases were solidarity and fraternity but neither work well for the changes in our country. Solidarity calls upon an underlying shared identity which no longer has the same broad reach in our post industrial, plural and diverse society. Fraternity in contrast does emphasise a diversity amongst equals but it is a sentiment that excludes the political relationship between men and women and between women. The politics of togetherness is a way of talking about the ‘we’ while holding to the uniqueness of each individual. It emphasises how our individual freedom is secured by the equality of constraint we share. ‘
You’re not alone in thinking that entire paragraph is either muddled or presumptuous, or perhaps even just filler. It’s most likely all of these things. Is this the sort of brilliant yarn David Skelton praised when he called Cruddas ‘one of most interesting thinkers in British politics today’?
Most of the rest of the pamphlet reads like the crudest stab at the basest instincts of Home Counties England. Examples abound. Tristram Hunt’s opening salvo is a dreary recap and defence of Disraeli’s One Nation conservative tradition. You’d be excused for mistaking this for an Andrew Tyrie apologia in the Spectator. About half-way through the pamphlet we find Phillip Blond (yes, thatone) talking about a ‘capitalism that benefits all’–a pathetic incoherence. (Put flippantly: are we to believe social ‘mobility’ only has one direction; that it did even at the height of the post-war boom?)
Darker musings lurk behind every corner. Mary Creagh’s contribution appeals to the UKIP voter in all of us (‘A green and pleasant land’) while John Denham’s piece, ‘The progressive national state’, talks about a ‘patriotic economy’ (huh?) in which a ‘progressive patriotic welfare state must reï¬‚ect contribution and earned entitlement.’ (That’s the end of the post-war welfare state as we know it, then, couched in the most ridiculous, nationalist bluster.)
We come to our stride with Lord Maurice Glasman’s truly bizarre twist to the proceedings. Before seemingly dividing the economy into ‘the workforce, along with [the public sector's?] funders and users’ he indulges himself in an exceptional piece of liberal apologetics (the rich needn’t fear us, we just want ‘recognition’ from you!) which deserves to be quoted at length:
With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established. It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good. In all areas of policy, estranged and divided parts of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value. It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.
Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation. There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good. That argument needs to be made again, for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value…
So what is going on here? Perry Anderson once famously described Labourism (‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964) as that ‘most stolid and mundane of political movements.’ Much of what he had to say in that withering attack against Britain’s national culture–about its conservatism, its institutional inertia–finds discomforting echoes in Cruddas’ pamphlet. Its analysis is shoddy when not incomplete; its message, ‘radical and conservative,’ bereft of any proposals resembling root-and-branch reform of the British state. (With, if one gives Anderson’s heavily criticised analysis the benefit of the doubt, profoundly arresting effects on the UK’s economic development.)
No indeed; this pamphlet is one of the clearest indications ever of the Labour Party’s increasing inability, or desire to do much at all that might seem radical in a leftist direction. On the contrary, it anchors the party on the conservative right–an odd whiff of Little England imagery here, a touch of the National Common Patriotic Will there. Coherence is an absent friend; for better or worse, Cameron’s smash and grab of the public sector makes a heck of a lot more sense than the atavistic nonsense caked on large swathes of this manifesto.
Instead of proposing a way out of crisis and terminal (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) relative decline, this pamphlet reads like a final, vulgar capitulation to the inevitable. This is no promise of an elegant or dignified decline; quite the opposite. Grasping at totems, cloaked in the shabbiest, dodgiest cultural rags: Is this all that’s left of Britain’s ‘democratic socialist’ party?