Two days ago I joined the Labour Party. This was not a straightforward decision for me. I had grown up in Durham in the North East of England, witnessing the effects that years of conservative government had had on the region. To begin with, it was simply obvious to me that I would, as an adult, take an active involvement in the Labour Party. The founding principles of the party were essential to an area where the traditional industries had been so badly hammered with no alternative investment, where social housing was so seriously needed, where the public sector formed a huge proportion of the local employment opportunities and where the divisions between the privileged and the under-privileged were stark. It was evident that Labour was what we needed. I talk of region not just because of the economic factors that I have outlined here, but also because of the ways that these factors are involved in the traditions of the area. The heritage of trade unionism and the labour movement is extremely strong, evidenced by things like the annual ‘Big Meeting’, the Durham Miners’ Gala that happens to be taking place today. This is bound up in the broader culture of the region – you can see evidence of it in music, poetry, art, craft and stand-up comedy. There are certain notions of what it is to be a worker, and to be a member of society, which run through many strands of regional identity. Maybe one of these days I will write a post that elaborates on that, but it will be one for another day.
I do not want to big up my involvement in these things, because that is an extremely complex subject. I am a child of relative privilege, the kid of two Oxford graduates who occupied relatively secure, relatively high earning public sector jobs. My engagement with this culture was always a choice, which in a sense meant that it could not be a wholesale engagement. I simply could not demand a claim in the elements of the narrative that appealed to disenfranchisement and disempowerment. This reinforced for me the necessity of tearing down fences. On completing my A-levels, I went to the University of St Andrews, the university with the highest proportion of public school students in the UK, to study for a degree in philosophy. That was exciting, and it also sort of stung.
By this time, Labour had already been in power for three years. Can you remember how exciting the Labour landslide was in 1997? Like many others, I was thrilled, despite a definite uncertainty about Blair. Had I been old enough at the time, it would have been utterly obvious that I would have voted Labour back then. My grandfather, who had been a Labour councillor in Bristol alongside Tony Benn, and very much part of the same political mould, lived to hear the results of the election, and died just a few hours afterwards.
Where did the disillusionment set in? It would be easy, as I have done many times before, to say things about Iraq, and that was certainly part of it. The people’s flag should not be used as a shroud to cover the dead of its own unnecessary brutality. But that is only one part of the picture – Labour abandoned everything that had once spoken meaningfully to me. In his public lecture at UEA last term, Jon Cruddas said that:
‘By 2001, New Labour’s policies were essentially based on a mythical ‘Middle England’, drawn up by the pollsters and located somewhere in the South East, built around continuous growth and affluence and where politics always had to be individualised … a sour, illiberal politics about consuming more, rather than deeper ideas- of fraternity, of collective experience, and what it is we aspire to be as a nation.’
The party lost its connections to traditions, to collectivity, and opted to bribe people with ‘aspirational’ lifestyles, rather than to connect with the genuine fabric of people’s lives and the historical, material, social and cultural environments that we did, do and can inhabit. New Labour became a party based on a politic that was, as Cruddas put it, ‘transactional, allocative, rational’. What is worse is that this is a conception of the rational that subverts rationality. Reason is divorced from passion such that one is being ‘irrational’ if one is adhering to almost any political principle that is not founded on an economic one. Politics becomes the servant of economics, and the economy is valued for its own sake, not for the sake of people.
Cruddas’ lecture seriously hit home for me because it summed up eloquently why I had become so jaded with the Labour Party, and how the party where I felt I belonged had been whisked away from under my nose just as I was becoming old enough to get involved in it. Labour had become obsessed with the coldly rationalistic individualist agent associated with Thatcherite economic models. But now influential people in the Labour Party were saying so. Cruddas’ lecture gave me real hope that there were conversations of real substance going on within the party, and I started to feel that I wanted to be involved with those conversations. Labour is not (yet) the party that I would like it to be, but recent noises have shown it to be a party that is alive with discussion that opens the window for real substantive, deep and ideological change. Labour is not pissing about with pasties, it is concerned with what it stands for, and what we as a nation should be aiming for. Many voices within the labour party are calling for a political vision that is engaged with people’s lives.
Ed Miliband was accused (by Baroness Warsi, unsurprisingly) of left-wing trade union cronyish militancy when he appeared at the Miners’ Gala today. What Warsi misses is that the Gala is a community event, absolutely linked in with the heritage, economic traditions and culture of the region. Far from being a militant imposition, this is the real big society in action. As Miliband put it ‘When you see people marching past as I did from the balcony of that hotel, a march people have been doing for 140 years, I think that it is not just about politics, it is about the strengths of these communities… The idea that the people here are a bunch of militants, as some of my opponents say, is nonsense.’
As is already evident, the current Labour interest in talking about the big ideas of tradition, identity and class are one of the reasons why I have finally felt able to join. However, these very discussions also have a tendency to make me somewhat uneasy. It is not news to anyone that the Labour Party is an extremely broad church, with different interest groups within it. Instinctively, my natural allegiance would be with the party’s Socialist Campaign Group, founded in the year of my birth by the likes of Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn and Michael Meacher. However, over the past year or so, much of the interesting discussion that suggests ways in which Labour can reconnect with communities and regain its ideological ‘soul’ has emanated from figures like Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glassman: politicians associated with the term ‘Blue Labour’, ‘the attempt to combine left-wing economics with social conservatism’ (Neil O’ Brien, New Statesman, 9th July 2012).
This is hardly surprising given the emphasis on tradition and on national identity that I have just discussed. But what irks me here (OK, it makes my blood boil) is the conception of tradition that is used when linking this element of left-wing thought to anything ‘blue’ or ‘conservative’. The concepts of tradition, and of history, are bound up with challenges against the very Thatcherite conception of the person that the left have to combat. Maurice Glasman, and certainly to some extent Jon Cruddas, are virtue theorists, deeply concerned with the Aristotelian idea of man as a ‘political animal’, whose character and destiny are bound up with those of the communities in which he participates. Glasman is very familiar, although not always in agreement, with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a contemporary virtue ethicist, who writes that:
‘The story of my life is always embedded in the stories of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualistic mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.’
So far, so good (at least in my book) and Glasman and co. agree with that. The emphasis on tradition is a much needed salve to the ideologically empty economism that has dominated Labour’s discourse. There is a similar tension on the right: Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a cover for the deep splits in his party between Thatcherism and One Nation Conservatism. The cold individualism of neoliberal homo economicus has been on the rise in both parties over the past thirty years or more, and I could say a load of stuff about Karl Marx and Adam Smith here, but I think that is for another day. Cameron saw the rift and came up with a handy bit of rhetoric to plaster over it, one which has now pretty much eroded. Labour is thinking seriously about the philosophy. MacIntyre continues:
Notice that rebellion against my identity is always one possible mode of expressing it. (After Virtue, p. 221)
The Blue Labour line needs to pay close attention to this. What is tradition? We might attempt to sum it up in terms of a set of propositions agreed to by a certain group, or a set of institutions or activities that they all participate in, or a grand common narrative that they share. However, this is potentially very dangerous. Take, for example, David Cameron’s off-the-shelf prêt-à-porter vision of Englishness, which is about as English as my pretentious urge to use the term ‘prêt-à-porter’ even though I had already said ‘off-the-shelf’. To begin with, like Blair’s middle England, this vision does not really connect with the lives of more than a vanishingly small proportion of England (let alone the large non-English parts of our country, but hey, they never vote tory anyway). But what is more to the point is that in order to be a responsible ‘English’ citizen, one must buy into the model wholesale, with all the allegiances that are bolted on to it. We must be committed to family values, to monarchism, militarism and church, to Union Jack cushions, street parties, bunting, cream cakes, flags and some notion of the ‘Olympic Spirit’ that is terribly terribly English but also seems to be what the rest of the world should aspire to…
Not only does this commit the terrible sin of putting me off my cream cakes, it is also an account of Englishness that is rigid, dogmatic, top-down, inflexible and, well, conservative. This is a danger that Blue Labour should be acutely aware of. One reason that attentiveness to tradition is so significant in politics is that traditions can be harmful and insidious. They can warp the ways that we think so as to reinforce division and inequality.
Political theory is almost invariably bound up with traditional patterns of thought of one kind or another. We are all standing somewhere (not just in a nation, but also in a local community, a class, a point in history and as animals of a particular kind on a particular kind of planet) and to claim that we are uninfluenced by our history and culture is either delusional or disingenuous. That is one of the problems with neoliberalism and many versions of liberalism. But the problem with Cameron’s line is that the role of tradition is openly acknowledged, and then a certain view of tradition is embraced uncritically, and in a way that makes criticism impossible. If you do not ascribe to it, you are not properly ‘English’, you are not even a part of English traditions.
A useful analogy is the distinction between the artifacts of culture which are preserved in museums and stately homes, or protected by strict copyright, and those that operate in the oral traditions of storytelling and folk music. Let’s be clear: I am not making value judgments about these different art forms. The former is not subject to change. The painting, the words on the page, and the music on the computer hard drive will be the same any time they are viewed or heard, for an indefinite amount of time. By contrast, a folk song or story is public – both in that it is not owned by anyone, but also in that it can be modified and transformed into many different forms by anyone. It is of the people, and as such, there will be ‘families’ of songs and tales, with wider and narrower diversions. The stories will interweave, split, and combine in a vast array of ways. Once someone owns the story, tells everyone how it should go, forbids its variation and shames those who attempt to do it, it is no longer a folk story.
Tradition is not a single story, or set of beliefs or activities that persists in the same way for hundreds of years. That is not tradition, it is relic. A reliance on tradition, understood as a complex set of interweaving narratives, is necessary for us to know where we are going. Tradition must be discursive, public and open to transformation and radical reform. That is not blue, and it is most definitely not conservative. I dislike the term ‘Blue Labour’ for this reason, and the movement, which has a great deal to admire about it, should be deeply concerned about the notion of tradition that they adopt. Both Cruddas and Glasman are (I think to different extents) aware of these dangers, but should never forget the insidious classism of the One Nation Tory who looms over their shoulders.
‘Traditions’ can silence and isolate people as well as unite them. The embracing of romantic visions, of fraternity, of all the language that has been lost on the left is a valuable thing. For a tradition to be a genuine tradition of the people, the people must be enabled to participate in it. This requires a flexible understanding of the nature of tradition itself, together with policies that create the material and social conditions that are necessary for participation.
I am not sure whether Labour will ultimately go in the right direction. I feel conflicted about joining a party with so much blood on its hands. I am worried about the ‘return of Blair’, and countless other issues. But I have come in because Labour have opened the door. For now, there is a genuine discussion, and a chance for the people to have a voice in a way that is impossible in the other mainstream parties. It is not long in the grand scheme of things before the next general election. We need to work hard, as members of political parties, communities and society at large, to ensure that voice can continue to be heard.