What is Labour’s British Story?
Open Democracy, August 5th 2008
The recent salvo across Gordon Brown’s bow by David Miliband shows that there is still some life in the top echelons of Labour. However, Milband’s prognosis, along with the delicate decoding and musings of Sunder Katwala, embody the problems and limitations of thinking in London’s Labour circles.
This is an existential crisis for Labour. It might have been brought to a head by its dire opinion poll ratings, shocking by-election defeats and Gordon Brown’s uninspiring leadership, but it is about much more than even a significant setback in popularity. There is a sense of pessimism and fatalism that Labour’s immediate troubles have uncovered. This go deep into the party and helps explain its tumbling membership, as even its once loyal supporters come to sense the tremendous limitations of New Labour thinking as well as its politics. These include:
• What does Labour stand for beyond the platitudes of ‘economic prosperity with social justice’ and ‘for the many, not the few’?
• Who does Labour give voice to and how does it aid, support and encourage the articulation of that voice?
• What is the Labour understanding of nation and place, and is there such a thing as a ‘Labour nation’ and a ‘Labour place’?
Ask these questions and you’ll find that David Miliband’s evocation of ‘change’ and ‘radicalism’ in his ‘Guardian’ piece evokes an underlying Thatcherite orthodoxy, rather than someone calling for greater equality in an unfair world. Decoding his text in best Kremlinology fashion seems to indicate more than that he just wants to leave his options open. His failure to mention social justice, beyond complaining that the Tories have no right to lay claim to it, in an essay brimming with platitudes, indicates that part of him views the Thatcherite/Blairite consensus as beyond question.
Miliband talks what might once have been an intoxicating talk of ‘empowerment, ‘devolution’ and ‘localism’. This may still impress some Westminster anoraks and those in its think tank world. For the rest of us, such Labour language has become utterly devoid of substance and action. It is not just that this language has consistently proven to be New Labour window-dressing. It is worse than that. While such terms are consistent with traditional Labour means and social democratic thinking in this country, they are being deployed for very different ends.
Labour is a social democratic party. As such (as David Marquand also points out) it urgently needs to reconsider its historic and contemporary approaches to centralism and the use of the state. In addition it needs to rethink its view of the nature of the UK, and the idea of ‘the Labour nation’ and ‘Labour place’.
Understanding the Limits of Centralism
Labour has traditionally been the party of the central state. The dominant account of this has been the Fabian tradition which saw the state as a powerful political instrument for good – for planning, for redistribution and for taking progressive decisions.
Under New Labour centralism intensified to a ridiculous degree of micro-management, often to the point of parody, and local government was reduced to powerlessness. Westminster ministers now decide practically everything in public life in England, sucking up powers while they lament the state of civil society.
This is of course a long story, beginning with the creation of the welfare state in the 1940s, and accelerating in the 1970s with local government cuts, and then reaching turbo-speed under Thatcherism. Blairism has joined in with a vengeance. Reversing it would have been hard and would have needed a politics not just a different manner of administration. But this points to the fact that powerful forces in the centre have produced this state of affairs. They are not about to be reversed by warm rhetoric about ‘localism’.
State Power, its Legitimacy and Progressivism
There has long been a Labour tradition which saw increased government spending and the extension of the state as equalling progressive politics. This logic would make George W. Bush among the most centre-left politicians in the history of the United States! New Labour utilised an approach that questioned this attitude, and has talked about recognising the limits of the state, but it has done so to re-order the state, acknowledging its limits to do progressive things while continuing to support a politics where the state expands, extends and claims more and more power – all the while deregulating where it can, marketising as much as possible, and undermining those who believe in the public good.
Who in Labour’s senior ranks dares to disown the determinist view of the world offered by the Julius report which argues that you can outsource all government actions apart from the commissioners? A party venturing into such terrain is a party which no longer fulfils its historic mission of protecting people from the power of the market.
The Character of the United Kingdom
The mainstream Labour tradition bought into the Whig version of British history: of continuity and lack of rupture. (See, for example, Gordon Brown’s famous speech on Britishness to the Fabian Society in January 2006 where he claimed to be continuing the “golden thread which runs through British history – that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215…”) But Labour also perceived the UK as a unitary state, where the centre held a monopoly of political power to enforce standardisation and uniformity across the whole country.
This has always been a fallacy. The UK has never been a unitary state and is instead what the political scientists Stein Rokkan and David Urwin have called ‘a union state’. Such a political order is neither a unitary or federal state, but a complex hybrid. A union state can have distinct sub-national and regional arrangements and also allows for the maintenance and preservation of ‘pre-union rights’ in the union. This latter point explains Scotland’s continued negotiated autonomy post-1707; Wales and Northern Ireland have had different experiences, but have undertaken routes which have preserved their distinctiveness and enhanced their autonomy.
A unitary state could not contain the different polities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but nonetheless the political centre of the UK – Labour, Tories, the civil service and media – have consistently misunderstood the UK as a unitary state.
Labour’s participation in this failure permitted it to preside over devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without understanding the context and implications of what it was doing. Labour established new institutions and yet at the same time remained wedded to a unitary understanding of power alongside the unreformed nature of the political centre.
What is the Labour Story of the Nation?
The persistent reluctance of the nexus of ‘bright’ Labour politicians like Miliband and those of his generation in the Cabinet to even debate this or accept that it is an issue shows that they too are in denial. Once there was indeed a clear Labour story of the nation. It was a profoundly British story, about progress, the forward march of working people interwoven with the claim of organised labour: a story of ‘the common people’ which gave the Labour Party a sense of moral mission and purpose which carried appeal far beyond its trade union boundaries.
This account was beginning to fray in the 1960s and 1970s, and it fell apart in the 1980s and 1990s. New Labour in part recognised this. Under Blair it attempted to weave a new narrative about diversity, pluralism and cosmopolitanism. This evaporated into derision over ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Re-branding Britain’ even before the honeymoon of having Labour instead of the Tories turned sour. It was an agenda, based on hype, hyperbole and false-hope, profoundly urban and English, but cod-American in its attempt to use marketing to reshape national identities. Brown’s lonely efforts at reconstructing Britishness with responsibility and flying the flag are, in a way, even sadder. Not just because they are humourless and lack even the British tradition of irony and self-deprecation but also because they are second attempt to make re-branding work!
What is the Labour Sense of Place?
Do we have any sense about what a Labour shaped community or place looks like anymore? Beyond the rhetoric of Labour ministers about ‘localism’, ‘community empowerment’ and Richard Rogers inspired ‘place making’, does Labour have any idea – after a decade of grinding central attrition of local decision making – about what a Labour community and place could be?
There once was a Labour answer to this which would have invoked self-organising, self-disciplined working class communities which were shaped by a range of voluntary groups and activities from trade unions to church groups and cultural bodies sitting alongside an active state.
This powerful ideal has ended in the grim reality of Glasgow East: an area which is a mixture of deprivation and poverty alongside the insecure middle class of urban Scotland. What a place like Glasgow East lacks is a sense of voice and power. It used to have both of these characteristics, in part aided by the Labour Party alongside others. But no longer. Even before its disastrous defeat, could anyone but the most blinkered Labour loyalist claim the party gives a voice to such areas?
After Social Democracy?
A major problem running through all of the above is mainstream Labour and social democratic thinking; New Labour has appropriated its approach but for a very different kind of politics.
David Miliband might like to claim the solution is a fusion of ‘social democracy and radical liberal tradition’ into a “single narrative” as if the latter could be transplanted across without really altering the nature of social democracy as we know it. In fact fundamental surgery is needed. Labour and social democracy have never in their history adequately understood the limitations of the state and centralism in the way that late Victorian and Edwardian radical liberalism instinctly did.
Phil Collins and Richard Reeves, whom Katwala counter-attacks, are both right and wrong here. They are right to address the over-arching shadow of the Fabian tradition of centralism which like an Upas tree has killed off the British left’s older decentralist traditions. However, their remedy is even more ‘poisonous’ than Fabianism: an anti-political, dogmatic and narrow view of politics and economy, one which is bereft of any concept of political economy, and filled with a notion of change shaped by management consultants and buzzwords.
Labour does desperately need to alter how it thinks of the world. It needs to weave a path which avoids the twin cul-de-sacs of Fabianism and the new conservatives. It needs to open up to new ideas about territoriality, nation, state and place. It needs to ask what would be the ingredients of a successful, self-governing, self-sustaining Labour community and place, and how it balances this with issues of equity? We know one thing for sure – Glasgow East and the existing order of things is about as far as you can get from such a place as possible.
(Instead, the only ‘hope’ or sense of spirit Labour offered the voters there was a defiant defensive ‘we’ll show them’ local patriotism after the SNP pointed out that some of its health indicators were worse than Gaza. A kind of sad futureless syndicalism, ‘We may be hopeless, but we are the hopeless of Glasgow so watch out!’ that may indeed have drawn 10,000 loyal supporters to the polls – but even they know it has no future.)
Meanwhile, a change of thinking, and a new radical politics, that does indeed combine elements of social democracy and liberalism, is already underway: outside of Westminster and the narrow bandwidth of New Labour. Progressive agendas are already growing across the UK. Of course, sometimes they are noisy and suffer from interference. But this is a sign of their vitality. In Scotland, first, the coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems, and now, more pronounced, the SNP minority administration, have given life to a revitalised social democratic sensibility. In Wales, the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition, and in London before Boris Johnson’s election, the Labour/Green collaboration, have shown similar possibilities.
What such genuinely new “fusions” of power have in common is that they have developed within the context of bodies elected by proportional representation, and they gave voice to very different constituencies and their leaders do not echo New Labour mantras: Alex Salmond in Scotland, Rhodri Morgan in Wales, and Ken Livingstone in London – all representing a new kind of popular politician. But reading David Miliband’s ‘Guardian’ article and Sunder Katwala’s response, I get the impression that the Westminster Labour village of ministers, advisers and think tanks, has little grasp of this. They don’t understand that lots of us already inhabit a political process that is broadly positive and we have a different experience of change from the direction New Labour has taken.
There have been considerable achievements of a decade of Labour. But it is tarnished and threatened by where it seeks to take progressive – and British – politics. The Westminster village seem blind to the way New Labour has trashed the egalitarian and public impulse of the labour movement and diminished what it means to be on the left. Old fashioned social democracy needed to be democratised, to put it mildly. Instead, Blair-and-Brownism, for want of a better word, have made it something worse. There is now no unique Labour story of its mission and purpose, merely a commitment by its officer class to the new order. Nor is there a Labour story of the nation and nations of these isles.
Progressives need to offer sustenance to the hopes, energies and imaginations of people with effective concepts of voice and power. Such a new progressive imagination can already be seen in Scotland and Wales, where it will continue to grow with or without Labour. It will then find its English form.
The choice for Labour is whether it wants to remain the party of the new ancien regime paving the way for the Conservatives or whether it can begin to make the break from this mindset. No debate about the future of Labour is worth its salt if it fails to confront this.