Labour’s Janus project

We’ve had a four month leadership contest. There have been several TV debates, many hustings, hundreds of supporter meetings and countless discussions in CLPs up and down the country. Jeremy Corbyn alone spoke at 99 rallies. By now we should know exactly what the Labour party stands for.

Yeah, right. The leadership contest mainly consisted of people shouting past each other. We aired our differences but settled nothing. There was, at last, some talk about what the Labour party is for. But no decisions were reached, no consensus emerged.

Corbyn’s remarkable victory means something deeper and more important than a lurch to the left (after the shitstorm of recent days, we can forget about enjoying our “comfort zone”). Labour wasn’t a Bennite hard left party when I went to bed on Friday night and it hadn’t become one by the time Chelsea kicked off against Everton at lunchtime on Saturday. But for good or for ill, the party has reasserted itself as a political movement rather than an electoral machine. Labour will now, at last, have to stop fudging, nudging and grudgingly bending to the political winds. It will have to decide what the main left-of-centre party in a modern European democracy should look like. There will be a lot of blood on the carpet, and it may well cost us the 2020 election. But it had to be done sooner or later.

One of the most frequently heard complaints about Labour during the election campaign was, “I don’t know what they stand for”. Older voters often added “any more”. Younger voters just shrugged their shoulders. Some didn’t even realise that Labour is supposed to be a left-of-centre party (although they probably do now).

In recent years, Labour has sought out policies that might be popular with “swing” voters and then tried to stitch them together into a political programme. It didn’t work because it’s the wrong way round. One of the biggest fallacies in modern politics is that you “sell” policies like you sell oven-ready lasagne or flat-screen tellies. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to learn from marketing techniques. But in the end they are just that — marketing techniques. They’re not a substitute for politics.

Voters know they’re not “buying” policies the way they buy things at the supermarket — apart from anything else because they can’t pick and choose the ones they like. They have to take or leave the whole package. Even if they like your policies, if they think your leader is a bit flaky or your cabinet is full of spivs and crooks, they probably won’t vote for you. Unless they strongly identify with a party already, they choose according to a complex mixture of motivations and previously-held convictions: their own material wellbeing; the effect on their community and the issues or causes they care about; the competence of the party leaders and the credibility of their programme; voters’ own sense of identity and how they feel about Britain’s place in the world. Many of these responses are emotional rather than strictly rational.

The American academic George Lakoff has argued the left often ignores the emotional impact of political argument, while the right ruthlessly exploits emotion and presents arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff.

We saw this very clearly in the 1980s. Voters weren’t suddenly converted to Margaret Thatcher’s free market mania once the Exocets started flying in the south Atlantic in May 1982. In portraying the Falklands as a sort of rebirth of the British nation, Thatcher wove her free market ideas into a story about Britain that a good chunk of voters responded to. It swept aside their previously deeply-held concerns about Thatcher’s destruction of industry and her uncaring attitude towards poverty and unemployment. In short, she created a myth around grains of truth and persuaded people to believe in it.

If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal consensus.

Voters seem increasingly reluctant to jump into the boxes politicians set out for them — “Worcester woman”, “white-van man” and so on. They keep changing their minds and their priorities. Sometimes emotion swamps reason, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is because they are complex beings responding to a world in flux. By the time politicians and pollsters have identified a group, let alone calibrated policies for it, the group has already broken up – if it ever existed in the first place.

White van man might be an English patriot who’s not keen in immigration, but he’s also pissed off with insecure employment, with paying through the nose for inadequate housing and that his local has been turned into another Tesco Metro. Is he left wing or right wing? Worcester woman might be concerned about tax rises and standards at her local comp, but she also does voluntary work for a refugee charity and is campaigning to save her local hospital. Pigeon-hole her if you dare.

To win power, Labour needs to win back voters from the Tories, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Stay at Home party. It will have to persuade people who feel let down that it will do enough for them or for the things they care about. At the same time, it must persuade some people who are doing okay, or think they’re doing okay, that it won’t do too much and wreck things. Coming over as more “left wing” and more “right wing” at the same time will be tough to say the least, but as Jimmy Maxton said, “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”.

Forget policies that tack to the left or the right. For Labour, the only way through this is to come up with a completely different story about what Britain can be from the one offered by the Tories. Britain doesn’t need a second big neo-liberal party. We have a perfectly good (and rather effective) one already. If Labour wants to keep its place as “the other big party” in the UK, it has no choice but to define itself against the free market consensus which, whatever its merits, led directly to the banking crisis, wrecked European unity and has no answers to the three great economic problems we face: soaring inequality, stagnating living standards for working people and appalling levels of productivity.

We don’t have to lurch to the left or reject the moderate values that have always had a place in the Labour party. But there’s no point in Labour moderates pursuing neo-liberalism any further. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right to say that Corbyn’s triumph is “mainly about the strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse of Labour moderates”. If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal “consensus”. And it needn’t be that much of a wrench. Labour moderates like to talk about aspiration, but there’s nothing very aspirational about neo-liberalism. It’s a gloomy philosophy which assigns most people the status of losers in a global race which never ends.

The failure of the free market neo-liberalism to protect things people value is a huge weakness for the right and for the British Conservative Party, whose rhetoric still emphasises security, tradition and community while, in reality, trampling all over them. But it’s a weakness Labour, and the left in general, has failed to exploit.

Labour needs a vision that joins people’s instinctive “conservatism” — their need for a strong sense of identity and desire to protect things they treasure — with their equally instinctive feelings for fairness, equality and generosity. This shouldn’t be that hard for Labour people – right, left or centre — to get their heads round. Because it’s not just where the voters are, it’s where democratic socialism is too. Social democracy isn’t about destroying things, it’s about building things. And sometimes that means preserving things that we value. Let’s face it, most of us on the left have spent the last 30 years opposing change.

Mixing social democratic values with  traditionally “conservative” ideas about national pride and local control makes a powerful cocktail.

Public alarm at the pace of change in our way of life is often dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia. That’s patronising bollocks and the left should have no truck with it. Whether it’s Routemaster buses, Woolworths, local hospitals, pubs, railways stations and high street shops, or pensions, employment rights, affordable family housing and time with our kids that are under threat, it’s the same global free-market steamroller that’s crushing them.

This means coming to terms with the fact that socialism and (small c) conservatism maybe different but they’re not opposites, and global free market capitalism is pushing them closer together. It’s perfectly possible to build an alternative that will deliver strict fiscal rectitude without hitting the poor hardest (as James Meadway, chief economist at the New Economic Foundation argued recently in this excellent piece). What kind of socialist doesn’t want to wring the last penny of value from the people’s money? And you can make a powerful electoral cocktail by mixing social democratic values with more traditionally “conservative” ideas about identity, national pride and local control, as the SNP have shown in Scotland.

But we can’t do this if people pay lip service to the idea that Labour is a “big tent” while spending most of their time trying to push people out one end or the other. I no more think that Jeremy Corbyn is a Trot than I think Liz Kendall is a Tory; you can’t expect everyone on the left of politics to agree, nor would it be desirable if they did. And we can’t do it as long as we remain mesmerised by neo-liberalism – either meekly following it or just sloganeering against it. Just let it go. We need a serious and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism and we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it.

Middle Gingers, Frimley, Surrey

Look left, look right, look left again

When I joined the newly-formed North West Surrey “Young Socialists” (as young Labour members were somewhat patronisingly called back then) in 1985, one of our first campaigns was one to save a 16th-century cottage in the middle of our village (although we never thought of Frimley as a village, to us it was sprawling London suburbia). The house was apparently under threat from Thatcherite property developers, who wanted to bulldoze it to make way for some sort of executive housing. We didn’t do much – maybe we held a couple of meetings and wrote an angry letter to someone at the council. I very much doubt it had anything at all to do with our “campaign”, but Middle Gingers (pictured above) was saved. It was later beautifully restored and extended, and is now no doubt the property of some proud multimillionnaire (with a very un-Elizabethan swimming pool).

It wasn’t social housing, and the campaign wasn’t particularly socially useful. So it may seem like an odd cause for enthusiastic Young Socialists to champion in the white-hot political atmosphere of the 1980s. But there weren’t any pits to save in Surrey and none of us were (yet) students with loans and cuts to protest against. There were apparently 250 homeless families in the borough of Surrey Heath, but we didn’t know any of them. None of us were even on the dole!

But Middle Gingers was local, tangible, achievable. It was also emotional. I think the reason we felt strongly about it was that we’d all learned about the cottage at primary school. It was the oldest building in the village. I think it had a priest’s hole. It was a tangible link to Henry VIII, the Armada, and the lopping off of heads which seemed to be the main feature of English history as taught in the 1970s. Middle Gingers stood right on the former village green, common land where our 16th-century forebears would have been able to graze their animals for free. It somehow felt like part of who we were, both as locals and as English boys and girls (and when you come from the Surrey working class you need every scrap of identity you can get). The idea that it could be done away with by some faceless company on the make felt just as wrong in principle as closing a pit or selling off a council house.

Thinking back over my thirty years in the Labour Party and the labour movement, I’m struck by how much time and energy we’ve spent trying to save things (and usually failing) — trying to stop change rather than bring it about. Think on it: we’ve opposed privatisation, we’ve tried to protect much of the welfare state, we’ve campaigned (mostly) against NHS reform. Lefties have worked to “save” comprehensive education and opposed marketisation at the BBC. We’ve tended to oppose – or at least be sceptical about – foreign takeovers of venerable British firms like Cadbury and Boots. Many of us are very worried by the erosion of communities (particularly in working class areas), the disappearance of pubs, and about not knowing our neighbours or how we barely speak to each other anymore outside of work.

And voters, too, have opposed – often by very wide margins – many of the supposedly “inevitable” changes of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era. That’s a paradox for the left: for the most part voters have been on our side. Most people want to keep their local hospital and want to keep their local schools open to everyone. Most people didn’t want the Royal Mail sold off and didn’t much like the look of either Labour or Conservative NHS reforms. They wanted British Rail to stay in public hands. Most people now think selling off council houses was a mistake and they certainly don’t want the government to force housing associations to sell up either. Even in Thatcher’s pomp, support for privatising British Telecom and British Gas was at best lukewarm. Polls say most people want to stay in the the European Union, despite the EU’s best efforts to shit in its own nest.

If you look at what we like and what we want, a lot of people seem to be both social democratic and conservative. That’s not cognitive dissonance; it’s actually where most people on the left have been during the last 35 years. But it’s not hard to see why the conservative side usually wins out at the polls. People who support Thatcherism obviously vote for the Tories. They are joined by people who are basically conservative in disposition and actually think the Conservative party is, well, conservative. They vote Tory because of the party’s name and reputation. And then there are people, who for all their conservative and social democratic beliefs, simply think they’ll be better off under the Tories. Their personal financial wellbeing simply trumps their desire to save their local hospital or keep a good local school open to everyone.

But the British “Conservative Party” values nothing. It has been quite happy to sit back and see communities destroyed in the name of globalisation. It has been happy to see London turned into a global investment supermarket, driving more and more of the city’s working population to the margins or out of the city altogether. It’s done little to conserve rural Britain, encouraging fracking, axing transport services, cutting housing and social support, and leaving farmers exposed to the repacious power of global supermarket chains. If the “market” dictates and the market is controlled by a global elite, there is no room for community, tradition or neighbourliness. There’s no room for local people having a say. Those values are the enemy of the atomised, mobile workforce global capitalism demands – demands to which the Conservative Party almost always accedes.

UKIP has tried to cash in on this, but is hamstrung by its narrow and old-fashioned idea of English identity (conservatism isn’t the same as nostalgia), its quasi-racist reputation and hardline free-market ideology. Farage and his party have no answer to the insecurity and destruction wrought by unfettered global free market. Rather than tackle this difficult contradiction head on, they look for easy scapegoats – immigrants and the EU.

And Labour, while actually being more conservative than the Conservatives in opposing destructive change, offers no idea of the nation (despite Gordon Brown’s hamfisted attempts to articulate “Britishness”) and a very negative, cautious attitude to localism and community. Its conservatism is cut off from any sense of identity, heritage or even values. When it tries to be “conservative”, it just comes over as stick-in-the-mud statism or Blairite sucking up to the rich and powerful.

Community and togetherness ought to be something democratic socialists (or social democrats if you prefer) have in their blood. But the left has been terrible at expressing it and often seems ashamed to embrace community activism or localism (look at Labour’s feeble response to Devo Manc and its total incomprehension of what’s going on in Scotland). This has allowed an increasingly anti-community Conservative party to “own” the issue (in England at least) and, with the collapse of the “localist” Lib-Dems, bank the votes associated with it.

Socialism and conservatism (small ‘c’) are different but they are not opposites. As the steamroller of global free-market capitalism presses relentlessly on, they will be pushed even closer together. And, if blended well, conservatism and socialism are a powerful political cocktail. What is the SNP insurgency other than an effective mix of social democracy and traditonally conservative ideas about identity, national pride and “looking after your own”? What are the bouyant Greens if not a left-wing party of conservation trying to prevent what they see as cataclysmic change. Democratic socialists need to stop fighting it and embrace their inner conservative. Before it’s too late to save anything.