Noisiness in political debate can be a virtue and a vice. Jeremy Corbyn's incredible victory in the Labour leadership contest is testament to this: from one point of view he has shown the sheer mobilising power of a clear, polemical ideological vision, even when articulated in an unassuming, modest style. The electoral failure of the main body of the Parliamentary Labour Party was in large measure a failure to counter Corbyn's appeal with an equivalently bold and non-technocratic set of political arguments capable of energising Labour members and supporters. But such intoxicating visions can also mislead, and drag parties and movements into fruitlessly relearning lessons that ought to have been internalised long ago. This at any rate has been the main concern voiced by Corbyn's opponents in the debate over Labour's current electoral strategy and tactics; but a parallel argument can be mounted in relation to the debate over Labour's ideological orientation, a topic that deserves greater attention than it has so far received in the wake of the 2015 general election.
Old, New, Blue
There is a probably inevitable sectarian impulse that animates intellectuals, activists and politicians when they set out their visions for Labour's future direction. In order to be heard amid the cacophony of the online public sphere, they pitch their ideas as offering a fundamental break from recent Labour thinking, and devote considerable rhetorical ingenuity to demarcating their offering from earlier, inferior products in the marketplace of ideas. Such was the style of New Labour in its heyday, of Blue Labour after 2010, and such is the emergent tone of the Corbyn ascendancy.
The Scottish referendum and its aftermath vividly demonstrated the dangers of the prefix 'New' in 'New Labour'. The self-conscious styling of Labour as breaking from certain of its traditions made it possible for Scottish nationalists and the non-Labour left to pillory Labour for purportedly betraying its social base, becoming unmoored from its historical roots, and, for want of a better phrase, tarnishing its brand in government after 1997. The discourse of Corbynism has largely followed this sweeping account of Labour's trajectory since 1997 (or 1994), even if in practice, as Owen Jones observed, the Corbyn campaign and then leadership has achieved significant political traction from a staunch defence of New Labour's redistributive achievements on welfare benefits and tax credits (Jones, 2015). A more sophisticated, but historically speaking much more radical, version of this form of argument also characterised the prominent Blue Labour texts, which sought to cleanse the Labour tradition of the impurities introduced by progressive liberalism; 'statist' social democracy such as Croslandite revisionism; and New Labour modernism. The authentic Labour tradition, on this view, is one that claims back its mutualist and co-operative roots.
While this polarising style of disputation fosters a lively critical debate, something is lost in the process--not least some recognition of the insights that can be gleaned from different ideological perspectives...