Labour's new identity politics.

Author:Finlayson, Alan
Position::REVIEW ESSAY
 
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One Nation: Labour's Political Renewal Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford ONE NATION REGISTER, 2014

Our Labour, Our Communities Edited by Lisa Nandy LABOURLIST, 2014

Laying the Foundations for a Labour Century Edited by John Woodcock and Liz Kendall POLICY NETWORK, 2014

Political parties are, it goes without saying, formed out of agreement between members. But to be really successful the extent and intensity of that agreement has to be just right. Too much and a party will have limited appeal; it will be cult-like, brittle and prone to splitting. Too little and a party will attract self-promoting people and pet causes, making things fractious and difficult to manage.

The need for parties to stay in the 'Goldilocks Zone' between too much and too little consensus gave rise in the twentieth-century to a characteristic genre of political debate. Confining themselves within an ideological framework, contenders would use shared terms--such as equality, work, democracy, freedom and opportunity--but with contrasting emphasis, trying to make some more important than others. There were attempts to banish ideas to the margins or to combine concepts in novel ways, creating hybrids such as 'equality of opportunity' and occasionally new words were added to the ideological vocabulary ('modernisation', 'efficiency', 'compassionate'). In the history of the labour movement such internal discussion produced significant works: Durbin's The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) distinguished the Labour Party from communism by foregrounding democracy; The Future of Socialism (1956) suppressed critiques of capitalism while advancing a modified concept of equality; Stuart Holland's The Socialist Challenge (1975) tried to renew emphasis on capitalism so as to draw attention to the power of multinational corporations.

Laying the Foundations for a Labour Century (hereafter Foundations), Our Labour, Our Communities (hereafter Communities) and One Nation: Labour's Political Renewal (hereafter One Nation) are also exercises in shaping the political theory of the Labour Party by foregrounding some concepts and downplaying others. But these texts feel more ritualistic than intellectual--as if what matters to them most is their form rather than their content. They are demonstrations in the use of particular languages, inward-facing affirmations of identity and loyalty. Tribal feeling matters in politics--and ritual gestures can matter a lot where faith is beset by doubt. But a strong politics requires a serious analysis of the contemporary situation (economic, social, political) into which it seeks to intervene. Of the three texts under review here, only One Nation points in that direction. But ultimately it, like the others, is not a remedy to our present discontents but a symptom of them.

First as tragedy

What became Blairism started out as two rather different sets of ideas. One was pure political strategy: the claim that the British people are not very left-wing, that appealing to their private aspirations is the key to electoral success and that one should therefore tack to the political centre. The other was an economic and political analysis. It accepted what Stuart Holland wanted to contest--that globalisation prevents the social democratic government of capital--and found for itself a new mission: the creation of a 'knowledge economy' driven by 'innovative', 'entrepreneurial' and 'creative' individuals. Defining equality as the absence of constraints on entering into, and circulating within, the labour market, Blairites identified those constraints as arising primarily from state regulation, trade union practices and the welfare state. It duly set out to 'reform' all of them. Blairites also saw prejudice (sexism, racism, disablism, classism and homophobia) as hindrances to the release of limitless economically creative potential and so condemned them as not only unethical but also uneconomic. The 'enabling' or 'social investment' state was committed to cheering on social mobility in the face of 'forces of conservatism' on both the right and the left.

The contributors to Foundations are driven by the purest form of this vision (as it was before the corruptions of high office and the militarisation of Prime Ministerial ego)--the Blairism of task-forces and 'Action Zones'. The book consists of eight short chapters (none more than six pages in length), seven of which inexplicably required for their production the combined efforts of not one but two members of the Shadow Cabinet. Collectively they climb to a peak of Blairite banality where they drown thinking in an over-salted sea of upbeat adjectives ('high quality', 'affordable', 'transparent', 'engaged', 'bold').

The foremost concept here is 'change'--almost all of the essays begin with a claim concerning its scale and pace. Change is 'unsettling' and 'dizzying', 'seeps through borders previously thought impenetrable' and 'brings disruption in the status quo' (Creasy, pp. 13, 19, 20). It is moving 'at a frightening pace', 'rapid, dramatic and irreversible' (Woodcock and Perkins, p. 23, pp. 27, 25) and 'faster than many of us can comprehend' (Greatrex and Reynolds, 39). It is the 'challenge' of our times but also the solution. We must 'help ensure everyone can anticipate change, adapt to it, embrace it and, perhaps, even provoke it in the first place' and 'challenge those who seek to suffocate change' (Creasy, pp. 18, 21). 'We must change our approach to business policy' and 'show leadership on the international stage in the face of unprecedented global change' (Woodcock and Perkins, pp. 27, 28). Public services must change 'radically' because 'cultural change on the scale needed does not take root without some structural change'. Consequently,...

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