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Friday, 6 January 2017

Liberalism and Labour

There are two popular theories to explain the media eclipse of Labour since Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as party leader last September. The unfriendly view is that the leadership lacks both the intellectual and organisational competence to formulate and advance a compelling narrative. Exhibit A for the prosecution is the absence of a coherent Brexit plan, though this rather ignores that no party has a credible plan at present. The friendly view is that the party right has adopted a strategy of defeatism - MPs are working to rule while media outriders are reading the last rites - in the expectation-cum-hope of a salutary reverse in the next general election. There's probably a little truth in both. Corbyn is arguably the weakest party leader ever, though this reflects his history as a marginal if energetic figure in the labour movement and the success of the neoliberal "inner party" since the 1990s rather than his personal failings. A more charismatic and cunning leader emerging from the left would have faced the same difficulties. There is also ample evidence that his critics have decided to blank him and his supporters recently, which explains why the great antisemitism hue-and-cry has fallen silent.

However, these are both superficial arguments, focused on Parliamentary practice and the capture of the commanding heights of the press, which gives rise to some unintentionally hilarious guff. Just before Christmas, yet another report produced from "focus groups with Ukip-leaning Labour voters" recommended that "moderate Labour MPs should develop their own lines on controversial issues, such as freedom of movement, a narrative which has emerged in recent weeks among some former Miliband shadow cabinet ministers including Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham". Leaving aside the implied oxymoron of a controversial moderate, you'd struggle to spot substance in anything the named three have come up with (the use of the word "line" reveals the persistence of New Labour's media-management). This week, Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian spun her disdain for Corbyn as nostalgia for the bickering past: "It's almost as if the fight were the only thing keeping Labour alive, or at any rate in the headlines" (you've surely got to find the lack of self-reflection in that statement funny).

What the minor media occlusion of Corbyn points to is the broader reconfiguration of politics post-2008, which is obviously not a development limited to the UK. Seen in this light there is an equally revealing weak focus on the internal dynamics of the Tory party in the media, despite there being a higher probability of a split on the right than on the left over the next few years. Brexit has the potential to sunder the Tories' conservative and liberal wings, whereas Labour is far less divided than it was in 1981: the space between Umunna and McDonnell is much narrower than that between Jenkins and Benn. You can also sense reconfiguration in the febrile attempts to resuscitate the Liberal Democrats, though the sunny optimism is inevitably undermined by terrifying flashbacks: "to go into government with an austerity-driven rightwing Conservative government was a brand-destroying catastrophe" ... but we can still revive the brand! We are, in other words, once more in a Gramscian interregnum. Morbid symptoms other than Tim Farron include the painfully public death of the Foreign Office, the emergence of authoritarian Keynesianism, and the liberal turn against democracy.


Among the British political science crowd, there is a tendency to keep banging the same old drums fashioned during the 2008-16 period, notably the Kipper threat to Labour outlined by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin in Revolt on the Right in 2013. Their thesis - that Labour is electorally vulnerable to UKIP because of a cultural division among its supporters and a disconnect between the working class and the party - has been repeatedly disproved in practice. Even before the supposedly pivotal Oldham West by-election in 2015, Geoffrey Evans & Jon Mellon at the LSE found not only scant evidence for large-scale Labour desertions to UKIP but evidence of more significant movement from both Conservatives and the LibDems and greater potential for future desertion among Tory voters: "support for UKIP is even higher among the self-employed and business owners than the working class, and ... quite high even in the professional & managerial classes, who because [of] their substantial numbers actually provide the biggest bloc of UKIP’s class-based support. For all of these reasons the Conservatives, not Labour, have most to fear from UKIP".

That might change under Paul Nuttall, but I doubt it. The Kippers' "achievement" in coming second in various Northern seats means that working class Tory voters have shifted to them from the Conservatives, not that Labour is haemorrhaging votes. The idea that UKIP could supplant Labour only makes sense if you assume that the vast majority of the latter's supporters are open to switching to a party that is not only xenophobic but pro-capital and iffy about the NHS. The underlying premise of a class-oriented cleavage between "the left behind" white working class and metropolitan liberal middle class (which is presented as a phenomenon across all developed nations) has been given a second wind by Brexit, not to mention Trump. According to Goodwin, "This tension between working-class, struggling, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, and more financially secure, middle class, pro-EU and cosmopolitan wings poses strategic dilemmas for Labour and provides opportunities for its main rivals". Mutatis mutandis, the same tension between working class and middle class supporters has been there since the party's foundation. I'd even go so far as to say that this is not a bug but a feature.

Electoral alliances always look fragile, even unnatural, if you assume homogeneous voting blocs with consistent attitudes and characteristics. If you think the working class are narrow-minded bigots while the middle class are broad-minded sophisticates, you'll inevitably struggle to imagine how chalk and cheese could be combined behind a common manifesto. If they're honest, conservatives will admit they don't really believe in culture wars because they see culture as innate and ineradicable. The phrase "white genocide" is ironic on the non-neo-Nazi right as much as the left. Conservatives see the struggle in society as being over who holds the whip, not what the whip should be made of (bull's pizzle or rhino hide?). The true culture warriors are liberals, essentially because they believe in personal ascendance through the adoption of "right thinking" and the instrumental use of commoditised identities, a transformation aimed at the supersession of class (i.e. "we're all middle class now", "the end of history" etc).


Labour is the party of labour in two senses: the parliamentary representative of organised labour and the electoral alliance of all those who are not capitalists. Liberals have always been comfortable with the former, despite the anti-union rhetoric, because it was open to negotiation and could be bought off (and labourites were prepared to put up with the inevitable liberal lectures as a quid pro quo). They have always disliked the latter because the prospect of a class "for itself", not just "in itself", presents an existential threat to capitalism, not to mention a rejection of the liberal's pedagogic role. The liberal attitude towards Labour is therefore a duality: an exasperation with the party's failure to be sufficiently "progressive" (in middle class terms) with a determined refusal to address Labour voters as a progressive class. This results in a history of social progress in which the roles of organised labour and autonomous working class movements are downplayed in favour of parliamentary reform and polite civic activism.

It also gives rise to a nostalgia for a Labour party defined by regional and cultural identities, such as John Harris (formerly of Wilmslow, now the Cotswolds) advocating a Burnham-led "Northern Labour" (which sounds like the germ of an idea for a Fast Show catchphrase). This determination to avoid class as a social-economic reality rather than as a matter of culture also explains why liberals have always been alternately fascinated and repelled by the idea of false consciousness, either deploying it for liberal ends, such as in the recent "fake news" panic, or rejecting it as the patronising delusion of a left incapable of acknowledging individual agency. Meanwhile, frustrated that the cultural turn to mawkish nationalism has ironically left Blue Labour high and dry, Maurice Glasman appears to be going quietly mad: "To renew our tradition and ideology around the centrality of family, place and work. To renew our covenant with the working poor and build a coalition that can defeat fascism, resist the domination of capitalism, and deepen our democratic way of life".

The economist John Kay recently made the point that the "demise of practical socialism" in the 1980s didn't just reform the parties of the left but weakened the parties of the right. This was because the latter "were uneasy coalitions of those who had most to fear from socialism: business and the rich, liberal individualists, social conservatives, religious groups." Despite its accommodation with neoliberalism, conservatism remains a defensive project, fundamentally intent on preserving inequality and privilege. After 1989, its chief antagonist was redefined as social liberalism (with a bit part for "cultural Marxism"), and much of the antipathy towards the EU arose from it being an ideal embodiment of this "Big Other": alien, patronising, overly-solicitous to the disadvantaged (the small other) etc. This shift reflected not only the eclipse of socialism but a positive desire to re-establish a conservative order based on inheritance and status rather than the liberal market. In other words, the instrumental use of neoliberalism by conservatives has now come to an end (a long drawn-out process that began at Maastricht in 1992), allowing them to promote reactionary and discriminatory policies on nationalist and cultural grounds.


One of the distinctive features of the neoliberal era has been the way that class consciousness has been dissolved by modernity, as much through geographical mobility as the decline of the unions and other collective institutions, while class performance and appropriation has thrived through commoditisation and cultural homogenisation. We have less class and more classes. But with the defection of conservatives from the principles of openness and deregulation, Liberals find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Criticising the populist right requires not only a rejection of their lies and hypocrisy, which merely gets you a hearing, but an explanation of how our contemporary society has come about, and that demands an acknowledgement both of the unequal power relations and systemic biases that neoliberalism has exploited and the common class interests of non-capitalists. To put it in practical terms, if you want to counter calls to restrict the free movement of labour, you not only need to address media ownership, you need to talk more about the free movement of capital.

As yet, there is little sign of this happening. Instead, we've had the usual pointless pleas for an electoral alliance with the SNP, LibDems and Greens. Labour is in direct competition with the SNP in Scotland, and agreeing to stand down (the SNP wouldn't split seats) would spell the end of its claim to be a British party, while the other two simply haven't enough to bring to the table ahead of an election (and the LibDems in particular are toxic to Labour party members due to their history not only in coalition with the Tories nationally but locally). Apart from this impossible proposal, there is little on offer from the "radical centre" beyond the absurdities of bare-knuckle liberalism and a "moderate insurgency" (a trope that Corbyn's re-election should have killed for good). What these ideas indicate is that liberalism is now powerless in practice because it has lost its grip both within Labour and the Conservatives. This can be seen as the ironic consequence of the neoliberal "reform" of traditional political parties (as outlined by Colin Crouch and Peter Mair).

Torn between petulance and a determination to act, liberalism is struggling because it remains incapable of challenging the primacy of markets, which is an echo of the bind it found itself in a century ago when the focus of political economy shifted from capital to labour. The Liberal Party created the foundations of the welfare state, but had to cede control as its champion because it couldn't reconcile the needs of management with its antipathy towards activist government. Neoliberalism partially resolved this bind through managerialism and technocracy, but its subservience of the state to the market during the era of globalisation left it vulnerable to the revival of national activist government. While that has taken an authoritarian turn in most countries (reflecting the existing dominance of the political right), and some of the new regimes are clearly led by opportunist charlatans, what's key is the popular demand for state intervention against the market.


Most socialists know that to turn the tide will require an informal alliance between liberals and the left (as ever), but centred on an explicit compromise over the limits of the market. Despite the poor polling figures - which are not necessarily insightful, being geared to old paradigms like "economic trust" - parties like Labour under Corbyn can offer credibility when it comes to restraining the market and advancing national economic interest. Given the likelihood that the Tories are heading towards another spectacular example of executive incompetence over Brexit, greater than the 1992 ERM debacle and on a par with the gold standard goof of 1925, what matters is not Labour's current standing but its ability to offer a credible alternative when the Tories screw-up. That comes down both to the Party's ability to build the infrastructure of a mass movement in difficult times and the willingness of the centre to accommodate (and yes, inevitably dilute) Corbyn rather than blackballing him.

In this regard, the US is more mature than the UK. The American left have no illusions about the need for compromise while the decision to advance the candidacy of Bernie Sanders through the rotten and dysfunctional Democratic Party machine, rather than stand as an independent, was a clear rebuke to the fastidious decorum that has long disfigured the political centre and alienated it from the mass of voters. Corbyn and McDonnell's policy ambitions do not go much beyond a programme of domestic social democracy that would largely find favour with Polly Toynbee and a foreign policy that would irritate Natalie Nougayr├Ęde but please most people. Their more contentious objective is to ensure a left legacy within the party, though liberals would be wise to concede this as a tactical necessity given that unseating the Tories will require mass mobilisation and that will be only achieved by motivated activists, not by sniffy editorials.

Much of the angst of contemporary liberalism is being projected onto the Labour Party, from the sense of bewilderment to the crippling ennui. For example, the title of the recent Fabian Society report, Stuck: how Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die, provides a more accurate description of "living dead liberalism": hegemonic but enervated. Hinsliff's Guardian piece closed with this apt pen-portrait: "There’s something eerie about the stillness now; not calm, but stagnant". Anyone who thinks the current political scene, whether in part or in whole, is stagnant really needs to get out more. This denial reinforces the point that the liberal crisis can only be resolved in the UK by embracing a Corbyn-led Labour Party, while the liberal media huff suggests that this is being resisted until the possibility of an early general election is definitively ruled out (repeating the error of the SDP and Alliance years). If I were Theresa May, I'd abolish the Fixed-term Parliaments Act now and leave everyone guessing.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent stuff.

    Have you ever covered Goodwin in more detail? He appeared on Newsnight at the start of the week, in their preview of 2017 - in which, incidentally, of the 8 talking heads Matthew Parris was the second most left wing, FFS. He appeared even more barking than his writing, although he was treated with due deference. He asserted "the death of social democracy" and was completely preoccupied with the "identity" and "community" of the working classes, a litany of nudge-nudge racist nuance, like some reborn Powellite.

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    1. I'm not sure I could bear too much exposure to Goodwin. His motivation is not only pretty transparent but depressingly petty. He and Ford have secured a cushy number in recent years pushing the same guff for the national media. I suspect they now see rigid consistency in their views, and thus a refusal to consider the evidence, as their pension plan.

      Parris might be wrong on many things, but he is intellectually interesting and I still remember his stint trying to live on benefits in Scotswood in Newcastle (I used to live in nearby Elswick) for a TV documentary in the 80s, which revealed both his ignorance and his willingness to learn.

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    2. Yes, I guess life is too short. I was wondering if he might have any political ambitions of his own, as he turns a nuance quite easily - rather like an alternative Hannan. In any case, he represents something that I suspect we will have to get a lot more used to - the acceptable face of racism.

      Re Parris, yes I have a bit of time for him - he's obviously a thoughtful person. He was on the panel as the Tory Remainer, and did pretty well. As did the Green. But for "balance", in addition to those and Goodwin, we had two Republicans (yes, really, Trump's a clever guy ...), a Taxpayers Alliance, and two "pollsters" who presented the usual inanities. One does wonder about the BBC these days.

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  2. "Labour is far less divided than it was in 1981: the space between Umunna and McDonnell is much narrower than that between Jenkins and Benn."

    This is a very much ignored truth. I suspect the reason why there appears to be such a gulf is due to differences in strategy. The bulk of Labour career politicians reject any over-commitment towards left-leaning ideology or the interests of the poor and disadvantaged for fear of alienating the mythical median voter, while Corbyn, McDonnell and the majority of Labour members believe that there is a hidden spirit of democratic socialism that is waiting to be ignited by an honest statement of Keynesian economics and tepid social reform. The reason the latter has achieved more prominence in the Labour Party is that, firstly, the former has proved too cynical to achieve popularity, and secondly, that the political situation is too volatile for Blairite tactics of manipulation to succeed. The liberal media is way too dumb to understand this.

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  3. What do you think the media treatment of a putative leftish and 'credible' leader such as day Clive Lewis or Lisa Nandy would be like?

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    1. I suspect the media would harp on about their youth and inexperience being a handicap, blithely ignoring how this was a virtue for the likes of Blair.

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    2. Given that Corbyn, given his age, was only ever likely to be an interim leader, one thing that surprises me is the lack of any visible strategy about his succession. Maybe that's because they have been too busy fire-fighting, or maybe some candidates want to be protected from being labelled "hard left" by the PLP and media ATM. Although as that glare will come eventually, any reticence now is not exactly a recommendation.

      Maybe that's one reason for the current (relatively) quiet period. The irredentists are biding their time - waiting either for Corbyn to self-combust or the next GE where they presume he will fail and be forced to resign. The left are (should be) gathering experience in order to be more prepared next time. It would help if they could raise their profile more - although I note that Clive Lewis had a big announcement last week that was mainly ignored by the MSM.

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    3. I suspect the problem is that most potential 'successors' that have enough credibility with the majority of the current membership are lacking in Corbyn's resilience and would be far less able to resist the temptation to give in to the PLP. In many ways it has only been the fact that Corbyn is almost totally free from personal ambition and the urge to be accepted by the establishment that has led him to hold out for this long.

      The lack of sympathetic candidates among Labour's career politicians is a major issue for the left of the membership, and the withdrawal of threats to deselect MPs means that opportunities are even more scarce.

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