Friday, 25 October 2019

Year Zero

The Labour MP Bridget Phillipson has an essay in the New Statesman on what she describes as the party's love of nostalgia. Of course, all political parties are nostalgic in the trivial sense that they are built around historical narratives in which previous triumphs compensate for current travails. The same can be said of football clubs. But what the member for Houghton and Sunderland South appears to be suggesting is that Labour is peculiarly wedded to nostalgia because of its roots in the social response to the industrial revolution and that this blinds it to the possibilities of progress: "We love nostalgia in the Labour Party. We pepper our politics with references to people in office seventy years ago. Sometimes we seem to drench our party political broadcasts in a sense of how things were better in the past, an implicit promise that our future will be a recapturing of past glories rather than something new and different".

But it quickly becomes clear that Phillipson's own vision of progress suffers from the same blight: "It seems hard to believe that the last time we won a general election, fifteen years ago next spring, our slogan was 'forward not back'". What she is taking aim at is both old Labourism, with its anti-intellectual and misogynistic impulses, and what she sees as its continuation within the Corbyn project. The chief culprit in this charge of nostalgia is a narrative that "looks at how the status of white men in what had been reasonably secure jobs in our country saw a sudden, unwelcome, and unexpected decline, and identifies reversing that change as a central political challenge for socialists today". Linking the two is a stretch. Corbyn and McDonnell owe more to the New Left critics of old Labour than to the shibboleths of the 1950s TUC, while the idea that Diane Abbott wants to recreate a society fit for a disinterred Bernard Manning is obviously absurd.

In building what is essentially a defence of New Labour's rejection of both Labourism and the left, Phillipson creates a hybrid opponent: "For those who are sympathetic to this narrative, it offers, at least implicitly, some limited forms of policy prescription for Labour. Tighter controls on immigration, often wrapped in a language of 'legitimate concerns'. More socially conservative noises. A leaning towards an economic approach not based on full EU membership. An approach to the state's place in our society and economy where ill-defined and questionably responsive social enterprises are expected to fill key public roles, with neither the powers nor the resources necessary for success. With the Conservatives in power, the narrative focuses on organising social pressure to mitigate the outcomes of their public policy changes — through foodbanks and social solidarity — at least as much as on winning over voters or developing alternative strategies for a Labour government". The image is equal parts Sid the Sexist and Daniel Blake.

This exculpates New Labour for the role it played in promoting the language of "legitimate concerns", of voicing Euroscepticism (often reasonably, e.g. Brown's objections to the euro), and of filling key public service roles with private "partners" for whom the adjective "questionable" would be an under-statement. Clearly it is only the idea of a shared "narrative" that allows her to make strange bedfellows of the likes of John Mann, Blue Labour and Seumas Milne. Without the glue of nostalgia there is little commonality in theory, let alone in practice. There is also a hint of technocratic paranoia: "More prosaically, it implies changes to how Labour selects candidates, and a wariness around university-educated MPs regardless of their background." Phillipson is a local lass, elected in 2010 at the age of 27, who went to Oxford and whose working experience was limited to 3 years at a women's charity. This doesn't tick the "worked down pit" box, but it appears to have been enough to see her reselected unanimously earlier this month.

She understands the danger of looking backwards: "But the politics of nostalgia is not the politics of socialism. It starts not with an analysis of society today, but a very particular sort of history lesson, for it's about romanticising the past, not humanising the future. And once you start to pull it apart, that becomes all too obvious, and it also becomes very clear what lies behind it". Despite the nod to Marx (addressing society as it exists), who she even goes on to explicitly quote in her conclusion on the need for change (a rather tired Blairite trope in itself), her essay quickly turns into a plea for "modernisation". Ironically, this means piling up the nostalgic references to previous generations of modernisers and critics of nostalgia, from Anthony Crosland to Stuart Hall, but it also means presenting a counter-narrative of progress: "For there’s another story of the last fifty years that looks at what was going on for the people who weren't simply losing out from that transformation ... above all it's the story of women."

Again the ironies pile up. Phillipson references Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, but not Barbara Castle, who arguably did more for women that any other Labour politician before or since. Among contemporary female activists she singles out only Caroline Criado Perez. Once more the golden years are evoked: "The last Labour government rightly introduced or hastened many of these changes. Intervention after intervention, year after year: a steady drumbeat of progress for thirteen years … So I have little time for those who look back at the last Labour government’s domestic record without a great deal of admiration tempering their criticisms. I have less time still for those whose recipe for electoral advance is nostalgia for a world which had no place for my family and no place for me, who position - deliberately or inadvertently - women's access to modernity as threat and concern rather than as opportunity and triumph." Does she really mean to suggest that criticism of the Blair years is driven by misogyny?

Consider this: "Above all it is wrong to seek to redefine the Labour Party, and our historic purpose, in terms other than the redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunity, wrong to substitute culture war for achievable economic justice, wrong to put communitarian nostalgia in place of building a better future for all working people. We must avoid the temptation to sit round drinking out of vintage mugs, fondly remembering a world of culturally uniform slums where women didn’t get paid, men died young in industrial accidents, and Labour lost elections." That first sentence is spot on, but the second - the bait and switch - constructs a strawman that misrepresents the contemporary Labour party and creates a historical myth that flattens the actual cultural variety of the past (what happened to the Jews, the Irish, the Windrush generation?), the prevalence of working women and even the party's electoral success (I could have sworn that Labour won a number of elections before the annus mirabilis of 1997, and not even as far back as "seventy years ago").

At this point you might wonder why I am shooting this particular fish in this particular barrel. It's because I spent my formative years in Washington and even attended the same comprehensive school as Phillipson, St Robert of Newminster, though two decades before her. Even then the milieu she presents - a "culture of large workplaces, union activity, clocking on and off together, of tight knit communities clustered round employment opportunities in villages and smaller towns" - was already history. Washington was developed in the last wave of new towns, whose very purpose was deracination and whose ethos from the beginning was post-Fordist. Already in the 1980s people were living atomised lives and striving for self-actualisation through commodities. The new Nissan plant, which opened in 1986, was served from the off by a dispersed, car-owning workforce. The region's structural problems are a dependence on large employers, poor local transport and the drain of talent south. This has been the case for a century.

Phillpson's claim that Labour is currently suffering from a debilitating nostalgia does not really stand up. For all the Davy lamps on mantelpieces and the popularity of Clem as a child's name (ironically, another Blairite signifier), Labour is no more subject to this than any other party. Consider the Tories' hagiography of Churchill and Thatcher, or even the Liberal Democrats' ancestor worship of Mill,  Gladstone and Asquith (their last league triumph means their nostalgia is even worse than Preston North End's). The most recent Labour Party conference committed to an unquestionably radical and progressive programme, while its fringe was dominated by The World Transformed. So what's Phillipson up to? Given her preferences (she backed David Miliband in 2010, Yvette Cooper in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016) I suspect that the real target for her anti-nostalgia is the 2017 general election. What she is proposing is that Labour erases this from its memory, but a straight call to this effect would face derision. Far better to insist that Labour has a general nostalgia problem. But if you reset the clock to zero, who will remember the halcyon years of 1997 to 2010?


  1. The sheer irony in these kind of opinion-pieces is demonstrated in the fact that it's the same woolly invocations of the 'redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunity', 'achievable economic justice' and ' building a better future for all working people' that link Phillipson with the likes of Blair, Wilson, Attlee, MacDonald and Hardie.

    If it wasn't for their claims to these abstract nostalgic principles then the likes of Phillipson would be judged on what they actually advocate, which is little more than a celebration of modern capitalism with them as a managerial cadre that aims to keep steering things in the right direction.

    The predictions of various commentators that Labour has been all set to lose its heartlands in places like the North East have been somewhat daft and misplaced. But when you look at some of the people who have been representing these places for years, it's clear that they have been very lucky that the alternative has been the Tories, because they certainly don't offer much to their constituents.

  2. Second paragraph third line.

    "what see sees" should be 'what she sees'