At Its Best When At Its Broadest
Why Labour needs to be open to a post-secular, pro-faith and post-liberal narrative
‘What we did for the Labour party in the new clause IV, freeing us from outdated doctrine and practice, we must now do, through reform, for Britain's public services and welfare state.
We are at a crossroads: Party, Government, country. Do we take modest though important steps of improvement? Or do we make the great push forward for transformation?
I believe. we're at our best when at our boldest So far, we've made a good start but we've not been bold enough.
Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference Speech, 2002
The day after the General Election of 2005 I remember having a telephone conversation with a friend. An ex-Labour voter disenchanted with New Labour and appalled at the invasion of Iraq, he like it must be said, many others had voted Liberal Democrat in the belief that they were a left wing alternative.
I remember desperately trying to prove that Labour really were distinct from the Tories, sincerely but a little bit tenuously stressing there were detailed differences but they were not always apparent. A few years later I only now see the irony and fragility of my position.
In presenting this vignette, I am not seeking to relive the perhaps sterile debate about the 2005 election (remember the negative Conservative campaign?) but one thing sticks in my minds from that brief chat, my friend said ‘It’s not the Labour Party anymore’
, that’s all he needed to say, that was reason enough for him not to vote or even consider voting Labour.
‘It’s not the Labour Party anymore’
, you can just hear the Labour Party spokesperson reciting all the achievements that testify to Labour’s social democratic integrity and to a point I would do that myself. However, if people instinctively feel Labour are not Labour anymore, (and many do I sense) that’s a real problem that no amount of bludgeoning with technocratic statistics will solve.
As I draft this in March 2012, it is nearly, (sort of) two years since Labour lost power in Westminster and we saw the formation of the Coalition Government. I feel that Labour might be in for the long haul and be facing a while out of power. There are many reasons for this and this is not a criticism of the leader whom I voted for and have no regrets about doing so.
Rather, I feel that Labour faces a profound crisis of identity. To me, Labour’s problem is not primarily electoral, it is existential. To be a party that is elected it needs to properly be a party that knows its values, identity and mission. I am not sure that it does.
Worst still I believe that Labour, in its present expression, is too narrow, too unrepresentative of the concerns of ordinary people and needs to be a broad and inclusive party. Truly inclusive and specifically not a pale reflection of the political class and liberal elite.
There are many variables in UK politics at the moment, we cannot be sure what will happen to the economy, we cannot be sure how the eurozone will fare, we do not know if the Coalition will endure, I suspect it will. Yet, all these profound visible and immediate problems mask the problems I feel that Labour itself faces.
In the opening quote I cite Tony Blair’s reasonably well known conference speech, charging the troops with ‘we're at our best when at our boldest’.
Well, yes, in the right context, I would slightly parody this and say Labour is at its best when it is at ‘it’s broadest’.
It is at its best when it is truly plural - by that I mean it should be more accommodating to those who have a faith, who do not possess a liberal view of the world and it should not be so rigidly secular. I know there are others who would cite distinct categories when positing a plural framework for Labour politics, I am sure they would be instructive, yet this is my concern for the centre-left. I accept this is not the sole definition of pluralism.
My concern is not instrumental, that Labour should change purely to accumulate votes. Rather, the party needs to be a truly representative vehicle to fulfil its historical task. It should seek to be genuinely plural and able to accommodate differing voices that well might find their home within an authentic Labour party.
It would appear that empirical evidence suggests that the instincts of the UK population are increasingly conservative, hence rendering Labour’s shallow liberalism even more bizarre.
‘Ipsos MORI data shows that in 1998, one third of people agreed that they wanted Britain “to be like it used to be”. Ten years later that figure had risen to 61 per cent. The Campaign Company divides voters not by left and right, but by “settlers” who want stability and order and “pioneers” who want change. The former group now makes up a massive proportion of the electorate that is being ignored.’
(‘Labour needs to rediscover its Conservatism’, Rowenna Davis, The New Statesman, 20 April 2012)
In fact it may well be that the mass (five million) of the votes that Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 belong to this traditional, socially conservative constituency. (‘ See ‘Labour’s Missing Millions’, 11 April 2012, Paul Hunter on http://shiftinggrounds.org/2012/04/labours-missing-five-million-2/)
It would appear that conventional politics is facing a crisis in the UK and across Europe. Membership bases of traditional parties are in decline. One might expect a return to Conservative hegemony in the UK, yet that is not certain. On has to ask the question, how did they not, given the rather propitious circumstances, not win the last election by a country mile?
It does seem that increasingly politics is becoming dominated by a narrow class of people, both in Parliament, Whitehall, the media and be it through lobbying or the aforementioned estates the ‘professionalisation’ of politics now appears deeply embedded.
‘Since 1979 there has been a large decrease in the number of MPs who were formerly manual workers, from around 16% of MPs in 1979 to 4% in 2010
(‘Social Background of MPs’, House of Commons Library Paper, Feargal McGuinness, 14 December 2010).
Interestingly, there has also been a relative decline in MPs over the same period from identifiably professional backgrounds. Noticeably, there has been a rise in MPs who come with a political background. All the leaders of the main UK parties have spent a considerable period of their working lives in what most people would recognise as political roles.
To a degree (and it is not straightforward) the less MPs look and sound like the people they purport to represent surely the less able they are to do the job yet equally the less plural politics is. It becomes monochrome and rather depressing.
Having alluded to the political crisis which besets Western Europe, we can reflect that we might be at a moment when things are changing in UK politics, I cannot be certain that they are changing for the better. It appears that the old vestiges of left and right are still with us, however, there might be an emerging fracture in the traditional configuration of politics. In ‘A new Political Settlement’
Phillip Blond states:
‘Perhaps for the first time in thirty years politics is changing. The old orthodoxy’s of left and right are still dominant, but they are no longer hegemonic. Beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting; boundaries are blurring, and ideologies are returning to first principles, creating a new terrain that is slowly beginning to emerge.’
(‘Changing the Debate: The Ideas Redefining Britain’
Respublica Essay Collection, 2011)
What does this new terrain mean for politics? For Labour? Is it inherently welcome or potentially ‘regressive’? It is too early to tell, however, if Labour is monochrome and introverted, attached to a secular liberal orthodoxy it might find itself in an odd place.
Other esteemed commentators are noticing this new possible moment of flux. For example, David Goodhart has made some interesting observations on a nascent post-Liberalism that to paraphrase Blond, is beginning to emerge.
‘The liberalism that has dominated British politics for a generation is looking battered. The financial crash has eroded confidence in economic liberalism, while the shocking inner-city riots have done the same for social liberalism.’
‘The next big thing? Blue Labour and Red Tory: the age of post-liberalism’,
(David Goodhart, Prospect 21 September 2011)
In some ways, it is in Labour’s hands (and within their history) how they choose to respond to the current challenges. By being more open to faith, less singularly liberal and less aggressively secular then it would be authentically plural. Furthermore, and more crucially it would be more open to fresh ways of doing things and different conceptions of the good life. That really is the nub of my argument.
For Labour, the sense that it ‘owes more to Methodism than to Marx’ is a relatively well known statement. However, it can too easily be used to dismiss faith in today’s context by a sort of half-hearted acceptance that Labour has a history rooted in ethical but esoteric practices. Yet, looking deeply at Labour history is not only inspiring it is also a resource.
I live in south-east London, which was synonymous with the Docks. Having moved here I discovered, in addition to it being a wonderful place, it has a special history and specifically a Labour history. Where I now live, over 80 years ago was represented by an MP called Alfred Salter. We could learn a lot from him.
Alfred Salter and his wife, Ada, literally devoted their lives to the local people, building a Labour Party founded upon an ethical creed and evidenced in many practical and meaningful works of service. Their history is an inspiring and enduring one. Salter had a strong and principled faith which must have underpinned his conviction and activity.
His approach was ethical and he exhibited a profound commitment to Bermondsey.
‘Salter took greatest pride not in the growth of the material strength of the Labour movement and its achievements, but in its spirit….Bermondsey Socialism had two characteristics. First it was humanistic and idealistic - Salter would have said it was religious and Christian. Its motive was not so much a self-interested desire for better material conditions…..as a desire for a society of happiness and fraternity for all.’
(p111, ‘The life of Alfred Salter - Bermondsey Story’, Fenner Brockway, George, Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1949).
Having read Salter’s story I remember one of my first conversations when I moved to London. I told my housemate’s Mother that I was working for a Labour MP. She told me that she had grew up in Bermondsey and that her father, without fail, made sure he paid his Labour Party subs. She mentioned the impact that the Labour Party had in the community and that they owned launderettes and so on. I confess, this meant little to me until I read the Salter story and then realised that Gary’s Mom was describing the Alfred Salter Labour Party in Bermondsey and its legacy that most definitely meant something to ordinary people.
My sense is that Labour has lost something of this ethical tradition, this is not just nostalgia, something that people cherished has died out and it needn’t have been the case.
A Labour Party that is truly pro-faith would celebrate the achievements of the Salter’s, the example of the Lansbury’s and the life of Arthur Henderson. Yet, we don’t do it that often. In fact we hardly do it at all. The problem is with a party that is too wedded to a modern variant of secularism, which has no place for the lessons of history, the distinct contribution of faith or the love of place. Nothing is sacred and we lose the breadth and genuine diversity I have alluded to. The profound tragedy is that such an arrangement closes itself off to a rich treasure store of wisdom that the Christian faith provides.
For example, I have just finished reading a lively essay collection called ‘The Crisis of Global Capitalism’, edited by Adrian Pabst. This collection draw reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate’ which is unpacked by theologians and commentators. It is rich in insight, its central observation is that the crisis of global capitalism and secular modernity are concurrent.
A fresh path for political economy might be found which avoids the twin totalitarianism’s of neo-liberalism and statist socialism. Pope Benedict cites the need for a civil economy rooted in reciprocity and ‘economies of gift-exchange’ rather than the contractual arrangements associated with liberalism.
Interestingly, he identifies the interface between secularism and capitalism and liberalism, as follows:
“The secular logic at the heart of capitalism is also the mark of the intellectual traditions that have been dominant in the modern age, chief of all political liberalism….’
(p5, (Introduction) ‘The Future of Political Economy’
in ‘The crisis of Global Capitalism - Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the future of political economy’, Adrian Pabst)
Now, I am not a Roman Catholic, yet as an evangelical by disposition I believe that Catholic social teaching is streets ahead of Protestant thinking. However, I also observe, more to the point, that certain secular or liberal perspectives would discount such a worldview. Witness the reaction, in some quarters to the Papal visit to the UK of 2010. If you write off this tradition, I ignore applied theology and utterly discount Roman Catholic perspectives then you miss out on the riches of these insights. This is a profound tragedy and we desperately need fresh thinking as the ‘traditional’ orthodoxy’s are proving to be hollow and empty.
Thus, a pro-faith approach to politics not only recognises what I would argue is a realistic and true view of the world but it can mean at least public policy can access profound sources of wisdom.
I have inferred that a truly plural Labour party would be pro-faith but moreover it might also on a connected point consider we might be in a post-secular moment in the West. I say this, I hope not out of some narrow sense of triumphalism but because increasingly observers are inferring that the enlightenment legacy, which was always rather thin has begun to fragment. As N.T. Wright has said ‘the secular dream has run out of steam’
In a speech on the economic crisis recently Malcolm Brown linked the crash to the philosophical foundations which have underpinned the West for the past few centuries/
‘I would venture so far as to say that what we have on trial here, without any sense of who is to blame in terms of different players in the market now, is quite simply the assumptions of the whole liberal enlightenment project. That may sound overdramatic but I think what we are looking at is a mindset that began with the overall project of the enlightenment itself where it has taken certain trajectories from which coming back is going to be extraordinarily difficult, but where in the academy, at any rate in the field of ethics, coming back from that position has been the standard argument of thinkers for the last twenty years or so.’
(Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishop’s Council of the Church of England, on ‘Bishop’s Blog’, 23 March 2012)
So, if we consider that we are or might be in a post-secular moment - and I cannot venture what that will really mean - then it might be a factor for political parties to ponder. The prospects for all kinds of disciplines and approaches might be radical. It was Peter Berger who performed a vault face on his original thesis that the world was on an inevitable path towards secularisation. He has now acknowledged that what we are witnessing is conversely the ‘de-secularisation’ of the world. Has anyone told the left?
Even if we in the UK and Europe are still proving exceptional to the de-secularisation process we should not surely ignore what is happening on other continents. Indeed, if the continent that gave birth to the Enlightenment project is now witnessing the fragmentation of that settlement, we should consider we might be in a post-secular era.
In many ways, this romantic Labour tradition has always found rationalistic Fabianism and liberalism somewhat alien and detached from the concerns of ordinary people.
‘Clement Attlee. He was a man who learned his socialism in the East End A place where in his words, he said; ‘I found there was a different social code ‘Thrift, so dear to the middle classes, was not esteemed so highly as generosity. ‘The Christian virtue of charity was practiced not merely preached’ was soon to be alarmed at his first Fabian Society meeting.’
(‘New Foundations for a New Beveridge: The Right and Responsibility to Work’ Rt Hon Liam Byrne MPFriday 9 March 2012)
Thus, I would contend that Labour is at its best when it is at its broadest and it would be wise to provide space for a post-secular, post-liberal and pro-faith narrative. Of course, there is room for other perspectives eg ethical socialism, communitarian trade unionism and a red-green approach to industry. Yet, without recognising these themes it risks being bound to a moribund secular and liberal discourse which is a busted flush.
Finally, in this potential situation of flux which I have alluded to, being open to alternative paths to political liberalism is, I would submit, critical. Not that I want a shrill politics of the Daily Mail, rather in a nuanced way Labour needs to understand what its relationship is to the liberal tradition.
‘Labour is best placed to govern because the tradition the times need is ours. We have strong roots in the liberal tradition but we are not a liberal party, our identity is rooted in the interests of working people and an analysis of capital. While there are deep conservative elements in the Labour tradition, and we should honour them – particularly in relation to the ethics of work, loyalty and love of place, family solidarity and a respect for the moral contribution of faith – we do not accept the distribution of assets as they are, we do not accept that inherited mega-wealth is deserved, and we do not accept that our rulers are always other people
James Purnell, (‘Where is the vitality and vision to win?’
10 January 2010, Guardian).
So, Labour is not a liberal party, it may have a ‘debt’ to the liberal tradition but its DNA is distinct. Yet, this distinction appears to have been lost. This is vitally important, not only because a plural party has space for people alienated by metropolitan social and economic liberalism. It also is important because we might be entering a post-liberal political phase.
‘There is an increasing intellectual fascination with “post-Liberalism”. Demos, the left wing think tank, is drawn to the work of Jonathan Haidt, who believes that liberals overly focus on fairness at the expense of wider human concerns about sanctity and loyalty….. Oxford University and a tide of progressive academics are chattering. The tide is turning.’
(‘Labour needs to rediscover its Conservatism’, Rowenna Davis, The New Statesman, 20 April 2012)
Indeed the form of liberalism that has been associated with the British left is deeply problematic, particularly for ordinary people.
Nick Cohen, to my mind, has been one of the first people to spot the contradictions, elitism and emptiness of the liberal-left and its barely hidden disdain for ordinary people. For example he can spot the hypocrisy of the liberal-left from a fair distance.
‘Michael Collins, a rare example of a working-class intellectual, kept a file of cuttings from the upmarket liberal press filled with ignorance about and disdain for the white working class. ‘Gay pride gas become a fun day out for south London families’ said one columnist . ‘No it hasn’t,’ said Collins who had the advantage coming from a south London family. ‘A fun day out for my family and neighbours is a visit to the theme park’
(Nick Cohen, pp205-206 in ‘What’s Left? How Liberals lost their way?’ Fourth Estate, 2007)
I am willing to concede that liberal principles, as properly understood are good and contribute to the good life, but not liberal dominance. Furthermore, for some commentators there has been a need to identify that divergent ‘liberalisms’ have emerged, some more preferable to others.
‘…a schism could be detected in liberal ranks long before September 2001. I call the rival camps ‘fleshed-out’ and ‘hollowed-out’ liberalism. The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of material self-interest’
(p8, ‘The Snake that Swallowed its Tail - Some Contradictions in Modern Liberalism’ Mark Garnett, Imprint Academic, 2004).
Garrnett does not go far enough for me, as he appears to want a society that is based in pure liberal principles, yet I get his drift. Because liberalism has been accepted lazily and unthinkingly and it has become hegemonic it has become ‘illiberal’.
Within Labour ranks, there are signs that people are beginning to question the limits of economic and social liberalism - or libertarianism - might now have now been reached. It is nuanced assessments as proffered by the Labour MP for Tottenham that hint that the left might be able to think beyond the rigid limitations of this mindset.
‘The two revolutions that have shaped modern Britain - the economic liberalism of the 1980s and the cultural individualism that emerged from the 1960s - produce a shrill society unless they are ameliorated or moderated by something else’
(David Lammy, ‘p155, Out of the Ashes - Britain after the Riots’, Guardian Books, 2011)
It is in exploring the post-Liberal space that might herald a future for Labour, not a vapid third way but meaningful expressions of the rich heritage that Labour was birthed in. For in the process of critiquing liberalism I am not adopting a Conservative tradition as conventionally understood. Alasdair MacIntyre accurately sums this up this position as follows:
‘This critique of Liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary Conservatism. That Conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. And, where Liberalism by permissive legal enactment’s has tried to use the power of the modern state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactment’s now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes’
(p Xiii, Prologue to the Third Edition,’ After Virtue’, Alasdair MacIntyre’)
Therefore, I submit that alternative paths need to be found to the stale orthodoxy’s that characterise Labour and the left. They are empty and hollow. They have run out of road.
The political elites have no answers, the cupboard is bare and a new approach is needed, paradoxically is not new it is an ancient path.
“The current political and technocratic elites have no answers. Their intellectual capital was informed by the neo-classical tradition of economics……This idealized form of human interaction suited the governance model of market choice. But it is devoid of reciprocity and it leaves individuals with no meaningful relationship to one another
(p247, ‘Common Life, Ethics, Class, Community’
, Jon Cruddas MP and Jonathan Rutherford in ‘The crisis of Global Capitalism - Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the future of political economy’ (Edited by Adrian Pabst). Wipf and Stock, 2011)
What then is needed? I do not claim to have the answers. Neither am I seeking a pragmatic short-cut to any Labour Government being elected. However, if want to see the nation renewed then a transformed Labour Party needs to play a crucial role. Thus, I believe that we seriously need to explore the possibilities of a Labour Party which accepts the limits of secularism, can think and live beyond the liberal straightjacket and that is more sceptical about secularism then the results would be quite surprising to some. After all, it has been tried before, because it was plain common sense and it might just become the Labour Party again.
‘. There's a very diverse Christian [tradition] in this country, Catholic and Nonconformist as well as Anglican; and each of them in their different ways speaks of the transformative power of association to resist the domination of the state and the market. The Labour tradition and the Christian tradition are completely linked, and it's about protecting the status of the person from commodification and the idea that our bodies and our natural environment are just to be bought and sold. In the politics of the common good, there has never been a greater need for the gifts that the Christian tradition brings, of which the greatest is love. We've got no love in the system.
I've said often that the most important person in the history of the labour movement is Jesus. It's very easy for me as a Jew to take endless inspiration [from him] - and I do. As a carpenter, as a man, he spoke about resistance to the boss and resistance to the king, and he said, you know, that through association you could resist the domination of the worldly powers, the market and the state. And that is his huge gift to Labour.
I've spent a lot of time telling people in Labour that it's very, very important that there is not just Christian engagement but Christian engagement in all its diversity. My only fear is that this won't happen.’
(‘Labour Pains’, interview with Lord Glasman by Nick Spencer, Third Way, February 2012).
(Author: Ian Geary
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