Left in Agony
Sat 2nd Jul 2016
‘One thing is clear: the metropolitan elites do not speak for ordinary people. If the rational left does not articulate the popular will, the crazed right is sure to do so.’ That was what I wrote last year, and, unfortunately, I was spot on.The Brexit vote was an exercise in thoughtless emotions, a reaction rather than a response. Leavers did not think rationally of the economic and social consequences. They thought of their communities in contrast to society as a whole. They did not like new patterns of culture which felt like an imposition from distant political élites.
Nostalgia is a dangerous political compass. The past is beyond recall. A community that was one thing is now another. As children we think those houses have stood there for ever. Then we see new buildings rise, as previous generations saw new buildings rise. Permanence is an illusion. Tradition bequeaths something but not everything to the next generation.
In Labour heartlands a nostalgia for a working class culture is clearly a powerful emotion. ‘There was poverty but there was decency and generosity. And we knew how to have a good time.’ Do people really think like that now? Yes, they do, and it’s a wake-up call to some of us to remember and respect that.
It is going to be a formidable task for the left to engage with that disaffected feeling among the ordinary people we claim to champion. There are fears that have to be allayed and prejudices that have to be countered. Informed opinion has to persuade ignorant bigotry.
That is easy to say and formidably hard to enact. There is no magic solution that will restore a trust that is felt to have been betrayed. The perception of betrayal may be incorrect, but perception carries a sense of truth. If that is how people feel, that is how they feel.
One thing is certain: nobody likes to be patronized. It has to come from the heart.In political terms it must come from political experience. The world wasn’t created a few years ago. History goes back a long way. The Labour Party does not have a long history. The first Labour government was in 1924, now slipping out of living memory. A lot has happened in its lifetime. It cannot be thrown away in some rash attempt at ‘modernization’. Yes, of course social experience changes and so our responses change. A politics based on Nineteenth Century industrialism is useless as a shaping force of the Twenty First Century.
That does not mean the values of co-operation and social justice are any less relevant now than they were in 1900. We have only to see the long line of refugees, and the conspicuous waste that wealth encourages to know that some age-old maxims still apply. Post-industrial globalization requires all manner of democratic resources to ensure that the needs of people are heeded and that their voices are heard.
One stumbling block is the blinkered reaction of those who articulate the wrong resentment. They resent the Polish baker rather than the American coffee chain.Corporate capitalism is a visible presence on every high street, yet it is accepted as inevitable and natural. It is accepted because in all public discourse it is a given that a global commercial culture is the essential option as a wealth creator and provider. For the blinkered the only perceived alternative is state ownership that restricts and oppresses.
The task of progressive thinking is to argue for different approaches. There are other models of social development, including those experiments in workers’ co-operatives which developed under Labour in the Seventies. There are precedents in our own experience to confirm the credible alternatives to corporatism. ‘Compassionate capitalism’ is not a phrase that should be heard in the Labour Movement except in terms of rejection.
That is not to say the collective is always the way. The co-operative ethic is at the core of progressive values, but not exclusively so. There is a case for a degree of mercantilism. The local, independent trader is essential to the well-being of neighbourhoods. At one with their communities, the local traders provide social as well as commercial services. The erosion of the neighbourhood general store, post office, news/bookshop or café is an evident deprivation: the boarded-up shop lies in the shadow of the anonymous, corporate supermarket.
Restoring local ownership to communities has to be a priority for a progressive polity seriously in hope of governance. There are new patterns of culture that can gain public acceptance especially if they act in accord with a commitment to social equity and international peace. A diversion of resources from useless weapons and futile wars may reconnect an anxious public to a creative future rather than an imperial past or yet another collapse into Bonapartism.
Compromise is a political necessity for anyone but a fanatic. Compromise, however, is a tactic, not a principle in the pursuit of new styles of social architecture.Socialists are not liberals. There is a much-quoted remark that the Labour manifesto of 1983 was ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The subsequent change of direction, however, resulted not in resounding victory but two successive defeats.
Victory came in 1997 with an apparent commitment to optimism and idealism. Blair’s disappointing lack of resolve saw a loss of three million votes at the next election, and a further million lost the time after that. He did win elections, but the sense of betrayal is evident in the haemorrhaging of support.Moderation tends not to win Labour victories. Radical programmes do.
The failure in 1983 was due to very particular circumstances:
1.The national mood of imperial nostalgia after the South Atlantic War.
2. The presence of ruthless ideologues in the party structure.
3. The secession of the Social Democrats.4. A feeling that Michael Foot, for all his qualities, was not a serious contender for the keys to 10 Downing Street.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, he seems to be a catalyst rather than a leader. He has succeeded most creditably in revitalising the radical heart of Labour, and in doing so he has increased the Labour vote in local and parliamentary elections.His was the initiative that rescued Labour from exhaustion and defeat. We should pay sincere tribute to such an achievement against the odds. He has faced hostility from a cynical political class that aspires to the leading role in society. But Corbyn deserves an honourable place in Labour history.
The Labour Movement is a moral campaign or it is nothing, said Harold Wilson. People seek ownership of their lives. They need to be told that American corporate capitalism offers only empty promises and impossible dreams. Our values lie embedded in Europe and the reality of a culture of which we are inescapably a part. Our island is connected to the main. That connection is one among other connections that seek urgent renewal. There are those who will never be persuaded. There are those who need to be persuaded.