Things don't only get better: why the working class fell out of love with Labour
The Brexit vote represents an existential challenge to the identity and existence of the party.
I hope that if we have learnt anything together over the last nine years it is that things don't only get better. My argument with progressives is not over values but over the realities of defeat, loss and of dispossession. We need to have an awareness of tragedy and the presence of evil as a real and living possibility in our politics and in our lives. The popular energy is with the Right. It is now possible to think of the loss of the Labour Tradition as a mainstream political and governing force. It is worth thinking about the scale of this loss and what it would mean.
The Labour Party was the most successful anti-fascist party in Europe. It achieved this by retaining its purpose as the political representative of the labour interest. It was the party of the labour interest, by the labour interest and for the labour interest. It defeated fascism by facing down communism, without surrendering to liberalism. It refused the offer of a popular front and defied the pressure to be an exclusively progressive party. We were Labour.
It is worth remembering that when Attlee entered the war cabinet with Churchill's Conservatives, bringing with him Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood, his move was denounced by a cacophony of organised hate as "social fascism". It was seen as a betrayal of labour values. And yet it established the Labour Party's reputation for patriotic competence and laid the groundwork for 1945 and all its achievements.
It was Labour’s unique character that enabled it to defeat fascism at home and abroad. It had been reduced to 52 seats in the 1931 election. Eight years later Labour was in a government coalition. In 1945, 14 years after it had been routed, Labour won a landslide victory. These are the realistic timelines within which transformative Labour governments are forged.
In three or four years time we are likely to be faced with a defeat comparable to 1931. It would be wise for us to think seriously about how to heal our ruptured relationship with the working class; how we organise and develop leaders from that class; and how we build a constructive political economy, an alternative to our present model, that works for the common good. In which labour value and labour power play a fundamental role.
The Labour tradition: conservative and radical
What was distinctive about the 1945 government was the scale of its working class support and representation. It was a maddening combination of constitutional indifference and economic radicalism; reformism and conservativism; patriotism and internationalism. This was the object of affection of the mainstream working class, in the north-east, north west, the Midlands and the south. It was their party and I still hear echoes of it when people describe themselves to me as Labour. Not in terms of how they vote but in terms of how they understand themselves.
Labour has always been a coalition between workerist and progressive elements, liberals and conservatives, mediated by socialism. It was held together by the belief that we are social beings who resist the domination of capital through democracy; and by the refusal to accept that human beings are a commodity or that our inheritance is exclusively monetary.
The Labour tradition stands for the political and civic inheritance of our self-governing institutions. Politics should be of the people, by the people and for the people. Labour was not a party of violent change but one which protected and cherished the objects of affection of the people.
It is worth reflecting on what life would be like if we lost a popular, messy, broad based, and paradoxical Labour Party from our national life. There would no longer be an immanent Labour government. There would no longer be a tribune of working people. This is what the Brexit vote represents. An existential challenge to the identity and existence of the party.
It is the first time for a century that the working class en masse has ignored the Labour leadership, in the party and the trade unions. Labour is no longer an object of affection for the working-class. If that does not change, the scale of the loss is colossal. Labour will no longer be that effective anti-fascist party that governed our country, laid its modern institutional foundations and democratised its ancient institutions, not least, parliament. It will be reduced to a partner in a progressive coalition that does not enjoy popular support. Instead it will polarise against working class positions on the universal income or proportional representation.
Without Labour, right-wing populism will grow and become the alternative to the status-quo. That is the danger. Like capitalism, nationalism needs to be domesticated through an engagement with and not a rejection of its existence. Solidarity is generated by a sense of a shared fate and that is shaped by building common democratic institutions. Solidarity cannot be demanded from people, it must be felt and earned.
Before Labour emerged as the scourge of fascism the labour movement was the answer to the question of how democratic politics can resist the overwhelming pressure that capitalism exerts to turn human beings and nature into mere commodities to be bought and sold on the market. Social democracy was not the answer. Throughout Europe it disintegrated under pressure from fascism and communism. All those words, all those meetings, all those speeches.
Labour was the answer because it was rooted in far deeper political traditions than social democracy and Marxism. It was the inheritor of national and Christian traditions, as well as those of Rome and Jerusalem. Its founders were Catholics and Methodists, workers and peasants, Anglo Saxons and Celts. Their land and status had been stolen by a rapacious free market and the poor law state. Their lives, and the meaning of their lives were threatened by a modernity that hurled people, money and things through time and space, without let or hindrance. The challenge is not new.
People were abandoned to the industrial cities where they were exploited. They resisted the fate of being a mere commodity and asserted their humanity by building their relationships, supporting their leaders and creating their own institutions. The funeral societies through which they could bury each other and not be abandoned to a paupers grave. The building societies that pooled their meagre resources and enabled them to reclaim a home in the world. And mutual insurance to mitigate the hazards of imminent catastrophe for their loved ones.
In short, the British working-class refused to be a proletariat without assets or a home. They rejected violent conflict as the only resolution to their remorseless difficulty. They sought recognition and a common good. That was the meaning of Labour and the identity of Labour. It drove academics mad and Fabians to despair but it endured and it grew.
The Labour Party offered attachment and belonging, loyalty and solidarity. It generated meaning and affection and that was precisely because it was Labour and not social democratic. It named itself after a practice rather a principle, a class rather than an aspiration. In many ways it was conservative, wishing to retrieve meaning from a disenchanted world. The garden cities and the formality of early Labour Party meetings and photographs speak of a respectability that had been shamefully stolen from them. There was no desire to renounce and destroy a common political inheritance that had proved durable and flexible.
Labour existed and stood in defiance of a utilitarian economics that believed, and still believes, that the free market created the world. A world in which the economy was insulated from ethics and reciprocity. Labour reasserted the human nature of the economy and the centrality of labour value.
A Labour political economy of work
Labour— work — is a good in itself, as well as being a source of economic value. You could say that as well as having an external value in the form of price, the value of a commodity and wages, labour as a human activity also has an internal good.
The political consensus around economics in the past 30… but I would say… 70 years has assumed that almost anything other than work generates economic value. I have been assured that capital generates value, that technology generates value, that state planning generates value, that universities generate value, that friendship generates value. But significant though all these things are, if work, if labour, is ignored then a constitutive and decisive feature of value is ignored. That is one of the reasons why a universal income, severed from work and vocation is a blind alley for Labour.
The result of the EU Referendum offers an opportunity to reshape the direction of our political economy.
There are strong pressures to resurrect the two failed models of the past half century. Either financial globalisation or a protectionist state-directed economy. Labour must offer a plausible and constructive alternative to both. That is a central task of the next two years.
We have to develop a robust position that links productivity to the skill, character and resilience of the workforce. This requires a re-evaluation of vocation and the institutions required to reproduce skills and strengthen the resilience of individuals. We need to be reminded that human beings are not essentially mobile and selfish. We are social beings with a desire to earn and belong, and to honour our obligations to our family, neighbours and colleagues.
We should recognise that in the post-war economy capital has centralised with the same intensity as the state and this has left regions without finance or financial institutions. In terms of England, the further you live from London the more likely you were to vote for Brexit. There is possibly a causal connection between distance and disaffection.
A plausible description of the British economy is that it is Portugal with Singapore in the south.
In terms of the body politic, there are regions of the country that are suffering from malnutrition, if nutrition is measured in terms of the inheritance of a civic ecology of assets, capital and local institutions. There needs to be a greater availability of capital within the regions and endowed regional banks. The “banks of England” are worthy of careful consideration as a core feature of our economic policy. Capitalism is a faithless and promiscuous partner and the eternal goal of labour is to domesticate it. Our tragic fate is not to abolish capitalism but to marry it and bind it in mutual obligation. In this sense we would be the true inheritors of the progressive mantle which stood for the reform of centralised and oligarchic forms of capitalism.
Each of us has to live with cruel twists of fate in our lives that can cause a sense of injustice and perhaps persecution. Mine is that this government has made the idea of workers on the boards its only original economic policy. The other day, Lord Dobbs, who wrote and owns the entire concept of House of Cards, threatened to take me to the top of a very high building and push me over the edge for campaigning for it. We should begin now to campaign on this and give it form as a way of improving accountability, developing the knowledge and leadership of the workforce, and embedding capital in relationships and places.
The challenge before us is the same that has confronted every generation of Labour people for more than a century. How do we renew the promise of democracy and citizenship by resisting the domination of capital without resorting to an exclusively administrative central state?
It is now no longer forbidden to think about a national economic system. It is our duty to develop this position and commit to the renewal of the complementary institutions that characterise our national economy.
Inequality, understood in terms of region and class, as well as monetary and human capital requires an institutional rather than a policy shift in which regional banks, vocational colleges, city corporations and renewed counties play a role. Our political economy and our constitutional reform complement each other. We should conceive of cities as a network of institutions that uphold the common good and not exclusively as budget holders and administrative units.
Neither can we cede technological change and the application of robotics and artificial intelligence to the ownership and benefit of capital alone. We must challenge the remorseless application of individual copyright in knowledge, as well as in nature, by ensuring that technology and knowledge are a shared inheritance and a central way of doing this is by defending and expanding the intellectual and technological commons.
In renewing vocation we must ensure that we challenge gender coding and pass on a shared inheritance in which men are honoured for their caring and gentleness and women for their courage in the military and technological innovation.
We must argue the case for a productive and virtuous rather than an exclusively formal and virtual economy.
One of the key rules of organising is to work within the experience of your people, and we are experiencing a crisis in our relationship with working people, the descendants of those who built the party and the movement. This break is itself felt as an act of dispossession. The idea that the losers have won is what gave the Brexit result such potency among the working class. We must ensure that they are not the losers in Brexit but its leaders. It means building a political economy that honours the dignity and centrality of work.
The identity crisis that confronts us is generated by this breakdown of relationships and of our ideology. We have lost our ability to understand the world and act within it with predictable results. For many people the world has gone mad and no longer makes any sense. We need to understand where and why we went wrong, in being far too naïve in our understanding of the demonic power of capitalism, and far too sanguine in its effects on the working poor. Human beings are not commodities and free movement treated them as just that.
We need to pursue the good and to be guided by our tradition and history. That is the best guide to the future. And we need some faith in the goodness of the people, that they are yearning for a human life of love and work, of fulfilment and relationships. The support of the leadership of the poor served us well in developing leaders with followers in their communities such as Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison. Our labour tradition of political economy remains superior to its monetarist as well as Keynesian critics.
As we know that things don’t only get better we can prepare for the hard work in the decade ahead. 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.
That is why I believe that the past shapes the future, that tradition mediates the merciless demands of modernity, and why I believe that our best days lie ahead of us.
This is the text of a speech to the Labour Together Conference ‘Political Renewal and the Future of Labour’, in the Attlee Suite, Portcullis House on 3 November, 2016.