Whatever the future holds Labour should beware both the New and the Blue
Part 1 of this blog argued that the Labour party should beware the calls from Blairites for a revival of the New Labour project and from social conservatives for the promotion of a Blue Labour agenda. It made the case that this would be flawed for electoral reasons. Neither position is able to resolve Labour’s modern progressive dilemma: the need to maintain the support of its heartlands (including the now highly porous ‘red wall’ in the north) and its urban cosmopolitan supporters. In this blog post I turn to address the more fundamental question of whether a revival of the New or Blue agendas could provide a workable progressive vision for post-Brexit Britain.
The answer is fairly self-evident in the case of any Blairite revival that reverts to a centre-ground neoliberal status-quo. Domestically, a New Labour social policy would likely be preferable to what we will see under (in the very best case scenario) a one-nation Johnson government. But such centrism cannot begin to address the big challenges posed by climate change and financialised capitalism, which will require bold interventionism. Internationally, any revived New Labour strategy would likely be oriented towards close cooperation with the EU and beyond. This would be welcome, but it would need to adopt a far more radical—and, again, interventionist—perspective on that cooperation than it did in the past in order to effect any meaningful change.
In the case of Blue Labour, its Polanyi-inspired critique of commodification and its support for localisation and community is not without some merit, as Ed Milliband recognised. But many of its adherents today tend towards a divisive and exclusive politics, which should concern any progressive. The categories that are deployed by some of its intelligentsia—variously, the ‘somewheres’, the ‘left behind’, the ‘white’ working class, the ‘indigenous’ population—are presented as objective reality. But they are, as Bloomfield’s critique points out, narrow and empirically simplistic representations of what is a far more complex and diverse ‘post-Fordist’ labour market and society. More importantly, they privilege certain working class identities and histories at the expense of others.
As Rooksby argued back in 2011, Blue Labour can—for all its pretensions to academic rigour and historical depth—be understood primarily as, ‘a “performative” endeavour which seeks to reshape the ideological terrain and create its own truth.’ Regrettably this is a ‘truth’ that does important political work in sustaining and legitimating the divide and rule tactics of the right. It is a ‘truth’ that at once undermines the left’s longstanding attempt to build common cause between Labour’s diverse constituencies. The very idea of such common cause may simply be anathema to certain of Blue Labour’s adherents, one of whom recently expressed incredulity at the notion that a black Labour MP—even one who has positively engaged with Blue Labour ideas—might be able to connect with Labour heartlands.
As regards international politics, there is a fairly universal dismissal of extant forms of cooperation from an overlapping Blue Labour/Lexiteer position (apparent, for instance, in the Full Brexit project). While some profess their internationalism, their concrete advice on the EU and other international institutions amounts to that of the Irish farmer to the tourist asking for directions: ‘if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. Such defeatism is, as Adler argues, prone to “reify the actually existing [neoliberal] architecture of international institutions…and deactivate the international imagination.” Such a lack of imagination will—to the extent that it leaves a vacuum of post-national governance—serve to undermine any radical progressive domestic agenda, as a recent series of SPERI blogs have, among other things, convincingly argued.
There will be plenty of time to consider what went wrong for Labour in 2019. Among various other overlapping factors are: Corbyn’s unpopularity and past affiliations; vacillation on Brexit; a perceived weakness on questions of security; an excessively centralised and controlling leadership group; and a manifesto that both promised too much and was undersold prior to the campaign. It may also simply be the case that Labour could never have won this election given the high salience of Brexit and the failure of progressive parties to cooperate in the manner of Farage and Johnson.
What Corbyn and McDonnell got right, however, was their refusal to compromise with either neoliberal or nativist tendencies on the left. This was, in effect, a refusal to accept the inevitability of the progressive dilemma: a rejection of the supposed necessity of choosing between two crudely-drawn constituencies and their apparently divergent policy preferences.
In fact, Labour’s core economic agenda, as laid out in both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, would have—even if only partially implemented—significantly improved the lives of all of its potential target constituencies (in all their complexity and diversity). Moreover, McDonnell has rightly acknowledged the vital importance of international cooperation to any radical domestic agenda. Labour’s future challenge should therefore be understood as relating less to its core policy and political orientation and more to effective leadership, strategy, presentation and political communication.
Moving forward then, New Labour savvy on the media and communication may come in useful, but there can be no Faustian pacts with the right-wing media. And Blue Labour insight on the importance of connecting with communities beyond the big cities should certainly be taken to heart, but alternatives to their inherently divisive method of connecting should be found. Whatever it does moving forwards, Labour must continue to reject the neoliberalism of the New and the nativism of the Blue.