I was in a meeting with a group of Labour MPs and individuals from various think tanks. We were listening to one of the UK’s best known economists. The country, he said, is in the worst recession since the 1870s. The historical trajectory of steadily rising living standards over the last one hundred and fifty years has stalled. We have unprecedented levels of private corporate and household debt that threaten future recovery. We are in unknown territory and it is fraught with political dangers. He stood there, head slightly bent, a hockey stick graph of the UKs soaring private debt on the screen behind him, and in frustration he began to jump up and down in time with his appeal for action.
It was a good moment. Energy radiated out into the room. Labour politicians are very busy people, but as a group they seem sunk in collective depression. Since the leadership election in September 2010 Labour has buried itself in denial about the depth of its electoral defeat, about its cultural disconnection from the country, and about the political impact austerity will have on its historic role in government as state spender and redistributor.
The new leadership has been encircled by a mood of waiting – for the transformation, for the vision, for action, for the indefinable spark that will galvanise Labour into life. A Refounding Labour project to democratize and reform the party was set up. Shadow Ministers headed up a plethora of separate policy reviews. A debate about Labour’s future flared into life. Blue Labour broke through the denial and touched on all the key emotions of defeat: loss, grief and mourning. Its energy and the arguments it sparked off created countless debates, articles and blogs. In response Progress, the New Labour pressure group published the Purple Book. Graeme Cooke wrote the best political analysis so far of Labour’s situation in his pamphlet, Still Partying like its 1995, and a small group produced In the Black Labour arguing that fiscal conservatism and social justice go together.
By January 2012, the burst of energy had ebbed away. Refounding Labour didn’t have much refounding to offer. The policy reviews lacked a guiding philosophy and added up to a telephone directory of ideas with no coherence. And as Rafael Behr noted: ‘There has been plenty of argument about what sort of direction Labour should be taking, often identifiable by colour coding; Blue, Purple, Black etc. But that energy seems to be fizzling out.’
As it fizzled out and as the leadership failed to shine and no galvanizing miracle was forthcoming, anticipation turned into disillusionment. The wheels of the party machine turn but the life force is absent. Attempts to frame a political direction remain ghost like. Labour is in danger of sleepwalking into a decade or more of opposition. The Conservatives have serious problems of their own but they must be calculating the odds on making Labour politically irrelevant. They succeeded in achieving this in the last major economic crisis in the 1930s.
In March, Jon Cruddas MP told a journalist that Labour might be starting to lift itself out of denial: ‘I just think in the last few months the penny has dropped a bit about the scale of our defeat. It was all a bit suspended animation because of the leadership election for six months. It created a false environment around Labour and now the historic depths of our defeat are beginning to kick in. And I think that is a good thing. I know everyone else thinks it’s bad, but you have to confront that before you can move on. People are beginning to realise how difficult our task is’.
Labour has to lift its sights from the one or two points up and down of the polls and look to the longer term. It has to win back the trust it lost on the economy and it has to prove its capacity for leadership. But it also needs new foundational thinking. What does Labour stand for? Nobody has a clear idea. It needs to address foundational questions. For example: what does austerity mean for social order and for people’s relationships with one another? What role can the state play under conditions of fiscal conservatism? What would a moral economy for wealth creation look like and how do we create it? What kind of pro-social politics and welfare system can we create to protect the vulnerable and counter the further fragmentation of society? What to do about Europe, about England and Scotland, and what kind of United Kingdom do we want?
To answer these kinds of foundational questions Labour has to resolve two problems. The first is practical and related to how it achieves renewal. Labour has no Basic Values Group. The party is a coalition of politics and affiliated groups and societies each with their own centre of intellectual activity. Its links with academia are ad hoc and mostly around policy issues. The various think tanks associated with it are crucial but they have their own agendas increasingly shaped by the search for scarce funding. This political intellectual infrastructure was disabled by electoral defeat, by the end of New Labour’s third way politics and by the economic crisis. Paradigmatic change has made policy categories, ways of thinking and language out of date. It was the small Blue Labour group, without money and with no formal organisation that caught the emergent mood for foundational rethinking. It succeeded in tipping the axis of debate in a new direction.
It has not been able to sustain the momentum, but it has raised an important question about what form Labour’s renewal will take. The official approach has so far been a cross between laissez faire and short term tactics. It lacks coordinated strategic thinking and political philosophical coherence and has contributed to a sense of political drift. What is needed is a sense of project and a linking up with networks and institutions both inside and outside the party to establish an ecology of debate, research and analysis. But this is a political problem rather than a practical one and it leads to the second issue.
Labour has to reframe the politics of the country. But first it has to reframe itself. The beliefs that have held the Labour movement together are also the beliefs that separate it from large swathes of the electorate. Labour has yet to find a vocabulary that both defines its own distinctive values and reconnects it with the public. This difficulty of reframing politics applies to the broader crisis in European social democracy which is discussed in the conventional often abstract language of social democracy. People aren’t listening.
Third way social democracy created a deracinated politics that forgot that people mostly live their lives in the parochial, and in the vernacular. It either ignored or was condescending toward the local, the ordinary and the everyday. It occupied the state like the pilot of an aircraft delivering policy from ten thousand feet. The legacy of this disconnection is now evident in the struggle of social democracy across Europe to understand why millions of former voters feel abandoned by it and why so many have shifted toward the xenophobic right or nationalistic left.
If social democracy can’t change the way it talks, it won’t be able to change what it wants to do. Change means facing up to the scale of defeat and disconnection. It requires a period of depression and grief. Third comes mourning. There can be no evasion of this process without grief and depression becoming a permanent affliction. In mourning there is a reconnection to life and to thought. Here’s to life.
This post is part of the ‘Basic Values Debate’ jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. Read more on social democratic parties: ‘The Future of the SPD as a Catch-All Party’.