Thanks very much for inviting me here this evening; not least because it allows me to talk about philosophy, society and socialism. Believe me as a Labour MP this does not happen very often.
I have been a MP for ten years. I went with Tony Blair into Downing St in 1997 and spent three years there. From 1994 to 2001 Blair managed to build a liberal patriotic sentiment in the country; it subsequently collapsed. Blair set out as ethical socialist, ended as a neo-classicist.
To begin with I should explain something about myself. For me, politics is more about emotion than programme; more groups, community and association – imagined as well as real – rather than theoretical or scientific.
I blame structuralism for this. I was a student in the early 80s when the academy was awash with specific debates about the primacy of the economic, overdetermination – Althusser, Balibar, Poulantzas, Laclau. Thatcherism dominated the landscape; the left remained abstract; preoccupied but insignificant.
Similarly I was at a recent seminar with many of our shadow cabinet where debate seemed to hide behind assumptions about our ‘timeless, universal values’. A series of abstractions I do not really understand. Yet the political tempo of the country lies elsewhere.
I fear a rupture between political theory and the emotions of politics.
Politics for me is not a variant of rational choice theory. It is about base, visceral connections, sentiment, themes and language that grip people; stories and allegories that render intelligible the world around them.
For me socialism is not about science, rather it is firstly, about patterns of resistance and contest as our lives, relationships, families are commodified. Historically, this form of resistance focused on three forms of dispossession: removal from the land through enclosure, from your own labour as your capacity to work was commodified and from a voice and the franchise.
Second socialism is about the creation of institutions that allow us to self realise, to flourish. Vaclav Havel once said that we ‘are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy and tolerance…: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their ‘private’ exile and accept them as the only genuine point of meaningful human community’.
That is why I love the notion of ‘The Good Society’ seen as a discussion about how you build intermediary institutions that help people to flourish; about the virtues that we wish to nurture, so we can live more rewarding lives. In short as the site for contesting the hollow atomised individual of orthodox economics.
Finally, Labour, for me, is also a tribal thing; it is my team. To back through thick and thin; a life sentence. A source of an ongoing tension, between both hope and despair. The later tends to dominate the former.
So I freely admit I tend toward the romantic, utopian although tribal disposition.
What interests me is not policy as such; rather the search for political sentiment, voice and language; of general definition within a national story. Less The Spirit Level, more What is England.
Indeed lets focus on ‘what is England’
As an MP my dominant experience over the last few years has been an angry, at times violent English nationalism mixed with an aching sense of loss and abandonment. When discussing what lies beneath you are reminded of something Richard Rorty once wrote:
‘the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless’.
This describes a very real process at work in terms of political remoteness; rupture, grievance and globalisation.
At times through previous periods of economic and social rupture Labour has sought an internal reckoning; a re-appropriation of its own history and identity so as to assert itself into a contest around our national story. That seems to me to be the task at hand today.
However, we immediately hit a wall. Labour defines itself as ‘radical’ ‘progressive’.
What does it mean to be a ‘radical’ or a ‘progressive’ ? The progressive politician goes forward to achieve improved, altered social structures. Literally radical is from the latin to uproot. This can often harbour contempt for those fearful of change.
Feelings of loss, a search for belonging, of uprootedness dominate much of the political landscape; a modern anomie. Yet we often tend toward considering these feelings as in some sense hindering our own, or indeed humanity’s progress. For many on the left they have become inherently reactionary; an irrational pathology.
So is Labour trapped by virtue of seeing modern anomie, or alienation as essentially an irrational human condition?
Is this linked to Labour’s political crisis; its lack of identity, language and connection? Is this where history steps in?
Milan Kundera wrote: ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Remembering is itself a political struggle over who owns the past.
Yet it is not just New Labour at fault; it is a condition affecting many forms of left rationalism which drain emotion and connection. Social democracy retreats into a cold managerialism; politics as a variant of rational choice theory.
For Labour to rediscover its energy, vitality and language it has to confront this reality; literally to rediscover its soul. I would suggest to rediscover exiled traditions within its own history – romantic, utopian traditions that might contest and own the notion of ‘The Good Society’ here and now; today.
Labour history is contemporary. This is what I want to discuss today.
The Three Crises of Labour
Labour has faced three periods of real crisis. The first followed the crash of 1929, and the collapse of the second Labour government as MacDonald, Thomas and Snowden entered the National Government. The second came with Labour’s loss of power in 1979, the Thatcherite ascendancy and our threatened eclipse by a new third party in the early 1980s. Finally, 2010 a couple of years after the global economic shakedown.
It took nearly 15 years for Labour to return to power following the first two crises and the resultant election defeats of 1931 and 1983. Each crisis occurs after periods of economic and social rupture.
So the three periods when socialist solutions would appear most appropriate – at moments of capitalist crisis – are precisely when Labour is itself engulfed by crisis.
So lets think about socialism. What is it?
Marx and Engels saw socialism as the product of the laws of history; in short a negation of capitalism. For Marxists socialism is a transitional period in the emergence of communism.
The classic ‘revisionist’ socialist text: Tony Crossland’s Future of Socialism swerved around issues of definition to suggest that socialism was about equality; a ‘strong’ rather than ‘liberal’ approach to equality.
It also emphasised the means; not singularly driven by questions of ownership, so as to encompass issues of freedom and democracy, planning and growth.
In this classic text Crossland identifies 12 summary socialist doctrines that he thought existed before his own ground breaking book.
Rather than list them lets look at it another way.
Many years before RH Tawney defined socialism in terms of its objective of resistance to the market and its constraints to private profit. He identified two approaches: ethical and economic.
The economic route is driven by socialised ownership so as to produce alterative allocations of resources to redress poverty, homelessness etc. Various rational approaches to issues of economic organisation and distribution; driven by science and calculus. Socialism is transactional; about resource allocation.
In contrast the ethical approach is based around the search for solidarity and fraternity to stop the commodification of our lives, our
labour and relationships.
So we can detect a general socialist fault line; between rationality and relations; economic law and ethics; allocation and alienation. In 1995 as Leader of the Party Tony Blair touched on this when he argued that ‘socialists have to be both moralists and empiricists’
Two strands – rational and romantic. Three political crises: 1931, 1983 and 2010.
I now want to take a slight detour; to briefly discuss Tony Blair. Not just because last week it was announced that he was seeking to re-enter domestic politics. But because ‘Blairite’ is now an orthodox term of abuse within the party; his name triggers jeers at our annual conference; many around labour appear more angry at Blairism than with Cameron and Clegg
So what is Blairism?
Think of it this way. I would suggest that political figures tend to be owned in their immediate afterlife by those of their supporters left standing at the sorry end; usually their most extreme advocates.
The last devotees of Margaret Thatcher or the last New-Labour extremists, which distorts immediate perspective and underplays the assorted cross currents, texture and evolution, or indeed regression, in their respective political projects. In short, it obscures understanding and thus political renewal.
Although entirely unfashionable, I suggest this is precisely what has happened with Blair. A caricature shaped by those left standing at his side at the dismal end but also aided by his political opponents in the labour gang culture and a cadre of MPs so hungover they are unable to offer a nuanced conception of their own record in government.
In contrast, might we see the story of Blair’s ‘journey’ as telling a deeper story about socialism; Blair himself as allegory about what Labour might have been and what it became, encapsulating the essential socialist high wire between hope and despair – Raymond Williams once said ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. Blair did both of these things.
So the task at hand is, I suggest, to disentangle an early Blair, one driven by an ethic but slain on the alter of economic liberalism.
Lets take another Detour
Recently, I was at the University of Hull at the Centre for Idealism and New Liberalism. We were discussing the work of RG Collingwood, Edward Caird, T H Green, Michael Oakeshott and others. Specifically we focused on one speech that, I would argue, could be the most significant one of the last twenty years. Actually, I would suggest, it could prove to be the most powerful one since Bobby Kennedy’s ‘Mindless Menace of Violence’ speech in 1968 the day after King was shot. It was not by Reagan, Clinton or Obama. It was by George W Bush on 22nd July 1999 in Indianapolis entitled ‘The Duty of Hope’. Marvin Olasky uses it as the core text in his book on ‘Compassionate Conservatism’; its the actual appendix.
Think of three key words: duty, hope, compassion. The three words that dominate the speech blending an idealism and patriotism which is ‘tied together by bonds of friendship, and community and solidarity’.
Bush says the ‘Government… must act in the common good – and that good is not common until it is shared by those in need’. He concludes with St Francis ‘where there is hatred, sowing love, where there is darkness, shedding light; where there is despair, bringing hope’.
Where does this language appear on the left today? It certainly does within our history – in that of the ILP – especially in Lansbury, Hardie and Macdonald. It certainly inspired the Stepney ILP energy of Clem Attlee and indeed parts of the New Left humanism reacting against Stalinism in the late 50s.
Idealism, virtue, romanticism, hope – refracted into both a national, patriotic story but also a local parochial one; a method consistently used by Bush in the way he nurtures local initiatives through allegory to tell deeper national stories which are ‘rich in justice and compassion and family love and moral outrage’.
If we go back to the Kennedy speech – exactly the same agenda: duty, hope, virtue – specifically the cardinal virtue compassion – anchored within the local community – of family, nation and religion. For Kennedy, it is, like that of Attlee, a secularised Christian ethic. For Bush an explicit religious call to arms.
Think of this slightly differently. Start with this cardinal virtue – Bush’s ‘armies of compassion’. Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion evolved out of her histories of religions. There is a story always quoted by Armstrong in her studies of comparative religions. She refers to the way Hyam Maccoby quotes the Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule.
Some pagans came to Hillel and said that they would convert if he were able to stand on one leg and recite the whole of the Jewish scriptures in full whilst keeping his balance.
Hillel stood on one leg and simply said: ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary.’
The rest is commentary – striped bare this is the core of all religions – and none – as it also lies as the core of much secularised humanism found around Labour; a sense of reciprocity and obligation to others. In Attlee for example, how English idealism secularised the Christian ethic in his politics. Think of the early ethical socialism of the ILP.
Reciprocity is the ethical core of Labour; the give and take that creates the social bonds that hold people together in a common life. And it is not exclusively religious. It built the ILP notion of fellowship.
I would suggest the political brilliance of the Bush and Kennedy speeches is the use of the ‘key words’, again to quote Williams: compassion, hope and duty; patriotism, family and religion – specifically so for Bush, a secularised ethic for Kennedy. Their respective uses of ‘community’ and the ‘common life’ that we share in each speech is the template for the ‘key words’. Consciously, there is very little policy – rather the objective is the construction of a political sentiment so as to contest and own the very notion of nationhood itself.
I would suggest this is what Labour has successfully done on 3 occasions – when it has contested and defined the national story – in 1945, 1964 and 1997.
In 1945 defining the tories as the party of unemployment and appeasement.
1964 Douglas Home and the Grouse moor and economic and social modernisation of Wilson and Blairs modern patriotism of 1997.
Lets Return to Tony Blair
Tony Blair, once privately said to Michael Foot that ‘even in our own party there is a tendency against letting the mind roam free’. Later on the 6th July 1983 in his maiden speech to the House of Commons Blair argued that ‘British democracy rests ultimately on the shared perception by all the people that they participate in the benefits of the common weal’. A specific reference to William Morris.
His book ‘The Journey’ is an extraordinary piece of work.
In it he explains that when he became an MP Labour had two types of members and supporters: ‘those who by tradition were Labour, and those who came to a position of support for socialism or social democracy through an intellectual process’.
In contrast the ex PM says, and he appears to see this as his own unique insight into political philosophy, that:
‘I begin with an analysis of human beings as my compass; the politics is secondary’. Further and having consumed the work of John Macmurray such as in Reason and Emotion and Conditions of Freedom ‘I developed a theory about the basis of socialism being about ‘community’ – i.e. people owe obligations to each other and were social beings, not only individuals out for themselves – which pushed me down the path of trying retrieve Labour’s true values from the jumble of ideological baggage that was piled on top of them obscuring their meaning. For me, it was socialism, and wasn’t about a particular type of economic organisation, anchored to a particular point in history’.
This is a fascinating piece. I actually agree with this. The trouble is the story of New Labour and Blair is the systematic retreat from just such insight. Actually such insight hardly ever appears again in the book! But it began well.
In 1995 as Leader of the Party he argued that ‘socialists have to be both moralists and empiricists’. A year earlier on accepting the leadership he told us that his was a ‘mission to lift the spirit of the nation… a country where we say, We are part of a community of people – we do owe a duty to more than ourselves… a country where there is no corner where we shield our eyes in shame… the power of all for the good of each… that is what socialism means to me.’ Drilling into Labour’s history for reclamation of its ethic and ordinariness.
When writing ‘Why I am a Christian’ in 1996 he disowns utilitarianism, returns to ethics and Party history and Macmurray. Later patriotism of the ‘Young Country’ of 1995. That same year embracing the ‘moral reformers’ of Tawney and Morris; Cobbett and Owen.
All crystallised when Tony Blair in 1994 argued for a new national mission:
‘A new spirit in the nation based on working together, unity, solidarity, partnership. This is the patriotism of the future. Where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation’.
This is precisely the terrain sought by both Bush and Kennedy; beyond the reach of economic liberalism or remote cosmopolitanism. I would argue his popularity was built on this sentiment. It is what we have lost. But how?
Lets go sideways. Consider three labour losses.
Its class, its revisionism and its optimism
First, the politics of Labour has been fundamentally altered by radical changes in the working class, its culture and institutions over the last four decades.
Fifty years ago Raymond Williams published a short essay called ‘Culture is Ordinary’. It begins with an elegy to his working class boyhood in the farming valleys of the Black Mountains and the generations of his family who had lived there.
It is a beautiful piece of writing – poetic and humane. Williams describes a way of life which emphasised neighbourhood, mutual obligation and common betterment. It is a story of pride and dignity familiar to the core of the Labour Party. It is central to our historic identity and our resilience; it gave us meaning. Yet we have tended in Labour to collapse these sentiments into a mechanistic, indeed economistic, notion of class structuration. In doing so we have emptied the real meaning of the class location we have lost, in terms of its sense of belonging.
Of course, Williams knew that this culture was shaped by the underlying system of production. He recalls how from the mountains he could look south to the ‘flare of the blast furnace making a second sunset.’ He could not have imagined the day when there would be no second sunset in terms of the notion of community.
Consider a second loss – Anthony Crosland’s model of social democracy. The Future of Socialism (1956) was for many always out there on the horizon – a revisionist answer to orthodox Marxism whilst also an assault on the foundations of market economics – neo-classical theory.
It was an intellectual cornerstone for a social democracy built on tax receipts from capitalist progress, an interventionist nation state and of class reconciliation through growth.
It was dealt a near fatal blow when the Labour Government went to the IMF. Gordon Brown re-invented a derivative for New Labour, privileging the City and the financial markets and skimming their profits for the Exchequer.
That model is now lost. Fifteen years – sixty un-interrupted quarters of growth – have gone. We were able to swerve around the big distributional issues – and indeed the laws of politics – given the supposed end to boom and bust. Politics became transactional, allocative, rational. Its language cold; yet functional until the money tap stops and so does the music.
Now consider a third loss- optimism – or hope.
Unwittingly, the most telling description of what New Labour lost was contained within its own bible: Philip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution.
He makes a revealing distinction when he described his parents as having “wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational”.
The possibility that these two categories were not mutually exclusive was never entertained. It holds the key to how Blair lost his early ethical location through a reorientation in his conception of human activity and aspiration.
Given Gould’s separation between what was right and what we aspire, it is hardly shocking that in the psephological models he invented to map out New Labour’s route to power, such as Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman we find our old friend Rational Economic Man resurrected in modern garb – the foundation of right wing political economy through the ages.
In this view of what it is to be human, aspiration consists of the impulse to accumulate and consume without regard to the consequences for others or any sense of responsibility to society as a whole.
Here people are considered as individualistic. Unsentimental. Ruthlessly self-interested; that the electorate- or at least the section of it that counted- held fast to a rationality that verged on the misanthropic.
By 2001, New labour’s policies were essentially based on a mythical ‘Middle England’, drawn up by the pollsters and located somewhere in the South East, built around continuous growth and affluence and where politics always had to be individualised.
A leading Cabinet member claimed that Labour’s essential message was to help more people ‘earn and own’. Was it? Where is the notion of a virtuous citizen?
We believed it would only respond to a sour, illiberal politics about consuming more, rather than deeper ideas- of fraternity, of collective experience, and what it is we aspire to be as a nation.
Precisely the territory that Blair had defined from 1994 . He gradually vacated.
But this viewpoint was neither accidental and for certain it was not original.
Thomas Hobbes, for example, assumed self interest to be the only guiding principle; kindness a virtue for losers. Think the rationality of neo-classical economics.
Before his death Michel Foucault wrote a series of brilliant lectures describing how this type of political economy becomes ‘biopolitical’; how its hollowed out conception of the human being – in terms of what we aspire -comes to be seen as natural. For New Labour, the journey to the neo-classicists and away from Blair’s early promise was conditioned by the loss of any notion of country from its class history, its revisionist growth and its hope and conception of human capability- a deracinated isolated individual.
The Real ‘Journey’
Contrast the Blair of 1994, his emphasis on nation building and the forging of a left patriotism, with where he ended up at the 2005 Labour Party Conference. Think about what is lost.
Here he described how, ‘the character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice.’
Rather than view this world as destructive and dehumanising, he celebrated those who are quote ‘swift to adapt’ and, ‘open, willing and able to change’.
The distance between these two speeches reflects the self imposed exile of Blair into a neo-classical framework. Think of the distance between this and the ‘key words’ of Bush and Kennedy, that language beyond the reach of his brutal liberalism; yet deep within Labour’s own history.
I would suggest the real shift in language and character of the Government occurred – not over Iraq- but in the debates around differential top fees; the creation of a neo-classical Labour. The language was of a rational economic exchange, of a derived utility, discounting for the future and of calculus. No discussion at all of the virtue of creating wiser more knowledgeable citizens; what intermediary institutions- such as Universities- are there to achieve
in allowing our citizens to live a more virtuous life. By 2005 what worked, for him, is quote a ‘liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive.’
It is a dystopian ‘winner takes all’ vision of capitalist modernity in which the human values of commitment, fidelity and loyalty are subordinated to anonymous and unpredictable market forces.
It’s ‘creative destruction’ destroys ethical values, social cohesion, and cultural identity. Our loss of language. Our lost our soul.
In a way that mirrors Hayek’s liberalism, New Labour’s utilitarianism cultivated an acquisitive, selfish individualism cut loose from social obligations. Where is the compassion? Where are the national boundaries? The duties and obligations; the sense of community. How can you return to these questions when you have surrendered to neo-classicism? When it has become ‘biopolitical’.
The door was then opened for David Cameron’s Compassionate Conservatism to colonise precisely this terrain as Labour lost its language, its hope and optimism.
Return to Rorty ‘the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless’. I would suggest this explains an ongoing process through Blair’s ‘journey’.
Return to Vaclav Havel said in ‘Power and the Powerless’:
We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their “private” exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community.
This was what was lost; profoundly felt because Blair started off in such a different place.
‘The Journey’ is precisely the right description of Blairs book. The Journey toward the biopolitical atomised individual. Built around a quite specific, hollowed out notion of aspiration. It is a tragedy for Labour.
The notion of The Good Society can therefore reclaim the romantic socialist traditions of the ILP, Morris and Ruskin, the foundations of ethical socialism, the English idealism of Attlee and that of the early Blair.
It is 15 years and one week since Labour won the 1997 election. It is 61 years since the removal of Clement Attlee as Prime Minister. Virtually 60 years before that the ILP was formed. 105 years ago William Morris died.
Today the labour party sits, often listlessly between two poles of economic liberalism and remote cosmopolitanism content within our abstractions and our belief in timeless values that few can readily identify. Our teleological belief in ‘progress’ can trip into a condescension of the local, the search for home, family and security.
Return to Attlee, of his days in Stepney and his ability to understand the essential decency and virtues of working people. It reminds you of the John Updike quote: to ‘give the ordinary its beautiful due’. Dylan Thomas once said that the labour movement at its best was both ‘magical’ and parochial’. But the history of socialism has always been a contest between its romantic and its rationalist traditions within which the latter has tended to win out at the expense of our essential soul, ethic and sentiment. I suggest it is this that must be rediscovered; it lies deep within.
Maybe we should return to a politics of virtue, romance and passion; maybe we should return to idealism, John Ruskin, William Morris and the ILP; to those exiled traditions Tony Blair dusted down and which swept him to victory before orthodoxy kicked in. The Good Society might be the appropriated base camp from which to introduce an ethical moral fervour to labour politics.
We might even convert people.
In Attlee’s autobiography he counterposes his first visit to a Fabian meeting in October 1907 with him finally becoming a socialist. The fabians- where he remarked ‘the platform seemed to be full of bearded men’ -‘provided Attlee with the bridge by which he crossed to socialism. No sooner was he on the other side than he began to feel uncomfortable’ says Kenneth Harris as ‘they would not take him far enough’. It was patronism that he detected and a top down culture that failed to stir him. Instead Stepney taught him- in his own words- that the ‘working class would be fit to govern, and moreover that it had virtues and values which were in some respects superior to those of the middle class fabians’.
Step forward Tommy Williams an east end wharf keeper ‘a fiery little welshman’ who came to Haileybury House to denounce the Charity Organisation Society. His passion led directly to Attlee joining with the 15 other members of the Stepney ILP in January 1908. It was this alternative socialist emotion that chimed with the literary and idealist sentiments contained within. As Attlee wonderfully described this: ‘Williams proclaimed his socialist faith and I, listening, said, ‘I am a socialist too’.
Attlee said in 1923 that ‘The Fabian school of socialism, while strong in dealing with facts, was always rather weak in dealing with persons. It considered more the organisation of things than the life of the people’.
As the world tilts and people are desperate for hope over despair it is incumbent that Labour rediscovers its sole; its respect for the ordinary; a rejection of its white noise rationalism and instead a new vision of a good society where people fulfil their capacities and flourish; a new covenant between it and the people, a modern utopianism. It is not a choice rather an obligation.
Thank you very much.
This column is the transcript of a speech held at the University of East Anglia