Blue Labour is over but the debate has just begun

To give voice to the mood of the country, Labour must be both conservative and radical.

On Tuesday Peter Mandelson and Socialist Worker both attacked Blue Labour. Both used name calling to score political points. Both missed the most obvious point. Blue Labour no longer exists. Call it a movement, call it a project, call it what you like, last week the small group of people associated with the Blue Labour idea disbanded itself. The article by Maurice in this week's New Statesman does not alter this fact.

The brand was destroying the politics. Where there should have been dialogue there was growing polarisation. Instead of care around sensitive issues there has been the political equivalent of ram-raiding. The idea that debate involves 'throwing grenades' wins some headlines but only encourages a counter reaction; back came the grenades. Stoking controversy is good for the media but after a time it becomes lousy for the politics.

The debate which started only last year in May 2010 now needs to broaden itself out and involve more people. The e-book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox was never the 'Blue Labour bible'. It was about beginning a vigorous and open debate about Labour's future. We need to develop it both across the Labour Party and outside it.

Labour's future does not lie with Blue Labour, nor does it lie with New Labour, but with a synthesis of ideas and politics. It means understanding the conjuncture we are in in order to create a winning electoral politics that will transform the country for the better.

I would argue that this conjuncture requires Labour's politics in England to be both conservative and radical. If Labour can inhabit this paradox and capture its insights it will give voice to the mood of the country. The future is conservative. I do not mean it will be Conservative with a political upper case 'C' - the right has no understanding of this moment. Nor do I mean it will be conservative with a lower case social 'c'. Rather it will be characterised by a social and cultural mood that Raymond Williams calls a 'structure of feeling'. This mood exists on the edge of our collective vocabulary and it has yet to find articulation in politics. If Labour can give it a voice, it has the opportunity to construct a new hegemony.

This mood is about a desire to conserve, protect and improve the fundamental elements of social life which are people's relationships and family, their sense of belonging and identity, the continuity of home and place, and the human need for social security. When individuals have these goods they can aspire and strive for something more in their lives. When too many people lack these goods, society is divided, anxious, insecure, and distrustful. This is currently the condition of England following three decades of deindustrialisation, globalisation and market-driven reforms.

The morbid symptoms of this condition erupt into the body politic in rage against immigration and, amongst a disturbing number, a suspicion and hatred of Islam. There is a deeply felt grievance at the unfairness of a system which does not seem to care about the hard working who live by the rules. It's a belief that those who need help don't get it, while those who don't deserve it get all they want. The upshot is that people with long term illnesses and disabilities are scape-goated and accused of being benefit cheats. Ask people about England and many answer that the English look like a beaten people living in a country without a future for its children. There is a loss of hope and its absence creates a corrosive cynicism: politicians line their pockets, the banks steal, and the media lie and cheat. A feral elite is a law unto itself as it steals from the common wealth and pursues its own selfish interests. Here we are, living in a disorientated culture unable to answer the question it keeps throwing up at us - who are we?

Yes, its a crude and simplistic description. It doesn't take account of the good things that we have, but I'd argue that this is the mood that will shape our politics over the next few years.

The economic historian Carlota Perez has made a strong case for why such times as our own can give rise to collective desires for reform and reparation. She argues that successive technological revolutions over the last two centuries have created distinct surges of economic development that progressively extend capitalism into people's lives and facilitate its expansion across the planet. In these surges, the productive structure and the institutions of governance and society are transformed by the driving force of finance led capital accumulation. The revolutionising of the instruments and forces of production extends commodification and market relations into society. Old ways of life disappear, or they lose their former preeminence and coexist with the new.

In the last three decades Britain has been experiencing this kind of finance-driven capital accumulation that has powered the transition from the Fordist era of mass production to the age of new information and communication technologies. Perez argues that these kinds of transformation always end in an economic crisis, followed by a period in which there exists political opportunities to rebuild productive capital and create institutions for a more equitable society.

Marx would disagree with this evolutionary economics and the primacy it gives to technology as an determining force, but it nevertheless echoes his description of capitalist modernity as a world in which, 'all that is solid melts into air'. Socialism has been about conserving human values and society against this destructiveness. Today as the neo-liberal hegemony begins to fragment there exists an opportunity in the decade ahead to rebuild the counter-movement and construct a new left of centre hegemony. The future is conservative, and it will be radical. Blue Labour might be over but the political debate has only just begun.

Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.