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

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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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