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Goodbye to the liberal era

How identity politics replaced class and the personal became political.

In October 1988 Marxism Today published its special issue on what it called “the New Times”. The Labour Party had been defeated and marginalised by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and the monthly magazine’s editorial described the world after the first decade of the global liberal economic revolution. A new era was taking shape, driven by “flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation”. The transition was transforming people’s identities and even their sense of self.

In a brilliant opening essay, Robin Murray argued that the British economy was entering a period of post-Fordism: the national capitalism of mechanised, standardised forms of mass production subject to scientific management was being transformed into a global, flexible, market-based system of services and niche production. John Urry, in “Disorganised Capitalism”, described globalisation as undermining the “coherence, wholeness and unity of individual ­societies”. At the heart of any transformatory project, wrote Rosalind Brunt, must be a politics of identity. Class was no longer the organising category of political, cultural and social life. New social movements around gender, sexuality, race and the environment were asserting their differences. Charles Leadbeater in his piece called for a “socialist individualism”.

New Times was a radical intervention that challenged conventional left thinking. It offered intellectual resources for the renewal of the Labour Party. But, in particular, New Times defined the world of the baby-boomer generation, which had come of age in the 1960s under conditions of growing and sustained affluence.

This generation constituted a “service class fraction” in the emerging information-oriented, post-Fordist economy. It was the first generation to break away from the confines of the industrial class system, but it did not inherit the traditional cultural authority of intellectuals. The proliferation and fragmentation of knowledge was such that roles were confined to narrow and specialised fields as interpreters and translators of information. Those who belonged to this class fraction were economically secure but politically subordinate to capital. They were workers but did not belong to the old labour interest. In the cities, they gravitated to the left and brought with them a new kind of politics.

Theirs was a revolt against the disciplines of industrial society. Imperatives of economic security gave way to post-materialist values and a liberation ethic of individual self-expression and anti-establishment sentiment. Normative values of gender, sexuality and family life were rejected as oppressive. Uprooted from the decaying patterns of industrial life, a generation embarked on an intellectual renascence of utopian and egalitarian countercultures. Identity politics replaced class and the personal became political. The boundaries between private and public life, the objective and the subjective, politics and morality, were blurred. These internationalised, liberationist cultures provided resources for new forms of capital accumulation and commodification. They have shaped the past four decades of Western culture and the liberal political class that is now passing out of power.

In 1988, New Times defined a politics for this generation and class fraction. A reliance on a revisionist Marxism influenced by critical theory and structuralism reduced individuals to concepts, structured by forces beyond their knowledge and control. Work, relationships, the life of family and friends were either deconstructed to expose their relations of power or were reduced to abstractions. Idealism replaced the slow and incremental business of politics. In these “New Times”, there were no “specific people living in specific places”.

The class fraction of “the New Times” grew considerably with the expansion of the professions and the public sector. Despite its considerable cultural influence, its socially liberal politics have not translated beyond its own specificity into the broader population. In 1964 Perry Anderson, the editor of New Left Review, had dismissed English intellectual life as “comprehensive, coagulated conservatism”. Together with Tom Nairn he established an influential view among the intellectual left that English modernity was no more than a combination of cultural philistinism and Benthamite utilitarianism. “The New Times” inherited this disdain for England, and so disconnected radical politics from its common culture. The left lost the capacity to contest the mainstream politics of national identity. With the decline of industrial collectivism, the influence of this class fraction grew in the Labour Party.

 

New Labour

In an essay in the October 1991 issue of Marxism Today, Tony Blair, then a member of the shadow front bench, set out a new agenda for Labour. He called for a socialism that redefined the relationship between society and the individual. New Times had provided important groundwork for New Labour’s revisionism, but it was forged out of the party’s humiliating defeat in 1983. Philip Gould, in his definitive account of the New Labour years, The Unfinished Revolution, wrote that the party “had declared political war on the values, instincts and ethics of the great majority of decent hard-working voters”. Gould wanted change. The country needed modernisation. He found inspiration in Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and the 1992 US presidential election campaign. “The Clinton experience,” he wrote, “was seminal for the Labour Party.”

New Labour’s progressive politics was learned from the Clinton government and its construction of a US-led, liberal market globalisation. Robert Reich, Clinton’s labour secretary, described progressive globalisation in his 1991 book, The Work of Nations. “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept.”

The Clinton presidency prioritised an opening up of foreign markets spearheaded by the financial sector. Business took advantage of the deregulation of capital controls to become global organisations, shifting money, goods and production across borders in search of customers, low-waged workers and low-tax regimes. The capacity of sovereign democratic governments to govern their national territories and represent the interests of their citizens was undermined. Globalisation, privatisation and market-based reforms began to deinstitutionalise national economies. Public-service reform turned the organisational cultures of education, health care and welfare into quasi or proxy markets. Intangible outputs such as relationships of care, the processes of learning and provision of social security were incentivised and measured by proxies such as cost indicators and league tables, in order to judge their “value for money”.

The character of the nation state itself began to change. In his book The Shield of Achilles (2002), Philip Bobbitt identified a new trend towards a “market state”. The nation state had been responsible for groups and embodied the values of a national culture. Its economic arena was the workplace or factory. Men and women were producers. In contrast, the market state enhanced the opportunities of individuals, and promoted economic efficiency and choice. Its economic arena is the marketplace. Men and women are consumers.

Britain’s liberal-market revolution and the deinstitutionalisation of national forms of organisation provided fresh impetus for the integration of the European Union. The Single European Act 1986 created a European Union with a single market, “in which the free movement of goods, peoples, services, and capital is assured”. Barriers to trade, including public contracts, state aid, financial regulation and “discriminating standards” were then steadily dismantled to create a single free market. In February 1992 the Maastricht Treaty formally tied the single market to economic and monetary union, with a future single currency – the euro – and a social chapter. Britain opted out of both and so set itself on a divergent path from its European partners.

In 2004 ten more countries, eight of them from the old Eastern Bloc, joined the EU. By then, popular anger at high levels of immigration, from both outside and within the EU, was adding to anxieties about rising levels of personal debt, stagnating wages and economic insecurity. The Labour government, unlike that of most other EU countries, decided against transitional controls preventing people from the new states working in Britain. It calculated that levels of immigration from these countries would be negligible. They weren’t. Between 1997 and 2010 net immigration quadrupled, boosting the UK’s population by more than two million. Immigration grew and it came to define British politics for a decade and more. New Labour’s pro-EU politics of deregulated employment markets and free movement of labour was, I think, the undoing of progressive politics and set the political conditions for the Brexit vote in 2016.

Change as both a virtue and an unstoppable force lay at the heart of New Labour’s progressive politics. The socialist individual of New Times had become the restless entrepreneur of New Labour. Philip Gould had echoed Robert Reich in defining the 21st century as an age of “permanent revolution”. By 2005, Tony Blair was celebrating the dynamism of rapid globalisation: “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

For New Labour, it seemed, things could only get better.

 

The vote for Brexit

In 1988 New Times was prescient in describing a new global capitalism that was transforming the institutions and industries of national economies. New Labour embraced this. Yet for millions of the working and middle classes the combination of economic and social liberalism ultimately created stagnant wages, moral uncertainty and a threat to their social identity. Progressive politics was partial in recognising these new grievances. To favour one’s own kind over foreign nationals was seen as racist and xenophobic. To want borders that control the free flow of goods and labour to safeguard one’s job and way of life was both morally wrong and economically inefficient. A love of one’s own home town and country, and a desire to give priority to their wealth and security, was misguided. The sovereignty of a nation was a misnomer.

The politics and attitudes espoused by liberal globalists have provoked the very things they most dislike. Conflicts around inequality and the labour interest are now being played out through nationalism and identity rather than class. People need secure and confident social identities in order to stand up for themselves and challenge powerful interests. It is the populist right not the progressive left that speaks for those who feel dispossessed. In the conflicts between global capitalism and national democracy, it is the populist right, not the progressive left, that is winning the arguments between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, national sovereignty and global governance, and particularism and universalism.

Progressive politics, with its ­ahistorical moral relativism and its lack of cultural rootedness, embraced a borderless globalisation, and so helped to disarm society’s defences against commodification. Its left-wing variant continues to thrive in the globally focused cultures of the metropolitan cities and among the class fraction that created the original optimism of “the New Times”. However, younger generations of this class have not escaped a second wave of globalisation that is shifting high-skilled, high-value work to low-cost countries. Immigration and the huge global increase in numbers of graduates have created a global competition for talent.

The younger middle class no longer has economic and housing security. It lacks ­opportunities for job satisfaction in the interpersonal services, knowledge and cultural industries. The search for higher productivity has led management to impose greater standardisation and control, with the subsequent loss of professional auton­omy and discretion. This power struggle within the middle classes has created a new political radicalism expressed in support for Jeremy Corbyn, but Corbynism has ­minority appeal.

Yet the conditions exist for a broad electoral coalition organised around the labour interest in the cause of family, work and the places people belong. What is absent is a ­political leadership capable of bringing together its diverse range of occupations, classes and age groups. The future of British politics is Brexit. In 1940 Winston Churchill won against the appeasers because Clement Attlee supported his war ministry. Attlee understood that the labour interest and the national interest were indivisible. This insight and Labour’s contribution to the war effort ensured the party’s historic victory in 1945.

Labour has to accept that the country is leaving the European Union and stand for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation. It has three objectives: to restore British sovereignty and control of our borders and law-making; to spread political and economic power to people wherever they live through the constitutional and political reform of the Union and its governance; and to reform the economy in the interests of the middling majority. By defining a new democratic sovereignty and putting the labour interest at its heart, Labour can build its new electoral coalition. That is its patriotic duty. The alternative is perpetual defeat.

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and former academic

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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

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