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Labour's Crisis

Labour is in the middle of its gravest crisis in 30 years. It needs to rediscover the radicalism tha

The Labour Party has faced two periods of real crisis since 1900 and now stands on the verge of a third. The first followed the crash of 1929, when the second Labour administration collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government. The second came with the party's defeat in 1979, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, or Thatcherism, and Labour's possible eclipse by a new third party in the early 1980s. If the decline in Labour's fortunes since 1997 continues, a third crisis will occur after next year's election. It took nearly 15 years for Labour to return to power after the first two crises and the resulting election defeats of 1931 and 1983. The stakes could not be higher.

We have lost many millions of voters since 1997. We have lost hundreds of thousands of members. We have become reviled by younger generations that view us as the party of the Establishment, war and insecurity. Our orthodoxy has defeated our radicalism. We speak a desiccated language of targets; our story, our essential ethic, has been lost on the altar of the focus group. We have retreated into what is essentially a Hobbesian utilitarianism, which considers self-interest as the only guiding principle. Alan Milburn recently described our goal as being to equip people to "earn and to own"; aspiration is reduced to a notion of acquisition. Materialism is all we have; we have lost the bright hope of building a different society.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once said that "hope is the basic ingredient of all vitality". At such moments of crisis and uncertainty, Labour often turns to its founding figure, Keir Hardie, for hope. But he has become a myth rather than a historical figure. We tend to look to him for reassurance, rather than to ask awkward questions. Hardie inspired total devotion. On his death, he was described as the "Member for Humanity"; Sylvia Pankhurst (a friend and onetime lover) simply saw him as the "greatest human being of our time". He was worshipped among the grass roots. Some considered him, literally, to be a prophet.

At the same time, however, many thought him an extremist, impossible, unreliable and ill-disciplined. T D Benson of the Independent Labour Party said Hardie was, "by his very nature, incapable of working with a party". At times he was isolated, and even resembled an outcast. His socialism belonged to a larger canvas than the day-to-day parliamentary grind. As his biographer, the historian Kenneth Morgan, states: "For a man of Hardie's poetic, intuitive temperament, this unheroic, constructive labour was not enough. Beyond the day-to-day tactics there was a profound political, moral and emotional cause to be defined and fought for."

It was this crusade and its associated idealism that inspired such hope and vitality among the party at large. With Hardie, it was not the detail of the policy or programme that was Labour's true ideal; it was the "creed of fraternity and equality" - what type of society it sought, rather than the tactical calculus of Westminster. Certainly, Hardie was a man of contradictions. He was born into the working class, but he was never truly a part of it. Indeed, he didn't properly fit in anywhere in society. He was never a social conservative, but bohemian in his dress and a dedicated supporter of feminism and Welsh­nationalism - the red dragon and the red flag. His nonconformism made him a brilliant alliance-maker and political pragmatist.

From his return to the House of Commons in 1900, Hardie became, as Morgan describes it, "the prophet of radical socialism in its highly distinctive Merthyr form". This was a composite socialism emerging out of the distinct arc of Merthyr history, of early Chartism and the 1868 election of the pacifist Henry Richard, of the trades council movement in Merthyr and Aberdare, of the miners and the 1898 six-month strike, of its Christian traditions with its "social gospel" and, later, of the ILP. Cumulatively, it forged a non-doctrinal, working-class culture and movement; an ethical socialism that owed little to science - of neither right nor left - but much to the politics of progressive alliance.

What can this Hardie of contradictions teach us today? Like Robin Cook much later, he was never a "Labour man", at home in the party. He understood that a party must give shape to a class and a class must create a party in its image - and that this involves an interdependence of feeling and thought. In contrast to the muscular secularism growing in the modern Labour Party, he expressed this in religious terms borrowed from Tennyson: "Ring out the darkness of the land,/ Ring in the Christ that is to be."

He spoke in an almost messianic language to the people, and mirrored back to them a sense of their value and their capacity to change society. He gave them esteem, confidence and belief. In return, they gave him love and loyalty. David Farrell, an ILP member, wrote to him: "I have more love and reverence for you than I have for my own father."

Yet Hardie was much more than a great communicator. He was also a great political strategist, willing to make alliances to advance the goal of working-class emancipation. His socialism was never rigid, doctrinal or dogmatic. By 1903, he had come around to forming an electoral coalition with the Liberals, with the ILP as its backbone. Later, as party leader, Hardie worked with Sir Charles Dilke - unofficial chair of the "social radicals" on the Liberal side - on labour issues. Even at the two elections of 1910, he maintained support for the alliance with the Liberals. Yet by 1912 he had badly fallen out with them, following the brutal industrial disputes and state responses at Tonypandy and Aberdare. His conditional, contingent relationship with progressive liberalism was a hallmark of his tactical brilliance.

Although we celebrate Hardie as the founder of the Labour Party, he also operated in the space between competing variants of liberalism: its radical, individualistic strands and a more collectivist social liberalism. A similar debate is emerging in the Labour Party today. Thinkers such as Will Hutton, Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that Labour should return to its ancestral roots and draw inspiration from the ideas and principles of British liberalism. Yet the liberalism they seek to rehabilitate is narrow and individualistic.

Many of the first generation of Labour leaders, like Hardie, had been active in the Liberal Party of William Gladstone and had broken with it only reluctantly. Their aim was not to repudiate the liberalism of their youth, but to realise its goals of human freedom and emancipation in the new and more challenging conditions of industrial capitalism.

Liberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas and beliefs, not all of them reconcilable. The writer and academic Mark Garnett has identified two rival modes of liberal thought, one "fleshed out", the other "hollowed out": "The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about ­human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of short-term material self-interest. For the hollowed-out liberal, other people are either means to an end, or obstacles which must be shunted aside. Instead of equality of respect, this is more like equality of contempt."

This tension runs through liberal thought from Adam Smith to the present day. In its extreme laissez-faire variant, classical liberalism assumes a model of human behaviour as rational, acquisitive and ruthlessly self-interested. Its "fleshed-out" form was developed by the idealist philosopher T H Green, and taken up by L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson. Green rejected the atomistic individualism that sees human beings as impermeable, self-contained units enjoying natural rights but owing no corresponding social obligations. Instead, he saw society and the individuals within it as fundamentally interdependent: "Without society, no persons; this is as true as that without persons . . . there could be no such society as we know."

This New Liberalism departed significantly from many of the precepts of classical liberalism. The New Liberals believed in progressive taxation to compensate for the unequal bargaining power of the marketplace and to pay for pensions and other forms of social security. They advocated the common ownership of natural monopolies and vital public services. They viewed property rights as conditional, not absolute, and subject to certain public-interest restrictions. They called for the limitation of working hours and new regulations to guarantee health and safety in the workplace. They stood behind the vision of a co-operative commonwealth built on explicitly moral foundations. As Hobhouse said: "We want a new spirit in economics - the spirit of mutual help, the sense of a common good. We want each man to feel that his daily work is a service to his kind, and that idleness and anti­social work are a disgrace."

Hobhouse described himself as a liberal socialist and, unlike Mill, he meant it unambiguously. Hobson and several other New Liberals went a stage further and joined the Labour Party. Indeed, Green, Hobhouse and Hobson are rightly considered to be pioneers of the British tradition of ethical socialism. Their influence over the leading Labour intellectuals of the early 20th century - R H Tawney, G D H Cole and Harold Laski - was both profound and freely acknowledged.

Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.

If New Labour, at its best, embodied the high aspirations of fleshed-out liberalism, its restricted understanding of the scope for change betrayed the cynical assumptions of its hollowed-out alter ego. New Labour talked quite rightly about the need for the party to broaden its appeal to win the support of "aspirational" voters, but equated aspiration with nothing more than crude acquisitiveness - to "earn and to own" indeed.

In that New Labour bible, The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould made a revealing distinction when he described his parents as having "wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational". This betrays a fundamentally neoliberal mindset, and is quite an extraordinary statement of what we think people aspire to. The possibility that that which is right and the aspirational might overlap, even minimally, was never entertained.

As the late G A Cohen argued (see page 26), the problem is one of design. The technology for giving primacy to our acquisitive and selfish desires already exists in the form of a capitalist market economy. But we have not yet adequately devised the social technology capable of giving fullest expression to the generous and altruistic side of our personality. That is the main task of any future left.

Ethical socialism offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people's lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and imaginary communities of belonging. It is this framework that has inspired the Labour Party at its best,transcends the sterile orthodoxies of both left and right, and remains the cornerstone of radicalism in the party. It is captured in the genius of Hardie as socialist, strategist, radical and liberal. It is built around a fundamentally different conception of the human condition from that of neoliberalism.

Echoing the words of Hardie, Tawney's essay "The Choice before the Labour Party", even though written in 1932, remains the best analysis of the crisis facing Labour today. It was written at the height of Labour's first real crisis, and highlights the dilemma at the heart of the party: the tension between orthodoxy and radicalism, the whole exacerbated by a lack of core belief.

Each of these crises has been blamed on external events, not least epochal, historical transformations driven by economic recession. But we shouldn't forget Labour's inability to resolve its internal contradictions; historically, it has been not so much a broad church as a collection of fragments in search of unity. Writing about the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, Tawney describes how the government "did not fall with a crash, in a tornado from the blue. But crawled slowly to its doom."

Tawney's words echo down the years. "The gravest weakness of British Labour is . . . its lack of creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants." He does not pull his punches. There is, he says, a "void in the mind of the Labour Party" which leads us into "intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities".

Hardie and Tawney were part of a tradition that gives us hope and vitality, and charts a way out of the trap of orthodoxy. Now is the time for that tradition to be rediscovered.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham. He will give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil on 11 September

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives