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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood