Witnessing the cycles of political debate in the UK these days is like watching some great marine creature stranded on a beach trying to get itself back into the water; heave, flop, lie there for a bit, another heave, another flop. Something is manifestly out of place, but for all the noise, the energy to get anywhere other than where we are seems lacking.
Meanwhile, the tide is going out. Not acting isn’t just postponing an unwelcome task; it is making that task different and more difficult. We are still failing to ask how we got stuck here: stuck with the absolute cultural dominance of economic concerns, conceived in the narrowest possible way, at the expense of other sorts of goals to do with mutual respect and interdependence; stuck with the relentless assault on the idea that work might confer security or dignity (with the consequent shredding of younger generations’ hopes for financial stability); stuck with the reduction of issues about worthiness and respect to shrill identitarian slogans.
There is, it seems, a pervasive loss of nerve about what we might want to convey about value or purpose to a new generation. And there is our tolerance of public rhetoric – not only online – in which aggressive performativity substitutes for truthfulness, analysis and negotiation. It’s as if we have lost not only a sense of positive continuity with the past but any kind of thoughtful capacity to imagine the future, and everything collapses into the hectic theatre of the present moment and the hunger to be made to feel better instantly.
[See also: British diplomacy in the dock]
When “Blue Labour” and “Red Toryism” were first being talked about a dozen or so years ago as ways of resetting the political coordinates, it seemed that there might after all be enough energy to move us further towards the water. Advocates of these approaches stressed that actual human subjects existed in a “nest” of affiliations, responsibilities and solidarities that could not be reduced to their role as supposedly rational economic consumers. Motivations for our attitudes were (for good and ill) not generally grounded in general principles but in a sense of belonging with others. The political challenge was not to replace local and affective loyalties with abstract commitments, but to enlarge the imagination so that such solidarity could be deepened and broadened.
Behind this lay a basic insight about the conditions for any sustainable and ethically truthful polity. It is a crucial moment when I recognise that if I am to be safe, I must see to it that you are safe – and vice versa. This means far more than just working out what concessions I need to make to what (I imagine) you want so as to guarantee myself less trouble. It means spending time bracketing my self-interest enough to hear what your real fears or aspirations are. It means allowing my own ideas of what my security or well-being involves to be modified in whatever way will make sure that we can both recognise some of the same things as desirable.
“Common Good”: Maurice Glasman’s forceful, lucid essay brings us back insistently to this idea, and challenges the Labour Party to develop a more satisfactory response to our dire political climate. A Labour peer and founder of the campaign group Blue Labour, Glasman reminds us that real politics is about the always unfinished business of creating structures, policies and human habits in which people can recognise each other’s concerns sufficiently clearly and empathetically to guarantee a level of well-being for all.
[See also: Natalia Ginzburg’s small worlds]
This is not to argue for a politics of bare consensus or even of polite tolerance. Politics is about genuine conflict and costly struggle. The point, though, is what is being struggled for: a state of affairs in which citizens can be confident that their interests and safety are not being sidelined or undermined. Remember the maxim of the early days of lockdown, that no one is safe unless everyone is safe? That’s the central goal of a political practice in which immediate victory is not the only aspect that matters – because defending my security at the expense of yours is ultimately self-destructive. This is also (though Glasman doesn’t make the point explicitly) why democracy is more than majoritarianism: minorities need to know that they can safely be heard if they are not to be pushed towards violence.
Glasman is particularly good on what many would see as the classical territory of Labour principle: the balance of power within industry. Both provocatively and plausibly, he describes the postwar industrial culture of what was then British-occupied West Germany – a skilful balance of worker involvement with local investment in a system of cooperative governance – as a triumph for the traditions of British socialism. It is, says Glasman, “the greatest example of Labour statecraft in action”, in that it represented a distinctive British style of cooperative social venture.
It is an example that illustrates the trajectory that gives Glasman the title for one of the best chapters in the book, “From Contract to Covenant”: covenant is not about the disciplined exchange of commodities but about creating a dependable human environment, trustful and communicative. Glasman notes grimly how in the era of New Labour there was a steady erosion of “covenantal” possibilities, not least with the 2006 legislation establishing the primacy of shareholder interest in business governance. The pursuit of profit as an abstract goal (ie, one divorced from social well-being) is hostile to the dignity of work and workers. Restoring this dignity will require what Glasman calls a new “ecology” in corporate life – a recommitment to vocational education of the highest quality, a reform of corporate governance and a system of regionalised banks capable of priming smaller-scale enterprise.
All these naturally go together with a concern for the revitalising of local democracy and the devolution of powers to smaller units. We learn the skills and virtues of democratic practice in these contexts as we never do if our involvement starts and stops at national ballots. And it is this commitment to localism and “subsidiarity” (making sure that decisions are made at the appropriate level of governance rather than assuming greater centralisation is always better) that undergirds what will no doubt be the most controversial aspect of Glasman’s book for many readers: his defence of Brexit as both an exercise in democratic practice and a principled stand for subsidiarity.
He is, of course, right that there is a serious leftist case against the European Union – one argued forcefully by Tony Benn decades ago. But Glasman’s account of more recent events is too rosy: the EU referendum was in many ways an example of how not to revitalise democracy. It reduced a complex issue to a simple binary choice, settled by a bare numerical majority (in itself a dubious strategy for a mature democracy). It traded on confusion about the legal weight of the decision. Most damagingly, by inviting a simple negative vote, it offered no guidance on the values and priorities that might inform the implementation of the decision. Nothing since the vote has lessened the cost of these mistakes. Glasman is right to say that Brexit is a symptom not a cause of our political degeneration; but this should warn us against taking the vote as a token of democratic vitality.
The book’s proposals raise some questions – about, for example, how the values of traditional industrial labour can be rekindled in an economy now so reliant on services, or about the complex political profile of the under-35s, for whom both “covenantal” patterns of social relation and hopes of stable employment are not easy to assimilate. But this is overall a significant contribution to the political debate we ought to be but largely aren’t having. You may agree or not with some of its readings. But it is clear, impassioned, grounded in specificities – something of a mouthwash after the sour taste of our regular current diet. For anyone who still believes we haven’t missed the tide, it is a very necessary resource.
Blue Labour: The Politics of the Common Good
Polity, 200pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine