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6 July 2018

Why Labour’s leftist populism is not enough

To renew politically, Labour needs to broaden its populism to include the national and an inclusive definition of who “we” are as a country.

By Jonathan Rutherford

It is nearly three years since the Labour Party underwent its revolution with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Despite the claims for a new kind of politics, there has been no development of a public political philosophy to match this transformation. The party is both utterly changed and yet also much the same as it was. Its lack of intellectual resources, and the absence of interest in thinking about Labour’s political future, suggests that this extraordinary period could pass away without any serious development in its ideas.

A new left is struggling to emerge, but it is unwilling to recognise its own limitations and lacks the political reach to build a broad coalition across the nation. The recent local election results reinforce the message that Labour must win in the towns and countryside outside the cities in order to form a government. And yet it is losing support amongst the working class. A progressive politics confined to the cities is not sufficient to win. In order to build a cross-class, national coalition, the party needs intellectual renewal but this is happening only sporadically and lacking in a collective sense of purpose.

There are debates on the left about the future of work, the dynamics of globalisation, and the technological revolution of automation. But there is little discussion about people’s reactions to these changes, and not much understanding of them. What are the leading ideas and beliefs that are shaping the prevailing national mood?

Many in Labour view the mass rallies and the increase in the party’s vote share in the 2017 general election as proof that progressive left values, particularly amongst young people, are now shaping national politics. The evidence however does not support this view. The young as a whole are no more progressive-minded than older generations. The zeitgeist does not belong to the left and its socially liberal values. The energy disrupting the political order across Europe belongs to populism and has been captured by the radical right. It has polarised societies, fractured the political settlement and made politics more extreme, volatile and unpredictable.

The populism shaping our times is about culture. Conflict around cultural identity and values sharply divides the public and the elites. There is a popular rejection of the governing class that has presided over four decades of liberal market globalisation. The loss of decent jobs, cuts in public spending and the stagnation of wages is a significant cause of people’s feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. But the protest is not principally driven by economic injustice. It is a demand for limits on uncontrolled and uninvited demographic and economic change.

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Populism has erupted in defence of the sovereignty of the nation state, and its borders both real and symbolic. Its motivating energy is the need to redeem a sense of cultural identity and revive a way of life that feels under threat. To many people, the country no longer resembles who “we” are. Who or what defines who becomes a member of a national community? At stake is the integrity of borders, not just national but also the moral boundaries defining human nature, family, and the inherited culture and values of the social order.

Populism is intrinsically neither  left-wing nor right-wing. It can be both radical and conservative. National and cultural anxieties have been harnessed by a new generation of nationalist right leaders – Viktor Orbán in Hungary; Marine Le Pen in France; Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands; Jaroslaw Kaczynskie in Poland; Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, and Matteo Salvini’s nationalist populist party Lega in Italy.

A left-wing populism around economic injustice and democratic reform has been more limited and partial in its influence. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece combine popular and nationalist aspirations. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is an ambiguous combination of leftism and radical right that has found appeal amongst the unemployed. In Britain, where ethnic allegiances are less pronounced, Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of leftist populism has found strong support amongst the professional middle classes and in the cities.

The rise of populism is inextricably bound up with the failures of liberal democracy, and its counterpoint, social democracy. In France, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, support for social democratic parties has fallen to single figures. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party has collapsed in the polls, even being overtaken by the far right Alternative for Germany. Where social democrats have not collapsed, they have moved to incorporate some of the language and policies of right-wing populism. (In Britain, Corbyn’s leftist populism has bucked the trend in centre-left decline, but takes place in the context of Brexit). 

Within Labour, there have been broadly two responses to populism. The first unthinkingly condemns it. This attitude has reduced Leave voters to an undifferentiated group of xenophobes and closed-minded authoritarians. The growth of an English identity is seen as threatening. The causes of populism are explained as the dysfunctional psychological reaction of individuals to social change. Its supporters are either victims or losers, who can be pitied but not liked. Some are malign and so to be condemned. Others are simply ignorant of their own real interests or adhere to the nostalgic fantasy of a lost way of life. In the burst of anthropological study of the Leave vote that followed the referendum, they were almost never credited with one single positive factor or political virtue. 

This response reproduces the long-standing class condescension of the liberal intelligentsia. It allows it to avoid the ways its selfish pursuit of its own interests, its sense of moral superiority and its indifference to popular concerns have contributed to a cultural war and the growth of populism.

The second response is progressive. It ignores questions of identity, national culture and belonging. It calls for opening up the political system to more participation and more democracy. People have lost agency. They feel marginalised and silenced. They want more control and the solution is to give it to them. However the belief that the response to populism is to simply offer more democratic deliberation and participation is an argument to win over progressive Liberals and Greens or those involved in the social movements. It does not resonate with the wider national populist mood because it is silent about people’s feelings about their country and their fidelity to local place and so it fails to recognise what is at stake for them. In the end, for all its value in terms of statecraft, it slips into being another technocratic fix. 

These two responses were already defined in Labour’s politics before the rise of left-wing populism under Jeremy Corbyn, but they have since become more entrenched, and have contributed to making Labour both more culturally exclusive and less able to rise to the political challenge it faces. A recent poll by YouGov that put the Conservatives seven points ahead of Labour amongst working-class voters is further confirmation of the declining support of its historical base.

When a political order is distrustful of popular sovereignty, or when its party system is breaking apart, or when there is a chronic imbalance of power, it will become vulnerable to populism.

The political scientist Cas Mudde describes populism as the rebellion of the silent majority: an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. In contrast the social theorist Christopher Lasch called it “the authentic voice of democracy”. Ernesto Laclau offers a more complex definition. Populism is the continuity of popular traditions of ordinary people’s resistance against the powerful. These traditions are the residue of “irreducible historical experience” and so they are longer lasting than class ideologies. Because they are more durable, traditions of popular protest provide the initial challenge to the status quo and the first step in asserting a new hegemony.

Populism is not a defined ideology. It might best be described as pre-political because it expresses the conflicts in cultural and economic relations that precede political change. It gives voice to the popular emotions generated by these conflicts and constructs them into a collective experience of “us” against “them”. It gives political representation to what has been excluded from the democratic process and so it is both a necessity for democracy and a threat to it. Jan Werner Muller describes it as the shadow of representative democracy. Contradictions are exposed, inherited political loyalties abandoned, and authority discredited. Emotional reaction overrides reasoned debate. The intellectuals, politicians and activists of the existing political order are disorientated and its most accomplished practitioners become marginalised. The political extremes come to dominate, and the conspiracy theorists, cultists and haters find a public voice.

Those who defend the status quo with rational arguments find themselves lost for words. They believe language represents reality rather than defining it. To recover order amidst the fake news, the hostility, the perjorative name-calling and the histrionic outbursts, they try communicating better, arguing more precisely, setting out the evidence to prove their point of view. But the old political vocabularies are becoming redundant. They are losing energy and meaningfulness. Different ways of seeing, speaking and arguing are emerging and generating new energy and interest. To defend the old order is to find one’s self excluded and left behind.

By 2010, the Labour party had lost its way in a managerial politics that relied on the market and the administrative state as its instruments of reform. It had become emptied of thinking. Anger and grief over immigration and cultural identity have been avoided by changing the subject and talking about economics. On the doorstep, confronted with anger about high levels of immigration, the response was to tell people that what they were really concerned about was jobs and skills. Its loss of authenticity echoed the failure of social democratic politics across Europe. And so the party hierarchy presided over the leaching away of its working-class vote and then failed to anticipate the surge of populist enthusiasm that swept Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership.

Corbyn’s leftist populism has revived the Labour party with its energy and the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of new members. But its reach into the country is limited. There is no concerted effort within the shadow cabinet to collectively think through why, in the face of an appalling and incompetent Conservative government, Labour is behind in the polls, when a decent opposition should be 20 points in front. There is no policy review, nor any pressure to have one; just a lazy assumption that one more heave will take us over the line. And the party remains risk averse. The networks of innovation and new thinking and the energy of new members are kept at arm’s length by the party machine. Its rejection of the nation and national connotations in its politics leaves this leftist populism suffering from ‘blind passion and sectarianism’.

Populism returns us to fundamental questions about the nation, ethnic difference, culture, the idea of humanity, and the ways people live together. It has been an emotive defence of local cultures and the normative values of society, driven by a fear that “we” are coming apart. The radical right has been adept at shaping it around an exclusionary interpretation of Western Christian civilisation. Its anti-Islamism and pursuit of a white identity politics defines membership of the nation by ethnicity and religious exclusivity. National traditions are unchanging and to be defended. Immigration undermines the history and meaning of the nation and its people. Multiculturalism is merely incompatible ethnic differences living alongside one another in a parallel and conflictual existence.

Labour’s leftist populism is bereft in the face of these arguments. It counters them with pejorative name calling. It has no political response and so reacts with moral outrage. It asserts the primacy of the economic. But faced with the radical right and its claim on the nation, it reveals its own suspicions of patriotism, its ambivalence about borders and an ambiguous attitude toward the goods of western civilisation. And so this leftism remains stuck in an oppositional politics and has no viable alternative story of nationhood and common national life. It dismisses the idea of membership of the nation, or that it has to be earned. Belonging to a country is no more than a simple contract. It concentrates on universal individual rights, rather than people’s need to have a sense of belonging to a place and a country. And it embraces a libertarian identity politics, which repudiates existing forms of social life but offers nothing in their place but the balkanising of society.

In Scotland, the left has fashioned an inclusive Scottish patriotism. In England, the left, despite the efforts of politicians like John Denham and more recently Jon Trickett, remains unwilling to embrace a radical English patriotism.

Labour’s leftist populism lacks the intellectual resources to meet the challenge of the right. It is too exclusive in terms of its class and culture. It lacks a democratic political practice that can build bridges to different class cultures and interest groups. Its liberal cosmopolitanism and moral relativism cedes the nation and the issues of cultural identity to the right. Neither its focus on economic injustice nor its support for devolving power and participatory democracy are sufficient to build a national popular coalition.

For its political renewal, Labour needs to broaden its populism to include the national and an inclusive definition of who “we” are as a country. It needs a national popular politics. Citizenship of a sovereign nation matters more to most people than an abstract universal right to belong to humanity. The right of human beings to life survives only so long as there exists a political community willing and able to guarantee it. And such a political community can only exist when people have a reciprocal obligation toward it. If European history is anything to go by, the democratic nation state under the rule of law remains the best guardian of humanity and its rights.

Hannah Arendt argued that national sovereignty is dependent upon a country’s ability to determine its internal membership. Large scale immigration raises the question of how membership is to be decided and on what terms. How should a political community resolve the prior claim to resources of those already settled? For better or worse, in Britain’s post-empire period, this was defined through a series of immigration laws. But by the end of New Labour’s period in government, the free movement of labour from EU accession countries was creating popular anxiety. Committed to the liberal market and wary of the racial element in immigration control, Labour ignored these questions. From the 2010 general election onwards, it has paid the price. Its failure since to work out a clear position on immigration and social integration has allowed public debate to be dominated by futile arguments over reducing numbers and meeting fantasy targets. The result has been an immigration system that causes injustice and bureaucratic cruelty, and a national identity thrown into uncertainty by a laissez-faire approach to social integration.

The fair and just basis for membership of a multi-ethnic country is reciprocity. The obligation of newcomers is the contribution of their work, their taxes and their ability to participate in the life of the country through acceptance of its laws and speaking the English language. In return, the national community affords protection, support, and equal rights and opportunities. This is a covenant of give and take that is fundamental to a sense of justice, equality and self-respect. It is however not an end in itself, but the basis, alongside control of national borders and the end of free movement, for the evolution of a shared multi-ethnic common culture and sense of belonging. This is a political task. But the left, over-reliant on the state and the market as instruments of social reform, has lost the democratic art of institution building and social renewal. Influenced more by liberalism than an ethical socialism, it treats society as if it were individuals engaging in transactions without a history or culture.

Populism has been a revolt as much against this desiccated view of how people live as it has of the injustices of the economy. Underlying populism are two demands, one for cultural security, the other for economic security. The first is for a restoration of the mutual obligations that bind people into a common life and a shared national cultural inheritance. The second is the reestablishment of a national covenant which affords citizens a fair wage for work done, social protection, and a future of prosperity for their children. Labour’s leftism rejects the former and lacks a political economy for the latter.

Labour needs a national popular politics. It will be radical, rebuilding the everyday economy of work and wages, supporting family life and spreading capital, power and opportunity to local places across the country. Every citizen is guaranteed a universal basic infrastructure to facilitate a more connected society. It will be conservative, in that it stands for reciprocity in social life, values our inherited national culture and renews the institutions of civic life and society that bring people together. And it will also be liberal, valuing pluralism and toleration of cultural and religious difference, and commited to deepening and strengthening our parliamentary democracy.

When the tide of populism recedes, there will be no picking up where we left off. Populism has broken the rules. The response is not to try and re-impose the old ones, but to invent a new political language out of the disruptive, emotional power of populism and in so doing so touch the heart and soul of the nation and profoundly change the political settlement. Labour made a great leap forward three years ago, but the promise is turning to drift.

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and a co-founder of Blue Labour.

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