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  1. Politics
29 July 2011updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

Blue Labour is over but the debate has just begun

To give voice to the mood of the country, Labour must be both conservative and radical.

By Jonathan Rutherford

On Tuesday Peter Mandelson and Socialist Worker both attacked Blue Labour. Both used name calling to score political points. Both missed the most obvious point. Blue Labour no longer exists. Call it a movement, call it a project, call it what you like, last week the small group of people associated with the Blue Labour idea disbanded itself. The article by Maurice in this week’s New Statesman does not alter this fact.

The brand was destroying the politics. Where there should have been dialogue there was growing polarisation. Instead of care around sensitive issues there has been the political equivalent of ram-raiding. The idea that debate involves ‘throwing grenades’ wins some headlines but only encourages a counter reaction; back came the grenades. Stoking controversy is good for the media but after a time it becomes lousy for the politics.

The debate which started only last year in May 2010 now needs to broaden itself out and involve more people. The e-book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox was never the ‘Blue Labour bible’. It was about beginning a vigorous and open debate about Labour’s future. We need to develop it both across the Labour Party and outside it.

Labour’s future does not lie with Blue Labour, nor does it lie with New Labour, but with a synthesis of ideas and politics. It means understanding the conjuncture we are in in order to create a winning electoral politics that will transform the country for the better.

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I would argue that this conjuncture requires Labour’s politics in England to be both conservative and radical. If Labour can inhabit this paradox and capture its insights it will give voice to the mood of the country. The future is conservative. I do not mean it will be Conservative with a political upper case ‘C’ – the right has no understanding of this moment. Nor do I mean it will be conservative with a lower case social ‘c’. Rather it will be characterised by a social and cultural mood that Raymond Williams calls a ‘structure of feeling’. This mood exists on the edge of our collective vocabulary and it has yet to find articulation in politics. If Labour can give it a voice, it has the opportunity to construct a new hegemony.

This mood is about a desire to conserve, protect and improve the fundamental elements of social life which are people’s relationships and family, their sense of belonging and identity, the continuity of home and place, and the human need for social security. When individuals have these goods they can aspire and strive for something more in their lives. When too many people lack these goods, society is divided, anxious, insecure, and distrustful. This is currently the condition of England following three decades of deindustrialisation, globalisation and market-driven reforms.

The morbid symptoms of this condition erupt into the body politic in rage against immigration and, amongst a disturbing number, a suspicion and hatred of Islam. There is a deeply felt grievance at the unfairness of a system which does not seem to care about the hard working who live by the rules. It’s a belief that those who need help don’t get it, while those who don’t deserve it get all they want. The upshot is that people with long term illnesses and disabilities are scape-goated and accused of being benefit cheats. Ask people about England and many answer that the English look like a beaten people living in a country without a future for its children. There is a loss of hope and its absence creates a corrosive cynicism: politicians line their pockets, the banks steal, and the media lie and cheat. A feral elite is a law unto itself as it steals from the common wealth and pursues its own selfish interests. Here we are, living in a disorientated culture unable to answer the question it keeps throwing up at us – who are we?

Yes, its a crude and simplistic description. It doesn’t take account of the good things that we have, but I’d argue that this is the mood that will shape our politics over the next few years.

The economic historian Carlota Perez has made a strong case for why such times as our own can give rise to collective desires for reform and reparation. She argues that successive technological revolutions over the last two centuries have created distinct surges of economic development that progressively extend capitalism into people’s lives and facilitate its expansion across the planet. In these surges, the productive structure and the institutions of governance and society are transformed by the driving force of finance led capital accumulation. The revolutionising of the instruments and forces of production extends commodification and market relations into society. Old ways of life disappear, or they lose their former preeminence and coexist with the new.

In the last three decades Britain has been experiencing this kind of finance-driven capital accumulation that has powered the transition from the Fordist era of mass production to the age of new information and communication technologies. Perez argues that these kinds of transformation always end in an economic crisis, followed by a period in which there exists political opportunities to rebuild productive capital and create institutions for a more equitable society.

Marx would disagree with this evolutionary economics and the primacy it gives to technology as an determining force, but it nevertheless echoes his description of capitalist modernity as a world in which, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Socialism has been about conserving human values and society against this destructiveness. Today as the neo-liberal hegemony begins to fragment there exists an opportunity in the decade ahead to rebuild the counter-movement and construct a new left of centre hegemony. The future is conservative, and it will be radical. Blue Labour might be over but the political debate has only just begun.

Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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