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  1. Election 2024
3 June 2024

Labour must beware the lure of progressivism

The way forward is radical on the economy and conservative on society.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Last week, the polling company JL Partners published “Red Votes, Blue Values”, a poll of 2,000 voters. The public is closer to the Conservatives in attitudes towards policy but it is weary of them and is backing Labour as the default alternative. Forty per cent of the party lead is made up of small-c conservative voters. The electoral centre ground is conservative on values and radical on the economy.

Back in 2010, when the campaign group Blue Labour first began, a small group of us met in the office of the Labour MP Jon Cruddas for a presentation by Pat Dade, a marketing strategist who ran Cultural Dynamics. He produced the same analysis. Majority opinion in the country was radical on economics and conservative on family, identity, local place, immigration. People want change to protect what they value.

Since Labour’s defeat 14 years ago, this has been the political centre ground and it has been left fallow. The Conservatives are dominated by an older rentier class and cannot relinquish the free-market economics of Thatcherism. Labour is wedded to a progressive politics intolerant of those with conservative dispositions.

Under the influence of Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, Keir Starmer has made a serious effort to break out of the party’s metropolitan redoubts. He has redefined Labour as a patriotic party, defending the economic interests of working people. However, it remains an instinctively liberal progressive party that talks about equality, diversity and sustainability. The majority of voters do not share this abstract language. They focus instead on the social norms and identities of their culture, their family, the local places in which they live, and their country.

McSweeney’s election strategy recognises this and is broadly conservative left. Labour, however, does not have a post-election narrative for government. In order to hold together its broad but fragile coalition for a second term, it will also need to develop this political narrative and govern from the conservative left.

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Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, in her recent Mais lecture, offered the clearest and most substantive statement so far of such an approach. In a contemporary version of Labour’s postwar economic nationalism, she heralded a “decade of national renewal” that will reshape the institutional architecture of the British economy.

She speaks of the “national economy” which is rooted in the places people live and defined by the territorial boundaries of a democratic polity. Industrial policy will focus on the every-day economy that sustains all our daily lives. And in defiance of New Labour, Reeves argues that entrepreneurial risk-taking – and workers’ capacity to move jobs to better their circumstances – requires stability, safety and security.

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik calls this approach “productivism”: the demand for government to link the development of the national economy to geopolitical strategy and to create social stability and security in order to reconstitute the social contract.

Labour’s important first steps towards a new kind of political economy still appear to lack a coherent political framework. The party’s policies are not integrated into a coordinated and comprehensive programme. Keir Starmer’s belief in mission government and a pragmatic “what works” philosophy hinders this integration. Reeves’s economic nationalism sits alongside Labour’s ambitions for net zero, energy security, re-industrialisation and what it now terms “powering up the country” through devolution and regional development. In government, pursuing the improbable mission of clean power by 2030 will undermine energy security, while the cost will rule out re-industrialisation and regional development.

Labour will struggle to decide its priorities. And its lack of a political compass leaves a government liable to return to identity politics. Stalled by intractable economic problems and unable to enact economic reform, it could slip back into the balm of progressivism. Embroiling itself in performative constitutional tinkering, the student politics of votes for 16-year-olds or the pseudo-science of transgender politics will quickly shatter its coalition. Taking up identity politics will risk Labour becoming a party of the HR department, enforcing bureaucratic social engineering around issues such as race and gender or imposing speech codes on the population because it knows best.

JL Partners research finds that the biggest drivers of voting are crime, immigration and the NHS. Labour is behind the public on the first two. The Rwanda plan, despite its failed implementation, commands majority public support.

But Labour is aligned with the public on the NHS, the cost of living and wealth redistribution. On preventing exploitation by big business, however, it trails the public (though it does much better than the Tories).

Perhaps Labour’s biggest limitation is not its caution but its continuing inability to fully understand how much people feel the country no longer belongs to them or is run in their interests. The centre ground Labour must occupy is not the centre ground imagined in Westminster, nor where progressives feel comfortable. The instinct remains to return to that progressivist balm. But this is a siren call. The way forward for Labour – if it is to win a second term – is radical on the economy and conservative on culture and society.

[See also: The Liberal Democrats’ shallow soul]

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