“Do you remember 1969?”
“I loved it. So many things were going on. I don’t know what happened afterwards. It really seemed like the start of a new era.”
“It was,” Reacher said. “Just not the era you expected.”
Lee Child Worth Dying For
Keir Starmer is condemned for being Blue Labour. Boris Johnson is accused by the Telegraph and others of leading a Blue Labour government. Blue Labour are left-wing, big-tax spenders, complain the liberal right. They are reactionaries and Tories, pronounce the liberal left. Both are wrong about the political affiliation of the main party leaders and they are wrong about what Blue Labour stands for and why it emerged. Blue Labour – reviled, misunderstood, increasingly influential – has become a spectre haunting English politics. Is it more than another morbid symptom of our long interregnum?
Blue Labour began as a faction within the Labour Party in 2009. The MP Jon Cruddas told me I should meet the academic and political theorist Maurice Glasman. For weeks I didn’t because I couldn’t get his phone number, and when I did we met and walked around Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, north London. Maurice was attracting the interest of senior Labour politicians trying to work out how the party might regenerate itself in office. After that we met every week on a Friday afternoon. The small group defined as Blue Labour which emerged around that time believed that with the defeat of Gordon Brown in 2010 something of historical significance was happening to the Labour Party. The task was to understand the nature of the crisis and, if possible, revive Labour’s political fortunes.
The creation of Blue Labour generated a huge amount of press interest and then a great deal of hostility from within Labour and from the left. We imagined Blue Labour was about renewal, but, in hindsight, it was already too late. One thinks of the Owl of Minerva taking flight “only with the falling of dusk”.
During the debates at Oxford University in 2011 on the future of the Labour Party, New Labour politicians criticised Blue Labour for its nostalgia. They argued that it imagined the future as if it would be a repeat of the past. But our argument was that it is not possible to renew in the present except on the basis of Labour’s political and philosophical traditions. New Labour imagined that “things can only get better”. It promised a new, young country, but it lost connection with the Labour Party’s traditions and so its sources of originality.
Attempting to erase the past did not create a new beginning for Labour or Britain. For Labour, it led to an ephemeral progressive politics that could no longer project itself into the future; the party lost the capacity to understand the feelings of those who did not share its view of the world. Labour fell out of touch with the country, and when it chose the European Union over England its defeat was profound.
[See also: Can Keir Starmer break Labour’s losing streak?]
By then senior Tory thinkers had responded to Blue Labour’s politics. Boris Johnson, in the wake of the Leave campaign organised by Dominic Cummings, recognised that the Conservatives could be repositioned to be radical on the economy and conservative on social and cultural issues. The aim was to break with the Thatcherite past and realign politics. It would mean a more robust role for the nation state in the economy to rebuild the covenant between government and citizen; a recognition that the post-industrial working class has become the contested terrain for winning elections; and an understanding that the local and a sense of place and belonging matter far more than the liberal era imagined.
But the Conservative Party is dominated by market liberalism and it cannot practice this kind of politics. Nor can Labour, which is dominated by social and cultural liberalism. And both main parties remain entangled in the progressive politics of Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne. While the parties struggle to build broad cross-class electoral coalitions, there are those on both sides who deny the realignment taking place and want a return to the past. Blue Labour and its challenge to a failing progressive politics has become the signifier of a future they do not want.
The loss of progress
The quest for progress is central to philosophies of technocratic modernity such as those expounded by the positivist Auguste Comte and the communist Karl Marx. Both attempted to invest the new industrial society of the 19th century with a dynamic that projected humanity towards a state of perfection. The 12th-century Christian mystic Joachim of Fiore defined historical time as the age of the father, the age of the son, and the third and final age of the Holy Spirit when a dux or leader will bring Heaven to Earth. For Comte historical progression was no longer unfolding towards providential fulfilment but towards a universal, scientific religion of humanity. For Marx “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. History unfolds through three stages of primitive communism, bourgeois class society and finally the utopian classless society.
The Communist Manifesto (1848) can be read as prophecy and a promise of salvation. In both Marx and Comte, secular theories of progress had not simply replaced the idea of God’s transcendent purpose, they assumed its function as they seek to move from the search for the truth of human existence to the condition of becoming the truth itself. Whig historians infused liberalism with a similar, if less extreme, view of history as a steady evolution of freedoms spreading ever greater social progress and prosperity.
The left once mythologised the industrial proletariat as the secular engine driving history towards human perfection. Today the left has lost its ideal and so also its purpose.
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One response has been to try to invest the historical revisionism of race, colonialism, and empire with a teleology. Like the more reductive forms of Marxism, the arguments tend to be absolutist. The West originates in genocide and slavery – which provided the dynamic of capitalist development. The growth of colonialism and its exploitation of subjugated people represents the birth of European modernity. The Enlightenment is founded in imperialism and Western epistemologies are saturated in racial thinking. Contemporary British society is white supremacist. Such thinking provides the reassuring certainty of an all-encompassing, Manichean view of the world.
If class struggle was once the dynamic driving history, then race and racial politics might replace it with a new kind of post-colonial historical agent and reinstate the law of progress. A debate about Britain’s imperial past is central to our multi-ethnic future. But it will not restore the left’s progressive politics nor replace Labour’s lost sense of purpose. In the left’s search for a new teleology, the future is an “unlaid ghost” that haunts the present. The left’s search is not a mourning of lost imagined futures, but a symptom of its failure even to recognise the loss and to mourn it properly.
Progressive politics on both the left and right in England, in particular, has lost a conception of a meaningful life. It has lost the idea of a common good that can build bridges between different groups and classes through democratic politics. It communicates in the rationalist abstractions of equality, diversity and sustainability. Its predominant view is that human beings are social constructions. The human body is infinitely malleable and freedom is potentially unlimited. Any notion of “human nature” is considered a reactionary idea in which biology determines our destiny and so limits individual freedom.
The Brahmin left
Modern nihilism is linked to the changing nature of elites in society. The long, slow dissolution of the old aristocratic elites and their upholding of Christian virtue and the national interest (even if only nominally and selectively) has been accompanied by the growth of meritocratic, individualised elites. They have no shared value system and so have nothing to constrain their peers who pursue personal advancement at the expense of others.
The liberal meritocracy is failing on its own terms in entrenching privilege, reproducing a cultural homogeneity, overproducing aspirant elites and then failing to absorb them and satisfy their ambitions. It has created a higher-educated counter-elite, driving up competition for status and increasing conflicts around identity and culture. In recent decades, politics has become an intra-elite conflict between what Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin left”, who make up around 10 per cent of the population dependent upon professional and intellectual labour, and the “merchant right”, who constitute a fraction of 1 per cent and who are dependent upon capital.
The rise of the higher-educated middle classes and their counter cultures of liberation began in the 1960s. Hannah Arendt warned that to live without authority, and without an understanding that the source of authority lies not in power, and those who exercise it, but in tradition, is to be confronted with the “elementary problem of humans living together”. The left has no answers to this elementary problem. It turned its back on its own national traditions and, like a provincial cousin, looked to the United States for inspiration.
The New Labour generation of politicians embraced the progressive globalisation of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats. Its prodigal offspring, the Corbyn generation, has been influenced by what the political commentator Wesley Yang calls “the successor ideology” to this era. Yang describes a bourgeois moral revolution taken up by American white, college-educated progressive activists in pursuit of social justice. Its practices include “struggle sessions… rituals of purgation and repentance, denunciation and confession”, unencumbered by any regard for due process, which is viewed as sustaining the status quo.
[See also: Why culture wars are an elite device]
According to a study of British people by More in Common, the advocacy organisation for social cooperation, the young progressives in the UK who support this revivalism constitute around 13 per cent of the population. If New Labour stood for economic modernisation, the younger progressive left is today energised by a belief in cultural and individual liberation. Each of these world-views has been disdainful of the parochial nature of England’s national culture. Neither has offered a national project of political renewal.
The liberal consensus of the past four decades separated economics from the realm of democratic politics and so from collective agency. It reified the winners and promoted the exceptional and novel, while neglecting the work, domesticity and localities which constitute the life experience of most people. But unlike other European nations, Brexit has forced the Anglo-British political elite to turn back towards a fracturing United Kingdom and to the interests of an England with which they have lost touch.
The progressive politics of the liberal era did not accept that people do not always experience change as a good. Uninvited change threatens familiar conduct, attachments, purposes and habits of feeling. The loss of cultural meaning brings with it deep, collective feelings of loss and bereavement. This sense of something having been lost went unacknowledged by governing elites and found no representation within the democratic process, and so had no recognition. Nationalist populism expressed something of this loss. It offered a return to conflict and democracy and brought politics back to life. Traditional political identifications were undermined and inherited relationships between classes and parties broken. Nigel Farage understood and exploited the new national mood in England. Labour stood against it, while the Conservatives eventually took advantage of it, realigned electoral politics, and won a big majority in 2019.
The revolt of the elites against national life and their neglect of the common good have undermined trust in an already diminished authority. There has been a flourishing of varieties of political gnosticism, ersatz belief systems, pseudo-sciences, fake news, and apocalyptic conspiracy movements. Politics has become the art of continuously reinventing reality. Donald Trump was in this respect a profoundly camp figure making artifice out of American carnage. Boris Johnson embodies Merrie England, a jester in the court of public opinion. Deep and inarticulate emotional currents are transmogrified into hyper-reality. Simulation and fiction become the generators of social movements and political realignment. What counts is who tells the story that resonates best with people’s lives.
The Labour Party has lost its identity and its struggling leadership has pursued policies without politics, and tactics without strategy – what Sun Tzu calls “the noise before defeat”. Trapped by its conventionality and a culture that lacks intellectual curiosity, it has been engulfed in an ending whose meaning it cannot grasp. In the last decade, Labour has been beaten in four general elections, two European elections and a referendum; defeats symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Labour no longer possesses the intellectual and philosophical resources for a political renascence and it does not look beyond itself to acquire them. A new era is beginning and it is leaving progressive politics behind.
Twelve years ago, Blue Labour stood for an English modernity that is a paradoxical mix of conservative and radical dispositions. EP Thompson describes “a rebellious traditional culture” in which custom is defended and economic rationalisation resisted. The Labour Party grew out of this culture and played a vital role in maintaining the traditions of the country and in shaping its modernity. But no more; the radical liberal now dominates.
Blue Labour was an attempt to recover Labour’s politics of paradox and bring together the forces of social order and liberty, reconciling traditional England with the post-industrial, multi-ethnic country we have become. After the upheavals of liberal globalisation and historically unprecedented levels of immigration it argued for the restoration of the conservative disposition to counter liberal domination, and win a fair and just balance of power between capital and labour. Its politics of the common good stood for the labour interest and the fundamental elements of life – people’s relationships and family, work, a sense of belonging, and a sustainable place in the natural world.
But it understood that politics is also about tragedy. Things don’t always work out for the better. At a time of extraordinary change – and in the face of major geopolitical and domestic challenges – the political and intellectual ambitions of Labour and the Conservatives have shrunk.
After Labour’s defeat in 2019, Blue Labour’s Twitter timeline was overwhelmed by abuse. Something similar is now brewing among right-wing Tories who believe Boris Johnson has been captured by Blue Labour ideas. In truth, our two major political parties are neither conservative in the best sense nor radical in being dynamic and original. The world is turning, and while they are in thrall to the progressive politics of the old liberal era, they offer no harbour in the storm.
[See also: The rise and fall of digital Corbynism]
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play