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Labour loves nostalgia. But we succeed when our politics is about the future

There's a market in offering toughness on immigration and nostalgia for an imagined past - but it's not one that leads to success, says Bridget Phillpson.

We love nostalgia in the Labour Party. We pepper our politics with references to people in office seventy years ago. Sometimes we seem to drench our party political broadcasts in a sense of how things were better in the past, an implicit promise that our future will be a recapturing of past glories rather than something new and different. As much as I love the occasional retro mug, the party‘s campaign shop has a whole section devoted to vintage pictures, old posters, old badges. It seems hard to believe that the last time we won a general election, fifteen years ago next spring, our slogan was “forward not back”.

Not only do we love it, but this is very much a love that dares to speak its name, for there’s a narrative about the last fifty years that gets a lot of airing at the moment. Different versions of it have different emphases, but the outline is common. It tells a story about the decline of manual labour and manufacturing jobs for working men. It talks about the culture of large workplaces, union activity, clocking on and off together, of tight knit communities clustered round employment opportunities in villages and smaller towns - mines, quarries, foundries, factories. It looks at how the status of white men in what had been reasonably secure jobs in our country saw a sudden, unwelcome, and unexpected decline, and identifies reversing that change as a central political challenge for socialists today.

Those who promote this narrative usually note, with regret but often without much enquiry, that neither the modern workforce nor the modern support base for the Labour Party look like they used to. They point to the societal vandalism of the Thatcher governments in forcing these changes. They challenge the last Labour government on what it did to arrest the decline of this social, economic, and cultural model. Often they find the Blair and Brown years wanting, and seem to offer a coherent critique of the last Labour government’s domestic agenda and achievements, arrestingly different from that of those people whose principal complaint about Labour’s record in government was around its foreign policy.

For those who are sympathetic to this narrative, it offers, at least implicitly, some limited forms of policy prescription for Labour. Tighter controls on immigration, often wrapped in a language of “legitimate concerns”. More socially conservative noises. A leaning towards an economic approach not based on full EU membership. An approach to the state’s place in our society and economy where ill-defined and questionably responsive social enterprises are expected to fill key public roles, with neither the powers nor the resources necessary for success. With the Conservatives in power, the narrative focuses on organising social pressure to mitigate the outcomes of their public policy changes — through foodbanks and social solidarity — at least as much as on winning over voters or developing alternative strategies for a Labour government. More prosaically, it implies changes to how Labour selects candidates, and a wariness around university-educated MPs regardless of their background.

But the politics of nostalgia is not the politics of socialism. It starts not with an analysis of society today, but a very particular sort of history lesson, for it's about romanticising the past, not humanising the future. And once you start to pull it apart, that becomes all too obvious, and it also becomes very clear what lies behind it. The struggle to try and get the Labour Party “face the future”, as our 1945 manifesto was titled, has — irony of ironies — its own rich history. Richard Jobson's fascinating study, Nostalgia and the post-war Labour Party, documents this thoroughly. Back in 1956 Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism famously sought to encourage the Labour Party to engage with the challenges of the world its own government had created. That same year, Rita Hinden and Allan Flanders urged socialists to realise that our politics cannot “live on old loyalties or on the record of past achievements” but “must arouse devotion among the present generation, and prove its relevance by showing them too how to act”.

Jobson acutely chronicles how Tony Benn in the 1970s and 1980s made particular choices about the language he used to frame the push for industrial democracy, language which reflected a vision of a primarily male and primarily blue-collar workforce, language already detached from the reality of the British economy. Back in 1981 Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt sharply observed that “debate about the alternative economic strategy has been almost wholly confined to male trade unionists and economists”. In 1984 Stuart Hall's landmark article on The Culture Gap expertly probed the weaknesses of the British left's engagement with the social and cultural aspects of modernity. It was Neil Kinnock who began to tackle all this head on, calling for us to desist from our tendency to “wallow in nostalgia for the old days of terraced housing, minimal healthcare and few educational opportunities”. Kinnock continued: “only those who never knew it could really long for it. Socialism is dedicated to progress”.  I was struck by similar thoughts reading Alan Johnson's wonderful memoir This Boy, about his childhood in 1950s London. Those who romanticise that past are seldom those who grew up in it.

For there’s another story of the last fifty years that looks at what was going on for the people who weren’t simply losing out from that transformation, the extent to which the changes they experienced were the result of action by successive Labour governments, and focuses more closely on what has gone wrong since 2010. It suggests an approach to the future based on looking forward not back, on shaping the trends that are changing our world rather than trying to solve yesterday’s problems afresh. Because that other story is just as important, and one we don’t talk nearly enough about: above all it’s the story of women.

The last fifty years have completely transformed the role of women in our society. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the pace and nature of that change [] presents a powerful summary of how much has changed, but I fear the political implications are yet to sink in for many people. And the pace of change is stunning. The employment rate among women of ‘prime working age’ is up from under 60 per cent in the mid-1970s to nearly 80 per cent today, driven above all by an increase in the proportion of women in full-time employment. And that of course is driven by changes in our participation in employment relative to our life cycle: the proportion of us having our first child before we are 25 has roughly halved, and the proportion of us living with a partner or husband at that age has dropped sharply too.

Women my age are much less likely than our mothers’ generation to drop out of employment after giving birth to our first child, and much more likely to stay in paid work in the years following: the share of working-age mothers in some form of paid work has gone from around half in the early 1970s to almost three-quarters today. Much of this is driven by the rapid uptake and widespread use of the Pill, the greatest of all modern technological breakthroughs, an invention whose socially and culturally transformative power, I’d argue, ranks alongside electricity, the internet, and antibiotics. Where we have children, we have them later; for the first time we can reliably plan our families; the sexual freedom men have always enjoyed without fear of the consequences is finally ours too.

Alongside that the huge expansion of opportunity for women (and men) to enter higher education has enabled more and more of us to have opportunities undreamt of by our mothers and grandmothers. Around one in eight women born in the early 1960s had obtained a degree or higher qualification by the time they reached 33. For people my age, born in the 1980s, the figure is almost half. Whole sectors of employment and the economy, whole levels of management, have already changed entirely. For academically gifted kids today, whatever their background, university is an option in a way in which it simply wouldn't have been for those in the generation of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. As university education becomes less and less unusual, it is no longer a simple dividing line between the rich and the rest of us, as it might have been fifty years back. There is of course a huge distance to go. Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent recent book Invisible Women maps out quite how powerfully male norms dominate our culture in so many subtle and unseen ways, and how the prospect of a society based on genuine equality remains all too distant.

And yet all these changes mean we are in the workplace where before we were not, demanding not just equal pay and equal rights, but also action against harassment, professional behaviour from our male colleagues, and recruitment processes based less on social networks imported from the pub. It means a change to the social culture as mixed workplaces become the norm. It means we have disposable income and are out in the evenings, transforming the evening economy and cultures of our towns and cities. And all of this has happened within the lifetime of men and women drawing their pensions today. We do not need to agree with those who do not welcome these changes to understand that its pace may have been profoundly disorienting: what we do need is to remember that when we listen to their laments we should combine empathy with proper critical analysis.

The last Labour government rightly introduced or hastened many of these changes. Intervention after intervention, year after year: a steady drumbeat of progress for thirteen years. Education maintenance allowances helped young women like me to stay at school until 18, and then there was so much more. To name just a few, that era saw the introduction of tax credits and the rollout of SureStart; the acknowledgment that childcare was not simply a private family matter for women to deliver, but instead a sphere where the state had a key role to play; the planned expansion of higher education; and sweeping changes to how we tackle domestic and sexual violence. We should remember our record in power proudly, not with distaste or concern. Between 1997 and 2010, child poverty fell by almost a million, with falls concentrated in areas like northeast England and among single parent families like the one in which I grew up. I joined Labour as soon I could, not because there had been coal mines in my community, and not because I grew up on a council street, but because I saw with my own eyes that government action could solve social problems, as well as create them under the Tories.

So I have little time for those who look back at the last Labour government’s domestic record without a great deal of admiration tempering their criticisms. I have less time still for those whose recipe for electoral advance is nostalgia for a world which had no place for my family and no place for me, who position— deliberately or inadvertently —women’s access to modernity as threat and concern rather than as opportunity and triumph. However attractive it might seem, however comforting past worlds can be, we must beware a soft Toryism of longing for past male privilege rather than creating future equality, of misogyny wrapped in a tattered red flag; for it is neither social democracy nor socialism. It is true that the current divides in our society are many, not simply between left and right, but newer divides are not necessarily more powerful or more lasting, and fostering those divides will not enable the development of a politics more in line with our values. It is clearly true that those of us on the left face a serious challenge in holding together a coalition of people whose social values are already more disparate than those of people on the right, and growing steadily more so. But it would be short sighted to believe that telling people how different they are from so-called “cosmopolitan” urban liberals does anything other than play straight into the hands of Boris Johnson and his evident desire to fight a people vs Parliament election.

Above all it is wrong to seek to redefine the Labour Party, and our historic purpose, in terms other than the redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunity, wrong to substitute culture war for achievable economic justice, wrong to put communitarian nostalgia in place of building a better future for all working people. We must avoid the temptation to sit round drinking out of vintage mugs, fondly remembering a world of culturally uniform slums where women didn’t get paid, men died young in industrial accidents, and Labour lost elections. We played a major role in consigning that existence to the past. We shouldn’t regret that for a moment.

For there is so much more before us, so many social challenges to understand and to tackle, which we can only do by looking ahead not behind us. The big challenges for socialists in our society in the decades ahead are none of them going to be solved by a comforting glance backward. We face an integrated global economy where developed world middle class incomes are stagnating or even falling in real terms; we face climate change at a pace unknown in human history; we face a workplace revolution brought by the galloping advance of automation; we have to meet the soaring costs of an ageing population; and all the while we face the privatisation of our common social existence as major corporations take ownership of our social interactions. The core feminist insight that “the personal is political” seems all too appropriate for anyone comprehending the awesome power of Facebook and Google today.

Nostalgia tells us nothing about how we tackle these. Rising global powers with clear memories of their own subjugation by the British state may look back less fondly at the era of our imperial grandeur as we seek trade deals with them, especially if we do so alone. Worrying about the decline of the British seaside holiday may soon seem bitterly ironic, when the seaside comes to visit us rather than we it, and millions of refugees globally are uprooted. A culture based on men doing physically demanding jobs tells us little about how to prepare for a world where so much physical labour is done or supported by machines, and men’s life expectancy is closing the gap with women’s. A century ago average male life expectancy was under 60, fifty years ago it was still under 70, but today it is almost 80. Ours is now, very much, a country for old men, and we will search the past in vain for solutions to problems our mothers didn’t face. Solutions that were already rejected as not up to the challenge in the 1940s have not, through the passage of time, improved: public policy is not like expensive wines. There are good reasons why Nye Bevan didn’t make the NHS simply the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society writ large. And much as I like receiving postcards from the few friends who still bother, our communications policy needs to have just as much of a focus on taming the corporate behemoths of the new digital world as it does on retaining existing postal services.  An age where WhatsApp replaces envelopes is still an age where the state needs to ensure communications are accessible to all, that we are not beholden to unaccountable power.

It is easy to sink into elegiac lyricism, to look back not in anger but through rose-tinted spectacles, at a past that systematically denied many of us the opportunities we have today. But we should forever fight that temptation. I came into politics, and became an MP, because there are still too many children, in my constituency, in Britain, and across the world, who don’t get the start they need or the education they deserve. Too many working-age people whose lives are blighted by unemployment, low pay, ill-health, and crime. Too many pensioners in pain and indignity, because social care provision is a pale shadow of the real need. These are the concerns of our present and our near future: these, not the creation of new ministries and the re-nationalising of the sewer system, ought to be the immediate to-do list of an incoming Labour government.

Since 2010 the Conservatives have slashed at the services which gave us the more civilised society bequeathed by the last Labour government. NHS funding has risen but nowhere near keeping pace with the challenge of a population both growing and ageing. Almost every service councils provide has been pared back to the skeleton by a decade of cuts. Police numbers are down, out-of-work benefits have been set so low they lock people in poverty, and for nine years we have listened to ministers and the Tory press blaming immigration for deliberate fiscal pressures on public services. The social problems and divisions of our societies today are not primarily the result of long-term social and cultural trends, certainly not a few decades of women being regarded as worthy of equal pay for equal work. They are the result of systematic, deep, ideologically-inspired cuts to the very fabric of our society, of a politics that sets people against one another on social and cultural grounds to weaken the possibility of collective action on economic grounds. We need to reject the politics of division, not to indulge it by talking up our differences.

And we have to keep to the hope that tomorrow can and will be better than today, that our greatest days are yet to come. We must remember that what should separate us from the Tories is not merely our analysis of the past, but our willingness to face and shape the future. If you will forgive the irony of looking back one last time, Karl Marx famously observed, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.