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Labour must choose between two fundamentally different understandings of the human condition

Will members choose the pursuit of utopian dreams or the traditions of the party of labour interest?

Those who have defined themselves as Labour moderates have had to come to terms with two hard truths this year. The first is the unpredictable nature of political events and our own capacity to get things wrong, sometimes very wrong. The second is our political defeat by the hard left and its attempts to change the direction and character of the Labour Party.

Only time will tell whether this is the end of Labour as a mainstream political force. Much will depend upon the great majority of members who do not belong to the hard core sects and who on the whole don’t attend CLP meetings. Whatever the future proves to be, the Labour Party has changed irrevocably and the progressive politics of Labour moderates, inherited from recent decades is now redundant. The rules of the game have changed. I’m not sure if we have come to terms with this reality.

What’s happened?

Labour’s defeat in 1979 was the end of its post war electoral coalition built around an industrial working class. Defeat in 2010 confirmed this long term trend, and the trend continued, leading to an even worse defeat in 2015.

None of the candidates in the leadership contest which followed rose to this historic challenge. Instead the party membership voted for what it believed in. The union leaderships confronted with their left wing activists and unable to face their own political and institutional decay did likewise. Jeremy Corbyn was a leader who represented their values, and he was also the best candidate. He had what the age of artifice most longed for – authenticity. He broke Labour’s inertia. Tens of thousands joined the party, which in terms of its composition changed profoundly from the party of 2010.

Corbyn circumvented Labour's institutions and drew his authority from the plebiscite of the membership. A You Gov analysis described the new membership as "not remotely representative of the rest of the country". For many this difference was a virtue to be celebrated. Labour was now a party of social liberalism dominated by the public sector and higher educated middle class. The trade unions, once a bulwark against the hard left, gave their money and support. A generation of graduates indebted by tuition fees and raised on identity liberalism provided energy and enthusiasm.

In 2017 Corbyn led the party into the election under the certainty of a heavy defeat. The 1980s had taught that hard left sectarian politics could not build a broad based coalition to win an election. National political culture punished political moves to the extremes. In the event the lessons of the 1980s proved correct. Labour was defeated by a Conservative Party running the worst campaign in its history. But against the low expectations the defeat was victorious. Corbyn won over young people, added ten points to Labour’s vote share and achieved 41 per cent of the total vote.

And so Jeremy Corbyn marks a revival of the Labour Party under the new class and sociological conditions of post-industrial Britain. After a long period of torpor Labour has energy and a sort of anti-leadership, if no strategy. It believes it can win. The sectarians of the hard left, a very small minority, have been buoyed up for their march through the institutions of the party. Corbyn’s summer Tour of Britain attracted large enthusiastic crowds. Like the music industry, politics has lost its old system for distributing product and reward. Corbyn is out on the road and his young supporters have gone online.

Moderates

It’s time for those of us who identified themselves as moderates to reject the label. It was conferred by the media. To have one’s identity defined by others is a symptom of powerlessness. It persuades us that somehow we are in the right place politically in the country, in tune with the majority, when in reality we are in a state of acute political crisis.

Many of those who originally opposed Corbyn did so because they argued he was unelectable. Moral or ideological objections were trumped by tribal loyalty to Labour. During the election, local campaigns were fought on the basis that a vote for the local Labour candidate would not mean a vote for Corbyn. With a 41 per cent vote share this option is now closed. A future election campaign means a vote for the Labour candidate will be a vote for Prime Minister Corbyn and Chancellor McDonnell, including their record on defence and security, their historical allegiances and their foreign alliances.

The election of Corbyn as leader tipped the PLP upside down. Once the pre-eminent institution of the labour movement it had taken for granted an authority conferred on it by the electorate.  The role of the membership was to follow instructions and service it. The tables are now turned. The PLP failed to recognise the nature of the threat from the hard left. To use a military metaphor, it became the victim of an encirclement by the combined populist forces of leadership and membership. It might imagine itself autonomous. Its political resources might appear intact, but in reality it has been kettled and its authority within the party broken.

The PLP does not have the trust of a majority of the membership. It has had no collective sense of how to resolve its predicament. It has had no language, no conceptual framework and no distinctive corporate identity with which to challenge the sectarian forces that want to destroy it. It has never had to fight for its authority and hasn’t yet learned how to. And so its tactics – the mass resignations from the front bench, the second leadership contest - backfired.

The task of its sectarian enemies who do not believe in representative democracy is to destroy its institutional power. Within the PLP there has been a resurgence of machine politics from the right to defend its positions, but it has been more of a fighting retreat. Its goal of restoring the status quo was never a viable option. Having failed in the last two years to build a collective sense of political strategic purpose, individual MPs are left to battle for their own survival.

Where is Labour going?

Labour’s 2015 manifesto was full of technically competent and costed policies that had been tested for their popularity. But what it did not include was a compelling story about the country and the British people. Where was the hope? We had only a bleak story to tell. And what did Labour stand for? People no longer knew.

Labour’s manifesto in 2017 was a bolder more hopeful version. But it wasn’t "genius" as some have claimed. It suffered from the same limitations. It took little account of the participatory politics championed by Corbyns supporters. It opposed the dominance of the market but instead of devolving and spreading power through society, it gave more power to the central state. It settled for the same kind of command and control, tax and spend politics that had characterised Labour in the last century. In place of reform and innovation it promised very large sums of money and in spite of its accompanying costings the sums didn’t add up. Fortunately no-one seemed that interested in checking, least of all the Tories, a neglect unlikely to be repeated.  

Despite the surge of hope and optimism that has swept over the party, our 2017 manifesto showed an organisation still limited by its institutional conservatism and its failure to reform its centralising, top down approach to politics.

The excitement of Labour’s resurgence hides a more prosaic truth. At its heart the Labour Party remains intellectually threadbare. As a consequence all kinds of pseudo theories and ideas are sucked into its empty centre without being contested. In this ideological battle over the future character of the Labour Party the PLP has nothing much of interest to say. The right that was once New Labour has become irrelevant. The hard left and its Trotskyist allies are fit only to pursue their entryist tactics of taking over CLPs by boring them to procedural death.

The membership want power with purpose. Most are idealists rather than idealogues and many no doubt would have supported New Labour in 1997. The political system is broken and they want change: a more equal society and an end to poverty and homelessness. They want a properly funded NHS, a mental health care system, and respectful treatment of the disabled who cannot work. But as time passes the likelihood of a Labour election victory will start to fade. If the Conservatives succeed in muddling their way through Brexit the threat of a Labour election disaster that didn’t happen in 2017 will return. Labour will need to reassess its current belief that one more heave brandishing its 2017 manifesto will win it power.

Political power

Political power can be measured by breaking it down into three inter-related aspects: the conceptual, the moral, and the physical. The conceptual is the intellectual input – the why, the how, and the strategy. The moral aspect is the making of a leadership with the heart and determination to seize new thinking and build a broad coalition of support. The physical is the means to achieving political power - the necessary infrastructure and resources.

A political strategy for power can be defined by three elements: an intellectual project of ideas, a political project of leadership, and an organisational project. Tony Blair had the Third Way, New Labour and Clinton’s machine politics. He won three elections. Gordon Brown inherited it worn out, and lost. Ed Miliband had the beginnings of a subsequently abandoned one nation politics, no political project of leadership, and an organizational project around community organising that was discarded. He lost one election. Jeremy Corbyn has no intellectual project apart from the one inherited from Tony Benn and the insurgency of the 1980s. His political project is himself and the cult of personality that has formed around him. And Momentum, dynamic but small, provides a supporting role and a counter to the party machine. He also lost.

What is the future of the Labour Party? It is no longer the party it was fifty, twenty, or even five years ago, nor will it be again. It is now bigger and more dynamic, but uncertain of its purpose. Brexit will continue creating instabilities and division. Digital politics will generate new innovations as well as echo chambers of the like minded. Members will rightly win more participation in the party but in demoting MPs and councillors will find themselves still further estranged from the mass of voters. To survive Labour has to be more than a protest movement, and more than the party of sectional interests it is in danger of becoming. It has to renew its historical function which is to represent the interests of working people across the whole country. If it fails in this basic task its existence has no meaningful purpose.

Shaping Labour’s future

For a party in a such a state of upheaval, intellectual debate on big themes has been scarce. There are effectively two minority intellectual forces that form opposite poles in the argument over the future direction of the party. The first and dominant force is a counter-cultural left associated with Momentum and the World Transformed and which has gathered to itself a diverse mix of baby boomer libertarian socialists, ex-Eurocommunists, accelerationist theorists, and younger generations of identity liberals, feminists, and anti-colonialists. It is an alliance of the formerly exiled and the newly awakened left, and its progressive socialism is trying to shape a distinctive Corbynism for the long term.

The second and marginalised force is Blue Labour and a wider assembly of communitarians. Less well organised and fewer in number, it has a more robust intellectual pedigree and deeper roots in the common life of the country. It originated as a socialism critical of New Labour’s managerial politics and failure to reform the economy. It now forms a counterweight to the Party’s onward march into metropolitan identity liberalism and universalism.

The Corbynistas influenced by the ideas of accelerationism have larger ambitions than Labours conventional manifesto policies. They argue for a reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Instead of class struggle driving the course of history the motor of change is technology. This theory of post-capitalism politics is about unleashing the boundless productive forces of capitalism in order to accelerate technological transformation and so achieve communism. The working class no longer has a historical role. The facilitators of this promethean politics will be the younger generations of digitally connected graduates. Horizontal networks will replace institutional hierarchy. The task is not to end neo-liberalism, but to "repurpose it".

Blue Labour argues that men and women rather than unpredictable forces create free and equal societies. Technology does not determine history and history does not unfold toward a better future according to its own internal laws. Labour is the story of working people organising together in democratic associations to resist the commodification of their labour and nature. Labour did it once in the industrial revolution and now it needs to do it again in the new digital economy.

For Corbynistas automation will liberate people from wage labour. A Universal Basic Income will create the conditions to allow each individual to be and do whatever they want. For Blue Labour, work is how people create their lives. They contribute to society and in return receive esteem. Work fulfils the ethic of reciprocity which binds people together and by which we support those unable to work. A Universal Basic Income would undermine social solidarity by increasing the power of the market and state. Workers need more power and control not the promise of free money.

Corbynism rejects patriotism as jingoism. Blue Labour embraces love of one’s country as an essential part of internationalism. For one, nation states with their borders divide people against each other. For the other, nation states are essential for giving people democratic control and for managing globalisation. For one, immigration is a cultural and economic positive. Opposing it is xenophobic. For the other, the free movement of labour is the same laissez faire principle as the free movement of capital -  it has externalities that need controlling. For one, localism is folkish and backward looking. For the other a sense of belonging is a vital part of all successful societies.

These two competing forces contest the basic principles of politics. They offer fundamentally different understandings of the human condition. For one its belief in unlimited change echoes Jeremy Corbyn's offer of free money, free movement, free university, more peace, less poverty.  Everyone will be their own musician and poet in a state of "fully automated luxury communism". For the other freedom is human scale. History does not deliver it. People have to fight for it.  And freedom is always balanced by the constraints of living with others and with the natural world. The pursuit of individual freedom without constraint is a kind of promethean bourgoise version of Marxism. It is the other side of the coin to neo-liberalism and unwittingly represents the interests and preoccupations of a knowledge class. It would destroy the web of communal social relations and values that bind people together.

Politics now

Across the political landscape there are food banks, an NHS funding crisis, cuts in public services, more cuts to come, wage stagnation, a middle eastern crisis, Islamist terrorism, the stand off with North Korea and Brexit. And then there is the political class stripped of its integrity by the Iraq war, the expenses scandal, the 2008 crash, austerity, and the about face on tuition fees. The absence of a national debate about Britain’s future after Brexit reveals its inability to grasp the historical scale of the event. What is our vision of Britain in the twenties? What kind of political and economic settlement do we want? And what role for Britain in the world do we need to pursue? The leaderships of the political parties have nothing to say of any breadth or substance. One offers nothing the other promises the earth.

The Conservative Government has sunk into a chronic state of vacillating mediocrity. The Opposition with its underwhelming Shadow Cabinet and a leader focused on protest and campaigning, looks like no kind of government in waiting. Globalisation and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis combined to act like a centrifuge spinning politics to the extremes. First came the populist revolt that brought UKIP. Second came the revolt that chose Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party; third the vote to leave the EU. The old political hierarchies and their certainties have been torn down. Labour in its transformation from an organisation of the industrial era to something else has become a party without limit. Everything is possible so nothing about it can be trusted.

Labour’s members are a new political force. Will they choose the pursuit of utopian dreams or will they recognise the traditions of Labour as the party of the labour interest and undertake the hard and difficult work of national renewal and reviving parliamentary democracy? The past offers plenty of lessons for making this choice, but for now the left has vacated history. The centre did not hold. The populist revolutions have been of its own making. It will eventually return, but in a different form. The task now is to work out what that is.

PHOTO: JUSTIN MERRIMAN/ GETTY IMAGES
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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20