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24 May

Labour’s future will be conservative

Keir Starmer is cautiously ending the liberal progressive politics that has dominated Labour for three decades. Now he needs a true alternative.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Current opinion is that the Conservative Party won’t win the next general election. The electorate has had enough and wants a change of government. At such a moment when power is shifting and authority dissolving, the ideas that will shape the future emerge in public debate. As the ascending power, these should belong to Labour.

And yet, looking back over the past month, it is Conservatism that has generated energy and held attention. Every media outlet had to give an opinion on the recent National Conservatism conference. From the Guardian to Novara Media, the left reacted with predictable hyperbole about its hard-rightness. Reasoned analysis was the exception, but what occupied people’s minds wasn’t a progressive future under a Labour government, it was Conservatism. 

The late Stuart Hall made the point that to understand your adversaries it is necessary to get close to them, inhabit their mental landscapes, know their intuitive take on the world and put one’s self in their position. Only then can one learn how to defeat them intellectually and politically. The dismissive commentary on the NatCon conference suggests that large swathes of the left are not interested in Hall’s advice. It begged the question of what does the progressive left stand for apart from its hostility and contempt for Conservatism?

After a decade of general election defeats, Labour struggles to define its politics. It has been unable to build up an intellectual hinterland to provide the resources for its political renewal. In this post-industrial era, Labour lacks the institutions for developing new thinking and hasn’t sought to create any. Confronted with big political problems it responds with technocratic policy solutions. But politics has to come before policy.  

Policies require a narrative that expresses the political philosophy they illustrate, and which joins those policies together and gives them collective meaning beyond their singular technocratic function. Voters do not vote on the basis of policy choices but on which party they judge to be “most like us”; tone matters. Because Labour still lacks a diagnosis of the problems facing the country, it has been unable to create a story to tell about itself and its relationship to the people it wants to govern. No one quite knows what Labour stands for.

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Public uncertainty about Labour gives the Tories hope that it can be held to a draw or defeated in 2024. Perhaps it might just form a government with a very small majority, resulting in a second election in which Labour finds itself overwhelmed by systemic crises. As things stand today, with both parties retreating into technocratic pragmatism, the country must wait until at least 2028 before there is an opportunity to break out of the political inertia of this long interregnum.

And yet Labour still has a chance to win the future. All the elements for a new kind of Labour politics can be found in the speeches of Keir Starmer. There has been a lack of political will – or is it a lack of confidence? – to join up the parts and narrate a story about Labour and the future of the country that captures the national mood.  

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The story, however, will not be a progressive one. After decades of liberal domination of the economy and culture, the country needs a more equitable balance of radicalism and conservatism. In his speech to the Progressive Britain Conference on 13 May, Starmer began to spell this out. 

[See also: Who would win if an election was held today?]

“I’ve got to be honest – I don’t think the language of stability comes naturally to progressive politics,” he said. “I think too often we dismiss it as conservative, as a barrier to change. Don’t mistake me, the very best of progressive politics is found in our determination to push Britain forward. A hunger, an ambition, that we can seize the opportunities of tomorrow and make them work for working people.

“But this ambition must never become unmoored from working people’s need for stability, for order, security. We must understand there are precious things – in our way of life, in our environment, in our communities – that it is our responsibility to protect and preserve and to pass on to future generations. If that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care.”

Starmer is cautiously ending the liberal progressive politics that has dominated the Labour Party for three decades. He has yet to describe an alternative and so the question is whether he now develops one or shies away from it. 

Every political period has its intellectuals who define its crises and opportunities, so providing the dominant cultural and political idiom of the day. The period of liberal globalisation was first defined by the Hayekian think tanks championing free markets, individualism and a small state of market liberalism. 

Then followed the sociologists of the Third Way such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, describing the detraditionalisation and individualisation of late modern society. Bill Clinton’s Democrats combined social liberalism with economic liberalism, prompting the US trade secretary Robert Reich to write, “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept.” In the UK, Philip Gould’s definitive The Unfinished Revolution (1998) described the progressive future, “In the twenty-first century the pace of change will be so fast, so all-embracing, that it will in effect be an age of permanent revolution.”

This is the world we are leaving behind but our political parties remain invested in it. Confronted by a new era of geopolitical rivalry, environmental degradation, a dysfunctional state and national economy, and a population beset by cynicism towards Westminster, Labour’s future success will depend on developing a more conservative left politics. Jeremy Seabrook and Trevor Blackwell call it “a conserving radicalism” in their 1993 book The Revolt Against Change. For people who have been subjected to decades of unwanted change, “the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project. A form of conservatism… becomes indispensable to this work of resistance.”

The future will be about stability and security, rebuilding the national economy, restoring and conserving the things that matter to people. These include their cultural values, decent work to raise a family on, safe neighbourhoods, reducing immigration and controlling our national borders, a respect for authority as the conveyor of our national inheritance, and a society that practices live and let live.

Labour must find its own conservatism by drawing on its traditions and shaping them for this new period. How shall we define these new times and who will undertake this work? Sneer at them and write them off but the Conservatives have already begun while still in office, and Labour, after 13 years out of power, has not.

[See also: Labour wants to make health great again]

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