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The Tories seize Labour’s language

The Miliband brothers remain defined by the Blair/Brown psychodrama.

It is hard to exaggerate how unimpressive the Labour leadership contest has been so far. And how repressed. The repression lies in the lack of recognition of the pain and disappointment of the past 13 years, and the particularly unpleasant nature of the past four. There has been no account of how Labour failed to realise Tony Blair's promises of stakeholding, democratic decentralisation and solidarity -- all lost in managerialism, marketing and militarism. No reckoning, either, with the stale, European, social democracy that Gordon Brown inhabited, sucking the life out of the Labour tradition.

The Blair/Brown psychodrama was the environment within which both David Miliband and Ed Miliband developed as political leaders. Leadership of the "progressive" left is the mantle they both claim from their father, Ralph, a Marxist academic. Neither has succeeded, so far, in articulating a Labour position that could transform the party and the country. What began as a family argument within the Labour Party has turned into a political argument in one particular family.

Contempt for custom

The disembedding of the economy through globalisation was the defining feature of New Labour's political economy, which refused to recognise any distinction between financial and manufacturing capital. This left the economy exposed to financial volatility and was an abandonment of a key aspect of the Labour tradition, which was built on a distinction between a real economy, in which people fed, clothed and housed each other through their labour; and a formal economy, in which the only criterion was the maximisation of returns on investment.

Labour's idealism and mission of change were channelled through the state in a virtually Maoist conception of public-sector reform, in which all traditional patterns of work were overridden by managerial prerogative, line management and unattainable targets in every aspect of life -- ranging from obesity to teenage pregnancy, and from literacy to drinking. The end was everything and the means were nothing.

A militant public-sector morality emerged in which the homogenisation of our high streets and working life was combined with an insistence on diversity and the erosion of a common culture. The contempt for custom and tradition made the constant restructuring of management in the public sector all the more grievous.

The Brown government was incapable of ­action, changing the dynamics of defeat or ­renewing itself in office, because it thought of itself as righteous and successful: public buildings had been renewed; redistribution was ­genuine. Labour still shows no understanding of how unappealing the people of England found all of this.

The problem was that although the people did not trust the Conservatives to protect the things they loved or promote the change that was needed, they thought Labour was worse. Its claims to economic modernisation were revealed as fantastical by the crash; its claims to a superior political morality were exposed by expenses-fiddling in parliament. No sense of sacrifice was called for in hard times, no sense of organisation towards a common end was pursued and no powerful forces were confronted as the banks and the City were given a free pass while small businesses went to the wall.

Labour has paid the price with a loss of credibility and trust. The Conservatives have seized Labour's language with their vision of a "big society" -- and not only its language but its history. By stressing mutual responsibility, commitment to place and neighbours and the centrality of relationships to a meaningful life, and by laying claim to the mutuals, co-operatives and local societies that built the labour movements, the coalition government is seizing Labour's future by stealing its inheritance. Labour should assert its ownership of the language and practice of organised social action for the common good. Democracy all the way up and all the way down.

The response of the leadership candidates so far has been a cross between Brezhnevite progressivism and low-grade relationship therapy: it's time to turn the page, move on, fix our gaze on the sunlit uplands -- and it's all a cover for cuts, anyway. But this will lead Labour further towards the same uncreative incoherence that blighted its effectiveness in government.

Ed Miliband has said that the big society was "a load of rubbish". While David is more sympathetic, he has not succeeded in defining his idea of a bigger society or how it would fit his overall platform. He has not spelled out a proper critique of Blair any more than Ed has of Brown. The truth is that Brown corrupted the left for a generation. He talked left but acted state -- the result is a right-wing government that can credibly claim that Labour is a statist party without concern for democracy, liberty or efficiency. This is fatal for any political party. That's how it was at the last election and how it will be again, unless Labour can grasp the language of reciprocity and responsibility. Unless David can give a clear account of how he differs from Blair, and Ed of how he differs from Brown, neither will be a change candidate.

Common good

Labour needs to tell a credible story about public-sector fantasies and waste. It cannot entangle capital without extending democracy. It cannot set a limit to the market without also recognising the limits of the state. Both limits must be set by a democratically organised society. The two brothers support the living wage -- an important step towards recognising the dignity of work and the dependence of all employees on each other. Yet, in both cases, it is something of an orphan, not connected to a wider change of which that should be a part.

The establishment of city parliaments is needed to build a politics of the common good. We need regional banks to make capital available to small and medium-sized businesses, a cap on interest rates to limit exploitation and democratic corporate governance in the public and private sectors. Unless either of the brothers can move towards this terrain, it doesn't matter which of them wins, because they will not be able to act effectively or offer a plausible account of a transformational, democratic politics. And Labour will lose again.

Maurice Glasman is the author of "Unnecessary Suffering: Management, Markets and the Liquidation of Solidarity" (Verso, £12) and has worked with London Citizens for the past decade.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan