The future belongs to Blue Labour
Democracy, nationhood and working-class power will define the years to come.
The era of globalisation is over, and a new era is acquiring shape.
The left, however, is prone to misunderstanding these moments of ‘crisis’ and ‘revolution’. External shocks and internal incoherence create possibilities that the left is often incapable of seizing. The financial crash of 2008 led to the beginning of the Conservative Party’s ascendancy and 10 years of austerity. Instead of reckoning with globalisation, with the failure of democratic politics to resist the relentless demand of capitalism to turn human beings and our natural environment into commodities, Labour mounted a defence of liberal proceduralism within the EU. During a moment of crisis, Labour could not assert its leadership of the nation.
Labour, and the left more generally, has lost confidence in both the working class and democracy and retreated increasingly to a legally enforced form of globalisation. In rejecting the importance of place, relationships, the common good and the leadership of the working class, Labour has abandoned its own tradition and the communities that formed and nourished it. In moving towards globalisation, it has lost touch with the particular, with society and with the nation. With its stress on legal concepts such as justice, fairness and human rights, Labour is no longer the political embodiment of the labour interest. It champions an outdated, formless modernism that has ceased to be embedded in the affections or interests of the common people. The reckoning, at the 2019 election, was brutal.
The pandemic has further defined the new era – not by transforming things utterly, but by consolidating long-standing trends. These trends are consistent with the historic commitments of the Labour movement. Together, they constitute a new reality that is far more sceptical of liberal globalisation and seeks to resist the domination of capital and unaccountable power. Democracy and community are now far more visible in our politics.
A new era takes shape
The first trend consolidated by the pandemic is the reemergence of the nation state as the primary force within bordered polities. The immediate response to Covid within the European Union was the reassertion of national controls over borders and the pursuit of national strategies of containment. The stipulations of the Lisbon Treaty concerning state aid and competition law were set aside in every European state. The European Central Bank ceased imposing any constraint on state spending. The state underwrote the wages of workers, as well as securing the production of necessities and the delivery of supplies. Issues of food, water, energy and transportation became primary issues of national statecraft and will remain so. The EU’s response signified the death knell of globalisation through treaty law.
This should be good news for Labour. State sovereignty was once the fundamental tenet of social democracy across Europe. It was through this that Labour could create the National Health Service in 1948. A few hospitals held out against nationalisation and successfully appealed to the law to defend their autonomy. Labour simply changed the law through an act of parliament, declaring the hospitals nationalised. Compensation was negotiated after the bill was passed. The NHS became the central instrument for strengthening our national immune system and responding to the pandemic. National sovereignty has returned to the centre of politics.
The second key trend consolidated by the pandemic is the renewed visibility and necessity of the working class. In the era of globalisation, lorry drivers, hospital cleaners and carers were contracted out and invisible, while the value-added stars were creative, financial and managerial.
The ‘left behind’ and the ‘losers of globalisation’ have been asserting themselves over the past decade. The Brexit vote and then the election of the Conservative government in 2019 revealed that the working class is still a decisive force politically and is opposed to a form of liberal globalisation that assumed workers are replaceable and irrelevant. During the pandemic, workers were publicly lauded for their necessity and bravery. The dignity of labour is no longer a nostalgic and antiquated phrase. The importance of the working class to our wellbeing and survival is now recognised in a way it has not been for decades. Labour value has been reasserted. This should be hospitable terrain for the Labour Party.
The third key trend here is the renewed importance of place – of neighbours, of mutual aid and community. Globalisation was committed to the untrammelled movement of people through space as directed by the demands of the market. Belonging and attachment were viewed with suspicion by economic and political liberals. The pursuit of globalisation led to the neglect of the civic immune system.
It is clear that self-government and democratic accountability need to be strengthened along with those institutions that sustain local life and the ability to fulfil the needs of others. While the central state underwrote the cost of economic suspension during the pandemic, this sort of setup is unsustainable in the long-term. Without the constitution of a robust civic ecology, embedded in local places, there will be no durable change.
For a brief moment, the response to the coronavirus brought to light what was concealed by the ideology of globalisation: our dependence on others for the preservation of life. This can only be strengthened by shared, democratic institutions that uphold the good and constrain the bad. The new era should be hospitable to mutuality, association and a less exploitative relationship with other people.
The previous era of globalisation was based on the joint dominion of capital, a liberal state and the unfettered movement of people, money, goods and services. The new era will place democratic constraints on that order.
The importance of democracy
‘Take back control’, the slogan of the 2016 Leave campaign, resonated for a reason. Politics had lost its power to act. Democratic decision-making had become increasingly irrelevant under conditions of procedural liberalism, conditions that Labour enthusiastically supported.
By turning against democracy and backing a second EU referendum, Labour cut the fraying ties that bound it to the labour interest. It lost its identity as a paradoxical party that could combine liberty and democracy, conservatism and liberalism, through its distinctive form of socialism, forged in working-class communities and congregations. Labour is no longer of the people, by the people and for the people. Labour has become increasingly like the Whigs, or what became the Liberal Party: moralistic, universal and abstract. It is no longer embedded in the country and embodied in its political representatives. In that sense, Labour has been liquidated.
A revival of the labour interest has to be built on the understanding that humans are meaning-seeking beings with a tendency towards attachment, relationships and mutual concern. We are social beings who through our use of language and memory can negotiate a common life with others on the basis of democracy and shared liberties. Democracy is the practice through which those without money resist the domination of those who have it. Through voting, ordinary people make clear that the world they live in is not wholly owned by the rich.
Rights and democracy go together. Rights are a means of resisting democratic domination, but that doesn’t mean that losing doesn’t matter. Democracy is the way that rulers are held to account and the democratic verdict has consequences for the distribution of power and wealth within society.
For the Labour tradition, democratic politics is the principal means through which people resist the commodification of human beings, their institutions and the countryside. Labour chose democracy and not revolution as a way of pursuing this. Its politics was once based on a coalition of human beings determined to preserve their humanity and inheritance from dispossession and disintegration.
Democratic accountability should be the prevailing practice in all important public institutions that have power over people’s lives. It is the best way of holding all elites to account. It was the power of democracy to make a decisive political decision that was at stake during the Brexit interregnum. It pitted the sovereignty of law against the sovereignty of parliament to make that law. The interregnum was resolved in favour of democratic sovereignty.
The meaning of Brexit
Brexit was an important historical episode because it offered two contrasting visions of the future. One was rights-based and transnational. The other placed a far greater emphasis on democracy and the nation state. One mediated globalisation through an exclusive reliance on treaty law, the other through a politics of democratic accountability. The interregnum was broken by the Conservatives, who grasped the shape of the future and championed the priority of democracy within the nation state. They understood that the old was dead and they were the midwives of the new. But by asserting democratic sovereignty, they have created the conditions that make Labour politics possible once more and open the possibility of a transformative economic and political programme.
Brexit proved fatal to the present ideological form of the Labour Party and its class base. But it is also a necessary condition for the renewal of Labour and for a socialist economic policy that would give greater advantage and power to working people. Brexit also opens up the possibility of democratic and civic reforms. A reimagining of the body politic is required if Labour is to lead the country once more. This would redistribute power and assets to the neglected areas of our country from which capital has fled along with its institutions. In order to do this, Labour must recognise that the era of liberal globalisation is over and its assumptions are outdated.
The new era calls for a more important role for the nation state, democracy, the working class and conservatism, understood as an affection for neighbours and an attachment to a place that is considered home.
It was assumed, for more than 40 years, that global markets, technological change and international treaties all demanded the frictionless movement of people, money, goods and services. There was no such thing as place, no time for tradition and democracy. The nation state was merely the regional administrator of a global system bound by rules that would secure capitalism and liberalism forever. Social mobility was measured by the distance you moved away from your mum.
The financial crash, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have dispelled this vision of the future, which defined the previous consensus. Now attention has returned to the importance of place and the role of the democratic institutions that can build a purposeful sense of local community.
Leaving the EU allows Labour to implement a radical economic programme outside of the constraints of the Single Market and the stringent conditions of the Lisbon Treaty on state aid and competition law. Labour could have profited from Brexit by leading the movement to leave and articulating the possibilities for national renewal that it opened up. It could have drawn on the position held by Attlee, Castle, Foot and Healey, who saw the EU as anti-democratic and pro-capitalist. Instead, it became the defender of the old order and of globalisation.
The Conservatives won more votes across all social classes in the 2019 election, but their lead was particularly pronounced among skilled and unskilled workers. The working classes felt oppressed by the party they had created – it had become alien to them. It was Labour, not capital, that the proletariat rebelled against.
In order to restore its covenant with those who created it, Labour needs to rediscover its own tradition of democracy, nationhood and community. Above all, it needs to rediscover a class politics based on the common good.
Maurice Glasman is the founder of Blue Labour, the director of the Common Good Foundation and a Labour life peer.
Pictures by: Getty.
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