In Dover the port is up for sale and the people are campaigning to buy it and create a community asset. They don’t want a foreign-owned port, they want a people’s port that is ‘forever England’. Football supporters are building community-based organisations by share purchase – in Liverpool, for example – to save our clubs from foreign corporate power. In the Forest of Dean, thousands are rallying in protest at the plans by the government to sell England’s forests which are England’s ‘green beating heart’. In London, porters at Billingsgate fish market campaigned to stop the City of London abolishing their ancient English role and making them redundant. Where is Labour in the fight for an England which belongs to the English just as they belong to the land?
Labour is no longer sure who it represents. It champions humanity in general but no-one in particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the symbols and iconography of Englishness. For all the good Labour did in government, it presided over the leaching away of the common meanings that bind the English in society. It did not build a common good which is the basis of an ethical life. It chose liberal market freedoms for the price of our liberty and our sense of belonging.
The open economy is England’s historic legacy. Trade is in our national DNA. But the economy has become an engine of inequality, division and dispossession. A financialised model of capitalism has redistributed wealth on a massive scale from the country to the City, from the people to the financial elite, and from the common ownership of the public sector to private business. We do not own our utilities, nor do we have control of our vital energy market. The overseas supply chains of business located here are the chief beneficiaries of our economic upswings. A flexible employment market has stripped workers of rights and security. Our soft-touch approach on corporate tax has encouraged tax evasion and transfer pricing as business relocates its profits to tax havens. It is as if we do not live in a country so much as an economic system that is owned elsewhere and over which we have no control.
Labour lost England in the 2010 May election and the cause is about more than just ‘Southern Discomfort’. Labour shares a political crisis of social democracy with its sister parties across Europe. But in England something more fundamental has been lost, and that is a Labour language and culture which belongs to the society it grew out of and which enables its immersion in the ordinary everyday life of the people. It has lost the ability to renew its political hegemony within the class which gave birth to it. It was its apparent indifference to ‘what really matters’ that incited such rage and contempt amongst constituencies which had been traditional bastions of support.
Across Europe the defeat of social democracy has been accompanied by the rise of cultural movements of the racist right. The English Defence League is the new symptom of our cultural dislocations and economic crises. It is powered by a resentful hatred for a metropolitan liberal elite who it believes has heaped humiliation upon people and robbed them of their English identity and culture. Its language of belonging and cultural dispossession speaks for much larger politically disenfranchised forces that have been unleashed by the transformations in capitalism and society.
In 1970, Enoch Powell similarly accused a liberal elite of being an ‘enemy within’ and abandoning England to immigration and multiculturalism. It was Powell and his politics of racial difference who was the prophet of the Thatcher revolution. He gave it a language. Powell as much as Thatcher championed market liberalism and transformed our country. In 1997, New Labour both accommodated itself to the revolution and blunted its impact. In England, the effort has come close to destroying it as a national political force.
Dispossession lies deep in the history of England since the enclosures of common land and the primitive capital accumulation of the industrial revolution. Karl Polanyi described the historic double movement of capitalism where capital sought to establish self-regulating markets through free trade and laissez-faire principles. Its logic was to commodify land, money and human labour. In reaction, a counter movement grew up to defend and conserve individuals, society and nature against commodification. The Labour party is the product of almost 200 years of this counter movement. Its history is rooted in the response of people to their dispossession.
Labour must now have a reckoning with itself. In the last decades, it stopped valuing settled ways of life. It did not speak about an identification and pleasure in local place and belonging. It said nothing about the desire for home and rootedness, nor did it defend the continuity of relationships at work and in neighbourhoods. It abandoned people to market forces in the name of a spurious entrepreneurialism. Estranged from people’s lives and communities, lacking the institutional memory of campaigning and organising, and denuded of internal democracy, it leavened an increasingly dour politics with abstract principles and a narrow, unimaginative idea of aspiration.
The ‘neoliberal’ era that Powell began is now coming to an end with the financial crash of 2008. Labour must confront and turn the page on what Powell started by seizing and transforming the political terrain of identity and belonging that he established as his own, and which has been held by the right ever since. The question Labour must ask is: what in our differences do we hold in common? Only by speaking for a common life can it build the political power in England to take on Britain’s failing economy, the inadequacies of British democracy and the disenfranchisement of large swathes of the population.
Labour’s future in England is conservative. England’s radical traditions are rooted in the political struggle for the liberty that Edmund Burke describes as ‘social freedom’. There is a powerful strain of rebellious individualism in English socialism which helped to create a politics of liberty, virtue and democracy and a vast popular movement of voluntary collectivism, cooperativism and mutual self-improvement. English socialism shares antecedents with Toryism but it differs from it in one significant way. It was a militant defence of a common life, and of individual labour and creativity against the unaccountable power of capital and against the usurpation of the state. Its desire to conserve the integrity of the individual placed it in conflict with the class structure of property rights and power. Capitalism unbound was the enemy of the people and of individual self-realisation. The struggle for liberty was a struggle for democracy, not for paternalism and an organic society where each knew his place.
In this post-crash era, in the wake of corporate-driven globalisation, Labour needs to develop a politics of belonging and a reform of capital that draws on the traditions of a common life. It must, in a literal sense, go out to the people and once again find its place as an organising force in the life of our country, from the cities to the market towns and the villages. England is being sold by the pound and in places like Dover, the Forest of Dean, Liverpool and Billingsgate Market people from all walks of life are organising together to reclaim it for the common good.
This article is the February edition of Progress magazine reading group article. If you’d like to set up a local reading group to discuss this and the other articles in the reading groups series then you can find them all here.
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