The Labour party must stand with the labour interest – and that means embracing Brexit, writes Jonathan Rutherford
Brexit has exposed the cultural and political divisions within the Labour party and its coalition, and it has confounded it. But Brexit is a profound moment in the history of our country and it offers Labour the opportunity to change and recast itself as a nation builder for the labour interest. By doing so it can transcend its cultural divisions and regain its credibility as an opposition and a government in waiting.
The era of liberal dominance is ending. Liberal market economics is discredited and in retreat. The progressive politics of the New Democrats and New Labour which defined the centre-left for a generation can no longer build a winning coalition. The moral relativism and virtue signaling of the social liberal left has contributed to its political decline. Progressive politics has been dominated by the market and the state: more of one or less of the other. It has had little to say about the cultural inheritance, relationships, and institutions that bind people together in society. The current party leadership is a reaction against the failure of progressive politics but it compounds everything that has gone wrong with it.
Today a liberal progressive culture is concentrated in the globally connected big cities, in parts of the public sector, and amongst the professional classes where the progressive parties retain their strength. Here there is talk of a progressive alliance. But it is a minority interest, not a national one. Outside these class fractions, in the towns and country at large, its moral and political priorities are at odds with what matters in people’s lives. The Brexit vote has defined this class cultural fault line and it threatens to break up Labour’s already fractured electoral coalition.
The Labour party’s historic function has been to redress the balance of power between capital and labour for the common good. But it is no longer the party of the labour interest, and it neither knows any longer what the labour interest is nor what it wants. Radically weakened, it must respond to both its own collapse and to Brexit, the country’s biggest challenge since 1940.
Brexit will define the future of Britain. Theresa May’s government will struggle to achieve her strategic vision of a democratic, self-governing trading nation for the just about managing class. Instead of a Brexit cabinet the Conservatives have three ministers at odds with one another. Instead of a Brexit government they have a single department for Exiting the European Union. The Conservative government cannot rise to this historic moment. Unfortunately for the country, neither can Labour.
Labour failed to read the collapse of the post war welfare settlement. It is failing again to understand Brexit and the end of liberal political dominance. Each time the right has beaten it. More ambitious, more curious, more intellectually confident, better funded and organised, the intellectual right has been attuned to popular sentiments. Creative energy lies with the populist right. The left has been reduced to the enthusiasm of thousands who do not understand the millions.
Britain and Europe
In this end lies the beginning. In 1944, Harold Laski announced, ‘the nation state is over … economically it is the continent that counts’. In 1956, Britain suffered the humiliation of Suez. The empire was breaking up. Britain had lost its role in the world. Its government was humiliated, and its elites feared decline and irrelevance. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community committed to ‘ever closer union’. Britain tried to negotiate a free trade agreement, De Gaulle stopped it.
Britain set up its own European Free Trade Association, then abandoned it. The EEC promised a better prospect for its great power status. Macmillan applied to join in 1961. De Gaulle rejected him. Harold Wilson renewed the application. Britain, he explained, is a faded beauty who needs a go-ahead young man with prospects. De Gaulle said no. By 1970, de Gaulle had resigned and Britain was urgent to join. It was to be membership at any price. Terms of entry were tough. Sir Con O’Neill, chief official negotiator, recalls, ‘none of its policies were essential to us; many of them were objectionable’. It was the only remedy for Britain’s decline. We were a reluctant and argumentative member.
In this beginning lies the end. The same elite anxieties about decline and failing economic prowess. The same ambivalence about surrendering national sovereignty in return for global influence. The chronic lack of confidence of the political class revealed once more. The people of England have shown more faith in themselves and their country than their governing class has. For this they have been accused of naivety, ignorance and misjudgment.
Laski was wrong. The nation state, through treaties, partnerships and alliances, remains the best means of managing globalisation in the interests of its population. The country needs a Brexit cabinet and Brexit government to take Britain out of the EU, forge a new relationship with Europe, and lead a new era of economic, political and constitutional reform.
In 1940, Churchill won against appeasement on both the left and right because Clement Attlee and Labour supported his war ministry. The shires and the working class formed a patriotic coalition. Attlee understood that the labour interest and the national interest were indivisible. This insight and Labour’s contribution to the war effort gave it national authority and a reputation for competence that ensured its historic victory in 1945.
In 1945, Labour finished the job of the 1906 Liberal government. The curve of Labour’s support which started in 1900, dips in 1931, rises up to 1951 in a popular class coalition, and then begins the decline we experience today toward a nemesis in 2020. To survive Labour has to reconstitute the labour interest in these new sociological times. It must build a new national coalition and bring together a diverse range of occupations, classes and age groups in the cause of family, work, and country. It must begin the difficult task of creating a sense of national community and renewal in a time of radical uncertainty.
It has three objectives. The first is to reconstitute a British sovereignty and restore control of our borders and lawmaking. It means ending the free movement of labour and bringing immigration under democratic control, a case Tom Kibasi makes well. The second is to improve social integration and inclusion by spreading political and economic power to people where they live and work through the constitutional and political reform of the union and its governance. The Brexit vote was an English vote and so the renovation of self-government in England should be a priority in a more federal UK.
The third objective is to begin reforming and strengthening the structures and institutions of the national economy – corporate governance, banking and investment, vocational education – in the interests of working people. Britain needs a new economic settlement. It means grasping post-Brexit opportunities, for example, negotiating trade deals that incorporate the labour interest, taking on entrenched interests, and enacting redistributive fiscal policies.
Culture and identity
The shires and what is now an ex-industrial working class have once again united in an English coalition to take Britain out of the EU. Labour is confronted with the challenge of culture and identity. Culture shapes the political. A credible political economy and leadership might be the answer to rebuilding Labour’s coalition and bridging its deep divisions, but to reach people you have to go through culture.
Is culture beyond Labour’s political comprehension? Labour recognises and values minority ethnic identities, but when it hears its mainstream working class vote talk about the loss of culture and identity it changes the subject and talks about economics. It reaches for technocratic instruments to repair a breakdown in the meaning of life. And despite the rise of English identity Labour can hardly bring itself to recognise the English and the emerging polity of England. It has left that to the right wing populism of the United Kingdom Independence party.
The populist right is filling the space Labour has vacated. It understands the importance of patriotism and a common shared culture. It understands that those who feel their inherited culture is under threat will make sacrifices to safeguard it. It does not treat people as victims but invites them to stand up for their country – against the social disruption of immigration and what it argues is the civilisational threat of Islam.
The reaction to the fear of cultural loss has been compounded again and again by the failure of Labour to understand and counter it with an alternative national story. Culture and shared traditions provide people with protection and security. People who voted to leave the EU want to ‘take back control’ because they feel that something has been taken away from them that they will never get back. This sense of ‘something lost’ extends deep into the Remain vote which shares many of the same misgivings about the EU.
These are the moderate majority of mainstream England. They believe in England and in Britain. They are not supporters of Ukip. The party that reflects their own values is Labour, not the Tories. But they do not recognise the party as their own and for the moment they will give May the benefit of the doubt. If she fails, it is not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour they will turn to, but the populist right. They want change. But they want change for stability and security, not the change Labour thinks they should want.
Cultures absorb new ideas, identities and ethnicities. They are dynamic and elastic. They change and adapt. But if the economy that sustains a culture collapses it can start to decay and fall apart. Globalisation and deindustrialization have threatened such collapses across regions of the country. Factories have been exported, workers have been imported, ways of life have disapeared. When this happens the new threatens to overwhelm what once felt permanent. The identities of the members of the culture become vulnerable to negative reinterpretation by other more powerful cultures. The things that matter to them are rubbished. The dynamic was stark in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
As the ties that bind people together loosen they are brought into question and they become political. Labour did not confront this cultural problem and now it cannot cope with the political one. The electoral consequences of this failure are broadly understood. But the nature of the challenge is not.
Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation. With a credible leadership, a nation building politics that incorporates the cultural and the economic is the only means by which it can bridge the divisions within its coalition and reconnect to the country. It is the only feasible way for Labour to become an effective opposition that can hold the government to account, and once again have the credibility of a government in waiting. It is also its patriotic duty.
Jonathan Rutherford is an academic, and was a member of the independent inquiry into why Labour lost. He also worked on the party’s policy review 2012-14.
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