Labour cannot claim to govern in the interests of working people while pledging to disregard their wishes, argues Jerome Neil
Rarely in the Labour party’s history has it seemed as peripheral to the national discourse as it does now. A recent YouGov poll put the party on 24 per cent, a staggering 16 points behind the Conservatives, four points behind Labour’s worst post-war general election performance in 1983 – and it would be optimistic to presume Labour’s current standing will not decay as it did in the last parliament. Jeremy Corbyn trails Theresa May among every demographic and, perhaps as a consequence, Labour currently does not ‘own’ a lead in a single policy issue – not even health. The north of England, once considered the party’s heartland, defied Labour’s – if not its leader’s – best efforts to keep Britain in the European Union, and the United Kingdom Independence party now poses a real threat. The concessions necessary to woo back these voters leave Labour’s ‘Remain’-voting metropolitan centres aghast. Reconciling the two seems impossible. Retaining relevance in a post-Brexit age seems more impossible still. But disavowing communitarianism will only hasten Labour’s descent and, worse, make it a liberal party in all but name.
The thread that bound the motley collection of trade unionists, liberals and Fabians that formed the Labour party together was a commitment to the improvement and defence of the living and working conditions of the British people. Their rejection of failed extra-parliamentary means in favour of ‘Clause One socialism’ is a cautionary tale to those that seek to relegate Labour to a ‘social movement’. Similarly, the failure of the Social Democratic party should give those that agitate for a split between Labour’s warring wings reason to reflect. Only with a renewed dedication to the communitarianism of Labour’s most successful leaders – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair – will the party hold its fragile electoral coalition together and hope to return to government.
Few Labour party members cannot recall the great achievements of the famed 1945 government – chief among them Britain’s beloved National Health Service – but too often we forget the plinth upon which those achievements were built. Attlee’s own military service, plus his role in the national government – and the service of ministers such as Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps and Arthur Greenwood – put all fears about Labour’s patriotism to the sword. Without a political project with patriotism at its heart – such as that pursued by Attlee from the streets of Stepney to the steps of Downing Street – the conditions for a redistributive government to succeed cannot be created.
Again, the great liberal reforms of the Wilson government are a source of great pride for Labour party activists, but their delivery is owed, in part, to Wilson’s willingness to tackle an issue that devils Labour to this day: immigration. Only by restricting immigration to the Commonwealth did Wilson deal with a problem that threatened to defenestrate the then-Labour government, in doing so putting the concerns of socially conservative Labour voters at ease, if perturbing the liberals in the party’s ranks. This was an early example of the ‘permission politics’ that Progress director Richard Angell has written of – exhibiting a willingness to meet the electorate’s concerns head-on, not asserting the primacy of your own concerns onto them. Only by being willing to do so again will Labour earn the electorate’s trust – and the capital to expend on the liberal reforms of the future.
In a similar vein, it was the Christian socialism of Blair, the focus on responsibilities as well as rights, and his commitment to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ that resonated with socially conservative voters across the spectrum and helped New Labour deliver unprecedented majorities. The discomfort with which discussing tackling crime is now met with in certain Labour circles – and its complete absence from the party’s platform since 2007 – highlights the extent to which the party has become tin-eared to the concerns of voters it once innately understood.
That Labour has forgotten these lessons is clear in its muddled response to Brexit. Those that call for it to ignore the result of the referendum and defy the will of the British people invoke the worst excesses of Whiggish paternalism. Labour cannot purport to govern in the interests of working people while pledging to disregard their wishes, as well as their experience of immigration – no matter how uncomfortable they may make Labour activists feel. To succumb to these siren calls and become a party of the ‘48 per cent’ would break Labour’s compact with its historic communities and drive them into May and Paul Nuttall’s waiting arms. Were a winning coalition built around the 48 per cent even possible, the abandonment of Labour’s socially conservative voters would not be by any means desirable. It would represent an abdication of the party’s historic responsibility to stand up for those communities, to help them manage economic and social change and equip them with the tools to control their own destinies.
Only a patriotic Labour party associated not with an internecine obsession with ideological purity, but committed to bread-and-butter politics, can bridge the gap between Britain’s social conservatives and liberals. Whether we will see a Labour government again is unclear, but there are glimmers of hope – members of parliament such as Rachel Reeves, Stephen Kinnock, Caroline Flint and Siobhain McDonagh strike this fine balance, willing and able to engage with Labour’s socially conservative voters on immigration, welfare and Brexit. In doing so, they keep alive the communitarian tradition that has always paved our party’s way to Downing Street and remind us all that Labour’s purpose is to do good, not feel good. Perhaps with time, it may do good once again.
Jerome Neil is events officer and editorial assistant at Progress. He tweets at @JeromeNeil
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