One Nation Under Review
Think of how the Scottish Labour Party is conducting itself in the independence debate, and so far it’s not a life-enhancing experience. Voices like Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar try to tap into the more poisoned wells of political emotion, by rendering Uncle Salmond and his weel-kent government as “dictatorial”, “not to be trusted” and “not a democracy in the usual sense”.
Those on the “Yes” side (whether SNP supporters, or otherwise aligned) could easily be sanguine about this abuse, indeed might be minded to encourage it. Who knows – anent 2011’s Subwaygate – what useful lumps of sheer bampottery and raw ugliness are yet to be gifted to us?
Turn your attention to Labour at Westminster, however – and particularly towards the review process chaired by Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas – and a much more fragrant discourse can be found. “One Nation Labour”, launched by Ed Miliband at the last UK party conference, is the brand name for a repositioning of UK Labour’s policy platform, in readiness for the 2015 General Election. Behind it teem academics, consultants and ideas-merchants, steadily fashioning a new diadem of political jargon to place upon their leader’s rather goofy head.
I’ve just read the recent One Nation Labour ebook, which is a useful compilation of short papers edited by Cruddas. It’s a weird read for a Scottish independista. The infamous Steve Bell cartoon about Salmond and the referendum question is only an untrammeled expression of the metropolis’s anxiety and perplexity about Scotland, rather more sophisticatedly expressed in these pages.
First off, I have to say that I’ve been in dialogue with London Labourites (not the same as Westminster Labourites) for about 20-odd years, since the days of Marxism Today, Red Wedge, New Times, Demos (where I was once an associate in the 2000s), and latterly Compass (at whose conferences I’ve spoken twice).
I like them. I like their thirst for ideas, partly driven by the commercial and migratory tumult, the institutional and academic power, of a truly global city. Many of them are working-class hyper-chancers of a type very familiar to me. They’re trying to apply their media and analytical skills to the democratic capture of an absurd Gothic ruin, caked in the patina of Empire and Monarchy, which seems to temper the idealism of anyone who dares enter.
I think they’re crazy, but at least they’re sincere. As I sit in Commons rooms they’ve hired out, the contradiction between the fevered neologism of their talk, and the Hogwartian flummery of their surroundings, is sometimes too poignant for words.
One Nation Labour contains many I’ve seen at these events – Maurice Glasman, Tristam Hunt, Tariq Modood, Hilary Cottam – and it thrums with the usual urgency of social-democratic political discourse. “Durable alliances” have to be “brokered”; “capacity for electoral success” has to be “built”. About 50 percent of the language, I would say, is more about cutting a fine jib in the committee rooms, by showing a mastery of “Labour traditions updated for new conditions”, than necessarily the most acute kind of political strategy.
Most of the rest of it, I’d have to be honest, is only a mild update of the kind of thinking that Geoff Mulgan and Martin Jacques pioneered with Demos, and which provided the underpinning of New Labour. They still presume a tension between “economic dynamism” and “social cohesion”, ameliorated by “networks” and “mutuals”. That is, the search is on for some kind of community cushioning (it’s now called “relational welfare”) to soften the blows that financial globalisation has laid, and will keep laying, on ex-industrial areas in these islands.
“Education, education, education” wasn’t enough to equip worker-citizens to forge the good life, in the face of the shrapnel-laced whirlwind of neo-liberalism (which New Labour partly made worse, through its own deregulatory zeal). And occasionally, a moment of understanding breaks through the collective murmuring in this volume – that New Labour entirely blew it, in terms of squaring this circle. “We may wish otherwise, but the UK’s largest occupational category is shop assistant, not engineer”, writes Tess Lanning. And who’s to blame for that? Mandelson, intensely comfortable with the filthy rich? All that talk of shifting to service economies that just “live on thin air”?
What is genuinely surreal, though, is to read One Nation Labour from the perspective of a left-green supporter of Scottish independence. That is, as someone hoping that the social-democratic/democratic-socialist consensus of recent Scottish society, continuously expressed for decades, can finally get the statist tools to make itself a reality.
In an ideal world, you’d think the One Nationeers would draw inspiration from the steady re-assembling of the “common good” (or “commonweal” as Salmond would call it) that successive Scottish Parliaments have turned into policy – allowing the SNP to present itself, in the 2011 election, as a defender of gains secured by previous administrations.
But sadly not. This is a much more refined nervousness than that reflected by the Bell cartoon. Scotland lurks in the margins of these texts, a rogue nation that basically refutes the “One Nation” concept Cruddas hopes will assemble a majority in 2015. And it’s pretty explicit that the “One Nation” to be captured is, actually, England. Take this from Tristan Hunt:
Building an authentic story of national renewal in a time of fragmenting identities and where the political challenge – for Labour, bluntly, the South – diverges from the main public policy challenge of rebalancing the economy and spreading wealth more evenly (i.e. to the North) will be extremely difficult. [my emphasis]
One might suggest “impossible”, Tristan. If Gordon Brown couldn’t make a new Unionism hegemonic, how will Oor Ain Ed? An interesting piece by Karel Williams and Sukdhev Johal, on what Northern English regional councils can teach Westminster, lowers expectations even further:
We should not expect too much of the good intentions of Ed Miliband and Labour’s Policy review. Because when the economy isn’t working, Gouldite calculations about swing voters and electoral coalitions inhibit the adoption of challenging and divisive policies for the common good which will never poll well in Worcester or Luton. [my emphasis]
In another essay, John Denham MP clearly believes that One Nation Labour should be stealing the Coalition’s “localism” clothes, speaking to “our tradition of tackling problems for ourselves, not as subcontracting partners of a centralised state”. Do you think this sounds like Burke’s “little platoons”, composed of self-reliant, free-born Englishmen? The next line would suggest so: “Empowering local institutions can be the story of English renewal within a strong Union”.
The most clear-eyed account of the real nation at stake in One Nation Labour is from Michael Kenny, author of the forthcoming The Politics of English Nationhood. “As it becomes ever clearer that devolution is more like a slowly turning ratchet than a stable settlement, the Westminster Parliament is evolving into an English one, at least when it comes to domestic matters”, writes Kenny – and this will be the case whether the indy referendum serves up a “Yes” or a “No” vote. Anticipating the latter result, Kenny concludes:
contrary to its darkest fears, there is every reason to think that Labour can adapt to a Union which incorporates a new English settlement, including greater powers for its leading cities, city-regions and local authorities, and a greater sense of cultural recognition for the English.
What is genuinely interesting in this volume is the real sense that English non-metropolitan/regional identity, particularly in the North, is steadying itself for a constitutional push for more self-government. Those of us agitating for “Yes” might conclude, along with Billy Bragg, that an independent Scotland could well be the disruptive event which makes the rise of the North an inevitability, than something to be frittered away in the corridors of Westminster, desperately hoping to be “done” with constitutionalism at some point.
And it’s helpful to see Kenny nail the myth that Scottish independence is an act of disloyalty within the Labour movement, condemning the English masses to permanent Tory rule:
The widely held assumption on the left that Labour cannot win in England and therefore needs Scotland to secure a parliamentary majority is greatly exaggerated. Labour has won elections for the most part when it has secured a majority of seats in England. Elections in which Scottish MPs have been decisive are in fact relatively rare. There have been none since 1945 in which Scottish MPs have turned a Conservative majority into a Labour government or vice versa. Moreover, Labour would have won, if with a reduced majority, in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005, without its Scottish MPs. An exaggerated fear of the Conservative inclination of the largest country in the Union has become a damaging mental habit in Labour circles.
But I don’t want to end on an ungracious note. As Jon Wilson concludes the volume, there is “a change in political style” involved here:
Thatcherism treated people as calculating consumers who weighed the short-term costs and benefits of every action (including voting) for themselves. It’s the way of interacting with the world that created the crash. That attitude still infects our political and economic institutions. It saturates our current mode of retail politics. Politics has become the science of ‘delivering’ of packages and projects for individual consumers instead of the art of discovering what we can do together.
A sad little passage. Between “Thatcherism”, “the world that created the crash”, and “our current mode of retail politics”, New Labour’s role and relation to each of these tendencies mysteriously disappears. Perhaps impossible, and too painful, to be honest about those years.
But it’s nice to read a softer, less stats-driven, less managerial, more relationship-oriented and more activist version of a Labour politics again. Though there are enough clacking Ballsians in this volume – fashioning differently-shaped hoops of “conditional welfare” for the poor to jump through – to remind you of Hunt’s “extreme difficulty” in making any of this sound authentic.
To conclude, I suppose I should also be asking for some of this occasionally thoughtful mutualism to replace the fervid eruptions of Scottish Labour, ever keen to reveal the cloven hoof behind the tartan trews of civic nationalism. It’s a real challenge, this modern democratic governance thing. How do we arrange a fair, sustainable, prosperous polity, facing the internal challenges of health, age, well-being and resource-use, and the external challenges of emerging economics, exponential climate change and the mobility of populations? All minds on deck, etc, etc.
But I doubt we’ll get to that discussion, on this side of the event-horizon in late 2014. A shame. If not to be permanently worn – they block out the sunshine, rare enough up here – you should keep your tin helmets to hand, at least. Who knows what’ll come down next?