So, [seven] MPs have left the Labour Party to form an Independent Group. Is this the beginning of the end? Can Labour escape from this and its Brexit dilemmas, or is there no way out?
63% of Labour’s vote in 2017 came from remain supporters, and 37% from leave supporters, and if it is to win the next election, Labour has to keep these voters and attract others from both camps. The polls – and the [seven] MPs who have just walked out – say it cannot do so if it backs Brexit. Other MPs fear opposing Brexit will cut the party’s emotional tie with its working class base, damaging the party in a more fundamental way. Labour may not be a class-based party in London any more, but in many parts of the North it is.
Only a new narrative and set of ideas can square this circle, and that means more than ending austerity. The 2017 manifesto was fine as far as it went, but it did not capture the public imagination. Nor did it suggest a larger purpose in the way the Beveridge Report and the 1945 manifesto did. Nor did it offer an account of how the world works and how this needs to change. In short: more vision needed.
It is orthodoxy that climate change and inequality are our biggest problems, and the mainstream debate is not about whether but how to address them. The centre right and the ‘Blairite’ centre left – including the [seven] MPs – think that these problems can be solved with a mix of regulation, nudge, tax and spend. The more radical position, adopted by the Labour Party but increasingly heard in academia, think tanks and even parts of business, is that structural change, planning and state backed initiative also have a role. While this is new thinking, Labour has found it difficult to make the case without being cast as a throwback to the 1970s.
To address this – and indeed to make the changes possible were it to win power – Labour needs to pay more attention to ideology. An unfashionable word in Britain, it refers to a set of ideas about how the world should and does work, and which empowers those who share it. It both legitimises and helps co-ordinate the myriad actions across many fields of activity required for significant change. Since the latter includes change in business and finance, the ideology will have to be shared by progressives in those fields.
Ideology is a matter of emotions as well as thoughts. We are not in a revolutionary situation, but radical reformers will need to share the feeling that historian Crane Brinton has attributed to revolutionaries: “that there is something in all men better than their present fate.” It is this conviction that has swept aside crumbling elite ideologies in the past – in revolutions, in Britain in 1945 and in the early 1960s and 1980s – and perhaps it will do so again now.
This does not mean advocating some form of ideal society. Even if the left could agree on such a thing, its ideal would end up being contrasted with the existing system and in this way lock it into the orthodox narrative. Its ideas would be framed by neo-classical economics, and its idealism seen as a protest.
Instead Labour’s starting point should be something simpler and less controversial: the kind of lives we all want to lead. This is not a rejection of social action – on the contrary – but it is a reframing, and an affirmation of the values motivating that action. Fortunately, there is a whole body of knowledge about what makes for a good life: psychology tells us it is largely a matter of good relationships – with friends, family, work and communities – while wellbeing economics tells us about the conditions which foster these. And we know that climate change and inequality present some of the most serious threats: this starting point could not be more relevant to the big problems any political programme has to address.
Based on this ethical starting point and this evidence, the left can construct a convincing story about the role of democratic collective action. In doing so it can rekindle a 1940s style optimism that if men and women of good will – from business, government, third sector, wherever – collaborate, we really can solve our big problems.
And this in turn will help the Labour party move on from its dilemma. Yes, the European Union is a tool that can improve people’s lives, but no, that does not mean that the emotional connection with voters needs to be broken. On the contrary, Labour will have an ideology that starts with the reality and complexities of people’s felt experience.
Charles Seaford is the author of ‘Why Capitalists Need Communists: the Politics of Flourishing’ published by Palgrave. See https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319987545. Readers get a 30% discount by entering the discount code Seaford2019.
By Charles Seaford