Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Demos election inquest

Demos is quickly out of the blocks after last week's local and European election results, rounding up as many Labour thinkers as they could in a new edited collection published online tonight 'What Next for Labour? Ideas for the progressive left'

Stuart White and myself are both among the contributors, as is Fabian Executive member Jessica Asato who is acting director of Progress.

Download it all here.

Demos director Richard Reeves writes that

So what now? What can Labour do? Four themes run through much of the collection. Labour should, the contributors variously argue, be more democratic, more pluralist, more social, and more liberal. introduction

Of course the contributors also disagree about a great deal but it is striking how often those arguments are made from various directions. I argue that the scars of past civil wars have created an excessive fear of open political debate, even though there is no deep ideological rift within the Labour party today.

So I agree with Phil Collins, Chair of Demos, in his declaration that

‘there should be a moratorium on the divisions of Blairite and Brownite, Old and New Labour, left and right, individualist and collectivist. All of them replay ancient blood-feuds that don’t matter and none of them will yield anything interesting.’

Indeed Jon Cruddas for the "left" makes a similar point well in his defence of James Purnell's contribution to Labour's future ideas agenda in stressing the futility of a factional debate around the trenchlines of left and right of a generation or two ago and the need for Labour to be a broad and pluralist progressive coalition of ideas.

"I think there are people on the right and on the left in the Labour party who are almost functionally anticipating a real shakedown, a factional fight to the death, blood on the floor and all of that. I don't accept that, I think it should be incumbent on all of us after whatever happens to work out a protocol in the party that can rebuild it as a coalition.

Collins also suggests that the new debates will be more nuanced than a shorthand of pro- or anti-state would acknowledge.

‘The intriguing axis in Labour politics will be quite different. There will be, on one side of the argument, those that genuinely want to disperse power and, on the other, those that think that central government is usually the answer. The distinction is not hard and fast. Those who want to make people powerful do not want to give up the power of the state. On the contrary, left-liberals are keenly aware that the power of the state is a potent part of their armoury — It’s just not their weapon of choice.’

Richard Reeves adds on this point that:

The divide may not in fact be quite as great as it appears. Neal Lawson, who writes most fiercely against the pro-market individualism of the ‘Blairites’, also suggests that ‘social-ism should be defined as the ability of people to exert the maximum control over their lives’ — a sentiment with which radical liberals would warmly agree.

Katwala and Marquand strike a middle course between the liberal and communitarian positions, with Katwala suggesting that a focus on more equal life chances, or the ‘fight against fate’ combines liberal ends and social democrat means: ‘This argument also has the potential to fuse together liberal and social democratic agendas: if autonomy is the liberal end, then the social democratic concern is for the distribution of autonomy.’

That middle course was also a theme of the recent Collins and Reeves' own pamphlet on The Liberal Republic, as I noted in reviewing it for Liberal Conspiracy.

Labour has everything to gain and nothing to fear from a much more open debate of the party's fundamental purposes.

A lack of ideas is a much greater threat than an '80s style ideological civil war.

And, despite Collins and Reeves' earlier liberal dismissal of the Fabian tradition, I fear that any minor think-tank feud between Demos and the Fabians is firmly off too.


Zio Bastone said...

Nanni Balestrini had an interesting novel (I furiosi) out of and about Italian football violence. Once you give up the ideology implicit in ‘political’ violence (of which Italy had a great deal) then thumping people gets easier. You don’t have to think any more. Instead you just carry on thumping.

Where Harold Wilson’s now dated ‘moral crusade’ was about winning in order actually to do something, the essence of New Labour had been about saying and doing something (which could, in effect, have been anything) purely in order to win. Whilst the Conservatives’ discovery of ideology through Thatcherism seems to me about the political emergence of a new social subject, New Labour’s deracination was precisely the reverse. Hence the adoption of neo-liberalism from the Right, for example, not by conversion but brought about through an intellectual collapse in which the means now justified the end.

Interesting in that context to note how Richard Reeves simply sleepwalks through this sort of issue in the course of his introduction, conjoining Darling’s fatuous, managerialist comments about ‘vision’ with Wilson’s concept of purpose. It is simply not sensible (as Reeves, in fact, does say) that, ‘Successful crusades require a clear ideological purpose, an inspiring leadership and an accurate map of the destination,’ as though the future were some sort of flatpack, complete with exploded diagrams, and the business of politics were some version of Fascism Lite. Surely the point about ideology isn’t that it absorbs the future, but rather that it is in dialogue with the present and that it is out of such dialogue that the future starts to emerge.

And now, I suppose, I shall read the rest of this report. Maybe it will get better, though I can't say I am sanguine.

Robert said...

Welfare reforms, yes I think we have a lot to learn like it will be better to vote Tory.

Zio Bastone said...

As a whole, the Demos document is actually somewhat better that I’d expected. Even though it does still read at times like traffic congestion as discussed by a hole in the road. Even though the possibility that Labour is dead and New Labour now irrelevant to the wider context is largely unconsidered.

And there are some marvellous local delights. Philip Collins’ distaste for ‘ancient blood feuds’, as though he were Rodney King on the eve of the LA riots. Rushanara Ali talking fatuously about ‘the true sources of our renewable energy’, as though greening up the rhetoric involved some practical good sense. And of course Tessa Jowell, predictably half witted. I particularly enjoyed Jowell’s comment that ‘Labour has cited Aneurin Bevan’s injunction that ‘the purpose of getting power is to give it away’ rather more frequently than we have practiced it,’ as though New Labour had not after all been in many respects (devolution excepted) about the redistribution of power to unaccountable bodies and about the substitution of real individual power within the grasp of the citizen by its tawdry imitation.

Sunder Katwala said...


I always appreciate your cogent and sceptical critiques - including the talent for metaphor -though it tends more to the pessimism of the intellect rather than the optimism of the will.

So am interested you found more in the collection than you anticipated, albeit that the bar was probably set low.... where do you see any green roots of thought for the political left, whether Labour or otherwise? How might they be taken forward politically and by who?

Zio Bastone said...


I’ll accept the charge of pessimism with good grace. So what green shoots do I see? Or at least evidence that the land is at last being ploughed or that ploughs are being dusted off?

Well it was nice to see John Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford quoting Gramsci in order to introduce a wish that included the two words ‘movement’ and ‘hegemony’. And I agree (as they go on to say more or less) that political systems fail inevitably to account for the sheer richness of the individual, which is very Frankfurt School. (Cf Arendt on Labour, Work and Activity, for example.) Leaders, parties, movements are really the vectors of change, in other words, and not its primary creators. So that it’s changes in the hegemony, something one can work for as well as within, that cut (as they say) right across the existing political settlement, not re-branding or repackaging by any single party and certainly not looking towards Obama as the prototype for some sort of progressive comeback, that are the hope.

Nor was it daft of Philip Blond to summon up Rousseau, under whose shade libertarians from the post Thatcherite Right and those from the libertarian Left whose ideas were perverted by Thatcher and suppressed under New Labour can find some common ground.

Even Jessica Asato’s glancing reference to producer capture is at least useful both as metaphor for New Labour’s corruption of earlier party structures (see above) and as a partial description of how economic reality has altered, assisted by New Labour, over the past 12 years, though she goes on to muddle the point.

And so on.

And yet, looking now beyond the Demos document, whereas someone like Dominic Grieve has demonstrated (following the 7 July bombings and subsequently) a real appreciation of the mutual alterity of all the various communities which make up Britain today, Gordon Brown maintains instead a sort of toned down version of the cricket test (drawn from Roger Scruton) whilst earlier this year Ed Balls, in probably the nastiest single smear since Smethwick in ’64, referred to Grieve on Any Questions as ‘a friend of terrorists’ or something to that effect.

Which is a measure, I think, of what the problem is and where the problem lies at the level of the parties as they are now. And one of several reasons why Punch and Judy just doesn’t work.

If, that is, it ever did.