Sunday 26 September 2010

We need an English Labour identity, argue Cruddas and Denham

"We have a Welsh Labour, we have a Scottish Labour, we don't have an English Labour, yet with devolution that will be a crunch question for us", said Jon Cruddas, responding to a similar call from John Denham for Labour to develop a confidence that it can have an English identity in England at a Fabian fringe on the topic 'Can Labour speak to England'.

Cruddas feared that the party had not connected to "visceral" issues of "sentiment, belonging and identity, nationhood and loss" - and that it would not do simply by addressing policy concerns, such as around housing or agency workers, without a richer account of its political identity and mission.

"At times, the Labour leadership contest this summer - equality and fairness sounded like one long John Rawls lecture. All of the hopey change stuff is very good but it isn't enough", said Cruddas. If the left could not find a popular and radical response to issues of identity and belonging it would fail to counter a visceral politics "which is creating in England an embryonic tea party from a populist nationalist right. If we don't do this, we will find that growing populist response to a profound sense of economic and social rupture, with deep cuts coming", he said.

Cruddas' comments won praise from the fringe floor in Manchester Town Hall from Red Tory Phillip Blond, who said it was the first "properly visionary" account of Labour's challenge to reconnect to people's sense of group identity in rebuilding a sense of political mission.

Denham said that debates over values and identity had lacked context, giving the example of how discussion of Britishness had alighted on tolerance, democracy and the rule of law - which were not distinctive - but it had lacked a sense of being rooted in the specific context of 'who we are' and how, historically, those values came to embedded in our society: "We need to ask too: why has that, in our context, produced our sense of fairness and our way of looking at the world?", said Denham.

Both Denham and Yvette Cooper argued that Labour should be confident that its values around fairness were more deeply connected to a British sense of fairness than those of any party, but Denham argued that there had been a failure to locate and root these in an progressive account of identity and history.

John Denham, developing the themes of his Fabian on England lecture this summer, also warned that reconnecting Labour to lost voters couldn't be done by studying micro-psephological trends:

"We can not do it by targetting selected groups of voters. The voters we lost are different. It would be a fatal flaw to over-analyse swing groups of voters and pitch a particular appeal to them".

Only an approach based on a broad appeal to values which speaks to the whole country would work, he said.

That needed to understand that Labour had lost touch with voters who found that its approach to the economy and the labour market had ended up breaching the central New Labour promise that those who played by the rules would get on.

"The political economy we had as New Labour needs to change", said Denham. "It was a labour market which offered few rewards and little fairness for many of those in work", stressing again that "people in the south, as elsewhere in the country, believe in fairness - but it is a tough, reciprocal sense of fairness: what you get out reflects what you put in".

Yvette Cooper said that it would be a mistake to think these were southern issues, or that the south was different. There was a bigger swing against Labour in Yorkshire and Humberside, where many of the same challenges applied.

"Labour's political identity in Yorkshire may well be stronger than in the south-east. It is more part of the cultural politics - and so the issues of identity are different in different regions and places".

"The real challenge for us is a psychological shift for us - to believe that we are of the south, that we belong in the south, that we can win in the south. We will not win in the south because the Coalition becomes unpopular. I am convinced of that. We will only win if people want to vote for us. If we do not as a party aspire to be the party that is the first party in the south, then we will not win anything, and we will gradually lose our ability to appeal across the country, as the whole country is tending to become more like the south", said Denham, speaking to the 'southern discomfort' challenge.

"what does a contributory welfare system look like for the 21st century; we can't just write it out because its too difficult".

Denham also said that an important and difficult issue of the balance of regional spending and taxation The three areas where Labour did worse have the lowest public spending per head of population, while it had done well in London where spending was higher.

"These are difficult questions and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But the gap between tax raised and money spent was greatest in the areas that Labour did worse".

Cruddas also said he had been reading Tony Blair's early 1994 speeches and that they were rich, engaging with "identity, community and belonging".

"By 2005, it had become a dystopian worldview of individual acquisition where you sink or swim. I think we shifted away from hope over that arc and journey of eleve years".


Mil said...

I agree with the need to connect with sentiment. The experience in the ex-Yugoslavia for example shows you can suppress such feelings for decades - but they will never disappear. Better to channel them productively than force them underground. The key issue of course is to channel them sensitively rather than allow them to fall into the hands of demagogues.

Or, indeed, force us into such acrobatic acts of triangulation that all common sense and justice are lost in the battle for media approval.

Newmania said...

The Labour Party hates England . How can you change what simply is Thats why it wanted to chop it into regions,sell it to the EU and dilute its ethnicity.

Alex said...

I have quite a bit of time for Cruddas, but here he edges onto the precise problem of his current stance, without actually realising it. Sure, one needs these visceral issues of sentiment and tap into a mood of moral reform and so on. But he is completely right, read Blair's speeches from the early 90s or from his book My Vision For A Young Country and you see precisely these kinds of languages come up repeatedly - don't forget he brought community into the modern political landscape in a major way. The problem is the end of it, and its reflection in actual policy was a rampant form of neoliberalism, the talk of community is window dressing that challenges the powerful not one jot. The same is true of Cameron today. And the same was true of David Milliband's stance which Cruddas got behind - while the rhetoric was in Cruddas territory and so were the move towards community organising (see the Keir Hardie lecture) the actual policies were fairly indistinguishable from Blair-era New Labour and in some instances the Government, not to mention his attitude towards organised labour (see the Labour leadership Question Time) and the war. One cannot rely any more on empty talk of values, but must make attempt to think institutions, laws and structures within and outside the state that embody these values of justice, equality, compassion, fraternity and so forth. Talking about values is cheap, sticking out your political neck to try and construct these values in the actual world is expensive - saying no to corporations rather than finger-waving, creating strong laws rather than voluntary codes, recognising and defending unions as a legitimate defence of those with limited power and the strikes which go with it, being prepared to replace internal markets with internal democracies and so forth. Right now, I don't see anyone doing that, yet.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BrianB said...

All the mainstream parties claim to be committed to decentralisation and localisation, and Jon Cruddas and some others in the Labour party are (rightly) worried that the party has nothing to say about England's distinctive identity and nothing to say to increasingly scratchy English nationalists increasingly drawn to the far right. No-one in the Labour party, or indeed in the other mainstream parties either, offers any answer to the West Lothian question.

The hippopotamus in this tense living-room is the failure to extend devolution to England. A few clear-sighted politicans at Westminster probably realise that once all four of the UK nations (ie including England) exercise extensive devolved powers, the UK becomes a federation -- and a necessary consequence of that is a massive transfer of powers from Westminster to the four national parliaments and governments, leaving the House of Commons (together with the successor to the House of Lords) and the Westminster government with only very limited functions -- basically foreign affairs, defence, and co-ordination of all-UK matters that transcend the borders of the four nations. It spells the end of the myth of the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament.

All this has a raft of significant consequences: a new parliament and government for England, a written constitution defining the powers of the two tiers, endowment of the Supreme Court with powers to interpret and enforce the federal constitution, transformation of the House of Lords into a federal Senate, negotiation of a framework for revenue allocation, and much more. It will take two decades at least to complete, with at least one Royal Commission, two Constitutional Conventions, several referendums, a Speaker's Conference, and extensive legislation. No wonder our timorous politicians shy away from it: too radical, too long-term, too difficult. The cowardly excuse is that there's no demand for it. But Labour's new leader says that politics is nothing if not about leadership.

There is no other way to address the numerous anomalies currently generated by our semi-federal, semi-unitary, grossly over-centralised, unfinished devolution process. Full devolution -- meaning federation -- is the key to decentralisation and localisation, both from Westminster to the four nations and within each of the four nations. Anything less is a patently inadequate Elastoplast that will fall off in the first hot shower. Let's just hope that Labour will be the first party to wake up to this challenge and to transform it into an opportunity. What about it, Jon? Is it too radical for you, Ed?