Wednesday 20 April 2011

Understanding the conservatism of the left

Blue Labour voices advocate that "Labour's future is conservative". But what does this mean - and does it signal a shift to the right, or a rediscovery of the values of the left? In this guest post, Anthony Painter, co-author of the important recent Searchlight Fear and Hope report, unpicks the emerging politics of identity and ideas, and argues that much will depend on thinking through how the left understands conservatism, identity and belonging, if it is to engage with insecurity but offer a politics of hope.


The debate about Labour's future is in a terrible state of confusion. On the one side we have the ascendent blue Labourites or what is perhaps the more instructive tag of the communitarian left - which has mainly inherited Blairite love of authority, with an added layer of tradition, now combined with a critique of its liberal economics. In their mistrust of the state they have found common ground with 'purple bookers' or the old (or new?) progressives. Somewhere floating in the middle are the liberal social democrats. A caricatured Brownism has been their inheritance and they are struggling to establish a clear voice as a result.

Elements of these three contenders for ideological supremacy are pro- and anti- state, authoritarian and liberal, interventionist and light touch, reformist and traditionalist, nationalist and internationalist. Apart from despair at Coalition austerity, there is little by way of common thread, no shared analysis, shifting allegiances, with no dominant argument holding sway. In a sense, this diversity, a full spectrum critique of state, market and Labour's approach to civil society, is a good thing. However, unless this becomes a coherent political story with vision and policies attached then it is seminar politics rather than the politics of winning and using power effectively.

One word more than other has contributed to this sense of confusion: conservative. Like all conceptual words it acquires a number of different meanings. In normal political discourse, a social conservative is someone who is fiercely defensive of 'traditional values.' At its edges it can become prejudicial. This is the deeply stereotyped 'conservatism' of which Lynsey Hanley writes in The Guardian today.

But this is not the conservatism which Labour's intellectual tribes are debating. When she dismisses the past as 'shit', Hanley touches on a real aspect of the debate. It is about change, loss, security, order, nostalgia, human relations: protecting ways of life, communities of meaning, and understanding the meaning that humans need. Though it most definitely does not dismiss the past, or the present.

Equally, it's not about turning Labour into a respectable version of the BNP, or a kind of non-EU obsessed UKIP. That would be crazy, wrong, dismissive of everything the party stands for, its traditions, and you could count me out. This conservatism is more a philosophical disposition that instinctively understands the value of the things that people actually value, and seeks to moderate change - economic and social - in a way that can be accommodated in the lives that people actually lead. Is fabian gradualism not an expression of this instinct?

And it's not just a working-class thing at all: we all have a resistance to change at some level. What is the left if not about respecting people's lives, seeing nobility in them and acting together to both protect and empower? Is this not the essence of labourism?

Just as blue Labour was gathering pace, the Fear and Hope report co-written by Nick Lowles and myself was also published. For some, this may have added to the confusion. Its top-line conclusion is that British politics is structured around a blend of identity and class politics where economic insecurity interacts with cultural and social anxieties to create a refracted pluralism. It is this political fragmentation that makes electoral coalition formation so difficult. Our attitudes are so divided. The New Labour trick of identifying the biggest pile of potential voters then shifting there doesn't work in such a lumpy political landscape.

So even if Labour were to try to irresponsibly harvest social division as a 'populist' electoral strategy, it wouldn't work. There is a see-saw effect: what you'd gain to the right, you'd lose from the liberal left. While many of the findings of the report seem deeply concerning, eg the 60% who consider immigration to have been a bad thing for the country 'on the whole', scratching beneath the surface of the data reveals some more cause for optimism. 18% believe we should stop all immigration permanently but 61% believe that we should allow inward migration of skilled workers or skilled and unskilled workers who help the economy. Well, isn't that pretty much Labour's policy on immigration?

That isn't getting through of course. So there is something deeper going on. There is a pathway to hostility and enmity that can be seen in the report: first people feel that their life hasn't gone the way they expect, that can then become a pessimism about the future for both their families and themselves, and then, it can become refracted into a resentment of others. That's when UKIP and the BNP find fertile ground. A fascinating study by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham has found that the social base and attitude set of UKIP's 'core' (those who vote for it in general as well as european elections) is in many ways similar to the BNP. With both we are dealing with two aspects of the same phenomenon.

Labour's best strategy is not to patronise or dismiss these voters but pursue an agenda that creates real opportunities for all while respectfully agreeing to disagree when it comes to the politics of prejudice and scapegoating. More importantly it must understand what really counts in peoples lives - their family, the local school, their tax bill, a high quality local NHS service, real and status -giving work, less insecurity, new opportunities for their kids, their church, America's Top Model, and meet them there in order to gain entry to the conversation.

And that's the problem with where Labour is currently - it hasn't gained an invite to the conversation. It is tolerated rather than respected - it's hold your nose and vote politics. That hurts but that's the harsh reality.

If Labour can reestablish itself in the conversation then it can prevent any further drift towards non voting and create firewalls against hostility and enmity. Whatever the blue, purple and social democratic Labour debate settles on - and all have important contributions to make while none possesses the complete answer - it must never lose sight of where people actually are. Labour can only speak for people if it understands them first. A politics of despair assumes the worst while a politics of idealism forgets to double check its assumptions. Neither is satisfactory. Without hope Labour is politically bankrupt. Without realism it's politically irrelevant.

Anthony Painter is co-author with Nick Lowles of the recent Searchlight Educational Trust report Fear and Hope. This commentary represents his personal views, rather than those of Searchlight.

1 comment:

no longer anonymous said...

"That would be crazy, wrong, dismissive of everything the party stands for, its traditions, and you could count me out."

Tell that to Attlee who was a staunch monarchist and supporter of the House of Lords. Labour has always had a strong element of working class conservatism in its ranks. This is understandably embarrassing for its more liberal members in charge of the party.