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Is Labour The Albatross Around The Neck Of Progressive Politics?
Joe Kennedy , May 11th, 2015 12:17

With the Labour party reeling from last week's General Election defeat, Joe Kennedy asks if the party rested on its post war laurels just as it kowtowed to neoliberalism, that force he argues is responsible for the 'shittification' of everything

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Sunday, May 10 2015: The left of the internet crackles with the recriminatory testiness of a relegated football team's dressing room, but you need the sense of communality for anchorage. Otherwise, the return of the Tories with a scarcely believable majority feels like being grabbed under the armpits and tossed into an oubliette of solipsistic rage.

The predominant issue splitting the left, both in the run-up to and the aftermath of the election, was the political and ethical thorniness of Labour. Some argued, often persuasively, that to vote for them had a strategic necessity if another five years of austerity were to be avoided: the necessary corrections to the party's rightwards drift could be effected by ameliorating alliances with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists or the Greens. Some felt that Ed Miliband had capitulated to a right-wing narrative which insisted both on the necessity of austerity and on immigration as a factor in the production of social and economic problems. These were arguably Tory-lite policies that echoed Labour's collaboration with the Conservatives during last year's Scottish referendum. Others simply withdrew from the process entirely.

Personally, I fell in the second of those categories. For some time, but particularly since last autumn and the referendum, I've felt that Labour is the albatross round the neck of progressive politics. From a number of points on the political spectrum, there has been a willingness to grant 'Labour' a certain synonymy with 'the left'. The right have made relentless political capital from this, blaming socialism for the Iraq War and lambasting Ed Miliband's moderate concessions to Keynesianism as Marxist ambitions for general redistribution. But hasn't there been a similar syllogism on the broad left itself? In the days leading up to the election a phrase I heard on more than one occasion was 'Labour, of course!' as though there was simply no question that opposing austerity – and maybe even favouring some real redistribution – and voting for Miliband were natural bedfellows.

I've tried to describe the odd position my generation of early thirtysomethings fits into both culturally and politically for tQ in the past. We hit adulthood at the crescendo of the (British) End of History's plausibility, in between Tony Blair's thumping victory in 1997 and 9/11's announcement that a post-political age was an impossible fantasy. We grew up being given the impression on TV (the alternative comedy of the 80s having just become ubiquitous and even hegemonic) and in the music papers that Thatcherism had been suffered on our behalves, that the struggles had been fought and won. New Labour, despite the abandonment of Clause 4 and the ominous blessings of the CBI and The Sun, were the crystallisation of every bedsit political fantasy of the Thatcher and Major years.

The crisis of Labour since 9/11 has manifested itself in all kinds of ways. While some of its early cheerleaders have abandoned the party, it's truly astonishing how many people have clung onto it with a dedication that can only be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. In some cases, it's almost possible to believe that guilt-by-association over Blair has turned into a kind of Labour-at-all-costs defensiveness, an insistence that Blair must be overshadowed by the relative triumphs of the NHS and the Welfare State. The institution of the party is clung to anxiously with a cloth-cap nostalgia infectious enough to grab the imaginations of some younger politicos.

However, the notion of 'reclaiming' Labour seems to have much in common with the liberal-left fantasy of somehow saving the BBC from its ugly transformation in the age of radically marketised media. Both of these ideas had some purchase five years ago: I was willing to squint at Ed Miliband and see James Maxton or Nye Bevan, just as I was willing to find hints of the BBC that made Play For Today and Boys From The Blackstuff in its latter-day programming. Yet both these monuments to a certain ideal of a social democratic Britain have slithered further and further into the grasp of reactionary and neoliberal priorities. On the issue of Scotland, they have consistently whistled the same tune, note-perfect, as the Tories, and it's this matter which is in many ways most telling about the failure of Labour in general.

Labour were viscerally opposed to Scottish independence last autumn, and worked with Cameron to grab the 'Yes' movement in a pincer. While the right appealed to a residual sense of shared patriotic glory and 'Britishness', Labour worked their socks off to defend their regional synonymy with the left and cast the SNP and other pro-independence factions as fanatical nationalists. Their media campaign was devoted to demonstrating how the independence project was incompatible with socialism, and it was a strategy they continued – and intensified – throughout the early months of 2015. With the SNP led by a declared social democrat, and pulled leftwards by its links with 'pragmatic nationalist' movements like Radical Independence, it outflanked Labour on policy in the most visible and undeniable of ways. However, Labour continued – and even now continue – to suggest that the SNP's much-vaunted 'surge' was atavistic and chauvinistic. Even as a pledge card boasting of 'controls of immigration' and the acceptance of austerity measures such as a welfare cap forgot Labour's radical history, it continually gestured to the past, claiming counterintuitively that the party is left-wing because the party was left-wing.

And here, perhaps, is the crux. The ideology which keeps a zombie neoliberalism in place in Britain works with concrete recourse to an almost abstract celebration of the past, a valourisation of 'respect' which brooks no questioning or analysis. This cuts across the political spectrum. It's easy to point at Mumford and Sons and Alex James' cheesemaking, as I did frequently under the Coalition, to see how a fetishisation of an airily pastoral Englishness has reinstated a form of social deference we genuinely believed had disappeared in the 1960s. We should be able to observe how both World Wars have been denuded of their historical specificity by a language sweated in sentiment in order to make them rallying points for a vacuous and increasingly aggressive patriotism. If we're going to talk about this, however, we also need to stop deferring to Labour's own attempts to limit the horizons of progressive discourse with its all-singing-the-International-in-a-new-hospital-in-1945 rhetoric. Labour were only ever a placeholder, a product of a niche in the political market for the representation of progressive thought: when they do not hold that place, they should have no claim on the imagination or the 'democratic responsibilities' of the left.

So, what now? Are we to, for the thousandth time, pledge to reform the party from within? Already the Blairites who kept their heads down under Miliband are talking about how the party needs to recapture the central ground it won in 1997, as if Ed really had been misguidedly 'Red'. As such, a project of redesign inspired by the SNP's belief – and further afield, the more radical beliefs of Syriza or Podemos - that there actually are lots of voters who can connect with anti-austerity narratives seems unlikely. Where will the alternative to Labour come from?

Any answer has to involve telling a better story than Miliband dared to tell in 2015. I felt for the guy. There was a moment when he was once again beaten in a televised debate by a leftwards shimmy from Nicola Sturgeon and his eyes betrayed that, really, he'd like to go that way as well. He seemed, briefly, to see outside capitalist realism, but knew that the die had already been cast in the opposite direction. What could he have said? What comes from the mouth of alternate history Ed? Well, perhaps something along the lines of nearly everything that everyone thinks is bad is actually a product of a neoliberal paradigm. Are you late for work every day on a rail service that costs three times its nationalised equivalent? That's neoliberalism. Has the football team you support been bought by a businessman seemingly determined to run it into the ground for the purposes of asset-stripping? That's also neoliberalism. Everything on the telly crap? That's neoliberalism? Can't get a council house? That is undoubtedly neoliberalism.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx famously stated that capitalism abstracted and dematerialised, that 'all that is solid melts into air'. Now, it seems less a process of abstraction than what my friend Karl and I call 'shittification': neoliberalism makes everything shit, boring, banal, ineffective, depressing. The future is a game of join-the-dots-of-shit, getting stuck in at the level of actual things that are happening and, instead of hammering people with prefabricated conceptuality, offering the opportunity to see how the continuum of the terrible operates. From tenants' rights organisations to the supporters' movement in football, from the group struggling to save the local cinema from 'development' to the students resisting hiked tuition fees, there needs to be an energised and accessible conversation which eschews the predictability of V-mask-and-sound-system protesting.

As Alex Niven has argued consistently throughout the period of the Coalition, the local and concrete cannot be given over to the terms of a reactionary Big Society, and there has to be operable ways of bringing out the links between individual instances of the Good Cause. The success of the SNP at this election rests not only on Labour's complacency but on the willingness of Sturgeon's party to take their potential voters seriously and to treat them like adult political subjects, rather than attempting to woo them with revisionist tat about 'hardworking families' and ad hominem irrelevances. In other words, they were willing to believe that their electorate were willing to believe a narrative which proposed linking an empirical experience of immiseration with 'abstract' neoliberal ideology. They showed two and two and left it up people to make four. Rather than wallowing in defeat, it's surely time to sit up and take note of this.

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T.L.B.
May 11, 2015 1:59pm

What this article doesn't really address is that Scotland and England are two different political landscapes. Scotland has been apart from the rest of the UK politically since Thatcher started losing Scottish MPs hand over fist in the 80s. Just because the SNP have prospered there with an anti-austerity message doesn't mean that would work in England. In fact, it was merely the suggestion that the SNP might be calling the tune in Westminster if Miliband got in that finally cooked his goose with the English (and some of the Welsh) electorate.

I don't think the splitting of the left in England is an issue - there just aren't enough left leaning people to get a majority. Labout have been losing more votes to UKIP than the Greens. Even if all the Green votes had all been redirected to Labour at the election, it still wouldn't have been enough and that is bearing in mind that this time Labour managed to scoop up almost every single Lib Dem vote in the constituencies where they stood a chance.

The only ways the Tories will be removed from Westminster is if 1) We are 'lucky' enough to get a catastrophic event directly before the next election, such as Britain exiting the ERM in the early 90s or the global recession of the late 00s.
2) PR is introduced
3) Labour come up with a message/outlook that the media perceive is pro-business and pro-aspiration, ie: New Labour.

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The New Headmaster
May 11, 2015 2:15pm

At last, a sensible, thoughtful and non-generalising response to the election result, and one which I almost completely agree with.
Last week, 2 or 3 days before voting, I was talking to my sister on the phone. We both agreed that even though we would be voting Labour, neither of us were exactly dazzled by a shadow cabinet barely worthy of the name and it was as much a vote against the other lot rather than anything else. It is dispiriting to think that identical conversations to our own, between Labour voters, would have been going on up and down the country (by 'country', I realise retrospectively that I mean England).
While it was Ed Milliband's prerogative to refuse a deal with the SNP, the air of contempt in his refusal was the most blatant demonstration of how his party have taken their Caledonian support for granted. After the last 12 months in British politics, one would think the now ex- Labour leader would realise how foolish it is still to be looking down his nose at the SNP - a party who have shown, in recent times, how to truly galvanise support and run a campaign that grips the imagination of voters, and in Salmond and Sturgeon - far better examples of effective leadership.
The potential new Labour leaders were named in the paper this morning, basically a choice between yet more Blair tribute acts (one would have thought of all the lessons New Labour picked up from Thatcherism they would have somehow paid heed to it's final lesson - not to let one individual hover over the rest of the party for too long) and some left-of-centre non-entities, not a single one of them over 50, of course because looking good on TV is what counts.
Congratulations to the Conservatives on their 2020 and 2024 election victories.

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Dan John
May 11, 2015 4:55pm

In reply to T.L.B.:

Agree with this comment strongly. As a Tory voter I hope the left keep trying to figure out what went wrong and veer further leftwards as a result. The truth is they lost because they're not right-wing enough, but some are too stubborn / blind to see it.

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R
May 11, 2015 5:08pm

In reply to T.L.B.:

Reluctantly have to agree. While I wish it wasn't the case, fact is Labour lost by failing to take those marginal seats in England and Wales from the Tories. And what do people in those areas believe in? Aspiration.

Perhaps Labour can convince those people that 'progressive' politics can be good for them and their ambitions too, without necessarily a policy move to the right.

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Sparks
May 11, 2015 8:01pm

I'm sorry but why would you quote from a book that created suffering and misery for billions of people for over 70 years (and continues in some parts of the world today)? The Communist Manifesto may have been written as a reaction to the horrifying conditions of the industrial revolution and in context it makes sense and may have once had virtue. However, it has no place in today's society and has been quoted from, interpreted and reinterpreted religiously by dictators and naive students alike for far too long. Are you a naive student or a dictator? I expect you are neither, and you should not be using this now toxic book to illustrate your points.

Also, stop using the word neoliberal, you again sound like a student. the UK train system is a mess, I agree, but it is simply a badly realised set of monopolies. It should be a set of competing companies (to bring prices down) or a nationally run service (possibly more in the interests of the public but both approaches have their drawbacks). Simply calling this and other badly realised things 'neoliberalism' is oversimplification and kinda childish really.

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May 12, 2015 1:14am

In reply to T.L.B.:

Great post. In the United States the democratic party faces this issue constantly. The United States electorate is basically a center right one. To a neutral observer like myself the English electorate appears to be located center right on the spectrum also. Every time the democrats lose an election in the US the same old talking heads complain that the party abandoned it's base which the polling usually proves to be hogwash. You win in the center by convincing the moderates that you are respectable. Dislike Blair all you want but he won elections and that is what matters.

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gk
May 12, 2015 4:52am

"The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy”
-Georgetown University Professor Carroll Quigley

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Stewart Smith
May 12, 2015 10:38am

Blair may have won elections, and certainly he was good at presentation, but he did so in particular circumstances, i.e. a completely shambolic and corrupt Tory government that was clearly on the way out. Had he lived, John Smith (hardly a Bennite) would have comfortably beaten them, without going full-on New Labour and accepting large chunks of Thatcherite doctrine.
The thing Blair's cheerleaders won't acknowledge is that New Labour sowed the seeds of the party's downfall. Blair and Mandelson arrogantly assumed the working class vote was guaranteed, so rather than appeal to its core constituency, they went for the 'aspirational' classes. While it's fair enough to try to appeal to floating voters, you still need to speak for your core support. In Scotland, former Labour voters went to the SNP. Tragically for England, with no progressive alternative, those voters went to UKIP.

"Just because the SNP have prospered there with an anti-austerity message doesn't mean that would work in England. In fact, it was merely the suggestion that the SNP might be calling the tune in Westminster if Miliband got in that finally cooked his goose with the English (and some of the Welsh) electorate"

Milliband could have shut down the SNP scare-mongering of the right-wing press (and by Scottish Labour right-wingers like Murphy, blinded by their tribal hatred of the SNP) by saying that while he was against independence, he was prepared to work with progressive parties on common ground. But, as he did with the 'Labour-caused-the-defecit' lie, he pandered to Tory propaganda, painting himself into a corner. Probably too late to make a difference, but it would have called their bluff to some extent.

I'm not so sure Scotland is that different to England. There are no shortage of Tory voters here, but they've not been able to dominate the narrative. The difference is we have a plural political system at Holyrood, which has produced a more mature democracy. There's also the understandable resentment at having our voice ignored at Westminster and our votes taken for granted by a complacent and corrupt Labour. The referendum showed that people were ahead of the political parties and the media. I believe the English left can rise again. As the article points out, the SNP's success is part of a wider anti-austerity movement that takes in Podemos and Syriza, as well as more moderate social democrats across Europe. It's not so much about how left or right Labour should be, but rather the necessity of creating a strong narrative, a politics of imagining and hope. As we've seen, people respond to that, whether it's the SNP or Blair. The tragedy for Britain is that Blair didn't live up to the message of hope he sold so well in 97.

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Baikonour
May 12, 2015 12:27pm

Good piece.
The only good thing about this election is that we may see the emergence of a truly liberal alternative voice in England and the slow death of New Labour.

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CallyJuan
May 12, 2015 1:21pm

Superb bit of writing

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Dan John
May 12, 2015 2:25pm

In reply to Stewart Smith:

"A more mature democracy" - the SNP, those rain-men, blame everything bad on Westminster charlatans!?! Come on! "Mature democracy", what a joker.

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Stewart Smith
May 12, 2015 3:28pm

In reply to Dan John:

Thank you for your well-informed commentary on Scottish politics.

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Dan John
May 12, 2015 5:04pm

In reply to Stewart Smith:

I kind of feel happy that people have your analysis, because it means the left will continue to be unelectable, so knock yourself out.

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CallyJuan
May 12, 2015 8:37pm

In reply to Dan John:

I am inclined to agree with Stewarts characterisation: the SNP as flag waving political charlatans, if that's not to misunderstand it?

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CallyJuan
May 12, 2015 8:38pm

In reply to CallyJuan:

I mean Dan, ha

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Stewart Smith
May 13, 2015 9:28am

In reply to CallyJuan:

The SNP flag-waving political charlatans? Really? If you think this you really need to do some reading up on what's actually happening in Scotland. You also need to credit the Scottish electorate with some intelligence. Do you really think we're naive fools who've been taken in by crypto-fascists posing as social democrats?

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Iain McC
May 15, 2015 11:57am

In reply to Stewart Smith:

I believe the SNP have played a blinder in the last few years by occupying a niche left by Labour. Fair play to them, but there is no doubt that a large majority of their supporters have attached themselves to a nationalistic cause. So much so that it seems that the SNP, Scotland and the Scottish flag are now all under the umbrella of the 'Independence Movement'. You only have to observe a George Square rally to see it....Scottish flags waving and '500 Miles' sing-a-long. There is nothing wrong with voting SNP if you believe that they are the right people to take Scotland forward, but nationalism on this scale will always be unhealthy.

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CallyJuan
May 15, 2015 3:37pm

In reply to Stewart Smith:

No I don't think I've failed to do either of those things. Yes a large proportion of the Scottish electorate did vote for the SNP, but it also stands to reason that 50% of the Scottish electorate did not vote for the SNP. I get the distinct impression they are going to behave as though they 'are Scotland' as it were, which is concerning for many reasons. Also, I feel like Nicola Sturgeon is really only in it for an independence referendum, and her high profile is concerning since she isn't even an MP in the UK parliament. I think they've led the electorate in a very populist way by saying the right things at the right time to the right people, and really all her and Salmond want is a way out of the union.

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May 17, 2015 11:35am

In reply to Sparks:

You really do know nothing about Marxism or neoliberalism do you?

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Sparks
May 19, 2015 1:51am

In reply to :

You really don't know anything about East Germany, the Soviet Union, communist Cuba, the People's Republic of China, Venezuela...need I go on? I'm really not sure what I'm not supposed to know, maybe you can enlighten me? (and yes I have my own copies of the communist manifesto and das capital).

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