By Michael Calderbank
Any political movement which is genuinely embedded in the communities it claims to represent has no need for focus groups. Why would you need to dispatch market research executives across the country to canvass opinions and attitudes, when your members were born in these places, went to school and grew up there, live and work there? The Labour Party didn’t come into being because savvy PR professionals learnt how to package and sell a message for the consumption of working class communities. It was largely (though not exclusively) the product of the people themselves, through their trade unions, co-ops, local faith groups, mutual aid societies and other grassroots institutions.
Now, it’s true that – over the last few decades in particular – the Party has become much less firmly embedded in a whole slew of former industrial towns especially in the North and Midlands, and in many struggling coastal communities. This is partly the result of objective factors such as the devastation of the country’s manufacturing base; the casualisation of the labour market and decline in trade union membership following the legal assault on trade union rights. But, as No Turning Back among others have argued, the response of New Labour and its antecedents was to accommodate to these trends, taking for granted the “heartland” support because voters allegedly had “nowhere else to go”. As the Party leadership become increasingly remote and dismissive towards this demographic, many working class voters came to reciprocate and resent being taken for mugs.
Whilst the collapse of the Labour vote in 2019 (on a manifesto which, unlike 2017, failed to respect the result of the EU referendum) crystallised the extent of the problem in stark electoral terms, it is by no means new. Five million votes were lost between 1997 and 2010, and in 2015 the collapse in the Party’s Scottish vote in the wake of the cross-class “Better Together” campaign is evidence of a trend which has been growing for years. This has had its impact in terms of the sociological make-up of Labour’s membership, which has tended to become skewed towards middle class professionals, graduates and student activists – with a corresponding shift in outlook and attitudes. It is true that, too often, Labour is seen as no longer talking the language of people who live outside of this “progressive” bubble. Some sections of the left appear to be in denial about this reality, in the apparent belief that increasing the volume of social media activism will be sufficient to build mass support for socialism.
Labour needs to get back out of the “progressive” comfort zone and reconnect with the communities which have come to feel alienated from the Party. So much is true, and to the extent that the leadership recognises is it, they have at least identified a major problem. The next question is whether their solution – based on focus grouping and rebranding – is equipped to deal with it. On the evidence of the leaked report of the current thinking and the recommendations deriving from it, the answer is definitely not.
It is undeniable that as Labour has turned its face away from what it is now apparently calling its “foundation seats”, a fertile breeding ground was left for the anger of alienated communities to be shaped and directed by the populist far right. The growth in aggressively “patriotic” sentiment is largely the product of a politics based on racism, nationalism, imperialism and anti-immigrant sentiment. For Labour to try to echo back these sentiments is both unprincipled and politically self-defeating. For one thing, a surface nod to this national chauvinism (embracing the union jack, “dressing smartly” [like Oswald Mosely?], and imagery of veterans) will not convince, unless it’s backed up by policies which are reactionary in substance. For all the contrived talk of “authentic values alignment”, such an approach is likely to look precisely fake and contrived in comparison with the nationalists. Nothing is more calculated to fall flat than artificially engineered “authenticity”.
Appeals to “the national interest” are often ideologically-driven narratives which aim to conceal and obscure class interests. As the late Leo Panitch importantly analysed, Labour has often throughout its history sought to read class interests through the discourse of nation, such that the more explosive potentials of class conflict can be contained within a framework of allegiances held in common. This has taken much more subtle forms than rallying to the flag, and represents a danger which socialists need to avoid.
Importantly, however, the left should think long and hard before concluding that the best way to fight nationalism is to trash all signifiers of nation. Radical socialists like EP Thompson and Tony Benn did not make the mistake of believing that internationalism required the repudiation of our own histories and traditions. National traditions have a deep and enduring resonance in working class communities, but this by no means automatically translates into aggressive nationalism. The history of the English people is in large part a history of opposition to the power and privilege exerted by the ruling class. Socialists have long drawn on the radical tradition and imagination to inspire contemporary resistance. While Corbyn rightly rejected aggressive jingoistic patriotism, he could perhaps have made more of his own rootedness within the Engish radical tradition which inspired his affection for the likes of Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Given the hurricane of neoliberalism which has blown through people’s lives, ripping out jobs, security and a sense of community, the left must avoid looking like we want take away the last shred of people’s dignity: their sense of identity and pride in where they’re from. It’s not unreasonable for the former industrial working classes in this country to feel aggrieved at what they have lost – which is substantial, both economically and culturally – and to search for some kind of positive validation for the present/future. This is the generation of Ken Loach’s protagonist Daniel Blake. To retreat from the politics of class in order to prioritise the politics of nation is to be avoided at all costs. But it doesn’t follow that the repudiation and rejection of national identity will lead to the re-emergence of the left. Quite the reverse, it will only consolidate the sense of alienation that “progressives” are another tribe altogether, who don’t speak for “people like us”.
The task now is at least twofold. Firstly, to quote the Scottish socialist philosopher John Macmurray writing in the 1930s, “We have to create a new cultural expression for nationality which will prevent the misuse of it for nationalist and imperialist purposes… We must drive a wedge between nationality and nationalism…This is the true task of the anti-Fascist”.
This is by no means easy, but it’s a matter of reframing our understanding of nation through the framework of class. We currently live in a country where 14.5 million people live in relative poverty after housing costs are factored in. Such mass poverty is a national scandal. The idea that the answer to this is politicians who dress smartly and stand in front of a flag is evident nonsense.
Secondly, Labour’s task is to relate to the real needs of alienated communities, and organise around measures which will make a real difference to peoples’ lives. We need to shape the agenda, not blindly follow it. People will see though cynical gimmicks. Rather than trying to market ourselves at passive consumers, we need to return to the idea of Labour as a Party which is actively embedded in all our communities, organising for radical change.
Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.
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