Labour and the Battle of Ideas

by David Featherstone

What do the Policy Review documents tell us about current Labour Party thinking?

First published: 02 February, 2015 | Category: Labour Party, Politics, Vision/Strategy

This article is from Issue 58 of Soundings and is available online exclusively at New Left Project.


Writing in July 2014, Steve Richards noted that David Cameron’s party and ideological upbringing made him ill-equipped to win the new battle of ideas, as a result of which ‘he flicks the same switches but finds there are not the same political dividends’.[1]

He counterposes Cameron’s lack of engagement with the terrain of ideas to Ed Miliband’s contention that ‘the battle of ideas is what matters most in politics’. Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford also argue in their autumn 2014 pamphlet One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal that ‘the right has lost its intellectual energy and inventiveness’ and ‘has no theoretical insights capable of extricating the country from the mess its own orthodoxies have created’.[2]

In this article I engage with recent Labour Party efforts in this area, and in particular explore questions of how the post-crisis conjuncture is understood in their thinking, and how this is articulated politically. While Labour under Ed Miliband have made some progressive and thoughtful gestures  – such as attacks on the coalition for ‘standing up for the wrong people’ and distinctions between ‘predatory and productive capitalism’  – there has thus far been little sense of Labour’s interventions coalescing into an alternative political project. I am not referring here to Labour Party policy on ‘this or that issue’, but to what Stuart Hall referred to as a ‘whole conception of politics: the capacity to grasp in our political imagination the huge historical choices in front of the British people today’ including ‘new conceptions of the nation itself’.[3]

This review engages with four elements of Labour’s emerging policy debate: the Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford pamphlet already mentioned; One Nation Fizz, a book edited by Roberta Blackman-Woods, Diana Johnson and Barbara Keeley in which Labour shadow ministers set out their positions; the Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s The Case For Change, published by Labour’s Policy Review (on localism); and Andrew Adonis’s Mending the Fractured Economy: Smarter State, Better Jobs, an independent review carried out for the Labour Party and published by Policy network (on the economy). Taken together these contributions give a good sense of key elements of the conception of politics and nation that are being shaped by Labour. This essay seeks to evaluate key aspects of the party’s approach as seen in these publications, and to locate their arguments within the broader contours of the post-crisis political conjuncture.

One Nation Labour?

Ed Miliband’s ‘one nation’ speech at the 2012 Labour conference set out to challenge Conservative claims to be able to speak for the country as a whole, and to position Labour as governing for the ‘whole country, not just for the wealthy few’. For Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford this speech inaugurated One Nation Labour, and was defined by an ‘ambition to rebuild Britain in the wake of the financial crash’ (Labour’s Political Renewal, p8). It was also an audacious attempt to claim a particular centre ground which at that time Cameron had sought to occupy. There have remained, however, lingering questions about what key political narrative really characterises ‘One Nation Labour’.

The Cruddas and Rutherford pamphlet and the essays in One Nation Fizz (ONF) seek to articulate different elements of a One Nation Labour approach. The chapters in ONF develop engagements with different aspects of policy, and include contributions on skills, higher and further education and immigration. The individual contributors often invoke the One Nation Labour project at a rather broad and general level (Diana Johnson, for example, argues that a ‘One Nation approach is “enabling, empowering and localist”’ (p141)), but the chapters in themselves remain largely targeted at particular policy debates/concerns rather than on shaping a broader sense of the political narrative/challenges that face Labour/Britain. This means that there tends to be an assumed understanding of what a ‘One Nation’ approach does, rather than any broader analysis of the possibilities and tensions of the current situation as a whole. Cruddas and Rutherford’s pamphlet, by contrast, sets out the broader political/philosophical framing of One Nation Labour. This is grounded in their reworking of a tradition of ‘ethical socialism’ and seeks to provide direct intellectual foundations to the One Nation Labour project.[4]

The ‘One Nation Labour’ approach may well have been savvy positioning back in 2012, but it has certain key limitations. Firstly, it fails to take into account the diverse communities that exist in contemporary Britain. When Cruddas and Rutherford talk about the British being a ‘patriotic people’, defined by values such as ‘the virtues of fairness, responsibility and duty to others’, and as being ‘fiercely democratic and independent’ (p16), there is little sense of the existence of diverse ways of articulating and being ‘British’, or of the voices of people whose abiding experience of the British might not necessarily be fairness and responsibility. This kind of terminology feels out of kilter with the diverse realities of contemporary Britishness. It is also concerning that a One Nation approach is allied to an increasingly harsh rhetoric around immigration, which tends to reproduce myths about the impact of immigration on services, rather than seeking to unpack and challenge them. For example, the last chapter in One Nation Fizz, by David Hanson, while acknowledging concerns about the use of immigrant labour to undercut existing wages, is very much defined by harsh language on borders and attacks on the Coalition for not meeting their migration targets.

Secondly, One Nation Labour does not speak adequately to the increasingly divided nature of the UK, or acknowledge its increasing inequalities. Yet the extraordinary resonance of the Occupy movement’s highlighting of the division between the 1% and 99% suggests that such antagonisms retain a significant power to shape the terrain of politics, despite some of the claims associated with arguments about the ‘post-political’.

Thirdly, the One Nation Labour approach has barely engaged with the pressing challenge to rethink a ‘social democratic’ project in these globalising times. As Neal Lawson argued in an early critical response to the One Nation narrative: ‘just when we need solidarity and policy across Europe, the one nation tag fails to answer this fundamental problem’ (here of ‘the blackmail of global corporations that insist on low taxes and liberalised markets’).[5] As Neal comments, Labour’s opposition to a financial transaction tax was emblematic of how little the party had learned ‘from the crash and the defeat that followed’.

Perhaps most significantly, the One Nation tag demonstrates the extent to which the UK Labour Party has failed to acknowledge the shifting political landscapes opened up by devolution. This reconfigured terrain demands a politics which is attentive to the diverse national contexts and make-up of the UK. The adoption of a ‘One Nation’ approach completely ignores such challenges, and is symptomatic of the failure of the Labour Party at a UK level to think creatively about the demands of a post-devolution era; and this also means that Labour has not engaged seriously with the implications of devolution for the strategies and organisational structure of the party. It is revealing, for example, that in the section on devolution in the Cruddas and Rutherford pamphlet, the only nation mentioned is England, and that ONF has no contributions from Scottish MSPs or Welsh AMs.

The ‘Clear Red Water Strategy’ adopted by Welsh Labour under Rhodri Morgan’s popular devolved administration has been the most significant attempt so far to directly engage with the challenges wrought by this changed constellation. It is perhaps no coincidence that Wales is the one nation in the UK where Labour is currently in power (and this approach has arguably been taken forward, though in less iconoclastic terms, and in the face of considerable hostility from the Conservatives, by current First Minister Carwyn Jones). One of the distinctive, and popular, elements of the ‘Clear Red Water’ approach was to offer a direct alternative to the unabashed embrace of neoliberal tenets and practices by ‘New Labour’. As Nick Davies and Darren Williams argue, Morgan ‘talked unashamedly about being a socialist, about the limits of market-based politics and about the “powerful glue of social solidarity”’. He articulated a ‘series of initiatives whereby particular public services in Wales had been made free at the point of delivery’, as part of ‘a deliberate, ongoing programme of de-commodification’.[6]

The pitfalls of adopting a One Nation approach in the context of a multi-national state were most directly felt in Labour’s misguided involvement in the Better Together campaign in Scotland. This positioned Labour directly alongside coalition politicians, and also saw the party colluding with threats by big business to leave Scotland in the wake of a yes vote. Furthermore, there is a very profound sense in which the party in Scotland has stopped speaking for and shaping the agenda of Scottish centre-left politics. The failure of Labour to advocate a more distinctive and creative position during the referendum campaign compounded some of the problems already facing Labour, particularly under Johann Lamont’s leadership, during which period the party often sought to position itself to the right of the SNP. Indeed, under Lamont’s leadership Labour sought to challenge rather than defend popular progressive measures adopted by successive Scottish administrations, such as free prescriptions and free university tuition.

At its most promising some of the contributions to One Nation Fizz do seek to position a One Nation approach as a direct challenge to New Labour’s embrace of marketised principles. Thus in a fine chapter Gordon Marsden argues that ‘the spirit of One Nation Labour’ could offer a ‘contrast to the marketised, confused and micro – managed vision of education and skills that we suffer from with Cameron, Gove and Osborne’ (p72). Such commentary has the germ of a powerful alternative narrative on the economy  – and it is to a discussion of the emergent account of the economy in these documents that we now turn.

Whose economy?

In his chapter on energy in One Nation Fizz, Alan Whitehead argues that the ‘market reform that was supposed to provide energy at best cost to customers, and under the best forms of competition, has failed dismally on both counts’. It is refreshing to see such a direct critique of marketisation becoming a part of the discourse of Labour politicians, and this clearly has the potential to be an important aspect of post-New Labour political narrative. But whilst there are gestures to such a position across the texts reviewed here, the extent to which it informs a wider ‘One Nation Labour’ narrative on the economy is fairly limited.

These tensions are perhaps at their most acute in the statement on the economy offered by the Andrew Adonis report, Mending the Fractured Economy: Smarter State, Better Jobs, which ‘sets out reforms to boost innovation, tackle skills shortages and address youth unemployment, support growth companies, and empower city and county regions’. Adonis has some good things to say about the role of the state in relation to economic practices: one useful suggestion is to take more seriously the responsibilities and possibilities opened up by the ‘huge procurement budgets’ of the public sector, and to use this to take the lead on apprenticeship training. The report suggests that this ‘would have a major impact on the skills of the UK workforce – boosting both public and private sector productivity in the long term’ (p60).

But the report is structured by a disproportionate focus on issues of skills, and anxieties about the productivity of the UK, and this demonstrates the extent to which Labour thinking is still circumscribed within the limits of an essentially neoliberal approach to the economy. Throughout the report there is an underlying assumption that if workers could become more effectively skilled and productive, this would play a major part in rekindling economic growth. The aim of generating a highly skilled economy, based on good jobs, is of course a useful counter to the race to the bottom which has too often shaped UK economic policy in recent times. But the report does not engage nearly enough with the broader context, and the globalising processes that shape the economy in which people work. It thus ignores the broader pressures on labour markets that lead to the present dearth of skilled jobs  – particularly in certain parts of the UK, such as post-industrial regions.

This is symptomatic of a broader gap in One Nation Labour thinking on the economy. As Daniel Whittall has argued in a perceptive critique of Chuka Umunna’s rhetoric on urban growth for all:

he vaunts the opportunities for capital accumulation represented by British cities, he skims directly over the dire social circumstances for the many who live in them. His is a flattened vision of urban Britain suitable only for the global capitalist class, sanitized of urban riots, freed from the pressures to provide affordable housing, and foreseeing the total gentrification of inner city areas.[7]

While the focus on a ‘fractured economy’ might seem to speak well to the challenges posed by increasing underemployment and precarity  – in the form of part-time jobs, zero-hour contracts, etc  – these deteriorating labour conditions, and their contestation, are generally passed over in this report (as is their disproportionate prevalence among women and ethnic minorities). Such challenges, and all the other grim realities of the post-crisis economy for the many, are simply not engaged with directly enough in this work. Thus Cruddas and Rutherford advocate an ‘inclusive economy that is pro-worker, pro-business and pro-aspiration’ (p38). One doesn’t need to hold to a strong sense of transcendent antagonism between capital and labour to be concerned that this notion of the economy ignores the real challenges, tensions, conflicts and imbalances of power that need to be confronted in  – and should be seen as central to  – a progressive account of the economy. Neil Schofield has argued that these absences are all the more frustrating because Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership give every appearance of engaging with the big economic issues that Cruddas and Rutherford appear to overlook – ‘the questions of falling pay, rising prices, underemployment, increasing the minimum wage, and above all for whose benefit the economy is organised’.[8]

Adonis’s account of the ‘fractured economy’ also engages with the strong regional disparities within the British economy  – what Andy Cumbers has referred to as the increasingly ‘dysfunctional economic geography’ of the UK.[9] Clearly, it is important that challenging such regional inequalities are made central to Labour’s economic policy. But too often these regional inequalities are treated as patterns of differentiated skills  – what Adonis calls a ‘skills mismatch’; there is little acknowledgement of the processes that produce such inequality. This is despite a recognition in some part of the report that the strong ‘growth/economy’ of the South East is far from an inevitable outcome. This is most striking in the final section of the report on ‘Supporting growth economies’.

Thus Adonis notes that more than half of government support for equity financing has been channelled to the South East (p73). In similar fashion he notes that the Business Angel Co-investment Fund, which aims to support investments into ‘high growth potential, early stage SMEs’, has also been skewed to the South East, ‘with 66 per cent invested in the South East and East Anglia’. These are striking examples of what Ash Amin, Doreen Massey and Nigel Thrift have described as an ‘undeclared London/South-East Regional Policy’, which intensifies and exacerbates regional inequalities in the UK.[10] Yet at no point does Adonis seriously challenge the hegemonic political narrative, repeated ad nauseam by politicians of both coalition parties, that the efficient South-East is subsidising Wales, Scotland and the North of England.

Contesting such narratives is a necessary precondition for challenging the currently dominant ways of ordering the UK. Reluctance to directly oppose the unequal power relations that shape such regional disparities is usually allied to a reluctance to challenge the hegemonic role of the market. There is still often in these documents an underlying and unacknowledged default sense that the private sector is best. Thus The Case For Change review on localism refers glowingly to the sense of the ‘best innovation in the private sector’. Yet this kind of prioritisation of the private sector is a hindrance to a more balanced sense of the terms on which the relations between public and private sectors might be articulated through a post-New Labour economic narrative. As Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey have argued, New Labour’s uncritical reproduction of neoliberalism has left the party on fraught and shaky ground in relation to offering an alternative.[11] This is most starkly illustrated in relation to debates on the Health Service in these documents, where Labour is left critiquing the ‘extreme’ version of marketisation that structures Conservative/ coalition health policy, rather than being able to develop a more consistent and distinctive critique of privatisation. For example Andrew Gwynne argues in ONF that tackling the ‘extreme culture of privatisation’ being rolled out by Coalition is ‘at the heart of One Nation Labour’, and it is more ‘important in healthcare than in any other policy area’ (p20). But he does not tell us what a ‘moderate’ privatising policy might consist of or why it might be preferable, and he does not seriously explore alternatives to privatisation.

A key missed opportunity in this regard is the lack of any sustained engagement with widespread ‘common-sense’ opposition to privatisation  – not least, as Alan Whitehead suggests in ONF, in relation to energy provision  – through engaging with people’s diverse experiences of the malfunctioning and palpably unjust character of privatised services and utilities. There is a need not only to explore such experiences in depth, but also to consider alternative models of economic ownership and control. This does not necessitate arguing for a return to ‘old’ forms of public ownership; nor does it involve ‘institutional conservatism’ or ‘defending the outdated’ (as argued in Labour’s Political Renewal, p27). There are plenty of new ideas about collective and mutual forms of ownership that Labour could engage with. As Andy Cumbers argues in Reclaiming Public Ownership, ‘there is a need to work with existing and diverse collective and mutualist traditions in civil society to push forward an alternative economic project’ (p214).[12]

Contesting localism

A commitment to ‘localism’ is one key component of the One Nation Labour project, and indeed this is a term which is now very much in vogue in all the mainstream parties. The material being reviewed here gives some important indications of how localism is being inflected in current Labour discourse. Thus the Local Government Innovation Taskforce report sets out a fundamental choice over different approaches to localism. It argues that ‘all public services are being required to deliver with less resource’, and that in ‘the context of the continued need for spending restraint and rising demand, there is a clear choice for public services’  – which is as follows: firstly to ‘continue to salami-slice Whitehall budgets, squeezing separate public services and tinkering round the edges of traditional modes of delivery’ or go for a ‘radical reconfiguration of the system’; alternatively, to ‘link public service reform to growth’, invest in people ‘to become more productive and equipped to take advantage of future opportunities’, and ‘over time’ to reduce demand by ‘shifting from high cost reaction to long term prevention’.

This approach is in part rooted in a critique of the coalition government’s approach to localism, in which ‘power and resource remain concentrated at the centre’. And the report also critiques the way that localism has been a ‘convenient rhetorical tool for the government to disguise the impact of their unbalanced approach to deficit reduction, which has disproportionately impacted on councils, while departmental boundaries have been kept largely intact’ (p6). It is apparent, however, that Labour’s localism agenda itself shares much of the terrain mapped out by the Coalition.

A key continuity with Coalition thinking is Labour’s rather functionalist approach to localism: the local is adopted strategically as a means to cut and rationalise spending and the delivery of public services. This is a core part of what Jon Cruddas positions as a claim that ‘Labour stands for big reform without big spending’ (Labour’s Political Renewal, introduction, piii). As Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea have recently argued, such formulations represent a capitulation to the neoliberal common-sense idea that ‘you can’t solve a problem just by throwing money at it’  – which then often comes translated to mean that lack of funding is not a problem for public services.[13] As Neil Schofield notes, Cruddas and Rutherford say nothing about how reform will be delivered, or how much it will cost, or whether it will deliver consistency of approach and level of service:

One does not need to be an advocate of the box-ticking mentality that accompanied many of the reforms of the New Labour years to appreciate the risks and costs inherent in a devolved model of governance – and in particular the risk that, with reduction in funding and the need to acquire funding from methods other than progressive direct taxation, the burden may fall disproportionately on those least able to bear it.

Cruddas and Rutherford’s lack of engagement with the tensions associated with devolving governance are only exacerbated by their adoption of an avowedly conservative notion of community. Thus they argue that:

The philosophy of One Nation is conservative in valuing relationships, family and community as the basis of social order and as sources of reciprocity and well being. And it is radical in its promotion of justice and equality in sharing out the resources and opportunities between members of society. Its politics are neither about altruism nor collectivism, but the democratic practice of the common good (p33).

What is particularly problematic here is a ceding of terms like community to conservatism rather a sense of struggling over the terms on which community is mobilised and articulated. And by presenting community as historically settled and homogeneous, Cruddas and Rutherford marginalise the role of diverse communities in shaping new forms of organising and political culture in different places, not just in the most obviously multicultural parts of big cities. They also tend to look back rather romantically to a more settled past, and as a result they buy into a very particular history of the left and social movements in the UK. As Anna Chen has argued in a forceful critique of Ken Loach’s Spirit of 45, such narratives create a systematic exclusion of ethnic minorities from the story of left politics and movements.[14]

There is little sense in The Case For Change of how to engage with different civil society groups in shaping a more progressive articulation of localism. Localism is frequently reduced to little more than finding ways of making people and places ‘more productive’. What’s more, any engagement with green articulations of the local is entirely absent. While eco-local approaches can at times be trite and romantic, they are nonetheless a key part of the localism debate, and any new formulation of local politics needs to recognise and engage with them.

Fortunately, some of the contributions to ONF have a much more generous sense of the role of civil society actors – including trade unions and other campaigning organisations  – in shaping vibrant forms of a more ‘progressive localism’. Thus Gordon Marsden speaks of enlisting the ‘help of employers large and small, people in the voluntary sector, local and regional stakeholders, and trade unions, especially drawing on the experience of their remarkable legions of union learning reps’ in renewing local democratic practices (p65). Marsden provides a useful contrast to Cruddas and Rutherford’s account of union organising, which primarily locates such traditions in the past, and by doing so forecloses their role as part of making the political present.

Future antagonisms

In an assessment of Labour in the wake of the party’s 2014 conference, Seumas Milne has argued that Balls’s austerity gestures ‘fail to appease Labour’s opponents while alienating its natural supporters still further’  – and they also ignore the disastrous record of austerity in Britain and Europe ‘even on its own terms’. Milne also warns that the recent experiences of the French socialist government have shown only too clearly that austerity paves the way to political failure for parties of the centre left. As Milne suggests, Labour’s decision to go in to the next election broadly accepting a political narrative of austerity is thus a failure both of political nerve and of ambition. Yet elements of the material reviewed here suggest there is the will and desire in at least parts of the Labour Party to articulate something which is a much more innovative response to the post-crisis conjuncture. As I have argued, there is potential for some of the arguments made here to be amplified into a stronger, bolder and more distinctive approach, which could shape the terms of political debate in significant ways (even though these documents also reveal political limitations, especially around the broad ‘one nation’ approach). But in so often staging key political intervention on the terms defined by the coalition, Labour risks foreclosing on more significant and productive political antagonisms.

This speaks to a set of political fault-lines, which, if engaged with productively, could form the basis of a more progressive left politics in the current conjuncture. Firstly, rather than trying to fight UKIP on the political terrain of fear over migration, Labour needs to tell a much more positive story around multiculturalism  – recognising that it is an ‘ordinary’ and often longstanding part of the fabric of British communities. Dennis Skinner’s passionate defence of his ‘United Nations’ heart emphasises that this can be done in a left populist idiom in relation to a defence of key public institutions such as the NHS, and in terms which can disrupt easy clichés about multiculturalism being the preserve of a ‘metropolitan elite’. Secondly, Labour needs an account of the economy which recognises power imbalances (and opens up experiments with post-neoliberal alternatives such as remunicipalisation), but in ways which break with some of the problems of the top-down nationalisations of the past. Finally, it needs to engage in more nuanced terms with debates over communities and localism: there is the potential for an alternative to its current largely functionalist account of localism, one that recognises that local and municipal politics can be crucial sites for challenging and reconfiguring dominant economic and political narratives and practices. In this regard there is a set of struggles  – and arguments to be won  – over ‘austerity’ and ‘progressive’ localisms.[15] The extent to which such antagonisms emerge will be a measure of whether Labour can begin to imagine a politics beyond the discourses of austerity.

David Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of and a Soundings editor.  He is the author of Resistance Space and Civil Identities: The Makings of Counter-Global Networks and Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geogrphies of Internationalism; and co-editor with Joe Painter of Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey.



[1] Steve Richards, ‘David Cameron will lose the battle of ideas if he keeps firing 1979s bullets’, Comment is free, Guardian, 27.7.14.

[2] Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal, London 2014, p11. Hereafter Labour’s Political Renewal.

[3] Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci and us’, Marxism Today, June 1987, available at www. amielandmelburn.org.uk.

[4] On ethical socialism see, for example, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, ‘Ethical socialism’, Soundings 44, spring 2010.

[5] Neal Lawson, ‘Labour’s one-nation mantra can’t disguise a clapped-out party’, Comment is free, Guardian, 23.9.13.

[6] Davies and D. Williams, Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Politics, Francis Boutle 2009, p12.

[7] Daniel Whittall, ‘The ineptitude of Chuka Uumunna: 5 signs Labour are scraping the barrel’, http://wire.novaramedia.com/2014/06/

.

[8] Neil Schofield, ‘One Nation Labour and the search for an economic narrative’, Notes from a Broken Society, September 2014.

[9] A. Cumbers, ‘The Scottish Independence Referendum and the dysfunctional economic geography of the UK’, Political Geography 41, 2014.

[10] See Ash Amin, Doreen Massey and Nigel Thrift, Decentering the Nation: A Radical Approach to Regional Inequality, Catalyst 2003.

[11] Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey, ‘Interpreting the crisis’, Soundings 44.

[12] A. Cumbers, Reclaiming Public Ownership, Zed Books 2012.

[14] A. Chen, ‘People of colour like me have been painted out of working-class history’, Guardian 16.7.13.

[15] D.J. Featherstone, A. Ince, D. Mackinnon, K. Strauss and A. Cumber, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37 (2) 2012.

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