by Anthony Painter
Breathe in. Hold. And relax.
The Purple Book, published today, after months of political hysteria, is actually a largely constructive and imaginative collection. It is far from being “lazy” and “idiotic” as its detractors claim. This is the progressive Labour – out of political favour for almost half a decade – response to blue Labour. It is much more than that too. And it manages, fairly convincingly, to move on from its New Labour past.
The frame for the collection comes from David Marquand’s Britain since 1918 where he discusses four British democracies. Tory nationalism and Whig imperialism speak for themselves. The other two are the major fault-lines that exist with the modern labour movement: democratic collectivist and democratic republicanism. The former finds expression in the old-style socialism of much of the trade union movement and in traditional (and caricatured) Fabianism.
Democratic republicanism – the belief in individual empowerment, relationships and localism – has rarely dominated. This collection is within that tradition, though it is by no means an exclusively “progressive” way of thinking.
This is a substantive undertaking. The ethos is that of John Milton, Alexis de Tocqueville, JS Mill, GDH Cole, RH Tawney and Amartya Sen amongst others. The qualifying criteria for a chapter in the book seems to be quoting or referencing Tawney. In fact, he could be the book’s co-editor, along with Robert Philpot with Sen occasionally popping into the room to sprinkle in thoughts on “capabilities” and “substantive freedom”.
This is both an internal and eternal feud. It’s easy to argue that the focus should be exclusively on the enemy, the Tories. But this misses the point. Effective armies don’t just strike; they prepare. And this internal battle that Labour is having is part of the preparation. After a while it could become destructive, but for now it’s healthy.
There is no doubting the internal focus of attack: blue Labour. Peter Mandelson dances with the notion for a while, then plunges the dagger in: “Blue Labour….seeks to reconnect the party with its old, post-war, apparently white and male, industrial working class base. These people have moved on…”. In the main he is right. This then raises the question of where blue Labour sits and what is its future?
Blue Labour is a strange hybrid of democratic republicanism and elements of Tory nationalism. The former element is the one that attracts people in. The latter is what, on the left at least, apart from a number of those traditional working-class voters that Mandelson references, repels people from it. For it to survive within the labour movement, it will have to shed the Tory nationalist elements. And that is exactly what the purple bookers have seen. They are seeking to claim the democratic republican mantle while blue Labour either grows out of its hybridity or implodes.
In other words, the purple book argument, if successful, will make blue Labour unnecessary. There’s a lot of politics to be played out. And the ultimate arbiter is the general himself: Ed Miliband. For now he is happy for both garrisons to mobilise and, indeed, writes the foreword to this book. This is good politics for now, but he will have to decide; if it’s not decided for him.
All of the contributions contain insight and grounded thought. Paul Richards on Labour’s missed opportunities, industrial democracy, civic services, and council house sales to empower individuals, stood out for me. As did Patrick Diamond’s thoughts on ways to ensure the state responds to individual needs, Liam Byrne on building a suite of “capabilities”, and Jacqui Smith on the prospects for expanding restorative community-based justice. Rachel Reeves on building the individual’s asset base, Andrew Adonis on the democratic future of our cities, and Robert Philpot’s reminders of where people actually are in terms of their attitudes, as opposed to where we believe them to be, are important arguments within the democratic republican theme. There are many others of a similarly high quality.
There are many “as Ed has said” or “as Ed Balls believes” moments – whether accurate or not – so as to be explicitly respectful and loyal, which is wise. There are a few moments of cheekiness, as when Peter Mandelson argues that Labour lost in 2010 “not because of our record…but because voters weren’t convinced we were the right choice for the future”.
And there is the odd moment of indecision, such as when Ivan Lewis argues both that Labour should be the UK’s “authentic ‘one nation’ party”, yet at the same time argues that Labour shouldn’t close down the debate about an English parliament and the “best way of ensuring English-specific issues are given a fair hearing”. It would be unfair to single out Lewis, as Labour is deeply conflicted – as the Tories are too – about identity politics in general, including English national identity.
There are two main weaknesses to the book. While Tristram Hunt’s excellent chapter contains a plea for a new political economy and makes a practical, historical and philosophical argument in favour of more democratic economic institutions, the collection as a whole misses an additional essay on the economic future. Co-operatism is everywhere, as you’d expect. But that is only part of the new economic future.
The other weakness is historical. Democratic republicans are the losers of British history (unless one counts the American revolutionaries). There were significantly democratic republican elements in early New Labour. This element of even Giddens’s The Third Way is often ignored, see its chapter on civil society. New Labour became another strange hybrid; this time between whig imperialism (Blair) and democratic collectivism (Brown). So this begs the question: why will it be different this time?
Democratic republicans always seem to melt in the heat of conflict and power. Watch the big society drip away. This book is the clearest expression of the democratic republican sentiment on the left for a considerable time. Will it last the course? These contributors will have a significant influence and say in whether it does or not.
Anthony Painter is an author and critic.