by Michael Merrick
The Labour party is changing. Or rather, the landscape in which it sits is changing and the party is trying to keep pace. The last election brought with it some hard truths, while post-election analysis has offered little solace. The party had become too detached from ordinary people, increasingly rejected by that very constituency it always claimed to naturally represent. The Labour party had been abandoned by the people, just as those very same people claimed that it was the Labour Party who had abandoned them.
Clearly something had to change.
Nonetheless, there were and are still many within the Labour Party who screech themselves hoarse at the merest questioning of contemporary party dogma, the core creeds of an activist left not especially representative of the views of many in the tradition they claim as their own.
Yet the “new politics”, if it was ever anything, was a general and as yet undeveloped realisation that the old status-quo was bust. Difficult questions had to be asked. Difficult answers had to be countenanced. The party was too exclusionary, too ideologically narrow, and too doctrinally puritan. One nation Labour, whilst not devoid of internal contradiction, was partly a reaction to precisely this – the recognition that Labour has once more to become the party of the people.
Yet if change is happening, if politics really is on the cusp of a post-liberal settlement as many insist, then the common existence of liberalism across the political spectrum means that it is also on the cusp of post-party politics, since the post-liberal response also finds expression across the political spectrum.
Paradoxically, if Labour is to rediscover the ability to reach out across the social spectrum, it needs to grasp the post-party mantle. It needs to see itself once more as a movement, not a party, meaning it needs to once again build a social and cultural coalition agitating for change. It needs, in short, to throw open its doors and cease barring entry to those it once welcomed with open arms.
It is for this reason that Labour ought to be seeing “red Tories” as fair game, those who are (as a rule of thumb) economically to the left and socially to the right, much like many of those missing voters we have lately heard so much about . As I have written previously, Phillip Blond, the self-styled red Tory, can and did play an important role in reinvigorating the left. It was Blond’s work, and the frenzied responses to it, that kicked off a moment of self-realisation in the Labour party, the recognition that many of the most radical and cherished ideas of the Labour movement had fallen into neglect and misuse – Maurice Glasman appeared, reminding the party of the importance of grassroots activism and community organising, Tessa Jowell popped up to reaffirm the central importance of mutualism and the co-operative movement, Jon Cruddas began talking about the socially conservative case against globalised capitalism and the economic settlement of Thatcher.
There were many debates, on asset ownership and wealth capture, on moralising markets and empowering the worker against market and state, on the asset-stripping of the poorest and the oligarchical nature of “free-market” thinking – all conversations generated by a radical pro-society narrative that outflanked Labour on the left even whilst being, like many of the best Labour traditions, fundamentally conservative in nature.
And it is from precisely here that Blond has since denounced Cameron and the destructive social and economic liberalism he has so enthusiastically embraced, in so doing re-asserting his red credentials.
In other words, exposure to alternative voices has enriched the Labour debate, forcing it to question its assumptions and re-evaluate its established orthodoxies. The diversity of thought and contribution got Labour thinking again, hearing new voices and confronting the manner in which its socio-political narrowness had isolated those voices that could legitimately claim to be part of the Labour heritage.
This renewal continues today, albeit tentative, with the post-liberal ground being a new political landscape that the left has already made a march upon. In this respect red Tories, who necessarily identify more with a vision than with a party, look very similar to blue Labour, indeed at times appear inseparable, two sides of a coin that stand closer together on many issues than either does with the progressive activist core of their own political parties.
Perhaps, then, to build that movement Labour needs to see in the midst of a general apathy the seeds of renewal, the ground upon which the movement can rebuild to better reflect not those who have hung about, but those who have long given up, seeing nothing in Labour to represent them or their concerns.
Perhaps Labour needs to extend the hand of welcome further abroad, to stop seeing enemies where there are potential allies, to offer a home to those who find something within the red Tory/blue Labour axis to articulate their concerns and outline their vision of the good life.
Perhaps, controversial as some would find it, Labour should even consider extending that hand of welcome to the (increasingly) red Tory himself.