“New Politics, New Times”
Tristram Hunt MP The Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield
Thursday, 8th October 2015
Let me begin, as I must in Sheffield, the proud city of the Guild of St George, with John Ruskin. ‘And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed this,’ wrote Ruskin in The Stones of Venice, ‘that we manufacture there everything except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantage.’
That is what our two cities, Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent, have done – we have strengthened steel and shaped pottery. In the process, Ruskin thought, we had dehumanized and alienated the soul of man – we had manufactured everything except men.
It was a message which another 1880s radical, Edward Carpenter, took to heart. Not far from here, at his Millthorpe farm in Cordwell Valley, Carpenter decided to practice a politics which rejected the compromises of the present and opted instead for a commune of New Lifers, manly comradeship and Eastern mysticism.
Like Ruskin, Carpenter never subscribed to the grubby but useful socialism of wage levels and work rates. His creed was a "Larger Socialism" which accepted redistribution and land nationalisation, but also drew on the Platonic tradition, German idealism and Hindu spiritualism. He wanted a socialism which would not simply end material inequality, but would bring new forms of associating and relating, in harmony with nature. Carpenter and his fellow Simple Lifers started the day with naked swims, worked the earth in woollen tunics and ate a great deal of porridge and radishes. Millthorpe emerged as a countercultural hub, an anti-politics settlement, in the face of Victorian materialism.
But in Sheffield, there was also a tradition of those who believed in engaging with the entire political process. That tradition was, of course, best symbolised by the late Sir Bernard Crick, and his masterful 1962 text, In Defence of Politics. ‘The business of politics is the conciliation of differing interests.’ Bernard’s pupil and great interpreter, Lord Blunkett, took three lessons from this work: the first was that politics matters because a democracy cannot function without, like it or hate it, the political process; the second was that politics, like life, is a messy business; and the third (very much in Ruskin’s vein) was that political democracy was and remains a counterweight to the market.
But what Sir Bernard also famously said, was that ‘free men stick their necks out.’ So this evening, I want to stick my neck out about new politics for new times.
In short, how we in the Labour Party should respond to the changing political landscape - of populism and social media; a ruptured political economy; and new identities of patriotism.
And my message is this: the only way to confront economic inequality and democratise power is to once again become a party of government. For the new politics of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents an exciting opportunity and an obvious threat.
The challenge of new energy, growing membership, intellectual opportunity and renewal; the threat of perennial demonstration, the thrill of being the relentless outsider.
This week we have watched, with our face pressed against the glass, not only a Tory victory parade at their conference in Manchester, but also the sight of them manoeuvring for succession and laying the foundations for their next election campaign too.
But our country cannot afford to have Labour left on the street outside, protesting about the decisions of the powerful within. My ambition is a Labour Party returned to power on a new appreciation of its principles and purpose.
THE NATURE OF THE LOSS
But before we get caught up with the new politics, let us not lose sight of the old politics – our failure on 7 May 2015 to win enough seats in the House of Commons to form a Labour Government.
“Unless Labour can once again become the party of the majority of the working class it has no future, except as a coalition of minority pressure groups and interests. Yet there is only a modest future for a party which represents only such groups, and social forces on the decline. If Labour cannot get back the sort of communities represented by Stevenage, or Harlow, or Swindon, or Slough, we can forget about the British or any other realistic road to socialism.”
Not one of the many post-mortems of this year’s loss; but Eric Hobsbawm’s account of the 1983 General Election. And not since 1983 have we in the Labour Party been so out of step with the prevailing mood of the nation.
But worse still, for perhaps the first time, in the aftermath of May we now face an electoral battle across three distinct fronts.
The rise of nationalism in Scotland;
A lack of trust in historically Labour communities across the Midlands and North of England;
And a loss of confidence in Middle England about the Labour Party’s ability to manage the public purse and protect family finances.
Jon Cruddas’s work is more specific. He has identified four strands behind Labour’s poll meltdown.
First. It was pragmatic-minded voters who dealt Labour our devastating electoral defeat. Voters whose main concern is their personal financial circumstances abandoned us because we lacked economic credibility on tax and spend.
Second. We lost because voters believed we were anti-austerity. Difficult as this may be to accept in the current political climate, voters did not reject Labour because they saw us as austerity lite. They rejected Labour because they thought we were anti-austerity lite. As Jon argued, this does not mean that we should have accepted, the Tory economic strategy; rather it means that we should have been more effective in our efforts to contest the story that they told about the country’s economic situation.
Third. Since 2010 Labour has marched decisively away from the views of voters on issues that are fundamental to our electoral prospects: immigration, personal financial interest, welfare, public services, and business.
Fourth. Labour is losing its working class support - and it is UKIP that benefits. Since 2005, it is voters who are socially conservative that are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They want a sense of belonging and national renewal. They feel that Labour no longer offers them a compelling account of a better future.
More than that, there is a sense – far deeper than 1983 – of the cultural ecology that underpinned the Labour movement crumbling.
I see it in Stoke-on-Trent, the city I represent - a city which can lay a credible claim to being the first city of the Labour movement.
It was here – at Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria works – that the Industrial Revolution began.
And it was across North Staffordshire that non-conformism and in particular John Wesley’s Methodism first energised the English working-class.
We had the pits, the pots, the chapels, the co-ops, the steelworks, the unions - and with all that came the unequivocally progressive politics.
But these foundational institutions - which for so long have provided British social democracy with its cultural anchors - are barely a presence in the vast majority of my constituents’ lives anymore.
The chapels are empty.
The working mens’ clubs have closed.
Trade union membership is down - close to non-existent in the private sector.
And despite some encouraging recent signs, deindustrialisation, driven by global competition, has laid waste to too much of our manufacturing economy.
This withering of our Labour roots has eroded the sentimental and electoral loyalty to our party in white working class communities.
This presents those of us in the Labour party with an extraordinary political challenge, the answer to which can only be found if we begin by grounding ourselves, as Eric Hobsbawm argued, in the real not imagined concerns of peoples’ lives.
NEITHER PODEMOS NOR PASOKIFICATION
In the aftermath of the general election, I argued that the Labour Party needed to pursue a strategy of renewal which was neither Podemos nor Pasokification – which should serve as warning to us all about not seeking to build a progressive political project on the basis of little more than alliteration.
But the point remains valid. I was calling for a strategy which steered between the two jagged rocks of, on one side a hollowed internal party democracy and relevance of traditional centre-left parties such as Pasok in Greece, and, on the other side the easy, reckless populism of Podemos in Spain.
Instead, what we need to do is to take some of the new politics and combine it with the Labour Party’s historic mission as a majoritarian, governing party.
We need a politics which is both:
Patriotic and prudent;
Compassionate and competent;
Emotionally intelligent and economically literate.
Part of the great achievement of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be leader of the Labour Party was to ensure that our party did not undergo some form of post-defeat Pasokification. In the week following Corbyn’s victory, more than 50,000 people joined Labour; 150,000 have joined as members since our defeat. That is all good news.
Some have joined seeking an antidote to the cynicism and soullessness of professional electioneering, where the disempowering of the young and the gilding of the old supposedly go unchallenged because ‘that’s just how you win elections’. We should welcome them.
For others it was our hidebound constitutional settlements, storing up anger with their inability to cater for the new politics of nationhood, identity and belonging. We should welcome them.
Still more have come because they simply seek the chance to help make change happen to people’s lives. And we should welcome them too.
Certainly, part of the attractiveness of the Corbyn campaign was the perception that an open conversation was central to his politics. This tapped into the same raw hostility towards the closed political habits of a technocratic elite that has emboldened so much European populism on both left and right.
The command-and-control, disciplinarian message of 1990s political management looks increasingly incompatible with the coming age of individualism and authenticity. Similarly, as Labour deputy leader candidate Stella Creasy has argued, during the General Election campaign we saw the limits of our Contact Creator, Voter I.D. approach to political mobilisation. Our
celebrated 5 million conversations too often meant talking at voters, rather than discussing with them. ‘It wasn’t a conversation in the sense that anybody else would understand because it was about telling us something we want to know … in an age where people want politics not to be broadcast at them, but interactive, where they don’t just want to be told this group of people can make their lives better, they want to be part of it.’
But the challenge is this. What happens when this habit of ‘new politics’ – aptly described by the Crick Centre director Matthew Flinders as ‘a world of boycotting, buy-cotting, squatting, pinging, hacking, flashmobs, twitter-led mobilisations, and a general broadening –rather than narrowing – of the ways in which people express themselves politically’ – comes up against cold electoral reality?
There is a risk, I think, with what we might call ‘algorithm politics.’ What the algorithms which underpin our digital lives do is take information about us and fire similar information back at us.
Google’s skill at offering you what it knows you like is now directing you towards what you want to hear, from people like you.
And I think this is radicalising political opinion amongst the congregation – from left to right - emboldens group-think and disconnects the hyper-engaged from the sentiments of the wider electorate.
Not least because what people say to each other on the internet - and social media in particular - rewards strong, polarising opinions and primary coloured politics.
And because it teaches us to appropriate culture as expressions of our individual, personal identity.
On Twitter you are defined by those you follow and those who follow you.
Far from broadening the mind through access to the greatest library human beings have ever created, people’s experience of the internet is increasingly a narrow online world where anyone who puts their heads above the parapet can be the target of an anonymised digital mob.
If social media were politicising the many as well as radicalising the few; were it significantly growing the number of people engaged in politics in first place rather than confirming pre-held bias then Ed Miliband might now be sitting in 10 Downing Street - and this discussion would not even be taking place.
So our political challenge is to channel this remarkable online energy – as well as that popular surge which attracted so many to hear Jeremy speak in town halls and hustings across the country - into some of the essential political habits of community involvement, public engagement, citizen participation, and standing for office. We need the new politics to transform itself into a more substantive part of the Labour Movement.
The truth of it is that even in the era of new politics, some old certainties remain: the importance of strong leadership and sound policy.
For some commentators, the nature of our loss – against nationalism in Scotland; UKIP in our heartlands; the Tories in the marginals – necessitates a ‘slice and dice’ strategy of different messages for different political audiences.
But I do not believe that micro-targeting policy solutions for different groups of people will work – either as an electoral strategy or a programme for government.
Instead, we need a radical programme that is rooted in Labour’s liberal, socialist heritage – but one that also has ‘the future in its bones’: a socialism that embraces technology and modernity and sees the function of the state as supporting and empowering citizens in an age of insecurity.
The quickening pace of globalisation, changes to the labour market, the rise of robots and supercomputers, and the urgent need for social security reform are here to stay. And we need to think big. ‘Make no little plans,’ the celebrated Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, once wrote. ‘They have no magic to stir men’s blood.’
And so in thinking big, we need to begin, first and foremost, with political economy. Given the chronic wage stagnation and falling living standards affecting so many people, we can be much more forthright about the limits and failures of markets.
Across time and place, capitalism takes on multiple forms, and Labour has now to lead the thinking on what forms of corporate governance, finance and ownership are fit for the digital age.
When the British chancellor flies to Beijing to offer government securities to Chinese investors to support the French state in building a UK nuclear power station, our economic model is bust. On housing, asset inflation, pension and mortgage policies for the self-employed, land tax rates and even basic income guarantees, there are so many radical options to explore.
Secondly, we need a bold welfare reform agenda based on Labour values with which to counteract the Tories’ punitive cuts.
In the run up to the General Election, we gave the impression we were against every and any new idea on welfare.
We offended the British people’s sense of fairness by appearing to oppose the benefits cap - but we didn’t have any new ideas.
The truth is the Tories have an incredibly deficient agenda when it comes to welfare reform.
As we have seen at Tory Party Conference this week: you know you are in trouble when even Boris Johnson, David Davis and The Sun are suggesting that the upcoming cuts to working tax credits are unjust and punitive.
So, I believe Labour can and must seize the initiative here.
Go back to Beveridge and restore the contributory principle.
More important than ever in an age of mass migration, as a sense of unfairness about welfare contributes to resentment towards new arrivals.
The rule should be: You pay more in. You get more out.
If you have a strong record of work, you should receive more help and protection for your home when you fall on hard times.
Because right across the world countries with an entitlement based system such as ours are gripped by diminishing social support for the welfare state.
But we also need a similar, game-changing breakthrough on community.
Sheffield has now joined Manchester in moving towards Combined Authority status. It is an infuriating fact that we allowed the Tories to steal our clothes on this devolution agenda.
I believe that place matters; that the right policy for Sheffield is not necessarily the right policy for Glasgow. Policy innovation works in a devolved context.
Our history of municipal, ‘gas and water’ socialism gives us a localist heritage.
In Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield, it was progressives who built a vibrant civic democracy, confronted vested interests, and created the great age of Victorian and Edwardian civic pride.
But both Labour and the Conservatives then colluded in the century of centralisation.
Too often we have allowed the command and control culture of our statism to poison the community well.
Labour needs to win the race to hand power back to people and local communities.
We need a devo-max settlement for England. We should continue to campaign against the unfair, arbitrary and brutal allocation of cuts to local government, which sees cities like Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffield hammered, whilst the likes of Dorset and Hampshire are protected. But we should not use that indignation just to ignore the devolution agenda or retreat back into statism.
We must shelve our timidity, match Osborne’s offer and go beyond it by giving city and country regions the power to vary local taxes, including business rates from a baseline which takes account of regional disparities of wealth.
Finally, on family. All the evidence shows how stable, loving, family relationships are absolutely crucial to child development, early education and, of course, happiness.
The impact of those nurturing relationships in the early years - so beautifully captured by Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids - cannot be overstated.
Our Kids is an account – based around the Ohio of his upbringing - of how economic change and family breakdown is destroying social mobility.
First went the secure jobs and the broad-based, working and lower middle class prosperity.
Then went the social capital - the churches, the trade unions, the community associations - which bound people together, providing common life, informal safety net and wider cultural horizons.
Finally, even the stable family unit - the most powerful institution for early child and, as such, long-term wellbeing and achievement - began to creak under extra stress too.
It is a trajectory we can sadly recognise in deindustrialised communities where poverty, social deprivation and low attainment are so prevalent.
Of the twelve countries surveyed in the OECDs last major social mobility report, Britain had the strongest link between an individual’s earnings and those of their parents.
Inequality passed down through the generations through huge disparities of wealth, power and opportunity. That is the shameful record of our country today.
The Government’s solution is to abolish the methods by which child poverty is counted – a Whitehall sleight of hand which will do nothing to lift children out of poverty in Stoke-on-Trent.
We need a bigger, braver vision. And one that goes beyond a belief that child poverty can be solved largely or even entirely through material redistribution.
For too long this approach has bloated our welfare system: we spend as much on redistribution as the famously egalitarian Scandinavian countries. But with far less effect.
We need institutions that tackle inequality at source – by raising parents’ opportunities to work, children's opportunities to learn and families’ opportunities to plan their time together.
I would suggest that we need to rethink our entire approach to the post-war offices of state and government bureaucracy.
We need to build a Social Investment State where the principle of pre-distribution – of attacking inequality at root; ensuring funds and bureaucracies are focused on preventing social dysfunction upstream, rather than mopping it up downstream – is central to a reformed Whitehall.
The old departmental Behemoths of Education and Health; Home Office and Justice seem increasingly out of date for the nimble, preventive state we need. Their primary administrative purpose is too often to stave off the effects of failure, rather than commission the smart services and invest in the future-proofing policies that really deliver change.
Too many of them are rotten edifices of the 19th century, holding back the social reform we need. And just as local government has transformed itself in the face of austerity, so too must the central state.
In 2012, as I was reflecting on the Labour Party’s last loss, I wrote, ‘Among social groups uneasy about the impact of globalisation, national identity and other ‘cultural issues’ will play a bigger role in determining political allegiances. As the only political party to seek mass support across all three countries in Great Britain, increasing levels of Scottish, Welsh and English nationalism could present an especially acute and difficult challenge for the Labour Party.’
You’re not kidding.
Because a crucial component of the new politics is how European debate is taking on an increasingly nationalist character…
… how issues of culture, identity and defending the national interest are becoming as important - if not more important - than conventional questions of public policy.
The impact of the SNP upon the Labour Party’s general election campaign perfectly captures the challenges mainstream social democracy faces with nationalism.
In Scotland and England, for different reasons, too many voters felt Labour was not standing up for them or their national interest. We were to Scotland, like the EU is to Greece: a foreign technocratic elite telling them they could not be trusted with their own affairs.
This sort of national struggle between national or regional democracy and identity on one hand, and technocracy on the other, is increasingly the prism through which European voters refract their politics.
And it is hurting us twice over.
Not only because our party came into being to represent the people not the elite.
But also because right-wing, conservative and nationalist forces appear to have a deeper and more emotional affinity with Nation, the national culture and national interest.
Of course, at this point, we have to reach for another part of Bernard Crick’s great contribution to socialist literature: his biography of George Orwell. For it is Orwell’s account in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius which has become the default account of the Left and love of country.
‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box.’
But Crick’s point was this: Orwell’s patriotism drew a clear distinction between deep love of one’s land and culture - so that anyone who grows into that love can be a patriot – and nationalism, a claim to natural superiority over others. Crucially, it was also a radical, democratic patriotism – of the kind which so powerfully informed the politics of Clement Attlee – caught brilliantly in the final passage of the Lion and the Unicorn, when he writes that:
‘The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less.’
Above all, Orwell was concerned with Englishness, not Britishness.
Because for all the great work of the BBC, Team GB, Gordon Brown, the British Museum, and other cultural and political actors, the natural and instinctive ties of Britishness are now fraying.
When the two defining edifices of Britishness – the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace – are both declared unfit for human habitation, it suggests there might be something wrong in the body politic.
And that means the Labour Party here in England - and Wales - needs to catch-up fast.
If Scottish Labour needs to rediscover its cultural and emotional ties to the Scottish identity, then the Labour Party in England needs to embrace our English identity.
Emphasise our English culture.
Because as the Emily Thornberry furore showed, we seem uneasy with the modern landscape of Englishness – of St George’s Flags, music festivals, soap operas, Premier League football, computer gaming and gardening.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that there is a rich English historical tradition which has always stood in fierce opposition to Conservatism and inequality.
From Thomas More, to the Levellers, Thomas Paine, the co-operatives, William Blake, George Orwell and the great 20th century achievements of the Labour Party and trade unions – there is a clear cultural strand of radical patriotic Englishness.
Labour should remember this culture. And give far greater voice to it.
And it works on both sides of the Tweed.
The story the SNP tell about the English is an account of how England’s innate political sensibilities continually thwart Scotland’s social justice ambitions.
Reclaiming radical England; telling the story of England’s progressive achievements; can in fact help to negate that damaging SNP story.
To remind us once again that so many of Scotland’s social justice ambitions are shared by the people of England.
And that in the face of the enormous challenge of globalisation - a strong, common union allows us to face them together.
The guilds and communes of John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter marked a retreat from politics.The vision of Bernard Crick and public life of David Blunkett have been an affirmation of the merit of politics. I stand with the practical rather than Utopian socialists.
Yet new times need new politics. If our election defeat in May has taught us anything, it is that we need to think deeply and profoundly about the future of the left and our political method.
We need to revisit the fundamental question about what the Labour Party is for in these changing times; we need to understand that debate and discussion is a part of political development, rather than simply a pathway to policy; and we need to be radical in our thinking about political economy and patriotic socialism.
And, above all else, we need to tell a story to the British people – grounded in policy - that stirs men - and women’s - blood.
The process of renewal has only just begun, and it will be a long and hard road back to power. One we will undertake in the spirit of solidarity, community, enterprise, and hard work. But we should never lose sight of the fact that our party came into being as the Labour Representation Committee – not the Labour Protestation Committee. This is a zero-sum game: when we are not in power, our opponents are.
When I see the trade union bill attacking trade union rights; the education bill silencing parents; the assault on the independence of the BBC; the slashing of tax credits; fracking in our national parks; the gagging of charities; the withdrawal of maintenance grants for students; the closing down of Sure Start; and an inheritance tax cut for millionaires – I know that more than ever.
You only stop those actions by being in government. A Labour Party perennially on the outside is bad news for Britain. And you are only trusted to form a government if you listen to the real, not imagined, concerns of people’s lives.
Let me end this evening with the prophetic words of a great Yorkshire MP, the late Denis Healey, who died last week.
In the aftermath of Labour’s General Election defeat of 1959 he wrote, ‘There are far too many people who … want to luxuriate in the moral righteousness in Opposition. But who is going to pay the price for their complacency? … In Britain it is the unemployed and old age pensioners, and outside Britain there are millions of people in Asia and Africa who desperately need a Labour Government in this country to help them ... We are not just a debating society. We are not just a socialist Sunday school. We are a great movement that wants to help real people at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power. We shall never get power until we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.’
New times, new politics, but our mission remains the same: to be a party of government that challenges inequality and democratises power.
This is a politics worth more than just defending; it is the only politics worth championing.
“New Politics, New Times” Tristram Hunt MP The Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield Thursday, 8th October 2015 Let me begin, as I...