Understanding the problem.

AuthorFinlayson, Alan

Two interrelated questions face any party or movement serious about winning and using political power: what are the most significant changes in its socio-economic and cultural environment, and how can it respond (and make changes of its own), so as to ensure its survival and growth? Past conflicts within Labour might be understood as being between those who emphasised just one of these questions: at one extreme a pseudo-sociological reductionism insisting on the environmental constraints to which politics must subordinate itself; at the other, insistence that a principled political will can always overcome all obstacles. Advocates of the former see the latter as, at best, naive dreamers and, at worst, dogmatic purists. Advocates of the latter see the former as, at best, naive conformists and, at worst, cynics with nothing but betrayal in their hearts.

If the present state of the Labour Party looks like yet another iteration of this conflict then appearances are deceiving. What is remarkable about the present moment is that none of the major factions is really asking, let alone answering, either of these questions. They hide from both reality and utopia, comfortably trapped within various myths of Labour's past to which they long to return and through which they cannot see the present day: 2017 (when Jeremy Corbyn 'won' the general election); 2007 (before Brown 'stole' the crown from Blair); 1997 ('a new dawn has broken, has it not?'); 1983 (before the Labour Party betrayed the miners); 1945 (of course); 1889 (when church and union joined forces on the West India Docks); 1649 (on St George's Hill).

This is a problem.

Pickled

For over thirty years Labour has been haunted by the spectre of what Neil Kinnock famously called, in his 1985 speech to the party conference, 'impossible promises' and 'far-fetched resolutions... pickled into a rigid dogma'. These were the kind that gets 'outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs', ending in 'grotesque chaos'. But history's ghosts sometimes enact darkly ironic revenge. Kinnock's diagnosis has itself become pickled into rigid dogma. A section of the party now thinks that when Labour loses it is primarily because 'the left' has been too self-involved and committed. Resisting and rejecting the dogmatic ideology of the 'hard left' then becomes an all-encompassing ideological dogma of its own. A political generation which came of age in the mid-1990s thinks that what it imagines to have been Blairism is not 'The Third Way' but 'The One And True Way'. Their political mission isn't overcoming well-organised, digitally dominant resurgent forces on the right and far right but re-imposing on their party a political strategy now a quarter of a century old.

Labour's factional disputes in the 1980s were about how to understand and respond to Thatcherite deindustrialisation and the effective embourgeoisement of a significant part of the working class. Though bitter, they were conducted using a (mostly) shared vocabulary. Today Labour's internal disputes are conducted in mutually exclusive languages. All we have are rigid codes, pickled dogmas and competing fantasies. As Christine Berry showed in a previous issue of this journal, the contending parties, literally, cannot read the words their imagined opponents have written. (1)

This is also a problem.

The longed-for 1990s

If it is to succeed, a political movement must find a way of understanding the forces shaping the world around it--one that is sufficient to give it a sense of direction and a way of riding the waves of change into a harbour of its own choosing. It needs to know which social classes, economic interests and cultural identities are--to use Raymond Williams's terms--residual (perhaps fading but maybe revenants), which are dominant, and which emergent. And it needs to know how rival parties and movements are thinking and responding to these same forces. Then it might know how, where and when to make a move.

The victory of New Labour in the 1990s was, like any political victory, made from a mixture of luck and determination. It was built on strong party management and a focused 'on-message' communications strategy. But it was not a triumph of brand management alone. It was also grounded in an overall analysis which drew on Anthony Giddens's sociology of cultural identity in late modernity, and on the political economy of 'new times' developed by activists associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. By combining all this, Labour was able to develop and communicate a vocabulary...

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