Turning the clock back on Britain would be an abdication of the national interest, argues Ellie Groves. This article is part of The Labour Interest series.
Is this the end of liberalism as we know it? Does Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of the populist right mean that Labour, without scrutiny, should make the conclusion that the liberalism of New Labour was a failed experiment? Jonathan Rutherford makes the case that Labour should embrace Brexit, focus on ‘Englishness’ and get back to its routes of being the party for ‘labour’ interests. The claim that ‘the moral relativism and virtue signaling of the social liberal left has contributed to its political decline’ might well all ring too close to home in certain circles, however, virtue signaling is not a vice only found in liberal circles and must be challenged wherever seen.
To first take the point about the loss if New Labour to appreciate cultural ties and institutions that bind people together is to dismiss the last Labour government so easily and ultimately does Labour a disservice. In those years the government; ensured that museums were free, so that all could access and learn about the history of the United Kingdom; strengthened devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that the countries which make up the UK also have a sense of their own identity; and poured money into education, so that school kids from all over the country had the chance to learn, grow and be part of society. These are just three key areas where New Labour did engage with society and did seek to strengthen British institutions. One of the strongest legacies of this was to ingrain the National Health Service to being a well-loved jewel in the crown of the UK. So much so that even the rightwing campaigns of today are putting the NHS as a key campaign pledge – not something you would have seen plastered across a Margaret Thatcher battle bus. These accomplishments are felt not just in the metropolitan elite cities, but also in the shires, in the towns and in the villages which make up the UK. Part of the ‘taking back control’ was also to get more money for the NHS and our schools – things which were also at the fore of the New Labour years, these liberal achievements should not be so readily ignored.
Since the 1970s the changing nature of work has posed a particular and almost extensional threat to the Labour party. The closing of mines, factories and reduction in trade union membership has gutted out the traditional Labour voting base. This base has now seemingly moved to cities like London and to ‘liberal voters’ who – in the most catch-all description – have benefited from globalization, who support the furthering of LGBT and women’s rights, and who like to brunch with avocado on a Sunday. The challenge for Labour now is to accept this broad church. We cannot go back to the 1970s where sexist language was even more common and tolerated than it is today and where we did not have anti-discrimination laws, yet, we cannot ignore the very real worries from those who feel as though immigration is eroding the cultural identity of the UK. Yet, to just say that Labour should accept the latter’s arguments and ignore the former is also virtue signaling – it is the boasts of someone who wishes for the ‘good old days’ without knowing when exactly those days where. To those the question must be posed, what then is your cultural identity?
Brexit does mean Brexit and without a doubt Labour needs to address the concerns of those in the shires and outside of London if it is ever to have a hope of leading the country again, or even for it to be a credible opposition. Brexit is an opportunity for Labour to revamp itself, to look at the challenges facing the world and to respond. It should not just jump on the bandwagon of the populist right, nor should it run to the far left, but then nor should it stay with everything ‘moderate’. There is value in allowing voices which challenge the liberal sense of what is comfortable to be heard. Politics is about people, it should be about listening (and no, four million ‘conversations’ on a door step is not listening). Yet, to run head long into cutting off access of free movement and leaving the single market without fully realizing if it is in the national interest to win votes seems like short-termism. Clause One of the Labour party constitution makes it clear that winning power is a key objective, but to do so a party should also be responsible. As Sir Ivan Rogers said on his resignation to Theresa May, ‘I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power’, the Labour party should also heed this advice. Be that speaking truth to the liberal elite, in saying that they do not have all the answers, or to those outside of London when saying that leaving the single market would wreck the economy so the Labour party cannot support it in good faith.
Labour should take this time to come to terms with the changing nature of work, see how technology can make life easier for all, empower trade unions to increase membership – especially in the private sector, and actively create pathways for working class and diverse people to become members of parliament. Yet, it should not forget to fight for the progressive agenda of enforcing a minimum wage, stamping out racism, and fighting for the most traditional British trait – tolerance. Labour should tackle the fears people have of immigration and Islam, however, the answer to that is fostering a sense of community not becoming isolationist. While it might sound twee, more street parties (may poll dancing included), keeping our libraries open, investing in parks and recreational areas and ensure that schools are financially supported. Britishness should be celebrated, but it should not be used as an excuse to shut us off from the world. As Rutherford writes, the conclusion that ‘with a credible leadership, a nation building politics that incorporates the cultural and the economic is the only means by which it can bridge the divisions within its coalition and reconnect to the country’ is one we should listen too. However, we should not come to the conclusion that progressive politics is negative, we should be thinking of ways to always reach for a better nation while we bring everyone with us.
Ellie Groves is national chair of the Young Fabians. She tweets at @EllieRuthGroves