25 April 2013

Is Labour capable of being a One Nation party?

Unite union baron Len McCluskey’s latest declaration of war on ‘Blairites’ in the Labour Party doesn’t exactly promote a vision of Labour as a ‘One Nation’ institution committed to healing divisions in society.

That is precisely the point.

The politics of the major unions affiliated to Labour remain consciously and resolutely antagonistic and divisive, committed to the Marxist-Leninist model of institutional capture (albeit with compromise).  

As McCluskey himself refers to it in the New Statesman interview though, the practice of centralised capture and control is not restricted to the big unions: Tony Blair and New Labour practised it ruthlessly to exercise control over the party.

Peter Watt, the Blairite former general secretary, explained it openly recently: “There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.”

Watt has changed his mind on fixing. But as McCluskey has it, the unions are just getting their own back with their latest successes in fixing candidate selections for European elections to include their own people and exclude others.

“Because we're having some success, suddenly these people are crying foul. Well I’m delighted to read it. I’m delighted when Tony Blair and everyone else intervenes because it demonstrates that we are having an impact and an influence and we’ll continue to do so.”

For those of us who like the One Nation idea that Ed Miliband articulated at Labour Party conference last year, these divisions and the practices they promote offer a depressing viewpoint. The unions and the New Labour tendency remain locked in internecine warfare: this is the reality of Labour’s internal power politics, and this is where the real battles are taking place. It is not so much One Nation Labour as Same Old Labour Divisions.

As Atul Hatwal at Labour Uncut put it, “on one point there is now a rare unity between the centrists and the left: the one nation rhetoric is meaningless”.

Though I disagree on the idea itself, Hatwal has a point in addressing the reality, for One Nation remains very much a sideshow within Labour. The big unions who dominate party funding quite rightly see it as a threat to their antagonistic, materialistic brand of politics; the New Labour wing meanwhile remains transfixed (understandably) on the need to assert economic competence and resist Labour’s natural instincts to spend money.

In the midst of this, Shadow Ministers and other major party figures articulating One Nation visions and ideas are almost entirely absent (pumping out press releases strewn randomly with ‘One Nation’ yet promoting the same old policies and positions does not count). The Party is not going along with One Nation and for the most part does not get it.

(Lord) Maurice Glasman, Jon Cruddas and now Arnie Graf have been fighting gamely but can’t do it all on their own. Glasman and Graf in particular are not really politicians. If and when One Nation goes the way of the Big Society, the idea and its promoters will be blamed for little fault of their own.

In reality, they have simply come up against what so many other left-wing reformers have come up against before: the sclerotic nature of the Labour Party, dominated as it by the sort of transactional interest group politics that they argue against.

You may ask, ‘Where is Ed Miliband himself in all of this?’

The response of Miliband’s spokesperson to McCluskey’s latest clunking intervention was admirably strong:

“Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible.”
“It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s. It won’t work, it is wrong, it is disloyal to the party he claims to represent.”

This does not change much though. Miliband remains stuck in the middle of it all, attempting to reconcile the warring parties.

In such a context, any hopes of the Labour Party itself starting to look like a One Nation institution look distant. Without embodying it through practices and communications, the idea will become less and less relevant and will prove puzzling at best to voters – especially with the likes of McCluskey sounding off every so often.

The chance to change the party in a major way through a major intervention by the leader (like Tony Blair on Clause IV in 1994-5) is probably gone now. So we are left with the old ways, whereby factions compete to secure as much of the Party as they can in order to promote their own people and sectional interests.

The stitch-up and the fix live on; and with them, One Nation Labour will likely die.

14 April 2013

Thatcher, Miliband and the dangers of ideology

As I wrote in my first posting explaining why I set up this blog,

“I am against ideologies like neoliberalism and ‘Vulgar’ Marxism, and also some of the forms that have emerged around the politics of identity, including strictly deterministic versions of feminism. Ideologies like these offer simplistic, all-encompassing explanations about the way the world is while setting different groups in society against each other.”

Among other things, Margaret Thatcher’s death has given us cause to reflect on the first of those; neoliberalism: as the crucial economic component of Thatcherism.

In his generally excellent response* to Margaret Thatcher’s death in Parliament on Wednesday 10th April, Ed Miliband said something on ideology which made me bridle a bit:

 What was unusual, was that she [Thatcher] sought to be rooted in people’s daily lives, but she also believed that ideology mattered.

Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life.

And while she never would have claimed to be, or wanted to be seen as, an intellectual, she believed, and she showed, that ideas matter in politics.

Ideas certainly do matter, and new ideas are important – indeed crucial if politics is to be of much interest beyond the politics industry. But ideology is something different and something inherently dangerous in my view.

My Oxford Dictionary of Politics says, “Any comprehensive and mutually consistent set of ideas by which a social groups makes sense of the world may be referred to as an ideology. Catholicism, Islam, Liberalism, and Marxism are examples.

I want to go a bit further than this in saying that an ideology is a system of belief, claiming general understanding of society. An ideology offers a means to explain pretty much everything from within its system. It therefore mirrors the society it claims to understand, as system and structure.

So: Marxism claims to understand society scientifically as a clash of social classes that will inevitably lead from capitalism to socialism; neoliberalism holds up self-interest as the only worthwhile value; and ideologies of feminism see male domination as the overriding factor (a system of ‘patriarchy’, as I have written about here recently).

Each of these ideologies offers an all-encompassing explanation for how things are. They also lead to simplistic interpretations of specific problems, while suggesting simplistic solutions: a ‘one size fits all’ approach. So: class war is all that matters OR freeing up market forces is all that matters OR destroying the patriarchy is all that matters. This is what happens with ideologies.

Funnily enough, Margaret Thatcher’s defining statement that “there is no such thing as society” is something I have some sympathy for. As you can see from this transcript of when she said it, the quotation is taken out of context.

We assume she meant that only self-interest matters (which would have fitted her economic thinking), but she was actually making the point that society is not and cannot be a unit or a thing. Society cannot be seen, heard, touched or measured. It is an intangible idea of something, unless we conceive of it as an adding together of all the real things that make it up.

In this way of thinking, which I find persuasive, society itself is not an actor. It is not a force; indeed it is not an ‘it’ in the strictest sense.

This is called ‘methodological individualism’. It is the belief (which I think is right) that we should be talking about how people, institutions and real, tangible forces influence each other, rather than making huge ideological edifices out of speculation about things we cannot confidently define, like ‘society’.

This is the point at which ideologies become dangerous. As we can see with crude Marxism, neoliberalism and dominant feminism, they offer great interpretative power. They therefore also have great political power via the confidence given to followers.

However, this is often at the expense of truth.

Class struggle, individual self-interest and male domination all have their relevance; indeed all are important. But they are not of overriding importance at all times and everywhere. The world is more complicated than that.

*I think Ed Miliband’s speech to the House of Commons on Mrs Thatcher was his best demonstration yet of what One Nation Labour means in practice. He made it clear how much he disagrees with what Thatcher did, but was respectful and generous in his words and also, crucially, in his tone. For One Nation Labour to mean much more than another slogan, it is in the way that Labour goes about its business. Ed is showing that way. However, as a member, I am sceptical that Labour as an institution is capable of following. Self- and group-interests are just too strong, and the internal workings of the party are dominated by them. At the moment there is little sign of that changing.

6 April 2013

Some Reflections on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure

One evening not long ago I happened to sit down on the Tube next to a woman who was reading Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. Since I had been thinking about reading another book of his for a while – after picking up a collection of hardbacks from a charity shop for eight quid one day – I asked her what she thought and we had a nice chat.

She was reading Jude with her book club and was clearly quite moved by it. Since I like a bit of serendipity and my choices being made up for me sometimes, Jude was the volume I plucked off my bookshelves when I got home.

It is, particularly in its tumultuous second half, a remarkable book – with Hardy’s characteristically rich and lively writing allied to a keen sense for how human life and social convention wrap themselves around another with sometimes troubling consequences.

Originally published in book form in 1895, Jude also speaks to a time of rapid social change, which often makes itself evident as the book reaches towards its climax – even though rural Wessex stands relatively untouched by the Industrial Revolution.

One thing that stood out for me in reading the book is Hardy’s prescience towards the social changes to come in the 20th Century.

Against convention, his hero Jude Fawley and heroine Sue Bridehead come to live together and have children without being married. They struggle against social disapproval, which affects their income among other things, but maintain that they have done no harm by living as they do.

Jude says towards the end of the book:

“’As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago – when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless – the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessness and ruin on me!’”

Earlier on, Jude speaks to Sue on marriage:

“'The intention of the contract is good, and right for many, no doubt; but in our case it may defeat its own ends because we are the queer sort of people we are – folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness.’

 Sue still held that there was not much queer or exceptional in them: that all were so. ‘Everybody is getting to feel as we do. We are a little beforehand, that’s all. In fifty, a hundred, years the descendents of these two [children] will act and feel worse than we. They will see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now, as

                Shapes like our own selves hideously multiplied,’

And will be afraid to reproduce them.’”

Sue’s more drastic anticipations are probably not unrelated to her squeamishness about sex, but there might be some prescience in them. However the first reflection of Jude’s seems uncannily prescient given the social changes that swept Britain and the world since the Second World War (and particularly in the 1960s), when marriage seriously started to lose its pre-eminent place regulating relations between men and women.

In a passage in which she asks release from her unloved husband, Sue quotes John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher who as a Member of Parliament in 1866 tried to secure women the vote.

Sue says:

'She, or he, “who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation”. J. S. Mill’s words, those are. I have been reading it up. Why can’t you act upon them? I wish to, always.'

Mill’s doctrines of individual freedom course through Jude like a stream of fresh water.

Mill said, in 'On Liberty', "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."  Jude and Sue embody and express that principle in their lives, but the society around them does not share it.

Their characters as written by Hardy were right that they were living too early to enjoy the freedoms that Mill’s doctrines would have allowed to them.

This and much else make for a poignant story. However the reaction of most reviewers at the time was vituperative. As Norman Page has documented, critics called it among other things ‘a stream of indecency’, ‘a moral monstrosity’, a work ‘steeped in sex’, ‘dabbling in beastliness and putrefaction’ that was subverting ‘all the obligations and relations of life which most people hold sacred’ and undermining ‘the fundamental institutions of our society’.

In a postscript written in 1912, Hardy said of these attacks (from both sides of the Atlantic) that “the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself – the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing.” (He never wrote another novel despite living more than thirty years longer, sticking to poetry).

The book was burnt by a bishop: “probably in his despair at not being able to burn me”, Hardy said. Meanwhile the reviews “practically ignored” the greater part of the story, “that which presented the shattered ideals of the two chief characters”.

He adds: “Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work – austere in its treatment of a difficult subject –as if the writer had not all the time said in the Preface that it was meant to be so. Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended.”

We can be thankful he went through all that. For us, now, it was surely worthwhile.