13 July 2015

Blue Labour should be about more than politics

The arts are the means by which we can look through the magic casements and see what lies behind.”
                                                                      ~ Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Blue Labour is the Labour Party’s only hope if it is to win elections while remaining a party of the left. This is my view.

This is still a far off vision though. Blue Labour is still quite an inchoate collection of ideas which many in the party don’t understand and others don't much like. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ project sought to capture some of its narrative but failed to gain much traction and was quietly dropped.

So what is it all about?

One of Blue Labour’s originators Maurice Glasman explained the idea in 2011,

“This is not a politics of nostalgia, as has been claimed ... by some critics inside and outside Labour. It is a claim that practices and values crucial to what Labour is and stands for have either been forgotten, lost or wrongly downgraded in the party's list of priorities. Nor is it a defence of a vanished working class; it is a claim that the ethical vision of a humane society which led working men and women to found the party in 1900 is still relevant and vital today.”

Both Glasman and Jon Cruddas, who helped push the ‘One Nation Labour’ project, have emphasised this need to reach back into the party’s history to recover traditions – specifically that of ‘ethical socialism’ – that have lain ignored and neglected over the years. This is also a common practice of artists, writers and musicians of course - looking into the past for inspiration, guidance and also basic material to reuse and adapt.

I can’t help think that we could learn a little from those artists, writers and musicians and reach into the sort of areas they inhabit. Labour’s own history offers plenty of interesting lessons and ideas to pick up. But at a time when the party is relentlessly narrowing down upon itself - not least in the current leadership election - I’m thinking we need to find more meaningful ways of reaching outwards and making connections with people that might help create something new and enduring.

Blue Labour, semi-detached from the Party and interested in the broad brush of stories and ideas rather than narrow political positioning, could be a good vehicle for doing this. There is an opportunity here to participate in building something new in the social and cultural sphere as much as in politics - offering an attractive, interesting alternative not just to current leftist politics but to the denuded materialism of mainstream culture and institutions.

This would mean reaching into our culture and history to find voices who share our broad sense of life and politics and have something to say about our national story: of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. It would also mean welcoming anyone who shares the vision and wants to be a part of it, whatever their background and whether they come from within the Labour tribe or outside.

Vaughan Williams: music serving the people

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams provides a fine example for the sort of approach I am thinking of. A socialist of a particularly stroppy, non-ideological kind (he once said ‘I think that when I am with conservatives I become socialistic and when I am with socialists I become a true blue Tory’), Vaughan Williams believed that music should be for the masses rather than just for elite aficionados. He wrote some of the most enduringly-loved English music, including ‘The Lark Ascending' and ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, with his cat 'Foxy'

But this didn’t come about by accident. In the early years of the 20th Century, Vaughan Williams and his friends Gustav Holst and George Butterworth deliberately set out to create a new English national music, freed from the overwhelming Germanic influences that were dominant at that time. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams found much of their inspiration from the folk songs of common people – songs that were dying out even then.

The conductor Sir Roger Norrington has said of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony for example:

“He always felt that he should be serving the people; that’s why [the symphony is] full of folk songs. He went round, on his bicycle, to pubs...in the country. He didn’t have a tape recorder [they didn’t back then], he had to write them down ... And then things like that would appear in his symphony.”

By all accounts Vaughan Williams was a generous and compassionate man, and that comes out of his music: it is accessible and not intimidating (though much of it burns with fire and anger like the post-WWII Sixth Symphony). His best works inspire and lift the soul as the best art does. He was also always keen to encourage young people as he felt he hadn’t been when he was growing up.

But like all great art his music encourages something that I think we neglect on the left, which is enjoying the moment – and not treating the world as something hostile that needs to be overcome. Our version of the good must be for now rather for a tomorrow that never comes. This idea of there being a good for here and now is a basis of ethics and something which Blue/One Nation Labour has sought to resurrect. One element of it can be found in music, which so often speaks louder than words.

Making cultural connections is of course only one part of any potential Blue Labour project, but I think it is an important one, not least because Blue Labour doesn’t fit into the Labour’s current institutional architecture and it is difficult to envisage it doing so. If it is to endure Blue Labour would need to set a different example to existing institutions in and around the party, demonstrating an alternative sort of inclusivity based on shared values rather than identity and ideology.

For me, the most obvious Blue Labour policy would be to propose a democratic process for choosing a new English national anthem.

This could draw in Britain’s musical community to develop suitable versions of different pieces to replace God Save the Queen as England’s anthem (while retaining it as the United Kingdom anthem). In this way we could remove an element of the symbolic hegemony of England in the relationship between the United Kingdom’s different nations, while paying some long-overdue attention to the state of England and the meaning of England. In doing so, we would also offer a powerful example of the democratisation of meaningful life that Blue Labour seeks to promote, giving those of us who live in England a chance to bind ourselves to a new, fresh symbol of being English.

As you might guess, my personal choice would probably be something from Vaughan Williams – not least because one of his passions was to recapture and propagate a music that was distinctively English. But the only condition I would place on a new anthem – of a piece with Vaughan Williams’ own rejection of any ‘programme’ being put to his music - is that it shouldn’t prescribe anything or exclude anyone.

Some people will not like what the majority chooses but there should be no reason not to like it.

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1 July 2015

Heathrow expansion: the monster which will never be sated

A few questions:

1) What sort of country (and indeed world) do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

2) Do we care about quality of life and, if so, what does it mean?

3) Are we serious about valuing our environment and the natural world, or are we happy to keep on despoiling and degrading them?

4) Are we serious about tackling climate change, and if not, are we prepared to face the consequences of it?

5) What priority does economic activity take in relation to these things, and is this priority indefinite or time-limited?

These questions seem pretty important and fundamental to me, but they are questions that hardly ever get asked in our mainstream political debate, let alone answered. We have a democratic political system, but it often seems more dedicated to avoiding big and difficult questions rather than confronting them.

Ironically perhaps, the latter point is not far from the position of the aviation lobby and its media supporters. They think that democracy gets in the way of decision-making and advocate ‘taking the politics out’ of or ‘depoliticising’ key decisions like that of where to build a new runway in the South East of England. That means taking the democracy out of it, so taking the role of ordinary people out of it. Ironically again, rather many politicians take the same line – people after all can be desperately inconvenient when you are trying to get something done.

Howard Davies has finished spending our £20 million on his Airports Commission report and came to the same conclusion he started with by recommending a new runway at Heathrow on the edge of West London, adding to the two existing ones there. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he and his people will read this rather large tome in full before coming to a decision by the end of the year on whether to go ahead or go for the other option of a second runway at Gatwick. There is also the potential – mentioned as likely by many political commentators – that there will be no new runway at all.

Labour has enthusiastically piled in on Davies’ side in advocating Heathrow, subject to the airport meeting targets on air quality and noise reduction which the report stipulates.

Already the problems with these recommendations are rising to the surface – not least that the Commission has grossly underestimated the publicly-funded cost of improving transport access to the hugely expanded site, which it has put at around £5 billion compared to Transport for London’s estimate of more like £20 billion. The commitments to air quality and noise reduction also seem desperately flawed. Once you’ve built an airport and are operating it, there’s not a lot anyone can do if it and the aircraft using it pollute a lot, make a lot of noise and operate flights in the middle of the night because of delays or just because they feel like it. There are exceptions to every rule, and Heathrow and its backers are expert at getting what they want.

The line of the aviation industry and business lobby is that London – and Britain – needs additional airport capacity. This is using words dishonestly for the sake of self-interest and ideology. There is no need for more runway capacity at Heathrow or Gatwick. That is to misuse the word ‘need’ as if it counts as absolute and objective.

The need for more capacity is that of businesses and lobbyists who stand to benefit from it. It is subjective and predicated on a particular future environment that would need that capacity itself to come into being. That environment which it promises is one that is more crowded, more stressed and more intensively worked – besides being more polluted and noisier for more people. The drive to intensification creates more intensification which drives more intensification. This is the economic system that we are attached to, and it is our democracy’s role to place strict limits on it – whether on airport expansion, employment legislation, wages or anything else.

This is about a lot more than whether to lay down a big slab of concrete where eight hundred homes are currently, or spreading aviation exhaust fumes and noise over whole new swathes of London and the South East of England.

Labour’s decision to go along with the safe, generalised, Establishment consensus by advocating Heathrow expansion is not a surprise.

We hear a lot of blather from Labour about ‘Labour values’, but underlying that we find a largely empty space when it comes to any version of the good life on which to base those values. There is a vague, airy kind of version that people hold roughly equating to the vision in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’: that if everyone was like us and there was no religion and borders, then the world would live as one and everything would be fine.

The left’s vision of the good is too often permanently stuck over the horizon like that, conditional on us doing all the things that we need to do to bring it to that undefined ideal state. We never get there. If we were more honest we’d admit that we haven’t given it much thought what it would mean to be there.

As a result perhaps, Labour too easily falls into a sort of lazy consensus mode on big questions like this, going along with the generalised consensus view which is generally based on economic considerations (those promoted by vested interests) and little else.

But it is for democratic politics to decide whether it wants to keep feeding this monster – and funding it too. We know what its side-effects are, whether at Heathrow or Gatwick – loss of land, housing and natural habitat, increasing noise, pollution, congestion and the concomitant need for more roads and other infrastructure; also more people coming in which creates additional pressures on these things and public services too. (That is not to mention global heating through carbon emissions - and perhaps there was a message in Heathrow registerng a British record high July temperature of 36.7ÂșC on the day of the Airport Commission report.)

This drive to more and more is the dominant political movement of our times - a 'stealthy form of authoritarianism' as I have called it before. But sometime, somewhere along the line, someone needs to ask: “What is all this for? What are we actually trying to achieve here?

It seems to be just about there being more money around, and that isn’t a good enough reason for me.

I think it’s about time we started to say ‘enough’.