I admire John Gray and his somewhat cynical writing on political philosophy. Having heard him speak and briefly spoken to him he is evidently a man of erudition and humanity. But when he writes on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour’s election defeat in his January New Statesman essay ‘Why the left keeps losing’ something seems to have gone wrong. If one of his students had presented this to him a few years ago for assessment, it is difficult to imagine that it would have passed muster as an example of effective reasoning.
Gray’s Attack on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour
John has shifted the focus of his recent attacks on ‘liberalism’ to something that seems broader and vaguer: ‘progressivism’. It’s never entirely clear what defines this evil for him, but apparently British institutions outside government, including schools and universities, are its vehicles. ‘Progressivism’ can evidently encompass both ‘liberal centrism’ and ‘Corbynite leftism’ in the Labour Party.
One immediately feels some contradiction here and this sensation is magnified when it Professor Gray accuses these institutions and their ideology or ideologies of the idea that ‘the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world’. Indeed, they apparently believe that ‘the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked’. Do the British establishment and ‘millions of graduates’ really will the destruction of their own society and values, or has John found himself an enormous straw man to set alight?
The media, social and otherwise is now rife with analyses
own included) of why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly, and what the
Party should do about it. A common theme revolves around the loss of
‘traditional working class’ seats in the English North and Midlands, and how
Labour has moved away from their ‘socially conservative’ and ‘communitarian’
values. These values evidently led many of these constituencies to vote in
favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, which further alienated some of their
voters from Labour’s soft Brexit and second referendum stance. If this analysis
is correct it leads to some serious soul-searching within the Labour Party.
So there we have it. The polls were right, and produced the electoral results that could have been anticipated from them. To the extent that is a surprise it is only because of the unexpected result of the 2017 election and the rarely-fulfilled dream of some substantial tactical voting. Of course Scotland is a rather different story, and one that looks likely to run and run.
As far as England is concerned, Labour seem to have been
caught in a Brexit trap – divided both within and without by the either/or
nature of the question. It could neither fully embrace what was always primarily
a right-wing nihilist project, nor fully reject a referendum result that was
backed by many in ‘working class Labour heartlands’ – irrespective of which
side actual Labour voters had supported in that referendum. At least the
Conservative majority gives that issue some clarity; whatever Brexit brings
over the next five years – and it is unlikely to be anything particularly good
– it will be entirely at the doors of Boris Johnson (if he survives without
terminal scandal) and the Tories.
I found myself reading an alarming article by ‘Red Tory’ Philip Blond recently. The piece was a response to the book ‘The Politics of Virtue’, by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, two academics who have been associated with the Red Tory/Blue Labour nexus that combines, to a greater or lesser degree depending on flavour, social conservatism with economic collectivism. I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think this is important to the points I raise here.
Blond identifies the purpose of Milbank and Pabst’s book as being ‘to challenge the ascendancy of liberalism and recommend a humane post-liberalism that can succeed it’. He criticises a reviewer of the book for failing to see a ‘link between the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right’. Blond quotes approvingly from the book the claim that ‘liberalism brings about…an isolated individual abstracted from all social ties and duties’ and himself states:
Liberalism finds its quintessential form in a market state that enforces individualism. The market state must abolish anything that stands in the way of unconstrained freedom; it must eliminate solidarity or shared associations with other people, places, or things…Social liberalism (left-inspired) was necessary to take apart social solidarity in order to make possible its (right-inspired) economic correlate: economic liberalism.
I attended a fascinating meeting last weekend arranged by the East Midlands ‘Blue Labour’* group on the theme of ‘How Do We Champion the Cause of the Working Class?’ There was a panel of academics, journalists and local Labour politicians. I am interested in Blue Labour’s approach because they are the only group within Labour that seems to have a coherent view of how to remodel the economy away from the dominance of financialised capitalism without returning to widespread nationalisation. The essence of this view is that goods and service provision should be based less on anonymous (usually monetary) transactions and more on the basis of relationships. This implies an expansion of co-operative, mutual and stakeholder businesses, and more regional and community input into local, social and health services. I have myself written about why this is important.Continue reading Blue Labour, Relationships and Free Movement→
There was little discussion of our electoral system as part of the UK Labour leadership debate. Yet proportional representation has never seemed more clearly essential to avoid the permanent triumph of self-interest politics. Something quite extraordinary happened between the 2010 and 2015 elections that has been extraordinarily little remarked upon. The outcome in terms of Parliamentary seats was a very clear shift from a centrist coalition representing 59% of the electorate to a brazenly right-wing single-party government representing only 37%. Yet the voting pattern did not indicate any such change in preference by voters. Continue reading Irrelevant Alternatives and PR→
I do not, as far as that is a meaningful concept in today’s fragmented politics, consider myself to be of the ‘hard left’. And I am certainly no ‘entryist’, having been a member of the UK Labour party since 1997. In the end, however, I didn’t have too much difficulty deciding to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as the next leader of the party. This has as much to do with what the other candidates were not saying as with what he, Corbyn, was saying. I would have liked to vote for Yvette Cooper as Labour’s first woman leader, and hopefully as Labour’s first woman Prime Minister, but in the end she, like the others, failed to ask the right questions about modern Britain. Continue reading Why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as UK Labour leader→
There’s a flavour of ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ in the Corbyn-led debate over the Blairite legacy. As someone who campaigned enthusiastically for Labour in 1997 and now feels a somewhat detached member of the party, I think I can articulate why -despite the many achievements of the Blair and Brown governments – there might be a lingering discontent with that legacy. Leaving the Iraq War out of this, for right or wrong a product of Tony Blair’s always just visible messianic tendencies, the problem is really the Blairite legacy’s impermanence. The two main manifestations of that impermanence are in the failure to reduce inequality, surely to begin rising again, and the ability of the Conservatives to roar back and dismantle the very achievements for which we should be celebrating the Blair-given years of power. Continue reading Why Power is not Enough for Labour→
After defeat at the 2015 UK election Labour talks about appealing to the ‘aspirational’ and David Cameron pledges before his cabinet ‘to give everyone in our country the chance to get on’. If we accept the premise that speaking to material self-interest is what politics is now all about, we still need to point out that neither party has any analysis or policies that make their proffered goals more likely. Powerful economic forces are splitting apart the have-more from the have-less, with these forces accelerated by the way in which discrepancies in wealth inevitably lead to discrepancies in political power and voice. In a way it makes sense for the electorate to choose the party that is more comfortable with managing this process, revealingly accepting that ‘the dignity of a job’, and ‘the pride of a paycheck’ may be the limited best it can offer its citizens – since any promises over the quality and security of that job and how far that paycheck might stretch appear beyond modern governments to fulfill. Continue reading Beyond Defeat for Labour in the UK→