a healing process: labour’s future (conference report)

‘Political renewal and the future of Labour’. This was the title of a recent conference convened by Labour Together, bringing various groups and interests within the Labour movement together for the first time to exchange and explore ideas in a common space. The conference aimed to initiate discussion: how should Labour ‘rediscover its sense of historic purpose’? How can the party create a new philosophy based on common values and construct a post-Brexit economic vision? Big questions, but then again the challenge facing Labour (all of us, really) is pretty monumental.

Naturally, the scope of this blogpost can’t extend to a verbatim account of every speech and comment. So what I’m going to do here is summarise three broad, interconnected themes that ran through the day, then wrap up with one or two thoughts of my own.

1/  the working class

The first session set the tone for the whole day with the biggest question of all: how to repair Labour’s broken relationship with the working class. A recurring theme here was that Labour is no longer the object of affection among the working class; people who have traditionally voted Labour feel abandoned by the party and (often with a heavy heart) have recently supported UKIP, the SNP and even the Tories. But how should Labour reconnect with its core constituency? What is it that people — and Labour — really want?

Responses to these questions focused on family, community, security, a sense of belonging and, above all, dignity.

These aren’t abstract concepts. Several speakers explained how they matter in everyday life and lie at the very core of Labour’s dilemmas. Work has changed immeasurably as a result of globalisation, and (pseudo-)self-employment, part-time work, fixed-term contracts and zero hours are commonplace. While ‘temping’ was often a convenient stop-gap or foot in the door leading to a better, permanent job, today’s ‘gig economy’ is founded on precarious employment. It depends on — and creates — workers with few prospects of landing a decent, secure job that pays a living wage, let alone allows them to plan ahead. Therefore, with workers’ dignity and security increasingly undermined, Labour has to identify how it can offer agency to the growing precariat. Definitely not an easy prospect, especially as the highly individualistic, casual nature of employment also subverts precarious workers’ relationship to unions and to Labour itself. 

The discussion strongly emphasised the value of work, not only as a means of economic wellbeing, but also as a factor of identity and belonging. The universal basic income (UBI) model was alluded to at various points, but generally given short shrift. Why? One reason, recalling the values identified above, saw UBI further undermining the crucial relationship between the individual and his/her work. Second, adoption of the Basic Income would be an admission that Labour was giving up on full, meaningful employment and had settled for capital redistribution as a way of ‘paying off’ an abandoned working class. Still, the rejection of UBI was by no means unanimous, so it’ll be interesting to see how this debate evolves, especially as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell advocates the Basic Income.

2/  class or ‘identities’?

Panellists and commenters agreed that New Labour had too readily and too uncritically embraced the notion of market ‘efficiency’. Despite intervening with corrective redistribution here and there, the New Labour government failed to question the omnipotence of the market, which, as is so easily forgotten, isn’t some kind of higher being, but the creation of various actors including the state. Another point for consideration was whether a preoccupation with ‘identity politics’ has disrupted Labour’s relationship with the working class. To regain the trust of its core constituency, Labour has to reorientate its economic policy and combine this with a focus on more ‘traditional’ working class interests values. However, there was also a degree of scepticism, such as the warning that a return to ‘traditional working class interests’ would risk losing Labour’s current voters — essentially swapping one set of alienated voters for another. Which brings us to the third point:

3/  brexit… of course

The Brexit vote was all about ‘taking back control’. For Leavers on the left, this meant regaining power from corporations, and/or from remote and undemocratic EU institutions. But the single biggest issue in the referendum ‘debate’ was immigration. And as Brexit apparently means Brexit — whatever that means — Labour’s task now is to fashion a left vision of taking back control. And here we come full circle to return to security and dignity as (rightly or wrongly) the EU is widely seen to have deprived people of both. But while many Brexit demands are neither nuanced nor realistic, conference agreed that these nonetheless have to be treated seriously, and, what’s more, in a non-patronising manner. All too often, complaints about immigration are ‘reinterpreted’ along the lines of ‘well, you say it’s about immigration, but what you really mean is (insert the relevant Tory policy disaster)’. Valid point or not, such condescension  just puts people off even more.

thoughts

Each of the three sessions provided little in the way of concrete answers, but plenty of food for thought, which was of course the whole purpose of the conference. However, despite some really great discussion, one or two things left me worried about Labour’s future. Even though I’m not a Labour member or voter (I attended for research) I do recognise the need for a strong, socialist Labour Party.

First, while I couldn’t agree more that Labour needs to build policies around the core capital-labour cleavage, I found the critique of ‘identity politics’ problematic. Allow me to backtrack a bit. By the 1990s, the capital-labour cleavage seemed terribly outdated — definitely ‘Old Labour’. We were, apparently, living in a classless society and, later, in a ‘meritocracy’. What’s more, globalisation has continued to challenge concepts of socio-economic class: how do we accurately define ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’ today, and how does the growing precariat fit in? But of course the capital-labour divide has never actually gone away, and indeed cuts right across many of the values and identities we are concerned with today. For example, the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation, for example, are often the most devastating for the poorest in society. Austerity and cuts have the harshest impact on women, and particularly the poorest women. At the same time, though, I think we need to think twice before blaming ‘identity politics’ as a factor in Labour’s failure, because working class voters themselves are not a homogenous, one-policy-fits-all bunch. As Owen Jones reminds us in this excellent article, “socialists argue that class is absolutely central to understanding society’s ills, but cannot be understood without gender, race and sexual orientation”.  My real worry is that in its effort to win back the hearts and trust of the working class, Labour could find itself dancing to UKIP’s tune.

Labour’s struggle to win back working class ‘affection’ was, for me, the most powerful (and poignant) message of the day. However, I wasn’t alone in noticing the consistent references to the working class in the third person: ‘they’ instead of ‘we’, ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. One commenter urged participants, many of them academics and Labour officials, to give up their places at the next conference to someone who ‘doesn’t look like’ them. Well, maybe it’s a start. But it’s also a stark reminder of the huge and tragic disconnect that has taken place. Looks like Labour have a huge task ahead and a lot of healing to do.

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