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You have often spoken about your family. How did it shape you?
I was one of five. My mother's from Donegal, my dad's from Yorkshire - he was a sailor and she met him when he was at a naval base in Derry. We were brought up on various naval bases, and then in Portsmouth. We were very close. Irish Catholic.
It was the classic story, really. My parents left school very early, so there was a sense of the search for education, to give us opportunities that they never had - not to accumulate more, just to be (purportedly) wiser and more knowledgeable. That was very strong in-ground.
And we all went to college. Of the five kids, there were three or four MAs, a couple of PhDs. But not everyone went into public service - my middle brother joined the Carmelites.
Was that Catholicism a practised faith?
Oh yeah! It was quite devout. My mum looked after all the neighbours, the priest came round for lunch, we were all altar boys - it was very strong. But we were brought up more in terms of quite practical concerns around duty, obligation, service.
So, when today you talk about 'solidarity'…
Yeah, it wasn't from the tablets of stone handed down by Marxist theology, you know what I mean? It wasn't an abstract notion of solidarity on the industrial production line. It was much more driven by Catholic social teaching. Concern for others was just in-ground in us, really. You didn't know anything other - it was just the way it was. I mean, I wouldn't have it any other way!
Did Marxism shape your thinking?
Yeah, it did, it did. When I was young. I was very interested in Marxism for a long time - in different Marxisms. And then in the end I wasn't, because in the end [politics] has to be anchored in the everyday. You know, New Left thinking ended up deconstructing everything, which was just useless.
You would be regarded now as very much a critic of the whole New Labour project, and yet at first you were right at the heart of it, weren't you?
Oh, absolutely. I was massively supportive of what Blair was doing from '94 up to about 2001. New Labour then spoke in a really rich, warm language about reciprocity and duty. It had a really inspiring message, I thought. Still do, by the way. That's what we need to reclaim.
There was a kind of religiosity about New Labour. Do you think that was accidental?
Oh no, I don't think it was accidental at all. I think it was deep within it. The interesting thing about Labour at its best, compared with other forms of European social democracy, was that it didn't have a specific denomination and wasn't specifically secular. It included all of those elements and could be genuinely pluralist - and from '94 to 2001 New Labour was authentically Labour.
But then that was sacrificed on the altar of neo-liberalism, which has a conception of the human being as a calculating rational economic unit, really, rather than as embedded in social relationships and communities and families, which is how I think of us. And Blair himself - his early speeches were really interesting philosophically, but I think his 'journey', so to speak, should have gone in the other direction.
You see, in the early stages what he acknowledged was the consequences of capitalism. My view has always been quite simple, right? That capitalism is (as [Karl] Polanyi said) a 'double movement': it's a brutal, rapacious force that destroys relationships, destroys families, destroys communities, but at the same time creates countervailing forces that seek to nurture families and communities.
New Labour at its best acknowledged the dangers of the commodification of our culture, our children, our families, and it sought to conserve things; but by the end it cherished that commodification. In our second and third term, it became preoccupied with a very one-dimensional notion of aspiration, based around the purchase and consumption of things, driven by economic growth and pitched in the South-East. By 2005, there was a really empty materialism at its heart, rather than a sense of solidarity and concern for others. Which, actually, Blair had. That was a hallmark of New Labour at its best, a really contemporary communitarian politics; but it became individual and atomised, its language became harsh and authoritarian and it lost the ability to talk about relationships and community.
You have yourself spoken sometimes about the idea of a broken covenant, which is a word with religious connotations. When you use that word, what do you mean by it?
Well, it goes beyond a simple trade or transaction. Absolutely. It implies a sense of duty, though it's not necessarily religious. I think that things are going to get so bad in this country that it's incumbent on Labour to come up with something radical and alternative. We need to re-embed a sense of obligation to provide housing, education, health, whatever - but also a modern sense of nationhood, a sense of belonging in a world of profound change, you know?
Now, that is very difficult - it's very difficult - and you can only do it if you have a fundamental identity, a creed, a soul. Otherwise, people will think it's just an exercise in positioning and there's nothing enduring in it. I think that's the danger, that people feel that about us now. They might have a residual attachment to the Labour Party but it's creaking, and what we have to do is get on that journey to actually define what we are. If you accept that Labour is in crisis tantamount to [those of] '31 and '81, there is no immediate reshuffling of policies that is going to resolve it. It's a much deeper decay that has to be remedied. There has been a rupture with key elements of the population who can no longer understand what Labour is. I don't understand what it is at the moment.
I think [David] Cameron has managed to do a bit of that for his party, but not enough - he's not radical enough, not enough of a moderniser, and he's letting go of some of this 'big society' stuff and the danger is that the Thatcherites will win out.
At what point did you first feel about New Labour, 'This is going a bit sour. We need to stop and rethink things'?
To me, the real turning-point was the issue of differential top-up fees in the second term. You know, it was a supply-side, human-capital story rather than a search for wiser citizens, and that signalled to me a fuller embrace of a model of individuals as economic actors. And with that went the more systematic appropriation of the focus group as the driver of political positioning.
But the solution is not to throw out New Labour, it's to reoccupy that space where it was good, pulling together again those elements that were radical in its confrontation with the relentless commodification of our world.
You are a politician who thinks globally but sees very local implications. You've often said that what is highest on your agenda is not what is going on in Westminster but what is happening in Barking & Dagenham.
Well, in one sense our part of London is a microclimate for globalisation. It's got the lowest-cost housing market in greater London, so it's seen extraordinary demographic changes, and at the same time we've seen a lot of the effects of the decline of manufacturing, the lack of a housing strategy - and these are all generic forces but they ricochet through our community because of a particular combination of factors. Barking is an interesting place from which to view the world, because it's intense and extreme.
There is also extremism, as a result of the lack of hope, a sense of deep loss of a sense of belonging in a period of profound change, and the sense of anger that goes with it. You see the relentless commodification of the world at the local level - it's not an abstract thing. And its consequences have to be confronted: the disintegration of family, of culture, and the proliferation of other forms of what are euphemistically called 'symptoms of our social recession' - or 'broken Britain'.
As an MP, what do you feel you can do?
I find it very difficult. We have been pretty successful in local elections and general elections, you know, but that is a very defensive thing, about blocking [extremism] rather than creating a more optimistic, positive route-map through it. At the moment, it is really about holding a line. But, you know, I know a lot of people who vote BNP and these people are not booted and suited Nazis. They are people who feel threatened and vulnerable. And that needs to be respected and we need to have answers and remedies.
The problem with New Labour was that our take on globalisation meant that we belittled people who were its fall guys. So, the first thing to do is to acknowledge where we went wrong, not to trash our record but to say: We need to reclaim this territory and reanchor ourselves in everyday experience, as Labour has always done, and then to build illustrative policies, or testimonies or allegories or stories, out of it. Not to retreat further into liberal righteousness, but to re-engage in the mainstream of popular culture.
You have to remember that a lot of these issues have arisen against the backdrop of 15 years - 60 quarters - of economic growth. We're only really beginning to see the impact of [what happened after Lehman Brothers became insolvent in 2008], the first little skirmishes with the students; but the deeper effects of the political responses to the crisis haven't been seen yet. There is a major realignment of the centre-right, a major assault on the whole public realm - a major ideological assault as well through the notion of what constitutes a 'big' society. The Coalition carries it light, but the effects of this will be dramatic and I think will alter the whole character of this country over the next few years.
Do you think a more confrontational politics is in store for us?
Yeah, no doubt, no doubt - and I think it'll be played out around issues of culture, family, faith and race, you know, rather than education, health… You can see the way it is being reframed now across Western market economies, with the whole thing about 'the other' - the other constituency being Islam. I think it's going to be quite dangerous and brittle and uncomfortable for years, besides the consequences of these economic cuts and, you know, the coarsening of the language, the demonisation of the weak and vulnerable. The whole of our culture will be affected by it, in an as yet unpredictable way. I'm not awash with optimism, I'm afraid.
I was talking to someone the other day, 88 years old, who remembered the hunger queues in Manchester [in the 1930s], and he said: 'Thank God there's no Mosley out there at the moment!' You know, we may be seeing the end of the BNP, but the trouble is, what comes in behind them? There are hidden forces behind the English Defence League that want a street militia. And they want something deeper as well, in terms of a major realignment.
How can we restore that sense of solidarity you speak of to the heart of mainstream politics?
Well, I think the evidence is that it's how people already live their lives. There's a lot of empirical evidence that it's exactly how people live.
I'll give you an example. The local council has a policy to make people look after their front gardens, right? And one guy says: 'You can't make me. It's my garden.' And you see these abstract debates about liberalism and communitarian philosophy that have dominated political philosophy for years played out in that front garden. Where do you draw your line on that? For me, the covenant is with the street, not with his ownership. But others disagree. In my own party there are those who would say: 'No, no, no, his aspiration is to do what he wants with his front garden.' Now, there are boundaries in all this, and proportionality; but unless we have a sense of a common good, a life that we share, and unless the institutional arrangements that mediate between us seek to replicate that sense, I think we're in trouble.
But that is controversial!
You said that you're 'not awash with optimism'. Where do you find any sense of hope?
I would say, in the possibilities of returning to fundamental questions of philosophy and society, about what we are, what we want to be, what we want to nurture, the forms of just institutions we want to create to allow people to realise their different potentials.
Now, what is interesting is that this is more a debate on the right at the moment. Jesse Norman has written a book called The Big Society1 which is a critique of neo-classical political economy from the right, which tries to embrace a warmer politics of solidarity. I don't see a lot of that on the left, but that's where we have to be - and that's why I'm interested in the notion of the good society.
Who can you have a conversation with about these ideas in your party, as one might with Phillip Blond2 on the Tory side? There's Maurice Glasman,3 but he's not really -
He will be. He's the guy. He's just been put in the Lords and I've got no doubt that over the next few years he will be our point man philosophically in a lot of this. I hope he is. I do quite a few things with him and when he talks, people say: 'Whoa! What's all this about?' But their second thought is: 'Actually, this is very interesting.' I think he's discovering a political language that is very threatening to a lot of Labour orthodoxies, but it may prove popular as well and I think Labour will end up there. The question is whether it will be a long or a short journey - and I hope it's short.
So, Phillip Blond interests me, Jesse Norman interests me, this whole 'big society' thing; compassionate Conservatism interests me a lot. And Labour needs the equivalent [conversation], to shine a light on where we have to go. That's how I look at it. Whether we will or not is up for grabs, but Ed Miliband referred to the good society three or four times in his inaugural speech [as party leader], and in that there is hope.
You see, to me the way you confront this reframing of politics from the hard right around race and identity is not to retreat to a liberal, metropolitan disposition aligned with bits of the public sector. That's deadly politically, because you're never going to get across the line. You have to go back to broader sentiments that have occupied Labour for generations. I think that actually allows us to be proud of who we are again. It anchors us in our own history and recreates a connection with people in the everyday, an ability to talk about what we want to do. And out of that comes what Ed Miliband calls our 'optimism'. And it could be crystallised around this notion of a good society.
Now, you're joining a lot of dots there, aren't you? But that's the political task at hand, it seems to me.
You supported David Miliband for the Labour leadership on the basis (if I recall rightly) that in the past you had mistakenly voted for people who shared your views, but now you vote for people who could 'get Labour across the line'. Isn't that part of the problem you had with New Labour, though, that in the end it was all a matter of electoral calculation?
I think you've put your finger on the dilemma of being involved in party-political dialogue. You see, the search for purity doesn't interest me, because it's an indulgence. I mean, I can search for purity because I've got nothing to lose - you know, I'm pretty well paid, and settled; but we have to win. So, for me the question is: How can we build a new coalition in and around Labour that has the coherence to win? I didn't see that much difference between the different candidates, apart from Diane [Abbott], so for me the bottom line was: Who would probably get the best response from the public? And that is basically a calculation.
But also, I think, more than any of the other candidates, in the campaign David began to look for a rehabilitation of some of those best bits of Blair - which I think is the task at hand, really.
He also more or less repeated Blond's argument about the need to 'recapitalise' the poor.
Absolutely. And that's not just about handouts - there is a much more radical element of redistribution. Now, are we going to go that way, in contrast to orthodox New Labour approaches to welfare reform? The jury's out. Don't know. But David showed more signs of being prepared…
But that's conjecture now - and he might have just hit the rewind button and become, you know, the continuity candidate.
You've reportedly just turned down a series of offers of promotion within the parliamentary party…
I don't want anything - I'm very happy doing what I do. And I don't see any point in trading up now, because it's to trade up what? For me, the question is: What are we? That interests me - not in an abstract way, either, but in a very concrete way.
What lies ahead is fairly dark, and that's what gets me going.
This article first appeared in Third Way Magazine.
1 Published by the University of Buckingham Press on November 5.
2 The director of the think tank ResPublica, who advocates 'red Toryism'.
3 The 'father of blue Labour', now Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, is senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University and director of its faith and citizenship programme. He advocates 'a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity'.
Posted 11 August 2011
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