Ethos, anti-ethos … synthesis? The promise of Labour’s Covenant

Richard McNeill Douglas

To say that Labour’s Covenant has a significance that belies its length is not to undersell it in its own right. The first output of an eighteen-month project, this pamphlet, published by Labour Together and authored by Blue Labour’s Jonathan Rutherford, is an ambitious endeavour. Suggestions such as a national reconstruction plan (ensuring the UK is self-sufficient in supplies required to cope with national security and health emergencies), the social licensing of businesses (placing firms under obligations to offer social returns, such as local sourcing or paying the living wage), and a National Nature Service (employing people at scale to perform vital environmental services, such as building flood defences and practising regenerative farming) are more than a collection of items in the shopping basket of retail politics. It is not just that these ideas are radical in themselves; it is that they are offered as part of a vision of how Labour might renew a shared identity with the British people in a post-industrial era.

The actual content of this pamphlet is less important, however, than what it represents. What we can detect in it is a creative energy, a reaction produced by the coming together of two distinct elements of Labour ideology—a broad front of post-New Labour moderates and party insiders, and a circle of Blue Labour and other broadly post-liberal outsiders.

This is exciting because the estrangement of these elements (or the ideas they stand for) is itself a story of Labour’s growing structural weaknesses since the early days of New Labour. As well, since more recently these elements were lined up (with some notable exceptions) on differing sides of the Brexit divide, this coming together is a further sign of British politics moving on from that debilitating division.

On an even deeper level, the significance of this coming together lies in its bringing the question of ethos back within the orbit of mainstream party thinking. In this we may just be able to see the beginnings of a solution to what we could call ‘Labour’s double ethos problem’.

From ethos to anti-ethos

Twenty years ago I wrote an essay for Renewal entitled ‘Labour’s new ethos’. This began with the problem of Labour’s ethos; the original problem with Labour’s ethos. Drawing on Henry Drucker’s classic study from 1979, I rehearsed the paradox of Labour’s ethical identity. Labour’s ethos—its emotional sense of tribal loyalty to those twin causes, working class emancipation and the socialist reform of society—created a strong attractive force, binding supporters together within a thick sense of collective identity and moral purpose. Yet equally that same force repelled those who did not recognise themselves as belonging to the tribe. And as critics such as David Marquand put it, there had generally always been more people outside the tribe than within. (As more recent analysis has framed it, since Labour supplanted the Liberals, British politics has been distinguished more by an anti-Labour than a progressive alliance.) Where Labour has won, Marquand argued, it has done so by successfully broadening its appeal beyond the identity of labourism; by representing a certain vision of a hopeful future for the nation as a whole.

All this was the case even during the postwar years of Keynesian political economy. By the 1990s, the joint forces of economic deindustrialisation and cultural individualism had shrunk the base Labour’s ethos was appealing to, leaving its leadership struggling with the self-consciousness of anachronism. New Labour was the response.

But what was the party’s ethos under New Labour? Under close examination it became clear: Labour’s new ethos was that it didn’t have one. An explicit ethos, and the political religiosity of labourism and socialism that went with it, the language of ideology and the dogma of venerated principles—all this was neatly side-stepped by rebranding the party’s name, something supporters could overlook as being trivial, but whose triviality performed the role of making the party’s ethos a triviality in itself.

New Labour’s approach to government was managerial, its approach to politics supremely pragmatic. Its defining motto was: ‘It’s what works that counts’. Its renunciation of the language of ideology left it without the tools to justify its actions from principle, and from that to find a basis for policy independent of the prevailing political economy of government in the global age of neoliberalism. It was institutionally insubstantial, something which worked against the ethical commitment of many of its leading figures on a personal basis. As an infamous Philip Gould memo put it in 2000, the party’s very concern with projecting a favourable image meant that the image most people received from it was of an unprincipled and untrustworthy desire for approval.

Thus Labour’s double ethos problem. New Labour sought to move beyond an original ethos that was losing more voters than it won, and to free itself from legacy policies that functioned as totems of that ethos. But its new ethos (or anti-ethos) did not secure deep support in the other’s place, and became  increasingly viewed as anathema by those who venerated the original—all the more so as New Labour’s electoral magic finally wore off.

Blue Labour’s ethos problem

A lot has transpired within Labour since that essay was published two decades ago. But the party’s ethos problems have not moved on very far: New Labour, and its successes and limitations, continue to cast a long shadow. It is not just that the broad front of Labour moderates (who make up the core constituency of Labour Together) have tended to identify New Labour’s electoral successes with its anti-ethos, its eschewing of ideological critique and keenness to transcend the trappings of labourism.

It is also that those who oppose this anti-ethos from a broadly post-liberal perspective (the defining outlook of Blue Labour) have tended to express their critique in the form of what sometimes resembles a quasi-revivalist movement for Labour’s original ethos. There were some whispers of this, for instance, in Jonathan Rutherford’s recent editorial in Renewal—in which he argued that the only way for the party to win back seats like Hartlepool and climb back to power was to remember that: ‘The route out of Labour’s crisis lies in its name. It is the party of work and working people and it should act like it.’

Gesturing towards the themes that would be explored in Labour’s Covenant, Rutherford went on to recognise that this appeal to labourism needed to be updated to take account of the transformed nature of work and class, and embedded within a social democratic vision of national renewal. And, obviously, it is right to argue that Labour must if nothing else authentically represent the interests of working people. But still, here as elsewhere in the rhetoric of Blue Labour, there was a hint of trying to will back into existence an original ethos whose cultural supports have dissipated, and which was always electorally problematic even in its heyday. This is all the more ticklish given the recent thrust of analysis of home-owning, Daily Mail-reading Tory switchers in ‘red wall’ seats, who have grown tired of being assumed to belong to the Labour tribe.

Within some critique emanating from the Blue Labour stable we can observe an estrangement of ethos from policy, resulting in a kind of prejudice against the standard palate of centre-left policy as being representative of the hated anti-ethos. A recent example is given by Jon Cruddas, an informative source, as one who could be said to straddle both Labour Together and Blue Labour elements himself. In The Dignity of Labour, Cruddas tells us a story about his old boss, Tony Blair, and the latter’s personal passage from ethos to anti-ethos. In the beginning, Blair wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I am a Christian’, and forged an ‘ethical socialism [that] challenged left economism and rebuilt a common good’. Then he fell under the influence of Labour’s historic materialism, the neoliberal doctrines of the Treasury, and the consumerist visions of the polling industry. And he turned to ‘utility and calculus’, ‘the transactional, the allocative’, and ‘the rational management of unending growth’; and the spirit was lost.

For all the value in this critique, something that stands out is the slight given to ‘left economism’, a line echoed throughout Cruddas’s book. Given this is used to refer to the use of social and economic policy to redistribute wealth and enhance the material welfare of the majority of the people, this seems a slightly odd line of attack from a Labour MP. The impression is formed that, in rightly recognising the spiritual dimension to the collapse in working class culture, the Blue Labour critique is at times overloading the political with a weight it cannot bear. Perhaps a Labour policy platform cannot repair the spiritual quality of contemporary life all by itself.

The promise of Labour’s Covenant

Yet a consciousness that material welfare is not enough, that the quality of people’s subjective experience is vital, is itself vital. A range of academic work—from the disciplines of the psychology of meaning, the sociology of religion, and the work of ‘existential social scientists’ such as Zygmunt Bauman, Peter Berger, and John Carroll—confirms that the overriding human need is the search for meaningfulness. We need overarching cultural narratives that make sense of the chaos of events, and provide an underlying faith in the rationality and justice of the world. And we need a sense that our lives matter, that we are located and have a function within those narratives.

Labour’s Covenant suggests an awareness of such work in its attempt to develop policies that stitch together into a social democratic narrative about the nation, and people’s roles and opportunities within it. It suggests an attempt, involving senior figures at the heart of the party, at overcoming the estrangement of ethos from policy. These are signs of hope.

Richard McNeill Douglas is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, University of Surrey.