The Labour Party and the Future of Work III: Elections, Economics and Culture

Frederick Harry Pitts: The election results last week have sparked an intense debate about the future of the Labour Party. A huge number of different elections took place across the country – piecing together the different narratives that come out of those votes is a necessarily partial process, with different people latching on to different parts of the picture. But Hartlepool was indicative of a lot of what you’ve written about over the years. What’s your assessment of what happened last week, and how it connects to the kind of themes addressed in the book? How did we get here, and where does Labour go next in constituencies like Hartlepool?

Jon Cruddas: The results are terrible, on a number of fronts. They revealed a lack of definition to Labour. We appear bereft of ideas or coherence in terms of diagnosing both our current position and strategy for the country. So there’s indifference towards us. It’s not as hostile, but is indifference better than hostility? Maybe, but it doesn’t translate into votes.

I always thought that Brexit was symptomatic of unresolved tensions spanning some twenty years. I stood for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party fourteen years ago on precisely the same agenda I’m talking about now, on the problems of taking certain groups of traditional working-class voters for granted, not having done enough for them in terms of restructuring the economy and redesigning work, emphasis on good quality employment and the like. And I was attacked at that stage from the Blairite crowd as being too left-wing and radical.

Putting forward the same arguments now, I’m attacked from the left, for being nostalgic and pandering to nativist sentiment. The word ‘traditional’, as in ‘traditional working class’, is seen in a pejorative sense to conjure up images of white nativism, whereas I mean ‘traditional’ in the sense of a traditional relationship to the means of production. So, you get hit from different sides at different times whilst standing still. I didn’t write the book to make friends, rather to make an unfashionable argument.

The tension underneath the party has been festering for twenty years. It didn’t fall out of the sky. We can’t claim we were blindsided. The question is, have we the wherewithal to try and build bridges across this coalition? My fear is that, because we’ve failed to confront this for so long, the only option now is to double down among its membership, which is about 70% social classes ABC1, mostly in the South East and in London. We’ve become increasingly the party that attracts votes from the middle classes and the Tories are over twenty points ahead amongst working class voters, and ahead even in London.

In the recent elections, we lost amongst working class voters. The Red Wall doesn’t exist just up in the North or the Northeast, or wherever – it exists everywhere. My fear is the only solution is to double down amongst the Remain, urban and university town constituencies that many think constitute our new base, rather than bridge between the traditional and the new. We’ve got very limited time to maneuver to try and create that bridge. Have we the desire to attempt it?

That’s why I think the Biden thing is interesting, because many people up until a few months ago were saying, ‘well, it’s inevitable that we’re moving between one base, the old industrial working class and the new base’, which is described as the urban, educated, metropolitan youth, without having a debate about that. I would argue this general conclusion is a misreading, and misleading diagnosis of the trajectory of capitalism, and the history and nature of the left.

We’re accepting the consequences of these intellectual deviations without even debating them. The consequence being we’ll wake up sometime soon and discover the Labour Party has changed, and represents the economic and social winners in society, rather than the ones we were created to speak on behalf of. It might be irreversible. I say that with great sadness.

We’ve lost four elections in eleven years. We see the way the Tories are reconfiguring a new coalition of voters. Don’t assume this has bottomed out; it’s difficult to be optimistic about a route through. If this carries on we approach the tipping point, becoming a radical liberal party amongst these new constituencies, admitting the page has turned. The reason I wrote the book was to say: let’s have this debate, rather than just transition from one party to another by stealth, without discussing it.

FHP: The Dignity of Labour highlights the possible flaws in contemporary attempts at what we might call ‘class composition’ analysis on the left. Owing to a Ricardian ‘embodied labour’ approach to political economy, you suggest, these read off changes in class composition from changes in labour or the lack of it. In this way, technological and organisational transformation appear in lockstep with the unfolding ‘Brexit realignment’ in electoral politics, displacing antagonisms from the employment relation to a wider social terrain.

These shifts are taken to mean, you write, that even in its defeats, ‘Labour is thought to be actually winning’. This ‘demographic determinism’ we have seen play out in the more positive evaluations of the few victories Labour eked out in so-called ‘Blue Wall’ seats in last week’s elections. This assumes that there is a new path to power through a recomposed electoral coalition, a new working class forged from a flexibilised labour force concentrated in various kinds of service work, their skills and education mismatched to the labour market.

This new working class, for the likes of Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s Director of Policy, demands a more traditional political response that reconstructs Labour’s electoral coalition, whereas for Paul Mason and others it requires a more radical policy agenda that falls in behind a new, longer-term realignment in British politics.

Mason’s argument is that work is not the central political experience anymore – other struggles and identities shape people’s politics, and that the strategic question for the left is how to articulate these different struggles and identities together. Even some on the right of the party suggest that Labour could win enough votes from educated professionals in cities to pave a road to electoral success. But this, the book argues, abandons the traditional working-class – defined here around its relationship to the means of production and reproduction of labour-power rather than identity – on the basis of an economic determinism.

Characteristic here is Mason, who describes a new Labour heartland, a ‘new core of the Labour project’, based on an emerging class composition with, as you put it, ‘youth, technology, the sites of future growth’ on its side. But for some critics, the workers the book characterises as the ‘winners’ to whom Labour now appeals – educated middle-class youth who have taken a greater share of the spoils from technological shifts – are precisely the losers Labour need to represent – precarious, propertyless, socially demobile and overqualified relative to opportunities. What would you say to these kind of critiques?

JC: Of course I can see the counterargument. The argument is that the left has rejected a politics based around workers in favor of young, urban educated cosmopolitan winners, but surely the young are workers too, right? And I’d say of course they are – that’s a gross distortion of the argument. We should build an approach that unites all workers and builds a new politics of work not grounded in questions of age, geography, education, or how you voted in the 2016 referendum.

But my fear is that Labour is becoming increasingly dominated by a meritocratic elite, by which I mean the huge proportion of members from the professional middle class, especially in London and the Southeast, and increasingly pulling our vote share from social classes ABC1 with declining support amongst the working class, even in London. To repeat, there’s a 25% vote lead for the Tories amongst working class voters.

And then there’s the ideological shifts, which assume that the working class is on the wrong side of history through automation. Now, this alternative base exists in the big cities amongst the urban salariat, amongst entrepreneurs and people who work in a globalized corporate environment. But my criticism of their argument is that it’s not me that’s being exclusive and redefining the base – it’s them that have. By borrowing from Negri, they have systematically redefined a new global agent of progressive politics and excluded the traditional base of the left. I am not advocating a politics that excludes the young and the precarious and the like. Just the opposite. I find their notion of the new progressive base, their multitude, to be too narrow and exclusive.

FHP: For those left analyses, changes in ‘class composition’ determined by foregoing organizational and technological shifts imply a politics that displaces emphasis away from a weakened employment relationship and the labour process to other aspects and moments of material existence and exploitation like age or asset ownership. For these approaches, you write, ‘the site of political struggle is removed from the workplace into wider society as the wage-labour relationship offers diminishing returns’.

This rejects a political offer based on what you term the ‘labour interest’ in favour of one based on other faultlines. Projecting what may be a slightly metropolitan experience outward to the country at large, this poses an older, comfortably-off class of asset owners against precarious graduates exploited by employers, platforms, creditors and landlords by means of an overlapping array of rentier relations in the ‘social factory’ at large.

But there is a context, combining class with place and geography, which complicates the construction of coherent political categories around things like asset ownership. Making ends meet on a Help to Buy mortgage in what the Economist recently called ‘Barratt Britain’ is a lot different than owning a home outright in London.

In this sense, to what extent are aspects like age and asset ownership relevant political variables in how Labour constructs a new electoral coalition? Do you think there is a danger that a politics that displaces attention from the labour relationship to asset ownership simply offers an inverse spin on “Mondeo Man”, selling a similar shift from what you do – or, better, the ownership and sale of labour-power – to what you own – in terms of a broader array of assets? If work still does have a centrality, along what axes can we articulate these wider grievances around what you call a reciprocal ‘common good’?

JC: This is of course where distributional politics takes you. Rather than dice and slice the electorate in this way, I would suggest you need a transcendent story. This new left based on  age cleavages, or asset ownership – I understand all that, but these are just the most recent representations of distributional politics, and of antagonistic populism on the left. Its easy. You go against rentierism, and ignore work. You revert to demographic and technological determinism.

Yet political traditions don’t fall out of the sky. They are grounded around traditions of justice built on competing theories of how society should be ordered, and how we live together. I would go a different route, rethink modern citizenship and the common good, based around new economic and social rights for all citizens, regardless of age, geography,  Leave or Remain. It suggests  a different politics of the commons  rather than one based around the demand drivers within modern capitalism or age or asset cleavages.

But I take the point. Let’s accept that this train’s left the station. I think there’s an inevitability to where we’re going;  the die is cast.  I think it’s based on some terrible misreadings of the history of socialist thought and simply repeating past epic failures.

What profoundly irritates me are the gatekeepers of the new socialist imagination, with their hefty book sales and Twitter accounts, who see victory in every defeat. My constituents, inhabiting some of the most difficult, challenging conditions in Britain, don’t see these victories, the sunlit uplands driven by demographic or technological determinism. They’re the fall guys of the performative left.

So what might appear as abstract theoretical debates boil down to practical questions of how we gain and retain power on behalf of the people Labour was created to represent. Yet we are literally saying that we don’t represent them anymore and don’t want to. 

These are symptoms of decay. They are symptoms of the diminishment of the left and Marxism as spaces for rigorous intellectual and political inquiry and the building of a praxis, to use an old word, to broker formations to gain and retain power based on a discernible working class. 

Beholden to some grotesque misreadings of Marxist and socialist thought and political history, whilst emboldened with a generational egotism whereby anyone who comes from different traditions are axiomatically deemed right wing – it degrades debate and nurtures a rancid internal culture. Its deadly.

FHP: To pick up on the point about political culture –initially a convenient catch-all for a set of disillusioned critiques of New Labour, the label ‘Blue Labour’ has loosely attached itself to you and your work for a decade or more now. The term doesn’t come up at all in The Dignity of Labour, and the book has a much more expansive theoretical and political vision that in many ways escapes from under the long, blue shadow the label casts over how some of these ideas are received in other parts of the party. To what extent do you think the label is still useful, and do you feel it still mediates the reception of the arguments you make, embroiling the book in these highly polarized ideological divides within the party?

JC: Yeah, probably, although I don’t really give a toss. The interesting thing to me about the whole Blue Labour tag was circa 2007, 2008, 2009, how it sought to diagnose the corroding position of Labour and the incumbent Labour government alongside a crisis of modern capitalism, both in terms of financialisation, but more as a crisis of labour itself. It identified both the Labour government’s crisis and the capitalist crisis as being linked to questions of labour as an economic and social category. It stood as an antidote to New Labour with its over-reliance on the new knowledge economy.

 It stood as a very useful corrective at the time, and still has a purchase in debates around class alignment and politics. But it’s become an easy pejorative tag. Its use as a tag always reminds me of The Young Ones comedy from the early eighties, where if anyone criticized Rick the student activist, he would be jumping up and down shouting ‘fascist’. It’s a tag used in an infantilized debate, symptomatic of a decaying tradition.

FHP: As I see it, one way in which the book moves on from some of that earlier corrective provided by Blue Labour is through the concept of a transcendent, global human dignity, which is a major underpinning theme of the second part of the book. Dignity is seen as something foundational and essential, independent of and prior to social relations. The concept implies both finitude and autonomy, owing equally to secular humanism and Catholic social thinking. We might also see here the traces of liberal traditions around recognition more indebted to European traditions stemming from Hegel and the French Revolution, represented in the UN Declaration of Human Rights for instance.

Here the condition of one’s dignity is the preservation of the dignity of the other. In this sense, there’s a politics of recognition here based on transcendent idea of human dignity that isn’t reducible to the national or identitarian frame of reference into which some will prematurely force the arguments in this book.

A politics of recognition based on the idea that the condition of one person’s dignity is that of another is precisely capable of accommodating contemporary progressive forms of identity politics in a fluid and global fashion. This seems to have something to offer in terms of a political response to the fraught debates and struggles ongoing around the politics of identity. Do you see these as struggles for dignity, for recognition, that the concept of human dignity is particularly well-placed to represent and accommodate?

JC: I do and would counterpose a politics of dignity with that of identity. There is a cosmopolitan character to the debate around dignity. The popular binary – the somewhere/anywhere division – immediately collapses under scrutiny given the obvious point that people have both communitarian and  liberal impulses.

You can’t reify communities as communitarian ones or liberal cosmopolitan ones. They are complex phenomena that change, evolve, grow, just like human beings. You need a different transcendent language that can grasp both the parochial and cosmopolitan.

The notion of dignity reclaims a humanism, it is transcendent. But it also allows for, questions of recognition, and it can align different traditions – spiritual ones, secularized traditions, humanist traditions, socialist humanist traditions, international human rights traditions, or liberal traditions. There is a coalition of interests that could be brokered around questions of human dignity.

The book is the first of a three-part project. The first is on labour. The second is the question of community. And the third is on the question of reimagining human rights based on the integrity of the person in the face of contemporary technological challenges and the rise of transhumanism..

So this is part of a three part series, all built around questions of human dignity. I think there is a new politics there; a renewed sense of justice. I don’t know what’s possible given the infantilized terms of the modern debate. But its something worth attempting.

FHP:  The book advocates not a particularistic notion of human dignity but a vision of global ‘transcendent human dignity’. However, it warns that ‘the danger is to surrender to the populists the currency of politics; of place, community and nation’ as the abstract levels on which electoral politics concretely proceeds.

At the same time, the book discusses recognition and reciprocity in terms of our mutual ethical duty to protect others and confront indignity – this being the condition for our own dignity. Because this has a ‘transcendent’ human aspect, this is not something bounded to specific local or national communities, but the global community too.

You mentioned earlier the work Lisa Nandy is doing on linking up Labour’s foreign affairs agenda with issues around work and industrial policy. Can the concept of human dignity help anchor this, constructing a golden thread between different aspects of policy – domestic, economic, defence, international?

JC: Well, let me give you an example. We were arguing for the regularization of the status of all unrecognized migrants in London and across the country. This was 2007, 2008. Meanwhile, we’re fighting the BNP in Dagenham on the front line of a fight against the far right across the country. Hope Not Hate described the battles in Dagenham as the most successful anti-fascist contest in British history.

An approach built around human dignity can help win in these battlegrounds against the far right without taking a step back on questions of advancing the rights of the most abused groups of people in society, namely the unregularized migrants. It can align the interests of all citizens rather than balkanise the political landscape.

The trap game of British left politics says you have to choose sides, play on one part of the pitch. In so doing you ‘other’ the working class, demean them as nativist and reactionary. You’re accused of ‘pandering’ to the traditional working classes. I would argue that even on the most difficult terrain, such as over amnesties and rights for those without status, you can create coalitions through an essential humanity captured around notions of dignity. You can create an agenda that transcends the simplistic binaries of left politics.

FHP: This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the relationship between economics and culture. The Dignity of Labour is in two parts. The first part is primarily concerned with theories of economic value and its relationship with labour. The second is concerned with theories of moral and ethical values and their relationship with work.

The relationship between the two parts is articulated through the words of a few of the people you draw on in latter half of the book – Bobby Kennedy, who bemoaned the separation of ethics from economics, or William Morris, who wanted to recreate value beyond price to better express ethical and moral values more broadly.

This resonates with the recent contributions of the philosopher Martin Hagglund, who writes persuasively of the radical potential of a ‘revaluation of values’ in his book This Life, and the musings of former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who uses Adam Smith to recommend that modern financial markets augment ‘subjective’ marginal theories of value with assessments of objective moral and ethical worth.

In similar terms, we might see the golden thread linking the value theory of the first part with the discussion of values in the second having something to do with the critique of forms of abstraction – whether economic, in the relationship between labour and the market; legal, in the relationship between human dignity and law; or technological, in the relationship between humans and the digital.

On the face of it, this corresponds with the recent populist search, on right and left, for more personalized, concrete and immediate forms of power and belonging. But on the other hand, categories like ‘community’ are themselves abstractions, generated, you argue, out of a clash with emergent forms of dispossession and commodification at the inception of class society. You use Richard Sennett and other scholars to state the importance of ‘mediating structures’ like ‘family, church, workplace, and neighbourhood’ in sustaining this ‘sense of community and attachment’ that acts as a means of resisting capital.

In this respect, does the critique of abstraction necessary imply a return to the concrete, or is the challenge to create new and better abstractions based on the remediation of human labour and human life?

JC: Edward Thompson used to talk about the role of Marxism in contributing to our overall knowledge of society. He was hostile to certain continental forms of abstraction, but retained the idea of ‘levels of abstraction’ to try and render intelligible the world you inhabit. This approach sought to build a political practice that operationalised history and theory, grounded by a sense of political agency rather than being determined by an unfolding history.

My problem with deterministic traditions is their denial of agency, their denial of politics; history unfolds. This is the abdication of a left politics by those who claim to be young and self-identify as ‘new new left’, the new custodians of the truth. They just repeat the worst mistakes in socialist history, the denial of political agency, and such a politics has to be called out.

So can you forge a different politics as creative practice informed by theory, models of justice and political economy. Returning to moral or ethical concerns, notions of justice that historically informed political economy itself, which subsequent utilitarian traditions crowded out not least within the left itself. Today the modern representations of these utilitarian left traditions walk off the park in a vainglorious belief in their own futurology, a denial of agency, without engagement in day-to-day politics. It’s tragic. So the key theme is a return to thinking of value. In economics as a critique of its representation as exchange value, and in ethics as underpinning ideas of human worth and dignity.

FHP: I have a final question, which ties together the economic aspects covered in the first part of the book, the cultural aspects covered in the second, and the issue of what Labour does next.

In the wake of the election results last week, a BBC News report spoke to voters in Hartlepool. One woman remarked that it was insulting to think that locals would be swayed by Starmer coming up to sup pints and eat fish and chips as if everyone there was a ‘cloth-capped’ Northerner. ‘Things have changed’, she said. In the same segment, the former Labour MP for nearby Sedgefield, Phil Wilson, pointed out that the description ‘left behind’ does not capture the fact that these constituencies have ‘moved on’.

Along similar lines, there have been a number of attempts in recent days by the right of the party to restimulate ideas around a ‘politics of aspiration’ that moves beyond the limited notion of the ‘left behind’ to appeal to swing voters in these contested constituencies. Meanwhile, some see a ‘roaring twenties’ ensuing in the aftermath of the pandemic, helmed by Johnson’s feelgood leadership and propelled by state spending splurges.

In this context, Labour canvassers may face an uphill struggle delivering dour doorstep sermons about how badly things are going. Whereas the book argues that there has been a lack of moral and ethical purpose in our politics, in some ways recent years have seen an excess of it, with right and left alike launching culture wars and moral crusades. Deborah Mattinson, newly appointed Starmer’s Director of Strategy, has reported how voters in the Red Wall perceived Labour’s moralism at the last election as ‘talking down the country’.  At the same time, Mattison’s research shows the real role played by a politics of grievance, place and belonging in driving recent electoral shifts, irreducible to material factors alone and to which the prescription of an economistic pseudo-‘class’ politics under Corbyn provided no compelling answer.

Your book criticises the overly simplistic prescription of material ‘distributive justice’ that some on the left see as the best way to remedy the grievances of ‘left behind’ communities persuaded by populism. But, as the Tories pledge to lavish economic stimulus upon Red Wall constituencies won through a cultural politics of populist grievance, it seems possible that the politics of grievance finally gives way to a more utilitarian boom-era big-state economic pitch. In this sense, with Brexit having been settled, the cultural aspects are being recombined and folded into a new Tory economic offer that makes a harder sell of some of Labour’s own policy agenda over recent years, whether under Miliband or McDonnell.

In this context, as the Tories switch between culture wars and economic incentives, and the economy kicks back up again in the recovery, do we see a politics of grievance replaced with the more ‘aspirational’ mode once associated with New Labour?How cleanly can we separate economic and cultural politics, material promises and moral purpose, in how Labour compete in this shifting electoral space?

JC: This goes back to the question of either-or, cosmopolitan or parochial, you’re either left behind or you’re part of this networked youth – these crass heuristic devices, these binary terms, deny nuance and complexity within people themselves. Communities themselves are aggregations of all sorts of changing complexities.

To give an example, Dagenham is a hundred years old this year. For the last six or seven years Britain’s fastest changing community, whilst presenting a condensed history of capitalism through the rise and fall of Fordism, Thatcherism, the right to buy, deindustrialization, the BNP and much more. The real story is both the remarkable resilience of working-class people and the changing character of the British working class.

But now on the ground in Dagenham, we have a new politics of work. We’re creating many thousands of jobs, driven by the local state equipped with new industrial and environmental strategies. We are moving beyond the combustion engine and traditional Ford technologies, we are relocating great markets from central London into Dagenham, building new film studios, welcoming universities – there’s a massive growth agenda developing around Labour.

At the same time, we have a council that’s helping to hold together things inter-culturally by rethinking citizenship, questions of justice and how we all live together – building fraternity in a very turbulent environment.

It’s a fantastic community to represent because these big challenges rip through a very small portion of outer East London; one of the poorest most challenging communities in the country. But Labour has reinvented itself there, the community is dramatically changing, and its best days arguably are ahead of it over the next few years, when all this growth potential lands, and we pivot out of a decade of austerity and racial tensions and violence.

My point is a simple one. It should not be beyond our collective wit to get out of the binary traps that disfigure the modern left. We should be able to reconcile a modern sustainable growth strategy driven by innovative Labour civic leadership equipped with an inspiring vision of justice in local communities that can ensure that people live together and flourish as individuals, families, communities. There are other examples such as Salford and Preston that are nurturing inspiring municipal socialist models.

These different models reconcile assorted demographics and the material and cultural. Not least because, locally, culture is one of the biggest modern drivers of material change in communities like Dagenham. There is a paradox in our conversation of a crisis consuming Labour – of a strategy hiding in plain sight – being forged where we hold power.

Some of these communities are basically described as left behind when they’re nothing of the sort. They are complex organisms which change and grow and adapt in extraordinary ways. Rather than writing them off in terms of recourse to demographic or technological determinism, we should instead think through a modern politics that can foster new forms of the common good. It is in view, if we get beyond our obsessive internal cultural exchanges and tit-for-tat point-scoring symptomatic of an approaching political death. A new public philosophy is in sight if we have the energy to grasp it and rebuild.

Monday 10th May 2021

Jon Cruddas is Labour Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham

Frederick Harry Pitts is Lecturer in Work, Employment, Organisation & Public Policy, University of Bristol