Labour Together’s Labours Covenant is a fascinating document, particularly when read along with its ‘supporting papers’, the contributions to the webinar series out of which this text arose, and the wider writing of the key thinkers associated with the Blue Labour tag, who seem to have been most crucial in shaping its arguments, in particular Jonathan Rutherford, who led the project. In what follows, I want to look at the ways in which the categories of morality, culture and nation function in this intellectual ecosystem. They are used to make intriguing arguments for the renewal of the left, but the way in which they are mobilised, to me at least, also illuminates some of Labour Covenant’s limitations.
As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite points out, ‘liberalism’ lurks as a malign presence in this text. Rutherford argues that from the 1970s free-market economics eroded the collective solidarities, based in mutual customs, which sustained Labour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He therefore places strong emphasis on rebuilding community life after 40 years of the resultant ‘brash new culture of individualism’. Hence the title: rather than a contract based on the ossifying, disembodied values of the market, a covenant between Labour and the nation is something living, based on reciprocity and shared sense of duty.
Labour’s Covenant, as presented here, wishes to eschew ‘culture wars’ over questions of ‘culture, race, religion and identity’ – these can instead be smoothed over by a shared ‘democratic politics of the common good’. However, elsewhere in Rutherford’s writing – and in the output of Blue Labour more broadly – liberalism comes in for an even more pronounced animus. One offshoot of the ‘the transformations in work, production and class relations underway since the 1960s’, it is argued, has been the creation of ‘a values-based progressive alliance’ – a metropolitan elite if you will – whose causes are estranged from the traditional working class.[i] In one essay on the Blue Labour website, Rutherford elides ‘market liberalism’ with liberation politics; a commitment to ‘unconstrained identity politics’, he claims, has led to ‘a culture of narcissism’ incompatible with the politics of the good society, and easily co-opted by global corporations like Starbucks.[ii] The other side of the coin is that Brexit and the 2019 swing behind the Conservative Party are viewed as a revolt against effete liberal values. It is hard to see how this isn’t buying into the terms of the culture war.
Labour’s Covenant sets out a plan to oppose both market and social liberalism. The Labour Party, through bolstering local institutions, should play a role in fixing moral norms corroded both by a neo-liberal economic system and individuated political subjectivities. Hence the citation of Burke, Tawney and, elsewhere, the first New Left – a roll call of thinkers shaped by what Tim Rogan calls a ‘Victorian moralism’.[iii] These titans of English social criticism offered humanistic critiques of capitalist excess in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, arguing that industrialisation stripped men of their true personalities. They are referenced with a view to rebuilding the kind of human-centred politics which can defeat hyper-capitalist anomie and its seeming aberrant expression in both identity politics and divisive ‘populism’.
In an otherwise admiring review of Rogan’s book about this tradition, Rutherford’s close collaborator (also a contributor to the ‘Resources for National Renewal’ series) Jon Cruddas chides Rogan’s failure to call for a rehabilitation of its politics. Cruddas claims that moral critiques of capitalism were expulsed from the left by ‘fashionable progressive cosmopolitan thinking’ and a ‘quite understandable’ turn to ‘pragmatic technocratic reform at the expense of moral assertions regarding human nature’.[iv] He fleshes out these arguments in his recent book The Dignity of Labour, offering a stern attack on ‘post-capitalist’ thinking which apparently dominates the urban ‘networked Left’, arguing once more for a moral take on the world of work. But in his review, Cruddas glides over Rogan’s conclusion, in which the author argues that a broader set of cultural and social transformations have made it increasingly less easy to make ‘strong prescriptive theologically-inspired claims’ about what it means to be human.[v] As has been noted by other historians too, late twentieth-century British society became broadly less deferential and more ‘individualist’ in outlook (and significantly less religious too), though not necessarily as a result of neo-liberalism, nor at the expense of community: the post-war settlement paved the way for forms of collective and individual self-empowerment.[vi]
If anything, however, Blue Labour’s thinkers seem self-consciously fuelled by a desire to speak their uncomfortable truths against the new dominant culture of moral relativism. Indeed, the immediate strategic claim seems to be that this ‘uniquely English’ socialist tradition can rescue the Labour Party’s reputation from its malign association with Corbynism in the ‘red wall’ – puncturing the liberal shibboleths that led the Party astray here.[vii] Labour’s Covenant presents the by-now familiar analysis that Labour is viewed as a metropolitan party of ‘cultural exclusivity and self-righteousness’ by voters in England’s ‘urban hinterland’ and its non-metropolitan towns. Hence the ‘democracy and belonging’ section allies recent work on community wealth building to arguments for English devolution and the creation of an English Labour Party. Only by developing a greater affinity ‘to voters who identify as English’ can Labour begin to build the type of communitarianism needed to heal our ‘divided society’. This might be seen as pragmatic accommodation to electoral reality, but in the conclusion Rutherford rather grandiosely claims such a politics can in turn form ‘the basis for re-founding the Union of nations’.
Akin to the conflation of liberation politics with neo-liberalism, this executes a few intellectual manoeuvres which might be queried. Firstly, it seems to suggest that the ‘British nation’ circa 1945-70 as analysed by David Edgerton is at least in some sense coeval with the English one, or should first be rebuilt via England. And secondly, and relatedly, it also implies that the Labour Party can perform the same (imagined) function as a pretty elite band of thinkers in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, namely aiding the creation of a distinctively English (or British?) communitarianism, founded in a shared morality.
The problem with the latter (as James Stafford alludes to) is it seems to wildly overestimate the status which the Labour Party holds in the life of the country, and glosses over the efforts of grassroots movements which are already seeking to, in the words of the report, turn ‘communities of place’ into ‘communities of interest’. This can be seen in John Denham’s contribution to the ‘National Resources for Recovery’ series, in which he rather glibly states that ‘when people voted to “take back control” or protested that “black lives matter” they shared a desire to be respected and heard’.[viii] Clearly not everyone voted for Brexit to ‘take back control’; likewise Black Lives Matter is surely about more than being ‘respected and heard’, and instead offers a systematic critique of institutional racism and the historical and contemporary impact of imperialism. And like other movements which might be written off as ‘identity politics’, it has brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets to demand a better world.
Here is where the spiritual/theological dimension of ‘English socialism’ falls into the trap of what Alan Finlayson diagnoses in the most recent issue of Renewal as a rather trite vision of political behaviours as motivated by ‘group identity’.[ix] In viewing extra-parliamentary movements as expressions of an anti-political populism which needs to be properly shaped into the common good, this body of thought fails to take seriously their motives and claims. As a result, in addition to producing a vision of British history in which, in Paul Gilroy’s memorable phrase, ‘England ceaselessly gives birth to itself, seemingly from Britannia’s head’, its advocates end up sounding as elitist as the cosmopolitans who have seemingly crashed the cause of the left.[x] It doles out morality, nationhood, belonging, rather than appreciating how these are formed at the grassroots.
By way of illustration, we might look at the uses of moral arguments in recent Scottish history. In his excellent Coal Country, Ewan Gibbs looks at how the closures of Lanarkshire’s pits in the era of nationalisation were managed through a moral economy framework, in which the National Coal Board and the British government were expected to provide alternative jobs, or at least social provision, for workers made redundant. The moral economy’s strength lay in tight-knit local customs of the kind which Tawney might venerate but also, particularly during the industrial unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, an ‘awareness of coal’s strategic importance’ and ‘an understanding of the dangers endured by the workforce’. In an illustrative quotation Billy Maxwell, one of Gibbs’s interviewees, looked back to the 1950s and said ‘the miners could ae held the country to ransom at that time and didnae dae it cause they were too decent a people’ [xi] This might be read on one level as a politics founded on shared values. But it also resides on a sharp analysis of inequality and workers’ power.
It is also in this period, prior to the triumph of neo-liberalism (which Rutherford holds as central to the rise of Scottish nationalism), that working-class politics in Scotland fused with nationalism through events like the Scottish Miners’ Gala. These invented traditions underscored the particularity of the nation’s coalfield while challenging the UK government to uphold ‘decent’ conditions for its workers. Scottish miners as an ‘imagined’ (rather than exclusively territorially bounded) community also expressed arguments for nuclear disarmament, anti-imperialism, and solidarity with oppressed peoples across the world. By the same token, as more women entered the workforce as heavy industry began to decline, what some men experienced as a sense of cultural and economic loss was felt differently by women. Novel workplace opportunities offered a ‘new sense ae opportunity’.[xii] Working-class women developed their own understanding of equality for women in this period, one that emerged autonomously out of the working class, that built on shared values but also challenged them.[xiii]
Lanark MP Judith Hart’s campaign literature for the October 1974 election illustrates what Gibbs calls the ‘malleable’ nature of Labour politics in a period which in the Covenant’s analysis we might view as straightforwardly socially conservative.[xiv] As well as documenting Hart’s struggles to secure better housing for council tenants in the mining village of Coalburn, it championed her achievements as Minister for International Aid, featured images of her meeting Hortensia Bussi de Allende (Chilean leader Salvador Allende’s widow) the year prior, and celebrated the fact she had taken a Chilean political refugee into her house along with her 6 year old daughter. While keen to eschew stereotypes of ‘bra-burning’, Hart’s campaign literature also underscored a commitment to equal opportunities for women, including ‘no more men-only bars in pubs’. And finally, rather than viewing the redistribution of power throughout the country as the means of reaffirming shared values, it also spoke a language of individual self-advancement. The creation of 7,000 new civil service jobs in Scotland was greeted with the enticement that ‘perhaps some folk from Lanark’ would end up working with her at the Ministry of Overseas Development. [xv]
So we see here not just a vision of a shared morality. Rather, a moral critique of capitalism was allied to claims about national, international and individual empowerment – grounded in the experience of work and community, not dreamt up by social critics and philosophers. Indeed as Gibbs notes, and contrary to the pessimistic reading of contemporary society offered in Labour’s Covenant, the ‘moral economy’ analysis of Thatcherite deindustrialisation remains a strong one in contemporary Scottish politics, not least as it was and is articulated with great success by the Scottish National Party. Similar critiques, fusing class, nation and social justice, are currently being levelled at the SNP government itself over inadequate pay, industrial policy, the environment and high rates of drug deaths.
Labour’s Covenant misses a lot in its vision of a communitarian national politics lost to individuating socio-economic change, whose adverse cultural products have been ‘Celtic nationalism’, ‘populism’ and the ‘narcissism’ of ‘identity politics’. This fails to see how class, nation and individualism have historically intersected in powerful ways. In seeking answers in the prescriptive traditions of English social criticism, with the Labour Party taking up the mantle of Tawney et al. to restore a sense of common morality, Labour’s Covenant simplifies the form of working-class politics which might emerge in the future. It also fails to take heed of Rory Scothorne’s words, submitted to the ‘Resources for National Renewal’ series, that this kind of vision ‘makes little sense North of Hadrian’s Wall’. Perhaps even more seriously, it doesn’t do very much to resolve the situation where Scotland is ‘spoken to as a wayward subordinate of the UK state’.[xvi] In fact, the whole of the UK is spoken to. Perhaps, as Owen Hatherley commented in a review of Cruddas’s recent book, stripping away the veneer of English morality will help us to see what the left has in common: a desire to confront questions of inequality and power in the workplace and throughout society.[xvii] And it might also lose some of the high-handedness (perhaps even ‘narcissism’) which is just as easy to discern on the ‘radically socially conservative’ left as it is the ‘metropolitan’ one.
Alex Campsie is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Manchester and a contributing editor at Renewal.
[i] Jonathan Rutherford, ‘Labour’s national story’, Blue Labour: https://www.bluelabour.org/home/labours-national-story, 13 May 2021.
[ii] Jonathan Rutherford, ‘The trans debate and the Labour Party’, Blue Labour: https://www.bluelabour.org/home/the-trans-debate-and-the-labour-party-1, 6 March 2020.
[iii] Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the critique of capitalism, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press 2017, p3.
[iv] Jon Cruddas, ‘Political economy and the need for a moral critique of capitalism’, Renewal Vol 26 No 3, 2018, p48.
[v] Ibid, p185.
[vi] See, for example: Emily Robinson, Camilla Schofield, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson, ‘Telling stories about post-war Britain: Popular individualism and the “crisis” of the 1970s’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol 28 No 2, 2017.
[vii] Cruddas, ‘Political economy’, p46.
[viii] John Denham, ‘A National story for Labour’: https://docs.google.com/document/d/17CfbiYIKy7GkhdGIzI0WT1m5_i6wRJjF/edit, 16 July 2020.
[ix] Alan Finlayson, ‘Editorial: Understanding the problem’, Renewal, Vol 29 No 4, 2021, p8.
[x] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London, Verso 1993, p14.
[xi] Ewan Gibbs, Coal Country: The meaning and memory of deindustrialization in postwar Scotland, London, Royal Historical Society 2021, p59.
[xii] Ibid, p137.
[xiii] Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson, ‘Vernacular discourses of gender equality in the post-war British working class’, Past and Present, Vol 254 No 1, 2021.
[xiv] Gibbs, op cit, p223.
[xv] ‘From Judith Hart, Your Labour Candidate’, October 1974, Judith Hart Papers, People’s History Museum, Manchester.
[xvi] Rory Scothorne, ‘Labour’s Scottish Questions’, Labour’s Covenant supporting papers: https://uploads.strikinglycdn.com/files/15ef1097-c79a-481a-b8e0-e4240ada5c85/1642523498885Labour’s%20Scottish%20Questions%20-%20Rory%20Scothorne.docx.pdf.
[xvii] Owen Hatherley, ‘The War over Work’, Tribune: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/04/the-war-over-work, 28 April 2021.