‘Our People’

Jon Wilson

“we failed our party, our people and our country”. Darren Jones

“we as the Labour Party have to galvanise round our core principles and make sure we deliver for our people”. John McDonnell

“when we win, it will not be for ourselves, it will be for all those communities who need us now more than ever”. Keir Starmer

“We think the masses need Labour, but if we ask them to come to us on our terms, they won’t. Not any more.” Eric Hobsbawm

As Keir Starmer wins Labour’s leadership election by a comfortable margin, there’s a sense of hope and relief through many parts of the party. For Corbyn’s greatest critics, the nightmare of Labour’s ultra-leftist interlude is over, and the party can move back to the political mainstream and with it, hopefully, victory. For many disillusioned Corbynites, Starmer gives Labour a better chance of political power than their one-time hero, without betraying Labour’s principles. Starmer’s victory has come from his remarkable capacity to stitch together a coalition includes centrist social democrats and former Corbynites. His campaign team includes the men who ran both Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns. Starmer’s political skills have tapped into the instincts shared across all parts of the party. But by doing so, Starmer has doubled down on the themes that separate the party from the rest of British society and guarantee defeat.

Labour’s unifying theme is the idea of ‘our people’, a population of real or possible Labour voters who the party represents and are made poorer, iller and weaker by Conservative rule. ‘Our people’ was the essential category in the leadership race, used by every candidate to claim their power to speak for Labour’s now largely lost heartlands. Starmer invoked it in his opening video, which demonstrated how as a campaigning lawyer defending Labour communities, from miners to print workers, from attack. As he argued in an early Guardian article, the ‘moral case’ he made for a Labour government was to defend the ‘powerless against the powerful’. The point, throughout this meme, is that Labour activists and politicians act for people who are not like them. A Labour victory was not, Starmer said, ‘ for ourselves, it will be for all those communities who need us now more than ever.

This idea of ‘our people’ comes from Labour’s foundation as a class-based party, but it has been reshaped through the strange history of the relationship between class and nation over the last forty years. Mid-twentieth century Britain had parties which claimed to represent social classes. The Conservatives really were the party of capital — Stanley Baldwin’s family owned a steel-making business. Labour imagined itself as the party of the organised working class. But class-based political representation worked because it assumed the existence of a common political life, in which different interests were organised to have a voice and a place in the polity whoever was in government. The academic, Marxist left attacked what they called Labourism as conservative and cautious. They criticised Labour for its deference to hierarchical institutions in which compromise with capital was always necessary. But this national political system which presided over economic expansion and extension of the welfare state, creating the society the left now looks back to as a golden age.

For mid-century Labour, class was part of the nation, and class-based identities were a way to talk about the way different groups were included in national life. Britain’s national political culture which made it possible for Labour to easily move between class and nation, to speak for ‘our people’ on the way to speaking ‘for England’ (or Britain) — as Leo Amery famously asked Arthur Greenwood and Labour to in 1939. Of course, millions rejected even this nationalist approach to class, and with it Labour’s for the allegiance of the working class. Despite being described as ‘deviant’ by sociologists, at least a third of working class citizens always voted Conservative.[1] But, when it won elections, Labour’s victories were based on making a successful transition from class to nation. Labour manifestos through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s claimed to lead the whole country not just one part of it. The 1945 manifesto spoke of ‘the people’ including all ‘ordinary’ men and women, ‘wage-earners or small business or professional men or housewives’ — not just the vulnerable or working class. Wilson’s 1964 manifesto made a similar nationalist pitch to a single ‘people’ that was apparently keen to apply ‘new thinking’ to end Tory ‘chaos and sterility’. It divided that people into specific interest groups, but conceived of them all as members of one organised and planned national whole. In each case, Labour could push its strong class-based self-identity to one side when making its appeal to the broader public.

A class-based party could win and rule because class was essential to the way national life was organised. Labour’s crisis since the 1970s are as much about the collapse of that national framework, as the decline of class. In the 1970s, Trade Unions briefly became larger and more powerful, but they did so in an increasingly antagonistic political context where negotiation between nationally organised workers and business broke down. Conflict in the 1970s was followed by union decline in the 1980s, as membership sank from 13 to 8 million between 1979 and 1995, and more since. The decline of the unions was the fall of a set of institutions which connected and represented people across Britain, north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border, for example.

Other national institutions collapsed too. Participation in a national (this time English) religious life fell earlier with attendance in the Anglican Church falling from the mid-1960s, and then the idea of a national religion in which all schoolchildren were educated collapsed too. Privatisation of course shrank the state’s ownership of business in the 1980s, but perhaps the most important denationalisation was the replacement of private national by multinational capital in running the economy. As important though was a change in the structure of the workplace, as big national employers became less important and small enterprises grew. In 1986, 9.6 million people worked in businesses with fewer than 100 employees; in 2019 16.6 million worked in firms with fewer than 50. The decline of almost every organisation which existed on a country-wide scale made the national sociology which underpinned Labour’s politics no longer make sense. The exception, of course, was the NHS, which alone has had to bear the symbolic burden of national institutional life.[2]

It would be easy to describe the collapse of British politics’ national framework as a tragic decline and fall for the left, of collectivist Britain being abolished by the neoliberal advocates of competition and individualism. But in fact, as historians have argued for decades (and a few incisive critics have seen since the 1950s), Labour’s sociological categories matched poorly with the way most people thought about themselves from the start. ‘Our people’ have always been a disappointment to party activists. They were more individualistic, more acquisitive, less collectivist and high-minded and not as easily educable into being the good socialist citizens Labour leaders wanted them to be.[3] There’s nothing new about working class voters voting Conservative, even in the north.Many have done so for generations. In the 1940s and 1950s those differences were hidden within large national political and economic structures, and the success of national forms of collective bargaining. But as growing affluence gave people more choice and made inequality more obvious, the cracks in Labour’s coalition became more obvious.

Deference to the structures of post-war national power collapsed in a thousand, mutually contradictory ways. They occurred in feminist challenges to male-run institutions; in British 1968ers’ emphasis on individual expression rather than the collective; in student protest; anti-racist politics; in working class consumerism; in the insistence by trade union members in the 1970s on higher living standards, even though they were told by all governments that wage increases weren’t in the national interest. It wasn’t the Conservatives that killed post-war national institutions; they were undermined by social change which many on the left actively backed. Margaret Thatcher’s role in the story was not to kill nationalist collectivism but to reconstruct the nation in a new way that actively, perhaps deliberately and certainly for the first time excluded both organised labour and Labour.

Since the Second World War Labour’s aim had been to coordinate national institutions to preside over social progress and economic prosperity. The deal Labour offered was that electing a party of labour pulled workers into the national governing coalition as responsible and respectable partners, and drove economic growth. That deal was the basis Labour victory as late as 1974. But the party’s claim to preside over progress and prosperity faltered with the economic stagnation in the late 1970s. Industrial unrest seemed to show Labour could not guarantee social peace. Its strategy of reconciling the interests of business and the organised working class no longer worked. The late 1970s were an apparent crisis for Labour’s variant of cross-class form of national politics They opened space for an alternative, Conservative nationalism. Instead of conciliating the two sides Margaret Thatcher argued that national peace and prosperity depended on the state clearly taking sides in the battle between capital and labour.

By 1979, Labour’s post-war vision of Britain as a composite society made up of different groups coordinated by national institutions had been fatally wounded. The question was what kind of order would follow it. Margaret Thatcher’s answer was to build a kind of authoritarian populism, which replaced a society of institutions and interests with a single homogenous people which shared her moral and economic “convictions”, enforced by the state. Groups that challenged that position were cast from the nation into an anti-national residuum, whether they were striking miners, the unemployed who refused to ‘get on their bikes’, academics, non-traditional families, public-sector workers, ethnic minorities.

Tragically, Labour failed to challenge the new political landscape created by Conservative dominance. Instead, it accepted the Conservatives’ description of the terrain, choosing to fight on Margaret Thatcher’s highly-moralised battleground. The difference was simply to switch moral polarities to support those who the Conservatives excluded, defending those attacked by “Thatcher” with a new ethical clarity and urgency. Throughout the 1980s Labour still talked about national economic growth and modernisation. But its focus, increasingly was on poverty, unemployment and sickness; on the welfare of those it felt had been marginalised rather than production and prosperity of the population as a whole. Labour’s strategy was based on building a ‘coalition of the dispossessing’, and turning itself into the party representing ‘the totality of the disparate groups who ha[d] lost out’ under the Tories, as a centrist Labour figure put it in the early 1980s.[4]

The greatest break in Labour’s history occurred in the early and mid 1980s, when the party dramatically shifted the coalition it supported along with its animating ideas. Labour had always been a partnership of middle and working class citizens. But before the 1980s Labour tried to combine an appeal to the self-interest and sense of national responsibility of two groups in particular, a growing scientific and technical middle class and ambitious industrial workers. Labour claimed to speak for the nation as a whole because its fate was, it claimed, was tied to the interests of those seeking an expansion in production and economic and social ‘progress’.

But from the early 1980s, Labour became more concerned more about care than production, welfare instead of growth. The Thatcher revolution helped Labour become the party of public sector workers speaking on behalf of the poor and vulnerable; of those who care, standing up for those they care for. The relationship between Labour and its constituency was no longer based on shared interests. It was defined using the moral language of need, of defending ‘our people’ who ‘need a Labour government’ from further attack. The argument worked by portraying Tory Britain as a society in ruins, in which the poor and vulnerable were particularly suffering the consequence of catastrophic social collapse. This was a strategy developed as much on the right of the party as the left, consolidated in particular by a centrist leader desperately trying to unite its factions, Neil Kinnock. Using imagery of industrial wasteland and ruined hospitals, the 1987 election was particular important in consolidating its reach through the party; that election was coordinated, of course, by Peter Mandelson.

Labour was pushed into this moralistic welfarist strategy first by the collapse of the institutions and economy which made the old approach work, and then by the speed with which the Conservatives redefined the basis of national politics to exclude the organised working class and over elements of the Labour Party’s coalition. But from the mid-1980s it has been the dominant theme in motivating Labour activists, and a central strand in every election campaign, for example. Productionist themes have been present in manifestos and policy documents, but when messages have been boiled down it is Labour’s role protecting the poor and vulnerable which comes to the fore.

1997 was a partial exception, but it is the exception that proves the rule. With its embrace of a liberal domestic economic order and unfettered global free trade new Labour was a radical departure for the party in economic strategy. But in framing its approach, 1997 saw a return to the party’s pre-1979 rhetoric of national leadership. Like leaders in 1945 and 1964, Blair focused on economic growth and national renewal, explicitly appealing beyond ‘our people’ to the country’s professional and commercial middle classes. Just as it had done before previous victories, Labour’s manifesto invoked the idea of a ‘progressive’ nation, looking beyond class-based constituencies to anyone interested in innovation and positive social change.

But the anti-Thatcherite politics of welfare and protection had always had a presence in new Labour’s politics. In the last days of the 1997 campaign, Labour’s focus shifted from optimistic ideas about ‘new Britain’ to frightening voters that they had ’24 hours to save the NHS’. As David Edgerton notes, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have both recently suggested Labour’s tradition was about sustaining a welfare safety net. New Labour thought electoral victory required an inclusive message which appealed to Conservative voters.[5] But when that new Labour recipe no longer won elections, Labour’s politically active supporters embraced the fear more emphatically, returning to the post-1987 emotional heartland of defending our institutions and ‘our people’ against Tory attacks and cuts, with higher public spending if necessary. Corbyn and Corbynism, with resistance to austerity as their key concepts, have been the consequence. The key point here is that Corbyn’s victory was not the takeover of a moderate party by the extreme left. Corbyn’s dominance was rooted in instincts mainstream to centre-left politics since Thatcher. It was only led by the party’s far left because they were the only ones able to connect with the broader British left.

The idea of ‘our people’ has given the debate about who and what follows Corbyn a visceral quality, making it apparently about real lives that through some natural emotional affinity are connected to those of Labour politicians. But the moral urgency of speaking on behalf of “the attacked, vulnerable and excluded” — Starmer’s ‘communities who need us now more than ever’ — has meant that Labour has been unable to forge an inclusive, progressive story about the nation as a whole, because people who identify with those terms are nowhere near a majority. The 2019 general election showed that its emotional affinity with its supposed constituency isn’t reciprocal. When the Labour Party talked about ‘our people’, most people thought it wasn’t talking about them.

So, the problem isn’t that one or another social groups are now out of reach, as some have argued. It is the very idea of dividing the country into self-conscious sociological groups who feel a particular affinity with one or another party has collapsed. However they are defined, ‘our people’ makes Labour seem sectional and tribal. It is time, finally, to ditch a category which comes from a world which no longer exists.

But how, and what should replace it? There’s a paradox at the heart of our politics, which the Conservatives have negotiated far better than Labour. As the national institutions which organised post-war life have almost all collapsed, talking about the nation has become more important. The nation and shared national institutions were the assumed background to post-war politics. But as that background receded, those parties able to explicitly frame their arguments in terms of an all-inclusive shared national life have done best. In Scotland, the idea of a shared national life has best been articulated by the SNP. In England the Conservatives have shown remarkable agility redefining their vision of nation means, from Thatcher’s moral, hard-working individualists, to Cameron’s sense of shared sacrifice to clear Labour’s ‘mess’, to Johnson’s forgotten leavers. But in each case they emphatically claim to speak for everyone, not just one group or another. Of course their politics does exclude, but it does not do so explicitly. The Conservatives cleverly present the division not between one group of p­eople against another (‘the many not the few’), but between faceless institutions (‘a broken Parliament’) and the people of the country as a whole. Labour can learn from that approach. The paradox at the heart of Labour’s politics now is that the more the party argues for one or another group to be included rather than another, the less it seems able to talk the holistic language of national leadership which renewal requires. It needs to find a way to talk positively about the nation which it once took for granted.

How to do that? Here are three thoughts. First, Starmer’s party needs to ditch the polarities which have sustained Labour through the last forty years. That doesn’t mean abandoning the poor for the wealthy, the many for the few, the producers for the predators. Nor does it mean pretending everyone will benefit financially from a Labour government; some people will pay higher taxes. It does, though, mean jettisoning the assumption that every political choice has to be framed in antagonistic, either/or terms. The intention with Labour’s antagonisms is of course always to frame them as the good majority against the bad minority, but that isn’t how they seem. Too easily they frame Labour as the party for other people, and Labour quickly slides into being a party for a narrow minority. Instead, Labour needs craft a story about how every part of society has something to contribute to the welfare of the whole. Labour’s argument will always be a moral one. But its morality should be open, broad and non-judgmental, not an antagonistic moral crusade.

Secondly, if Labour is serious about talking about the nation as a whole not just the weakest and most vulnerable, it needs to shift from welfare to economics. That means focusing less on the need to care for the minority of the population who are vulnerable, and more on the conditions which create economic prosperity and broader well-being for all — including the poor and vulnerable. Of course, since the early 1980s Labour has talked a lot about a thriving economy. But it has not succeeded in converting those broad aspirations into a convincing practical political story about the national economy. Given the collapse of the institutions, assumptions and material conditions which made national economic management possible up to the late 1970s, the difficulty of creating such a credible story shouldn’t be under-estimated. That requires the definition of a new relationship between national and global economic life, which moves beyond both glib clichés about infinite interconnectedness and a narrowly protectionist economic nationalism. It also needs a new focus on local economic life, and on the conditions which allow places which have a marginal role in both the global and national economy to thrive.

Finally, Labour’s national rhetoric needs to connect with the new forms of multinational belonging which have emerged in the UK. The rise of sub-British national identities are a response to the collapse of the all-British institutions which once sustained collective life across the country. Labour’s response is often to conjure up a world which no longer exists, and champion either an inclusive Britishness (or an anti-nationalist position) against what it imagines are divisive nationalisms; again, taking a moralistic either/or approach. Labour needs to recognise that there’s nothing insrincally better about British rather than Scottish or English, and embrace the diverse forms of national identity which exist in the UK. As in its approach the economy, the party faces the hard task of weaving a coherent and inclusive story, when the institutional basis for its older narratives have collapsed and the sites of identity and political action fragmented. Doing so will require a set of political skills different from those which Labour has privileged in the past.

This blog was originally posted on Medium.

[1] Frank Parkin, ‘Working-Class Conservatives. A Theory of Political Deviance’, British Journal of Sociology, 18 (1967), pp.278–290

[2] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199495/cmhansrd/1995-06-22/Writtens-6.html; https://www.fsb.org.uk/uk-small-business-statistics.html.

[3] Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951–64 (2003)

[4] See Tony Wright, Socialisms. Old and New (1996), p.104–6 for a discussion of debates at the time and Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (2018) for a more recent version of the argument.

[5] https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/labour-party-history-keir-starmer.

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Jon Wilson

Jon Wilson is Professor in Modern History at Kings College, London and author of India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire (Simon and Schuster, 2016). He is a Labour Party member and former councillor for the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

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