The limits of communitarianism

James Stafford

Jonathan Rutherford’s summation of two years of Labour Together seminars on the theme of ‘National Renewal’ promises a ‘Plan for National Reconstruction’. This is an ambitious goal, and one that his pamphlet does not quite deliver on. What it offers instead is a refreshed version of the communitarian vision of Labour politics that has become mainstream among large sections of the PLP and its intellectual penumbra since 2010, and which has been supercharged by the apparent desertion of key party constituencies in the 2016 referendum and 2019 general election.

Rutherford’s core themes—Labour as a party of the ‘labour interest’ not of ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’ in any abstract sense; the related need to recognise the small-c conservative dimensions of the British radical tradition; the limitations of the regulatory state and cash benefits as instruments of labour politics—are ones he has articulated over more than a decade, including in his advocacy of Brexit. In Labour’s Covenant, however, they are given new weight and a more radical edge through the incorporation of some of the most compelling new frameworks for understanding the ongoing crisis in Britain’s politics and political economy: Brett Christopher’s diagnosis of ‘rentier capitalism’; the Foundational Economy Collective’s advocacy of a refocusing of ‘industrial policy’ on the ‘everyday economy’ of care, retail, hospitality, food and basic utilities; David Edgerton’s sweeping historical narrative of the rise and fall of a British ‘nation’ conceived primarily in terms of a ‘national’ (post-imperial, pre-European) economy.

Others will be better placed than me to comment on how successfully these intellectual influences can be combined into an electorally successful policy program. As someone who, from a ring-side seat on Renewal’s editorial board, has been a sceptical observer of the rise and rise of Labour communitarianism since the fall of Gordon Brown, the question for me is whether this post-Brexit, post-Corbyn reworking of the project does enough to address the reasons why it failed to gain traction (beyond the PLP) during the Miliband years. That leadership’s early gestures towards ‘Blue Labour’ rapidly gave way to a more traditional social-democratic policy ‘offer’ in the 2015 election. From this perspective, the crucial moment was the failure of Miliband’s 2011 ‘predators vs producers’ Labour party conference speech, a frontal critique of Britain’s extractive political economy that left the party painted into an ‘anti-business’ corner by the press and apparently without allies in the country.

Labour’s Covenant demands a far more radical set of changes to Britain’s political economy than those envisioned by Miliband. Abandoning that era’s reticence about the direct use of state power, it talks of the re-shoring of significant manufacturing capacity; the raising of wages and labour standards in the ‘everyday economy’; new approaches to farming and environmental stewardship; and the rapid reduction of regional inequality, including through a network of state-backed regional banks.

As Tom Barker writes in his commentary on Labour’s Covenant, achieving any of this in policy terms would be difficult in its own right. Achieving it in political terms presents a different set of problems entirely, and its these I’d like to address here.

In one of the strongest sections of the pamphlet, Rutherford diagnoses the economic strategy of the Johnson government as a ‘potpourri of high spending and liberal market policies’, unequal to the challenge of ‘national renewal’:

freeports, more infrastructure, planning deregulation, relocation of civil service jobs, research and development investments, a focus on towns.

The fact is, however, that Johnson’s kind of economic policy, one that simultaneously serves the interests of extractive capital and car-driving, peri-urban homeowners, is an extremely effective device for securing electoral support in our era of anomic pandemic politics. Going beyond Conservative corporate welfare to a more fundamental restructuring of Britain’s political economy requires challenging powerful interests: the City of London, employer associations and property developers foremost among them; the institutional conservatism of the Treasury not far behind. It also requires us to address the question of ownership in the British economy—something which, given the frequency with which national capital is mentioned in Edgerton’s work on the national economy, is conspicuous by its absence from Rutherford’s pamphlet.

The difficulties of doing all of this against the backdrop of a political-media common sense that regards ‘business’—British or not—as the authoritative voice on national economic welfare similarly go unaddressed. Yet they are formidable. We only have to look across the Atlantic to sense danger: two quarters of above-trend inflation, blamed by resentful employers on the temporary boost to worker power afforded by a successful pandemic stimulus, have gone a long way towards undoing Biden’s domestic economic programme for the foreseeable future.

Whatever the flaws of the Corbyn project, it recognised this problem of resistance to economic reform. Unable to view the recent past except through the prism of factional victory, Labour’s current leaders risk forgetting that Corbyn’s electoral failure does not of itself provide an answer to the question Corbynism raised. The Labour party of 1945 had its own media ecosystem and, via the trade union movement, its own powerful social base. Its integration into ‘national’ politics—following a half century of being routinely pilloried by respectable opinion as crypto-communists and inflationary wreckers—was on terms dictated by the (relative and temporary) strength of the labour interest in the post-war dispensation. There is no equivalent social formation available to support Labour today. The best that can be hoped for is a necessarily brittle and unstable electoral coalition, influenced by the prevailing business-oriented ‘common sense’ of political media, and hence liable to turn on any government pursuing a difficult, medium-to-long term economic project like the one outlined in Labour’s Covenant.

Rather than think seriously about this problem, the current leadership’s strategy has been to lean harder than Miliband did into the politics of elite persuasion, trusting to Keir Starmer’s obvious professionalism and experience—and the contrasting failures of Boris Johnson—to win a hearing for Labour from the press, the BBC, and professional Britain. The idea of the Labour party as an outrider for a radical, pluralist, independent civil society—so central to the first iteration of ‘Blue Labour’ politics, which championed the US-style ‘community organising’ of groups like London Citizens—have been sidelined in the current iteration of the project. One of the strangest moments in the pamphlet, worthy of comment only since it gives it its name, is Rutherford’s championing of Thomas Hobbes as an advocate of social trust and reciprocity (‘covenant’), and John Locke as a transactional, legalistic ‘liberal’; a more or less exact inversion of their true positions that would have horrified nearly every nineteenth and twentieth century thinker in the English tradition of ethical socialism.

Perhaps, given the completeness of Corbyn’s failure, there is now simply no alternative to attempting, once again, to yoke a programme of significant economic reform to a deeply conventional political strategy. It is worth considering the possibility, however, that Labour’s structural political position may be too weak to achieve even this if it does, as seems possible, gain power in the coming years. Even if the fiasco of the Johnson premiership results in deep and lasting damage to the Conservative party, the likelihood is that a future Labour government may still rule from minority or in a de facto coalition. With unreliable political allies, and using the atrophied levers of the bad old central state, it will have to create the political and economic conditions, from its lonely eminence in Westminster and Whitehall, for a majority and a second term; and for structural shifts in its favour and in the favour of those it represents.

Given all this, the party might be well-advised to adopt a different vision of its purposes in office, at once more modest and more radical. The role to which the party is now fitted is to manage the British state in a manner sufficiently competent and humane to allow Britain’s society and politics some kind of respite from more than a decade of political and economic vandalism. Only then might the forces capable of bringing about more radical change, genuine movements from below of the sort Labour’s communitarians claim to value, gain the confidence to coalesce behind a second-term programme of more significant reform.

A modest revival of green-tinged left-liberalism, on the model suggested by Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz, might not be enough to set the hearts of Labour intellectuals racing; still less to address the existential challenges we all know that we face. But it is probably the most we can hope for in the straitened circumstances of 2020s Britain.

James Stafford is an Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University. He is a contributing editor at Renewal, and was co-editor of the journal from 2015 to 2020.