U.K. labour can use its neo-traditional roots for contemporary renewal

UK conservatives have stolen Labour’s mutualism in their Big Society program whose ultimate aim is to destroy any form of social support for the majority of the UK population. Labour should re-appropriate this tradition as well, argues Maurice Glasman, who in a long essay, first starts by analysing Labour as a marriage between working class and middle class values.


1. The roots of labour in its Traditions of Mutualism, Reciprocity and Common Good

“The sheer ferocity of the market storm within which Labour was born in the nineteenth century, and the scale of the dispossession of property, status and assets that was generated by the creation of the first ever free market in labour and land, as well as the simultaneous enclosure of the common lands, the criminalisation of association, the scrapping of apprenticeships, and the eviction and proletarianisation of the peasantry, meant that the only port in the storm was the security that people found in each other. Labour as a radical tradition was crafted by both workers’ and Christian institutions as they confronted the hostility of both an exclusivist state and an avaricious market. They called their ideology socialism and their party Labour.

Over the past decade, working with the Living Wage campaign within London Citizens has given me a better understanding of radical traditionalism. The campaign began during a retreat on the theme of family life by faith group leaders, overwhelmingly Catholic and non-conformist, but also including Muslims, Anglicans and a trade unionist. What came out in the conversation was a concern at lack of time with children or parents, and about the need to work two jobs to make ends meet, as well as a recognition of the demoralisation that welfare brings; and what emerged from this was a concept of a Living Wage, enough for a family of four to live on at a basic level. Committed to work as a value, yet challenging the prevailing market distribution as hostile to the living of a good life, the idea of the Living Wage brought the two together. And it has been faith communities, overwhelmingly Catholic and non-conformist, not trade unions, that have devised and pushed the living wage campaign. Here we can begin to understand the importance of grandparents in the development of their grandchildren.

Returning to our genealogy, let us move from the grandparents to the parents of the Labour Party, and the specific circumstances of its birth. Labour was the child of a cross-class marriage between a decent working-class ‘Dad’ and an educated middle-class ‘Mum’. The Dad in this schema was constituted by the trade unions, the Co-operative Movement, and the building societies and mutuals which were built by the working class out of the materials available to hand. Their concern was to build the relationships and institutions necessary to confront market power, and their language was exclusive and associational. Brothers, Comrades. On the Mum’s side were the Fabian Society, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, the Anglican Church (which alone among the churches finds itself on this side of the family), the strong tradition of ruling-class public service, and the architects, scientists and writers who were deeply connected to the development of the labour movement and developed ambitious plans for government.

In philosophical terms we have a Dad of Aristotelian, Common Good and traditional descent, and a Mum from the Platonic, progressive and radical line. For the Mum, the overwhelming concern, the categorical imperative, was with the ‘poorest and most vulnerable in our society’, and the use of scientific method and techniques to alleviate their condition. For the Dad, the focus was on the big warning of what would happen if you didn’t have friends, if you didn’t organise, if you didn’t build a movement with others to protect yourself from degradation, drunkenness and irresponsibility. The irresponsible were the people who didn’t pay their subs, didn’t turn up for meetings, crossed picket lines and got pissed on the money they earned.

The problem in the marriage was clear from the start. The Mum had all the advantages of class – resources, eloquence, confidence and science – and none of the experience of hardship. There was a lack of reciprocity as the years went by and Labour moved towards government. The Mum was much better suited to the demands of the modern world, capable of understanding the big picture, developing technical, complex policies, and managing change. The trade unions only had the power to disrupt, as there was no democracy in corporate governance, no capacity to pursue a common good within the firm in which power was shared, and therefore no possibility of internal promotion and responsibility without crossing picket lines. While growing in status to be a full partner in the political governance of the nation, in the economy Labour remained excluded and subordinate.

This shift in power in the relationship is clearly seen in Labour’s attitude to the governance of the firm and the economy. Nationalisation, and its direction by state appointed experts, was but one form of the social ownership that was discussed by the labour movement for three decades before 1945. For most of the time before that, co-operative firms, worker and passenger owned railways, mutualised waterways and worker-run mines were Party policy. This was all but abandoned by the time Attlee became prime minister. The Dad had no power at work, and no power at home either, as the party became increasingly dominated by middle-class policy technocrats. The marriage, you could say, became increasingly abusive, which is why it is necessary now for the grandparents to step in and play a more active role in nurturing the well-being of the child by rebuilding love and reciprocity between the parents. This will require a commitment to renewing cross-class organisation within the party, and common action for the Common Good throughout the movement. The Living Wage could be a good place to start.

The source of Labour’s continued vitality lies in learning to cherish neglected aspects of its tradition, those for which reciprocity, association and organisation are fundamental aspects of building a common life between antagonistic or previously disconnected forces. This part of the radical tradition is as committed to the preservation of meaning and status as it is to democratic egalitarian change, and seeks to pursue both. It offers tremendous resources and possibilities to the Labour tradition as it seeks to renew its sense of political relevance in political circumstances that threaten its rationality and purpose. Such a renewal requires, and has always required, an organised resistance to the logic of finance capitalism, and a strengthening of the democratic institutions of self-government.”

2. Using this tradition for the renewal of Labour

“As far as I am aware, social democracy – in party, union or think tank – has no plans for extending democracy in the social life of the nation. Put another way, social democracy has become neither social nor democratic. This is the land that Labour has vacated and is now being filled by the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’. The Conservative tradition does have a conception of the social – Burke is an important thinker – and though this was lost under Thatcherism it has been robustly reclaimed by Cameron. In response Labour needs to develop the idea of a Good Society as its rival, and such a society would be made from relationships built on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, all the way up and all the way down, in politics and within the economy.

The tragedy for the Labour tradition is that the modernists eventually reached the limits of their rationality, in terms of their unique embrace of both market and the state; while those seen as traditionalists are incapable of criticising the state, extending social democracy or having a plausible critique of finance capital. The financial crash and the deficit that it generated will form the political battleground for the next five years. In this contest Labour has to reassert its historical understanding as superior to its rivals, and its predictions for the future as more assured, so that it may act reasonably and effectively in the present.

Meanwhile, the organisational base of the labour movement has been hollowed out. And while these changes are going on, the universal welfare state, once the greatest achievement of cross-class solidarity, is being dismantled in the name of progressive ends – targeting the poorest and most vulnerable for favourable treatment. The integrity of family life and the upholding of a Common Good is the strongest way of responding to this, but this approach does not sit comfortably with progressive arguments.

The labour movement emerged as part of the national history of Britain: it is unique in the elements of existing matter that it combined in itself, in the institutional forms that it took, based upon mutuality, co-operation and solidarity, and in the distinctive moral and political traditions that gave it language and understanding. Asserting a resistance to markets without claiming ultimate powers for a sovereign state, the form it took was federal and corporatist. The big rupture with the dominant Labour narrative presented here came with the victory of 1945, which was the trigger for its long-term decline. It could be said that this was when, in the name of abstract justice, the movement was sacrificed. The democratic responsibility and practice that formed the labour movement, and that had built up over a hundred years, was severed from the idea of the Common Good and left without a role. This has intensified over the last fifty years. The trade unions became antagonistic forces within the economy, nationalisation placed managerial prerogative as the fundamental principle of organisation, and universal benefit replaced mutual responsibility as the basic principle of welfare.

The labour tradition, alone in our country, resisted the domination of the poor by the rich, asserted the necessity of the liberties of expression, religion and association, and made strong claims for democratic authority to defy the status quo. It did this within a democratic politics of the common good. It might be a good idea to do it again.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.