Down in London at the Labour Together conference on Labour’s future the other day, I was struck not so much by the usual tone of self-adulation that you tend to get when Labour MPs and wannabee MPs gather together in a big room to talk about how we really need to listen to the voters, but by one very particular example of the Labour hierarchy’s enduring failure to join the dots between political theory practice.
First, top ‘listen to the concerns of voters on immigration or else’ MP Rachel Reeves spoke about how we need to listen to voters on immigration. She gave her now usual anecdote about a visit to a factory in her constituency the day before the EU referendum, and found herself beset by workers intent on voting out because they felt immigration removed the security of their jobs.
If you don’t genuinely listen and respond to voters concerns about immigration, said Rachel, we are lost as a party. So many on the left, she said (echoing earlier speakers), feel that to express concern about levels of immigration is to be racist.
Of course we need to “answer carefully”, she said, carefully, presumably for fear of being called a racist, but we need to answer these concerns; we must take seriously the deep-seated desire that working class people for security for themselves, their families and their communities
Then the subject of debate changed to Universal Basic Income (UBI)
UBI is a blind alley, said Rachel, echoing what Maurice Glasman had said earlier about the intrinsic value of work. Beveridge and Bevan would be against UBI, she assured us, presumably because they believed in the principle of reciprocity. It didn’t occur to Rachel, apparently, that Bevan and Beveridge didn’t set up the post-war welfare state in an late capitalist economy dominated by post-industrial, temporary and precarious work, which by its nature creates deep insecurity for working class people for themselves, their families and their communities
There’s a failure of intellect in here – one which is deep-rooted in the upper echelons of the party. On the one hand, for Rachel et al Labour policy should be driven by a well-grounded desire for security. On the other hand, insecurity is a good thing because it motivates people who go out to work.
This illogic is not just a temporary inability to think things through. It is a deep-rooted failure because of what drives the two conflicting stances.
The first stance – that the need to deliver security is more important than political principles about freedom of movement – comes about because the working class know what’s good for them. And we should respect that.
The second stance – that support for UBI will foster laziness, and that insecurity is a price worth paying for the deeper political principle of reciprocity – comes about because the working class don’t know what’s good for them, but the theorists of reciprocity do.
If Labour really wants to move forward, it really does need to reach a point where principle can meet practice so that, in turn, we don’t have to “answer carefully” (i.e. sound false on the doorstep) but can just answer.
I have started to set out how we do this, through very concrete practices of democratic associationalism rooted in fundamental principles of equality of voice (and the necessary dialectic with mediating power) *.
This may not turn out to be a successful way forward, but at least I’m trying. At the moment, behind the veneer of renewal, it seems to be that for many Labour MPs it’s triangulation as usual.
*In fact, by the far best intervention at the whole event was from Dr Adrian Pabst, who raised the need to change the way we engage with voters through the development of democratic associations and institutions. Sadly, i’m not sure many in in the room really got him, and his question on it was answered with platitudes. He must have wanted to kick train seats in confusion on the way back to Canterbury the way I wanted to kick train seats on the way back to Wigan, about a conference which professed to be a new start, but whose speakers in the end peddled the same old tired certainties that they said needed to be left behind