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Back to the community: Cruddas and Rutherford point the way for Miliband

Daniel Bentley, 11 September 2014

It has been little noticed by much of the media given the crisis facing the Union this week, but Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford have just published a document which should give Labour supporters hope that their party really can dominate the political debate in the years to come.

One Nation: Labour’s political renewal is more than just a party political broadcast, it is a philosophical treatise that should help recalibrate much centre-left thinking in post-recession Britain. In part, this is because it acknowledges subtly where Labour has gone wrong in recent decades and, more importantly, sets out a framework for how to approach things differently in the future.

Much of this, it has to be said, is about coming to terms with some of the small-c conservatism that was neglected by New Labour and continues to be neglected by what Ukip has found favour in portraying as the narrow metropolitan elite of Westminster. This is about the need for community, kinship and belonging, and dealing with the vulnerability many people feel in a fast-changing world, topics which have been rather out of fashion on the left for some time. While the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wholeheartedly embraced the process of globalisation, Cruddas and Rutherford stress the psychological damage it has done to communities:

“In the past three decades, people have been subjected to changes they have had no control over. This powerlessness has contributed to the growing levels of anxiety, addictions, depression and loneliness… When a culture becomes disorientated, a fear grows of a world without borders, not just national borders, but borders that define social order, family life and common decency. People are beset by a nostalgia for better times, which is to say they grieve for the loss of home. The issue of immigration refracts their anxieties into a brittle politics of loss, victimhood and grievance.”

These are vital subjects for Labour, which will never fully recover among its traditional support base until it demonstrates how it will go about addressing them. At the moment, the party is still too much anchored in an essentially Blairite mould when it comes to such questions; the challenge for Ed Miliband is how far he is prepared, and able, to go in shifting the balance.

The same is true of another key faultline for Labour that is demonstrated by Cruddas and Rutherford, which is the need to move away from centralising statism to find new, more cooperative ways of providing solutions to society’s problems. In doing this, they shrewdly reclaim the language of civil society that David Cameron sought to make the motif of his premiership. As they show, this is no more a Conservative agenda than a Labour one, the principal of non-state cooperation and collective self-help having found expression early in the formation of industrial labour movement. This manifested itself in the building societies, mutuals, burial societies, holiday clubs, food cooperatives and trade unions that grew up during the 19th century, long before the welfare state was created.

Drawing on the writings of Karl Polanyi, they extol the virtues of a middle way between the centralising tendencies of post-war Labour thinking and the over-reliance on the market that neo-liberal economics, via Margaret Thatcher but entrenched by Blair and Brown, demanded. Polanyi envisioned a society organised by “intermediate institutions” and around a more “human-scale democracy”. Cameron’s failure to make the Big Society stick has left a yawning open goal for a Labour Party prepared to look to its pre-1945 traditions:

“The Conservatives were unable to make their Big Society work in practice because in government they neither increased individual and community power, nor tackled the disruptive forces of markets. Instead, their government has retrenched the state, promoted the transactions of the marketplace over social and individual relationships, and given power to big corporations not to people… Today it is the left, not the right which is best placed to speak for individual freedom and a better society. It is the left, not the right that can lay claim to the new ideas and thinking. Democracy and the power of association are the people’s protection against the power of both the market and the state.”

This agenda is a necessary one, and not only because there is no money left for a renewed assault of statist welfare. It is necessary because it is central component in returning to individuals a feeling of agency in their own and their communities’ destinies. It isn’t just globalisation and open borders that have created a sense of helplessness, it is the obvious fact that events are influenced – for the country, the community and even the individual – too much by the market (or big business ,in particular) and too much by the state. Giving people a sense of control and an ability to make change should now be Labour’s guiding principle.


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