A Labour politics of belonging

By Jonathan Rutherford
22 June 2017
United Kingdom United Kingdom
The Labour party will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition until it appreciates the human need to belong
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In June 2016, a coalition of the Tory shires and the ex-industrial working class took England and Wales and so Britain out of the EU. It was the same alliance (except it wasn’t ex-industrial) that brought Churchill and Attlee together to defeat appeasement in 1941. This coalition contributed to the Atlantic Charter and so to the postwar welfare state and on its basis a new liberal international order.

The post war domestic settlement is now under great strain and consequently so is the liberal international order.

Brexit confronts us with the question – what kind of country do we want to be? It also divides us. Our country is remaking itself in the complexities of race and class.

Britain is divided between the places that are connected to the global economy and the low-skill, low-wage, insecure peripheries, which are not. The urban areas and university towns where the professional middle class live are moving to Labour and away from the Conservatives. In many of these urban locations, multiculturalism is a misnomer for profoundly unequal parallel life worlds.

In working-class areas the trend is toward the Conservatives and away from Labour. Here a culturally subordinate ethnic majority working class, is trapped in a low-skill, low-wage economy, and determined to hold on to its national cultural inheritance.

One class has reaped the benefits of globalisation, although their adult children less so. The other fears the redundancy of its way of life.

There is little social or cultural traffic between these two classes. Social mobility has fallen. Marriages, friendships and social occasions across the divide have become rarer. The elite universities, the national media, cultural and political institutions are dominated by the professional middle class and provide few synergies.

Caught between the two is a minority ethnic population. Parts integrated and thriving; and parts failing and segregated.

Labour has to build a new labour interest out of these estranged class and ethnic cultures. But Labour’s membership has been increasingly concentrated amongst the higher educated and in the globally connected places of the economic winners. As the party has become more socially liberal it has grown more culturally exclusive, and so has found itself estranged from the class it once represented.

The metropolitan professional middle class now dominates the Labour Party. It grew in size and influence in the 1960s and 1970s and gravitated toward the Labour Party.

It brought with it the liberationist ethic of the 1960s, an identity politics and a liberal cosmopolitan world view.

Cosmopolitans care about people they do not have a strong personal connection to. Obligations to others are an allegiance to humanity in general. Human rights are universal and not relative to a national culture.

Liberal cosmopolitanism gained ground in the Labour Party, in the Bennite insurgency. In third way politics it was linked to liberal market economics in what Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of labor, called progressive globalisation.

It underpins the values of the more committed in the Remain camp. With the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn it has combined with state socialism and become the ascendant politics within Labour.

But liberal cosmopolitanism is a handicap to Labour. It has no account of what holds society together. Society is just a collection of individuals. Nor does it have an account of the inheritance of culture as a source of meaningful life. In elite cultures cosmopolitan values and knowledge have become a badge of distinction in the hierarchies of class cultural power. The elite universities are at the forefront, illiberally silencing the uninitiated.

Despite its claim to being universal, liberal cosmopolitanism serves the interests of a highly mobile western elite culture. In terms of cultural judgment and recognition of others it is ‘a tenacious ethnocentric provincialism’.

Class condescension has driven working-class whites toward populist anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movements. Ethnic nationalist movements offer their adherents cultural resilience and the restoration of their integrity which many of them see being attacked by a privileged cosmopolitan left.

The response of the cosmopolitan left is to extend the term racism. The rise of the hard left within Labour has brought with it a post-colonial absolutism: the social and institutional fabric of the country and the minds of white people as saturated in racism. The nation is simply the constitution of an exclusionary ‘we’. Ethnic majorities who use territorial notions of origins, culture and religion to define their identities are racist. A desire to belong is an assertion of ‘I was here before you’.

A Labour Party dominated by liberal cosmopolitanism and its post-colonial derivative is too divisive and tied to the interests of a dominant class culture to successfully build a national coalition.

Recognising the human need for belonging is central to any future successful Labour politics. It does not exclude opportunity or mobility or self-advancement. These have been part of modernity since Robinson Crusoe escaped the middling station of his life. But they require a countervailing force to ensure a stable and secure society.

A sense of belonging is about emotional attachment to others, to a place, to a cultural inheritance and to a language.

It is the social foundation of democratic politics. For the great majority politics is not about assessing the policies of one party against another. It begins with the question ‘where do people like me fit in?’

Labour’s historic role is to be the party of the labour interest. We have lost this role. To recover it our values need to be parochial not universal. Parochialism is about the task of dwelling in the world and learning the social virtues that govern our everyday lives. Belonging is the commitment to this task. Membership of specific solidarities is our entry point into humanity.

As the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh writes in his essay The Parish and the Universe all great civilisations are based on parochialism. ‘Parochialism is a universal and deals with fundamentals’.

Image credit: Ewelina Wachala/Shutterstock.com