"The opportunity to serve our country - that is all we ask" - John Smith, (13 September 1938 to 12 May 1994)
‘Our task now is to take note of why we lost and build a future for the party. This doesn’t mean adopting the Conservatives’ approach. It means building a vision of the country based on Labour’s values of family, work, fairnessand decency, and rooted in the concerns of the people we represent.’ (1)
This week Jon Cruddas MP published his analysis of last year’s election defeat. ‘Labour’s Future - Why Labour lost in 2015 and how it can win again - Report of the independent inquiry into why Labour lost in 2015’
This week Jon Cruddas MP published his analysis of last year’s election defeat. The report is based on polling covering the General Election and the recent elections across the UK and in London. It deploys typologies to explain the behaviour of the electorate as ‘pioneers, prospectors and settlers’. Pioneers are more socially liberal and comfortable with the cosmopolitan world. Crucially, settlers seem to typify once solid Labour voters now attracted to UKIP and deeply socially conservative. In short, the settlers were not desperate for the formation of a progressive alliance with the SNP.
In general I agree with much, but not all that Jon Cruddas writes and for that matter the same goes for Maurice Glasman. So I am not neutral, I hope I am not biased but I am ‘situated’ to chuck in a word loved by academics. It is a bit like the fact I regard anyone who likes West Brom as having good judgement and bad judgement if they don’t. This is my starting point. I do have a few thoughts of its significance, I hope, from a Christian perspective.
The church can teach politicians and the Labour Party a thing or two at this current juncture and I know the church isn’t perfect but it is unique. Thus, in essence Labour has got to get ‘common’. It has got to embrace the common life, get rooted in the common good and learn to love the ‘common people’ and find the common touch. Else it will die. In Scotland I fear we have died.
The Common Life
This last Sunday my church in a thankfully uncool part of South East London cleared away the chairs and for 45 minutes we had open worship where people could dance and go for it. I didn’t embarrass my family with the ‘charismatic two step’ (there is still time) but my four year old son loved it and entertained on the stage with some confident dance steps, imbibed from Harlem as far as I can tell. It was a wonderful, free and liberating time of worship. I stepped back and noticed Brazilians, old people, young people, professionals, West Africans, Black British, white working-class all united in worship. Unrestrained, we had the time of their lives. It was authentic worship. Now, I am not about to say my church is perfect, of course it isn’t. However, it is pretty much the most diverse church I have belonged to. Yet, focussed on the worship and discipleship of Jesus there is a purpose that transcends all earthly identities that really binds us together in community in a common life. This is not just some soppy abstraction about community (which is actually really hard to forge) it is a prophetic statement to a society that finds it hard to live together. A society ravaged by a crisis of identity and inequality.
As the Cruddas report points out, the Labour Party appears to be adrift from the society it is seeking to reach out to and represent. It is becoming ‘exclusive’! One of its key messages reads as follows:
‘The Labour Party is now largely a party of progressive, social liberals who value universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice. It is losing connection with large parts of the voter population who are either pragmatists in their voting habits or social conservatives who value family, work, fairness and their country’ (2)
This alarming exclusivity is also the mirror image of another key message that politics is now driven by identity and belonging. (Witness the mass boredom currently with EU membership being sold as if it were a fridge; get one for £200 less than the other retailer etc)
‘….it needs to develop a politics that is radical on the economy and small-c conservative – supporting the values of family, work and country.’
Maurice Glasman once pointed out the despair that results from an absence of the common life.
‘What you’ve got is a lot of people who are alone at home watching the telly and having maybe a couple of beers a day. That’s no life, but they don’t know what to do, where do you go. So that’s why relationships are so vital. We flourish with others. Our life is not to live alone outside of relationships, but to find our fulfilment with others in a common purpose’ (3)
Flourish, others, relationships and common purpose. Does this describe the Labour Party? No, but it does get near to describing my church.
The Labour Party and the word exclusive shouldn’t belong in the same sentence but now they do. A political party that once embodied the common life, because it was working-class experience that made this a reality in its pain and in its collective joy, now seems unable to generate anything like it. However, the church is a place where it can be lived out. Where can love our neighbour even if we don’t like them. The second Chapter of Acts when goods were ‘held in common’ isn’t a blueprint for communism it attests that a mark of the Kingdom of God is that the common life occurs.
Once upon a time the church embodied the common life, our life together and this defined working-class communities and the Labour Party. It was Paul Mason who recently and powerfully recognised the critical place of churches as well as trade unions in forging working-class life and identity.
'Without solidarity and knowledge, we are just scum, is the lesson trade unionism and social democracy taught the working-class kids of the 1960s; and Methodism and Catholicism taught the same.' (4)
Solidarity, the common life, belonging. This idea isn’t new either, centuries ago, John Ball said ‘My good friends, things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will, until everything shall be in common’.
The Common Good
The Cruddas report touches on some issues that make progressives squeamish and that make me squeamish too. Issues of identity, immigration and welfare. Yet, to small c conservatives who dispositional common sense has been offended these issues matter. Unless they are addressed we in Labour don’t deserve a hearing. How this is done and worked out is critical. For implicit to the theological approach of the common good is a belief in compassion and a sense of place. The Christian belief in the centrality of Incarnation should enable us to work these things through with humility. Immigration and welfare and Europe can’t be left to a binary debate that alienates people and disallows people to tell their story and express their fears.
The common good goes beyond the individual and tribe and allows for a perspective that transcends individual calculation and squaring off different voting interests. Our society is fragmented and divided and needs Christian resources. If we leave the debating field to UKIP and a wholly liberal approach don’t be surprised that former Labour voters will have left the building.
But what is the common good?
‘Public authorities have the common good as their prime responsibility. The common good stands in opposition to the good of rulers or of a ruling (or any other) class. It implies that every individual, no matter how high or low, has a duty to share in promoting the welfare of the community as well as a right to benefit from that welfare. "Common" implies "all-inclusive": the common good cannot exclude or exempt any section of the population. If any section of the population is in fact excluded from participation in the life of the community, even at a minimal level, then that is a contradiction to the concept of the common good and calls for rectification.’ (5)
As Jon Cruddas has said elsewhere
‘…the common good concerns the relational’ (6)
The common good can help us, indeed must help us as policy makers are lost for the way forward. Old ideas have run out steam, helpful for a while they now have run out of road. Public faith in politics and painfully the Labour Party is low – as this report underlines - and I can’t see a resurgence any time soon. The perspective of the common good transcends class divisions which will get us nowhere and it embodies a thoroughly Christian approach to public life; a robust and engaged Christian approach to social problems is essential.
The common good is critical if we are to get to the bottom of the painful issues. Does the Labour Party have the will, language or resources to reflect seriously on these issues
Common People / The Common Touch
My Dad told me the story about when as a social worker in Walsall he visited a lady who came to the door crying. My Dad asked ‘What ever is the matter?’. She had just heard the news that John Smith had died. I don’t mean this in a flippant sense but you can imagine members of the public crying today at the death of a politician? I also remember my Dad saying that John Smith had ‘the common touch’, i.e. he could naturally relate to ordinary people. That sense of the common touch of love for the common people, rather than fear is in short supply. Thus there is a key point in the Cruddas report which calls for:
‘….building a vision of the country based on Labour’s values of family, work, fairness and decency, and rooted in the concerns of the people we represent’ (7)
In order to do this, you have got to understand its’ importance, to want to do it, to love it and love the people whose life embodies this. Now, before we get all proletarian about this, remember John Smith was an Edinburgh QC. People from such backgrounds have a place in the big tent too and rightly so, Labour should always be a broad alliance its just there is one bit of that tent missing. He had the common touch and was a ‘Labour man’. You knew what he stood for. This is another problem identified in the report.
‘Whatever Labour thought its message was, the public was either unclear about it, or saw it as being about protecting public services.’ (8)
In stark terms the evidence, if it were needed, that Labour has a major problem with its core support is spelt out clearly. It is the socially conservative voters who have left Labour. The ‘common people’ no longer love Labour and are looking elsewhere for political expression.
‘Labour is losing its working-class support and UKIP is reaping the benefits. Since 2005 it has been socially conservative voters who are most likely to have deserted Labour.' (9)
When too many people running and representing Labour don’t look, think or sound like the people they claim to represent there is a profound problem. To my mind it was obvious we should have gone into the last election offering a vote on the EU, even if I am committed to remaining in. Instead we had a fudge of an offer that was difficult to explain. We did not trust the people.
In addressing this and there is no immediate, easy fix the church again speaks to Labour as it does to all parties. Though the church is still too suburban and comfortable in location and mind-set is has a much closer connection with people and place. In many inner city areas it is the only social institution serving people and giving meaning to their lives.
The report is frank but does offer hope for Labour. I have not done it justice, please have a read. I would submit that it is the Christian faith and church that can speak to this situation. We need to model a common life, champion the common good and not be ashamed of loving the ‘common people’, the ordinary people. Of course these values are not the sole preserve of one political party. We need to listen more, much more to ordinary people, it is they who work, raise families and form communities. They or people like them created the Labour Party in the first place and they elect and reject Government’s. Labour should listen to and trust the people and be honest about its failings.
Christians believe in truth and hope. We believe in new life, resurrection and a new heavens and a new earth. Having this perspective and conviction must shape our politics.
‘Labour is becoming dangerously out of touch with the electorate, and at the time of writing appears unwilling to acknowledge this growing estrangement. Labour’s historical task is to represent the interests of working people in government. That means listening to the people, trusting their judgment, letting them decide the destiny of their country. And it means recognising when we have got it wrong, and learning from our failure’ (10)
Ian Geary is a member of Christians on the Left and lives with his family in South-East London.
(1,2,7,8,9,10) Labour’s Future - Why Labour lost in 2015 and how it can win again - Report of the independent inquiry into why Labour lost in 2015’ Jon Cruddas MP et al May 2015
(3) ‘Labour’s New Jerusalem’, BBC Radio Four, 27 May 2013
(4) 4 April 2016, Paul Mason, The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/04/the-problem-for-poor-white-kids-is-that-a-part-of-their-culture-has-been-destroyed
(5) The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching, A Statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, 1996.
(6) Jon Cruddas MP: ‘The Common Good in an Age of Austerity’: Ebor Lecture York St John 9/07/14