The Future Is Conservative: Labour Must Embrace a Conservatism That Values What Is Shared in Common, Rather Than a Liberalism That Promotes Individual Distinction and Difference

By Rutherford, Jonathan | Soundings, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Future Is Conservative: Labour Must Embrace a Conservatism That Values What Is Shared in Common, Rather Than a Liberalism That Promotes Individual Distinction and Difference


Rutherford, Jonathan, Soundings


Labour is riding high in the polls, but let us be wary of false downs and recognize the historical predicament Labour is in. What has Labour lost? It has lost five million voters and an election that fell just short of a catastrophe. It has lost touch with a generation of younger voters, many of whom will never vote Labour. Scores of thousands of party members, embittered, disillusioned and ignored, have left. Many people no longer trust that the party is on their side. What is Labour's historical purpose? The answer is unclear. And it has also lost its traditional values and an identity. In these predicaments Labour shares a political crisis of social democracy with its sister parties across Europe. But in England something more fundamental has been lost, and that is a Labour language and culture which belonged to the society it grew out of, and which enabled its immersion in the life of the people. Labour is at risk of losing large swathes of England, and it has lost the ability to renew its political hegemony within the class which gave it life.

That hegemony was about community, work, country and a sense of honour. It was also about men. In the last three decades the meaning of all of these has been thrown into question and irrevocably changed. Labour's patrimony, the party loyalty and culture of work that fathers handed down to sons (and daughters too, but Labour has been a deeply patriarchal movement) is dying out. None speak as clearly of this loss as Roger Scruton. Scruton's father was a man whose class meant that his intelligence and gifts went unrewarded and unrecognised, but he himself rejected his father's discontent and socialism, and instead embraced Conservatism. And yet there lies in his choice an ambivalence that offers an insight into how Labour might rebuild its political support in England. Despite himself, Scruton remains sympathetic to his father's cause.

  The coal miners, protesting against the closure of their mines, were
  fighting the same cause: namely the local community against the global
  economy, somewhere against nowhere. Many people shared my father's
  belief in the Labour Party, as the sole institution that would
  actually stop things. Only through the Labour Party, he thought, could
  we safeguard England which belonged to the people, who in turn
  belonged to it. The spectacle of a Labour Party committed to
  'globalisation', indifferent to the fate of rural England, and managed
  by smooth 'consultants' who might next year be working for the other
  side, which is in fact only the same side under another description,
  would have appalled him. Even in his bitterest protests against the
  monarchy, the aristocracy and the class system, he was a patriot. (1)

Labour's future is conservative. It needs to rediscover England's radical traditions that are rooted in the long political struggle against dispossession. This includes reconnecting with an English socialism that grew out of the struggles for land and for the ownership of one's own labour against the forces of the market and of arbitrary power. In this post-crash era, and in the wake of unregulated globalisation, Labour needs to develop a politics of belonging and a reform of capitalism that draws on the traditions of the common good and a common life. It must, in a literal sense, go out to the people and once again become an organising force in the life of our country, from the cities to the market towns and the villages.

Common life

Without the shared meanings of a common life there is no basis for living a life of one's own. We become individual social beings in our relationships, in the associations we join and through the civil society institutions we identify with. Our values are shaped by them, and our corporate identities are formed in the imagined communities of class and place. Our learning and the work we do is our reciprocal engagement with society and, if we are fortunate, a source of self-development. …

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