Monday 22 April 2024

The Establishment Fundamentalists

One evening in the lost world of October 2017, David Goodhart not only introduced me to Malbec (yes, I was 40, I know), but also accepted my point that the Anywheres were becoming Somewheres, since they were now well into their second generation, and since they had a very strong attachment to certain areas and institutions. In similar vein, Grace Blakeley writes:

The current leadership of the Labour Party likes to pride itself on the idea that it has ditched the ‘populist’ approach to politics championed by politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

‘Populism’, on this view, involves simplistic appeals to a homogenous group of people in opposition to an external enemy. Liberals argue that the populism of the Left, which attempts to unite working people against economic and political elites, is the same kind of politics as the populism of the Right, which attempts to unite certain ethnic groups against alien enemies.

Liberals claim to abhor populism and instead take a sensible, moderate approach to politics that doesn’t fall into the ‘good guys vs bad guys’ thinking of both Left and Right.

Rather than attempting to mobilise a homogenous group of people in opposition to an external enemy, they claim to pursue an ‘evidence-based’ approach to policy. They then attempt to ‘sell’ these policies to the electorate, which can be segmented into a number of different competing interest groups who select political parties much as they select among different brands in a supermarket.

In this universe, the liberals claim, there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ — only individual human beings pursuing their own interests.

The issue with the liberal view is that its description of ‘populism’ is actually just a description of politics. Consciously or not, all political movements seek to describe — and therefore construct — their desired political agent.

Those on the right constantly talk about ‘identity’ politics because they’re trying to encourage us all to think about society in terms of a divide between ‘insiders’, who belong here and obey the rules, and ‘outsiders,’ who seek access to political communities in which they don’t belong, thereby undermining the homogeneity of the group.

Meanwhile, those on the Left focus on the dynamics of production in a capitalist economy, because we’re trying to encourage people to think about society in terms of a divide between those who own the stuff and those who have to sell their labour power to survive — with the most marginalised social groups the most exploited.

In other words, if the main debates in society centre on the nature of production within a capitalist economy, then the Left has already won. As soon as you see right-wingers attempting to defend owners as ‘wealth creators,’ they’ve lost.

In this sense, politics is really a struggle over defining — and thereby constructing — different social identities. And liberalism is no exception.

While liberals claim that their political philosophy contains no heroes or villains, there are plenty of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the liberal imaginary — they’re just never explicitly named.

The ‘good guys’ in the liberal imaginary are the sensible, moderate voters and policy-makers who make decisions using evidence and ‘common sense.’ The ‘bad guys’ are ideologues: those who, according to the liberal, ignore ‘evidence’ in favour of simplistic moralising and emotive appeals to tribal political identities.

The contradiction here is very obvious: liberals construct their own tribal political identity based on the claim that they do not appeal to tribal political identities.

And this tension doesn’t simply play out in theory, but in practice too. Just look at the way Keir Starmer has brutally crushed all opposition to his leadership within the Labour Party. He has achieved his aims using astonishingly anti-democratic techniques, from expelling members and MPs who oppose him, to centralising the selection and policy-making processes, to claims of vote-rigging.

Many of the victims of these processes have rightly called out the extraordinary double standards at play among Starmer and his supporters. Liberals were among the first to attack Jeremy Corbyn for ‘purging’ the Party to promote his supporters — something that Corbyn never actually did. Yet those same people are now cheering Starmer for conducting his own — much more successful — purges.

The hypocrisy at play here relates to a much more fundamental contradiction at the heart of liberal politics. Liberals do not see themselves as ‘political’ at all. They believe they are simply trying to implement ‘sensible’ policies that align with evidence and ‘common sense,’ in contrast to their opponents who seek to govern based on nothing more than ‘ideology.’

But liberalism is, of course, an ideology. Yet many of the assumptions that underpin liberalism are never made explicit because they are assumptions shared by the vast majority of people in positions of power.

Some of the ideas that underpin liberal ideology include a belief in the importance of methodological individualism, the construction and defence of free markets, the separation between states and markets, limited, representative democracy, and a legalistic, rights-based approach to justice.

As I argue in my book Vulture Capitalism, there are many issues with these liberal shibboleths. Within capitalist societies, markets are not free, and governments and legal systems are not neutral and objective. Instead, outcomes within both the market and the state reflect the balance of power within society — and in a capitalist society, that means that those who own the means of production tend to get their way.

But these issues are invisible to the liberal, because liberals don’t ‘see’ class — they only see free individuals competing in markets to maximise their utility. This choice to ignore the fundamental inequalities of power and wealth that characterise all capitalist societies is a major blind spot of liberal political philosophy.

Because they are surrounded by those who share their own worldview, liberals do not see the Left’s critique of their ideology as legitimate. Instead, they see unhinged, irrational enemies seeking only to undermine democracy and win power.

And yet, in dividing the world into ‘populists’ and ‘rationalists,’ liberals unwittingly succumb to their own form of populism.

This liberal populism was made painfully obvious when Wes Streeting referred to those who have criticised the current Labour leadership as ‘middle-class lefties’ and ‘keyboard warriors on their ideological hobby horse.’

Streeting views those who disagree with him as irrational ideologues who cannot be reasoned with. Yet his most vocal opponents are former doctors and nurses — like Dr Julia Grace Patterson — who have criticised his calls for greater private involvement in the NHS.

Ironically, Streeting’s critics are the ones marshalling evidence showing that private involvement costs more and undermines patient care, while Streeting hits back with personal insults and ideological attacks.

Ultimately, liberal centrist politics is still politics — and therefore still relies upon the construction and defence of particular social identities and the maligning of others. And the liberal’s main enemy is the ‘ideological’ leftist who seeks to cause trouble — whether by encouraging worker or community organising or street protests.

This is the new liberal populism. We should expect to see much more of it when a Starmer government comes to power. The Left shouldn’t allow the haranguing of liberal populists to stop us from organising.

Labour is a party of extremely right-wing people who lack the social connections to make it in the Conservative Party, and whose two defining experiences were being brought up to spit on everyone below them, which was everyone else where they grew up, and discovering in their first 36 hours at university that they were nowhere near the top of the class system, a discovery that embittered them for life. Centrism and right-wing populism are con tricks to sell exactly the same economic and foreign policies to different audiences by pretending to wage a culture war.

While pre-existing conservative phenomena have been known to ally with Fascism, usually to their own ruin, it is the liberal bourgeoisie that keeps Fascism in reserve for when it might ever face any serious demand to share its economic or social power with anyone who did not have it before the rise of the bourgeois liberal order, or to share its cultural or political power with anyone at all.

But when I tell you that there is going to be a hung Parliament, then you can take that to the bank. I spent the 2005 Parliament saying that it was psephologically impossible for the Heir to Blair’s Conservative Party to win an overall majority. I predicted a hung Parliament on the day that the 2017 General Election was called, and I stuck to that, entirely alone, all the way up to the publication of the exit poll eight long weeks later. And on the day that Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, I predicted that a General Election between him and Starmer would result in a hung Parliament.

I have no plan to join the Workers Party, although nor would I expect to stand against it. But if it did not contest North Durham, then I would. To strengthen families and communities by securing economic equality and international peace through the democratic political control of the means to those ends, including national and parliamentary sovereignty, we need to hold the balance of power. Owing nothing to either main party, we must be open to the better offer. There does, however, need to be a better offer. Not a lesser evil, which in any case the Labour Party is not. We have made a start.


  1. I miss the Blue Labour conferences.

    1. So do I, but they were of their time.

      Earlier in 2017, I heard David address a Blue Labour meeting in Newcastle one evening without having gone home from some sort of preliminary court appearance in, I think, Peterlee (although it might have been Newton Aycliffe) that morning, leading him and everyone else to compliment me on my fine suit.

      This time, though, was the Durham Book Festival. Sounds sedate, doesn't it? Yet he and I enthroned ourselves in the bar of the Royal County Hotel, and observed a hugely famous former Cabinet Minister in the arms of a gentleman not her husband.

  2. You and the young Blue Labour lot went with Corbyn in 2015 after the other three candidates infamously abstained, the whole thing including you was for Burnham until then.

    1. And we had a line of communication to the Corbyn Leadership. But in the end, he preferred the Greener and woker elements, although he was not entirely one of them himself. Hey, ho. We have the Workers Party now.

  3. Paul Embery remains proud he voted for Corbyn four times, both leadership elections and both General Elections. His economic programme in his book is left of Corbyn. That was Blue Labour. Do you think he'll join the Workers Party?

    1. Left of Corbyn as Leader, anyway.

      Embery is now a full-time pundit, and he would probably not get work if he joined the Workers Party.

  4. We remember the awed hush that would fall on the Blue Labour conferences when you asked a question. This blog was such a huge influence. Most of the younger BL crowd followed you to critical Corbynism after Burnham abstained on the welfare cuts, the older ones went where? Who's heard from them since?

    1. Of course I had always advocated a second preference vote for Corbyn. Like everyone else, the Labstenstion moved me to supporting a vote for him and for no other candidate.

      Sadly, although we did try, Corbyn ended up in thrall to a crowd that was more identity-political than he was, that was far Greener than he was, and that was pro-EU, which he was not really at all.

      But we are still going. For example, although there are plenty more projects simmering away among the old gang, my magazine and my thinktank are gently coming to the boil. And then there is the Workers Party. With an MP.

  5. When you and I were going to the Nottingham conferences, Goodhart was a kind of hanger on, no one had ever heard of Embery, people like Jon Cruddas never turned up, the main player after Maurice was John Milbank and he went on to be extremely Remain.

    1. The book was strange. David Lammy? And they wanted him to be Mayor of London.

    2. In his way, Ed West was just as odd a choice. And they were never really much interested in politics. They used to tell me off for suggesting standing candidates for things. All in all, better luck next time. Next time is now.

    3. They had zero apparent interest in economics, hence the split.

    4. Pretty much, yes. Anything practical, in fact. There was a lot of talk about work and what not. But money? Votes? Lost on them.

  6. We're one election cycle away from everyone claiming to have been a Corbynite all along, far more than you ever were.

    1. The Tories perhaps, although of course they would deny it for a while and then make a public school giggle of it. But not the Labour Party.

      How did taking down Corbyn to stop taxes from going up work out for those who did it? How's Gideon Falter these days?

      But Corbyn let them do it to him. As I said at the time.