Labour’s politics and the All-New Clio

Paul Cotterill
Dec 1 · 19 min read

That car advert

The people who want to sell you a Renault Clio car have released the best advertisement I’ve ever seen.

You can watch the full two minute version below (the one on the TV is only one minute and doesn’t do full justice).

You may need to wipe your eyes.

I do not know if it will sell more cars (this marketing person suggests it will), but it is a masterpiece; it transcends the car industry, and speaks to what lots of people, perhaps a clear majority of people, want from this stage of modernity. As such, I make the arguably bold suggestion that this advert provides the blueprint for a new political vision for the Labour party in the UK, and perhaps for left parties and movements elsewhere.

If you’ve watched the advert and dried your eyes by now, you’ll see that the basic structure is as follows:

Early 80s: A young girl has a liberating experience, not available to the (deliberately) faceless parents, involving new travel horizons well beyond her suburban life to date. From English bus to the freedom of French car,

Early 90s: As teenagers, the two girls seize with joy a new and liberating environment. Agency and structure are drawn together, allowing their love to transcend the norms of the traditions to which(at least one set of) their parents were subject. But there are dark glimpses: tradition, in the form of grumpy suburban dad tied downby his own conventions, does the glimpsing for us; in the car, then the garage, where a girl’s dreams become parked.

Early/mid 2000s: Tradition has fought back. There’s a traditional white dress wedding. Will the two accept their fate? No, is the exhilarating answer. They won’r be bound by the person-stunting traditions of a past generation. Agency reasserts itself. Liberty in the form of love.

Present day: Liberty and love create new traditions. Once scowling, angry dad welcomes the new freedoms. A final half-second flashback to what started it all — the freedom of a French car. The same suburban house is re-entered, but it’s a different house, viewed from a different ange.

This should be Labour’s appeal, replacing the Renault-Clio with the political vehicle (geddit?) of a new democratic socialism dedicated to the promotion of individual autonomy.

Labour should do this not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will chime with what the majority of people want from a modern government: to be left alone to enjoy their lives, to expand their own freedoms in the way they see fit and, in the phrasing of historian Jon Lawrence, to live in communities freed from the pressure to “conform to societal standards”, in communities which are “increasingly personal and voluntary, based on genuine affection rather than proximity or need”.

Retelling Labour’s story as car ad dad

I am not a talented cinematographer, so I am in no position to say how such a new ‘offer’ from Labour might be set out on screen, but in any event there is a big internal step that Labour needs to take prior to any political messaging to the country..

This step involves a retelling of Labour’s story, and has to include an honest assessment of why Labour, despite having popular policies, is unable to garner a majority against an incompetent Tory administration. (Corbyn’s inability to deliver a majority over such incompetence is of course the main stick used by his opponents to beat him. The point of this piece is to show that this inability dates from well before Corbyn, though I will argue below that his avuncular persona may enhance the problem currently,)

This retelling of Labour’s story needs to be done irrespective of the result in the December 12th election. In the event of a Tory majority, the need for a period of reflection will be obvious, but even if Labour somehow manages to deny that majority, or scrape into minority government, we need to be honest enough to recognize that this is because a large enough number of people hate the Tories more than they hate Labour, and not for reasons of broad affinity with what Labour offers. By contrast — and my claim is bold — re-establishing this broad affinity, but on very different terms, will bring a clear majority, and not a minority government based on 30+ percent of the popular vote.

For me, Labour’s story is, or at least might turn out to be, quite like the story of the dad in the car advert, and goes something like this.

Through early 20th century working class solidarity and its efforts to defeat fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, the Labour party established itself as the legitimate guardian of the interests and wishes of the majority of people in Britain. This legitimacy was not confined to the traditional working class, but extended to cover a very wide range of people.

National prosperity and the welfare state ensued, as capital made its settlement with labour. At an individual and family level, this was experienced as a new set of freedoms, as material security created opportunities for expanded social horizons. These freedoms were created not least by the rapid development of housing estates and suburbs which, while often now viewed negatively for their uniformity and dislocation, allowed people to break away from family ties and, as Jon Lawrence has set out (based on close scrutiny of contemporary research) to move on from the restrictions of traditional working class communities, where everyone knew your business but nobody knew or cared what you really wanted out of life.

Through this period, Labour-as-father-figure continued to be largely respected, especially as he largely turned a blind eye to what was developing socially. Just as car ad dad is largely unaware of his daughter’s emerging life choices and is content to provide material security in the form of a Renault Clio, so Labour continued to believe that its people would not change significantly, and would always come home for family occasions (like general elections)

But come the mid to late 70s the post war consensus, in which employment continued to be dominated by heavy industry, was breaking down, and that material security became harder to provide. Within a few years, a new settlement was in place: the Tories co-opted the social mobility freedoms that Labour had won for its people, and drove a new bargain — a prosperity for a smaller number of people based on financialization of the economy, alongside a moral crusade against the feckless poor; as with the rich new husband and wife-in-tow in the car advert, everything was made proper on the surface, but beneath there was a deep unrest at the stripping of freedoms of self-expression and autonomy to choose one’s life project.

We come to the New Labour years. New Labour dad was not a bad man; he was just conflicted. Down the pub, his trendy new friend Giddens assured him that concerns about material security were a thing of the past, that emancipatory politics were no longer needed, and life politics was here. This sounded great to everyone when announced, and a massive majority followed.

But back in the garage, tinkering to see what policy tools did and didn’t work, Labour dad started to brood. He’d forgotten quite a few of the toolmaking basics over the years, and his children — what had happened to his children? Over a short space of time, they just seemed to have grown disrespectful. Sure, there’d been that fling in Iraq, but that wasn’t it.

Labour dad didn’t understand, and he listened hard to his other mates down the pub, who told him he should get them in line. A bit of Welfare to Work, a few rights and responsibilities, a bit less love, a little more strict parenting — that’s what they needed. These were Labour people and they needed to be reminded of the communities they had come from.

It didn’t work.

Labour’s people did their own thing. Even though, in the 2010s, material security was ripped away, they didn’t come back home. They pursued life projects that Labour didn’t understand, went to Brexit parties, started to become ungovernable, talking about the legitimacy of the whole party, about how Labour had left them, not the other way round.

How will the story end?

The Renault-Clio advert is told largely from the point of view of the daughter. Dad is important, but incidental. So what we don’t see is dad’s long nights of reflection, when he works through and comes to terms with who is daughter really is — a woman with her own agency, who has broken through the taboos by which he was bound, but — if he can accept that reversal — will follow him back into the house with a gentle smile of relief.

The comparisons between car ad dad and Labour-as-father-figure have been clunky throughout, and can fall away now that they have served their purpose — which is simply to show that Labour must go through a period of reflection on what people actually want from their lives, and then accept that humbly facilitating this is their biggest, most important job.

If it doesn’t do this, it will die, sad and alone, its children gone because it didn’t try to understand.

If it does, and if it works out what facilitating people’s live actually means, a new mutual, mature respect can be forged for the long term.

What people want

A short vignette.

Canvassing on a Friday evening not too long ago for a local election, I met two blokes sitting on the wall of their garden, each with a can of Strongbow, enjoying the early Spring sun. So I didn’t door knock; I just went to the usual stuff: any local issues needing sorting, then the patter about the election coming up.

There was an issue with a blocked highway drain just up the way, and this hadn’t been sorted. Cue some stuff about no-one gives a fuck what happens on this estate, a commitment to get things moving even though it’s a Tory Council highways issue so it might take a while, and then the Voter ID question.

“Never voted. No point.” was the reply, summarized.

Then some dross from me on voting being important to hold people to task over the stuff we’d been talking about, and then the bit that sticks in my mind…..

“I go to work. I work hard. I just want to come home and have a couple of bevvies. I’m not interested in that shit.”

The standard Labour activist reaction to this involves the word ‘apathy’ and, when it comes to CLP meetings, lacklustre and inconclusive discussions about how we can engage voters better, and drive up turnout in “our” areas.

But maybe instead we should look at that two minute drama as a different version of the Renault Clio advert, where the dad puts his foot down, only to find his daughter gone.

In this version, the bloke on the wall is a bloke who’s making a positive life choice to flout the convention of democratic responsibility that I’m trying to foist on him. He’s not the problem — I am — because I’m getting in the way of the freedoms that his labour has earned him.

And this distancing, this justified sense of annoyance, this desire to be left alone, to be respected for the choices made and the freedoms won and now threatened, pervades much of the better literature and journalism on the breakdown of trust between Labour and its once core vote.

It’s written through D Hunter’s Chav Solidarity, through Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate, through Kate Belgrave’s angry witness journalism, all of which focus on what has been called the “underclass” of people from whom both material security and freedom to choose a life have been stripped in the most recent Tory years,

But it’s also there in Joe Kennedy’s cutting assessment of John Harris’s well-meaning but one-dimensional journalism, where the latter sees the generic discontent of so-called left-behind towns, and the former sees distinct places with distinct lives and distinct life projects.

In short, the distancing predates and goes beyond the ravages of austerity and, as Jeremy Gilbert has suggested (though without fully grasping what has happened because his analysis is too structural) is the product of 40 years of more of party neglect for its supporters.

Labour’s wrong turns

But still, Labour fails to recognize what’s happening and thus, in searching for solutions to the loss of a large number of people’s broad affinity with Labour, has adopted two different strategies, both equally ineffective.

First, and easiest to rebut, is what I will call for convenience the Blue Labour turn. Blue Labour’s proponents take the view, in effect, that ‘authentic’, ordinary people had social change foisted upon them from the 1960s onwards, when what they probably wanted, or at least should have wanted, is to stick with the prewar traditions of family and community.

As I’ve suggested, this is simply not true, given the contemporary evidence of the way people welcomed their new freedoms from tradition, but perhaps as importantly, it’s view of social history which seeks to remove agency from people, setting them as passive recipients of what must be ‘good’ traditions, simply because they were traditions, thus indulging in what Karl Popper called a process of infinite regression — exploited, he suggests, by Plato, then Hegel and, then by Hegel’s followers in the interests of an authoritarian status quo. (Maurice Glasman as a latterday Hegelian charlatan is perhaps a bit strong, but there is a resemblance.)

As such, Blue Labour’s need to promote ‘authentic’ tradition leads ultimately to absurdities like Owen Smith talking of ‘frothy coffee’ instead of that well-known drink cappuccino (see Joe Kennedy’s joyous excoriation), in the belief that the imposition o make-believe tradition will end up in a return to the Labour fold of voters who left Labour on account on its fancy ways.

The second wrong strategy comes not from the Labour right (which partly uses Blue Labourism as a sectarian attack on Corbyn’s Islington ways) but (currently) from the Left, though it is more deeply embedded precisely because it reflects the ‘non-Giddens’ aspect of New Labour’s conflicted approach to its relationship with the people who bought into its ‘project’.

This second strategy I will call, again for convenience, Gramscian Labour, though increasingly it might be referred to as Left Populism.

The slogan of Gramscian Labour is the obvious one: ‘For the Many. Not the Few.’ While seen, and now critiqued solely as the slogan of Corbynism, it is actually a direct lift from the opening paragraphs of New Labour’s manifesto, in which Tony Blair sets out the central role of government:

I want to renew faith in politics through a government that will govern in the interest of the many, the broad majority of people who work hard, play by the rules, pay their dues and feel let down by a political system that gives the breaks to the few, to an elite at the top increasingly out of touch with the rest of us.

Gramscian Labout is thus deeply embedded as the guiding organisational model in the Labour party, largely because this way of doing things won out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, within a New Labour which was deeply conflicted (perhaps unconsciously so) about its relationship to this “broad majority of people”.

On the one hand, thinkers such as Anthony Giddens promoted the idea of a “new contract” in which government’s role in a post-emancipatory politics was to respect the new ontological security people enjoyed, and foster their growth as individuals with individual ‘life projects’.

But Giddens had read too much Francis Fukayama on the end of history, and not enough Bob Jessop on this period being capitalism’s latest spatio-temporal fix.

On the other hand, Labour’s operational code largely emerged from years of oppositionalism, not least in local government (Livingstone and Blunkett), in which the key intellectual influence was the relatively recently translated Gramsci, and the two guiding principles adopted from Gramsci were: first, the importance of the organic intellectual at the vanguard of the “many” and; second, the active construction of a ‘people’ with common cause ready to wage a war of positions against a common enemy.

Over time, Gramscian Labour won out. There is something deeply attractive for political parties about the construction of a people with a common cause, for which some kind of common identity must be assumed and then, as necessary, forged through ideas like ‘rights and responsibilities’ and ‘community organizing’. (That is why, of course, Gramscian methods are attractive not just to the left, but to the right, who tend to be better at it.)

Left Populism is neat and tidy. If you’re in power, you can make it happen, at least on the surface. And for a time, New Labour did make it happen because there was enough material compensation, and because the declining affinity with its values didn’t really matter as long as Labour was in power.

So it’s understandable that, under a Corbyn which has gone through no deep intellectual reflectin on what it’s all about, a revamped version is the go-to method.

The big problem though, is that Gramscianism won’t work. It won’t work especially under Corbyn, but it won’t work under any leadership.

It won’t work because attempts to forge a common identity of the many ignores the psychological realities of modernity. As I’ve set out above, what people really, really want is to be left alone to get on with their lives, to enjoy their freedoms. to explore other freedoms. Gramscian collectivism offers the opposite.

Organic intellectuals in the people’s midst are not needed because this is not the 1930s; instead there’s Google and, as Paul Mason has set out (while drawing the wrong conclusions for change) this is a world of networked individuals so full of their own agency that they really don’t need anyone else doing that agency for them.

Forcing a collective agency upon people — readying them for a struggle that they don’t feel is theirs — fosters resentment, not affinity with the Labour cause (though of course for some ‘Corbynites’ there is a happy coalescence between life project and the associations they can develop within Corbyn’s Labour).

In the short term, this resentment is heightened by Corbyn’s persona as all-too-avuncular figure. Of course the media attacks, in which he is portrayed as 1970s man, help to reinforce the problem, but a key reason so many older people hate Corbyn is the suspicion that, under him, Labour will tell them how to live their lives, will force them (in some undefined way) to become part of the many, when all they really want to do is live their lives. For sections of the boomer generation especially, this is like a flashback to when they were teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, when the new freedoms they saw being enjoyed by others were still being denied them.

And this, I think, is also what may be helping Johnson survive in the current polls. It is, I suspect, the very childishness on display (and perhaps even deliberately so) which contrasts with Corbyn-as-grim-dad-uncle, and has people thinking “Well, the Tories may be liars, but at least they leave us alone!”

But ultimately, any Labour party, led by any politician which regards its targeted support base as a set of one dimensional beings, alienated from their own labour by capitalist modernity — for that’s what at the theoretical root of the new Left populism — is doomed to failure. Marcuse was wrong; he underestimated the strength of agency, and resilience, shown by most people; ironically, it’s a car advert, and our celebration of that, which demonstrates this most clearly.

The Third Way: institutions for a lifeworld

There is a third way for Labour, avoiding the pitfalls of Blue Labour and Gramscian Labour, and the authoritarian streak they share (the imposition of tradition and the imposition of a common identity as part of the “many” actually feels like the same kind of abuse).

And yes, this third way can profitably start with a revisiting of Giddens on the role of government in fostering a life politics, and moving on from an explictly emancipatory politics.

But I think the best guide to Labour’s third way is, as the RSA’s Anthony Painter has recently suggested ,(and as readers of my stuff to date will be unsurprised to hear me suggest) is Jürgen Habermas.

It is this third way to which I now turn.

At the heart of Habermas’ vast project, for nothing less than the reclaiming of the spirit of the Enlightenment under (and beyond) the conditions of capitalism, lies an analytical distinction between ‘lifeworld’ and ‘system’.

At its most basic, the lifeworld is the parts of existence beyond the reach of the system, where there is a close approximation to an ideal communicative rationality, where in general communications between people are readily validated as being true and sincere, and consensus on what people mean, and therefore what should be done, is easy to find.

The system, on the other hand is made up of the rationality-contorting conditions of capitalism, most notably capitalist finance and media, but also increasingly politics itself, which are invasive of the lifeworld, and end up making us miserable and angry, in a way which then allows the system to invade further into the lifeworld.

Even more basically in these same Habermasian terms. Gramscian Labour and Blue Labour both seek to defend the lifeworld from the system. Blue Labour seeks to do it by constructing communities of tradition impervious to the outside world. Gramscian Labour seeks to use the force of the many to create institutions for the defence of the lifeworld, by imposing limitations on(or destroying) capitalism.

Both strategies are, then, defensive in nature, and make little use of the actual; vitality of the lifeworld . A third way — a Habermasian Labour — would seek not to restrict the access of the system to the lifeworld through the building of defensive institutions, but to build institutions which allow the lifeworld to expand out into the system, in so doing developing nodes then networks of communicative rationality in a widened and quality-enhanced public sphere.

This will seem absurdly vague and abstract, at least until we start to set out (necessarily briefly here) what some of those lifeworld-expanding institutions might be.

Institutions, liberty, autonomy

Under Gramscian Labour, there is one key question to be asked when assessing whether an a new or revised institution is fit for purpose: does it control capitalism and protect people?

Under Habermasian Labour, the key question would change: does this institution promote individual autonomy and liberty?

With this new question in mind, the new institutions needed may start to hover into view.

First, we need a remodeled welfare system, probably with a fork of Universal Basic Income and certainly with a break in the current savings-benefits link, which provides the material security people need to enjoy any kind of autonomy in the first place.

Second, we need new forms of associationalism, sanctioned but not policed by the state, which allow individuals to engage voluntarily with others in thoughts and actions that are in line with their life projects.

The most obvious example here might be the revitalization of, and new respect for professional associations and modern guilds, along with the rebirth of the largely defunct Trades Council movement. But key to whatever institutions Habermasian Labour fosters — from community-owned football clubs to employee representation on boards — should lie the principle, evidenced by Nancy Rosenblum and Mark E Warren inter alia, that voluntary associationalism is a democratic good in and of itself, precisely because it allows for the expansion of the lifeworld into the system.

What may be noticeable about the kind of institutions I have referred to above, of course, is that they are not anathema to current Labour party thinking; as noted previously, Labour’s actual policy proposals draw general favour from the public. The difference is the way in which they are presented, and thus developed.

Under Gramscian Labour, these institutions are to be developed in the interest of the ‘people’. Under Habermasian Labour, they are crucial to a single policy objective: that each and every individual should be enabled to live their life project, and participate in the ‘public sphere’ to the extent that they wish.

There is one more institutional development to consider. For the time being at least, it does not look like people will want to engage in (party) politics, because politics has lost its legitimacy. It has lost its legitimacy because it has been invaded by the system, and can no longer be seen as the key feature of the public sphere. The tech-driven growth of lying and manipulation has gone hand in hand with the surge in neoconservatism (itself a product of the collapse of neoliberalism) to create the political and constitutional crisis we are now living through, and which needs no further exposition here precisely because we are all living through it.

In these circumstances, a Habermasian Labour should start to look seriously at the kind of institutional changes being promoted (independently of each other but with remarkable synchronicity) by Paul Evans and by Julia Cagé, in which steps are taken not just to rein in the corruption of the political sphere by vested corporate and oligarchical interest, but also to promote new forms of democracy in a world where the vote now counts for little.

At the heart of this thinking is the assignment of political ‘ vouchers’ to individuals, who can then choose which organisation they want to pay to promote their values and democratic wishes, within a more regulated political sphere freed from undue big money influence by law, but freed also from the dangers of political hobbyism by the very fact that the hobbyists are not as good as the professionals.

In the end, whatever institutions emerge under Habermasian Labour would coalesce around a political vision of nothing less than the recapturing of liberty (or liberalism) from the forces that have corrupted its meaning.

For Habermasians , this autonomy-focused institution building is about Habermas’ key insight: that socialism will be achieved “through the eye of the needle” of liberalism, because real liberalism can only work if it is underpinned by what we now regard as socialist institutions (and this idea lies at the heart of relative German success of German and Scandinavian social democracy).

For what I’ll call ‘centrists’ for convenience, this institution-building might be about about the re-evaluation of the realities of public choice, of the type set out by John S Dryzek in this standout article, in which he seeks to prove that, ultimately, all public choice leads to democratic socialism.

And for Labour loyalists, both left and right, who have tended to squabble over who best honours the traditions of a movement that, in the first place, brought us the Labour story retold in this piece, this institution-building might be about following in the footsteps of RH Tawney.

Tawney argued in the seminal ‘The Acquisitive Society’, that for the “Liberal Movement of the eighteenth century” a focus on individual rights was a “supremely necessary thing” as the world moved beyond feudalism and hereditary power and into the modern world.

However, Tawney continued , while it is “absurd to criticize [the founders of the Enlightenment] as indifferent to the evils of a social order which they could not anticipate”, the coming of the industrial revolution and the capitalist economic model had led the right to “private property and unfettered economic freedom” were soon, under the gaze of 19th century liberalism, “taken for granted as the fundamentals on which social organisation was to based, and about which no further argument was possible” (pp.18–20).

From all these vantage points, the reorientation of Labour’s message and accompanying modus operandi towards a respect for the autonomy opf the individual, and away from self-defeating collectivizing, offers promise not just to re-broaden people’s affinity with what Labour offers, but also offers a route to the reunification of a split party.

And a reunited party, which understands what makes modern people tick, will be able to make great adverts.

Paul Cotterill

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