Labour, radicalism and English conservatism: the fundamental failure

The first line of the preface of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:

“It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.”

This is the defining English sensibility- moderation. That it was written in the aftermath of civil wars is instructive. It was, of course, followed by a revolution a quarter of a century later. The English have such capacity in the face of perceived extremism. But it is rare- change is otherwise gradual and painstaking. Take the extension of suffrage which was an act in many parts over the course of a century. Glacial change is the norm – the long arc of history and all that.

Much has been written about Labour’s failure to plug into ‘aspirational’ England in the 2015 election. This misses the point. It’s important that Labour understands why before it turns itself into a party of Swiss Tonis. The major issue Labour faced was concern over economic competence. Its attitude towards business underpinned that. A failure to plug into ‘aspiration’ was an aspect of perceived incompetence and underpinning that was England’s conservatism.

In the last century and a half there have been three short bursts of institutional change – 1906–14, 1945–51, and 1979–1990. One was driven by the Liberals, one Labour and one the Conservatives. These three periods have left us with some of the fundamental institutional structures of modern Britain so they are highly significant. But they were in context: the first came as a result of Conservative meltdown over tariffs, the second in the aftermath of war, the third following a systemic social and economic collapse. These situations are rare.

This is tough for radicals – and I count myself as a radical. The abject failure of the Ed Miliband project was in lacking an appreciation of the deep conservative currents of this nation. It’s why AV was rejected. It’s why despite mistrust of our fellow Europeans we will vote to stay in the EU. Big bang change is counter-cultural. The fight between conservatism and radicalism is not even. This is a deeply institutionalised society and the culture that underpins this has been centuries in great making. The tonality of Milibandism took it away from that moderate centre and without the conditions of previous radical surges it was marooned.

Conservatism should not be confused with inertia. For all of the macro-conservatism there is a vibrant economic and cultural underbelly seen mainly in our great cities. It is a dynamic conservatism with a more energetic civil society and entrepreneurial culture than might have been assumed. Indeed, the protection of these ‘little platoons’ in Burke’s famous phrase is one of the sources of cultural and institutional conservatism.

So should Labour give up? Should radicals assume a disgruntled silence? They are two separate questions. Labour has to reattach itself to England’s dominant cultural sensibility: get the economic foundations right, pursue change carefully, get the pacing right. The simple function of a political party is to to marry its broad values with electoral success- and Labour must be ruthless in doing so.

For the radical, there is a bigger question. Labour must be encouraged in its pragmatism. The field of new ideas and movement building around these ideas must now be broader. In my previous blog, a letter to a young activist, I argued: “you can devote the next decade or even two in trying to change that but in my heart of hearts your energy may well be better expended elsewhere.” Major institutional change in England is infrequent but when the opportunity to quicken the pace comes, radicals must be ready with the right ideas and a movement behind them. Neither is the primary focus of the Labour Party much though many will claim that they should be.

Labour should become more respectful of localities, English nationhood, and their historical trajectories. It used to be said that Labour needed to relate to people who got conservatories and Mondeos. That’s a pretty crass reading of what’s really going on. People want to feel an economic and cultural security on which they can build their lives. In normal times, no party which threatens can ever hope to win. This is how Ed Miliband fundamentally misunderstood and was never at ease with Englishness.

So getting the politics of ‘aspiration’ is the wrong way of looking at it. It’s about the balance between conservatism and radicalism almost always favouring the former. For all Tony Blair’s talk of New Britain, he offered a gradualist and fresh version of nationhood aligned with the English sensibility. His only deviation from this was the Iraq War and that was the thing which ultimately destroyed him. English conservatism can be forward looking and ‘modernising’ rather than nostalgic. England is an evolutionary culture in normal times. It is for Labour to align itself with the flow of English cultural proclivities. Us radicals will have to be patient and do our heavy lifting elsewhere.

‘England and Scotland’ chapter in ‘Left without a future?’ explores the above themes in further depth.

Post script: @jamesdmorris drew my attention to his post-election poll on moderation v radicalism. It somewhat underscores the points above.

And @rj_macpherson urges me to make clear that I am referring to small ‘c’ conservatism in this blog. Indeed I am (apart from where it has a big ‘C’).

Post script 2: As a result of this blog I went back to Robert Tombs’s ‘The English’ and the section on the civil wars/Glorious Revolution. This is his summary of the political culture that came out of that time:

“suspicion of Utopias and zealots; trust in common sense and experience; respect for tradition; preference for gradual change; and the view that ‘compromise’ is victory, not betrayal.”

Sound familiar?

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