The real ‘new politics’ of post-crisis Britain: Part II

25 February 2016

Craig Berry  - Deputy Director at SPERI 

Austerity is anchored in a new politics of place, but Labour is adrift

In part I of this post, I argued that, through the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda, the Conservative government had successfully exploited post-crisis anxieties about place to justify its ongoing austerity crusade. In this second part, I argue that Labour has been too slow to grasp the centrality of place to post-crisis political discourse in Britain.

Labour’s reticence on place is understandable. The party has for a long time been wedded to the quintessentially post-place discourse around globalisation, which of course reflected, albeit disingenuously, the British left’s traditional support for universal, or placeless, values such as human rights and equality.

Yet the politics of place should not be interpreted as an inherently right-wing agenda. A progressive politics of place is possible.  The Blair government had actually started to sketch out what it might look like, having devolved significant powers to the home nations (excluding England) and London, established the Regional Development Agencies and attempted – before being thwarted by referendum defeat in the North-East – to establish new democratic processes at the regional level.

Tony Blair’s subsequent regret at having started the devolution ball rolling helps us to understand why he proceeded only tentatively, once new national assemblies had been established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, what Blair feared was precisely the kind of politics that is now required: locally-rooted resistance to a neoliberal growth model.  Blair did not want to see his ‘economic miracle’ derailed by parochial demands. Yet, now that we can appreciate the illusory elements of New Labour’s economic record, Labour should begin to appreciate too the value of liberating local areas to pursue their own developmental paths.

As I explore in my SPERI paper ‘The Resurrected Right and Disoriented Left’, Ed Miliband actually started to prepare plans for a decentralisation of powers during his time as Labour leader, but he did so rather quietly, and did not make these ideas a feature of his 2015 election campaign. This added, in the post-mortem, to the sense of incoherence that typified Miliband’s Labour.

By and large, while Miliband had many worthwhile policy ideas, he lacked the political instincts to know which were worth promoting. The contrast with Cameron and Osborne, in both regards, could not be starker.  Miliband’s tentativeness on place clearly contributed both to Labour’s heavy defeat in Scotland and the decision of many local Labour leaders – notably Richard Leese et al in Greater Manchester – to informally detach themselves from the national leadership and make a deal with Osborne.

There are nevertheless others drawing on other traditions within the Labour Party that have sought, both before and after the 2015 election, to address the devolution issue. ‘Blue Labour’, for instance, under the political leadership of Jon Cruddas and the intellectual guidance of Maurice Glasman, offers a narrative which is essentially only about place, insofar as it criticises both market and state for crowding out the spontaneous civic activism of local communities.  However, ‘Blue Labour’ figures appear to have simply welcomed any and all instances of devolution of positive expressions of localism, irrespective of policy detail and economic implications.

Indeed, Cruddas has been most active recently in calling for greater recognition of English identity, including within the Labour Party, guided by the notion that Englishness is an inherently progressive agenda with a tradition of supporting associational life against unfettered free markets and an overbearing central government. The result of this focus on culture and identity, however, is that ‘Blue Labour’ offers no meaningful perspective on what institutional form devolution should take.  It offers neither a critique of the Conservatives’ plans, nor a tangible alternative.

The current Labour leader clearly rejects the progressive connotations that Blair attached to globalisation. Yet his politics – which ironically are very much locally rooted – reflect the same neglect of the value of place that characterised the whole New Labour project.

Jeremy Corbyn has thus far offered very few thoughts on the current devolution agenda, other than to dismiss the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as a ‘cruel deception’ during his leadership election campaign. The issue is clearly not one of his priorities, with the result that the gap between local Labour leaders in the North and the central party has grown into a chasm in recent months.  Of course, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is still a broad church, despite the recent ‘revenge reshuffle’. There are some, such as Lisa Nandy, who appear to endorse, in general terms, the direction of travel established by Osborne in tandem with Northern leaders, while others, such as Jon Trickett, who recognise the transformative potential of the politics of place, yet remain sceptical of the specific ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda.

The end result is an intensification of incoherence within Labour ranks. There is a sense, simply, that the Conservatives now largely ‘own’ the discourse on localisation and decentralisation, at least in England.  Corbyn’s strategy is evidently to confront the overall austerity agenda directly in an attempt to convince the electorate of its macroeconomic erroneousness.  Yet, as I argued in Part I of this post, the equation of austerity and deficit reduction is little more than misdirection: the more nebulous concerns that feed into austerity, such as those around place, have to be confronted directly.

Labour’s most immediate priority is to find a way to accommodate the localist sentiment that now exists within the labour movement. Corbyn interprets his leadership election victory as based on opposition to austerity economics, and even some of Britain’s recent foreign-policy stances.  Although this may be true in some ways, I believe Corbyn’s victory also means something very different on the front line of local politics within the Labour Party.  It reflects a demand by individuals for greater empowerment, so that they may exercise greater political power themselves, not only through the medium of the party leader.

Corbyn is as much a product of ‘the Westminster bubble’ as his recent predecessors were, but his supporters have transposed on to him their own critique of Britain’s distant and over-centralised political system.

More fundamentally, Labour needs to understand that localisation is, potentially, a way by which collectivist politics can be renewed, not fragmented. When the state is more tangible to citizens, they are more likely to appreciate the benefit of acting collectively through the state machinery to achieve common goods.  An approach to economic change that actually invites people to take ownership of the transformation they want to see occur will be more sustainable, and better achieved where the democratic process is within touching distance.

None of this is to suggest that action at the national level (and indeed via international organisations) is no longer relevant to the pursuit of social democratic objectives. But, if Labour trusts local communities to govern themselves to a greater extent, then they in turn will place greater trust in Labour when the party tells them that certain powers are best exercised at the national level.

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