Bringing it all back home

The past first: the obituaries are beginning to trickle in for New Labour, but it’s unclear, at the moment, how New Labour will be remembered colloquially. Despite Cameron’s best efforts so far, the ghost of the Thatcher years still hovers around the Conservative Party; in popular memory, rightly or wrongly, the years of her government are predominantly told as a horror story, scaring away potential Tory voters, functioning as a narrative framework (nasty party do nasty things out of nastiness) into which Cameron’s opponents are itching to place his Liberal Conservatives. Same old Tories and all that.

It seems unlikely to me, though I may be wrong, that the story of New Labour will be so easy to appropriate into a single negative narrative. One angle cropping up quite regularly in various hysterical comment threads on various semi-hysterical articles goes along the lines of ‘Same old Labour, inherit an excellent economy from the Conservatives, cock it up, and then hand it back to the Conservatives to fix and make excellent again’. The words ‘quangos’, ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘top-down’ also seem to be heavily associated with the New Labour project (words that, to my mind, don’t in themselves necessarily imply something either good or bad, but which seem to be popular battle cries for the anti-Labour forces). 

However, the New Labour historians have themselves been out in force, defending the last 13 years in qualified terms. David Miliband, in his recent speech re-declaring his leadership bid, unapologetically declared “New Labour did fantastic things for the country”. Labour lost the election, according to Miliband, because “we were neither proud enough of our record, [nor] humble enough about our mistakes.” I wasn’t around at the time so I’m not sure if the Tories in ’97 acted like this. I suppose we’ll just have to wait a few years to see how New Labour’s records and mistakes are balanced by the voters (as opposed to the special kinds of people who comment on newspaper articles and blogs).

Moving on, from the past to the future, it’s been interesting to note how the three likely contenders for Labour leadership (Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, and David Miliband) have all been placing emphasis on listening to people since Labour’s defeat. It’s nice to know that Labour want to listen to people outside of Westminster but it’s already starting to sound a bit like a platitude (even Balls’s version of filming himself literally listening to people in his constituency). And with the leadership election potentially slipping into bland agreement voiced with non-specific sentiments, I felt a fair amount of disappointment when Jon Cruddas declared he wouldn’t be standing for Labour leader.  

Some people question Cruddas’ cheerleading of Blair and Purnell, and his voting record is admittedly far from spotless. That said, unlike Miliband, Miliband, or Balls he comes out with some unusual, thought-provoking and inspiring things. One of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard a politician come out with is this extract from a speech Cruddas gave to the June 2009 Compass conference, No Turning Back:

“Labour’s lost its language of generosity, of kindness, of community, as it’s lost its touch with the enduring character of this country. Britain’s culture has never been socialist in the specific ideological sense, but it has always exhibited a strong attachment to an ethic of fairness and solidarity. In neglecting this, we lost our ability to build a politics beyond the market, to mold a radical hope for the country. We’ve lost our language”

For anyone to whom language (as opposed to words) is the most vital thing we have, the idea of losing a language is incredibly powerful; our language is who we are, it’s our way of sharing meaning with people in our community. A political party without a language is a political party that has nothing to say. The desire of Miliband etc to listen to people at least shows an awareness that there is a gaping hole in the Labour party where its mouth should be. But just as languages aren’t lost over night, nor are they found over night. Nor is there any guarantee that the words we cobble together will make any sense to anyone. Take ‘fairness’, a word much fought over and liberally used these days (both in the sense of lots and in the sense of by the Lib Dems (lots)). I’m not entirely sure what it means anymore. To me it’s become little more than a sound effect. I liked that Jon Cruddas anchored it either side with “ethic” and “solidarity”, two words little used by Labour and so not yet worn out of meaning.

One of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read came somewhat improbably in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein (by Naomi Scheman):

“… it would be a mistake to bring our words prematurely home, to claim that the set of practices we now have for them are all right as they are. There are no other homes for our words than the ones we create in and through our practices, nor any predetermined ways of specifying what it is to have gotten those practices right, but that does not mean that there is no sense to the idea that we might not be going on as we should be”

I’m fascinated by this idea that words need to be constantly brought home through our practices. Labour were acting presumptuously when they thought that their favourite words had  found a permanent home with them; the meaning of their words may have left them before the end but it was pretty clear by the end that Labour had nothing left to say. We’ll have to wait until the leadership debates, and perhaps after that, to see whether Labour can build a language worth at least listening to in the future.