30th January 2021
I hope you’re well. I wondered what you thought of my book, The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, now you’ve had a chance to finish it?
As you know, the book takes on three left populist myths—which I call the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era. The first refers to the idea that the political spectrum is a moral spectrum, with politics seen as a fight against an evil right-wing enemy. The second describes the notion that society’s problems mainly exist because they’re authored, with powerful figures pulling the strings. The third myopically recalls a spirit of “original socialism,” which has been polluted by modernity (aka “neoliberalism”).
I argue that these three narratives cloud progressive thinking and consign Labour to electoral and ethical failure. The Corbyn years, during which the myths were rampant, demonstrated this. Instead, those of us on the left need to be pluralists.
I know you had some initial misgivings about the idea that those on the centre left—the architects of New Labour, for instance—were themselves any more pluralist than the hard left. I wondered how strong those misgivings were?
And I was also curious about the position of those on the “soft left” in relation to this stuff. In some ways the spirit of left-wing pluralism, which I advocate in the book, is most at home within your strain of politics. The soft left have often defined themselves, after all, as sharing the radicalism of the far left, but not the aggressive style of politics or the backward-looking policies on issues like Europe.
Do you think the soft left is the natural home of left pluralism? And how “soft” do you think is too soft, when it comes to how you approach politics? Is some Dark Knight element of “goodies and baddies” always needed?
Thanks a lot.
Thanks for kicking off this discussion and an even bigger thanks for writing the book—which I thought was fabulous. It’s a genuinely new take on the Labour Party and some of the ideas that influence it.
A politics based on pluralism not populism is our shared desire, Chris. It may or may not be effective—but the tendency of the other side towards blame, othering and then offering a strong man alternative who will fix everything feels like the antithesis of politics to both of us. It’s a lazy shortcut that will always come back to haunt those who take it. If you live by the populist sword then you die by it.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be popular and that our politics shouldn’t be accessible—but it does mean we have to ensure that ends never justify means. If we want a good society then the only way of getting there is by being good.
But the major thing I want to discuss with you is the history of Labour before Corbyn—that of New Labour. My impression is that you give them far too much room and almost invent a new “golden agism” of the kind you condemn when seen on the left. In the book you call Blair “amongst the most pluralist PMs the country has seen.” Well, he was plural to the right—he was very open to the likes of Murdoch and Bush. But I think he was good at giving an impression of pluralism; in reality New Labour was a very tight and elite ship: one that crushed, commanded and controlled. How was it plural?
And it used many populist techniques. It ran campaigns against fat cats and employed the language of shirkers and skivers to denigrate the poor. It even invented the term “the many not the few” that Corbyn picked up.
What I see more of are not the differences between the New Labour era and Corbynism but the similarities. And what binds them is the culture of Labourism: the singular, impenetrable, machine-like monolith that holds the party together but also holds it back. Labourism is far more open to populism than pluralism. What do we do about that?
Over to you, Chris.
Thanks for the kind words about the book. As you say, there’s a lot of common ground.
I’m arguing that the groups, parties and institutions which the left tends to oppose—be they upper-class people, Conservative voters, private-sector workers or Americans—are not more selfish or spiteful that those it supports. Nor are the methods associated with the right—private ownership, for example—inherently immoral, even if they’re often wrong.
In general, the most dangerous people in politics—the Dominic Cummings of this world—are usually the biggest disciples of the Dark Knight myth. They use it to justify significant collateral damage or unacceptable double standards, painting a caricature of an enemy. They believe they embody a vision which is singular and pure, and that their opponents are enemies of all that is good. It’s this outlook which we on the left must avoid aping.
I wouldn’t deny that the Blair-Brown governments were guilty of control freakery. Nor would I deny that many Blairites were dismissive of far-left ideas, seeing them as irrational and outdated.
However, the definition of pluralism I’m trying to promote is mainly about morals. It’s about engaging with the range of values and opinions that exist in a democracy, rather than reducing politics to good versus evil.
On this basis, New Labour was pretty pluralist. Blair complained, for example, that left-wing intellectuals “[thought] that a person who worried about their tax rates was essentially selfish.” He promised that New Labour would “serve people of all ages and backgrounds, including those who didn’t vote for us at all.”
I think this pluralism was applied leftwards as well as rightwards. The general criticism of Corbyn, Abbott and co when they were on the backbenches was that their politics were unelectable and woolly—not that they were self-interested, careerist or callous.
Blair afterwards recalled “a perpetual drumbeat of opposition” from the left, but added “I never resented that debate… I enjoyed it.” In his many criticisms of the Labour leadership post-2015, meanwhile, he unvaryingly cast Corbyn as wrong rather than bad.
I’m sure there were New Labour blowhards who didn’t live up to this. But the spirit of the movement was not, in my view, about casting opponents as enemies. The threat of deselection did not hang over MPs who deviated from the party line. (In fact, when there was a localised effort to deselect Corbyn, Blair reportedly intervened to stop it.)
This doesn’t change the fact that the 1997-2010 governments weren’t radical enough for my liking. But, in my view, the great strength of those years was that the party abandoned Dark Knight thinking, seeking to understand rather than judge opponents.
I wonder what you thought about my other two myths—the Puppet Master and the Golden Era?
I’m enjoying this. I totally agree with your Dark Knight metaphor. It’s a dangerous cultural tick. I love the Peter Weir film Witness, in which the young Amish boy sees the murder and then the police ask him to identify the bad man. His Amish elder asks him how he knows the man is bad—can he look into his heart and see?
Some progressives love their moral righteousness. We may lose elections and generally be pretty crap, but we mean well, not like the other lot. And because we are so right, losing can never be our fault. I don’t think that’s how voters see it. It’s the saboteurs on the other side—or even worse, ours—who have betrayed us: “let cowards flinch and traitors sneer,” as the song goes. This is lazy politics.
I’m reminded of Thatcher quoting John Wesley: “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.” It’s not my brand of politics but it’s not quite evil, is it? I’ve not always lived by a belief in the best in people. After the banking crisis I wrote a piece for the Guardian which named and tried to shame the “feral elite.” And I regretted it instantly. If you attack a feral elite then you sanction attacks on the feral underclass. Comparing people to animals is never a good look. Much harder and more necessary is critiquing and replacing systems, so that they bring out the best in people.
Your point about New Labour and the pluralism of morality is interesting and merits reflection. But its adherents certainly had a moral view about who they saw as feckless or “Old Labour.” And no, New Labour didn’t threaten crude deselections against their MP foes—they were too clever for that. Instead they parachuted favoured sons—it was nearly always sons—into safe seats via compliant regional offices. Maybe open deselection is more democratic?
I also back your Golden Agism critique. New Labour could never have been accused of that and even went too far in the other direction; by 2005 Blair was, in effect, saying we had to sink or swim in the new global order. Labour wins when it owns the future: 1945, 1964 and the “white heat of technology” and then 1997. The trick is how to mix a predominant politics of modernity with a subordinate politics of tradition and conservation—not least to win back the red wall seats, but also because we are all a mix of both.
Corbynism, as you write, is steeped in the Golden Agism of 1945 and the high-tide period of Bennism in the 1970s. But this was Corbyn as surfer. Corbynism as a wave of ideas and movements was much more modern—witness new think tanks like Autonomy.
Meanwhile New Labour is now rooted hard in its own past. For its supporters, time has stood still. It’s the same 1994-97 playbook: it’s dull and technocratic, with few new ideas or thinking. This centrism is pervasive—why can’t things just go back to Golden Age Blairism? Well, they can’t because it was only golden for some, and it helped created the conditions for the crash, Brexit, the fall of the red wall seats, maybe even the break-up of the Union.
As we enter the last round of these emails, I hope we can develop some insights into what your analysis means for Labour and progressives now: post-Brexit, in the age of climate breakdown, the rise of the network society and under the leadership of Keir Starmer.
Over to you,
It sounds like we agree that the Dark Knight mentality is a dead end. At the launch of my book, Deborah Mattinson, author of Beyond the Red Wall, quoted James Kanagasooriam (the Tory strategist who coined the phrase “red wall”). His view was that progressives see voting Labour as a “moral duty,” and that this leads to strategic blindness. He regarded this as a fundamental reason for the 2019 election result: “Labour think they have a moral right to 50 per cent of the vote.”
If we do think this—or if the public think we think this—then it is suicide for us. It alienates voters more than any single policy.
Turning to the Golden Era myth, I agree that there’s a tendency among some to be misty-eyed about early Blairism. Although I’m not sure this sentiment is as common as you say, it should be perfectly clear to us that resuscitating the 1994-97 formula is a fool’s errand. Labour’s majority in Putney, for example, was larger in 2019 than in 1997. That tells us that something very significant has changed.
With this said, I’m really not sure the last Labour government can be held responsible for all the ills you mention, even indirectly. The financial crash originated in the US and impacted the whole of the western world. Yes, better banking regulation would have helped, but Gordon Brown was also central in coordinating a progressive response. And I can’t see how the potential breakup of the union is the fault of a party which delivered the Good Friday Agreement and devolution.
One of the core symptoms of the Golden Era mentality on the left, I think, is the disproportionate talking down of outgoing Labour governments. We concede, far too easily, that Labour prime ministers are unfit to lace the books of their socialist forefathers. We have this romanticised sense of what Labour has been and should be, which undermines what it is.
The Attlee premierships, for example, were described by the New Statesman in 1954 as “the only event of [their] kind in history which contributed almost nothing new or imaginative.” Those further to the left than the New Statesman were even more disparaging. Yet fast-forward to 2015 and you have Corbynites with t-shirts reading “What would Clem do?” I think this myopia is really dangerous for us as a party.
Turning to your final question, I believe the biggest challenges for the left—economic inequality, climate change, etc—are now global in their nature. The solutions lie in international cooperation. They require us to abandon narratives about the decline of neoliberalism. We need to support global institutions—be it the EU, the UN or NATO—and reform them in progressive ways. Radical policies can emerge from this. For example, we could be championing EU-wide rates of corporation tax or a joined-up approach to refugee crises, so that wealthy countries settled more people.
Yet to do this, we’d also have to reassure the public that solving problems internationally doesn’t mean surrendering the things that make each country distinctive. Labour would need to abandon cultural squeamishness about the Union Jack, Royal Weddings and good-natured international football rivalry. We’d need to be clear that progressive, multilateral arguments on climate change and the regulation of big business are not at odds with liking your country or taking pride in elements of its culture and history.
One of my big problems with the populist left is it tends to do the opposite. On all the substantive stuff, Corbyn was parochial and protectionist, characterising the EU as an imperialist monster. Yet when it came to minor gestures and stances he became the embodiment of the left-wing intellectual who, to quote George Orwell, “would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
Brexit means the approach I’m suggesting feels impossibly distant. UK progressives currently face the worst of both worlds: the European social chapter is quietly torn up while culture wars rage in the background over whether to pull down Churchill’s statue. But I remain of the view that, to tackle the big challenges, progressives will ultimately need to show how internationalism and patriotism can co-exist.
Interested to know what you think…
17th February 2021
Once again, much to agree with. A belief in your own moral superiority is not just arrogant, it blinds people to their own failings. Nothing the “real left” does is ever wrong—even antisemitism. It leaves everyone else being dupes, living lives of false consciousness—waiting for the vanguard to show them the way. Neither the voters nor others in the party are ever righteous enough. This moral superiority leads some on the left to play the wonderful “expel yourself” game in which no one is ever politically pure enough, not even yourself. It never ends well.
But we should not mistake an elitist morality with no morality. Politics has to be deeply moral and contested on such a basis. Part of my morality hinges on a belief in the best of everyone, which makes me a pushover in party faction fights. I’m just not hard enough—preferring asking questions to making statements. Stripped of this open morality, we are left with lifeless slogans like Herbert Morrison’s “socialism is what Labour governments do” or New Labour’s “what works.”
Which takes me to the gnawing problem with your book, much as I enjoyed it. I just don’t see why the left of the party is so much more your target than the right. I think those left supporting what remains of New Labour are just as guilty of Golden Agism precisely because they have done no fresh thinking since 1997. Sure, 1945 was longer ago—but both are way back in the rear-view mirror now. I think the left is worse on the Dark Knight and Puppet Master charge, but it’s a matter of degree. But of course New Labour can be accused of other crimes: Iraq, collaboration with Murdoch, adopting the exact same policies as the US on banking, etc.
The problem is not really the left or the right—but, and I repeat, Labourism: the monopolistic, tribal and controlling creed that still dominates the culture of the entire party. A culture that could see the party lose a record fifth election because it refuses to even recognise others as progressive. Can you target that in your next book?
I want to finish though on a point of fundamental and critical agreement between us: our fear of populism and its link to globalisation. The retreat to nativism is precisely a product of the left giving up on the dream of a planetary politics. Neoliberalism has colonised the globe, rendering democratic politics meaningless. People have therefore retreated into populism. The only way out—the only way—is to reclaim the globe.
A year ago this would have sounded fanciful. But Covid changes everything; it unlocks a global interconnectedness. Technology, pandemics, climate, immigration, finance, tax, jobs and investment—all are global. Politics and democracy can and must go global too—or all is lost.
Which, thinking about it, is a much better next book for your skillset, Chris. After all, asking why Labour should stop being Labour might be a thankless task.
Thank you for this discussion and for such a great book. I’ve loved thinking all this through with you.
22nd February 2021
Thanks a lot Neal, I’ve really enjoyed this exchange.
I remain of the view that New Labour—whatever else it got wrong—was a lot less guilty of the populist tropes I’m criticising in the book. But that’s a side issue, really. The central argument is about whether the tropes themselves are harmful. And I think there’s a lot of agreement between us on that.
I’m interested by your notion of “Labourism,” and the view that “politics has to be deeply moral and contested on such a basis.” I’m not sure I’d agree with the latter point. I sometimes think we’d do better to focus on the fact that progressive policies are more rational. But clearly, ideas about morality will always play a part.
Thanks again for suggesting this email dialogue.
All the best,
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity