On the 23rd of May 2016, Labour UK’s Jon Cruddas released a report entitled Labour’s Future: Why Labour Lost in 2015 and how it can win again.
The report using polling data from England, Scotland and Wales to outline reasons as to why Labour did so badly in the 2015 General Elections. While some of the content makes for stinging reading, the social democratic left in Ireland should pay heed to many of the challenges the report identifies.
The claims that UK Labour is risking becoming an exclusive cultural brand.
“It is now largely a party of progressive, social liberals who value abstract, universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice.”
“It is losing connection with the majority of voters who are either pragmatists in their voting habits or who hold socially conservative values of family, work, security, and fairness.”
It breaks up voters into 3 categories.
Pioneers – Pioneers are socially liberal and more altruistic than most voters. They are more likely to vote according to their personal ideals, based on principles such as caring, justice and a desire to end inequality. They tend to be better of than the majority of voters and have been to university.
Prospectors – Their priorities are to improve their social status and material wealth. They value a good time, the trappings of success, and the esteem of others. They don’t really give too much thought to politics, and they want to be seen to be backing a winner.
Settlers – Members of this group are generally “small c conservatives.” They are concerned with home, family and security. They value a sense of belonging. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.
Cruddas goes on to say that each individual has elements of all 3 values, and can shift between categories throughout the course of their lives.
In Ireland, the far left as opposed to the social democratic left, engage in a type of nihilism that fundamentally alienates vast elements of the electorate, and promotes a poor vision of a society that knows what it is against, but ignores the values that make us stronger.
They argue for greater power for the state, while at the same time articulating a paradoxical ideology in which the state is a bogeyman that can’t be trusted.
They scoff at small c conservatism in a way that often undermines solidarity and cooperation while at the same time claiming that solidarity is key to our liberation.
They ignore the institution of the family (I refer to family in broad terms), making light of the fact that it is the family unit that often matters most to the outcomes of the most underprivileged in our society.
Social democrats should avoid falling into this trap of nihilism and actively advocate for the communitarian values which underpin our society, and in doing so reach out to the “settlers” who value a sense of belonging, rules and tradition.
Arguably, the problem for social democrats is that they spend their time talking almost exclusively to the “pioneers” (with the majority of their membership coming from the said group), all the while alienating and patronising many settlers.
Far from tearing up honoured institutions and the fabric of the state and civil society without regard, the centre-left should be about protecting the gains of working people; about safeguarding the values and institutions our country can be proud of; and celebrating the civic institutions, the localities, stories and relationships that allow us to move forward as a society together, rather than as alienated, angsty individuals.
Also, the centre-left can at times be accused of having a victim mentality. While it’s vital to articulate stories of injustice, we sometimes relish highlighting struggle over success. Highlighting stories of battered communities rather than promoting the strength of communities and the virtues of work and resilience. This prevents prospectors from identifying with us.
A cultural shift is required. In some quarters this is already beginning. For example, Ruairi McKiernan’s video entitled A New Ireland Rising outlines a powerful criticism of the Ireland of 2016, while at the same time outlining the positive parts of our culture and heritage.
Perhaps the vision of the common good that the centre-left could take heart from comes from somewhere we wouldn’t usually look for inspiration (arguably for justified reasons.)
In his Encyclical Letter, LAUDATO SI’, Pope Francis made the case for a more community driven politics, with respect for tradition and ethics at its fore, saying;
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.”
We must also move away from the idea that one organisation, institution or political party is capable of making the changes necessary.
The concept of vanguardist parties that deliver the goods for working people on their own has never been a realistic one. Working people have always had to work hard outside of the parliamentary arena to encourage significant societal change.
This is truer now than ever and social democratic parties need to see their place as part of a movement rather than it’s driving force. Again, to quote from LAUDATO SI’;
“Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organisations which work to promote the common good…Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism.”
Like it or not, the mass industrialised economies that led to the creation of social democratic parties across Europe in the last century have changed dramatically. At the same time values and the quest for identity have become more salient.
We need to challenge ourselves to leave our ideological comfort zones. Only through reaching outside our liberal silos can we build the consensus needed to truly change the political and social order to one which can provide people with not only bread, but roses too.
Let’s be clear – Either we do it, or the populists will step into the vacuum.