Those outside the UK probably have better things to do than follow the current contest for the leadership of the Labour Party. However, it is potentially revealing of issues facing left politics in developed countries more broadly.
The UK general election in May was widely expected to result in a hung parliament. Instead, it ended in an outright Tory victory (albeit on a minority of the votes). Labour’s leader resigned and the process of electing a new one was set in motion.
Of the five candidates, one, Jeremy Corbyn, is a veteran of the left wing of the party. He is offering an anti-austerity platform and has zero chance of being elected. The other four are supposedly distinguished by varying degrees of loyalty to tribal markers of Labour identity, but offer a remarkably similar core narrative. It is a narrative which revolves around the themes of work, wealth creation, aspiration and race.
It was reported that Liz Kendall, most clearly identified with the right of the party, ‘praised one primary school for having an “aspirations week”, saying such programmes were needed to “teach girls and boys, particularly from white working class communities, about the chances in life they may not even know exist – like being an engineer, a chemist and even leader of the Labour party.”’ In another speech, she said ‘I want to lead a Labour party that’s genuinely as passionate about wealth creation as we are about wealth distribution.’
The centrist Yvette Cooper weighed in with this: ‘People should be working if they can. I’ve always worked long hours and always believed it was right to work hard and support your family. But I did have 12 months 20 years ago when I was too ill to work. I hated it and was desperate to get back to work, but I couldn’t. And I had to claim sickness benefit and housing benefit to pay the bills and the rent. So I will always support strong rules on contribution, on expecting people to work, including compulsory jobs. But I will never slag off people who are on benefits because they can’t work as ‘workshy’ or ‘scroungers’. That’s what Tories do. Not Labour.’ She also stated that ‘Our rhetoric can’t be set against the wealth creators and drivers of our future economic growth. We can’t be set against business, and too many believed we were.’
Finally, the front-running candidate Andy Burnham, considered the most left wing of those with a chance of winning, gave a speech to businesspeople, in which he said that Labour lost the election because the party ‘got it wrong on business … we simply didn’t say enough that we value what you do: creating jobs and wealth. We didn’t celebrate the spirit of enterprise.’ He stated that ‘The Labour Party I lead will be once again truly the “Party of work” — where, if people are prepared to put in the hard graft, their accent or background must never hold them back,’ whilst also arguing that ‘We need a package of changes so that there is no entitlement to benefits [for immigrants] for at least two years . . . freedom to work is not the same as freedom to claim. And I think that is where the commonsense view of most British people is.’
These candidates – supposedly drawn from across the political spectrum of the party from right to ‘soft’ left – are symptomatic of the homogenisation of mainstream politics. Their statements neatly distil into a celebration of the inherent value of ‘hard work,’ the self-validating feeling of ‘aspiration,’ the magic of ‘wealth creation’ and the racialization of identity.
Together, I suggest, these themes constitute a new spirituality of the neoliberal left. With the evacuation of class as a marker of identity in anything except cultural terms, the traditional parties of the left are caught between a valorisation of labour for its own sake (the harder the better) and a vacuous hope for betterment – a hope which, insofar as it is meant to be for ‘everyone’ is inevitably self-defeating. The very system which produces this abstract universal hope engineers out the possibility of its fulfilment, since we must rely for its possibility on the mystified process of wealth creation carried out on our behalf by a few heroic entrepreneurs – a kind of vicarious alchemy. Living in the strain of this impossible desire produces anxiety, an anxiety that can be displaced or mollified by a racialized discourse of pride in some rooted identity, by the opposition of a ‘British’ common sense to foreign parasites. Explicit and implicit appeals to race play a vital affective part, therefore, in rationalising and sustaining the ‘social’ and ‘universal’ aspects of the most visible left project as it has evolved in Britain.
If this is anywhere near the mark, then the response cannot be to replace affect with rationality or the parochial with the universal, since the second term in each of these binaries is as implicated in this dynamic as the others. No baseline, simple, self-transparent (colourless) subject is available to us. The left still has a lot of learning to do from those whose black, Muslim, refugee, disabled bodies are deemed necessary sacrifices by the aspirations of the Party of Work.