The left-right spectrum feels increasingly consigned to history. Arguments of whether Labour should be centrist, a little to the left or further left feel pretty pedantic at the moment. The key issue, really, is what shade of a globalist you are going to be.
Politics right now is seen through a prism of globalisation and where you stand on it. If the mainstream opinion had been that it was an unconditionally irreversible phenomenon, then the victories of Trump, Brexit and challenge of Le Pen have truly rocked that. Social Democracy has been imperilled as a result.
Around Europe, social democratic parties are in decline. Here in Britain, Labour’s membership has mushroomed and yet actual voting support has fast declined. Globalisation was not meant to inculcate the insular, socially conservative societies we are currently seeing, and yet here we are. Many on the hard left, such as Owen Jones and the Labour leadership, have assumed that the decline of social democracy is in part due to accepting austerity.
To an extent, there is some truth to this and yet it feels overly simplistic. It is a narrative that creates the ludicrous assumption that simply reversing spending cuts can swing someone from borderline fascism to becoming one of those liberal pot-smoking hipsters found in Hackney or Shoreditch.
What needs to be discussed are the themes of security that will force Labour to accept both arguments from the hard left and the Progress wing.
The Labour Party is not a radically left-wing party and has never been. It is a centre-left party, comprised mainly of cautious social democrats and social liberals, and though responsible for the boldest creations of progressive values such as the NHS or comprehensive education, its best performances came under Tony Blair. Blair realised the old class boundaries were breaking down and Labour needed to move beyond its traditional working-class support.
For three elections, it was a winning formula. But things changed. For starters, there is huge insecurity running rampant now. Lack of workers’ rights, chronically poor wages, high rents and more have contributed to the feeling of not having a stake in society, in control over your own life. It’s a mantra that the Leave campaign during Brexit understood better than the Remain campaign.
People sought certainty in a time devoid of it, and Labour need to recognise that stronger public services and workers’ rights has become more necessary than ever. The reaction against globalisation is the one that British people are being continuously short-changed by it, the assumption that nothing can be done against it and British families are continuously trampled over. By promising decent wages and rights coupled with stronger public services, Labour would remind the people that globalisation can act as a producer of opportunities and the government can act as the safety net. The argument of Labour must not be to reject or disengage with globalisation but to insist that when left unchecked, it is dangerous, and therefore must be managed carefully to ensure there is basic material security for British people.
The idea however that material insecurity can drastically change a vote is really a Marxist one. Karl Marx believed that race was a social construct by white people to divide the working class and ensure the hegemony of the ruling class. Simplistic and simply wrong. It paints an absurd idea that you can go from voting for a neo-fascist like Marine Le Pen to hailing a Communist utopia, all because of how much you’re getting in benefit payments. It does not add up and it’s often an attempt by white, left-wing progressives to maintain class as a relevant indicator of identity when it has simply eroded in value.
Today cultural identity matters heavily and explains why the far right are as resurgent as they are. Globalisation has brought cultures together but in that melting pot, some things are lost, and to a lot of people that can often be too much. This is not racist especially given it’s shared by all.
To assimilate is to sacrifice in order to survive. As a brown Brit, my identity is a confused mash-up of India, Islam and England. When I’m told to give up any of them, a defensive stubbornness immediately kicks in. Globalisation has threatened the cultural identity and security many communities had for generations.
When they say no one speaks the same language on the street anymore, or the neighbours are all unrecognisable, it’s not racist bile being uttered but a yearning to return to the warmth and familiarity of being a community again, rather than simply a street of different individuals. It means wishing to preserve the local businesses that have been in the town for generations and not watching them wither away because they cannot adjust to the new cosmopolitan world.
An example are the fish and chips shops in the East End that once served as a stable of every West Ham fan’s match-day diet, now gone and given way to one of the many takeaway shops. This is something that Labour Party must interact with and it does involve embracing patriotism, and perhaps adding a sprinkle of progressive spin to what it means to be English and British.
You can’t talk about security and globalisation without talking about security in globalisation. Free movement, simply put, creates opportunities for terrorists to strike. That is a fact of life, although another fact of life is that most terrorist incidents in Europe have been either by home-grown extremists or white supremacists and not ISIS operatives hiding as refugees.
The balance between liberty and security is always a precarious one, and sometimes the solutions are presented by the political mainstream as either completely neglecting duties to protect the state in order to remain libertarian to becoming a surveillance state. For Labour, they must address the cuts to defence and police budgets, but also make the point that wars of tomorrow are increasingly fought with technology and not soldiers. Increasing spending on military technology coupled with tougher punishment for terrorists has to be championed; the world is insecure because terrorists have become omnipresent.
People want their leaders to be tough against it and Tony Blair recognised this, believing in strong measures against crime and terrorism. Ideally, trade deals with human rights abusing regimes like Saudi Arabia would be nice and yet would eventually raise questions of moral and political inconsistency, given there aren’t many, if any, security allies in the Middle East who aren’t dictatorships of some mind, be it mild or viciously repressive.
We are living in the age of globalisation, and yes, not much change given we’ve always been. But for the first time, we are consciously living in it and questioning it like never before. For Labour, to exist as a party of significance is to recognise that the social liberalism of before in an increasingly insecure society is becoming harder to manage. We must become the party of security and not just fairness.