A swing to the bright

August 16, 1996

Geoff Andrews believes that Tony Blair's new Labour has jettisoned the anti-intellectual prejudices of old.

The links between new Labour and intellectuals beyond the party are attracting much attention. Writing recently, Eric Hobsbawm despaired at the "wide gap [that] now separates the politicians of the British Labour party from the intellectuals of the left". He attributes this to "the amount of self-censorship and non-truthtelling that is imposed on any party believed capable of winning a general election". Tony Blair himself, however, has made an appeal to intellectuals, the most significant of its kind for a generation. In June, he said there is "a pressing need for continued debate to deepen new ideas, refine them and toughen them up". For this to happen, he argued that there must be a new relationship between the party and intellectuals. In this process of re-evaluation, intellectuals beyond the party "have a critical role", Blair concluded.

The setting up of Nexus by the New Labour journal Renewal, in order to enable a new network of intellectuals to feed into policy, can be seen as a response to Blair's suggestion. It follows a Renewal seminar where leading thinkers on the left had an "audience" with the leader - an attempt to engage with intellectuals who had become disconnected from Labour's concerns. There are other examples of Blair's openness, including his note to Stuart Hall seeking further communication after Hall's critical appraisal of Blairism in an issue of Soundings last year. What all this suggests is a profound departure from the party's traditional relationship with intellectuals.

Historically, this has been a relationship based on mutual suspicion: Labour's reluctance to take on board ideas that go against the "inevitability of gradualism"; the intellectuals unconvinced - and often contemptuous - of Labour's ability to think beyond its own "Labourist" constraints.

Labour's anti-intellectualism has had severe consequences for the party in the postwar period: its inability to engage with the grains of social and cultural change, its preference for internalised argument and the preservation of sacred cows contributed to the ideological vacuum from which Thatcherism was created. The year 1956, a crucial moment in the emergence of the intellectuals of the "new left", was also critical for Labour in that Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism, published that year, was the last serious attempt to provide an intellectual basis for Labour's philosophy. Labourism has historically been the antithesis of intellectual creativity.

It is not surprising therefore that leftwing intellectuals have often defined themselves through their opposition to Labourism. The spaces they have sought in the left book clubs, New Left Review, the milieu of new social movements or the communist universities in the 1970s, have provided an escape from the worst aspects of Labour's conservatism and party chauvinism.

To some extent this polarity between intellectual energy and Labour party culture persists. Those who have read Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle's disappointing analysis in The Blair Revolution will feel justified in arguing that short-term populism is still prioritised over longer-term solutions. Labour in many ways still absents itself from innovation where its culture militates against open political exchange, and it is still held back by too many taboo subjects. It is not hard to see why many will be sceptical of new Labour's claim to be interested in new ideas.

In what ways is Labour attempting to reconstruct a new deal with intellectuals and, equally importantly, how should intellectuals on the left respond to Blair's overtures? What is the role for intellectuals in new Labour?

It is clear that Blair is someone who is interested in ideas. He has been characterised by many as a "sound-bite" politician. Yet it is clear he is a strategic agenda-setting politician, who goes for key themes and ideas. This was after all the basis of his respect for Margaret Thatcher, Britain's most successful strategic politician, who made the important connection between longer-term projects and short-term policy. Like Thatcher, Blair has tried to engage with contemporary concerns and to identify shifts in the electorate's "mood". This comes across in various ways: his "stakeholder" economy, his attempt to redefine the concept of "Britishness" and his overseeing of the general philosophical shift in the Labour party from the Rawlinsian rights-based individualism associated in particular with Roy Hattersley to its communitarian agenda.

His attempts to involve intellectuals and to learn from a range of new, global and varied experiences, ranging from Singapore to Australia to Clinton, is new. He has been described as the first "postmodern" Labour leader. Certainly he is not constrained by traditional Labour polarities or those of orthodox left and right: "We have cleared out the dead wood of outdated ideology," he has said. He has not been ideologically or culturally conditioned by old Labour. His intellectual critics fail to make the distinction between Blair and the Labourism he seems to abhor; his dispute with Labourism is as intense with its rightwing as with its leftwing components. Above all, it is the stifling orthodoxies and certainties, the "homage to tradition", that he stands to reject.

This new approach pervades other areas of new Labour's work. A role for thinktanks, learned from the experience of Thatcherism, is one example. The growing status of the Institute for Public Policy Research is also significant. One of its major initiatives, the Commission on Social Justice report, combined theoretical insight with empirical research, resulting in an impressive analysis of contemporary society, the transformations in work and the economy, the changing role of women and the expansion of higher education, which has now started to penetrate policy areas. As Chris Smith, Labour health spokesman, told me recently, the consequence of the greater autonomy of thinktanks like the IPPR is that they can think the unthinkable and provide Labour with the chance to "pick up and run with good ideas".

Recent speeches from the front bench, when read in their entirety, would seem to challenge Hobsbawm's analysis further. Even Gordon Brown's controversial speech (in which the ending of universal child benefit was mooted) contained the most innovative attempt by a Labour politician to redefine the concept of equality (as one applied to the lifecycle) since Crosland's attempts 40 years ago. The concept of lifelong learning and the learning bank, taken from the Commission on Social Justice report, dominates recent speeches by David Blunkett. Chris Smith's wildly misinterpreted speech on the welfare state indicated a new philosophy of welfare, his two "new" giant evils of insecurity and exclusion chiming well with academic research on these areas. Indeed, the cross-referencing and collaboration between Brown, Blunkett and Smith is an innovation in itself (no wonder there was conflict when one of them spoke out of turn).

But while the "Blairistas" refer to "the project", Labour has yet to construct an intellectual agenda comparable to Thatcherism. It has yet to win "hearts and minds" on many issues. The new consensus has yet to project itself, although on certain areas, such as constitutional reform and social justice, one is beginning to emerge.

Fortunately, a consensus based on radical new ideas, does not depend solely on Labour. The response of intellectuals themselves will be critical. Many have had their political identity displaced with Blairism. Some, certain in the knowledge that Blairism is merely a "shift to the right" (from what?), are unable to address what is different. They have retreated instead to defeatism, scepticism and ultimately an "apolitical" disengagement from what is a critical moment in Labour's ideological transition as well as the country's future. Other intellectuals have been impressed by Blair's innovations, seeing a new project on the horizon, but remain unsure what their role will be in this process of reconstruction. After all, Blair's invitation to intellectuals beyond the party to join in the process is unprecedented.

What is being suggested by Blair, Nexus and others is a transformation of the intellectual and cultural parameters of Labour's work. This new relationship should be seen in the wider context of the changing role of intellectuals. Historically their role has been defined by their position in the social structure. They became a political entity in their own right in this century, when much attention was given to the social structures of modernity and the place of intellectuals within it. Gramsci's emphasis on "organic" intellectuals offered a new perspective and went a long way towards redefining the role of intellectuals, offering a broader and inclusive concept in which the very recent upsurge of policymakers, researchers and thinktanks would be good examples. Here intellectuals were defined by their broader functions as producers of ideas, as innovators, strategists and technicians. The transformation of the mode of intellectual work in the 1960s and the rise of new social movements carried consequences for the identity of intellectuals as well as intensifying the debates over the extent of autonomy that intellectuals should enjoy in relation to political groups, where traditional party structures and cultures were seen to be in need of renewal.

From the mid-1970s it was the right that filled the intellectual vacuum and the relationship between intellectuals and the left seemed to break down, with the left failing to set the agendas or engage with the material and cultural trends of the new generations. Indeed the left in the Labour party seemed to be united by its anti-intellectual trends if one thinks of groups such as Militant and Labour Briefing. It was Marxism Today, the Communist party's journal, that put forward a wide-ranging analysis of Thatcherism and the significance for the left of the "New Times" in which we live. It was here ironically that Eric Hobsbawm - dubbed "Neil Kinnock's favourite Marxist" - with his "Forward March of Labour Halted" thesis, made an important contribution to the long revolution in the Labour party that is now nearing completion. Blair himself wrote for Marxism Today in this period, arguing, like the journal, that the left needs to understand why Thatcherism succeeded as a pre-requisite to its own renewal. The co-existence and overlap between intellectuals, journalists and policy analysts that began to emerge in Marxism Today has some reflection in Blair's new vision.

The present post-1989 era is characterised by another changing mode of intellectuals. Looser ideological ties and a shift in the left-right polarity have seen the rise of maverick intellectuals who have shifted allegiance, or who take intellectual stimulation from a variety of sources, including David Marquand, John Gray, David Selbourne and Robert Skidelsky. The thinktank Demos also belongs to this category with its involvement of "organic intellectuals" from a range of business, educational and political backgrounds, transcending in the process the boundaries of intellectual work. Some have described this phenomenon as an "intellectual diaspora", where intellectuals with "no fixed ideological abode" have redefined the political spaces which they inhabit. Blair's pluralism in this context is crucial and welcome. It is a recognition that the intellectual drive behind the next centre-left government must come from a range of sources. Labour on its own, however, does not have the intellectual resources to carry through the new consensus. In an age when the old pretensions of the mass party are long past, its role must change. It can be a catalyst but it is no longer able to control or dominate intellectual debate. Instead, it must seek out a new dialogue with the movers and thinkers and try to be at the cutting edge. Intellectuals must, for their part, "come out" and take up the invitation.

This is why the setting up of Nexus is such an important initiative. In some ways the attempt to identify a "new generation of intellectuals", who have yet to make their mark, is probably less significant than the wider implied purpose of redefining the relationship between intellectuals and the party. What is noticeable here is that it is to be a two-way process, in which expertise is brought in from outside, in which rigour and creativity is not to be sacrificed for soundbites - but neither will "theorising" exist in a vacuum from Labour policy objectives. Neal Lawson, one of Nexus's founders, describes a three-fold purpose: to introduce expertise and new ideas; to set up new networks of intellectuals; and to key new thinking into policy debates. In some ways what is being sought is reminiscent, as Blair has himself said, of the "coalition of intellectuals" that came together in 1945; but, in a very different way, a coalition that works through networking and is more diverse in its composition and contributions. For the first time for 50 years Labour is seeking an inclusive and dynamic role for intellectuals.

Geoff Andrews is lecturer in politics, University of Huddersfield, and a member of the Nexus stakeholder coordinating group.

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