The Blog

Labour Lacks Soul

The Labour Party is a party without love and without sin. It can thereby do no right and no wrong in its own eyes. And so in the eyes of everyone else it is a party without life and soul. And a party without life and soul is not one you want to be at.

The Labour Party is a party without love and without sin. It can thereby do no right and no wrong in its own eyes. And so in the eyes of everyone else it is a party without life and soul. And a party without life and soul is not one you want to be at.

No faction in the leadership election expresses any grief or remorse. Yet grief is the expression that something you loved and desired is lost, while remorse is the recognition that you have done wrong. In the acrimonious fight for control of the party between different technocratic, rationalistic and anemic visions of left-wing politics what is entirely absent is, on the one hand, any sense of the need to mourn the dreams of the Romantic left about fellowship, solidarity, and mutuality, dreams that spoke to the heart. Or on the other hand, repentance for having squandered the Party's birthright: the loyalty of the poorly paid and the powerless. But without either lament or repentance no new vision can be born.

One of the pathways Labour tried but then abandoned under Ed Miliband's leadership was that represented by the work of Arnie Graf among local parties. Graf drew on community organizing to teach that organizing people to work together for meaningful change means identifying what motivates people to act through identifying what they love. Another way of framing this is to say it means putting people before program: i.e. not coming into an area with preconceived ideas about what matters and what needs to change, but taking the time to discover what people care about and have energy to change by listening to what they love and what they feel that they have lost.

Underlying any movement for meaningful change is this connection between love and loss. Our delight and love of our children, family, friends, neighborhood and work quickly become sources of anger and grief when they are threatened, corroded or destroyed.

The link between love, anger and shared action for change is articulated in a document Graf helped develop called the "Tent of the Presence". It was written in the early 1980s by Black pastors involved in community organizing who were struggling with the brutal impact of post-industrial decline on the "rust belt" cities where they ministered. It names the connection between love and anger in ways that seem utterly beyond the current Labour leadership. It defines anger in the following terms:

"It is not temper, not the hot words exchanged when the driver ahead cuts you up. Nor does anger imply violence, as we have been taught to assume. No, anger comes from the old Norse word 'Angr', which means grief. Grief implies that there is a vision--a vision of a good life that was or that could have been. Anger and grief are rooted in our most passionate memories and dreams--a father whose spirit has been tried by demeaning work or no work, a brother or sister lost to violence or alcohol or drugs, a church vandalised by an arsonist, a college career sabotaged by an under-funded and increasingly poor education system, a neighbourhood of shops and families and affections and relationships ripped apart because banks won't lend to it, because insurance companies wouldn't insure it, because local authority staff wouldn't service it, because youth wouldn't respect it, or because teachers wouldn't teach in it. Anger sits precariously between two dangerous extremes. One extreme is hatred, the breeding ground of violence. The other extreme is passivity and apathy, the breeding ground of despair and living death."

The pastors who wrote this echo many who recognise that identifying what we grieve for or what we are angry about is crucial for generating change. From the Psalms on, personal lament, anger and grief birth public speech and action that contests the status quo.

Yet we must not confuse lament with its imposters. Lament is not melancholy: the inchoate sense of meaninglessness where we cannot name what is missing and where circumstances leave us listless, without energy or purpose. Nor is it the bite of despair that leaves us immobilized and without vision. It is structured grief orientated to hope for a better configuration of the world as it is. Lament is the language of the Blues and of Spirituals. It takes the trauma, grief and oppression of everyday life and converts into a song, into something beautiful that others can hear and respond to and be moved to action by.

But instead of lament what we hear from Labour is a conflict between the politics of polarization and the politics of respectability. A politics of polarization is not interested in listening to and abiding with the heartfelt cries of its neighbors in order to discern how to go on amid the reality of what is. Rather, the politics of polarization wants to recruit you for its ideologically driven cause. It freezes the world in a picture of friends and enemies, goodies and baddies eternally locked in conflict. A politics of polarization feeds into a rhetoric of denunciation that refuses to listen because it already knows who the enemy is, already knows what the solution should be, and refuses to acknowledge that the wrong side is not all on one side. Instead it demands that you take its side. Anyone who asks questions or tries to have a more nuanced understanding is denounced as a reactionary. A polarized and denunciatory politics puts program before people, refuses any possibilities of a common life between friends and enemies and sees any form of compromise as a failure. Under the guise of hope, it preaches hate.

A politics of respectability also lacks any language of love and lament. It idealizes rational consensus between impartial experts who stand above the fray and whose data sets and statistics mean they know better how everyone else should live. It puts forward policies and programs that seek to teach us better how to govern ourselves instead of how to seek better forms of government. It wants us all to be rational choosers with altruistic motives: that is what is respectable and proper. It appeals to the mind but in the process demeans the heart so that love of family, flag or faith can only appear as atavistic survivals of a barbarian past that need to be expunged as quickly as possible. In the name of progress, it preaches suspicion.

Laments express the reality of the situation. Voicing or hearing lament breaks through patterns of self-deception. It names what is really going on, breaks the silence, and shatters numbness. Lament is a way of orientating ourselves to the world as it is while at the same time expressing a longing for transformation.

When we truly hear the laments of our neighbors then our first response should be repentance. Of course our temptation is to blame others - the media, neo-liberals, consumerism etc. - before we accept our responsibility for this situation. But no word of repentance is heard from the Brownites, the Blairites or the Corbynites. Each misses the log in their own eye while denouncing the speck in the eyes of others.

But if any meaningful language and vision of change is to emerge within the Labour Party it needs to develop a way of talking about love and sin. To do this it needs to focus more on organizing and less on policy and procedure, to be more populist and less progressive. To romance the electorate it must learn again to speak in the idioms of ordinary people. Rather than impose on them brittle schemes of social engineering, it needs to draw on the traditions and customary practices of the people it wants to represent in order to discover ways of forging a common life, a life that cares for the heart and soul, not just the market and the state.

Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His new book Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge University Press, 2015) examines the intersection of grassroots democracy, religious diversity and economic globalization by means of a case study of community organizing.