Why the Labour Party should reclaim individualism

Labour must redefine individualism in a way that differs from neoliberalism if it is to win over both middle- and working-class voters.

Moritz Föllmer
17 June 2015

Philip Snowden, the first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer

Philip Snowden. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs. Some rights reserved.

Labour’s crushing defeat in the general election has predictably led to renewed debate over the party’s direction. Should it make a stronger effort to appeal to aspirational middle-class voters, as it successfully did under Tony Blair? Or should it strive to reconnect with its former core constituency, as Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman among others have suggested?

Underpinning this debate is the time-honoured opposition between individualism and communitarianism. It often seems as though Labour can either foster individual freedom, property and consumption or stress the community as the focal point of belonging, mutual obligation and self-respect.

Given that the party will have to persuade both middle-class and working-class voters if it wishes to win the next election, there is a pressing need for narratives that transcend the opposition between New and Blue Labour. Such an optimistic perspective for the future could benefit from a look to the past. Individuality can and should be reclaimed for the moderate left, but in a way that differs from neoliberalism and has long antecedents in social democratic thought.

Philip Snowden

As early as 1908, Philip Snowden, then an MP for the Independent Labour Party, defended his movement against the suspicion of aiming to reduce individuals to their material needs and subject them to all-encompassing state control. 

Snowden retorted that it was cynical “to talk of individual freedom and equality of opportunity under a system of cannibalistic competition like this”, in which a worker “cannot use any genius or individuality he may possess in fashioning the work according to his own ideas”. He deplored that “selfishness, cheek, cunning wit, smart business methods – those qualities which are essential to a ‘good’ business man – have come to be admitted as the most desirable individual qualities”.

Snowden’s comment that, as a result of such economic constraints and societal priorities, people’s ways of dressing or decorating their homes lacked any personal touch may today appear elitist, and his hope that “socialism will take away the desire for accumulating riches” unrealistic. But his insistence that “true individuality” and the “welfare of all” are mutually dependent is by no means obsolete (pages 4, 6, 8, 10, 11).

Individualism in the 20th century

Far from being marginal, Snowden’s ideas resonated with a broader strand of left thought in Britain. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, social democratic egalitarians argued that inequality curtailed working-class people’s freedom by exposing them to the arbitrary rule of their capitalist masters, and impeded their self-development by denying them full access to education and culture. For this reason, it needed to be abolished in favour of a system that valued and protected each and every person’s individuality.

Such a vantage point enabled social democrats to criticise capitalism without ever being as dismissive of “bourgeois” personal freedoms as Marxists. However, the balance between creating the conditions for moral betterment and offering new opportunities for material improvement remained controversial.

At mid-century the emphasis shifted towards catering for self-interest by enhancing purchasing power and fostering property ownership. In a pendulum swing, such views were criticised by the New Left, which stressed communitarian spirit, but subsequently revived by the advocates of New Labour, who foregrounded economic preferences and incentives.

The challenge now facing the Labour Party

Against this historical backdrop, one of the key challenges the Labour Party presently faces is to develop a language that transcends the artificial divide between material and non-material dimensions of individuality. Voters, in their capacity as consumers and actual or prospective homeowners, legitimately wish for tangible improvements in their economic situation. They also expect a government that provides them with a reliable safety net as well as services that are responsive to their needs.

This said, most voters do not appreciate being seen as mere maximisers of their own interests, nor as potential welfare recipients. They demand to be recognised and valued as fully fledged individuals with experiences and insights, convictions and aspirations. And they want to be in control of their own lives as much as possible, not only in their free time but also in the workplace.

This desire for autonomy has been a key strand in the contemporary history of the British working class. It is shared by many middle-class people, who resent being exposed to top-down directives and ever-increasing managerialism. All this suggests that the party would be best advised not to disown the heritage of New Labour, but to broaden the notion of individuality that informed its political project.

The view elsewhere in Europe

This is not a challenge for Labour alone. Social democratic parties in the Netherlands and in Germany are presently striving to shift the moral balance from “me” to “us”, while also stressing that a just society and an active government are crucial preconditions for personal autonomy and self-development.

The French sociologist François de Singly has long argued that the left should incorporate rather than condemn the irresistible advance of individualism. Individualism, de Singly contends, cannot be reduced to the logic of competition and consumption, but constitutes the basis for new rights, freedoms and forms of involvement.

While reclaiming the individual for the left is important in continental Europe, it is an especially pressing need in Britain. This is a country with a strong liberal tradition – which should not be left to the Tories now that the Liberal Democrats seem fatally weakened. It is a country populated by keen consumers, proud homeowners and parents worried about their children’s future. But it is also a country whose citizens value their independence and have a richer, less materialistic notion of themselves than neoliberalism allows for.

Suzanne Moore has recounted how her working-class mother “believed that the Tories would enable her to do things and that Labour would stop her doing them”. The party should attempt to reformulate its project so as to persuade such voters that it is out to foster rather than stifle their capacity to do the things they want. Labour has to operate in a society that prizes individuality, and it makes little sense to wish otherwise. Put positively, the breadth and depth of this individuality offers exciting political opportunities. 

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