Art lessons for New Labour

William Morris could teach the Opposition a thing or two about the need to combine politics with culture

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One of the strangest shafts of light on New Labour can be found not at Westminster but in the Victoria and Albert museum. Its exhibition on William Morris, the poet, socialist, designer and businessman is a well-timed reminder that politics is about more than public administration, and that politicians who fail to wonder ''how should we live?'' miss the most basic political question of all.

These days, Morris is remembered for his wallpaper, not his revolutionary politics. His designs are marketed as a cosy, chinzy, nostalgia-soaked ''product'' - tea-towel work which slots in somewhere between Liberty and the average National Trust shop. But in his time he was a symbol of another sort of liberty.

A socialist with anarchist leanings (he claimed not to understand Marx's theory of value and dismissed most political economy as ''dreary rubbish''), Morris was also a symbolist, surrealist, pro-feminist and early environmentalist.

His work is used to reassure us, although it ought to unsettle us. To suggest that Morris has a message for Labour would once have been a banal thought: copies of his News From Nowhere and John Ball's Dream were among the key texts for generations of British socialists. Today, however, it doesn't seem obvious; it seems bizarre, frankly. Morris's mixture of revolutionary optimism and medievalism comes from a different Britain, a country where the most advanced thinkers dreamed of creating a classless Jerusalem. In 1996 - exactly a century after Morris's death - after Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the collapse of totalitarian communist states and the apparent triumph of the global market, in the age of opinion-poll-driven and unideological parties, how can the cloudy visions of a revolutionary designer and wealthy manufacturer matter at all?

Certainly, we have become stonily hard-headed about politics, treating it as a subject defined by income-tax rates and institutional reform. The idea that justice, never mind art, has much to do with public life seems more or less dead. Dreams and dreamers have been discredited by what what happened to Marxism. Artists, like poets and philosophers - Shelley's ''unacknowledged legislators'' - have been pushed to the sidelines of society. They are entertainment.

That is certainly the perception of artists and writers, planners and architects, who feel that Labour, like the other parties, finds them an embarrassment. New Labour has little to say about the arts, and says nothing that is startling or primary. Whereas for Morris and his colleagues, in the early socialist movement, social justice and a grand artistic vision were intertwined. Now they are seen as entirely separate matters.

But this is mad. And Morris shows us why. In the crowded and polluted, struggling cities of a century ago, what the majority of people needed and wanted was not simply higher wages or lower taxes, but good working conditions, clean air, access to open spaces, a certain amount of leisure, useful work and education. They needed the social goods - what we might call a benign environment.

And so do we now. I wouldn't recommend Morris's interminable poetry myself, nor his wide-eyed revolutionary politics. But what I found refreshing, wandering around the V&A exhibition was what Fiona MacCarthy, his excellent biographer, calls his largeness of vision.

She says of him: ''He wanted to integrate the city with the country, the present with the past, the public and the personal moralities. Most of all he was concerned with proper human occupation, whether going under the name of work or play. In the late 20th century, throughout the West, this is our urgent problem. Technological advance has made ordinary skill and modest pride in work redundant. But redundancy of people brings the threat of disconnection from life.''

We are returning, in short, to some of Morris's key concerns of the 1880s and 1890s. His environmentalism is an obvious example: one of his last campaigns was an attempt to stop the felling of hornbeam trees at Epping Forest. He was as glowing a Green as any Newbury bypass protester.

Morris was an early supporter of feminism and fascinated by the future of the family, prefiguring arguments about sex and responsibility that rage today. He was as passionate about friendly, small-scale architecture as the Prince of Wales. And in his lifelong interest in training and craftsmanship - good work, well done - he was challenging what was later called alienation. As Britain becomes a nation of service-industry providers and small producers, this too is hardly out of date.

Indeed, these are all among the proper concerns of politics in the Nineties. A political strategy that ignored environmentalism, sexual politics, the use of leisure and radical urban planning - what might be called social ecology - would fail to interest millions of voters.

And Labour, which once looked on Morris as a hero and an example, is in danger of doing exactly that. Almost everyone involved in the arts who has been in contact with the Opposition comes away depressed by the lack of interest, the single-minded devotion to a relatively narrow business and welfare agenda, at a time when much of the rest of the country is turning away from Westminster politics.

There is an economistic disdain for the full range of Morris's interests that may seem sensible but, I suspect, badly hobbles Labour in its attempts to enthuse and provoke voters. Labour, even New Labour, sells itself as the party of the public good, a party which believes there are limits to the market and social goods which must be provided by government. These include cultural and environmental works - a fact accepted by almost every European party of the centre-left.

Labour, though, has said very little about environmentalism, libraries, public spaces, the design of housing and so on. It remains, in key respects, the child of the industrial age, smoky and brutalised in its priorities. The work of people such as the architect Richard Rodgers, who lives near Morris's Hammersmith base and has devoted time to urban landscape projects and improving run-down estates is a too-rare example of what can be done, given will and imagination.

Instead, it has been the Conservatives, during John Gummer's time at the Department of the Environment, who have been the more culturally adventurous of the main parties. Their agenda has been conservative in every sense; but it has been there and has been developing in government, as Labour's has not in opposition.

Nothing could be older Labour than the curly-bearded revolutionary William Morris in some of his cod-medieval moods. But in crucial ways he seems more up to date than New Labour itself. In his optimism, he represents a great slice of politics that the party has largely forgotten. Tony Blair could do worse than to cancel a Shadow Cabinet meeting and take his team on an outing to the V&A.

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