A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Report: the Compass summer lecture on the future of social democracy

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, The Media on September 23, 2009 at 12:19 am

Prologue: This was a lecture hosted by Compass, and given by Jon Cruddas, on Tuesday 8th Semptember, two weeks ago today, which two of our contributers attended. I apologise for the delay in completing this article.


“We are at an historic turning point” – thus began Jon Cruddas’ summer lecture on the future of Social Democracy, hosted by the thinktank Compass. The lecture was nothing less than a full-blown analysis in to the direction of the Left, its ideological basis, and the many economic and social practicalities it struggles to deal with in government and (potentially) opposition.

Cruddas had evidently put a lot of heart and soul into preparing the lecture, and I was not disappointed, having perhaps uncharitably dubious assumptions after having seen him in an interview with the Economist. I would perhaps have liked a little more focus on policy than he gave, but given the time constraints, and the nature of the debate, this would not have been possible in any case. To say the analysis was comprehensive is perhaps an understatement (please note, however, that this is not the same as saying the analysis was correct); Cruddas covered a huge range of detail, so exhaustive perhaps that he can be forgiven a few minor technical inaccuracies, which I will come to in due course.

Cruddas started by outlining two basic losses for Labour: a loss of a strong working class politics that drove the party; and the loss of the old model of reconciling the interests of society through capitalist growth that allowed Brown et al. to “swerve round the distribution issues”.

He went on to analyse the dichotomy between aspiration and morality that New Labour adhered to, quoting Philip Gould and questioning the inherent cynicism of such an attitude. He criticised the attitude towards a “mythical middle England” that Labour had adhered religiously toward since 2001 (presumably Cruddas still holds a different attitude towards the party’s direction from 1995-1997 and through its first term), believing that people only wanted to “earn and own” more and more; criticising such an attitude as “assuming the worst in people”.

Cruddas drew further on this theme by outlining a second fallacy, that of equating Aspiration and Acquisition, arguing the latter to be a symptom of the neo-liberal, consumption-based attitude toward society, and that the failure to challenge it over the last decade was a symptom of lost optimism within the progressive movement.

The potential of optimism and hope for the Left was a running theme in general throughout the lecture. Cruddas toed a difficult balance well, however, by tempering it with the wisdom of the cynic, warning “even if there is this possibility, the forces of selfish individualism can entrench their position” in response to those who believed that the rise of the Left in response to the economic crisis was inevitable.

Though very much in sympathy with this political analysis myself (though no doubt not everyone will find it too their taste), I do have to take issue with a detail at this point, such as Cruddas’ statement that “The idea that voters could be persuaded that higher taxes were a price worth paying for an improvement in public goods was dismissed”. This would perhaps not have been as unfortunate had Cruddas not specified 2001 as the beginning point of the perverse philosophy outlined in the previous paragraphs; but in 2001 Brown raised the National Insurance rates, arguing specifically that this was needed to begin improving investment into the Health service so it matched European Averages.

Cruddas went on to analyse two previous comparable turning points, and Labour’s “record of success”. I was a little dubious at the decision not to include the 1945 start of the postwar period, but the aid of his graph did certainly lend a certain credibility to the (generally pessimistic) case he was making about Labour’s record when it came to economic turning points. He made on to make the observation that parties need the “capacity for radicalism” to be able to weather such turning points, an interesting idea that would be appealing to believe, though historical evidence is, obviously, sketchy on this point, and I’m inclined to be cynical and observe that Margaret Thatcher (gleefully cited as an example by Cruddas) didn’t demonstrate the extent and scope of the agenda until after the 1979 election, and not fully until her 2nd term.

Unfortunately, there was an obvious problem with the graph Cruddas used, which I kicked myself for failing to recognise at the time, which was that it only used data from actual elections. Given that even the 2005 election was won due a large part to Labour’s record on the economy, and the “turning point” hadn’t even begun or been dreamt of by most at that point, it seems a little odd to suggest that Labour’s decline has been wholly connected to the breaking up of the recent economic consensus. Cruddas also states “The graph also shows us a strong inverse relationship between Liberal and Labour voting shares at these historic pinch points”, despite the fact that all poll evidence shows the Liberal Democrats as having lost ground since 2005 and struggling to regain it (though they have faired slightly better of late, being the only major party to escape relatively unscathed in the polls through the Expenses scandal).

Cruddas also tackled Liberalism, and its relationship to the left and Labour, drawing on recent collaboration between Compass and the Social Liberal forum, and applying a clever definition by Mark Garnett to distinguish between classical and neo-liberalism or its modern definition as Libertarianism, and the more progressive trend in Liberal thought that brought us the NHS and “cradle to grave” vision of welfare. The former was described as “hollowed-out”, and the latter as “fleshed-out”, something the former would no doubt not see eye to eye with, but the latter would appreciate very much. Cruddas may have raised a few eyebrows by describing New Labour as originally part of the “fleshed-out” trend, but to my mind it seems only fair to describe the achievements of devolution, the Minimum wage and the Human Rights Act (all, some argue, legacies of John Smith’s leadership of the party) as an example of fleshed-out, if arguably incomplete, thinking. I broadly agreed with Cruddas on the cut-off point, despite mild disagreements over detail – after 2001, record investment notwithstanding, there was very little evidence of sophisticated policy-thinking on a reform level within the leadership.

Cruddas also may have raised a few eyebrows by describing the initial Blair government as a “coalition” with Liberal interests, something I feel many Liberal Democrats might not see eye to eye on, given the much watered down version of collaboration post-1997 landslide, and the ditching of the (arguably painstakingly compromised) vision of the Jenkins Commission, electoral reform being something of a fundamental red line for cooperation that Jenkins hoped to see fulfilled.

Cruddas raised one or two of my eyebrows, additionally, by describing the idea of a High Pay Commission as an important part of the coming debate over the impact of the distribution of wealth upon liberty and equality. I must confess I do not particularly sympathise with either Cruddas or Compass on this point, believing that the potential for a High Pay Commission as far as redistribution of wealth is concerned is dubious at least, and that the recommendations from Compass seems most likely to amount to a talking shop at most. I was also sceptical regarding Cruddas’ claim that we “need to look again” at Graduate tax, partly from the perspective of a University student, as I do not agree entirely that a Graduate tax would work as well as the current arrangements, which have a far closer link between the education you receive and the money you pay back in.

Easy points were scored in compensation, however, with Cruddas’ citing of the values of ecology as “more personal and moral” than the consumer-driven values of markets in our society today, and essential to the search for stronger lasting values of fraternity (something a recent report commissioned by President Sarkozy, believe it or not, has been dedicated to). This is important, as ecology means more than attacking carbon emissions, it means radically changing the way we live, from a waste-driven, consumer society to a conservation-minded, productive one. I felt dubious about Cruddas’ analysis of how to fund “a better deal with the military” by citing Trident, because of the timeframe with which Trident is actually paid off, meaning that though it might sound like a big saving in the lump sum, yearly it might not provide nearly adequate enough a source of extra funding for the military. That said, anyone familiar with the television series “Yes, Prime Minister” may get de ja vous from this particular debate.

Lastly, I feel that if there was one overall flaw with the way the lecture was presented and written, it was in the way it treated the left and the audience in particular as something of an “in shop”. For all of Cruddas’ talk of alliances, there was no real sense that he felt the audience needed to be convinced of basic assumptions, and nowhere was this more evident than in his talk about Conservatives. Though his assumptions about Conservative policy are understandable for a Labour backbencher (particularly one who aligns himself with the left to the extent Cruddas does); crucially, they will not be shared by the wider public as a whole, who will need to be convinced of these assumptions (particularly in light of recent polls which show a greater proportion of the public more trusting of the Conservatives to cut public spending than of Labour). This was not helped, either, by the fact that some of Cruddas’ assertions, such as that proposals from the centre of social justice are only “punitive”, are factually inaccurate at best, and demonstrably incorrect at worst.

Running on from this reasoning, it would have been nice to have had a guest there to respond from the conservatives or the right, someone to really spark debate on the fundamental assertions; for this is the type of debate Cruddas, Compass and the left in general will be up against in the following years, particularly in a climate so hostile to the traditional institution of left-wing politics (Labour). It would have made the event feel even more open and participatory, and inspired a far more unpredictable debate.

But in the end, these are minor criticisms, and it was clear that the evening was devoted to a lecture that had been given no inconsiderable attention and internal scrutiny by its author, and inspired some almost equally interesting responses. Good lectures are rarely those you agree entirely with, they are rather those that consider enough material so to make discussion over disagreements essential.

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