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The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.

What became of the Likely Lads?

In Home Affairs, The Media on July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

In politics, three is indeed the magic number: major parties, modern ideologies, even decades of economic consensus. The growing debate about the welfare state and the poor is no exception to this rule – three examples depict the different dimensions of the debate. Firstly, the tabloid stories which surface with alarming yet predictable regularity, hacks having searched for the most egregious examples of benefit fraud and mapping them onto the entire welfare state, as if every recipient were a calculating schemer intent on wringing the taxpayer of all their hard-earned funds. Secondly, the Tory-led government’s welfare reforms spearheaded by Iain Duncan Smith, which look to simplify welfare provision into a single universal credit whilst cutting the amount available to claim. Thirdly, and perhaps least surprisingly, Ed Miliband’s salutary broadside into the debate in the form of his 13th June speech on responsibility, professing the intent to make jobseekers work for their benefits. As a play to the ‘squeezed middle’ it is likely to push the right (and Right) buttons, but it understandably attracted criticism from Left-leaning commentators such as Medhi Hasan, who questioned the morality and mathematics of equating the damage done by welfare recipients with that of City bankers. Read the rest of this entry »

Blue Labour: broadly good, but don’t lose the party’s identity in the process

In Ideology, Party politics on June 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

We live in an era of slippery political language. We have a coalition government which is Conservative but not conservative, very liberal but with too little Liberal input, and politicians of all colours skirmish over the mantle ‘progressive’. The latest thread of opposition thinking is a similar misnomer: Blue Labour, whose philosopher-in-chief is Lord Maurice Glasman, and whose primary figures hail from very different wings of party, from Progress’ James Purnell to Compass’ Jon Cruddas. It also, perhaps unusually for a fledgling movement, has attracted the attentions of the leader Ed Miliband. Both movement and leader have had no qualms about an unsentimental appraisal of the party’s record in office, and both have been keen to give a voice to traditionally Right-wing concerns, such as the cut in police budgets or the prevalence of benefit fraud. I would argue that Blue Labour offers a broadly positive and constructive vision for Britain, but its problem, paradoxically, is its over-willingness to jettison some of Labour’s greatest triumphs in pursuit of Right-wing populism.

Contemporary Left-wing thinkers such as David Marquand have identified two major threads in Labour’s ideological inheritance, which might be termed ‘rational’ socialism and ‘ethical’ socialism. Rational socialism is rooted in science, and linked to the intellectual Leftists and the Fabian Society of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries – socialism, in this model, is scientifically superior to capitalism. This corresponds to what Sidney Webb once called “democratic collectivism” – power is centralised with a managerial state apparatus, which administers socialism from above. This had been the dominant thread since the 1945 landslide victory, manifested primarily in the NHS, the welfare state and the nationalised industries. Furthermore, this rational socialism transcends the apparently cavernous divide between Old and New Labour. Under both, power was (bar some of Blair’s constitutional reforms) centralised and administered from Westminster. Blair and Brown might have been in thrall to the market, but their attitude to power was remarkably similar to that of Wilson and Callaghan – a technocratic liberal elite of ministers, civil servants and business leaders operates the market-state mechanism from on high, and the country is managed in pyramid formation.

The second thread, ethical socialism, has been an undercurrent for the latter part of the 20th Century. It can trace its origins back much further than the last century to iconic English radicals such as John Milton, Thomas Paine and William Morris. Rather than claiming scientific improvement on capitalism, it instead stresses its moral superiority. Whereas rational socialism at its worst treats humans as mechanically as capitalism, ethical socialism stresses the importance of human relationships, reciprocity, mutualism and community. As opposed to the top-down centralised state model of the Webbs, it grew out of grassroots civil society movements – the trade unions and cooperatives, and Christian socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist groups. Equally, its leading figures, Keir Hardie, R. H. Tawney, George Lansbury and their ilk, were not social scientists but humanitarians. This was not an ideology of a liberal elite, but of ordinary citizens taking action for the betterment of themselves and their fellows. It was Lansbury who described socialism as “love, cooperation and brotherhood in every department of human affairs”. It is this ethical socialism which the Blue Labourites are in the process of recalling from the historical abyss.

Glasman’s vision of the ‘good society’ – a direct response to the Cameron’s and Philip Blond’s ‘big society’ – seeks to re-elevate this tradition of mutualism and grassroots activism above the statist approach which has been overarching from Atlee onwards. He traces Labour’s heritage back to a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” which finds its expression in, amongst other aspects of British history, the Magna Carta, the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt and the radicalism of the 17th and 19th Century democrats such as the Levellers and the Chartists. He also looks to vindicate the role which religion has played, both historically (the alliance of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in the 1891 London Dock strike) and contemporaneously (Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign). In ideological terms, cooperation and the valuing of local culture and legacy comes before abstract egalitarianism. In policy terms, mutualised banks and public utilities come before nationalised or privatised ones.

Labour’s support base can be divided into two broad groups, both economically Left-wing but differing in other aspects. The first are the traditional working class – blue-collar C1s and C2s, typical readers of The Mirror, and socially authoritarian. The second are middle class service workers – the educated white-collar Bs and C1s, typical readers of The Guardian, and socially libertarian. The first group tends to be more homogenously white, whilst the latter is more ethnically diverse and incorporates many socially mobile immigrants. Blue Labour, as opposed to New Labour, might be seen to favour the former over the latter, drawing back electoral support from those supporting the BNP and EDL in protest. But it also has tremendous electoral potential because it reaches out beyond these groups to those in rural communities who have never voted Labour before – who saw, and still see, the party as the haven of unionised urban workers and their liberal elite leaders, with no respect for nation or tradition. This potential is if anything strengthened Cameron’s pathetic inability to form any kind of critical judgement on the free market. New Labour, with its historic majority, was ultra-liberal – Blue Labour, with its fusion of socialism and conservatism, may paradoxically be more successful. In fact, ConservativeHome’s review of Blue Labour thinking identifies it as a potentially fatal threat to an ultra-liberal government which has more in common with Ayn Rand than Enoch Powell.

This, at least to me, sounds pretty good in theory. The problems come, however, when one begins to consider the practical applications of some of this ideology. Firstly, a break from New Labour’s particular kind of liberal elitism is certainly welcome, but how conservative is Labour to become? Since 1945, Labour has been the praetorian guard of social liberals in promoting gender equality, legalising homosexuality, ending discrimination in the workplace and housing, and, more recently, ensuring the environment is a concern of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “family, faith and flag” feel of Blue Labour strays dangerously close to the territory of the American Tea Party movement, with its exceptionally reactionary approach to civil rights. If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see regressions unpalatable to many progressives, such as a very hard stance on immigration and a punitive crime policy. New Labour was notorious for triangulating policy decisions based on the stance of the Tories and tabloids: might we, under Blue Labour, see the same done for the BNP and EDL? Even Marxists are under no illusions about the need, in some respects, to educate in the working class rather than pander to bigotry. One of the defining features of socialism is that it views liberalism as necessary but not sufficient to building a good society: what happens, then, when liberalism is thrown out of the mix entirely?

Secondly, if the new vogue is localism and British historical culture, what is to become of the guiding beacon of socialism: equality? Former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley was quick to criticise Blue Labour for forsaking the party’s historic commitment to evening out the “postcode lottery” brought by arbitrary birth and market. The belief in the redistribution of wealth has been the most persistent aim of party policy, whether through Old Labour universal welfare payments or New Labour targeted tax credits. In searching for a lost British (or, in Cruddas’ case, English) identity, the Blue Labourites may lose Labour’s one.

Thirdly, where does internationalism stand in the Blue Labour vision? From social democracy to communism, a responsibility to the oppressed of other nations has been central to the concerns of the European Left throughout its history. This is a tradition which still holds strong, with, most recently, British trade unions campaigning in solidarity with the Arab Spring revolutionaries. In a globalised world, most social-democratic policy must have some kind of international dimension if it is to succeed, yet Blue Labour has yet to contribute a position on, for example, environmental degradation. In a similar vein, the Blue Labourites want their party to be much tougher on immigration. A contentious issue already, this is likely to enflame a rift within Labour between those who want “British jobs for British people”, and those who feel the UK has a duty to those from less prosperous nations looking for work or asylum. Multiculturalism has been an iron-cast commitment of Labour’s for decades now – the party being by far the most ethnically diverse of all three – and there are those who are understandably wary of a renewed national and local pride returning some of the spectres of white racism. Cameron’s vacuous “muscular liberalism” may yet be surpassed by a far more solid “muscular conservatism”.

Nevertheless, as the latest renaissance in British Left-wing thought, Blue Labour has a lot to offer. Its vindication of grassroots activism and alternatives to a managerial statist approach are its most welcome aspects, and a respect for national and local cultural identities has arguably been too long neglected by the party. But the Blue Labourites have been too quick to reject three traits which have guided Labour through opposition and government in the last century: liberalism, the commitment to equality, and internationalism. Unless it forms a less hostile response to this trinity, Blue Labour risks treading perilously near the territory of the BNP.

Why a Yes vote tomorrow matters

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on May 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Tomorrow, 5th May 2011, Britain faces the first ever referendum on our electoral system, only the second referendum in our country’s history. The last few months have seen the Yes and No campaigns to the Alternative Vote (AV) come to agonisingly slow fruition. Both sides fear apathy as the main losing factor in potentially ditching First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), particularly in areas such as London where there are no local or devolved elections. But this referendum is crucially important, and a Yes to AV vote would help us begin to tackle the lime-scale of political and economic oligarchy which has become the norm of our democracy.

Right away (and perhaps oddly for an article promoting a Yes vote) it’s important to point out that AV isn’t actually a huge change from FPTP. It keeps what is seen as popular about the current system: electing and dispatching a representative from your local area to national government to represent you there. Each constituency will still only have one MP, and general and by-elections will still run to the same timetable. The only difference is the way in which that MP is voted in. Under FPTP you mark an X in the box next to your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes wins. Under AV, you rank the candidates available, and, in the event that one candidate doesn’t receive over 50% of the votes, the least popular candidates are eliminated with the second preferences of those voters redistributed until one candidate has over half the support. That’s all there is to it.

However, to quote the Yes! to Fairer Votes campaign, this is a small change which makes a big difference. AV helps voters challenge political oligarchy by ending the ‘safe seat’ culture which has built up over the last few decades. At present, less than a third of MPs are elected with the consent of the majority of their constituents: i.e. they can rely on a core of immovable voters who only have to contribute a single vote more than the next most popular candidate in order to get re-elected time and time again. It doesn’t matter that, in a hypothetical constituency, Labour wins where they get 40%, the Tories get 35% and the Lib Dems get 25% of the vote, even though the majority of Lib Dems would prefer a Tory MP to a Labour one. With AV in place, politicians would have to fight every single seat like it matters in order to win 50% or more of their constituents’ support – this can only be good in restoring faith amongst ordinary voters that their vote counts. Across vast swathes of the country, AV would favour popular challengers against unpopular incumbents.

Secondly, AV can help us begin challenging economic oligarchy. The Independent’s motto at last year’s general election was “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide the outcome of this election. You will.” – we can decipher a lot about the current state of our democracy from this. It’s no secret that the media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, no more so than in election time. It’s also no secret that the majority of our media is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and that, since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory, Murdoch has used its colossal influence through The Sun, The News of the World, The Times and others to promote the party which will offer him and his cronies the best settlement in the next parliament. Labour spent 18 years in opposition before it prostrated itself before his throne and gained his blessing. The Lib Dems have suffered consistently from being caricatured as weak and irrelevant. FPTP exacerbates the influence of Murdoch and other Right-wing media outlets such as The Daily Mail – because a handful of ‘swing seats’ are the only ones that really decide the outcome of election, and these seats are disproportionately upper-middle class, power is lent to News Corporation to bestow its favour on the party it wants to win. Under AV, with every constituency battle mattering, Middle England and its media guardians will lose their disproportionate position in choosing the government. AV disperses power away from the media elite to ordinary voters, where, in a democracy, power rightfully belongs.

Unsurprisingly, AV has come under fire from those who are set to lose from scrapping FPTP. A multitude of myths have been floated around in the hope of blocking the British public engaging with the issues, and so I’d like to puncture some of them. One: AV needs expensive voting machines and therefore necessitates more spending cuts. This is behind the disgraceful dying babies advert and is a complete lie – Australia uses AV with pencil and paper, just like our FPTP, and Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander has said that he can’t see AV costing any more. Two: AV leads to weak coalitions, FPTP leads to strong governments. It is true that AV will lead to more coalitions, but this is because the electorate’s wishes are more accurately represented in Commons seats. During the coalition negotiations last May, the markets didn’t plunge into the abyss because of a momentary lack of government, as was predicted. And the average single-party government is just as much, if not more, a coalition than a genuine coalition one: Clegg and Cameron are far more united that Blair and Brown ever were. In fact, a coalition partner may help temper the excesses of the main party, as we’re currently seeing with Tory NHS privatisation. If we want a minority support ‘strong’ government rather than one which is representative of the electorate’s preferences, then we may as well abolish democracy and be ruled by bureaucrats. Three: AV empowers extremist fringe parties. Conservative Party chairperson Sayeeda Warsi has claimed that “a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP”, apparently ignoring the fact that the BNP has been working with the Tories on the No campaign. In fact, AV cripples extremist parties because they would have to gain 50% of the support of constituents to get MPs elected – harder for them than in most seats under FPTP. Five: FPTP gives the electorate the right of recall on an unpopular government. David Cameron has claimed that the best thing about our present electoral system is the power to kick out governments; yet, in the last three decades, the government has only changed hands three times (1979, 1997, 2010). Clearly the last 30 years of politics have been near-perfect, or else the right of recall is defunct.

Last Sunday, a letter was sent to The Observer signed by Labour’s John Denham, Lib Dem Chris Huhne and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. It called for a Yes to AV vote tomorrow in order to bring the dream of progressive alignment closer. The Left has a lot to gain from this referendum: for the majority of the 20th Century, the Tories have won minority rule from the divisions between the progressive parties. AV levels the playing field, allowing Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters (55.3% in total last year against the Conservative’s 36.1%) to express their support for each other’s parties over the Right-wing opposition. In addition, it gives those discontented with Cameron’s perceived Leftward shift to express themselves by voting for UKIP. AV isn’t perfect – no electoral system is – but it is certainly more representative that FPTP. And if the representation of the people’s will is the goal of a parliamentary democracy, then we should surely adopt the Alternative Vote.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.