Monday, 6 July 2009

Hattersley v Denham and the new social democracy

I have a letter in The Times - 'Labour needs social democratic revival - responding to Roy Hattersley's column on Friday.


Sir, I have much respect for Roy Hattersley’s role in championing equality as Labour’s animating mission, a view I strongly share. But he bases his attack on John Denham on the caricatured claim that the Communities Secretary is proposing to ditch the idea of equality (“If equality is dead, what is the point of Labour?”, Opinion, July 3).

Yet Denham said that “a rejection of inequality — both absolute, relative and of opportunity — is absolutely core to who we are”. There are differences between Hattersley and Denham but they are not about whether or not to be for a fairer and more equal society. The issue is rather what that means and how to try to get there. Indeed, with all main parties now claiming to support the principle of equality, this ought to become a live debate across the political spectrum.

Denham was responding to Fabian Society research, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which digs into public attitudes as they are. This was analysis, rather than advocacy. The evidence will be used by campaigners, from many perspectives, both to inform arguments that can go with the grain of public values and to identify attitudes that they would need to challenge and shift. There is much in the report that shows how more vocal arguments for greater equality could resonate much more widely than conventional wisdom suggests. Denham stressed how strongly runaway inequality at the top, with pay differentials within companies of 500:1 and more, has offended public norms of merit, fair rewards and fair rules too: something politicians have ignored until recently.

I am surprised that Hattersley argues that nuance in democratic politics always turns into capitulation. We all combine and trade off ideas about need, merit, contribution and entitlement when we think about different aspects of fairness and equality. Attlee and Beveridge recognised that. A social democratic revival that reflected this could prove the equality agenda we need.

Sunder Katwala
General Secretary, Fabian Society


This is not to diminish where there are real differences between Hattersley and Denham over the meaning of fairness, whether it is possible for equality and fairness to collide, and how to resolve the clash if they do.

Both sides of the debate have a strong interest in how we build strong coalitions to make reducing inequality possible. There was a good comment in an earlier thread from Don Paskino, who wrote "I think one of the things which the reaction to Denham's comments shows is that those of us who want to shift the way that we argue for equality need to be very careful in explaining how and why. While the 'traditional egalitarians' aren't a majority, there is no way of building a majority without their enthusiastic support, and they mustn't be taken for granted". That is important advice, with messages for both sides.

One of the worst features of the New Labour era was a strong tendency - by New Labour itself, and by its critics - to offer mutual caricatures in internal debates, rather than attempting a substantive engagement over ideas. Any social democratic revival needs to avoid doing this.

As Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Hattersley showed a good deal of interest in trying to get Labour to debate its values and principles, and not simply issues of policy. I am not sure anybody has done so since, and this may be a good part of the problem.

As part of this Hattersley wrote a book 'Choose Freedom', which was a decent attempt, particularly given the constraints on a very senior serving frontbencher, to popularise in general politics the ideas of John Rawls, Tawney and Crosland, rooting social democratic politics in a positive conception of liberty.

Hattersley's central claim, as suggested in the title, is that "what we stand for is freedom ... that is the ultimate objective of socialism"

There is certainly a strong element of needs-based egalitarianism in all three thinkers, notably with Rawls' proposal that differences are legitimate if in the interests of the worst off.

But these can not be purely needs-based accounts since their foundation is that they are arguments about the fair and equal distribution of autonomy.

The case is that greater equality is required for freedom to be substantive.

These attractive 'equality of autonomy' accounts must have a strong foundation in the distribution of the capacity for autonomy, as stressed by Amartya Sen.

But it must follow that if the fair distribution of substantive freedom can be achieved, that some differences will and must legitimately result from fairly made choices in how it is used, individually and collectively. Otherwise, the claim to be promoting autonomy looks a rather arid and thin one.

Hence two important passages which Hattersley has done a good deal to promote over many years.

Firstly, Tawney's rejection of the idea that equality means uniformity, and his claim that differences would flourish if the opportunity to fulfil human potential was spread around:


"While natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation. Indeed, individual differences are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are diminished."


Secondly, Crosland's claim with which Hattersley ends his book for a pro-freedom politics of equality:


"Socialism is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom - in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free".

22 comments:

John said...

Democratic republicanism is the new social democracy.

Stuart White's book 'Building a Citizen's Society' is a fantastic analysis and critique of both capitalism and statism as well as the conflict between labour market's and citizenship.

I'm sceptical about the possibilities of trying to replace a capitalist labour market with worker's co-operatives, property owning democracy, mutualism or workplace democracy, in contemporary globalization. But he lay's down good arguments of the needs for the state to implement a shorter working week and other labour rights in order to democratize the state and make citizenship possible for everyone.

Swedish style Co-operative schools and greater co-op ownership and co-production in public services would be appropriate if Britain had Swedish levels of social welfare, child poverty and paid holiday.

John said...

Edit: Democratic Republicanism, Left Communitairianism and Internationalism are going to be the new guiding forces for Social Democracy

John said...

Democratic Republicanism is more critical of capitalism than most social democratic critiques, because it stresses the importance of freedom for citizen participation as vital to creating autonomy and liberty, and the conflict between labour markets and citizenship.

Miller 2.0 said...

"it must follow that if the fair distribution of substantive freedom can be achieved, that some differences will and must legitimately result from fairly made choices in how it is used, individually and collectively. Otherwise, the claim to be promoting autonomy looks a rather arid and thin one."

Well, I think it needs to be taken into account that autonomy does not exist independently at a fixed point of time, rather, it is a linear structure that takes place as the seconds lapse... accordingly, one must ask oneself rather the redistribution is ever a contrary force to the exercise of autonomy at all.

Within the process of life autonomy produces inequalities, but unless the proposer of the distributed autonomy concept wishes to assert the value of continual, repeated and constant intervention, the concept of redistributing autonomy at all becomes a morally insignificant one. Indeed, what's the point in arguing about the distribution of autonomy f you are willing to allow inequalities to concentrate as a result of its exercise?

This means that redistribution, intervention, and the (hopefully) resultant liberation need to recur throughout life. This is the logic of things such as the apparent 'positive freedom' granted by, for example, state funded adult education and/or vocational courses.

But the nature of inequality, even when it results from a relatively even distribution of autonomies, is that it tends to concentrate to the point where it is unassailable without the strategy of reducing the (usually economic) autonomy of some to increase the liberty of others.

So, often, you need to do this. And you need to do it repeatedly, where inequalities arise. Otherwise the whole lot is pointless.

I suppose that, in striving to guarantee liberty from exploitation and inequality, where Trotsky had the concept of 'permanent revolution' against capitalism, we more moderate souls need a kind of 'permanent reform' against its iniquities.

John said...

"I suppose that, in striving to guarantee liberty from exploitation and inequality, where Trotsky had the concept of 'permanent revolution' against capitalism, we more moderate souls need a kind of 'permanent reform' against its iniquities."

World Government is necessary if global citizen's are to put the market in it's place (and destroy the military). Only then could there be a kind of democratic state enforcing all enterprises to be worker's co-operatives. Perhaps a democratic version of Tit's Socialist Yugoslavia... which had only one recession in it's 45 year history.

John said...

"
Within the process of life autonomy produces inequalities, but unless the proposer of the distributed autonomy concept wishes to assert the value of continual, repeated and constant intervention, the concept of redistributing autonomy at all becomes a morally insignificant one. Indeed, what's the point in arguing about the distribution of autonomy f you are willing to allow inequalities to concentrate as a result of its exercise?"

Autonomy doesn't have to create inequalities of autonomy.

The consumer market for video games or ice creams has little to no effect on destroying autonomy or creating uneven distributions of autonomy.

Market's can be create a free society, if they are adequately regulated and these is sufficient economic egalitarianism and social welfare.

What goes on in the fast food markets has very little to no affect on the autonomy of people.

donpaskini said...

Hi Sunder,

Good post. I am a bit worried about the way this debate is going, e.g. Jackie Ashley's stupid article in the Guardian today which tries to set:

"Old Labourites, Compass, Jon Cruddas and a growing number of party activists[,] Ranged against...Denham and some powerful Blairites, still in government: Mandelson, Miliband, Jowell – not to mention those like James Purnell, who have left" in a battle for Labour's soul.

This is not a battle which needs to be fought.

Sunder Katwala said...

don

I agree. And all efforts to disrupt these type of tramlines are important: both pointing out both why it doesn't need to be fought, but also what arguments need to be had instead.

A good deal of the Ashley column seemed to me to be trying to engage reasonably with various points from all sides, until she declared what the debate would be.

I think she did suggest these differences:
- appeal to bottom vs appeal to middle
- attack equality from gvt vs do it from opposition

That sounds to me like the 'can we talk about inequality or not' debate around 1999-2001, not the debate about how to tackle inequality that we want,

John said...

"Socialism is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom - in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free"

Here is where I think Democratic Republicanism achieves socialist ends far better than traditional social democracy and revolutionary socialism. When an Industry is nationalized, it needs to be directly democratically accountable to the workers and/or consumers, through devolved democracy and co-operative ownership. Old Labour would nationalize industries, without democratizing them (beyond their natural democratization of being under public ownership in a democracy).

John Cruddas's idea of a co-operative post bank is democratic republicanism/left communitairianism in action.

Clifford said...

Sunder, I think Denham posed the right question - how do we win people over to the cause of equality rather than just preach at them? - but his answers seemed strangely limited and backwards-looking (given that he was castigating other parts of the left for being stuck in the past).

Why, for instance, no mention of the Spirit Level analysis, which offers a more ambitious argument for equality from the point of view of people's interest rather than concern for social justice - and therefore may help to win some of the "middle ground" voters identified in the Fabian research?

I also wonder whether some of Denham's language - rejecting "the traditional 1960s version of egalitarianism" and talking of "a tough, hard headed, but at the end of the day, compassionate version of fairness" - does more to pander to Daily Mail prejudices than challenge them?

I've added my thoughts at the Other TaxPayers' Alliance.

Sunder Katwala said...

Miller 2.0

I think the important point on which it would be worth trying to build agreement is that almost all social democratic and liberal socialist conceptions of equality and fairness do have scope for legitimate or merited differences of outcome.

Almost no socialist theorist has argued for the straw man option of absolute equality of outcome. I believe the sole exception - according to Bernard Crick, who was a much better authority than I can hope to be - for the impossibilist position is the mad french revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf.

I am not proposing a one-off "fair autonomy" distribution of the type that libertarians might suggest is needed to legitimate all subsequent inequalities.

A range of across the life course and intergenerational interventions will be needed: today's unequal outcomes are tomorrow's unequal opportunities.

But constant real-time interventions to ensure that the exercise of autonomy can never lead to differences of circumstance of any kind strikes me as to defeat the point, as well as being as a practical matter incompatible with other principles in a liberal democratic society.

It seems to me that some "traditional egalitarians" risk missing a really important point the public's belief in "fair inequality" ends up around the 10-1 and 15-1 income differentials - ie much much less unequal - though they are also just interested in how the much larger differentials come about as about their scale.

So the traditional egalitarians have an important challenge to the traditional free marketeers: the public do not feel current market outcomes are a fair distribution, and would like to see scrutiny about whether they are fair. If traditional egalitarians argue only against the very concept of (some) fair inequality they may be having the one discussion which the traditional free market cluster are better placed, and so losing the opportunity for a highly effective scrutiny of unfair rewards and runaway inequality where the public can and do favour a much stronger egalitarian push.

Sunder Katwala said...

John

Thanks for the many detailed and well informed comments across the various theory threads. I am broadly in sympathy with the general thrust of the democratic republicanism you are promoting.

Clifford

Thanks for the comments. I will read the post.

Yes, I think the critique which you make of some the politics/media presentation of Denham's argument chimes with points Don Paskino has also made, and I think some of this is a valid critique if we want to avoid these trenchlines into which the debate risks going. I think I am trying to also reflect that in my contributions, though I also think we need to be able to get on and debate difficult issues openly, and the media/political pressure not to do that needs to be resisted.

The Fabian/JRF research included discussing parts of the Wilkinson research with the public: they find it intuitively extremely plausible that inequality would have these consequences. This informs the research highlighting that these 'social consequences of inequality' arguments have a broader reach than arguments couched in terms of abstract principles. (That may might be taken as an argument for combining the two approaches, in terms of appealing to different audiences and trying to bring them together on equality).

Stuart White said...

John: I'd like to echo Sunder's thanks for your comments on democratic republicanism. And thanks for reading the book!

badconscience said...

"As part of this Hattersley wrote a book 'Choose Freedom', which was a decent attempt, particularly given the constraints on a very senior serving frontbencher, to popularise in general politics the ideas of John Rawls, Tawney and Crosland, rooting social democratic politics in a positive conception of liberty.

[...]

There is certainly a strong element of needs-based egalitarianism in all three thinkers, notably with Rawls' proposal that differences are legitimate if in the interests of the worst off.

But these can not be purely needs-based accounts since their foundation is that they are arguments about the fair and equal distribution of autonomy. "

I agree with these statements, but would add something more.

Rawls, in particular, was advocating the more equal distributions of autonomy as well as material goods out of appeals to a principle of fairness.

Here, we should go back to his "original position" thought experiment, which I think has been the most tragically mis-read idea in 20th C political thought.

Rather than seeing this as a sort of Dworkinian "envy test" whereby people choose principles of social justice under conditions of ignorance because of a sense that they want to maximise their own position, I've recently read Rawls as saying "what kind of society were you to choose if you didn't know how well you'd stand to do in it?" And his answer was: "people would choose a society deeply rooted in fairness". That's why is theory is called "Justice as Fairness".

Of course, fairness is intimately bound up with equality. Those two things are not identical, but in matters of distribution, given the arbitrary nature of so much allocation in the real world (not just of resources, but e.g. of talents and abilities) they will often pull together. (I.e. an appeal to fairness will often also be an appeal to equality).

I think this appeal to fairness - and specifically, fairness in accounting and adjusting for the arbitrary distributions life bestows upon people from birth onwards - is immensely powerful. Indeed, I think it is so powerful it could galvanise the entire social-democratic left.

which is why I comment Hattersley's appeals to Rawls et al.

(sorry, this comment is very rushed. I tried to put Rawslian thoughts about fairness to good effect on the subject of inheritance tax here:

http://thebadconscience.com/2009/07/01/the-fairness-of-inheritance-tax/)

John said...

"John: I'd like to echo Sunder's thanks for your comments on democratic republicanism. And thanks for reading the book!"

Cheers.

It was an excellent book, I just found the section by Catherine Needham: Participation, Citizenship and Public Services, to be a bit lacking in concrete examples of ways in public services have been made more democratic republican and how to make public services more democratic republican. Perhaps in a future post on nextleft you could elaborate on how to make public services more democratic republican?

Stuart White said...

John: thanks for the feedback. I've been meaning to write something on a left republican view of public service reform, but need to gather my thoughts a bit (er, lot) more first. But I'll definitely try to get to it over the summer.

John said...

Stuart: That's great. I look forward to reading it.

Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart ... now that we know you are taking requests (!)

I'd like a democratic republican analysis of recent developments and trends in indie pop please.

Clifford said...

I know you were being flippant, but...

What's going on with the music formerly known as 'indie'?

Stuart White said...

Sunder, Clifford: oh dear, I'm afraid I sort of stopped listening to Indie pop around the time everything went Coldplay. (Do they count as Indie?) That said, one or two of the earlier Libertines numbers might possibly count....

Sunder Katwala said...

Politically, we will need to find points of agreement which bring together egalitarians, liberal republicans and social democrats, so as to build a powerful reform coalition.

Perhaps a first point which might unite egalitarians of every stripe and variety is that Coldplay do not count as indie.

John said...

The ideal world would have progressive conservatives, Lib dems, labour, greens, plaid cymru and SNP all united to achieve progressive ends in parliament.

And coldplay became too popular to count as indy.