As Sunder has pointed out, ideas are breaking out all over the place at the moment.
As the ship of New Labour tilts precariously in the waters, and the Conservatives struggle to define what they stand for other than a change of personalities at the top, various attempts are being made to define a new politics to fill the void.
This post makes a stab at trying to map the new ideological terrain that is opening up. Needless to say, ideological positions are fluid and imprecise things, and any effort of this kind is going to risk some oversimplification. In addition, by no means all interesting thinking going on at the moment can be fitted into categories like those I am about to use. But, caveats aside, here goes…
I’ll start by describing four ideological positions that seem to be emerging. I will then say a little about the overlap and differences between them.
Two republicanisms, two communitarianisms
Basic idea: ‘The task of progressive politics is to radically disperse power and opportunity. This requires a restructuring of the state in a much more decentralised direction; individual empowerment in public services; a wider distribution of assets; and a stronger policy of protecting – indeed, expanding – civil liberties and lifestyle freedom. The left should get over its fixation on high taxation of labour income and put more emphasis on taxing unearned wealth and environmental bads.’
Supporters: Richard Reeves, Philip Collins.
Guiding Spirits: John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine.
Texts: The Liberal Republic.
Least likely to say: ‘The man in Whitehall really does know best.’
Basic idea: ‘The task of progressive politics is to radically disperse power and opportunity and to rebuild a deliberative public sphere. This requires restructuring the state in a way that brings individuals into more direct participation in decision-making, e.g., through measures of decentralization and collective co-production. It requires resituating Labour politics in the context of a wider grass-roots social movement politics. It also requires a new politics of ownership, one that seeks both to widen individual asset ownership and democratize the control of capital, e.g., through new social pension funds.’
Supporters: yours truly. (Yes, I am going to blow my own trumpet!)
Guiding Spirits: Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Rawls. (Also considered useful to quote Barack Obama at opportune moments.)
Texts: Building a Citizen Society.
Least likely to say: ‘The police did a fantastic job of policing the G20 protests.’
Basic idea: ‘The task of progressive politics is to fill the moral vacuum of neo-liberalism. To this end, we must articulate a shared account of the good and promote a sense of community based on a recognition of how we are all interdependent in attaining this good – indeed, realizing our interdependency – fellowship – is an integral part of the good. In policy terms, this implies a reassertion of the importance of economic equality and traditional collective action, albeit perhaps with a stronger role than in the past for civil society and forms of solidarity and mutuality that are not mediated through the state. The market must be kept firmly in its place, which is not in the public sector.’
Supporters: Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford, possibly Madeleine Bunting, Neal Lawson.
Guiding Spirits: R.H. Tawney, Raymond Williams, Charles Taylor, Liberation Theology. (Also considered useful to quote Antonio Gramsci at opportune moments.)
Texts: review of The Liberal Republic by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford.
Least likely to say: ‘Let’s privatize the Post Office.’
Right communitarianism (aka ‘Red Toryism’, which might or might not be the same as ‘Progressive Conservatism’)
Basic idea: ‘The task of progressive politics – or conservative politics - is to fill the moral vacuum created by a combination of neo-liberalism in the economy and life-style liberalism in society. This requires that we rebuild a strongly moralistic civil society to meet social needs which neither the free market nor the traditional welfare state can meet satisfactorily. To this end, we must build a new political and economic localism. We must ‘recapitalize the poor’ in order to empower them to crawl out from under the welfare state. The welfare state itself must be cut back, with government switching its emphasis radically to assisting independent groups in civil society to carry out welfare functions. State policy will limit market freedoms and will be informed, e.g., in developing a new civil society of welfare, by authoritative accounts of good behaviour. A nihilist liberal politics of arbitrary freedom must be replaced with one of collective morality.’
Supporters: Phillip Blond, possibly Frank Field and David Green (Civitas).
Guiding Spirits: Hilaire Belloc, John Neville Figgis, Helen and Bernard Bosanquet, theology of Radical Orthodoxy, Rerum Novarum.
Texts: 'The Rise of the Red Tories'.
Least likely to say: ‘What a pity the government dropped that plan for supercasinos.’
Overlaps and differences
While it is possible – and necessary – to separate out these ideological perspectives, there is also some degree of apparent overlap between them. In the recent Demos publication, What Next for Labour?, one can find all four of the perspectives within the same covers, implicitly in dialogue with one another. So what are the points of overlap? And where do the perspectives differ?
Restructure the state
All of the four perspectives express a degree of disquiet and criticism of the existing British state and, perhaps, of conventional conceptions of the social democratic state more generally. There is an apparently common language of ‘empowerment’, of giving power ‘back to the people’.
However, the perspectives do not necessarily place the same emphasis on this, and they can disagree strongly on the form which ‘empowerment’ should take. For example, centre republicans see empowerment as centrally about choice mechanisms in the public sector, but this is anathema to left communitarians.
Three of the perspectives – the two communitarianisms, and left republicanism – share a concern about mores. There is an anxiety, indeed a hostility, to a society with an ethos that is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic. There is a concern to ‘remoralise’ society, to promote a society in which people lead lives that are much more informed by some sense of society’s common good. The centre republicans are criticised by the other perspectives as perhaps being too reconciled to contemporary individualistic mores.
Again, however, there are differences. For the communitarians, left and right, the idea of the common good must be connected to a shared vision of ‘the good life’. For the left republican, the common good should be understood in terms of specifically civic ideals of liberty and equality; the good life is something for individuals to determine – not politics (a point of agreement with the centre republicans).
Bigger role for civil society
Arguably all of the perspectives espouse increasing the role of ‘civil society’ relative to the market and the state. This is linked to the themes of restructuring the state and remoralising society.
However, the perspectives do not necessarily all have in mind the same thing by ‘civil society’ or the same picture of what it is supposed to contribute. In the left perspectives, republican and communitarian, for example, there is more emphasis on civil society as a site of political mobilisation.
All of the perspectives seem receptive to the idea of civil society picking up greater responsibilities in the provision of welfare. But here, too, major disagreements are possible. Left perspectives will see the central state as retaining at the very least a key role as a collective financer of provision, even if production is sometimes transferred to the third sector. Right communitarianism might not be comfortable with that.
Spreading asset ownership
Three of the four perspectives – the two republicanisms and right communitarianism – share a focus on widening asset ownership. This is not something one sees as much focus on in left communitarianism (perhaps the ‘assets agenda’ is seen as a bit too individualistic).
Again, even where there is agreement on the general idea of widening asset ownership, there can be disagreements on the direction of policy. The republican perspectives stress asset ownership as a right. The right communitarians, on the other hand, might be concerned to offer wider access to capital in more conditional ways that promote what they see as pro-social behaviour.
Obviously, this is all very provisional and approximate. But I think the above discussion does provide a framework for making some sense of the current state of debate over the future of 'progressive politics', and for helping to think about the possible strengths and weaknesses, and ambiguities, of the various positions....