Saturday, 27 November 2010

Labour and the limits of the state

Ed Miliband, speaking to the Labour National Policy Forum, has argued that Labour's policy review will have to rethink the role and limits of the state, and that Labour should reclaim the idea of the 'big society' from the Conservatives, drawing on the party's own mutualist roots and traditions.

In this Next Left guest post Paul Richards, author of the new book Labour's Revival and former Fabian chair, says that the Fabian tradition - though it is often caricatured as purely statist - is also an important reservoir of mutualist and decentralist socialist thinking which should inform debate about both the necessary role and the limits of the state in a free and fair society.

Many of the Fabian publications quoted in this essay can be read online in the Fabian online archive of tracts from 1884-1997, published earlier this year by the LSE. This includes nine pamphlets from GDH Cole (See author index for links).

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The great Fabian GDH Cole said that the great cleavages in socialism were between reform and revolution, and between federalists and centralists. The debate between reform and revolution has been settled, at least outside of student circles. The more fundamental debate between federalists and centralisers – whether socialism should be about the central state or local communities – is just starting in earnest.

Socialism in the twentieth century was dominated by theories of the state. Our governing ethos was how the state could be used to help people. The nineteenth-century tradition of self-help, co-operation and self-government within British socialism was subjugated to the statist tradition of centralised organisations and ‘Whitehall knows best’. The irony was, as historian AH Halsey pointed out, that


‘the movement which had invented the social forms of modern participatory democracy and practised them in union branch and co-op meeting, thereby laying a Tocquevillian foundation for democracy, was ironically fated to develop through its political party the threats of a bureaucratic state’.


The Labour movement was founded by people imbued with the ethos of the local co-op, the trade union branch, the socialist society and nonconformist religion. GDH Cole, the great Fabian proponent of decentralised socialism, could declare in the 1950s:


‘I am neither a communist nor a social democrat because I regard both as creeds of centralisation and bureaucracy.’


The party itself was a federation of local groups, building from the bottom up towards representation in Parliament. The statement of socialist aims in Clause IV, Part 4, with its call for common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, was considered at the time a loose definition, encompassing municipal ownership and co-operative ownership, as well as state ownership.

Between the wars, during the global depression, Labour’s interpretation of common ownership hardened into a conviction that the central state must own and direct enough of the economy to be able to make a difference. The Second World War, with state direction of every aspect of British life, cemented the equation of socialism equalling nationalisation. Labour’s 1945 manifesto set out its pledges for nationalising the Bank of England, railways, iron and steel, coal, and the social services. The National Health Service, building on the nationalised wartime Emergency Medical Service, was established as a state monolith, although not until Morrison had fought a doomed rearguard action in Cabinet to have a degree of local authority control over health services.

Socialists’ historical distrust of the state as an organ of class repression was replaced with a view of the state as the essential vehicle for social change, and then by the substitution of any radical instincts or fresh thought with a shopping list of industries that should be state controlled. Following the Attlee government, a critique emerged – not from the right, but from the left – that argued the state was too big, its institutions too remote, and citizens had too little power within either the economy or public services like the NHS, the comprehensive school system, council houses, or care for children, disabled people or the elderly.

By the 1950s, it was obvious that state ownership of nationalised industries such as the National Coal Board (NCB) had done little to liberate the workers. RHS Crossman, later a famous Cabinet diarist, told the Fabian Society in 1955 that:


‘vast, bureaucratic public corporations . . . failed to fulfil the two essential requirements for socialism, namely, that a state-owned industry should be fully responsible to Parliament and give a share of management to its workers . . the growth of a vast, centralised state bureaucracy constitutes a grave potential threat to social democracy.’


In 1963, the Fabian academic Brian Abel Smith, who went on to be a special adviser to Labour Cabinet ministers Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman and David Ennals, wrote a Fabian pamphlet, Freedom in the Welfare State, which argued that ‘Britain’s public services are now a bad advertisement for socialism’. He lambasted the ‘queues and rationing’, the ‘atmosphere of wartime austerity’ and a system where the user of social services must ‘wait your turn and are told what you will have’. [available online: see tract 353]. In 1980 Tony Benn wrote in Arguments for Socialism that ‘nationalisation plus Lord Robens [the moderate erstwhile chairman of the NCB] does not add up to socialism’.

Evan Luard, in a fascinating book Socialism without the State (1979), charts the usurpation of socialism, historically mistrusting of the state and built on local models of mutualism, by state socialism, a system of nationalised agencies, companies and industries. Writing at a time of state control throughout the USSR and China, and before the Thatcherite programme of privatisation in the UK, Luard advocated an entirely contrary approach to socialism. It should be local, the optimum level being the neighbourhood, and based on locally owned and democratically controlled institutions. The jointly run neighbourhood laundry, the neighbourhood bakery, the neighbourhood hairdresser, run not for private profit but for the equal benefit of all who live in the neighbourhood, might give some genuine sense of participation, of sharing, such as has not been provided by most public undertakings until now.

There was a revived interest in the 1970s and 1980s in non-statist socialism. Peter Hain called it ‘libertarian socialism’. David Blunkett and Geoff Green wrote a Fabian pamphlet in 1985, Building from the Bottom: The Sheffield Experience, which saw local socialism as a centre of resistance to the Tory government. In 1984 Anthony Wright could declare in a Fabian pamphlet: ‘We are all decentralisers now, at least in the sense in which a century ago Lord Harcourt could declare that we were then all socialists . . . what “participation” was for the 1960s, “decentralisation” looks like becoming for the 1980s.’

[Available in the LSE's Fabian online archive: see tracts 491 (Blunkett), 496 (Wright et al) and 478 (Luard)].

Within the New Labour government , the decentralist tradition was crushed by those who believed central government (i.e. themselves) could determine what was best for local communities. Failure to pass power to the people, preferring to redistribute it amongst politicians and bureaucrats, is one of New Labour’s great disappointments.

For example, the original concept of Sure Starts was to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds childcare in centres owned and run by the community. The 200 original schemes, described by their inventor Norman Glass as ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ were an instrument of social justice, with local ownership of the buildings and land, and in-house services such as debt counselling for parents. Their expansion after 2005 left the Sure Start as another arm of the state, in this case the department for children, families and schools (DCFS). There are now 3,600 Sure Starts in England and Wales. The Conservative-led government has announced that Sure Starts can be transferred into the mutual and co-operative sector. This is a return to their roots, and Labour should be wary of opposing the move for opposition’s sake, because it is what the Labour government intended them to be.

Phil Collins defined the paradigm within New Labour in an article in The Spectator as ‘between Alan Milburn’s anger that the council chose the colour of his door and Ed Balls’s centrally issued guidelines for rhubarb crumble’.

Labour’s burst of revisionism in the late 1980s and early 1990s equipped the party with a commitment to (and some would argue over-reliance on) markets. The argument about wholesale nationalisation was settled; calls for state control of industry, even of the public utilities such as water and gas, became more muted. No attempts to re-nationalise British Telecom, British Gas, water companies or rail companies were made by successive Labour ministers.

However, whilst Labour had finally rid itself of its obsession with nationalisation, it continued to view the central state as the primary agency of social reform. As previous generations had fixed on nationalisation as the panacea, so some (but not all) Labour ministers fixed on increased public expenditure and expanding government activity as the solution to social ills. As with nationalisation, Labour runs the risk of confusing ends and means. Increasing public spending, and growing the size of the state, are not ends in themselves. In many cases, for example increased welfare payments, they are a symbol of policy failure. They may be a means to achieving a goal, in line with Labour’s values. Or they may end up creating pointless quangos, regiments of officials, vanity projects, and counter-productive initiatives which bear little connection to Labour’s values.

So what are the limits of the state?

In 1945 the writer Arthur Koestler, pacifist Bertrand Russell, publisher Victor Gollancz and George Orwell attempted to establish a ‘League for the Dignity and Rights of Man’. They failed, although some of the ideas surfaced twenty years later with the foundation of Amnesty International. Orwell, a brilliant writer but shambolic organiser, drafted a manifesto for the new league. He wrote that the main functions of the state should be:


1. To guarantee the newborn citizen his equality of chance.

2. To protect him against economic exploitation by individuals or groups.

3. To protect him against the fettering or misappropriation of his creative faculties and achievements.

4. To fulfil these tasks with maximum efficiency and a minimum of interference.


This provides as good a definition as any of the state in a socialist society. It is not the overarching state, but the enabling state, helping the individual to get on in life, to be creative and fulfilled, but with the maximum of efficiency and minimum of interference.

The mortal danger for Labour in 2010, of which Ed Miliband seems well aware, was that it looked like the party of higher taxes, bigger debts and profligate spending, without winning, or attempting to win, the arguments about why public spending was a good idea. It ended up defending big-budget regional development agencies and quangos, without explaining why.

On this terrain, Labour cannot win popular support, because the British are not natural supporters of a large state. The scale of the cuts being enacted, and the types of body being targeted, by the government suggests that there is hidden ideological wiring running through it. Conservatives favour a small state, lower taxes and fewer government schemes. So do some of the classical liberals within the Liberal Democrats. The talk of a ‘Big Society’ is providing the Tories with cover for an agenda of which Margaret Thatcher would approve. But Labour must not dismiss the ‘Big Society’ out of hand. It should support initiatives which give the citizen real power and control.

Labour must make a different kind of argument about the state: for a state which may be smaller, but which is fully democratic, decentralised and egalitarian, and which enables the individual to prosper. Labour must kill off any lingering attachment to the central state as the primary means for social progress. It may be a hard habit to kick, but whatever the great questions of the age, state socialism is not going to be the answer.

Paul Richards is a former Chair of the Fabian Society. His latest book Labour’s Revival, on which this essay is based, published by Biteback, is out now.

9 comments:

Guido Fawkes said...

Paul, you are in the wrong party, Labour is led by a socialist. Think you should be in the Cooperative Party.

M said...

Paul,

Interesting article.

As you note Blair tried to push some of this stuff through: academies; foundation trusts etc..

The labour movement tended to fight this in part because of concerns that the middle classes would simply hoover up resources, pushing poorer people to sub-standard services.

New Labour seemingly never had an answer to this redistribution question - any thoughts on this?

The other question I have about decentralising services is how do we cope when the technical ability to run a service well simply doesn't exist in an area?

Would love to hear your thoughts.



Thanks too for the pointer to LSE's archive - never knew that existed! Fantastic resource.

Josh said...

Paul

You seem to treat the reformism / revolutionism and federalism / centralism debates separately. But I think they are more closely connected than you suggest.

As ‘M’ points out, the labour movement’s resistance to strong ‘federalism’ has partly been fuelled by fears that decentralisation to existing ‘local’ communities could exacerbate existing inequalities.

Localism seems to risk advantaging those with greater economic resources because geographical mobility is still largely the preserve of more affluent citizens. The worry is that the best services and the wealthiest citizens will flock together. Wealthier areas could benefit from better services because they can draw on the substantial resources of their middle-class citizens; and these middle-class “postcodes” are unlikely to admit less affluent residents thanks to prohibitive property prices, low job mobility and so on. Localism could breed vicious circles of exclusion.

Without a more revolutionary approach to addressing power imbalances within the economy (issues such as ownership and governance), decentralisation is - and perhaps should be - a less appealing option for the left.

So Labour may need to reverse its priorities in order to respond to the problem of conservative localism, revitalising the reformism / revolutionism debate. Instead of accepting the conservative line that we should devolve power to existing local communities, perhaps the left should look first at how communities can be reconfigured to become more inclusive. This might require a break from the geographical localism favoured by Philip Blond et al, and could yield a distinctive left-of-centre response to the Big Society.

Harry Barnes said...

Why can't a large state be fully democratic, egalitarian and enable the individual to prosper? Only I suspect if it is not really democratic, egalitarian or a respector of individual rights. These are (of course) key problems with current state practices, but even GDH Cole when he advocated Guild Socialism saw key roles for a House of Producers and a House of Consumers. It is difficult to have democracy without having democratic institutions which make key central decisions (key decisions which should always, of course, be open to democratic change).

Guido : Many Cooperative Party members are also members of the Labour Party. They aren't all split personalities.

Stuart said...

An excellent article and some very important points to consider. One weakness of your analysis, which you may address in the book this essay is based on, is the lack of reflection on the changing nature of capitalism and class and the effect these changes have had on how Labour view the state and society.

To simplify: the union and co-op movements that British Socialism grew out of in the 19th century themselves grew in part out of certain class relations and ways of living. This solidarity and mutualism then became the engine of the welfare state.

Perhaps the success of the welfare state led to both a weakening of feelings of solidarity in general (because in their security and mediated as it was through the state people forgot their reliance on each other) and of the particular non-statist forms it took.

So when the Tories took control of the state and used what was previously the guardian of solidarity to undermine it, the previous guardians weren't strong enough to resist and nor were the people. And both were much much weaker once Thatch was through. Naturally, the predatory capitalism the rollback of solidarity enabled weakened both further.

All of which is merely a preface to saying that in opposition to a socially destructive state in the 1980s Labour politicians were likely to look to the institutions of civil society for rescue but that when they regained control of the state - faced with such a weakened civil society - it seemed the obvious means by which to achieve their ends, especially given they were unwilling to challenge capital or the habits people had acquired of relying on credit to make up for the effective recession they'd suffered in terms of wages since the end of the 70s.

I support the aims to move Labour beyond a centralised command and control mindset but I don't think any such attempts can succeed if they're assumptions about civil society and the way we interact with one another and the way we live are ahistorical and unmentioning of contemporary capitalism as DC's big society seems to be. Apologies for the telescoped form of these thoughts, they're just first thoughts.

Enjoyed the article.

13eastie said...

Orwell was, indeed, a brilliant writer.

Which is why his definition of the 'functions of the state' is woolly and open-to-interpretation, to the point of being useless except as a lovely example of the double-speak many (incorrectly) believe he invented:

1. To guarantee the newborn citizen his equality of chance. -->We are a nation of unique individuals, not factions, groups, or functions of our heritage. We should be regarded as such by a State devoid of prejudice, at all times and without exception.

2. To protect him against economic exploitation by individuals or groups. -->Individuals must be free to engage and compete in enterprise as they see fit, in markets free of State distortion.

3. To protect him against the fettering or misappropriation of his creative faculties and achievements. -->The State must maintain low to minimise their deleterious effect on entrepreneurship and wealth creation. Freedom of expression should be sacrosanct.

4. To fulfil these tasks with maximum efficiency and a minimum of interference. -->The State and statute should be minimal in scale and scope.

So I guess he must have been a libertarian!

I think Red Ed will have to do a lot better than that to convince people he is not leading the party that lied to us, spied on us and then bankrupted us.

Zio Bastone said...

‘The debate between reform and revolution has been settled, at least outside of student circles...’

In which case what about those ‘insurrections of the mind’ (© G Brown) or for that matter ‘insurgency’ (© various senior members of New Labour)? Aside from the obvious bombast, both expressions seem to hint rather wistfully at possibilities (‘I wanted to talk to the students but I was doing something else’ – E Milliband) which are now quite clearly out of bounds. Hence the reported disciplining of John McDonnell, New Labour’s Bishop of Willesden. So are they both ‘settled’ as well, along with McDonnell’s hash?

Surely the point about this sort of opposition (repair versus replace would be the business equivalent) isn’t that one must be excluded but that truth emerges from the tension in between them. Truth, in short, lies in process; not in some ‘settled’ value.

Of course, there is an obvious totalitarianism in any kind of permanent revolution, a constant expunging of memory. But then there’s a less obvious (but equally pernicious) totalitarianism in the sort of gattopardian reformism where no real change is possible; in which New Labour fully accepts the current dispensation (‘We are all Thatcherite now’) as somehow fully achieved; in which neo-liberalism is taken entirely as read; in which the party cynically tries to unite not around any political vision (good or bad) but around its own self preservation; in which policy is a matter purely of making headway against one’s strongest opponents, and where the only acceptable conduct for ministers is the sort of abject managerialism that led Margaret Beckett (for example) to describe the refuelling of alleged extraordinary rendition flights at Prestwick Airport as ‘a matter for Health and Safety’. I wish I’d made that last example up; but I haven’t.

And so to mutualism versus statism. But here the opposition seems distinctly out of focus as well as out of date. Politics changed dramatically with the discovery of the individual as a political subject during the 1960s. It’s something which Thatcher took up. It’s one of her key defining features, linking her with part of the New Left, and it’s also, I think, the impetus for focusing on social mobility rather than, say, class emancipation or something of that sort. So the true opposition lies not now between bottom up versus top down views of the collective but between the individual on the one hand and the collective (whether class, or other affiliation or state, of whatever size, and whether bottom or top) on the other. I think some Conservatives understand that more than New Labour does.

Of course Cameron’s Big Society is indeed deeply suspect. Firstly it’s just a label (calqued on New Labour’s Big Conversation) used to sell yet another bout of shedding services to a confused electorate. Secondly its theoretical underpinning amounts to little more than combining entrepreneurship (about which the Conservatives do indeed know a little) with a cooperative model apparently based upon the staffing of the Ambridge village shop, something which (like the Liberal Democrats’ education policy) is part of an ongoing fiction.

And yet, even though it does appear to present a comparatively easy target, neither using disagreement as a pretext to help New Labour stay alive nor reviving memories of, say, the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative is likely to fit the bill. Nor yet would any sort of discussion (flat versus tall would be the business equivalent) which did not also face up to the causes, conduct and effects of neo-liberalism.

Or is there no ambition any more?

Zio Bastone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zio Bastone said...

‘The debate between reform and revolution has been settled, at least outside of student circles...’

So what about those ‘insurrections of the mind’ (© G Brown), or ‘insurgency’ (© senior members of New Labour)? They gesture at what’s now out of reach: ‘I was doing something else’ (E Milliband after Lennon rather than Lenin). Are they both ‘settled’ as well?

Isn’t the point about binary choices (repair v replace in business) not that one must be excluded but that truth emerges from choosing appropriately, that it vests in in process, not in ‘settled’ value.

The obvious totalitarianism of permanent revolution, a constant expunging of memory, is matched by the less obvious (but equally pernicious) totalitarianism of being unable to move on. Hence the gattopardian reformism of New Labour under the current dispensation (‘We are all Thatcherite now’): where neo-liberalism is the norm; where unity is cynical self preservation and not about a vision (good or bad); where policy is a matter purely of making headway against one’s opponents, and where the only acceptable governance is the sort of abject managerialism that led Margaret Beckett (for example) to call the refuelling of alleged extraordinary rendition flights at Prestwick Airport as ‘a matter for Health and Safety’.

And so to mutualism versus statism. With the discovery of the individual as a political subject during the 1960s, politics changed dramatically. That was a ‘revolution’. It’s something which Thatcher took up. It’s also, I think, why one now looks at social mobility and not, say, class emancipation. So the binary here is no longer between two aspects of the collective but between the individual on the one hand and the collective (however defined) on the other.

Of course the Big Society is nonsensical. Firstly it’s a label (calqued on New Labour’s Big Conversation) used to sell another bout of shedding services. Secondly its theoretical underpinning amounts to little more than combining entrepreneurship (about which the Conservatives do indeed know a little) with a cooperative model apparently based upon the staffing of the Ambridge village shop.

And yet it still won’t provide a pretext. It won’t help New Labour stay alive. Nor is it susceptible to memories of, say, the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative or indeed to any sort of discussion (eg flat v tall in business jargon; both ignore the individual) which does not also face up to the causes, conduct and effects of neo-liberalism.

Or is there no ambition any more?