Tuesday 4 January 2011

What is Labour's identity?

The new Fabian Review sets out some of the ‘big questions’ the Labour Party needs to ask itself this year as it begins to clamber back to power, particularly during Ed Miliband’s policy review.

Perhaps the fundamental question the party needs to ask itself is: what is Labour’s identity? This is not about setting out detailed policy prescriptions but considering what Labour is for and the story it wants to tell. Jon Cruddas began to address this in his powerful Nye Bevan lecture last year, and writing in the Fabian Review, Maurice Glasman develops the theme of how the party goes about re-connecting with its core purpose.

Glasman – frequently described as ‘father of Blue Labour’ – is involved in the London Citizens movement, and was recently made a peer by Ed Miliband to develop Labour’s response to the ‘Big Society’.

He says that the Labour Party has over time lost its identity by favouring technocratic statecraft rather than human relationships and organising, particularly following the 1945 government and the 1950's revisionism of Crosland et al.

“It was the scale of [the 1945 Government’s] achievement that wreaked havoc on the democratic practices of the Labour movement … And then it got worse. The Labour revisionists of the 1950s, most notably Tony Crosland in The Future of Socialism, argued that the most important single value in the Labour tradition was equality … and further, the ends were everything and the means were nothing. The movement became meaningless and from then on all the Labour Party’s energies were exerted in cranking up the efficiency of the state to deal with the whole range of human needs. This led those committed to equality and fairness to adopt an almost Maoist managerialism, in which permanent restructuring would make the fat thin, the feckless faithful and the degenerate capable.”

Glasman blames "the Fabian tradition" for much of this. And so when it comes to today's big political argument – the financial crash and the deficit – Labour finds itself “adrift and hollowed out”, and is vulnerable to David Cameron’s 'big society' argument.

“It was left to the Conservatives to point out that the state was too big, too bossy, too managerial … Mediating institutions played no role in New Labour’s response to globalisation. Society played no role. The social played no role. That is a bad place for a socialist party to be.”

But he goes on to say Labour has a unique and real tradition to draw on – a powerful identity – that is tangible and a much greater source of strength than vague 'ends' such as freedom and equality, based around relationships and practices: family; mutualism; union organization; universalism.

This should lead Labour to a new political economy that is more critical of the market, less reliant on the state, and places a greater emphasis on democratic relationships.

“There is a fundamental choice before the Labour Party and it concerns the political economy. It needs to rediscover and then embrace the meaning of the Labour movement as the democratic resistance of organised working people to the commodification of their lives and environment. And it must do so without resorting to the state as the exclusive instrument of regulation but also turn towards a balance of power in corporate governance through the democratic representation of the workforce.”

You can read the full article over at the Fabian Society website – or get the whole magazine if you join the Fabian Society.

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