In a packed pub in Crouch End last night, I had a cracking debate against Maurice Glasman on Blue Labour and the Fabian tradition, a tradition which – if you’ve read some of Maurice’s commentary of late – you would think is the source of all Labour’s problems.
It is of course wrong to characterise Fabiansim as obsessed with centralisation; GDH Cole and his ‘guild socialism’ are just as much part of our tradition as the Webbs. But with voices from across Labour noisily attacking ‘the state’, a defence of it was long overdue. And, on behalf of Fabians everywhere, I was only too happy to step up to the plate.
First up, I should say I think Glasman’s Blue Labour project has much to offer. His insight is that Labour has too often neglected precious aspects of our identity and our relationships with one another, riding roughshod over popular attachment to the institutions, places and traditions that we hold dear. In the process, Labour has allowed the Tories to own too many symbols of national identity (why on earth was the campaign to ‘Save the Great British Pub’ a Tory campaign and not a Labour one?). Neither Blair nor Brown excelled at this politics of identity and belonging. It is something Labour needs to get much better at.
But what I think Blue Labour gets wrong is the idea that the state is somehow antithetical to this agenda. Glasman is intensely concerned to nurture institutions and practices that foster reciprocity and solidarity, but for him this has become synonymous with the small-scale: localism, voluntarism, and the like. In fact, the state can be a powerful platform of reciprocity and solidarity too. The building of the NHS was a huge expression of national solidarity, creating an institution that everyone feels an intense connection with. Yes, it replaced the 1930s friendly societies, which were important sites of human association; but clubbing together as a nation to guarantee each other’s health amounted to more solidarity, not less.
Our state institutions are often hugely popular too, and just as much part of our ‘tradition’ and ‘identity’ as local or informal institutions. Blue Labour often reaches back (somewhat arbitrarily) to pre-Fabian history in order to define our important ‘traditions’; that’s why Fabianism is seen as a destroyer. But 1945 is just as much part of our history as 1545. And few people today lament the disappearance of those friendly societies that struggled to provide our healthcare; but we love the NHS and its place in the story of our country.
Understanding this is important for Labour’s political strategy. For the last few years a political analysis has been doing the rounds on the right of the Party which sees the central state as unpopular and localism as a magical route to electoral recovery. It is hard to imagine a more bizarre analysis. Don’t get me wrong, I hope the future is more localist than now. But localism is often profoundly unpopular because people don’t want postcode lotteries. (And the reason, incidentally, that postcode lotteries are seen as unfair is precisely because people see our public services as vehicles of citizenship that should express our equal status and entitlement.) Advocates of decentralisation will clearly need to make their argument in terms of the benefits of decentralisation, not the attitudes of swing voters.
Last night’s debate also discussed empowerment – something that both Glasman and critics of the state on Labour’s right seek to champion. The key challenge to them both is to remember that outcomes can be just as empowering as procedures. We shouldn’t look in isolation at the types of empowerment that the structures of mutualism, localism and voluntarism generate, without also considering whether or not they will deliver empowering outcomes too. Ultimately, Attlee and Bevan were just as concerned with empowerment, but they understood that the quality, free, universal healthcare that the NHS delivered was far more empowering than the mutualism of those friendly societies.
From a Fabian perspective, I’d agree with Blue Labour and others that rethinking the role of the state should be an important part of Labour’s policy review process. A self-critical party must develop an account of where the state over-reached itself as well as where Labour neglected important non-state vehicles for social justice. And of course there are big future challenges to the role of the state that social democrats must take their heads out of the sand and start to confront.
But with the Coalition launching an assault on public services every bit as threatening as Thatcher’s and threatening to roll back a whole series of consumer and employee protections too, it’s clear that a defence of the state will need to remain an important part of Labour’s story.