The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox

A new road map for the British left.

The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox
Edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White
Oxford London Seminars ebook, free download at: soundings.org.uk

As this ebook shows, there was always more to the political and philosophical tendency known as "Blue Labour" than Maurice Glasman's views about immigration. Indeed, there's more to Glasman's own thinking than his headline-making calls for a freeze on inward migration to this country would suggest. He and his co-editors - at least one of whom, Jonathan Rutherford, is said to have broken with Glasman over his latest remarks - are concerned with the "predicament of Labour" following its defeat in the 2010 general election. Exhausted by 13 years in office, Labour emerged from that election in the throes of a severe "identity crisis". It is time, the editors argue, for a re-evaluation of the party's "political philosophy and purpose".

We have been here before. In 1952, Richard Crossman, then a Labour MP and assistant editor of the New Statesman, edited a collection of New Fabian Essays that was published by the magazine's imprint, Turnstile Press. Crossman's contribution, entitled "Towards a Philosophy of Socialism", sought to explain the loss of impetus and "political momentum" that had afflicted Clement Attlee's Labour government in its later years and led to the party's defeat by Winston Churchill and the Conservatives in the 1951 election.

The problem, he suggested, wasn't leadership - though Attlee's prospects hadn't been helped by the loss, in quick succession, of his cabinet "strongmen" Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin. Labour was suffering from a much more serious complaint: it was "unsure where it was going".

The Attlee government had travelled light, guided by what Crossman termed an "unphilosophic Benthamism", inherited from the early Fabians, who took it for granted that politics is the business of maximising general happiness through social planning. As Roy Jenkins pointed out in his contribution, egalitarian pol­icies of the kind pursued by Labour in office after 1945 could be justified on these Benthamite, utilitarian grounds: income redistribution, however gingerly carried out, "increased the total welfare of the individuals who made up the nation". (It was an article of Benthamite faith that the interest of a nation or "community" is just the sum of the interests of the individuals who comprise it and that a community is nothing but a "fictitious body".)

Crossman thought that a fairer distribution of income was the principal achievement of the Attlee years. The brand of "welfare capitalism" that had developed after 1945, however, had left much untouched. Ownership of capital and assets was still highly concentrated and wages and salaries continued to be determined by the market, rather than by any considerations of "social justice". Some industries had been nationalised but the old managerial structures remained in place.

Worst of all, Crossman believed, the establishment of a welfare state that was administered centrally from Whitehall had sapped the lifeblood of the labour movement: "Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation." Now, it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster, acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had once helped to run municipal "gas-and-water socialism" were given "no vision of new socialist responsibilities". That was because, Crossman concluded, there was no vision beyond the ambition of making modest improvements to the sum of overall happiness.

In his essay "Labour as a Radical Tradition", Glasman argues, much as Crossman did, that 1945 should not be the guiding star of Labour's renewal in 2011. Neither, for that matter, should Harold Wilson's election victory in 1964, nor Tony Blair's in 1997. None of the postwar Labour governments, he writes, was "democratic enough"; none was serious about confronting "unjust concentrations of power and wealth".

Instead, Labour needs to look back to the practices of "reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity" out of which the labour movement was born, not least because it is confronting a government that has stolen the old language of mutualism and co-operation and repackaged it as the "big society". It is a defining paradox of the present moment, Glasman writes, that "the Conservatives have given Labour the language of socialism back".

Glasman offers three reasons for thinking that Labour's victory in 1945, far from being its finest hour, was the "trigger for its long-term decline". First, trade unions became economic "antagonists", rather than partners (as they are in the German "social-market" economy that Glasman admires). Second, "managerial prerogative" trumped worker representation in nationalised industries. Third: "Universal benefit replaced mutual responsibility as the basic principle of welfare."

This last point is particularly important. One of the co-editors of The Labour Tradition, Stuart White (a fellow-traveller of Blue Labour, rather than a true believer), suggests that a deep scepticism about the welfare state is one of the defining features of Glasman's outlook. Indeed, Glasman emphasises the notion of reciprocity - the idea that those who receive benefits should make some sort of contribution in return - over that of entitlement and believes that after 1945 the left" forgot about redistribution of assets and power and [was] concerned with collective ownership and money transfers". (There is an echo here of one of Glasman's heroes, G D H Cole, who once wrote that society's "fundamental evil" is not pov­erty, but "slavery".)

Yet Glasman also describes the universal welfare state as "the greatest achievement of cross-class solidarity". He accepts, in other words, that welfare institutions can nurture and uphold the "common good". But he thinks that something went awry in the way that Labour spoke about them. The welfare state came to be seen as a "right fulfilled", the embodiment of certain timeless, abstract principles of justice, rather than "an achievement won through sustained organisation and political action". This encouraged people to see the welfare system not as an expression of what they owed to each other, but as little more than a gigantic pot from which they were entitled to take as much as they could.

Glasman has been criticised for being nostalgic for an era of settled communities and patriarchal certainties. There is something rather other-worldly about his appeals to Aristotle, Tudor statecraft and the glories of the "ancient constitution". Nonetheless, his advocacy of mutual banking, a "vocational economy" and "reciprocity in the relationship with capital" reminds one of nothing so much as the "stakeholder capitalism" with which Blair flirted in the early days of New Labour.

That flirtation didn't last long - and it remains to be seen how durable Glasman's influence on Ed Miliband will be. The Labour leader's spokesmen were notably quick, for instance, to distance themselves from Glasman's suggestion that it's time to "draw the line" on immigration. Perhaps the best he can hope for is to play the role that Crossman ended his career playing: that of gadfly on the body politic. l

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman