New Labour's timid hearts and minds. In thrall to focus groups, tied to the Thatcherite status quo, fearful of strong opposition - even Anthony Crosland would have found this government too revisionist

Crosland and New Labour

Dick Leonard (ed)<em> Macmillan, 207pp, £14.99</em>

The history of European social democracy has occasionally been punctuated by the appearance of a "revisionist" text that calls into question the theory (though less often the practice) of socialism. Such a text achieves its scandalous effect by saying openly what many would wish is not said at all. The most celebrated example is Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism, published in 1899, which shocked not merely by virtue of its attack on several fundamentals of German Marxism, but because it forced people to confront the daily hypocrisies of socialist life. Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956) was quite consciously written as the British Evolutionary Socialism, and had almost the same effect.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the proponents of new Labour would like to appropriate Crosland. This collection of essays, written by contributors broadly sympathetic to new Labour, wishes to do just that, though few are ready to argue full-heartedly that Crosland was the father of new Labour. They try instead to answer two more modest questions: what would Crosland have made of new Labour? And what can new Labour take from Crosland?

The answers to these are not easy. One contributor, David Lipsey, even doubts whether "this searching after the views of dead heroes is a valuable exercise". There are several obvious problems. Twenty years after his death we cannot know for certain what Crosland would have made of a society so different from his own. Nor do we know exactly which version of new Labour he might be expected to favour. It seems pretty clear, for example, that Tony Blair's idea of new Labour is different from John Prescott's, even if this difference has been publicly muted. Nor can we be certain which Crosland: Raymond Plant's seeker after democratic equality, or Phillip Dodd's pursuer of the good life?

Crosland almost certainly would have thought that the rapid decline of the old industrial working class required of the Labour Party some (at least) ideological and political revision. He had, as Lipsey says, "a revisionist cast of mind". What, then, would he have made of the policies of new Labour, a political movement conceived by its founders as revisionist above all things?

Most of the essayists here think he would generally have supported new Labour, but with doubts. Mark Leonard suggests that he would have found new Labour's tax policies hard to swallow; Brian Brivati wonders quite what Crosland would have thought of the society new Labour is creating; David Lipsey thinks the present party leadership has gone further than was "absolutely necessary". I think Crosland would have been much more critical than that. There are three aspects, especially, of new Labour's policies that Crosland would surely have found almost wholly unacceptable, and these three comprise the heart of new Labour's "project" - to the extent we know what that is.

The first is the issue of equality and redistribution. Redistribution (in some sense) was central to Crosland's socialism but is not central to new Labour's. Indeed, redistribution has been specifically repudiated by several members of the present government. It asserts in place of redistribution a commitment to equality of opportunity, but not to a greater equality of outcome. It is difficult, however, to see how any social democrat can make such a distinction since the former, to be effective, depends upon the latter. Crosland (like all Labour MPs of his generation) regarded redistribution as a moral obligation on the Labour Party, not merely an element in electoral calculation - something that might be desirable if the spin-doctors tell you it is possible.

Just how far this government has departed from Crosland is demonstrated by a fantastic non sequitur in Gordon Brown's essay here. Labour's commitment to equality, he says, is as strong as ever; but the government has to face new circumstances. "That means never being diverted from our egalitarian ends, but being aware that policies may change to take account of changed times. So our policies are credible because we build from a platform of stability on tax, spending and borrowing." So now we know. Equality depends upon "stability" on tax, spending and borrowing. Furthermore, the adoption by new Labour of an individualist model of social mobility - a process by which individuals, conceived as individuals, not as members of a class or social group (the traditional Conservative notion of mobility) are given a leg up the social ladder - implies that, throughout their lives, the great majority of the population will stay exactly where they are.

The second point of issue is new Labour's approach to Labour's traditional constituency. Particularly after he was elected MP for Grimsby in 1959, Crosland became rather sentimental about working-class culture - see Christopher Price's essay here - and his Grimsby constituents. This sprang from an imaginative sympathy for those who struggled in life, especially those at the bottom of the heap. People in poverty, either economic or educational (and the one usually means the other), often behave badly and foolishly, but Labour politicians once made some attempt to understand why.

Though not absent, imaginative sympathy is now spread pretty thin in the Labour Party. The assumptions that all too often seem to underlie new Labour's attitudes to those at the bottom of the heap (or even near it) are sometimes deeply depressing. And such attitudes - alas - also embrace those in the public sector who have to cope with social failure. Some of the things said about teachers have been almost unpardonable; said by people who have apparently no sense of (or who have forgotten) just what it can be like, for instance, to teach in an inner-city classroom. Teachers now find themselves thrust into the world of league tables - tables that measure what we already know but not what we should know. In addition, a divisive pay structure is to be enforced in professions that depend for their success primarily upon esprit de corps. And to be told that though you might indeed be badly paid you have the compensating satisfaction of performing a public service adds insult to injury.

All this stems from the government's persistent refusal to admit that poverty itself is the most important cause of social failure; and that is because stability of tax, spending, and so on, precludes such an admission. I do not believe Crosland would have approved of any of this.

Nor, I think (third), would he approve of the timidity with which the government faces those not at the bottom of the heap and its often naive acceptance of their claims. Daniel Wincott suggests in his essay that Labour is almost unique among modern social democratic parties "in displaying a sense of self-confidence". This is surely false. No other modern British government has been so timid. And timidity has consequences. New Labour has been unable to devise a strategy for dealing with powerful - or what it thinks is powerful - opposition. When it has faced such opposition it has usually either withdrawn (as in the case of fox- hunting) or attempted to smuggle in policies behind a rhetoric acceptable to the tabloid press, as in the case of the welfare "reform" legislation or, indeed, the last Budget. And the government has had some success, not always acknowledged, in smuggling through legislation.

The trouble with such tactics, however, is that the rhetoric is usually offensive and actually ends up determining the policies. As always, it is the first step that counts: policies that were originally adopted not so much out of conviction as of electoral prudence have now taken on a life of their own. I doubt that originally either Tony Blair or David Blunkett seriously contemplated handing over "failing" schools to private enterprise. Now they do so without a second thought. Furthermore, timidity produces a wholly passive attitude to politics: you ask the focus group what it thinks it wants; you never tell it what you think it should have and why it should have it. Timidity thus ties Labour to someone else's status quo (at present, the status quo largely established by the Thatcher and Major governments); and it subordinates the government to political folk-wisdoms (for instance, that the voters are not willing to pay higher taxes) that are either untrue or misleading.

Intellectual lack of confidence - not one of Crosland's traits - also inhibits new Labour's thinking systematically. The Blair government, for example, simply could not introduce anything like the NHS. More characteristic is its attitude to parliamentary reform. Here is an opportunity, unlikely to return, to "modernise" (new Labour's word) the parliamentary and electoral systems. The likely result, however, is a gimcrack arrangement that no other western country would take seriously and which will produce an executive stronger than we have now.

Both Bernstein and Crosland argued a revisionist case within a coherent tradition that neither wished to repudiate. However, as a "revisionist" party, in the sense they would recognise, new Labour is too incoherent: a mixture of loosely held and mutually inconsistent policies. The Labour Party currently comprises Keynesians who aren't really Keynesians and modernisers who aren't really modernisers, and it now seems quite impossible to be both. Thus the government's modernising achievements are actually rather slight. They consist of constitutional changes that new Labour inherited and has carried forward, but which in practice it has done its best to neuter - often in the oldest of old Labour ways. The endless foot-dragging over a freedom of information bill is simply one case in point.

This is not, of course, solely new Labour's responsibility. Such incoherence comes from attitudes deeply embedded in the history of the Labour Party. History, however, does not explain all. Lurking behind it is real intellectual inertia. At the end of this book, Tony Wright argues that Crosland's "most remarkable achievement . . . was to introduce us to a future - unstuffy, classless, fair, fun - in which people might actually want to live". This is the kind of formulation that gives new Labour a bad name. Classlessness, fairness and fun are all highly desirable. But expressed like this they either stand for an easy-going egalitarianism of personal behaviour that legitimates huge differences in wealth and power, or else demand redistributive policies quite beyond new Labour.

Ross McKibbin is a fellow of St John's College, Oxford.
"Crosland and New Labour" is available to "NS" subscribers, post-free, for the discounted price of £12.99. Tel: 0800 731 8496

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong