Individual, but collective

There is a paradox at the centre of modern politics, and the Labour Party must grasp it

As the new Labour project comes to a shuddering halt, attempts by the Blairites to revive it throw into stark relief two contrasting possible directions for the the Labour Party. Most recently and notably, those who want to salvage the wreckage of new Labour have called on the party to "liberalise or die". But what type of liberty do they mean? The answer the party gives will determine whether it has a progressive future or not.

There are two types of liberals. The first are those, like the Blairites, who are essentially still in the neo-liberal box. We can call them "neo-Labour". The others are those who want a more "social" liberalism. Both types start from the same question: how are people to take control of their lives in the 21st century? But their responses are very different.

Labour's neo-liberals have emerged out of the decade-long process of triangulation that has taken much of the party's programme into centre-right territory. Their target is the centralised and bureaucratised state, which they want to see broken up and power passed down to individuals. Smashing the state is, for them, what defines new from old Labour. But the essential point is that they are liberal on economics. Free markets and globalisation are to them an inevitable force that must be accommodated. Not only must markets be largely left alone, they must also be encouraged into the public services to make them more efficient.

The guiding force of neo-Labourism is the former health secretary Alan Milburn who, in a speech 18 months ago, and repeated more recently, argued for power to shift from the state to the individual. "We can't let the right be the voice of the me generation," he has written. So ideological and electoral strategy come together: the Tories are defeated by taking their terrain before they have a chance to get there.

So far there is very little detail about what all this might mean. Individual budgets are the one big idea, but their range is limited to long-term conditions, and they bring with them all sorts of problems, especially in terms of equity. Those that can top up and game the system will do better. Inequalities will be exacerbated. Individual budgets just follow the inexorable logic of the market. If individuals are best placed to spend their money, then why not go for Tory-style vouchers or, better still, drop tax altogether and cut back the state? Sound familiar? It should do - this is not just the sentiment of Thatcherism but of former Labour minister Denis MacShane MP writing in the Telegraph just a few weeks ago.

The problem with this neo-Labour form of liberalism is that it does nothing to calm the anxiety and insecurity of modern life. The shift from collective security to the daily individual struggle to survive is the root cause of the social recession the country is experiencing. We are better off but less happy, able to buy more of what we want but unable to control the big things that affect our lives.

There is another way. Liberalism starts with the individual, but true autonomy and freedom comes only from collective action. This is social liberalism, or if you like liberal socialism. It is a creed temporarily crushed by Fordism and the mass production and mass politics of the 20th century. Now all that is unravelling, there is an opportunity for it to reassert itself.

Social liberals recognise the complexity of modern life. They want diversity, experimentation and localism so that people are more engaged in key decisions. But they want fairness, and as much equality and universalism as possible, which can only come from a strong centre. This creates the central paradox of modern politics, as diversity and equality conflict.

A paradox can't be solved, only managed - and the tool to manage it is democracy. Instead of the bureaucratic or market state, social liberals want a democratic state, so that at every level, people are given not just more individual control to pick and choose providers but a collective say in the big decisions and institutions that currently dominate their lives.

Patient power

Let's take an example. If a patient is unhappy with their GP, the neo-Labourites would advocate exit, based on a competitive alternative. But the problem is that it's usually only the more affluent and confident middle classes who have the means and the car to find a different GP. Even then it's hard to know if the new GP is any better. And how does exit encourage the old one to improve? What if instead all the patients held an AGM and had the power to vote on whether the GP retains their post based on proper deliberation and debate? The reality of a collective "you're fired" would be a huge incentive to perform. In the process, a demoralised service is remoralised through the engagement and ownership of users and producers. Already people with individual budgets are clubbing together to form co-operatives to buy services collectively rather than individually. They are pooling risk to get a better quality of service.

Neo-Labourism fails to meet the complexities of living in the 21st century, but is not even working at the level of electoral strategy as the Conservatives, no longer stupid or nasty, are refusing to play the triangulation game. Blairism has left so much space to the left that David Cameron has found it impossible not to leapfrog into it.

There is an important dividing line between liberals and authoritarians, but an even bigger one between the left that wants equality and democracy and the right that wants free markets and more individualism. It's the battle for the heart and soul of what's left of the Labour Party.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. The New Statesman is sponsoring its national conference, "Born Free and Equal", in London on Saturday 14 June. Details at www.compassonline.org.uk

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times