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

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis