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Loosening Labour’s golden straitjacket

Economic crisis presents opportunities as well as stark threats for social democracy, writes the Oxf

Like the early Christians, the founding fathers of the Labour Party were sustained by their faith. They believed that a society based on individual self-interest could be transformed into one based on human fellowship.

Bruce Glasier, a contemporary of Keir Hardie, declared that socialism was not about getting but giving. Such utopianism could not survive the harsh realities of government. The Attlee administration, Lab­our’s first majority government in 1945, came to appreciate that, for the foreseeable future, it would have to administer a private-enterprise economy. Labour became, in practice, a social-democratic rather than a socialist party. Yet, because it was unwilling to face up to reality, it remained, from the time of the demise of the Attlee government until the 1990s, directionless, despite being or perhaps because it was able to form governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet social democracy has been the most successful ideology of the 20th century. What, after all, accounts for the great stability of Europe since 1945 and its high rates of economic growth, compared with the turbulence and crises of the interwar years? The basis of the postwar settlement in western Europe, whether administered by Christian Democrats such as Konrad Adenauer in Germany, the Gaullists in France, or Conservatives such as Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan in Britain, was social democracy, a philosophy which sought to reconcile the competing needs of the people and the market. Yet the success of social democracy was hardly noticed, because its main tenets – a high level of state-provided welfare with taxation to match in an otherwise private-enterprise economy – seemed, for many years, to have been absorbed by all of the mainstream political parties in Europe.

The true hero of postwar politics in Europe is not John Maynard Keynes, and certainly not Friedrich von Hayek, but the forgotten German revisionist Eduard Bernstein. It was Bernstein who formulated modern social democracy, a type of socialism which accepted the market, but insisted that the state had an important role to play in ensuring social justice. Markets where possible, the state where necessary: this has been the slogan of modern social democrats. It was the view that social and economic processes were not spontaneous – but could be controlled by the state – which served to differentiate social democrats from their ideological opponents. In the words of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, social democracy sought to recreate “through political means the social unity which modernisation has destroyed”.

Over the past 30 years, however, this philo­sophy has been in eclipse. It was replaced by another philosophy, that of neoliberalism. Not only Keynes, but also Bernstein, found himself eclipsed by Hayek and Milton Friedman. In the neoliberal view, any attempt by governments to influence the natural processes of the market would be counterproductive and doomed to failure. Within a basic framework of law and morality, the economy should be left to run itself. People should be allowed to make the most of their capacities and resources, as well as their luck, and should no longer be subject to the overall direction of the state. The social-democratic philosophy of the primacy of the state came to be replaced by the neoliberal philosophy of the primacy of the market.

In Britain, it is possible to pinpoint with some accuracy the moment at which social democracy came to be eclipsed. It happened after the wave of public-sector strikes – the so-called Winter of Discontent – of 1978-79. For these strikes, which kept the dead unburied in Liverpool, sent cancer patients home in Birmingham and left rubbish in the streets in London, could hardly be reconciled with the social and communal solidarity on which the postwar settlement was based.

In 1979, James Callaghan’s Labour government, which had presided helplessly over the Winter of Discontent, seemed to be facing electoral defeat. At one point, however, the polls improved for Labour and it looked as if the party might be in with a chance after all. No, said Callaghan: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.” And so it proved. Margaret Thatcher was to remain prime minister for more than 11 years; the Conservatives were in power for 18 – the longest period of continuous one-party rule in Britain since the Napoleonic Wars; and Labour was unable to return to power until it had transformed itself into New Labour.

All over the world, social democracy was on the defensive. It was not that social democrats were not in government, but they could only retain power, as in Australia, France and New Zealand, by adapting themselves to the philosophy of the market. Right-wing parties sometimes lost elections, but everywhere they seemed to be winning the argument. “The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton told Congress in 1996. In 1999 the French president, Jacques Chirac, referred to Tony Blair as “a modern socialist. That means he is five miles to the right of me.” “And I’m proud of it,” responded Blair.

Blair accommodated his party to the market philosophy and to globalisation, which the American commentator Thomas Friedman called a “golden straitjacket” for the left. The success of postwar social democracy seemed to have depended on an equilibrium between production and redistribution, regulated by the state. With globalisation, that equilibrium appeared to have been broken, because capital and production had moved beyond national borders, and so beyond the remit of state redistribution. Pure socialism in one country seemed impossible, as François Mitterrand discovered after 1981.

Critics argued that New Labour accepted too much of Thatcherism. Yet Tony Blair and Gordon Brown succeeded in rejuvenating social democracy while, in a sense, appearing not to do so. From 2001, there was a huge increase in public expenditure, especially on the National Health Service. This led to the first increase in the public-sector share of gross domestic product since the 1970s, the last period of Labour rule. It had been made possible by Brown’s prudential economic policies from 1997 to 2001, which had gained the confidence of the markets, and therefore allowed expansion of the public services to occur safely.

The increase in public expenditure constituted a sharp break with the Thatcher and Major governments, and for a time it even transformed the attitude of the Conservative Party to public services. Until the recession, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, insisted that his party would follow a “prudent” policy in government. By this, he meant it would ensure that the public services were fully protected before embarking on any programme of tax cuts. He now seems to have abandoned this position, accusing Labour of failing to repair the roof while the sun was shining. But he has yet to make clear what public expenditure cuts would be on the agenda for a Conservative government; as recently as last spring, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, was calling for more financial deregulation and a smaller role for the state.

The recession is forcing the parties to confront stark choices, and it may be that we are facing another sea change in politics: the recession and the credit crunch could well give birth to a new social-democratic moment comparable to that of the early postwar years. For while, in the neoliberal era, governments had to come to terms with markets, they now have to come to terms with the failure of markets. Our economic problems are the product of a long reign of insufficiently regulated markets, of a regime that produced the housing boom and excess lending by banks and other financial institutions. Governments, therefore, can no longer withdraw from markets, but will have to engage with them more closely. Barack Obama, the nearest America has produced to a social democrat, struck a chord with precisely this message. His chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, now declares that the pendulum “should swing towards an enhanced role for government in saving the market system from its excesses and inadequacies”. Bankers today are more dependent on the state than trade unionists ever were.

Yet governments will also have to engage with society more intensely than they did during the years when the market reigned supreme. In times of economic insecurity, people will insist on a firm safety net of social welfare. They will not be prepared to risk all when markets move. The doctrine that we should all help ourselves and rely on the bankers to make us rich has less resonance now than it did during the neoliberal era. We shall return instead to the philosophy of the immediate postwar years: that the doctrine of self-interest needs to be controlled in the interests of society as a whole, and that a country does better when all work together than when it relies on doctrines of competitive individualism.

The fundamental theme of social democracy is that the processes of economic and social change can be controlled by government. The relevance of this philosophy is becoming newly apparent as the recession bites. Combating the recession, therefore, will depend to no small degree on whether the social-democratic leaders of western Europe can breathe life into the dry bones of what seemed, until recently, a dead doctrine.

In Britain, social democrats are hindered because they have been divided since the end of the First World War, when Labour replaced the Liberals as the main party of the left. Social democrats are divided in many European countries as well: but that is a luxury they can afford, under proportional representation. With first past the post the consequences are ruinous.

In Britain, the divisions on the left have helped encourage Conservative hegemony. From 1914 to 1964, there was just one government of the left with a comfortable overall majority, and this even though there probably was a progressive majority in Britain for much of that period, a majority that would have adopted more imaginative policies to deal with unemployment and the threat from dictators. The divisions among social democrats deepened with the breakaway of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, which served to strengthen the political centre at the expense of the Labour Party.

The leading figures who have done most for the Labour Party – Ernest Bevin, Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – have done so by forcing it to confront its shibboleths, by telling the party that it cannot afford to retreat to its comfort zone. The same courage is needed today if the recession in Britain is not to inaugurate another long period of Conservative hegemony.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published later this year by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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