Keeping faith with the state: a reply to David Miliband

Now is not the time for the left to turn its back on big government.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

David Miliband's stimulating response to the Hattersley/Hickson article "In praise of Social Democracy" (in the Political Quarterly) contains some assumptions and prescriptions which merit a response. While Miliband is right to stress the need for rethinking, it is questionable whether he has identified the right mix between principle and practice that will enable Labour to regain the hearts and minds of either party supporters or the wider electorate.

Like many New Labour insiders, Miliband has been transfixed by the economic and sociological determinist agenda advanced by Anthony Giddens and others, which results in an uncritical acceptance of key neoliberal ideas, particularly in relation to the "negative" aspects of state activity. While New Labour did not abandon its belief in the possibility of "egalitarian" forms of state intervention when in government, its enthusiasm was muted, with the result that it squandered the opportunity to foster more positive public attitudes towards state action. New Labour's conditional form of collectivism meant that even its more progressive initiatives were usually accompanied by reassurances that there would be no turning back from "new" public management rhetoric and practice, based on choice and competition, and a reaffirmation that their embrace of free markets, wealth accumulation and feather light regulation was irreversible. It still seems far from clear whether David Miliband is willing to reconsider these New Labour shibboleths in his quest for "comradely and serious debate".

Just as it appears that the time is right to promote the social democratic case for "bigger" government in Britain and elsewhere as an antidote to the current economic and social malaise, Miliband has stepped into the fray to suggest that New Labour's semi-detachment from statist egalitarianism should be maintained and that efforts should instead be directed to the promotion of a fuzzy form of localism. We believe that this is a mistaken strategy. While we acknowledge that the depth of public affection for central state action in the UK falls short of the levels to be found in many Scandinavian nations, there is no reason to believe that this gap cannot be closed if Labour is willing to take the bold step of articulating a more positive vision of the positive potential of the state.

In the economic sphere, for example, it is now clear that unless the government acts to stimulate the economy we are unlikely to see the economic regeneration required to tackle rising unemployment and stagnating living standards. Labour also needs to be bold and straightforward with the public about the difficult choices that will need to be made in relation to both pay and taxation. In terms of the former, for example, calls for pay restraint should apply equally to those in the public and private sectors with the greatest protection afforded to those on the lowest incomes. Labour should also ensure that its successful attack on bankers' bonuses is extended to others who have made exponential gains in both income and wealth in recent decades.

The "empowerment of local communities" seems an attractive proposition at face value, not least because it could enhance participation and give increased autonomy to local citizens in deciding priorities and modes of service delivery. However, the implementation of such a strategy could have adverse consequences. Does Miliband concur with Maurice Glasman, for example, that greater postcode diversity in terms of service "entitlements" or provision is a price worth paying for the active re-engagement of local communities? Most social democrats are likely to take an alternative view. They will be concerned to ensure that there are cast iron guarantees to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected and that the emergence of modern day "settlement" laws, in which the claims of "outsiders" are ignored, is prevented. Localism also runs contrary to the social democratic principle of "deep" universalism (in which all citizens are entitled to high quality state provision and protection regardless of personal factors such as class, age or gender) which is one of the hallmarks of a socialist society. Moreover, some of the more acute problems facing local communities such as the inadequate provision of social care are unlikely to be resolved by ever more fragmented forms of localised non-state provision.

It should be noted that Miliband's state scepticism is likely to be linked to his particular perception of the good society, which may be markedly different from other social democrats'. While he acknowledges that there is a continued need to tackle deep-rooted inequalities, he is equally concerned that notions of merit, rewards and responsibilities are addressed. It is significant in this regard to note that New Labour was reluctant to tackle ingrained structural inequalities because this would require extensive, and potentially unpopular, levels of state action. Accordingly, emphasis was shifted to changing the behaviour of a minority of "wayward" individuals. Miliband appears to suggest that this less egalitarian, New Labour strategy should not be jettisoned at the present time as it could alienate "public" opinion.

Finally, although Miliband is right to contend that the creation of the good society cannot be solely achieved through state action, his call to downplay its role at a time when it still has such a vital part to play in achieving greater equality should be firmly resisted.