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10 May 2024

Labour’s moral purpose

Why the centre left must end its embrace of oligarchy.

By Adrian Pabst

The death of Frank Field and David Marquand two weeks ago is a reminder that the left only governs well when it remembers its own best traditions. Both Field and Marquand were Labour MPs before leaving the party, and they shared a commitment to the communitarian, decentralist, participatory strands in the socialist tradition – an ethical socialism that owes everything to William Morris and nothing to comrade Lenin. As it prepares to form the next government, Labour will need to draw on, and command, this intellectual inheritance if it wants to combine power with moral purpose.

For Field, who was MP for Birkenhead between 1979 and 2019, one of Labour’s founding traditions was that of mutual assistance. This means helping the poor help themselves by making decent work readily available rather than increasingly relying on an ever-expanding welfare state. While the state is a necessary safety net, it risks making benefit claimants dependent on often meagre hand-outs, stripping people of agency and denying them the dignity of labour.

As the party that grew out of worker self-organisation, Labour’s flagship New Deal for Workers would do well to balance workers’ rights and social protection with a stronger emphasis on the duties of both employers and workers to create a more productive, fulfilling workplace. Labour should also place democratic self-organisation at the heart of trade union reform and greater workplace democracy giving people a voice. Field’s focus on mutual assistance is a call to build more reciprocal relations, reconciling the estranged interests of capital and labour to reduce class conflict. That implies fewer strikes and standing up to the business lobby that defends the status quo.

Mutual self-help also involves restoring the contributory principle that has been gradually hollowed by successive governments since Thatcher’s turn towards rampant economic individualism. Contribution means that workers would pay into, and own, personal pension pots run by mutual societies, in addition to the basic state pension.

Mutualism renews the legacy of William Beveridge – the architect of the postwar social settlement who, in the words of Field, “saw his welfare proposals as a means of moulding an active, independent citizenry that practised the virtues of hard work, honesty and prudence. His fundamental principle was that receipt of welfare was to be dependent on what a person had paid into the scheme”. After decades of reducing citizens to passive consumers and recipients of entitlements, will the next Labour government seize the opportunity to strengthen democratic citizenship through a mutualist transformation of the welfare state?

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Scepticism about Labour’s ability to enact transformative ideas is grounded in Marquand’s argument that Labour abandoned a more pluralist politics in favour of both technocracy and populism. Tony Blair’s New Labour exemplified this paradox, deploying technocratic means to deliver populist ends. The formula, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, was a way of burnishing Labour’s law-and-order credentials and appealing to both working- and middle-class voters.

Besides techno-populism, New Labour also fused the global free market with the centralised bureaucratic state. The oligarchic nexus stretching from the City of London to Whitehall hoards wealth and power, while millions have precarious jobs, slide into poverty and see the social fabric around them torn asunder.

According to Marquand, the tradition Labour must reclaim is the tradition of pluralism that protects people from the homogenising pressures of state, market and public opinion with its cult of PR and spin. A pluralist politics rejects both ultraliberal technocracy and demagogic populism in favour of a rich tapestry of intermediary institutions.

For pluralists, Marquand wrote, “a good society is a mosaic of vibrant smaller collectivities – trade unions, universities, business associations, local authorities, miners’ welfares, churches, mosques, Women’s Institutes, NGOs – each with its own identity, tradition, values and rituals. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of absolute sovereignty, famously compared such collectivities to ‘worms in the entrails of a natural man.’ Pluralists see them as antibodies protecting the culture of democracy from infection”.

Yet much of the contemporary centre-left seems to be on the side of oligarchy. Bill Clinton’s revoking of the Glass-Steagall Act – established after the 1929-1932 Great Depression to make banking safe for the world – contributed to the 2008 financial crash. In its wake, Barack Obama failed to reform Wall Street while Joe Biden is doing little to tackle the monopoly power of US tech platforms. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz has just returned from a trip to China where he sought to broker ever-closer commercial ties between the countries, with hundreds of CEOs in tow – a case of state-backed market corporatism.

In the UK, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have so far ruled out reforming the City of London so that it channels more capital into the regions devastated by deindustrialisation. Poor productivity in the provinces and second-tier cities is a drag on growth that Labour promise to boost as part of its mission to “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7 – with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country making everyone, not just a few, better off”.

Supporting oligarchy over against democracy will not produce prosperity or keep the centre-left in power. Nor is an accommodation with oligarchic forces inevitable. It is part of embracing an economic and technological determinism which contradicts the left’s traditional commitment to human agency and creativity, and to the primacy of politics over the economy. Progressives champion a politics of inverted Marxism-Leninism: “Oligarchs of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your humanity”.

[See also: How Labour should handle the rise of the Greens]

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