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18 September 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

Socialism: the new divide

Fifty years ago, a book regarded as a seminal text for Labour was published. In an exclusive essay,

By Jack Straw

“For God’s sake, Jack, just tell us there is one,” said a Blackburn party activist and close friend when I told him I was writing a piece on the future of socialism to mark the republication of Tony Crosland’s work of that name.

My pal is notorious for his gallows humour and his pessimism. His life is a parable for new Labour. By day, he’s a senior manager of a large British plc. By night, in all weathers, he can be found pounding the streets, canvassing and leafleting because, like so many party members across the country, he believes profoundly and passionately in The Cause. He does it for no bauble or personal gain. He has never been a councillor. He holds no other public office. He’s always ready to take on the “I-did-but-now-I’m-not-so-sure” brigade and point out that voting Labour has transformed their lives. But deep down, there is a nagging doubt that The Cause may be under threat, submerged by the forces of post-cold war capitalism and globalisation, and blighted by general disillusion with a government almost ten years in office, and by the unpopularity of some of its policies. Add this past week’s display of raw disunity and one can see why my friend is worried.

Even half a century on, Crosland still brilliantly captures the reason for my friend’s sense of melancholy, and maybe a reason for our party’s ever-damaging propensity for self- immolation. He quotes Olaf in Strindberg’s play the moment the Reformation triumphs: “Oh, how I should like to begin all over again! It was not the victory I wanted, it was the battle!”

“When the things wrong were so manifest,” writes Cros land – the glaring evils being squalor and injustice – “we all knew what to do, and where the enemy was and what was the order of battle.” Labour governments, he went on, have often found the responsibilities of power somewhat harsher than they expected, while the full employment of the 1950s, coupled with the bedding in of the welfare state, had “destroyed the rationale of much of the old emotional enthusiasm” felt by party activists used to fighting grotesque inequalities.

What Crosland understood acutely was John Maynard Keynes’s observation that “sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil”. And for ideas to have power, not least in sustaining the “emo- tional enthusiasm” of the party, they had to stand up to scrutiny and to have credibility. So he was excoriating in his criticism of the ideological muddle by which Labour had hopelessly confused means and ends and then wondered why the public hadn’t grasped the point.

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Crosland’s statement of democratic socialist values – above all, his emphasis on equality – is brilliant and timeless. He got few thanks for it in his lifetime, but he can justly claim to have been the original inspiration for the new Clause Four, which was Tony Blair’s seminal achievement in the first few months of his leadership.

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By equality, Crosland did not mean some unattainable equality of outcome. He meant a very enhanced idea of how opportunities should be rebalanced at every stage through life. I believe that he would have been extremely proud of this Labour administration’s achievements in this regard: for example, lifting 800,000 children out of poverty, reducing unemployment, raising pensioner living standards and transforming the education and health services. He would have admired our programme to equalise political power, from devolution for Scotland and Wales, or the Human Rights Act, to the Race Relations Acts and civil partnerships. And, in all this, we have indeed been more successful than any previous Labour government.

Crosland also had the self-confidence to label these values as “socialist”. And what we’ve been doing these past nine and a half years is putting these democratic socialist principles into practice. Indeed, in an increasingly atomised society, it is all the more imperative that we make our voices heard in arguing for solidarity, for a sense of community and for the democratic socialist way where, by working together, we can be stronger.

That value, of solidarity, has however to be applied within Labour if we are to sustain the power to do good beyond the party. Crosland lost his first Commons seat in 1955 with Labour not only in opposition, but also preoccupied with internal argument over the NHS and defence. And he would have been appalled at the events of the past two weeks and the possibility that the party’s capacity for bloodletting might still be unchecked when there remain so many wrongs for us to right in the nation and beyond. Crosland recognised that the greatest impediment to Labour delivering its values has always come from within Labour itself.

But if Crosland is still very contemporary in the framework of beliefs he set for the party and his understanding of its character, his mid-20th-century world is strikingly different from ours. This is especially true in terms of the economic and international environment in which the UK now has to operate.

Crosland learned in government some of the harsh real-ities of which he wrote in The Future of Socialism, serving Labour administrations in both the Sixties and Seventies and witnessing how a sense of economic failure held back Labour’s ability to deliver its social justice agenda and undermined its reputation for economic competence.

In contrast, it is one of this government’s historic achievements to have developed and applied a successful economic policy of low inflation and low unemployment for ten years, and to have broken the spell over Labour by which it had previously been associated with economic failure.

Global conundrum

The international perspective is the second major difference between Crosland’s time and the present day. As Gordon Brown points out in his foreword to the new edition of Crosland’s work, he was dealing with a “sheltered economy in a pre-global age of national economies”. In those days, when some in the party did look beyond our shores for a paradigm, it was to the east and not to the west.

But the collapse of communism and with it the progressive removal of trade barriers totally changed the structure of the world economy and Britain’s potential vulnerability within it. Even so, for 12 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the world’s future looked, overall, pretty benign. Then, five years ago, came 11 September, changing our world and its sense of security for generations to come and confronting governments worldwide with some very harsh realities.

Crosland would have been astonished that a government and party that has dealt so well with such huge challenges is now caught up in a squall, not over a current issue of policy, but over exactly when, after almost ten years of the most successful Labour government in history, the most successful Labour prime minister in history will stand down. The irony is that, unlike previous shows of disunity, the party and government are more united than ever before. And 20 years ago, to have imagined a Labour government in such a strong position, having won three elections, seen off four Tory leaders and reduced our opponents to little more than a flimsy PR machine, would have been the stuff of fantasy.

One scarcely needs to say more about this, except that it is in the interests of everyone in the Labour Party to now settle down, celebrate our achievements, and work harder on our future for the good of the party, but more importantly for the good of the country.

But beyond the headlines, there is a wider issue at stake and one which would have worried Crosland greatly: that of the pressing need to restore trust in politics. We must ask ourselves: why is it that people often refuse, or just fail, to make the connection between the changes in their lives and the fact of living under a Labour government since 1997? An ICM poll for the Guardian last month suggested that when people compared their situation today with that of 1997, they denied by a large margin that they were better off, that it was easier to get a job, that they had more spare money, or that Labour had achieved economic success – despite the fact that examination of their personal situation would show the reverse.

Nor is this simply an issue solely for the Labour Party. Pol iticians on all sides suffer from this deeply damaging trust deficit in a way that would have been unimaginable when, amid the dying days of the age of deference, Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism. In that sense, no consideration of the future for our movement in 2006 can ignore this conundrum. None of the explanations for this development are trite or easy, and nor are the solutions, but let me suggest a few.

The international crises that followed 11 September 2001 – Afghanistan, and above all Iraq – were among the “harsh decisions” one faces in government. Historians will argue about them for decades. But since – just to pinch ourselves – we won the general election last year when memories of Iraq were even fresher, I do not believe that Iraq alone is an explanation for this disconnection between the perception and reality of Labour in government in 2006.

The 11 September attacks and what has followed have also had the effect of exposing differences based on religion more acute than we have seen in two centuries or more. When Crosland was writing, the divisions he saw in society were ones of class; now they are principally ones of religion.

As someone who represents a large, diverse constit uency, I have been an unapologetic advocate of the policies we have applied to try to meet the needs of all communities. I remain committed to those policies, but I now worry greatly about an increasing sense of communities leading parallel lives, and of intense misunderstandings and uncertainty developing.

A further point in this conundrum over trust is the way we in the Labour movement both conduct and frame our politics.

I believe that, in seeking to address this, we must work for a more authentic, direct, local and visible approach to politics and a reduction in some of the slicker campaigning techniques that have come to dominate the way we do our politics. It is no accident that trust levels shoot up when a politician is a known and active figure in the local community. And they plunge when there is a sense that a politician is speaking from a script.

There was a strong case for the “repackaging” of Labour in the Nineties, and I supported this, but as global forces intensify, individual citizens can feel diminished, so people increasingly want the reassurance and the power of direct engagement with their representatives, and of face-to-face argument on equal terms; the return, in short, of politics as a “contact sport”, where disagreement is accepted as part of the process and where the voices that ring out most clearly are the voices of politicians with authenticity and passion.

Collective endeavour

We also have greatly to extend the opportunity for direct democratic involvement at a local level. There are good people in all kinds of local quangos. But we have fewer local elected representatives per head of population than most comparable countries. Is there not a case for direct election in place of appointment for some quangos?

My final point in pursuit of ideas about how we resolve the riddle of declining trust is to argue that while Crosland was right to argue that the key test was that of ends and not means, he may have been too dismissive of the role which the process of change can play in determining social attitudes and judging the worth of governments. The prevailing wisdom in Crosland’s day, of course, was that it was nationalisation and/or state planning that provided the litmus for believers, and no one now argues that the state should be running the commanding heights of the economy.

Another historic achievement of the party in government has been to understand the importance of incentives and imagination, and entrepreneurship in a dynamic economy. But, nevertheless, we should not resile from the positive and distinctive contribution that the community collectively can make to improve the welfare of its members. There is an ethic among those working in the public services which, at its best, is wonderful and which we should honour more often. It comes about as much from people’s aims as they go about their daily work as from their achievements.

So amid all these changes – global, local and national – I understand why my pessimistic pal expresses his fears for the future of socialism. The squalls that we witnessed last week do not help, and the underlying challenges are profound.

But yes, my friend, there is a future for democratic socialism. And the reason for that is because we as socialists understand, as Crosland did, that if we do not surrender the values that lie at the heart of our politics, we will have the power to address the challenges of a changed world. Crosland’s magisterial work remains relevant today for the very reason that our values are enduring. They are as crucial to the way we address the challenges of globalisation as they are to the way we address community cohesion.

Jack Straw is Leader of the Commons and MP for Blackburn

Wanted: a very public contest for leader
by Patricia Hewitt

Last week saw politics at its worst. Factionalism, infighting, poisonous briefings and bitter public attacks – all without a thought for the public who put Labour into government.

We have damaged ourselves – but we have also deepened public cynicism about politics. That is bad for any democracy, but is especially threatening to progressive politics.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s statements have put us back on track. Now we urgently need to replace last week’s old machine politics with a new politics of public engagement. We have, after all, pioneered deliberative democracy within government – and found the public crying out for more.

Last year, I launched a consultation on health and social care services that culminated in a 1,000-strong citizens’ “summit” in Birmingham. We asked people to vote on whether they would support more local services even if it meant fewer services in their hospital. You could hear the hostility – “don’t touch our local hospital”. But as people debated the issues, the mood changed, and well over half voted “yes”. None of this takes the controversy out of difficult decisions. But it points to a better way of involving the public.

Over the next year, Labour will elect a new leader and deputy leader. I urge the party to seize this opportunity and create leadership elections that reach out beyond Labour’s individual and affiliated members to the wider public – not just those who will vote in the leadership elections, but those who will vote in the general election.

I remember the contest in 1994 after John Smith’s death. It was launched on a special edition of Panorama, at a GMB congress where all three candidates – John Prescott and Margaret Beckett as well as Tony Blair – debated the issues with Labour and union members.

Imagine a leadership contest that brought together not just members, but people who used to support us or might do so in future, to discuss our country’s response to climate change or social cohesion. At hustings across the country, candidates would discuss these issues with people from all sides of the debate, as well as with each other, in person and on the web.

Such an approach would not only help ensure Labour remains in touch with people’s concerns, but also raise public understanding of the difficult decisions all governments face.

The leadership and deputy leadership elections provide a unique opportunity to renew Labour’s dialogue with the public and shape a programme for the next decade. They would also enormously strengthen the authority of the new leadership.

Patricia Hewitt is Secretary of State for Health and MP for Leicester West