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2 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:24pm

Labour must reclaim the idea of liberty from Thatcherism

Liberty can mean freedom from poverty as well as the relation between the individual and the state. 

By Jason Brock

Labour has never stopped openly discussing civil and human rights. It has been a great advocate for minority rights, disability rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights – although there is still much work to be done in all of these areas. My primary concern, though, is that Labour has lost its narrative about liberty as an overarching goal.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives defined freedom as an economic issue to be achieved through free markets. Thatcher’s success in presenting the “interference of the state” as antagonistic to a liberty of market choice changed the language of political discourse. Labour was forced to seek a new narrative. This was summed up neatly – if simplistically – in the change of party emblem in 1986, which removed the hitherto prominent display of the word “liberty”.

A change of lexicon does not equate to an abandonment of the actual principle, though. New Labour’s working tax credits, child tax credit and Sure Start centres, for example, can all be seen as policies that aspired to promote positive liberty, as well as social justice and equality of opportunity.

By acknowledging this ongoing commitment to a liberty that transcends the simple expression of rights, we can guard against a charge of “the strange death of liberal Labour”. At the same time, however, we should perhaps be concerned that Labour has such difficulty in articulating the language of liberty. Such a failure of discourse can lead to a failure of policy innovation and implementation (as can arguably be said to have happened to Labour post-2001).

Labour should seek to return to a rhetoric and practice that emphasises a commitment to liberty, alongside its commitments to social justice and equality. Nevertheless, we must accept that promising the electorate “self-mastery” is unlikely to be a compelling offer in and of itself. Hence we should consider something of what Labour’s commitment to liberty might look like.

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It is clear that the old liberal value of passive toleration is insufficient today. People do not generally simply wish to be tolerated – they would like to be openly embraced as part of a diverse, progressive and cosmopolitan culture. Labour must therefore develop a programme that identifies and overcomes the insidious barriers that hold individuals back. Guaranteed interview schemes and protected characteristic shortlists are not part of our ideal society, but they can and do play a vital role in overcoming the structural and institutionalised prejudices that permeate society.

More fundamentally, Labour must reconnect with the idea that liberty is to be found in ensuring that all individuals are equipped with the basic necessities in life, and are therefore able to exercise their individuality and passion. The 21st century offers an opportunity to look beyond the “big state” as a means of achieving this. We should consider whether, for example, universal basic income has come of age. In the world of work, too, Labour should consider whether the current antagonism from many quarters towards “big business” opens the way for a promotion of co-operative enterprise.

If Labour is to pursue a bold programme of socialism, it must not forget that the end goal of this is greater liberty as well as greater equality and social justice (otherwise it risks lapsing back towards its paternalistic tendencies). People today seek “meaning” from their work, leisure and consumption. There is a great opportunity to embrace this sentiment and direct it towards, in Harold Wilson’s words, a greater freedom.

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Dr Jason Brock is a teaching fellow in intellectual history of political thought at Royal Holloway University and a Labour councillor in Reading. His writing appears in “Fair and Free: Labour, liberty and human rights”, published by the Fabian Society in partnership with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust