Labour's democratic socialists have nothing to fear from debate with internal rivals

The times we live in demand a pioneering, radical and transformative government, not technocratic social democracy. 

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Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has recently evoked the decades-long interaction between social democrats and democratic socialists within the Labour movement. Of course, there are other mainstream currents too, such as trade unionists fighting for justice for their members. Our movement has always been pluralistic in character and tolerant of differences within the Labour family.

Cards on the table: I am and always have been a radical democratic socialist. At moments in our history, we have represented a majority within the party leadership, but more often than not, this has not been the case. However, the times we now live in require precisely such a leadership.

In this article, I will show that: in spite of its pluralism, the Labour Party had socialism in its DNA from the start; that our core purpose (both for social democrats and socialists) was social justice and a classless society; that the so-called “Third Way” of Tony Blair should be seen as a historical aberration; and finally that democratic socialism is now both desirable and necessary to achieve a majoritarian Labour government.

It’s worth recalling that the 1918 party constitution was not mealy-mouthed as to where we stood. The famous Clause IV unashamedly asserted our socialist values:

"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."

Blair, however, wished to signal a break with these socialist roots. But even in his pomp, he failed to do so entirely. The new Clause IV began boldly with - ahem - the statement that “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.”  It went on to state that Labour wants a community in which “power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”.

Dress it up however you like, our movement’s central purpose always has been to defeat the Conservatives in order to build a society based on social justice and equality. But the party’s central egalitarian drive has changed in character over time with different leaderships.

At the risk of oversimplifying history, let’s revisit R.H.Tawney, who regarded the achievement of a classless society as our central imperative. He captured the overwhelming consensus within the Labour movement in the 1930s in a series of dazzling essays.

Tawney suggested that the presence of gross class inequality was incompatible with a good society. “Freedom of the pike,” he wrote, “means death for the minnow”.

He also argued that democracy itself was incompatible with the British capitalist class system of the 1930s. He championed the radical extension of democratic principles into the social and economic spheres. To successfully build a stable and long-lasting democracy, he advocated an advance along two lines:

“It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress others, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income. It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into a servant of society, working within clearly defined limits and accountable for its actions to a public authority.”

As we can see, Tawney proposed the transformation of the basic structures of capitalist society. His work is emblematic of our party’s democratic socialist traditions.

By contrast, Anthony Crosland, writing in the 1950s, is usually regarded as the defining Labour revisionist, who developed a new prospectus for social democracy. Equality remained the core objective of Labour, he argued. But in contrast to Tawney, Crosland believed that it was possible to reconcile this objective with capitalism, which he saw as having entered a new phase. This latter point is the key to his revisionism, rather than his rejection of equality in itself.

Yet despite this revisionism, Crosland still argued for radical change. He wanted: “more than a simple (not that it proved simple in practice) redistribution of income. We wanted a wider social equality embracing also the distribution of property, the educational system, social-class relationship, power and privilege in our society - indeed all that was enshrined in the age old socialist dream of a more ‘classless society.’”

Such a social democratic agenda would have represented deep-rooted structural change, albeit within a redefined capitalist framework. However, by the time of New Labour, an entirely separate intellectual rupture had occurred. The project advocated a “Third Way”: not a vision which is equidistant between competing versions of a left project but a politics which seeks to combine left and right in a new synthesis. In this sense, it represents a rupture with both democratic socialism and social democracy.

Not only do Third Way advocates argue that equality is compatible with capitalist economics, as Crosland contended, they also propose an entirely different definition of equality as the party’s ultimate goal.

There are those who regard this belated attachment to meritocracy and “social mobility” within the country’s social and economic hierarchy as modernised social democracy. But Blair’s vision did not claim to be social democratic. He bluntly rejected equality as attainable. Rather, he advocated:

“Not a society where all succeed equally - that is utopia; but an opportunity society where all have an equal chance to succeed; that could and should be 21st Century Britain under a Labour Government.”

Elsewhere, Blair argued that social mobility legitimised a dynamic market economy, which he perfectly well understood would be deeply inegalitarian. Neither Tawney in the 1930s, nor Crosland in the 1950s, would have recognised this as either socialist or social democratic.

In fact, Crosland rejected this explicitly: “By equality we meant more than a meritocratic society of equal opportunities in which the greatest rewards would go to those with the most fortunate genetic endowment and family background.”

Tawney uses the parable of the frog and the tadpole to reject meritocratic social mobility as a myth. Most tadpoles die as tadpoles — they certainly do in my garden pond. For Tawney, the concept of social mobility is a myth which frogs use to persuade tadpoles to accept their fate because a handful of them may one day become frogs themselves.

Crosland’s noble ambition of achieving equality within capitalism has now clearly foundered. We only need look at Northern Rock, and the failure of other financial institutions, to see that breakdown, crisis and inequity are inherent to economies based on unconstrained markets. Crosland singularly overstated the scope for capitalism to be reformed.

Meanwhile, Blair’s advocacy of social mobility failed to take account of the problems Crosland understood, but also the empirical evidence that the more unequal a society is, the less social mobility occurs.  

The truth is that our country’s social and political structures became deeply sclerotic as the Thatcherite revolution rolled on and inequality increased. Even before the 2007-08 financial crisis, millions of people were struggling to get by on inadequate wages.

No party of the centre left can survive if it permanently embraces an economic system that inflicts damage on the very demographic groups which comprise its electorate. And no party of the centre left can survive if it talks of social mobility, when the current economic conditions and the experiences of those that live them, tell a different, more desperate story: one of stagnation.

For these reasons, and others, Labour was already losing millions of votes even before the crash, as I described in a series of interventions after the 2005 general election on the “lost millions”. The crash sharpened this contradiction, but it also provided a moment when we might have changed the rules of the game.

We ought to have developed a new narrative and programme which challenged the myths of the free market and restored the value of a diminished public realm. But we failed to do so because the dominant ideas among the Labour leadership were tightly constrained within a post-Croslandite ideology, and too tied to the City of London.

All of this shows that the Third Way of New Labour stood well outside the party’s history and its DNA. It also shows that if we embrace the post-industrial, financialised form of capitalism currently on offer, it is highly likely that we will never again see the election of a majoritarian Labour government.

Labour was created to defeat the Conservative Party in elections in order to deliver social justice. The final card used against socialists in the party is that a radical socialist government is unelectable, leaving us unable to deliver change for the people we represent. In these circumstances, it is said, our “left-wing hearts” must listen to our “sensible heads”. Whether or not this argument was ever true is a moot point. It is not true now.

The current state of opinion in Britain today suggests that our hearts were perhaps correct all along and that we should follow our instincts. Every opinion poll shows that our radical policies have majority support. Our election manifesto For the Many, Not the Few was immensely popular, especially our promise to return the privatised utilities to public ownership.

The false argument levelled at us suggests that socialists were in favour of old-fashioned, top-down and bureaucratic public services. Yet, as Clause IV above clearly states, we stood for “a system of popular administration and control of those services.” And we stand for it today, as shown by the pioneering Alternative Models of Ownership report.

Indeed, the Labour figure most closely associated with this old-fashioned, top-down model - which explicitly excluded other models of social or public ownership - was in fact Herbert Morrison, none other than the grandfather of Lord Mandelson, who is in turn one of the fathers of New Labour. The attempt to present socialists as longing for a return to the failed Morrisonian models of the past is a total canard.

So if there is to be a debate in the party about our direction of travel, it should be conducted in a generous, honest and tolerant tone. It should focus on true policy positions, not caricatures formulated as part of tactical machine politics. Let me be clear: democratic socialists have nothing to fear. We can win the argument and go on to elect a pioneering, radical and transformative government.

Jon Trickett is the shadow lord president of the council, shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Hemsworth.