openDemocracyUK

Labour starts to think

The shape of the debate about the future direction of the Labour Party is emerging.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 February 2011

An important debate is taking place over the future direction of the Labour Party. A good place to start is Anthony Painter's new post on Labour List describing the battle as between 'what matters vs. what works'. He maps the argument in Progress-on-line between the 'blue socialism' of Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford (and Maurice Glasman) set out here and the Blairite 'get real' approach, of globalisation and market place diversity, as espoused by Philippe Legrain here.

Here is Cruddas and Rutherford:

Labour must now have a reckoning with itself. In the last decades, it stopped valuing settled ways of life. It did not speak about an identification and pleasure in local place and belonging. It said nothing about the desire for home and rootedness, nor did it defend the continuity of relationships at work and in neighbourhoods. It abandoned people to market forces in the name of a spurious entrepreneurialism. Estranged from people's lives and communities, lacking the institutional memory of campaigning and organising, and denuded of internal democracy, it leavened an increasingly dour politics with abstract principles and a narrow, unimaginative idea of aspiration.

And here is Legrain:

It would be a terrible mistake, though, to wrongly blame our economic and social problems on Britain's openness to the rest of the world. Trade with China, foreign investment and Polish workers all boost growth and create jobs. Now, more than ever, if we are to break out of our unhealthy reliance on debt-fueled consumption, housing and finance, our future prosperity depends on exporting to China, investment from India, educating foreign students and a diverse workforce that generates new ideas and businesses. And an open economy also needs to be flexible - otherwise we could end up like Spain, with a 20 per cent unemployment rate and 40 per cent of young people out of work. There is nothing progressive about a rigid labour market that ossifies the economy and excludes outsiders.

The future of Labour has to be argued out in terms that are better than these frankly childish caricatures.

Leaving aside for the sake of this post a number of huge issues, such as equality, Painter is right that the New Labour 'project' before 1997 was about more than embracing the market. What none of them seem to understand, though, is the significance of the democratic agenda to the larger modernisation project of New Labour after 1992. This included John Smith's commitment to a new constitutional settlement. It led on to the Scottish and Welsh referendums, the Human Rights Act, the London Mayor and the Freedom of Information Act. All these were forms of articulating a shared, modern identity in a positive, open and democratic fashion.

But the Blair-Mandelson group shut down the wider links between Labour and the quasi-movement that helped create the conditions for New Labour (of which Charter 88 that I co-ordinated was a part). Critically, this included the potential alliance with the Lib Dems. Instead, under Blair, Labour retreated from any commitment to a new overall settlement and instead fell back upon the monarchist or dictatorial inheritance of the British state.

Had there been a new constitutional settlement there would have been a framework for an English voice that had a relationship with Labour - something the blue-socialists crave, although they can't now work out how to articulate it in the absence of any institutional expression. There would also have been a referendum on AV plus... and a less highly centralised Treasury machine backing the bubble. I won't go on, except to say it is that kind of politics, with much more robust local and regional government, which would have been far more likely to have delivered the new housing whose absence Legrain emphasizes was a catastrophic failure of the Labour years.

Both the 'blue-socialists', who emphasise community without constitutional powers, and the 'globalisation realists', who think that political democracy is a mere decoration on the marketplace, fail to understand that re-framing the central state and empowering decentralisation is critical for left wing politics of any variety. It is clear now that we need to go further than constitutional reforms that fail to touch the way the regime is administered. Which of the two sides, then, (or perhaps three counting Painter) will embrace constitutional democracy, state accountability and modern liberty?

It is striking, and unusual, that the leader seems to be ahead of his party intellectuals on all this. Ed Miliband's Fabian speech showed he is listening and thinking about these issues and has some grasp of them. He seems to understands that Labour must  demonstrate credibly how it will govern differently should it get back to power - if it wants to get back to power, that is. 

Ed Miliband's problem is that until he has secured a base of support for an approach of this kind within Labour, it is very hard for him to face outwards and speak to the country in a fresh and convincing fashion. Another problem now is whether Ed Balls also understands this.

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