Where does the Coalition stand on the new ideological map?

The new coalition government in the UK between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats represents a bewildering political mix for many progressives. How can it be understood in terms of the principal ideological currents alive today?
Stuart White
9 June 2010

Last year I tried in an article at Next Left, later revised for the New Statesman, to map the main new ideological currents in British politics, in particular those influencing debate amongst self-defined ‘progressives’. How far does the map I offered back then – tentatively and provisionally – help us understand the new political terrain we are now on? How, for example, does the Coalition stand in terms of these currents? Labour? Other, non-party groupings?

In the original article, I identified four currents of thought:

(1)   Left communitarianism: ‘We need a social vision that acknowledges and celebrates our interdependence. This will emphasise solidarity and mutuality against the atomistic individualism of the right. We need to tackle economic equality and restate the case for ambitious collective action, while also recalling that social democracy begins, not with the state, but in the everyday cooperation of civil society. The market must be kept firmly in its place, which is not in the public sector.’

(2)  Left republicanism: ‘The task of progressive politics is radically to disperse power and opportunity and to build a participatory and deliberative form of democratic politics. This requires restructuring the state so that individuals participate more directly in decision-making. It requires the cultivation of a grass-roots social-movement politics. It also requires a new politics of ownership, one that seeks both to widen individual asset ownership and to democratise the control of capital.’

(3)   Centre republicanism: ‘The task of progressive politics is radically to disperse power and opportunity. This requires restructuring the state in a much more decentralised direction; individual empowerment in public services; a wider distribution of assets; and a stronger policy of protecting - indeed, expanding - civil liberties and lifestyle freedom. The left should get over its fixation on high taxation of labour income and put more emphasis on taxing unearned wealth and environmental bads.’

(4)   Right communitarianism: ‘The urgent task is to fill the moral vacuum created by a combination of neo-liberalism in the economy and lifestyle liberalism in society. This requires that we rebuild a strongly moralistic civil society to meet social needs that neither the free market nor the conventional welfare state can meet. To this end, we must build a new political and economic localism. We must ‘recapitalise the poor’ in order to empower them to crawl out from under the welfare state, and the welfare state itself must be cut back.’

The Coalition

The Coalition government can be seen, I think, as drawing on – without in any way being reducible to - right communitarian and centre republican currents.

Right communitarianism is represented by people such as Iain Duncan Smith and by those, such as Philippa Stroud, whom some are now calling the ‘theo-cons’ at the Department of Work and Pensions. Outside of the government machine, Red Tory Phillip Blond stands ready at Respublica to offer advice.

Centre republicanism, as I termed it, has strong affinities with ‘Orange Book’ liberalism, and it is striking that one of the think-tankers I linked to this current, Richard Reeves, has now become Nick Clegg’s advisor on political strategy. Indeed, the Demos pamphlet, The Liberal Republic, co-authored by Richard Reeves and Phil Collins, has been cited as something civil servants have been required to read to get a handle on the Coalition’s overarching philosophy.

The marrying of right communitarianism and centre republicanism is obviously not without potential for conflict. There are some possible points of agreement. Both can agree on the desirability of concerted action to achieve a wider distribution of assets, for instance. But the Reevesian ‘liberal republic’ celebrates a lifestyle liberalism with which right communitarianism is deeply uncomfortable. Phillip Blond spent a good part of the past year, and his book Red Tory, fulminating against the evils of hedonistic, nihilistic, liberalism – not just a particular form of liberalism, but liberalism as such. In a remarkable episode of high-speed ideological reappraisal, Blond then discovered in a Newsnight interview on the first full day of the new government that Red Toryism is, after all, compatible with ‘liberalism’, finding common ground around the theme of the ‘Big Society’. We shall see.

And while both currents might be there in the Coalition mix, we should emphatically not see the Coalition as simply a marriage of the two currents. For there are other, potentially more powerful elements in the mix. Given their commitments to spreading asset ownership, I cannot see how right communitarianism or centre republicanism could support abolition of the Child Trust Fund (see Nick Pearce in OK). But the Coalition did abolish it, almost immediately, reflecting a particular brand of pragmatism that is tacitly grounded in Thatcherite assumptions about the state and the economy. If one wants to understand the ideology of the Coalition look at George Osborne. Right communitarian? Centre republican? Pragmatic Thatcherite? The question answers itself – a point to which I shall return below.

Labour and the leadership question

What about Labour? The leadership race offers an excellent opportunity for Labour to reflect on its public philosophy. To date, however, none of the candidates has articulated a very clear vision of what a future public philosophy might look like.

By contrast, Jon Cruddas, who is not standing as a candidate for the leader’s job, has written suggestively on this. In my original article, I associated Cruddas with left communitarianism. In his recent article in the New Statesman, co-authored with Jonathan Rutherford, Cruddas can be seen as integrating left communitarian and left republican concerns. There is a new emphasis on liberty and democratic renewal in this article which resonates with left republican concerns. At the same time, Cruddas continues to draw attention to the importance of reciprocity and locality to social democratic politics, reflecting a communitarian – or what he would prefer to call ‘ethical socialist’ - outlook. David Lammy, writing for Fabian Review, is also developing an interesting synthesis of communitarian and republican ideas.

In addition the emphasis that both David and Ed Miliband, leadership candidates, have placed on rebuilding Labour as a community-based, campaigning party, learning from the example of organizations such as London Citizens, represents a promising – and very practical - coming together of communitarian and republican themes.

However, integrating republicanism into Labour’s public philosophy poses considerable challenges which should not be underestimated. For example, just how far is Labour willing to go as a party of democratic renewal?

The nub of the question is this: Does Labour think of political success in terms of the return of another majority Labour government? Or does Labour think in terms of being part of a wider left or centre-left politics and in terms of a future progressive coalition government? Much of the discussion of the party’s future still seems to assume that the goal is the return of a majority Labour government, a way of thinking that is really quite at odds with the reforms, e.g., proportional representation, which are necessary for genuine and fundamental democratic renewal.

The new democratic activism

This brings us to what might be called the new democratic activism: the activism of groups such as Take Back Parliament and Power 2010, coming out of the tradition of Charter 88.

Far more than any political party, it is this new activist movement which represents ‘republicanism’ in contemporary politics. It has connected most closely with the Liberal Democrats of the three main parties. But the new democratic activism emerged independently of the Lib Dems, and it will remain independent – particularly now that the Lib Dems are locked into a government that will, inevitably, disappoint a lot of the hopes of new democratic activists.

Is the new democratic activism left or centre republicanism? (Or some other kind of republicanism?)

One cannot say. For it is a feature of the new democratic activism – and this is an observation, not a criticism - that it treats questions of political and constitutional reform as a self-contained ‘module’, detached from, say, questions of political economy. Take Back Parliament is a campaign for ‘Fair Votes’. It draws on an activist base which wants a state grounded in real popular sovereignty, in which state power is more widely dispersed, transparent and accountable, and respectful of civil liberties. But these commitments are compatible with a wide range of philosophical views on citizenship and the economy. They can fit with a left republican agenda which also wants to make the power of capital accountable. Or they can fit with a right-libertarian politics which simplistically sees ‘the state’ as the problem and seeks to ‘shrink’ the state in the name of liberty. Or they can fit with any number of other positions.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead – and thereby sticking my neck out - I do not expect right communitarianism or centre republicanism to be that important in determining the final character of the Coalition.

The Coalition does not represent the ‘end of Thatcherism’. To be sure, Cameron is a Tory politician in what David Marquand calls the ‘Whig imperialist’ tradition and, as such, he is not a dogmatic or doctrinaire politician in the way that the Thatcherites of the 1980s were. In that sense Thatcherism is indeed dead. But the thing about Whig imperialists is that, precisely because they are so undoctrinaire, so untheoretical and ‘pragmatic’, they adapt to their ideological surroundings, to the prevailing ‘common sense’. And the ‘common sense’ surrounding Cameron and his allies, as of so much of the political elite more widely, is in its essence a Thatcherite one: the state is the problem, markets work, taxes should be lowered, unions should be weak, etc. These assumptions, grasped as a sensibility rather than as a theoretical dogma, will be the major force shaping the government’s character. Thatcherism had to be doctrinaire in the 1980s because it was then an insurgent public philosophy battling to displace the conventional wisdom. Now it is the conventional wisdom. So its continued success is quite compatible with the ascendancy of undoctrinaire, pragmatic politicians.

In short, I expect this to be a government of Thatcherite consolidation: a government that consolidates Britain’s adherence to neo-liberal economics and which tries to use the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to push an anti-state agenda further. This is entirely consistent with modest tempering of free-market excesses in specific areas, e.g., banking – just as New Labour tempered excesses in other areas, e.g., in the distribution of income via generous tax credits, while also preserving key elements of the post-Thatcher settlement. The Liberal Democrats are not in a strong position to resist any of this, not least because their own ‘Orange Book’ liberals share much of the Thatcherite analysis.

Right communitarianism is potentially important in rhetorical terms as providing the government with a distinctively non-Thatcherite, ‘compassionate’ way of talking about problems of poverty - even as the practice of welfare reform is to intensify coercive pressures on the most vulnerable in the labour market. And centre republican discourse can of course be used to argue for new experiments in the public services, such as Michael Gove’s agenda for schools. Admittedly, this requires that one accentuate the more individualistic aspects of republican thought almost to the exclusion of the democratic aspects – but Reeves’s conception of republicanism has always had something of this bias.

On the other hand, a creative coming together of left communitarian and left republican currents might yet offer a way of truly bringing the age of Thatcher to an end.

But while this fusion can probably be made philosophically, it is harder to make it happen politically. It will require a willingness on Labour’s part – of which there is as yet little sign - to accept a new, pluralistic electoral politics, a politics of red/green or red/orange or red/green/orange coalitions. And it will require a supporting context of campaigning activism that engages with social, economic and environmental issues with the same idealism, imagination and generosity of spirit with which the new democratic activists campaign for the reconstitution of the state. Of course, some of that activism is there already. But we need so much more of it.

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