The way out of the wood

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Winter Forest, Scott Wylie

Labour’s current crisis is primarily a crisis of the intellect

By Philip Collins | Read the counterargument by Karin Smyth

The Labour party is at a crisis point, of that there can be no doubt. After the defeat of Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election the party came to a fork in the path through the wood. It decided to take the road less travelled by. It is discovering already, in the early difficulties of the Corbyn leadership, that there is a reason why it is a road less travelled. It is because it leads nowhere. The selection of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour party will prove to be, in electoral terms, a catastrophe. But that question is not separate from the intellectual catastrophe that Corbyn represents for Labour. In fact, the very reason the electorate will not put him in Downing Street is that it will recognise the intellectual redundancy of his project. The current crisis will be measured and revealed by its absent votes but it is, first and foremost, a crisis of the intellect. This essay is an attempt to define that crisis and offer some tentative suggestions for what might be done about it.

The story of the Labour party, of where it has gone wrong and where it might start to look for salvation, can be told through the tales of two MPs for Birkenhead. The first is Edmund Dell, a former business executive and trade minister under Harold Wilson and later the first chair of Channel Four. Dell’s legacy to the Labour party, though, is his brilliant journey through Labour’s intellectual life in Strange, Eventful History. The Shakesperian title is a tip-off that the story Dell has to tell is a tragedy.

Dell traces the decline of Labour socialism. In exhaustive detail, and highly persuasively, he points out that, when the middle class intellectuals such as the Webbs wrestled control of Labour’s programme from the working men of the trades unions, a change embodied in Labour and the New Social Order from 1918, the party became committed to economic socialism. The history of the Labour party, from that moment on says Dell, is the story of how it gradually abandoned most of what it believed, how it came to see its initial commitments as unrealistic and even undesirable.

The disposal of economic socialism

The first disposal was economic socialism. The Labour party after 1918 was, in theory at least, committed to the fourth clause of the party’s constitution which promised to take the commanding heights of industry into public ownership. This was the first instance, which, as Dell points out, was due to be repeated many times, in which the ideology of the Labour party proved to command very little affection in the country. The history of democratic socialism, argues Dell, is the story of the first term contradicting the second. It was impossible, as it turned out, to do socialism democratically because there were not enough advocates in the nation. Democracy was a barrier to full-blooded socialism in Britain, not its accompaniment. The first Miliband, Ralph, was right. There is no parliamentary road to socialism. Democratic socialism is an oxymoron.

The next nostrum of democratic socialism came after its full, Marxisant version fell apart by the end of the 1930s. It was given extra speed by the split in the party after the stock market crash of 1929 which also furnished the party with one of its favourite stock characters: the traitor of the betrayal myth. Forever after, the name of James Ramsay Macdonald featured as the example of what happens when Labour people depart from established orthodoxy – they are nothing more than Tories, traitors to the cause.

The first Miliband, Ralph, was right. There is no parliamentary road to socialism. Democratic socialism is an oxymoron

The most interesting thinker economically on the left in the 1930s was, strange to relate, Oswald Mosley whose corporatist New party, in the days before the poison of antisemitism took him over completely, at least had the virtue of being a radical response to crisis. After the fissure of 1931, however, the left of the party was emboldened. For neither the first nor the last time, the left mistook a local bust for a fundamental crisis of capitalism.  As it always does, the left assumed that even if revolution was not nigh, the conditions were propitious for a transformation in the economic order. The echoes of Ed Miliband’s arguments between 2010 and 2015 are audible.

This meant that the immediate impact of Keynesian economics, on both the Labour party and the nation, was less extensive than it should have been. In the nation, that was because Labour never came close to becoming a party of government throughout the low, dishonest decade of the 1930s. For all the heroic rhetoric and angry admonition of the Public Assistance Committee, Labour was in a position to do nothing. It is characteristic and worrying for the Labour party that so much of its moral fervour still derives from images of struggle. Implicit in the very idea of struggle is that power is held elsewhere. For a party that was invented with the express intention of winning power that was a dismal failure. The nation was in the midst of a terrible depression, the victims of which were largely Labour voters and the party was essentially nowhere.

Even had Labour been a greater presence in national electoral politics, Keynesianism was not an overwhelming force within the party either. Instead, the 1930s saw the slow demise of the first phase of Labour thought, the first illusion that the obvious problems thrown up by the uneven development of capitalism could be alleviated by a native branch of socialist economics. There was no evidence that the electorate was interested and no evidence either that the Labour party was at all interested. It was, alas, a combination that recurs too often in the party’s history.

Labour the war party

Labour was saved by the second world war. There is a case to be made that the Labour party is essentially a war party. It was brought to life by the convulsion of the Great War and came to its finest hour with the second war. There were two reasons for this. The first was the commendable service given to the nation by the Labour members of Winston Churchill’s war-time coalition. It was impossible to argue that Labour was not a responsible party when its leading figures had given such conspicuously good, and non-partisan, war service. When, in the 1945 general election campaign, Churchill decried the possibility of a British Gestapo if Labour were returned to power the claim seemed entirely histrionic. That was especially the case because a number of Labour’s high-profile candidates had seen service at the front line of action. There was never less of a question about Labour’s patriotism.

The second reason was that the economic war footing was so amenable to the ethos of the Labour party. A war economy requires far greater control by central government than is usual in peace time. It is a planned economy in which the market is tamed because of the immediate need that production be directed towards the war effort. Given that this was essentially the economic system that Labour party advocated at all times, the experience of war seemed like vindication. The identity of war and peace is, of course, quite false but it was easy in the heady days of 1945 to think otherwise.

Besides, Labour was genuinely in tune with the temper of the time in a way that the war hero, Churchill, was not. The 1942 Beveridge report had begun the process of ensuring that the war was fought for a land worth coming back to. There was, by the end of the conflict, a clear consensus in the country, and among the returning servicemen, that public action was needed on the welfare of citizens. There was a strong sense that public healthcare was now vital, that the nation should look after its citizens from cradle to grave. The 1930s had been debilitating and gruesome. The men from those communities had uncomplainingly risked their lives, and in many cases lost them, to preserve their freedom. The argument that Britain could not afford a decent standard of welfare was no longer tenable but it was an argument that Churchill put himself on the wrong side of. Clement Attlee placed Labour on the right side and the achievements of the 1945 administration stand as a testament to Labour’s good work in office.

They were, in one sense though, misleading achievements. That is not meant to diminish them, nor to say that they ought not to feature in Labour’s list of things to be proud of. They should; but the circumstances of their birth cannot be repeated. In particular, the war provided the economic rationale for bringing major industries into public ownership. In the social realm, the experience of war had done the same for public action in pursuit of welfare goals.

Labour therefore did have some backing for the nationalisation of heavy industry on which it embarked between 1945 and 1951. The spell soon waned, though, and nationalisation did not prove to be the new economic model that its begetter, Herbert Morrison, thought it would. The programme had so much run out of steam by 1951 that Churchill got back into power. The question of ownership and the scope of planning bedevilled the Labour party during its long wilderness between 1951 and 1964.

The revisionist’s revision

It was Tony Crosland who was the next to throw ideas overboard. His The Future Of Socialism, published in 1956, was a landmark in Labour revisionism. The main point Crosland set out to revise was the obsession, raised to the status of a defining idea, with nationalisation. It did not matter, said Crosland, whether the state actually took ownership of industry. The sovereign idea of the Labour movement was not, he argued, public ownership, which was a mere means to an end. The sovereign end was equality. Crosland therefore recast Labour as a party committed to the end of inequality but flexible, or you might say vague, on how it was to come about. By the time Crosland had finished there was more or less nothing left of the economic thinking with which the Labour had begun.

This is why the Blair revolution was seen by many in the Labour party as a shift too far. When Peter Mandelson declared himself supremely relaxed about the filthy rich and when Tony Blair himself said that inequality was not the nation’s most pressing issue they seemed to abandon the only precept Labour had left. Wilson, of all people, had once said that the Labour party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. With the soft-pedalling on equality it seemed that the Labour party had lost all moral fervour and had ceased to be a crusade for anything. This is why a figure like Roy Hattersley, a revisionist all his political life, stopped revising during the Blair years and stood still as the high priest of Croslandite equality.

The last Labour governments did more for equality than any of their predecessors. The fact that the economic conditions disguise the achievement does not therefore lessen it

Roy Jenkins one said of Blair’s entry into the Labour party that “he climbed up the building from the outside”. The Blair years in office bear that assessment out to some extent but not all the way. The Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 did a great deal, for example, to stem the economic tendency for wages to flow to those with the highest skill levels. It is becoming harder and harder to combat inequality because, with an inflated skill premium, market capitalism is producing a more and more unequal outcome. By the end of the Labour period in office, inequality was almost exactly where it was at the time of the party taking office. Against the tide, this counts as a considerable achievement. The last Labour governments did more for equality than any of their predecessors. The fact that the economic conditions disguise the achievement does not therefore lessen it.

The Blair departure

In other aspects of policy, however, the Blair years did depart from Labour orthodoxy. The reforms of public services, notably the Academies programme in education and the foundation trusts in the NHS, at least seemed like a novelty. The injection of small bursts of private capital and private provision into public services and the limited use of market discipline (not markets and certainly very little privatisation) did allow a caricature to take hold that Labour did not understand or respect the public realm. The writings of David Marquand are instructive in this regard. In a subtle and balanced epilogue to The Progressive Dilemma, Marquand wonders aloud about whether, in his “divided soul” Blair was a pluralist or a centralist. When Blair was revealed as a reformer who wanted to improve services by creating many different points of power, Marquand turned against it, defying his own reputation as a pluralist. In The Decline of the Public Marquand showed that what he really wanted was a public sector free of interference, something that, in health and education, had led to a comfortable profession but no notable service improvements.

However, that is not to say that turning the dial back to the Blair years is an easy solution to the crisis that Labour now finds itself in. David Hare once said that Blair was the only Labour leader he had ever known who did not want to turn the clock back by a single second. It follows from that insight that the next Labour leader (I am afraid I have given up on the current one) should not seek to turn the clock back either. The problems he or she will encounter have changed. Some issues have been addressed; new ones have come to the fore.

The Labour party needs to be careful with its own past. It has a tendency either to sanctify it or to cast it off. The Attlee government is populated, in Labour legend, with saintly figures doing the public good. The puritanical Stafford Cripps maintaining austerity in the public finances that makes George Osborne look like a spendthrift is quietly erased. At the other end of the spectrum of welcoming, the Blair years have been dismissed and disowned by the last two Labour leaders. As we look forward to answer once again the question of what should be the purpose of the Labour party it is important to be unsentimental and unsparing about the past but also careful. There will be fragile elements in that past which, if they are carried with care, will still be serviceable in the future.

The first clause of the Labour party

There is a case for saying that the clause that matters most in the constitution of the Labour party has never been the fourth but the first. Clause One of the party constitution reads: “This organisation shall be known as the Labour party. Its purpose is to organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour party.” The objective of being a presence in parliament, which is to say winning as many seats as possible, was written into the party’s purpose from the beginning of the founding document. It was the raison d’etre and the point. Clause One does not contain any caveats about winning only subject to an ideology that the left of the party can cope with. It says simply that the task is to mount a political force and get it into parliament.

The Labour pioneers were confident in what they thought. They felt no need to add to Clause One the rider that the power they sought was in order to turn their beliefs from fond hope into reality

Of course the Labour party has to be a party of doctrine. That is why I spent so long running through the various doctrines that it has so far jettisoned. There has to be a reason that people wish to vote for a Labour party rather than any other party. But no practically minded Labour soul would ever doubt this. Contrary to the regular caricature, nobody ever wants to win purely for the sake of winning. Power has to be sought for a reason. However, it needs to be said that the reverse is always true. The reason for being in politics has no practical expression if a party is not in power. That does not just mean national general elections. Labour is in power in many councils and there are other elected bodies, such as the police commissioners. But power is the means of politics. Power is indispensable. The Labour pioneers were confident in what they thought. They felt no need to add to Clause One the rider that the power they sought was in order to turn their beliefs from fond hope into reality. They assumed that went without saying. It no longer does, so this is me saying it.

This then poses the question of what that purpose should now be. In the speech which he would have delivered had he won the Labour leadership in 2010, David Miliband was going to argue that Labour wins in the country when it has an argument that seems to address the predicament that Britain is in at the time.

In 1945, the Attlee government understood the deep desire of a people weary of war to build a land worthy of their sacrifices. In 1964, in less frantic peacetime circumstances, Wilson voiced the idea that, by harnessing the technological revolution, Britain might arrest its post-imperial decline. In 1997, Blair spoke to a country that wanted prosperity to be maintained but put to better use because repairs were needed to the public realm. On each occasion there was a clear national question and on each occasion the Labour party was seen to be addressing it. This is not, it should be noted, simply the same as asserting “Labour values”, whatever they are said to be. It is, first, about understanding the serious questions that are confronting the nation, and then applying the intellectual weight of the Labour tradition to those problems.

Britain and its discontents

The first task, therefore, is to identify the problems to which any political movement must now address itself. These will not necessarily be problems chosen the better to showcase the Labour party’s sense of concern or amour propre. They will be the problems that people in Britain face, like it or not. They are also not problems such as the Labour party’s predicament in Scotland. That is a problem, and a serious one, for the Labour party but it is not a problem for Scotland as such. Scotland is doing very well, thank you very much, without the Labour party, at least in the estimation of the Scottish people, which is the only estimation that counts.

There is a set of problems confronting Britain now, to which Labour needs to supply a set of answers. Or at least a flavour of an answer. It is not always possible, in opposition, when money and time are both tight, to provide detailed responses to highly complex problems. The public will expect, however, that they have a sense of the approach that a future Labour government would take and that the opposition have understood both the nature of the issues people face and allot them the same level of priority. Too often political parties are tempted to impose their own order of priority on the nation. The Conservative party is doing just that at the time of writing with its unnecessary renegotiation of Britain’s position in Europe leading to a referendum on the subject.

The questions that will define Labour’s purpose over the next decade are:

  • Whether this country can reconcile itself with larger-scale immigration or whether the flow will have to be turned back;
  • The balance between work and welfare and the attitude we strike to welfare recipients;
  • The national infrastructure, notably airport capacity;
  • The competitive position of Britain in the world;
  • The life chances of those born either into ordinary households or into poverty;
  • The settlement between the generations;
  • How we use the talents of an ageing population and then how we care for the elderly;
  • How we pay for a NHS which is dealing with rising demand and a greater, and more expensive, capacity.

What is living and what is dead in the Labour approach

There are two levels at which an approach needs to be made towards a set of pressing problems such as this. The first is conceptual. What, in broad outline, is the Labour party in the business of trying to achieve? Related to that, what broad set of values inform the way it tries to solve the problems that, like it or not, it faces? There is an important question of political identity at stake in this question. A political project does need to distinguish itself from its opponents. If the Labour answers are exactly the same as the Conservative answers then it is fair to ask why they are needed.

It is important to be as hard-headed as Edmund Dell when we come to survey the available intellectual resources for a Labour renewal. It is no good pointing back to thinkers of a previous age with the assumption that their work is still viable. Time’s eroding agent has been let loose and some of that work was unappealing even in its own era. That is not, however, a counsel of despair. There is plenty to go on. Crosland famously said, in The Future of Socialism, that there were at least 13 traditions of thought within the Labour family. There may even be more.

There are some fabled thinkers on the Left who are better read as historical curiosities than as guides to the present. This is not to say they never mattered or even to dismiss the quality of what they wrote. It is to say simply that time has run out on the concerns they addressed and the answers they adduced. This often happens to writing and it would be sentimental to dust down some of the storied thinkers of the Left just because they appear in the pantheon.

There are plenty of thinkers whose work, whatever its virtues for the time, has not lasted the only test that counts – the test of time. My account of Dell’s history of the Labour party will mean the list will not come as a surprise. The very endeavour of the Labour party as I have been conceiving it, which is a party which gradually redefined its original socialism out of all recognition, means that Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism is a book devoted to a paradox. Miliband’s thesis is, on this account, that the Labour party failed to secure by parliamentary means, something it never genuinely sought to achieve.

The experiment to make a viable intellectual prospectus out of planning the economy ran into its own practical considerations. The best accounts of this view of the world were Douglas Jay’s The Socialist Case and Evan Durbin’s The Politics of Democratic Socialism but neither especially repay a reading now. The same is true, alas, of Harold Laski’s Democracy in Crisis, John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle For Power and Aneurin Bevan’s rambling In Place of Fear.

Into that category we might consign William Morris whose romantic utopian socialism really has precious little to say about a global post-industrial prosperous economy. The vision of a pastoral utopia along the Thames, which he presents in News From Nowhere, and in which the Houses of Parliament feature as good for nothing other than the storage of manure, is intriguing but no longer relevant. Neither is the way Morris cheats when it comes to the practical route to his utopia. In one meagre chapter, he postulates a peaceful revolution which deposits society just where he wants it to be. To a party defined by the marriage of philosophy and practice, such as the Labour party, this is not enough.

The same might now be said of the early Fabians and, in particular, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who provided their intellectual inspiration. The Webbs, it should be said, are in a different category of thinker to Morris. Intensely practical in their work and applied directly to the pressing demands of social problems (see Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905-1909, for example), the Webbs have many achievements to their name, notably the foundation of the New Statesman and the London School of Economics. Their influence on the British left is plentiful and assured.

However, they do not any longer provide the best guide for what the Labour party needs to do next. In a sense, the seeds of why not are contained in the admirable Minority Report. Beatrice Webb, along with another dissident, George Lansbury, argued, quite rightly, that the poor should not be made entirely accountable for themselves. However, from that insight, early Fabianism edged towards a form of central government responsibility that erased people from the script. Labour socialism, in its bourgeois intellectual form, became a highly centralised doctrine.

From this time on the Labour party seemed optimistic about people in general but very pessimistic about the capacity of human beings in particular. The preferred model was to do things for and to people rather than with them. Labour became the party of the social policy expert using the technocratic capacity of the modern state to fix popular problems. The distance between the people and politics, which is such a contemporary complaint, are contained in the intellectual method inculcated a century earlier.

The attractions of federalism

The next phase of Labour thinking, in a less deferential and hierarchical age, surely has to take greater account of what GDH Cole calls the federalist wing of Labour thinking. The origins of the federalist side of Labour thinking go back before the turn of the century. Eric Hobsbawm has written of the sense in which the Labour movement inherits the force and intellectual daring of radical liberalism, to which Labour owes a debt it is rarely keen to acknowledge. The Liberal thinkers Leonard Hobhouse and John A Hobson developed a brand of left republican thought that overlaps importantly with the Labour tradition. The radical liberals brought to liberalism an appreciation that the state underpinned functioning markets and that public policy was needed to mitigate some of the worst effects of capitalism. It is a strand of thought that is still useful today as we embark on trying to understand the advanced and highly successful capitalism of our day.

This is a task in which Cole is still an aid. In his books A Socialist Civilisation and, in particular, Self-Government in Industry, Cole set out an idea of socialism that was deeply rooted in popular power. The tendency of his work is to seek to take power from the centre and apply it to the lowest relevant level. That does not mean a simplistic idea of “popular power”. There are many services that require collective provision, as well as pooled funding. But Cole did start from the assumption that people were capable and that it is the interest of the citizen, rather than the interest of the institution, that really counted. There has always been a strong tendency in the Labour movement to prize the institution over its consequences. Cole was immune from that.

Eric Hobsbawm has written of the sense in which the Labour movement inherits the force and intellectual daring of radical liberalism, to which Labour owes a debt it is rarely keen to acknowledge

The other great icons of Labour thinking, from whom guidance can be salvaged, are RH Tawney, George Orwell, Crosland and Richard Titmuss. In Equality and The Acquisitive Society, Tawney supplies the language of moral revolt. He teaches the left to apply the test of social purpose to all institutions and provides a reminder that politics must answer an ethical calling, that political philosophy is, as Isaiah Berlin once said, the application of moral philosophy.

Orwell was not a systematic political thinker – indeed, on the question of the desirability of liberal democracy he was an unfailingly poor guide – but he does supply some of the moral force necessary to any political plan from the left. Orwell is a much better source of the moral anger needed on the left than Robert Tressell whose Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is always on the list of favoured books for Labour MPs but which is, in brutal truth, a highly sentimental and lengthy lament. Orwell also, in The Lion and the Unicorn, for example, has a unique way of being both a dissident and a patriot at the same time, something which the left, with its liking for abstractions, has often forgotten how to do.

That was something Crosland, as a practicing politician as well as a thinker of the first rank, understood very well. The Future of Socialism is not an airy tract. It is an intensely practical volume designed to weed out from the Labour tradition those aspects that were, in 1956, no longer relevant to the urgent tasks of winning power and then using it well. In his ancillary writings Crosland went into greater policy detail on what a Labour government should actually do. The abiding point of his main great work is, as we saw above, the recuperation and updating of the idea of equality. The clue to how this can be done can be found in Titmuss’s The Irresponsible Society and in the later work of Julian Le Grand, Richard Titmuss Professor no less, in his book The Strategy of Equality. The main point of this body of work is that services for the poor tend to be poor services, that there is a great deal more to a rich idea of equality than just income level.

At this point, the pursuit of wisdom takes us outside the established tradition of British socialism. A rich ideal of equality has been elucidated in The Idea of Justice by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. This book, which is a summary of a lifetime’s work, sets out Sen’s theory that all developed theories share a concern with equality. Where they differ is only in the dimension of equality to which they accord the greatest priority. The particular equality on which Sen places most value is what he calls the equality of capability. This means that it is important to attend to what people are in fact capable of doing. This capacity is helped by their being free and also a constitutive part of what we mean by freedom. It is no good being free in principle to do something which is impossible to do in practice. It is also worth investigating the work of the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin who, in Sovereign Virtue, also shows that liberty is worth little if it does not come equipped with the resources to live a chosen life. This is the very idea that Tawney was getting at when he wrote about “practical equality”.

Practical equality

So, if we can develop an idea of practical equality, derived from what is still living in the Labour intellectual tradition, and fit it to the list of questions that any government would have to confront, what kind of party does that imply? There is more to be said than there is space for here, but Labour should start with three programmes of work: federal power, contribution and opportunity.

The first important move will be to recognise the need to give power away. This is most notably seen in the shift of political power out of London to the cities, a shift on which Labour has so far been ambiguous. It is easy to see why Labour centralisers, inspired by a vintage idea of equality, might want to hoard power. Labour should instead now become an enthusiastically federal party. Lest this be thought a rather dry, constitutional idea, it needs to be stressed that it means a great deal more than that. To spread power means being radical about the budgets of public services, for example. Where the individual is capable of making personal decisions, which is in most parts of their lives, then every effort should be made to get the money down to the individual.  This will be disruptive for the prevailing institutions but Labour has to get over its historic bias towards being the defender of the existing workforce. Labour has to continue the journey of ages, from producer to consumer.

A party committed to the dignity and importance of labour — and if this party isn’t then no party is ever going to be – should champion work over welfare and contribution as a principle that organises public assistance

The Labour party also needs to recover the idea of contribution. The intellectual heritage I have been commending takes us back to the voluntary associations — the friendly societies, the mutual help organisations and, of course, the trade unions — which were the founders of the movement. The future of the idea of contribution is probably not to be found in a major resurgence of friendly societies but in a revival of the principle of contribution in the welfare state. Ever since the Lloyd George reforms of 1911 the amount of welfare that is linked to prior contribution has been falling. Much to the chagrin of Beveridge himself that process accelerated after the second world war.

A party committed to the dignity and importance of labour — and if this party isn’t then no party is ever going to be — should champion work over welfare and contribution as a principle that organises public assistance. If people were to get higher levels of help if they could show a work history, that would go a long way toward rebuilding trust in the welfare state. It would, into the bargain, be the best, perhaps the only, way of turning Britain’s toxic immigration system in a more liberal direction. But the best argument for the contributory principle is none of these secondary cases. It is that it answers an instinct for fairness that is widely shared and right in itself. The Labour party has become the party of national welfare according to need. There is nothing ignoble about that of course but its origins are in local welfare according to contribution and it is time to raid the past in order to secure the future.

The third part of the platform has to place Labour as a party of justice. The principal injustice in Britain today remains the same as it ever was. Too few people from modest backgrounds have the chance to make the most of their capabilities. If the Labour party has nothing to say about this then it really is departing from its historic purpose.  There are two aspects to this worthy of particular note. The first is that disparities in life chances open early in the cycle of life. A government committed to an idea of justice must be serious about redirecting resources from later in life, when the course is more settled, to earlier. The second aspect is that Britain still does extremely badly by those students whose path is not academic. It has been said so often it amounts to a cliché but provision for young adults whose skills lie elsewhere are still too poor. It would be a recognition of Sen’s point that equality and opportunity come in many different forms that a future Labour government might take vocational education as seriously as its beneficiaries deserve.

Talking a new language

There is one final consideration. Almost as much as news itself, politics thrives on novelty. The task of any political project is to draw on a tradition while managing to sounds fresh and new. If Labour spokespeople sound like they are treading once again back through the years of government then they will not win a hearing. Labour needs now to be proud of its time in government, rather than discard it and disavow it as there has been a tendency to do, but also it should recognise that it is a fading memory. It is time for some new thinking and a new way of describing that thinking.

The best place to start is right at the beginning. The origins of the Labour party are useful in two vital ways. The first is intellectual. The roots of the party are in voluntary collective organisation to secure a transfer of power from the elites at the centre to the ordinary man and women. The Labour pioneers had a sensibility which, over the course of a century, Labour slowly lost. They trusted the people. There is a lot said at the moment about the fact that the electorate do not trust the politicians. Any true democrat should not mind that so much. The real disaster is when the politicians do not trust the electorate. There has been a “do as you are told” bossiness to the Labour culture which it has to throw off.

The second way in which it is important to refer back to the origins of the Labour party is, to repeat because the point is so important, to take note of the first clause of the Labour constitution. It is a demand for power. It is a reminder that political philosophy is nothing more or less than the description of the ideas that constitute good and bad government. That is the point. It is not about good or bad opposition but the pursuit and wielding of power. The Labour party was formed in the same spirit and it is in that spirit that it must now move forward.

Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for The Times. He was previously the chief speechwriter for Tony Blair and director of the Social Market Foundation

Read the counterargument by Karin Smyth

Photograph: Scott Wylie, Flickr

17 Responses to "The way out of the wood"
  1. Patrick Whitten says:

    A typically sensible, realistic summary from Phil. It’s sad that such an argument needs to be spelled out, though here the case is indeed well made. Still, wIthout wishing to carp aren’t there perhaps two points of weak logic?

    The first is the old chestnut of equality versus opportunity. You can have one or the other but ‘equality of opportunity’, implied towards the end, is an oxymoron. People who grab opportunities put themselves above the equal footing level. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try hard to improve life chances, especially in the early years. But let’s not kid ourselves about the essential incompatibility of the two concepts.

    Second, how is the Labour Party to ‘move forward’ in this spirit (or do anything sensible) when it’s been completely taken over by the Trots of the hard left? There surely has to be a new party.

  2. Tony Yates says:

    I enjoyed this. Responding as an economist, with ill-developed political antennae, I had a slightly different list of things that ANY party would have to address itself to, Labour or otherwise. Housing, energy. These you may have put under ‘infrastructure’, but deserve particular emphasis given how far from solving them we are at the moment. I’d add the national debt: what is it for, and what is the just and equitable way to use it to smooth through booms, busts, windfalls and catastrophe. Perhaps this is what you meant also by the ‘settlement of the generations’. I’d suggest that there is unfinished business in the matter of settling on the right regulation of finance. Lastly, though this is far from my own patch, it seems to me that the question of the settlement between constituent parts of the union is still at issue.

  3. No specific mention of the housing crisis within the sub-heading of “The questions that will define Labour’s purpose over the next decade”
    Included within “infrastructure” or “settlement between the generations” perhaps.
    Weaning the middle classes away from the cult of home ownership and private education, two key drivers of inequality, important challenge for any relevant re-invention of Labour.

  4. Tony Yates says:

    Something else I missed, or perhaps a way of framing the issue about infrastructure, is the issue of productivity. As has been widely documented, labour productivity performance since the onset of the crisis has been terrible, currently resting at >10% below a line extrapolated out from pre-crisis data. This has not been all bad news, since it is part of the reason why unemployment rose so little during the crisis, given the fall in output, and it therefore meant that the costs of the crisis did not fall – as they did in the past, and in the US in this recession – on such a narrow group. A lot of people earned less, rather than a smaller group earning nothing. Anyway, to the extent that productivity is amenable to government action, this would surely be a national priority. There are different views on whether it is amenable or not.

    • Alan Lockey says:

      Tony, I believe George Osborne has a plan for productivity and it is called the national ‘living’ wage. A glance across the English Channel can illustrate my point. A simplistic reading of the statistics shows that the French do the same work as we do in a four day work. The reality is that they don’t care much about helping the ‘unemployable’ into work and their vaguely protectionist labour market completes the job. You compare us along similar parameters with the US and the story is similar. I hypothesise that Osborne knows full well that his new wage rate will make people unemployed and in fact that this is precisely the point.

      Also, I received a polling presentation from YouGov recently which illuminates the total toxicity for Labour on immigration. If immigration is a national concern the Tories, indirectly via UKIP, do well. Therefore, I believe that Osborne also knows that the ‘living wage’ plan may spike immigration close to the election. Playing with fire, yes, but devilishly Machiavellian. When you consider too that the dominant, in the last two years of this Parliament, may well about this wage rise and a fight between big business and the Conservative Party, with the latter on the side of the low paid then I think it seems pretty clear, irrespective of what happens vis a vis the Labour leadership, that the Tories have already won the next election. Unless of course they want to throw it away themselves, which we cannot rule out.

  5. Chris Gardiner says:

    The Labour party needs to learn what wins.
    A graphic list of ideals. Who shouted them and what effect it had on party power.
    Speeches that won the party faithful and lost the election and why.
    Which winners in the Labour party lost the election.
    Michael Foot, Ed Milliband, Neil Kinnock.

    Neil Kinnock made a great speech

    Do not be old, do not be sick etc.

    Why was this an election loser, Labour membership needs to have one meeting a year of learning because you do not win without discipline.

    Who were the clear winners?
    Tony Blair, Clemant Atlee, Harold Wilson, Gordon Brown
    What were their winning strategies and which ones were going in the wrong direction.

    With a growing membership education of members needs to be constant.

    People need to get up and show their oratory skills on where Tony Blair was good for the party and where he was Bad, How labour won power and how they lost it. It is necessary to look beyond the economic crash because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown lost touch with the grass roots causing the current catastrophe.
    Somebody needs to take the next conference by storm and they need collective help.

  6. Jonathan Rutherford says:

    Phil, very good essay. I have a few comments.
    I agree with you about the history of Labour’s intellectual influences and also the role of the middle class socialist groups both the Jacobin and technocratic versions and their influence in shaping the Labour Party. But I also think that Labour’s current problems lie in the sociological changes in Britain and the historical decline of the Labour cultures and institutions which once embodied more mainstream middle and working class opinion. Not only has Labour’s industrial class coalition disappeared, it is now much harder to counter the Jacobin tendency that maroons Labour in a narrow political enclave.

    This leads to my second comment which is about globalisation and which I think was the undoing of the New Labour project in that it did not take enough notice of its downsides.
    The obvious one is the scale of immigration and the impact it had on communities and people’s sense of belonging and identity – arguably one of the causes of Labour’s 2010 defeat.

    The second one is the financialisation of the economy which has contributed to a concentration of wealth and power in a very small elite. It has produced a culture of short termism and excessive management pay awards driven by share holder value. The economy that is still too reliant on household debt and asset bubbles for growth. The tendency of this kind of financialised economy is to extract wealth and distribute it upwards rather than create it. We have a banking system that still remains largely unreformed and a lot of good SMEs that need investment for innovation and growth and aren’t getting it.

    Alongside this concentration of wealth and power, wages have fallen behind productivity (Itself chronically low) for several decades. Middle income jobs mostly associated with the skilled working classes are disappearing. We are experiencing a technological revolution that is likely to transform working life and is already creating a generation of losers.

    Your essay briefly notes the issue of immigration but not much about why it exercises so many people . You don’t say anything about the concentrations of unaccountable economic power and the structural problems of the British economy that generate inequalities and imbalances and hold back innovation and the development of efficient competitive markets.

    If Labour is to disperse state power and democratise our intermediate institutions and public services to ensure individuals can develop their capabilities and have more say and control over their lives it must also tackle unaccountable vested interests in the economy and ensure a fairer balance of interest between capital and labour.

    This means looking at the basic units of capitalism, not simply imposing state regulation . We need to reform corporate governance, perhaps with a new Companies Act to modernise the PLC to ensure a better balance between all stakeholders. A more efficient and productive capitalism in the decades ahead has to harness the creativity, skills, ideas of a much larger number of people than in the past. That means workers on boards, encouraging employer employee partnerships, improving often mediocre management, ensuring there are more opportunities for career progression, different models of ownership, investing in the social economy and a prioritising a high quality system of vocational education including in it medical and law schools to break down the class snobbery.

    There is an opportunity for a period of reform as the economy improves. Labour needs to look again at its political economy. It should be pro business and pro worker. It needs to win back trust by being fiscally prudent but it needs to stand up for decent work and working people by being economically radical.

    • Alan Lockey says:

      Excellent points Jonathan, particularly on countering the Jacobin tendency. You know my thoughts on the challenges of immigration and identity. Can Labour mediate between communitarian and cosmopolitan; to occupy, in effect, an identity centre-ground? I am sceptical though the Tories, at least under Cameron, certainly seem like they can. But on this axis, which seems ever more important, the Labour coalition would seem to be fundamentally at odds – and our historical solution, spending money, is not an option. Strangely, for all the supposed divisions on political outlook and attitudes towards power New Labour and the Corbynista occupy a pretty similar cosmopolitan tendency on this alternative axis. Once more demonstrating that, as far as the public is concerned, Labour’s salient flaws do not discriminate between factions.

      But even more worryingly I think this could be worse than traditional divisions. Because ultimately who is prepared to mediate and negotiates their identity? For all Bernie Sanders’s economic populism his supporters don’t go to Donald Trump rallies to scream indignation about inequality. It is an anger which says “I am not you” and, naturally, one that is returned with interest. Compromising yourself is very different to compromising your beliefs, particularly for the technologically radicalised activists and digital natives that now dominate the party membership.

      In sensationalised electoral terms the following would appear’s Labour’s choice. Either persuade Clacton that open borders are a good idea or persuade Jeremy Corbyn that building (metaphorical?) walls around Europe is not a bad one. It says something fairly bleak about the future of the Western world, let alone Labour, that I believe the latter task might be the easier option.

      All thoughts and hope welcome.

  7. Patrick Whitten mentions the elephant in the room. Even if Labour could be wrested from the Trots, say 10 years from now, would the brand have taken such damage that it wouldn’t be worth saving?

    But that’s not how I see the benefit of this initiative. By the discussion being public, it allows the involvement of non-Labour people, such as myself. It allows the centre left in Labour and elsewhere to share thinking and build links, which would be important if (or when) a realignment happens.

    I’m not alone in the Lib Dems in wanting such a realignment. We’ve recently formed the Social Democrat Group, to develop such thinking in the LibDems and reach out to Labour moderates.

    I believe, beyond both our parties are many thousands who are alarmed by the current situation, and want a moderate progressive alternative to the Tories.

    Exploring that alternative is probably beyond the remit for this site. But what the site is seeking to do could still be enormously valuable to that alternative.


  8. Tony Yates,

    I’d particularly welcome examination of the most just and equitable way to handle debt and deficits.

    I’ve found, on the web, discussion of debt and deficits to be polarised and unhelpful. It seems to be driven by what people want to be true, rather than what the evidence points to.

    I would very much welcome respectful, serious and honest debate on this, where those engaged are honest about what they don’t know, and openly acknowledge that there are highly qualified people who hold a different view. Also where non-economists could start to engage in the debate.

    If the-argument could provide such a debate, that alone would be a great contribution to political discourse.

  9. Lyn Eynon says:

    Before you can comment on the alleged ‘intellectual redundancy’ of Jeremy Corbyn’s project, you first need to define what you understand that project to be. That definition can then be compared with what Corbyn and his supporters are actually saying and doing before assessing it. Most of the critical comment on Corbyn’s policies fails to do this. This is lazy and unhelpful to serious debate, so please define first then criticise.

  10. Matt Young says:

    This is an excellent introduction to the themes and ideas that Labour has to face, with a vital practical application. I’ll take issue with a couple of things, but the key point is that Phil is facing up to the challenges here, and we all need to do the same.

    I want to state briefly that I’m not on the right of the Party, I’m in its centre. Its implacably non-Corbynite centre. I share with Philip Collins the utmost urgency of Labour being in power, and recognising the things it has to do to win power. I don’t want to use the term ‘Blairite’ as that’s a stale word now, in many respects. But my key worry with those from that tradition is that there has not been anywhere near enough self-examination among them as to why the Party has ended up here, and the lessons we need to learn to move forward.

    The Party, in its joy and surprise at the outcome of the 2010 election, and the hope (alive in many) that the Coalition could somehow be prised out of office within months or a couple of years, failed to undergo the rigorous exercise of analysis (truth and reconciliation?) that was required. Ed Miliband’s tightrope walk, which kept the party pretty well united, and the failures of polls to tell us that we weren’t doing that well, meant that we never did look at the government years and see if we hadn’t sown some of the seeds of our ultimate destruction.

    That destruction came in 2015, and obviously, the need to do something about the cataclysm that Corbyn is leading us to is still getting in the way.

    The economic crisis of 2008 was not directly caused by a Labour government in the UK. However, the attitude of successive governments in the West, including and most relevantly that led by Blair and Brown, meant that greed and malfeasance in the Banks was overlooked, that the feel-good bubble of housing prices was inflated, and the Corporation Tax and economic boost the banking sector provided was welcomed with open arms. This meant that the impact of the crisis on the UK was severe, and required state funding to a degree which is still shaping our public discourse and damaging our public services.

    If we cannot admit to this, that our Labour government at the least acquiesced in the appalling behaviour of a sector that made greed its central and almost only purpose, then we do not deserve to win the trust of a public. Indeed, it is only through being honest about this that we can counter the Tory lie that “Labour overspending” was the cause of the crash.

    Now, it might be too late, and that ship may well have sailed, but one of our most pressing difficulties is in facing up to the fact that the last Labour government, with so many successes and achievements, also had catastrophic failures of economic management – to rebalance the economy away from the City and its financial services sector; to challenge the way that sector was operating; to recognise that rapidly inflating house prices was not a long-term economic plan (if you can forgive that phrase).

    This feeds into a wider criticism of the Blair/Brown years and their political strategy. While I will defend that government’s record in many areas, on social mobillity and inequality we went backwards. Why? Partly through just letting the market do what it does. And as Philip rightly said, it rewards the skilled. The failure of that government to recast the British economy, with two vast majorities and one very decent one, is hard to get over. Why did we fail? Because we not only had a lack of ambition, we ran government like we were constantly campaigning to win another knife-edge election. As though the Tories were constantly snapping at our heels, threatening to take seats from us in a few weeks’ time. Like we were begging newly-won over supporters to stay with us.

    I don’t believe this is how voters think. British voters especially say to their governments, “We’ve just elected you. Now get on with it.” In 1997, voters didn’t expect the world. They wanted an improvement on the ramshackle Major years. The bar wasn’t high. We could have got on with radical reform and brought the public along with us, if we wanted to. The Tories remained in turmoil for a good 10+ years after 97. We governed like we were afraid of the electorate. Too many right wing policies, too many Criminal Justice and Immigration Acts simply to send messages, too many gestures to the Mail (“Touchstone issues”) and other right wing papers (re-appointing Chris Woodhead at Ofsted was the early act of a PM fighting an election that had just ended).

    Rather than concentrating the energy and heft of the entire British government towards social justice, we spent too long trying to second guess voters who had already told us to get on with it. Not trying to move the Overton Window, but keep it half open where it was on 1 May 1997. Not enough ambition. Not enough will.

    And the result of all this? Not just the financial crisis which again tied the millstone of ‘Labour economic incompetence’ to our neck, but once it had happened the public was ready, hesitantly to a large degree, to turn back to a Tory party it still didn’t trust and to accept, surprisingly quietly, the hollowing out of the public realm: NHS Act, food banks, disability benefit cuts and all. We didn’t shift the window – we didn’t make swingeing cuts unacceptable, scapegoating immmigrants and benefit claimants was not outrageous, refloating the housing bubble was not a worry. And so we lose.

    Of course, we lose also through our current ineptitude.

    One final point where you’re absolutely right: Inequality didn’t fall after 1945 because the government shoved money into people’s pockets. It fell because governments, through the 1944 Education Act, the NHS, and the welfare state, stopped making people bear the costs of their own condition, and put the tools into their hands to make their lives better. I am living proof of this. The government didn’t put my Dad through night school or me through University, but it allowed him and me to do it. It meant we weren’t ruined by the costs of our medical needs, and it meant we had books around the house. THe main thing that made me was my grandparents and parents believing the next generation could arise from the circumstances of their births, and overcome them. They cared, and the environment we grew up in just about improved enough so that we had the time and space to learn and grow.

    And that’s what a Labour government can do in the 21st century – give people the tools, the skills, the space to grow and improve without worrying about penury the minute they hit a snag, an illness or a misfortune. Everything we do must be about giving people what they need to improve. People are decent, fundamentally, and with the opportunities they do grow.

  11. Philip Collins says:

    Some very good comments, here and those I have received directly. Clearly, the sections on policy and the problems facing Britain were the most meagre in the piece. I said next to nothing about education and housing, for example, which is clearly not a prospectus you can take towards government. I also agree that I may have said too little on the vested interests that can form in markets. Labour should be radically pro-competition, not pro-market as such. Power congeals in private markets very often and the best radical liberal tradition, which at times I invoke, was founded on that insight. Please keep the comments coming. It has been constructive and very helpful.

  12. Richard Hancox says:

    And what about the environment (Cameron’s “the green crap”)? In case it hasn’t been noticed, we urgently need a new paradigm beyond the myth of perpetual economic growth for a sustainable environment for future generations.

  13. Lawman says:

    I welcome the concept of debating the purpose and philosophy of Labour. This was neglected during the Miliband years, and has become urgent now that we have flirtation with communism.

    However, we need not start with a blank sheet. In recent years we had the beginning of two initiatives, neither completed:

    * the Blue Labour project

    * the research undertaken by Jon Cruddas after the May 2015 election defeat.

    I admire much said by Mr Collins, and found previous public responses thoughtful.

    To these I would add:

    (1) Labour must reconnect with social conservatism: the predominant culture of the working class. In recent decades our rulers and influencers are overwhelmingly liberal. Why vote Labour when you can have individualism through the Conservatives and Liberals? Labour should rebuild the concepts of community, family, the dignity of work and service. This is not to take away individual rights, but to place them in a stable context.

    (2) Patriotism: Mr Collins makes the point well. Labour can advance pride in Britain, its values and interests, without resort to xenophobia, prejudice and neglect of international co-operation. Most Britons like, and live peacefully with, people who have come from other countries; but many they fear “the other” and feel they are being taken over by foreign cultures.

    (3) Infrastructure planning: An obvious example is housing. The escalation of house prices, shortage of social housing, and disadvantage to younger people is almost insane. Since the 1990s governments have enhanced this trend rather than reverse it. Railways is another example of a need for greater provision and better pricing.

    All of these concepts pass the test of winning votes and distinguishing us from the Conservatives.

  14. Andy Leighton says:

    The Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 did a great deal, for example, to stem the economic tendency for wages to flow to those with the highest skill levels. It is becoming harder and harder to combat inequality, because, with an inflated skill premium, market capitalism is producing a more and more unequal outcome. By the end of the Labour period in office, inequality was almost exactly where it was at the time of the party taking office.
    Labour’s fascination with equality of outcome rather than opportunity, demonstrated in this paragraph, is one of its major weaknesses.
    Taking as read that there should be a safety net for those unable to fend for themselves, it is both morally right and economically necessary that there should be significant premium for those that have improved themselves and acquired “the highest skill levels”.
    We saw what the public thought of plans to “predistribute” their hard earned cash away from them and give it to someone else in the interests of “fairness”, David Cameron is in Downing Street.
    Whatever happened to the old, and very working class, idea of self improvement, and vitally, being able to reap the rewards of that improvement for yourself and your family?
    The issue Labour should be espousing with a passion is that self improvement, through education and improved life chances, should not be the preserve of those whose parents have already been successful, but equally open to all.
    Once that level playing field is established, how people utilise those life chances is largely a matter for themselves, not the State.

  15. Paul Hawkins says:

    An interesting analysis but where it falls is that Collins’ list of questions that define Labour’s purpose omits two key questions:

    *the growing power of large corporations and how national democracy functions in a system of global capital and;
    * the growth of zero hours contracts, freelancing, sites like Uber, TaskRabbit and the sharing economy.

    These issues are arguably the most central in driving younger voters, and voters disillusioned with the mainstream, towards candidates like Corbyn and Sanders (and perhaps, to an extent, Trump and Farage too). No Labour leader is going to win the party membership back and hence have a shot at aiming for national government without addressing these.

    I’d also say that Collins himself is revisionist on inequality. The fallout from the Iraq War aside, New Labour’s biggest failure in office was that wealth equality and social mobility at best stalled, or by many measures, fell under the Blair and Brown governments. Collins’ response seems to be to say that that’s inherently the nature of the financial system under market capitalism but then not actually say that anyone should question whether that system could be improved upon. At a point when more and more voters in Britain and across the world are turning their noses up at Neo-liberal economics and, if Labour fail to grasp the reasons for that and address those head-on, they will find voters leaving them further and further behind.

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