Monday, September 01, 2008

Political renewal

One of the more interesting articles of last week has attracted surprisingly little attention. In it David Marquand warned against the misunderstanding and underestimation of a Cameron-led Conservative party.

I remember Marquand well as he was Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at Salford University when I was a mature student there between 1978 and 1981. He was one of the least pretentious and most approachable of people and was always up for a drink. At the sniff of a booze-up the professorial finger would summon up bottles of wine and he supported me as I started in adult education by giving talks to students and, of course, coming to the pub afterwards. However, he also played a central role in what I consider to be one of the most catastrophic political miscalculations of the post-war years, when sections of the Labour right left the party to form the SDP. The resultant split in the centre-left vote kept Labour out of power for the next fifteen years.

In this article Marquand takes on the complacent view that David Cameron is really a wolf in sheep's clothing. He argues that Cameron represents a genuine breach with Thatcherism and, instead, is firmly in the Burkean Whig tradition.
Burke summed up the essence of the tradition in a phrase: statesmen, he wrote, should combine a "disposition to preserve" with an "ability to improve". Headlong change, based on a priori theorising, could lead to disaster, but so could rigid adherence to the legacy of the past. True statesmanship was a matter of sensing intuitively when the time had come to tack. Butler, one of the canniest Whig imperialists of the postwar period, said much the same nearly two centuries later. The tradition that had formed him, he wrote, was "neither fixed nor finished". It was "responsive to the demands of each new age" and, above all, "empirical as to method".
It was the strength of this tradition, he argues, that meant that the Tories fully accepted the post-war settlement established by the Labour Governments of 1945-51. Its loss of influence signalled the radical break with the past under Margaret Thatcher.

I think that Marquand is right, but there is an element to this that he misses, a class struggle within the Conservative Party. Cameron's leadership marks the triumph of the shires over the suburbs and the return of the old social ascendancy. If Cameron succeeds in leading his reluctant troops away from Thatcherism it will, astonishingly, leave Labour as the Thatcherite party. Hardly surprising then that Cameron is eclipsing Labour in the polls because there is another reason why the Tories supported the post-war settlement, it was popular.

Marquand concludes by talking of the Labour Party.
Against that background, Labour talk of a leadership change is not just petty and mean-minded; it is sublimely irrelevant. The question that matters is whether it can retrieve the non-statist democratic republican strand in its heritage - exemplified by John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Tom Mann and RH Tawney - and abandon the heavyhanded, statist democratic collectivism that has been second nature to Labour governments since the 1920s. There is still time. Just.
Well, I am not sure how John Milton crept in to this eclectic bunch together with the 19th Century liberal Mill, Tom Mann, who passed through Marxism and Syndicalism before becoming a Stalinist, and the Fabian Tawney. Mill excepted, they are curious choices as representatives of an anti-statist political tradition. However, Marquand has a point when he sees the need for an abandonment of what seems to be New Labour's view of how to get re-elected; be nasty to criminals, foreigners, the poor, teachers and fat people, and then cut taxes for the affluent, sorry, aspirational classes. And, of course, a change of leadership certainly would not matter in the slightest of it did not result in a change in ideological direction, but it would be crucial if it was the vehicle for renewal in the same way that the choice of Cameron over Davies was for the Tories.

What about that ideological change? Is Marquand right about anti-statism? Does it mean the replacement of Beatrice Webb with Ayn Rand? Has the Anarchist hour come round at last? Or should, as Philip Collins suggested, Labour be looking towards liberalism as the source of its inspiration? The reality is that collective action through the state is still popular and necessary. Did the savers with Northern Rock recoil in horror at the rampant statism of the government in guaranteeing their deposits? No they simply ended their wholly rational run on the bank.

I would argue that Labour needs to recover its social democratic, or even democratic socialist, traditions. These saw the need for strong collective action to ensure economic security, health care and universal education. The state was also there to rescue people from market failures. What they didn't include was rampant managerialism, target setting, central control, recording of personal data and the imposition of mountainous bureaucracy in an attempt to impose pseudo-markets on the public sector.

The problem with New Labour is not statism per se, but that it is being applied in policy areas in which it should have no place, just as anti-statism is similarly misused to justify de-regulated markets and a public sector reform agenda centred on privatisation and consumer choice. Instead of using collective action to, however imperfectly, ensure that capitalism at least contributed to public needs, they decided to regulate people to ensure that they could serve the private wants of capitalism, hardly the historic role of Labour.

Marquand gets the Tories right and understands the threat, but I see his prescription for Labour as being dangerously incomplete. I am fully with him in favour of a more libertarian social policy and an extension of personal liberty and control. However, that cannot happen without economic security and that, in turn, requires collective action. It means standing against the powerful interests of monopolistic corporations (that was certainly the position of 19th Century libertarians). And above all, it means rediscovering and celebrating the key aspects of post-war social democracy that liberated people from fear and want. Not that you would guess it from the hand-wringing of the Blairite ultras, social democracy was a success. It is still a vote winner.

9 comments:

Will said...

Peter -- see here on same

mikeovswinton said...

Pete. I noticed this article and a few points struck me.
The first was that whatever Marquand's qualities as a person/ lecturer, if I was Cameron I'd be rather worried, given his practical track record, when presented with such a fulsome piece.
The second would be to suggest that your comments about Shires and suburbs and a retreat from Thatcherism are off the mark. Where is your evidence? Do we know yet what policies a Cameron government will follow on the key issues? There's really not much substance there, and when substance appears (moving south anyone? taxes on holiday flights?)it tends to be shuffled under the carpet. My guess - and its a bit more than a guess - is that if you think that a Cameron government will pursue policies wildly different than those of the Major government you'd be wrong. Or do you have any evidence that indicates differently?
Thirdly; as I have repeatedly pointed out; Beatrice Webb was not a statist in what we could call the high Fabian phase. She was an elitist and the two things are different. She remained an elitist and that is why she could so easily become a Stalinist Statist towards the end of her life.

The Plump said...

Mike

1. On Marquand I hope you are right and that it is the kiss of death.

2. You are dead right on the lack of substance, this is clearly an electoral strategy at the moment, with which much of the grass roots party is distinctly uneasy. There is little policy to hang on to, only tone.

However, as part of the national campaigns I was involved with on ELQs, I can assure you that the Tory party were assiduously courting us and that they had long and constructive conversations with many involved in University Adult Education. They asked for help over Parliamentary questions and were genuinely inquisitive. The noises they were making were exactly what we would have liked to have heard from the Government.

Campaigners were split on this. I was in the group that was uneasy about it and did not want us to collaborate. I am intrinsically hostile to the Tories, they were ruinously destructive when they were in power. I also did not want it to become a party political issue and thought that all our work should be focused on wining support within the Labour Party.

Others were also deeply cynical about the approaches, but I am not so sure. They were inquisitive and were clearly looking for a policy on lifelong learning that was distinct from the current lunacy. The 'trust the professionals' line is one that will win favour and some, who should know better, were impressed.

Will it come to anything? Who knows. The tone is different though and a David Davies led party would look and sound different, and would be registering virtually no support in the polls.

3. Beatrice Webb - pedant :-) :-)
It was merely a rhetorical flourish to counterpose against the ridiculous figure of Rand.

Overall, I still am with the incomparable Olly on the Tories in his Normblog profile.

Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > I once loathed the Tories with unchecked enthusiasm; now they have reverted to putting up mediocre, over-privileged Etonites I despise them even more.

Anonymous said...

You can have Sodomites, and Stakhanovites, but Etonites? Think Evertonians. Think Etonians. They have much in common.

mikeovswinton said...

Just had lunch with someone who is involved in a very different educational pressure group than the ELQ one. Their experience in the mid-90s was that when they were providing New Labour with a stick to beat the govt. then New Labour wanted to talk and paid close attention, took notes, raised issues etc. By 2000 or so, for reasons which I think might put you on New Labour's side (its a long story) the pressure group had concluded that New Labour were the spawn of the Devil, and needless to say New Labour weren't returning their calls. Oppositions oppose and use any stick to beat governments with - especially when there is little substance to their politics.

My raising of the Beatrice Webb point was actually this; my impression based on my reading of Rand and about her is that in her own way she was as elitist as dear old Bea. And i'm not making this point from a naive Murray Bookchin "abolish all hierarchy" viewpoit. I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

The Plump said...

Oppositions oppose and use any stick to beat governments with - especially when there is little substance to their politics.

This is the view of one person in the group, argued forcibly at our meetings. Perhaps, given our total powerlessness against the government on funding, we are too anxious to see a saviour appear from somewhere. Perhaps too, we don't want to lapse into total political cynicism. After all the effort, we have won every argument in every forum, including the Parliamentary Select Committee and the House of Lords. Even my own meeting with the minister was a score draw (though none of the crumbs thrown my way came to fruition). The result? Complete and total defeat as they have conceded nothing. This is bitter to live with.

All I will say is that as an opposition strategy it is a success, compounded by Labour's failure to counter it on its own terms.

Rand and Webb - yes, both horrid elitists - makes the rhetorical point quite apt, it is just that the context is wrong. :-)

The Plump said...

PS Mike.

If your lunch was with someone that right wing I hope they paid :-)

mikeovswinton said...

They weren't right wing and certainly not followerers of Rand. Lets just say that their view of a certain type of faith school - for want of a better term - and the one I suspect you may favour would be rather different. And I paid for myself.

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