Utopianism, liberalism and the left
A new ideological consensus spanning Cameron's Conservatives, Clegg's Liberals and the Progress wing of Labour endorses New Labour's philosophy but says it has been too statist.
A strain of old-fashioned conservatism is becoming fashionable once again in British politics. There is a certain consensus of criticism spanning the Progress wing of Labour, Cameron’s Conservatives, and Clegg’s Liberals: an assertion that New Labour has betrayed in itself the old faults of the utopian left, believing that even the most intractable problems were amenable to state intervention.
Such criticism is potentially devastating to left-wing politics: if even New Labour is fatally undermined by flaws which are genetic to the left, then perhaps this is the final end of the road for left-wing politics. Perhaps the left really is doomed to failure, perhaps it is time to give up the very attempt to transform society through state action?
In truth, the failings of New Labour should not disguise the ongoing existence of chronic problems of social injustice and cultural poverty, nor the need for a left-wing politics to address them. Post-war social democracy ran into the sands at the end of the seventies; New Labour is doing the same three decades later. This is not the end of the road, but a new turning point for the left.
But in order to understand which way to go next – and such a debate is sure to be reignited after the next election, even if Labour manages a narrow and improbable victory – we need to better understand the utopianism that is the lifeblood of the left, and New Labour’s relationship to it.
Making sense of New Labour
In Fantasy Island, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson produced one of the sharpest critiques of New Labour in power, homing in on the leadership’s failure to face up to hard choices, its tendency to back itself into corners as a result of believing its own bullshit (Elliott and Atkinson, 2007).
To a certain extent, this refusal to face up to the inevitable trade-offs involved in any policy is shared by all mainstream parties in contemporary democracies. In New Labour, however, it is possible to see the influence of historic left-wing versions of this mentality. There are at least two currents of thought involved.
One is the kind of utopian outlook that has forever spanned all shades of the left: a basic faith that what ought to be, will be; that what is morally right will be vindicated in fact, and that its rightness will be the cause of its success, almost as if there were a Divine Legislator at work.
Eric Voegelin, the German conservative philosopher, analysed this element of left-wing attitudes as a variety of magical thinking. Memorably, he wrote about how the instinctive response of many left-wingers to crimes of genocide or imminent national danger was to pass a resolution condemning the actions as morally unacceptable, in opposition to taking the responsibility, and accepting the accompanying moral compromises, of doing something about it themselves – and quite often in active opposition to others doing something about it either.
The second influence comes from the old Fabian faith in the ability of politicians to transform society through capturing and manipulating the levers of power. In a pamphlet written in 2003, Angela Eagle gave a first-hand criticism of such thinking (Eagle, 2003). Writing about her first spell in Government after 1997 she said she had been disabused of her former idea of what being a minister meant; the levers of power were clumsy, inertia-bound instruments, with often inadequate, unpredictable, or perverse effects. That she could make such criticisms shows this mentality had been alive and well in 1997; still alive enough for her to want to criticise it in 2003.
On the surface it might seem as though these criticisms are striking a wrong note. New Labour can hardly be accused of having an exaggerated faith in the power of the state to run things; it has been built on an intellectual rejection of statism. But here is where we can really decode New Labour, understand its approach to government. Yes, it has absorbed the new right’s criticisms of the state. But it is still utopian, it still believes that it is possible to transform society through political action.
It has transferred its utopianism to a neo-liberal faith in the raw power – the dynamism, the innovation, the ability to escape bureaucracy and harness the energy of individuals – of the private and voluntary sectors. Meanwhile it has retained the same old Fabian faith in the controllability of social outcomes via manipulation of the levers of power. It’s just that these levers are devoted to devolving, and incentivising, and enabling; shaping the raw power of the market and individuals to predictable and socially beneficial ends.
Thus the Blair-Brown mode of government: to set targets, announce entitlements, award responsibilities. The ought-becomes-is utopianism then kicks in with the faith that setting a target is tantamount to achieving it. Leaving aside the debate on whether targets actually improve performance or lead to perverse outcomes, there is an incredible castles-in-the-air quality about New Labour in office; it talks so big, the Blair-Brown vision set on distant horizons, with choices to be made of world-historical proportions, but yet the centre off-loads responsibility onto everyone – businesses, consumers, families, learners, communities, public sector workers – to deliver it all. New Labour’s philosophy of government is to set the standards, provide the vision, but not actually to plan and enact things in any detail; to leave all that to the genius of history, the innovation of the market-driven individual.
In all this New Labour reveals its ideological core: Thatcherite neo-liberalism infused with left-wing sentiments and animated by left utopianism. As Grahame Thompson has analysed it, neo-liberalism has embedded itself within the dominant concept, spanning all shades of mainstream politics, of the style in which government should operate:
The key aspects here are to stress the responsibilisation of autonomous agents; the production of ‘freedoms’ that this engenders for economic agents and the encouragement of self-governance and self-reliance on their part; and the institution of mechanisms of indirect ‘governance at a distance’ rather than direct interventionism. Furthermore, it means organising the ‘conduct of conduct’, which involves the production of benchmarks, standards, targets, norms, etc. that are set for agents and that can be audited – rather than the use of hierarchical administrative means of governance. (Thompson, 2007)
The New Labour twists on this neo-liberal ‘mode of governance’ are comprised by the earnest desire to redress social injustice, and the gigantic level of ambition – and often blind enthusiasm – in the potential of the state, working through these at-a-remove means, to instigate such redress. It is a fascinating – and dysfunctional – combination.
New Labour philosophy in practice
Let us briefly consider New Labour’s approach in four key areas: poverty, the environment, housing, and education.
This Government has carried out significant programmes of redistribution, tax credits being one flagship example; even more important has been the sheer investment in improving the quality of public services. But it never talks about redistribution and rarely talks about poverty. Where New Labour explicitly names poverty as a target, it is framed specifically as child poverty, since this is the acceptable face of redistribution: investment in the coming generation, to give them more of a chance to compete.
The target to end child poverty by 2020 (and halve it by 2010) has both a utopian component – the stirring sound-bite promise to abolish poverty! – and a Fabian component – the working content of the target, defined around children living in households earning less than 60 per cent of median income. To begin with, the government had some success towards delivering the target, through instituting concrete measures such as increased benefits, tax credits and the minimum wage.
By the mid-years of this decade, however, it was clear both that the target was not on track, and that the government was not going to make the direct transfers in spending required to meet it. Around this time ministers – notably John Hutton, during his tenure as Work and Pensions Secretary – began falling back on the argument that the government had set the target, and now it was down to the poor to go out and earn the money; with the government’s efforts concentrated on enabling, assisting, and pushing them into finding work, but not in increasing their income or creating the jobs themselves. As Hutton put it in a speech to the Fabians:
… the principle [sic] responsibility to do everything possible to support yourself and your family [should] rightly remain on the individual... [Instead of ] raising the top rate of tax as part of our anti-poverty drive … [our] focus should, instead, be on doing more to get more people into work, breaking down the remaining barriers that people face in getting jobs so we can extend employment opportunity for all. (Hutton, 2006)
In fact, not only has the Government sought to pass on primary responsibility for meeting this target to the poor themselves but the Department for Work and Pensions has become keen on outsourcing the state’s remaining job of interviewing, encouraging, and cajoling benefit-claimants off the dole to the private and voluntary sectors.
We’re inviting expressions of interest from the most disadvantaged towns and cities and incentivising them to find local solutions to local problems with a deal based on shared outcome targets and maximum discretion to do whatever it takes to make a real and sustained difference’ (Hutton, 2006).
More recently ministers have dealt with the certain failure of the 2010 interim target (for child poverty to be halved) simply by preferring to talk about the final target for 2020; thus the 2010 target has effectively been dropped, yet without any disturbance to New Labour’s faith in its style of government. As we come ever closer to once-distant mileposts – and 2010, such a round number, so futuristic, was bound to appeal to the lofty utopian target-setter – such a manoeuvre will be seen more and more often.
Nowhere has it been more prominent than in the case of the Government’s climate change targets. A manifesto pledge in three successive and victorious elections, the target of cutting the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent (relative to 1990) was the centrepiece of New Labour’s environment policy. Until it became clear that it would be missed by a large margin, at which point ministers started talking about a new target for 2020; scan official documents from DECC and Defra now, and it’s almost as if the 2010 target had simply vanished.
New Labour’s approach to the environment can be characterised as the following: talking in apocalyptic terms of world-historical challenges facing society; demonstrating utopian faith in market-driven technological change to overcome these challenges; announcing often hugely ambitious targets; and then pointing to the targets, not just as proof of the Government’s environmental credentials, but also as themselves evidence that they will be delivered, and a reason thus for the Government actually to take no further responsibility for action.
Time and again, ministers defend their lack of action, or their negative actions – such as approving new runways and coal-fired power stations – by saying things like, ‘But there’s nothing to worry about, because we’ve got a target to reduce our carbon emissions by x per cent’, as if those targets would simply be met all by themselves. One could be more sanguine if this approach had shown any signs of bearing fruit thus far; but the reality is that UK carbon emissions are hardly changed since the mid-Nineties, in fact higher if you take international flights and shipping into account.
As perhaps the greatest single example of New Labour’s magical thinking towards targets, in 2002 the Government set a target for ten per cent of all new cars sold to be in the lowest band of carbon emissions (under 100 grammes CO2 per kilometre) by 2012. With sales of new cars at around 2.5 million a year (before the credit crunch, at least), this would translate into a target of 250,000 of these vehicles being sold a year by 2012. In 2007 a total of 544 were sold in the UK, up from 480 in 2006. Not 544,000, or 54,000, or even 5,440; just 544.
New Labour appears to have pioneered a new form of aspirational target. They are aspirational in that the Government is hoping that other agents will achieve them on its behalf, that simply announcing a target will summon forces from the four winds to come along and make it happen. Who these forces will be cannot be said in advance; that is the impersonal genius of the market, itself incorporating the protean, technological genius of mankind.
The Government’s policies on house-building provide numerous examples of this same approach to power. New Labour certainly has not lacked ambition in this area, with targets for 3 million new homes to be built by 2020, 1 million of which are to be zero-carbon; breaking down overall into annual targets of 240,000 new homes, of which some 70,000 are to be ‘affordable’.
Characteristically, the Government is only building a fraction of these new homes itself (via the Homes and Communities Agency); furthermore, it is not allowing local authorities to build any. Overwhelmingly, they are to be delivered by the private sector: not only are developers to build new homes for private sale, but it is only by imposing a levy on these private sales that social housing is to be funded.
The Government’s chief contribution is weakening planning regulations and bullying local authorities into turning land (including some green belt) over to developers – a way of devolving and yet forcing decision-making that risks combining the disadvantages of piecemeal planning and centralised inflexibility.
Now that the market has collapsed, the argument that 3 million new homes were needed to feed an urgent demand for more and larger houses to own has been exposed as faulty; but at the same time, the need for more social housing has become even more acute. Still, however, it seems this Government would rather its target for 70,000 new affordable homes a year to go by the wayside, than that it intervenes in a big way to get them all built.
As for the environmental quality of newbuild, the Government has created a Code for Sustainable Homes, with ratings of up to six stars in nine categories. Launched in December 2006, it only became mandatory for new homes to be rated against it in May 2008; even now properties do not have to be inspected against it (they simply receive a nil-star rating if they opt out). While one of the nine categories – energy use – will be made mandatory from 2010 (and progressively tougher after that), the main thrust of the Code is to inform the consumer, who will then naturally start to demand more sustainable designs, which will in turn naturally be met by house-builders. As the then Housing Minister put it in February 2008:
People want to do the right thing, but they aren’t always sure how to do that – and it’s our job to make it easier. Consumer demand will be a critical part of driving this forward, offering a clear business incentive as well as an opportunity for business to do the right thing. For example, people are increasingly looking at factors like energy efficiency when choosing a home. After all, who doesn’t want to save money on their fuel bill? … I believe this will have a major impact on consumer demand and as a result, will help accelerate sustainable building and innovation in the sector. (Flint, 2008)
Even in a booming market the Government’s entire house-building strategy was a case study in heroic assumptions. For the Code for Sustainable Homes to work as hoped, not only would new home-buyers have had to decide that marginal savings to quarterly utility bills outweighed such considerations as price, location, looks, size, and features, but their reactions would have had to be so pronounced that construction firms were forced to hastily alter their designs in order to sell a property.
Education is at the forefront of New Labour’s concerns because of its promise of shaping human capital. New Labour has certainly put its money where its mouth is, with huge amounts of money invested in schools (and teachers’ salaries). But New Labour has far greater ambitions from education: it wants to transform society.
The logical conclusion of this approach was the creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). Let us consider it: a Department of State, not just responsible for schools, but for children and their families. The characteristic mode of this department is Stalinism-lite; incredibly ambitious targets and aspirations, concerning, not just what goes on within the classroom or within children’s social services, but every aspect of children’s existences. It is worthwhile quoting at some length Ed Balls’ comments on the launch of the 2007 Children’s Plan:
For most children, 2007 is a great time to be a child. Most children are happy, most are achieving to a higher level than ever before, enjoying better health, more opportunities to travel, to engage in sport or cultural activities than was the case for any previous generation…
Our job is to intervene early to prevent children engaging in risky behaviours like drug taking or binge drinking, disengaging from education or getting into crime.
The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and this Children’s Plan, is the Government’s response to these challenges. It sets out our commitments for how we are going to ensure that by 2020, this country isn’t just a good place to be a child but the best place in the world to grow up.
The sincerity is hard to doubt. But why on earth is the Government setting a target for Britain to be the best country in the world in which to be a child by 2020? What does this mean and how could it be measured – leaving aside how it could actually be delivered?
It would be one thing were New Labour outright Stalinists, believing that the family was an outmoded institution whose influence ought to be curtailed or abolished; if it were prepared to dragoon young people into state-organised youth movements, or forcibly remove them into collective boarding schools. But no; New Labour has absorbed right-wing critiques of the overweening state. As Ed Balls says, New Labour does not believe in the nanny state; ‘This isn’t about nanny-state intervention or telling parents what to do. We know that Government doesn’t bring up children, families do’.
As a particular illustration of all New Labour’s concerns and complexes in education, we could consider one of the points in the Children’s Plan, the announcement that all schoolchildren would receive an entitlement to five hours’ high-quality culture a week. In characteristic fashion New Labour has decided to respond to concerns that pupils in state schools were missing out on high culture with something called ‘Find Your Talent’. This will give young people the chance to ‘perform on stage’; get ‘hands-on experience’ of ‘film making, radio and TV’; ‘learn a musical instrument, and take part in a musical performance in front of an audience’ (DCMS, 2008). So while the aim is still to broaden young people’s horizons, this is not so much a matter of leading them out beyond themselves, their daily lives, and the roles society has in store for them; and more a case of improving self-esteem and possibly finding a job in the ‘creative industries’. The worry must be that, with the accent on participation, and with the residual left-wing cringe of anti-elitism, in practice much of this entitlement will resemble heats for X-Factor.
The final point to make is that ministers are again showing a utopian faith in the ability of other agents to deliver their targets; here it is the innovative genius of local schools and arts and cultural organisations. In focusing on granting children an entitlement to cultural activity, and not on schools and how in practice they are to provide it, the Government is once again willing the ends but not willing the means. Thus the universal reaction from teaching unions, that this was nice but naïve. As one put it: There are not enough hours in the day to provide an entitlement to five hours of cultural activities, plus five hours of sport, in addition to the rest of the curriculum’ (Lipsett and Ford, 2008). Even more to the point, the pilot grant works out at just £15 per pupil per year.
False conclusion: more (neo-)liberalism
In June 2008 Philip Collins and Richard Reeves called on Labour to ‘Liberalise or die’ (Collins and Reeves, 2008). Similar to the argument made here about New Labour’s over-ambitious approach to the levers of power, they criticise Brown’s Government for drawing from the ‘poisoned well of the Fabian tradition’, which, they say, has given it an exaggerated faith in the ability of the central state to mould society:
Labour politicians too often see a social problem – obesity, children at risk on the internet or declining interest in high culture – and make two assumptions: first, that the problem is amenable to a policy solution; and second, that this solution ought to involve the establishment of a council, commission or task force. But many of the issues facing modern society are too complex and too cultural for such a wooden approach.
But what is the positive case put forward by Collins and Reeves? ‘The key dividing line in politics is no longer between left and right’, they argue, ‘but, increasingly, between liberal and authoritarian’. Cameron and Clegg get it, they tell us, but Labour under Brown is falling behind. Labour must as a result learn two lessons: first, be humble about the limits of state power; second, understand that the demands of individuals for more say in how public services are delivered are growing stronger. They sum up their prescriptions as: ‘For New Labour to survive, it must become new liberal’.
Collins and Reeves provide a few specific examples of this ‘new liberalism’ they are advocating. One proposal is for income tax to be reduced: ‘Liberals instinctively dislike income tax; Fabians will always see income ... as ripe for state confiscation’. Accompanying this they suggest taxes on the ‘riches flowing from inheritance or soaring house values’ should be increased.
But their biggest proposal concerns healthcare:
The NHS ... can only survive through the use of liberal principles. The range of medical treatments is too large, the population too old and their expectations too great for the NHS simply to carry on as it is. As healthcare becomes increasingly about chronic care, control over funding and treatment has to pass from the profession to the individual. This will make the care people receive more appropriate and more cost-efficient, while institutions will join up, finally, around the patient. Passing control to individuals means they can spend their NHS entitlement on double glazing if they think it a better treatment for their asthma. Such a service is designed to produce good outcomes, because individuals are granted as much control as possible.
The main thing to say about this is that, despite their self-professed criticism of the style and substance of Brown’s government, Collins and Reeves betray precisely its same faults. They share the Government’s ideological starting points: (i) that many giant social problems can be solved and that this requires the state to act; (ii) that state action is intrinsically inefficient; and thus (iii) that the state should devolve responsibility for acting to individuals, consumers, and market agents, that this will unleash the genius of market-driven ingenuity, and thereby deliver results that are as predictable as they are profound.
The only difference is that Collins and Reeves are even more recklessly utopian in their belief that setting incentives, devolving budgets, and encouraging competition will somehow lead to a spontaneous order that delivers exactly the outcomes intended by the centre.
This is most clearly seen in their proposal that the NHS budget ought to divvied up into individual entitlements, which people would then be expected to spend in ways that would be beneficial to their health. Can any greater example of naïve utopianism ever have been produced in Labour’s history, even from the most extreme left-wing fringes? What if individuals, so empowered, decided to spend their entitlement on something else? Either colossal amounts of extra money would be required; or the NHS would collapse. In that case, it would be replaced by a privatised service, which would be, to remain simply on Collins and Reeves’ own terms, intrinsically less cost-effective for society, with more spending going on the rich and on the healthy, and less on the poor and on the sick.
The most striking thing about Collins and Reeves’ piece is that, having argued that ‘the big political argument’ today is ‘how to ensure people are in control of their own lives’, they say absolutely nothing about protecting people from the vicissitudes of the market.
This illustrates the incredibly stunted imagination of those who have dominated the Labour Party for the past fifteen years, the restricted scope of action which they think is proper to politics. In fact, this scope is almost synonymous with the public sector; reform, for them, means public sector reform. While they have the highest of utopian ambitions for remaking society, reordering people’s very lifestyles, in terms of what they are prepared to actually intervene in directly, the limit of their ambition is what the state already runs – and what their dogma directs them to do with it is to marketise and privatise it.
In all this, their dogmatic nature is exposed by their inability to realise that, with the mounting economic meltdown, times are changing radically. Collins and Reeves’ suggestion of cutting income tax while relying on taxing ‘soaring house values’ to make up the difference is not only mendacious (it is impossible to believe such Blairite voices seriously advocating massive increases in stamp duty); it is already hopelessly out of date, as well as evidence of an assumption that the preceding credit-fuelled boom was the natural state of things and could go on forever. In this they are as in touch with social currents, never mind left-wing goals, as Guy Ritchie, whose latest film apparently drew laughs from its audiences, following the line: ‘In London, property prices only go one way – and that’s up’.
The need for an updated left-wing politics
There is a certain ideological consensus spanning Cameron’s Conservatives, Clegg’s Liberals, and the Progress-wing of Labour. This consensus essentially endorses the philosophy of New Labour, but says it has been too statist, and its style too much like an old Labour Government.
The right-wing of this school (Cameron) says government should temper the overall ambition of what it can do, even at the remove of private companies, voluntary groups, and front-line practitioners; the left (Collins and Reeves) that it should have even more faith in their dynamic individualism. But all are agreed that it is wrong to seek to change the basic power structures of society, or to challenge the power of the market.
Such views are fundamentally inadequate. There are at least three overwhelming reasons why a much more ambitious politics – why an intelligently updated, genuinely left-wing politics – is needed today.
Social limits to growth
The first is expressed by a book written in 1977 by Fred Hirsch: The Social Limits to Growth (Hirsch, 1978). Hirsch’s argument is that mass affluence leads to more and more people accessing, and believing they should have a fair share of, goods that are necessarily limited. As not everyone can have them – or, alternatively, if everyone does have them, the original quality that made them desirable is impaired – the growth which expands people’s economic horizons does not increase their happiness in step.
In other words, everyone may aspire to a country house with a nice view; but if lots of people build big houses in the country, they will spoil the view and the rural setting which first attracted them. Similarly, many people may have the education and with that sense of entitlement to believe they should be promoted to posts in senior management; but such posts are necessarily limited, and thus to constrain applications in an age of mass graduates, HR departments raise the bar to employment and promotion, for instance insisting on master’s degrees as a minimum qualification.
As Hirsch puts it, if everyone stands on tiptoe, no one has a better view. The result is an inchoate frustration that has dominated politics and public opinion since the Sixties.
All this means that a minimal government which simply sat back and allowed things to continue as they were would not do; it would be swept away by mounting frustration, which the market cannot satisfy. Neither will a government that seeks to intervene, but seeks to empower people by encouraging them to compete harder for their individualist wants, succeed and sustain belief in the political system in the long run. Hirsch argues that decisions taken on a piecemeal basis, by individuals reckoning what would serve their individual interests, do not take account of the mutual interaction of a mass of such decisions. What is needed instead is political decision making that explicitly focuses on collective outcomes.
Natural limits to growth
The natural limits to growth is the second reason why the left is needed. The combination of climate change, resource constraints, and a rising population, is an unprecedented and potentially fatal challenge to global civilisation.
Thus again a politics that seeks to change society to fit the market rather than the other way round will not do, since this would simply allow private enterprise to continue as it is. And, since private enterprise is constitutionally incapable of facing up to the ultimate discontinuation of economic growth, even those capitalist leaders who sincerely care about the environment are not fit to be left in charge of its defence.
Here again the left is needed, since the left is the only political breeding ground of ideas for a society not built on private greed and consumerism.
Finally, the left is needed to respond to the fundamental wants and fears of the populace. In 2008, a century after Joseph Rowntree established the trusts which bear his name to combat what he identified then as the ‘scourges of humanity’, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published the results of an extensive consultation to find the ten ‘social evils’ that afflict British society today.
The results are instructive; the evils named include ‘A decline of community’, ‘Individualism and selfishness’, ‘Consumerism and greed’, ‘A decline of values’, ‘The decline of the family’, ‘Immigation and responses to immigration’, and ‘Poverty and inequality’. Overwhelmingly, what this survey revealed was anxiety in the face of the atomising effects of free market capitalism. JRF concluded:
The overriding impression from the consultation is that people feel a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. People are concerned about the way our society has become more individualistic, greedy and selfish, seemingly at a cost to our sense of community … The focus on greed as an issue reflects concern about the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. Poverty was identified as a particular evil in a time of relative affluence. Connected to all of these issues was the perception that we no longer share a set of common values and that we have lost our ‘moral compass’. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2008)
Conclusion: a different kind of utopianism
Labour needs to be both more ambitious in its aims for transforming the way things are, and more realistic about its practical sphere of action; more muscular, and yet much lighter, less heavy-handed. It needs to be both more utopian, and less.
There is nothing wrong with utopianism; utopianism is necessary, it is the lifeblood of the left. But utopianism should concentrate on the end result, the ideal model of the society one is trying to create; it will never be obtained, but it will inspire people to positive action.
What should be guarded against is being utopian about one’s ability to bring utopia into being; this is, necessarily, to believe in a fantasy that in a vital sense one already lives in the utopia one is trying to bring about. That fantasy is the kernel of the make-believe which characteristically afflicts the left, giving rise both to the faith that what ought to be, will be, and to the faith that the levers of power can be manipulated to attain intended changes in society with perfect precision. Ditching these fantasies also includes ditching the utopian faith in the powers of government to conduct the market into delivering such perfectly predictable changes at one remove.
What does that all then leave us with?
The first is governing, which is to say intervening to provide public services, protect public safety and civil rights, and correct the failures of the market. This should include significant interventions in the economy where this is important for the long term needs of society as a whole; a prominent example might be establishing state direction of energy generators, in order to address the crises of climate change and energy security. Depending on the length and severity of the current economic crisis, as well as on the urgency with which we need to cut carbon emissions and cope with energy shortages, potentially much more direct and radical interventions may be required in the future. The important thing to realise is that direct intervention is an idea which is out of the bag once more; political reality is changing, and realistic left-wing thinkers should attune their imaginations accordingly.
Secondly, what it means is rather than trying directly to change cultures, the people and their attitudes, one should focus instead on the conditions in which such a society, and related attitudes, would thrive; then working on the institutions that might bring these conditions to pass. This means central government valuing, creating, strengthening, and ceding power to intermediate institutions, knowing they cannot be perfectly controlled. Most obviously this should include the institutions of democracy and civil rights, with more public inquiries and royal commissions, more power to and reform of Parliament, more local accountability of public services through high-profile council scrutiny, and more referenda; and with the lot underpinned by a bill of rights.
Beyond this it means bolstering institutions which uphold cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and communal values above the priorities of the market and the values linked to short-term material success. New Labour has done the very reverse, failing to value and frequently undermining the ongoing contribution that can be made by the BBC, universities, schools, the civil service, the NHS, local democracy, the legal system, and the arts, to dispersing social power, to broadening people’s cultural lives, and to inculcating a sense of social duty.
An enlightened left-wing party would understand that its basic cause of social justice would be strengthened by giving power away to institutions that would root it throughout society; while at the same time acting more decisively with the power that should always be reserved for government.
Collins, P. and Reeves, R. (2008) ‘Liberalise or die’, Prospect, 147, June.
Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2008) ‘ Young people to get five hours of culture a week’, joint DCMS/DCSF Press Release, 18.02.2008.
Eagle, A. (2003) A Deeper Democracy: Challenging market fundamentalism, London, Catalyst.
Elliott, L. and Atkinson, D. (2007) FantasyIsland: Waking up to the incredible economic, political and social illusions of the Blair legacy, London, Constable.
Flint, C. (2008) ‘Quality of life, not just quality of homes’, speech to Ecobuild 2008 Conference, Earls Court, London, 27.01.2008.
Hirsch, F. (1978) Social Limits to Growth, London, Routledge.
Hutton, J. (2006) ‘Ending Child Poverty and Transforming Life Chances’, Fabian lecture, 10.05.2006.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2008) What are today’s social evils?, available at http://www.socialevils.org.uk
Lipsett, A. and Ford, L. (2008) ‘Teachers critical of “unrealistic” culture target’, The Guardian, 13.02.2008.
Thompson, G. (2007) ‘Are we all neo-liberals now?’, Soundings Left Futures Debate, available at http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/debates/left_futures.html