Peter Hain is standing for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. In a recent speech which he then posted on his parliamentary web-site under the title “We must rebuild the progressive coalition”, he states that Tony Blair is “one of our greatest Prime Ministers”.
Does such a claim and the use of the Blairite terminology “progressive” indicate that Peter is himself a Blairite? Not necessarily. For one thing, it is possible to recognise Tony’s “greatness” merely by the fact that he helped to bring about the longest running Labour Government in history. It is the same sort of greatness we can grant to the lack-lustre Lord Salisbury who managed to serve 14 years as a Conservative Prime Minister at stages between 1885 and 1902. Neither is the word “progressive” the property of Tony; although as I will indicate later he does like to monopolise its use.
Peter’s also said “(w)hereas the last century was overwhelmingly a conservative century. Tony has given us the chance to make this century, Labour’s century.” This claim has great similarities to a claim Tony himself made at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party immediately after Labour’s electoral victory in 2001.
He pointed out that whilst the 20th century had been the century of conservatism,
his audience had to help ensure that the new century would be the century of …….. .
He then hesitated to think of the word that would best express his meaning and came up with the notion of the 21st Century needing to be the century of “progressive politics.”
To Tony , but not I hope Peter, “progressive” is used as a code word for a wider political agenda. It involves opposition to a conservatism (with a small “c”) of not just the Conservative Party, but also of traditional Labour with its values of social equality and publicly controlled services. It spoke volumes that Tony would baulk at suggesting that a room full of Labour Parliamentarians should seek to usher in a century of Labour Party dominance. For what if such a Labour Party backtracked and drew ideas from its past ? Perhaps it would then be necessary (to Tony) for other forces to pick up the new progressive agenda of uniting the freedoms of the market with social justice.
The paradox of “progressive politics” is, of course, that it is as conservative (with a small “c”) as traditional Labourism is. For the freedom of the market adjusted to seek to provide some form of social justice is exactly what Lib-Labism and Social Liberalism were all about a 100 years ago. Thankfully that limited vision was then subsumed by democratic socialist ideas which, under Labour, managed to get us to a post-war settlement with a mixed economy and the welfare state. Much of which has now been surrendered, but which some of us hoped would have been built upon..
Nor is Tony‘s progressive politics unique in its call for “modernising” in an attempt to handle today’s problems of rapid technological change, globalisation and world-wide instability. All approaches to politics should adapt to meet modern conditions, be they for those who are on the side of social justice, or of free enterprise or of Tony’s attempt to guarantee the future of his own hybrid.
None of the approaches I have suggested have exclusive access to modernisation. I am in favour of a modern voice speaking out for a contemporary version of democratic socialism. This is where Peter might just come into the picture.
The question we need Peter to answer is whether he remains committed to the basic analysis he spelt out in his book “Ayes to the Left: A Future for Socialism” (Lawrence & Wishart, 1995)?
In this book he makes a strong and intelligent case for libertarian socialism, claiming it is an alternative which needs to be pursued in opposition to both state socialism and state capitalism. He stresses that an extra danger of the latter (in addition to its crude commitment to the injustices of unrestrained free enterprise) is that it requires a strong state with anti-democratic norms to police its operations (see pages 24 and 25.)
What does Peter feel that Labour has done about the problems of state capitalism since 1997 ? Have the Labour Governments which he has participated in
moved to break its hold ? Or have they basically just accepted or even solidified it. ?
Whatever factors we stress, Peter has to accept that Labour has not broken the Thatcherite mould of state capitalism.
Peter is still given to using the language of his alternative belief in “libertarian socialism”. It crept into an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph as reported on 23 September. Indeed it is difficult for him to throw off such an approach, for he has had a belief in participatory forms of democracy , radical politics and anti-state power which go back to his expression of these ideas in works such as “Radical Regeneration” (Quartet Books. 1975) and “Don’t Play with Apartheid: the background to the Stop the Seventy Tour Campaign “ (London. 1971).
It would be a further paradox if Peter (who was at one time the leading light of the Young Liberals) should emerge as the person who could struggle to get the Labour Party to loosen the grip of a modern version of Social Liberalism which dominates Tony’s vision of “progressive politics”.
It is getting to crunch time. Peter needs to explain how close his book of 1995 will be to his manifesto for fighting for the Deputy Leadership. I don’t agree with all the books’ bits and pieces. I am not for compulsory voting, which doesn’t fit well with his libertarianism. Whilst I imagine that his own experiences in Northern Ireland will have altered his old extreme green agenda. But when he says that the “Re-distribution of ownership must remain a principle objective for socialism” (page 38) and goes on to stress the possibility of numbers of democratic structures, including municipal ownership; then I am with him.
If Peter himself wishes to be great, then we need him (a) to spell out his vision for the Labour Party (hopefully in line with his 1995 book), (b) to stand for the Leadership and not the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party (for he can’t properly enter into a battle of ideas if his position is merely to seek to be the reserve), and (c) to do something beyond what even Robin Cook did. Not just to resign from the Government, but to do this in order to run a campaign for the soul of the Labour Party.
Even if he lost such a battle, he could set a process in motion which would establish a role for a feasible libertarian left in the Labour Party whose views would influence future developments.
I can’t see a democratic socialist alternative to Peter if he will only stand up in the way I suggest. Whilst Gordon Brown has been an economic maestro , this has essentially been directed to delivering Blair’s “progressive” and flawed agenda . Why should we kid ourselves that things will change under his leadership? And the last description we can apply to John Reid is that of being a “libertarian”.
What then of John McDonnell ? As a member of the Socialist Campaign Group in Parliament for 17 years, should I not be part of his campaign ? In Socialist Campaign Group News for this September, he lists a seven point programme mainly on matters where I have been alongside him in various past votes in the Commons. I also greatly admire John’s dedication, ability and personality. But, to tell the truth, I could only ask people to support him if I decided merely to fly a flag for some of my beliefs, rather than to seriously act for positive openings for democratic socialism in tomorrow’s Labour Party.
The attractions of a Peter4Leader Campaign is that I believe that he can ride two horses at once. He can relate what he proposes to his socialist values thus giving us the vision that is currently missing from Labour Party politics, whilst trimming in order to advance policies which are feasible in difficult sets of circumstances..
When I have been in Commons lobbies with John (and against Peter who voted in line with his Government) we were often trying to stop the advance of what was passing for “progressive” politics; such as tuition fees and further privatisation. How we then move in a fresh direction after losing such votes is, however, a complex matter. John gives the impression that we just pull the switch and change directions.
Nowhere is this more strongly illustrated than over Iraq. Of course, we should never have invaded and the consequences (aided by bad handling) have been counter-productive. But we don’t return to a pre-invasion situation by just removing our troops. We have to relate to ways of tackling some of the very problems our actions helped to create.
If, however, Peter will not act in the way I recommend; then it looks as if I am left with a choice amongst the two Johns and Gordon. So I will then have to decide whether I opt for an abstention or for a bit of what used to be called “revolutionary defeatism” with John MacDonnell. I doubt whether either approach would matter much.
But if Peter will stand up and relate his principles to the realm of what is practical, then we might be onto something. I don’t believe that he would win. But we do need someone who will be in a position to stir the conscious of the Labour Party. Who else can do this properly?