In seeking social justice and equality, a broader and deeper democracy, and more co-operative and mutually supportive ways of living, we set our sights high. We believe it is possible to improve the quality of life for many, not just the few; that a humane society is possible. We want to widen the recognition that human society is based upon our interdependence. We are not isolated individuals, communities or states but mutually dependent on each other for our futures.
But in aiming to create a good society, the left faces challenges as formidable today as at any time in its history. We recognise that we are embarking on a lengthy journey.
Ours is a damaged society where political disenchantment is tangible – and quite understandable. Both at home and globally, too many lives are governed and wasted by poverty, inequality and deprivation, or by fear and insecurity, or bigotry. While many are governed by the mindless pursuit of materialism, others turn to religious or nationalistic zealotry. None of this is simply due to fate. Instead it is the outcome of how our world is organised, a product, ultimately, of political choices.
We cannot embark on this journey too soon. Humanity is approaching a crossroads. The actions taken and the choices made in the coming years are likely to be of great significance not only to us but to future generations. To create a sustainable society will, of necessity, demand curbing and controlling those forces that propel us towards environmental catastrophe. It will be vital to overcome the sense of powerlessness that so many people feel, both in their own lives and about the wider world, not least because it can lead to desperate and destructive reactions, political and personal.
Broad political and moral movements for change are key elements in this process. But we also need a progressive political party or parties to enact wide-ranging reforms, and progress will depend on alliances and sometimes tensions between these two. Incremental gains along the way can highlight both what is possible and how people can become part of a process of change.
Writing about contemporary western society, the historian Tony Judt sums up his view this way: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest; indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes what remains of our collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth…”
“Much of what seems ‘natural’ today,” he says, “dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”
His comments are particularly applicable to Britain today. We face a Conservative-led coalition government which, in flagrant disregard for its election pledges, is hell bent on a brutal programme of public sector cuts. It combines this with promises to build the ‘big society’ and to ‘free’ people from the state. It doesn’t promise freedom from the market. Indeed, the government hopes the private sector will be able to mop up the large numbers made unemployed by the cuts. The poor, women in particular, public sector workers and students form the new front line in the coming conflicts over cuts.
But this programme of attacks on public, collective provision has not come out of the blue. Rather, it continues more than three decades in which the free market has been promoted over state intervention. After 1979, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher embarked on a programme of radical change, restructuring the post-war welfare state, diminishing the power of working people, and expanding free enterprise, in particular by loosening controls over banking and finance.
The new Labour project was the product of successive election defeats and the deep desire of many to get the Tories out of office, regardless of the political cost to traditional left politics. To win power in 1997, Labour largely accommodated itself to this neo-liberal framework. While committed to some redistribution of wealth, it relied on taxes from a deregulated and rampant financial service sector to fund the expansion of state expenditure. Labour often devalued the public sector even while it further centralised state power. It continued down the path of privatisation, creating markets within public services on an unprecedented scale. Yet, after promising ‘no return to boom or bust’, the Labour government used the state to bale out the banking and financial sectors when economic meltdown was imminent.
Despite the use of taxpayers’ money and despite the crisis, the Labour government, and the left more generally, failed to present a credible narrative for progressive change. Instead, new Labour paved the way for many of the Tory policies that are now unfolding – in the economy, in the NHS and in education. The result is a Tory-led government intent on the wholesale subordination of public provision to the market and private sector.
Capitalism, markets and democracy
This Tory programme reinforces the natural tendencies within capitalism. For ours is a capitalist society and the logic of capitalism is to turn everything into commodities to be bought and sold in the market. It is a system that violates our humanity and the environment; it devalues and debases human beings and social life. Unregulated, it destroys all in the pursuit of material gain, whether families or forests. While we recognise the historic advances in human development brought, to some, by capitalist development, in terms of life expectancy and material well-being, we also recognise that these come at a colossal price, paid in inequality, social upheaval, political oppression and environmental destruction.
More recently, we have seen the ruin that modern banking and finance leave in their wake, leaving others who can ill-afford it to pay a huge price for decades to come. This should not come as a surprise. By their very nature, unfettered market forces lead to excess, encouraging greed and selfishness at the expense of others, putting possessive individualism before collective endeavour. Capitalism corrodes and corrupts, eating away at our social fabric.
The basic character of capitalism cannot change. It is defined by the pursuit of profit at the expense of collective social needs. Its agents will always balk at ‘red tape’ and attempts to restrict their freedom of action. They will always complain of ruination when they do not get their way, as the employers did in the 19th century when the long working day was restricted. They will always threaten to up sticks and find places where their actions can go unchecked. They will always seek to exploit cheap labour across the globe, and to divide and rule, and use their vast resources to cut corners and bypass democracy. They will always seek to avoid paying taxes.
Markets can be very creative but they have a destructive, dark side. Markets in the capitalist economy are capable of doing great damage because, put simply, people are subordinated to the pursuit of profit.
Moreover, there is a fundamental conflict between capitalism and democratic society. Never has this been more obvious than in the wake of the financial crisis. Despite colossal bale-outs by democratic governments and the enormous human costs of the crisis, our political options are still subordinated to the interests of the bankers. As Doreen Massey wrote: “The judgement of ‘the markets’ hangs over everything, setting the parameters within which political debate can operate.”
Having said this, we do accept that markets in some shape or form are necessary to how a democratic society operates – the evidence of Communist societies in the 20th century suggests as much. But a more democratic society would subordinate markets to the collective, democratic interests of the country; in our society, it is democracy that is subordinated.
The conditions in which markets are allowed to operate should always be closely monitored and carefully regulated. In some social democratic systems – in Scandinavian countries and some other western European countries at various times – restrictions on markets have delivered real benefits such as reduced inequality, greater social provision and fairer distributions of wealth and opportunity. They show some of the direction in which we want to move, not a utopian end point. But these gains are always fragile and are easily undermined, especially at times of economic crisis. They require more active support and defence than top-down social democratic systems have typically encouraged.
Some areas of life should be removed from the influences of private profit entirely – health, education and public transport, for example. In part, this means defending the role of the state in regulating the market, redistributing resources, coordinating public services and ensuring the needs of all members of a community are met.
The Tories characterise the state as overbearing, all-powerful and interfering – and at times parts of the public sector have been too inflexible and unresponsive to people’s needs. But the state in a democratic society is the means by which we collectively provide for our needs, and those of each other, out of our common wealth. It is our protection against the free market.
Yet the Tories’ goal is to marketise the public sector and shrink the state. We need vigilance and a democratic culture to counter their destructive aims and the destructive tendencies of free markets. This will have to be undertaken at several levels – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. It will also involve more democratic, co-operative ways of organising business and production.
In fact, while capitalism exists, a struggle has to continue. The battle may ebb and flow in different directions. This is why it is vital movements and progressive parties counter capitalist values with social values based on human relationships and a respect for the natural world. Of course this is not to deny that we also need vigilance and a democratic culture to prevent excesses by the state.
Our recent history has seen us move in the wrong direction, creating in the words of Paul Mason, BBC economics editor, an “abrasive, selfish, unequal society”. Indeed, as the academic Edward Skidelsky wrote, “…economics and its jargon have penetrated every corner of social life… Doctors, priests and scientists are lumped together as ‘service providers’ … school teachers are urged to ‘add value’ to their pupils’…” And as the centre-left group Compass pointed out, even childhood has become commodified. The current attacks on public provision will, according to academic John Gray, “leave people more exposed to the turbulence of world markets than they have been for generations. Inevitably they will seek protection.” We agree and believe it is time to change direction.
Political parties and Labour’s role
The ILP started life as a political party in 1893 as a reaction to harsh working conditions and the widespread poverty that unregulated capitalism brought to Britain. The perspective of the ILP has inevitably changed and developed as the world about us has changed and developed, but our essential humanitarian concerns have remained. We hold fast to the ethics and principles relating to care and compassion, fellowship and fraternity, mutuality and cooperation, social, political and economic equity, and democracy, which constitute the foundation of our politics.
We believe there is a need for a plurality of political movements, experiments in alternative ways of organising society, and for cooperative and democratic businesses. Indeed, it is to be hoped that protests against the current cuts will galvanise into a broad movement. But we also recognise that there is a continuing need for political parties.
Sooner or later any campaign or movement for change in society has to deal with the process of government, how collective decisions, whether national or local, are made and upheld. Actions by national governments have a vital and potentially crucial role in addressing many of the problems we face, whether nationally or, by acting collectively, internationally.
In Britain, that means we have to engage with the Labour Party. While many on the left wish to avoid the Labour Party, to denounce or live outside it, we think this is a cul-de-sac. Any attempt to progress radical change will have to go through a social democratic agency.
However, we have no illusions about the current political and organisational state of the party, about the corrosive effects of new Labour’s dominance over 16 years. Now is a time for the Labour Party to reflect upon its record in office, to see whether it can present a credible narrative for progressive change. It has a long distance to travel to win back public trust. There is much debate in and around the party, by the left and centre-left, which is showing clear signs of creative thinking about how the party and its politics might be transformed for the better.
We see ourselves as part of that process. We want to encourage Labour to reinvent itself as a more radical party, to democratise itself and to make party membership matter in ways that it has not done for decades. However, unlike many on the centre-left, we are sceptical of the notion that there is a ready-made progressive majority in the country waiting to be led. Unfortunately, we have further to go than that – the foundations of a progressive majority still have to be built.
The extent to which Labour’s politics can become imaginatively social democratic will therefore depend on the forces and movements that align with it, with the political space that they can create for Labour to become more radical and yet electable. It also means that Labour has to do its part – defending, supporting and encouraging those involved in campaigns up and down the country, and leading them too. The challenge this presents should not be underestimated, but it has to be faced.
The future left
It should be said that the left bears much of the responsibility for its failure to offer a credible politics for our times. True, it has faced a barrage of opposition from various vested interests, not least in the media. But it is also true that while it has fought many a good fight, it has not been at its best when offering pathways to a better society.
Many have abandoned any hope of a changed world and surrendered to the the politics of the present and the next election. Others promise a glorious dawn in some unimaginable future with no sense of how to get there. Between them, we need to find ways to be both practical and visionary at the same time.
Our political actions must also uphold the principles by which we stand. We believe that the character, actions and morality of political movements prefigure the change they will create. Social movements are a vital component of securing change but they have an obligation to act with morality, honesty and self-criticism.
The weakness of the left, and the dominance of market values today, means any progressive change in the short term will be hard won. But in lessening social inequalities, we may see a range of social improvements in society, in health, social solidarity, and general well-being. It will never be perfect, however. There will always be arguments and conflicts and, in a society based on democracy, that is absolutely necessary. The imposition of harmony from above is the road to dictatorship and not one we should ever contemplate. While people deserve respect, no-one and no organisation is above criticism.
Living democracy is a lively business; controlling capital is a constant process. One thing is certain, if we look at the world as it is then we can surely do better than this. We should certainly try to. And, along the way, perhaps we can rebuild the kind of movement which, as well as fighting for a better world, conveys the collective joy, humour and warmth which helped sustain earlier generations of socialists.