The choices before Labour: Tawney revisited

In a political life that has taken me from undergraduate Liberalism (in the days when Liberals challenged Tories rather than sustaining them in office), to the political neutrality of the Civil Service, to a brief (and deeply uncomfortable) flirtation with Labour, and now finds me comfortably at home in the Green Party, the towering figure of R H Tawney, historian and Socialist polemicist, has always been an influence and guide.  Tawney is a figure apparently forgotten in today’s Labour Party and his brand of moral integrity, unswerving socialism and sonorous prose, his unselfconscious and bracing morality, would certainly sit uneasily with the Labour Party today.  Faced with a world of complexity and a political system in decay, the question “What would Tawney have said?” is as good a starting-point as any for we on the left to get to grips with the current neoliberal hegemony.

As the Labour Party conference gets under way in Manchester it’s notable that Tawney’s concerns are strikingly contemporary.  As a Conservative Education Secretary prepares to abandon fifty years of educational progress, guided apparently by prejudice and misplaced nostalgia, Tawney’s essay Keep the Workers’ Children in their Place, published in 1918, provides a startlingly relevant commentary on the ideologies at work in English education.  It is a sobering criticism of the politics of education that the same issues – faith schools, class segregation, social mobility – form the core of the education debate nearly a century on.

Of all Tawney’s writings, none carries greater resonance today than his great essay The Choice Before  the Labour Party, written in 1931 response to Ramsay Macdonald’s National Government.  It is Tawney at his finest, his most challenging, his most coruscating – and at a time when Labour, more clearly than ever, appears to be throwing in the towel in the face of the most concerted assault on the living standards of ordinary people in general  and the vulnerable in particular since Ramsay Macdonald looked forward to being kissed on the cheek by every Duchess in London, it is a powerful corrective.

Early in the essay Tawney throws down the challenge:

The fundamental question, as always, is:  who is to be master? Is the reality behind the decorous drapery of political democracy to continue to be the economic power wielded by a few hundred thousand – bankers, industrialists and landowners? Or shall a serious effort be made – as serious, for example, as was made, for other purposes, during the war – to create organs through which the nation can control, in co-operation with other nations, its economic destinies; plan its business as it deems conducive to the general well-being; override, for the sake of economic efficiency, the obstruction of vested interests; and distribute the products of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles of justice? Capitalist parties presumably accept the first alternative. A socialist party chooses the second. The nature of the business is determined by its choice.

It’s a challenge that Labour today quite obviously fails. The last few weeks have seen pronouncements from Labour leaders that make it clear that Labour is simply not prepared to distance itself from the economics of austerity – it appears curiously comfortable with the economic assumptions that underly the Coalition.  Ed Balls has committed Labour not to restoring cuts to further long-term public sector pay freezes – a commitment echoed at the Labour Conference – and has promised ruthlessness in paring public expenditure.  Liam Byrne has called for an end to the Beveridge principles of universal benefits – even though that arguments for universality, forged in the aftermath of the 1930s, remain unchanged and more important than ever.

In other words – public sector workers, those on benefits, the poor and vulnerable must continue to pay for the crisis they did not create, while the financial sector which did create the crisis remains untouched, and continues to enjoy taxpayer funded payouts through bailouts and the subsidy of quantitative easing.  In the essentials of its response to the crisis, you cannot get a cigarette paper between the analyses of the Labour leadership and the coalition. And Labour’s response simply entrenches the neoliberal mythology that the crisis was caused by Labour’s profligate spending.  Whatever the views of many thousands of Labour members, who doubtless are profoundly uneasy at their leaders’ behaviour, the message is clear: the Labour leadership has neither the intellectual nor moral stomach for the fight, and is quite happy to allow the coalition to dictate the economic agenda.

Tawney realised – as did the Labour Government of 1945, whose name and spirit are apparently being invoked at this week’s Labour Conference – that control of economic policy remains the bedrock on which radical change is built.  The question is quite simply one of whether the productive capacity of a society should be moulded to produce greater equality and a decent sufficiency for all, or whether Government is prepared to take pot luck on whether a system based on the irresponsible maximisation of gain for the holders of capital can be relied upon to provide those things.  In other words, is the productive capacity of the economy to be guided democratically?  Or is it to be left to the desire of a wealthy minority to maximise their wealth to provide the crumbs for which the majority must scrabble to provide the decencies of life?

Moreover, it’s important to understand that many of the most controversial and, to we on the Left, obnoxious elements of Coalition policy have their roots in what Labour did in office.  NHS privatisation and outsourcing? Demonising those on benefits? ATOS? Tuition fees? Academies and the privatisation of education? The marketisation of public space?  All of them are legacies of New Labour, taken to their logical conclusion.  Were Labour to be a serious party of change it would need to face up to and repudiate that legacy.

And, in doing so, it would need to revisit the rapprochement with capital that was perhaps the signature of New Labour.  Tawney again:

If there is any country where the privileged classes are simpletons, it is certainly not England.  The idea that tact and amiability in presenting the Labour Party’s case – or the “statesmanship” of the last Government – can hoodwink them into the belief that it is also theirs is as hopeful as an attempt to bluff a sharp solicitor out of a property of which he holds the title-deeds.  The plutocracy consists of agreeable, astute, forcible, self-confident and. when pressed, unscrupulous people, who know pretty well which side their bread is buttered, and intend that the supply of butter shall not run short.  They respect success, the man or movement who “brings it off”.  But they have, very properly, no use for cajolery, and laugh in their sleeves – and not always in their sleeves – at attempts to wheedle them.  The way to deal with them is not to pretend, as some Labour leaders do, that, because many of them are pleasant creatures, they can be talked into the belief that they want what the Labour movement wants, and differ only as to methods.  it is, except for the necessary contacts of political warfare, to leave them alone until one can talk with effect, when less talking will be needed, and, in the meantime, to seize every opportunity of forcing a battle on fundamental questions.  When they have been knocked out in a straight fight on some  major economic issues, they will proceed, in the words of Walt Whitman, to “re-examine philosophies and religions”.  They will open their eyes and mend their manners. They will not do so before. Why should they?

One of the most impressive things about this passage is its self-confidence – a belief that Socialists have the moral force and intellectual argumens to win the support of millions on which a fundamental shift in society depends.  No question here of letting the parties of capital dictate the economic and social agenda.  Tawney was writing at a time of deep economic crisis – a crisis that has remained unmatched until the present day.  Tawney understands that the confidence of capitalists had been shaken – and that it is not the job of the Left to give them a hand up and to help dust off their clothes.  Yet today, across our four main political parties (I include the SNP) there is still the belief that businessmen and financiers who have orchestrated the current crisis are the best people to lead us out of it, but the language of political debate remains dominated by the language of market capitalism – the argot of failure.  It is one of the main reasons why people are alienated from mainstream politics; the language of politics is no longer their language, and Labour’s managerialism is a major issue in this.

And it is not as if there is any lack of intellectual alternative.  One only has to read Krugman on the economics of austerity and the vanity of appealing to the confidence fairy; Richard Murphy on the Courageous State (and, most importantly, on the moral imperatives of progressive taxation); Allyson Pollock on the dangers of marketising public services; The Spirit Level on the need for equality; Elinor Ostrom on the triumph of the commons; even, from within Labour’s whale, Owen Jones on the language and reality of social exclusion from those whom the prosperous turn into an underclass.  With that one exception the common thread is that all these voices are outside the political, academic and media mainstream; there is a nuanced, grounded and evidenced debate about austerity but the fact that it is taking place on the fringe is itself a symptom of how political discourse has failed.

Labour claims to be leading a rethink of alternatives to the Coalition, but it leaves the most persuasive and convincing voices outside.

It will not do. To kick over an idol you must first get up off your knees. […] Either the Labour Party intends to end the tyranny of money, or it does not. If it does, it must not fawn on the owners and symbols of money.  If there are members of it – a small minority no doubt, but even one would be too many – who angle for notice in the capitalist press; accept, or even beg for, “honours”; are flattered by invitations from fashionable hostesses; suppose that their financial betters are endowed with intellects more dazzling and characters more sublime than those of common men; and succumb to convivial sociabilities, like Red Indians to firewater, they have missed their vocation.  They would be happier as footmen.  It may be answered of course that it is sufficient to leave them to the ridicule of the world which they are so anxious to enter, and which may be trusted in time – its favourites change pretty quickly – to let them know what it thinks of them.  But in the meantime there are such places as colliery villages and cotton towns.  How can followers be ironsides if leaders are flunkies?

Tawney was attacking Ramsay Macdonald’s obsession with social preferment. But today we could take that text and apply it to the way in which a party financed by Trade Union subscriptions appears to be led by people who are happier in the company of venture capitalists and media moguls – and happier to share their outlooks and perspectives on the world – than they are in the company of working people.  Labour invents the fictional and highly ideological construct of the hard-working family – usually as part of a rhetorical device to diminish  the least fortunate in society who look to the state for support – while disdaining those who lead lives less glossy, less padded than their preferred company; and feign surprise that five million of their core supporters have walked away from them since 1997.  The Labour Party’s relationship with the Trade Unions looks increasingly like a dysfunctional and abusive marrage, in Labour is quite happy to accept the Unions’ cash but will no longer defend union members’ rights.

Again and again, one is struck by Tawney’s prescience, the way in which he aniticipates the policy debates of the 2012 Party Conference season.  In one sense it is not surprising; the current economic crisis is strikingly similar to what Tawney faced in 1931, the policy nostra of all the main Westminster parties largely the same – as if the political culture of the West is incapable of learing from what went before.

After Labour

The question for those on the Left is whether clinging nostalgically to the Labour Party is going to bring change.  The prognosis is poor.  Labour’s leadership appears to be comfortable with the language and assumptions of market capitalism; it does not appear willing to challenge the Coalition’s agenda; it remains scared of the media.  Organisationally, it remains committed to upholding a brand – a brand whose essentials ceased to exist long ago – rather than challenging the assumptions of capital.  For example, in Brighton and Hove, where it has been outflanked from the Left by a resurgent Green Party, its response has been to back the Tories’ cuts agenda and snipe from the sidelines, happier to back council tax freezes for its middle-class membership than to support the administration in resisting cuts.

Can Labour change? The organisational change that led to the creation of New Labour appear to have been crafted to give the appearance of party democracy while denying the reality.  It is difficult to see any way in which the many thousands of decent Labour people who really do believe in changing society can bring their leaders to account.

Increasingly, I believe the Left must recognise that we are in a post-Labour era – a more pluralist, diverse and co-operative one, in which aspirations for economic and social change are not just channelled through a single brand.  “Socialism is what a Labour government does” is an arrogance that, mired in crisis as we are, we can no longer afford.  The Left must accept that Labour  is a party that can no longer act as an agent for real change, and which has – at the top at least – lost all real interest in making fundamental shifts in the balance of wealth and power in society.  Can you imagine where this lot would have got us in 1945? Would the NHS have been established with Ed Balls as Chancellor, cutting public sector pay and micro-managing public expenditure cuts while expounding on the values of private entrepreneurship?  The circumstances may be different, but perhaps the qualities and the intellectual understanding required are similar.  Can Labour be weaned off the seductive illusion that social justice can be achieved without changing the balance of power and wealth in society?

Increasingly, it seems likely that the challenge to the neoliberal hegemony must come from outside the Westminster bubble.  I have written before about the crisis of democracy that results when an apparently democratic political system can no longer represent the aspirations and needs of millions of citizens. Labour is part of that problem and clearly has no stomach for the fight to provide a solution. The ultimate frivolity in the face of our current crisis is to assume that because Labour has a glorious past and a Parliamentary presence, it provides a force for change.


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