Matthew Brown reports on a weekend of political discussions at the ILP’s annual get together in Scarborough
Back at the beginning of May, just two days after Labour limped back into power for a third term, the ILP held its annual get together for members and Friends to discuss the state of the world and the left’s response to it. Called ‘Our Changing World’, the event attracted 30 people to the spacious Esplanade Hotel in the sunny seaside town of Scarborough (no, honestly, it was sunny!).
Although the ramifications of the recent election were buzzing around in many people’s heads – was Labour’s electoral kicking a good thing?, should Blair go now? – the ILP opened its first session by tackling the international agenda: globalisation, US power, Iraq, terrorism, China, the G8, et al.
Attack on values
Eschewing set-piece talks for open discussion, the session was kicked off by Eric Preston’s assessment of the world. ‘We are seeing, not only a decline in the left and its influence, but an attack on liberal values,’ he said, arguing that we should focus our attention on the United States and the growing influence of the religious right that’s shaping both the national and international scene. ‘At the US election the Republicans managed to define even the Democrats as liberals; it was like an old clash between 19th century religious Republicanism and liberalism.’
This, said Barry Winter, is partly a response to Thatcherism which opened up the economy and then recoiled at the social effects of what it had done. ‘It now wants to impose discipline back on society,’ he said.
‘Free market capitalism and social authoritarianism often go together,’ agreed Will Brown. ‘If you restrict state regulation you have to find other ways of regulating social order in civil society – sometimes that’s through religious movements.’
Will then suggested that the term globalisation was much less useful than is often assumed, not only is it ‘self-defeating’ but it’s also fading out of use. ‘I’m not sure globalisation exists,’ he said. ‘But there is a spiral of free market capitalism and social authoritarianism that is creating a problem for the left. We have to find a way of saying “a plague on both your houses”.’
Taking issue with Eric, he argued that the power of the US is overestimated, including by the Bush leadership itself. ‘The key problem for the US is that the degree to which it can dominate international capitalism is declining. It’s far from clear that the US can reshape and influence the different types of capitalism emerging in places such as India and China.’
The war in Iraq is a typical example, he said – the result of the US overestimating the usefulness of military power. Since the end of the cold war it can no longer exercise influence over other western states by leading a military war against communism. Clinton hadn’t attempted to do this but focused on the economic expansion of capitalism. Since 9/11, Bush has inverted that and focused on military confrontation. ‘He has nothing to contribute economically because he cannot dictate to Europe and Asia.’
Sarah Bracking agreed with Will. ‘I don’t think we should start from the premise that the US can do what it wants,’ she said. ‘It has no money for a start. And if you look at China it is not even playing the same game – it’s losing at football while China is playing cricket.’
Barry wondered whether there was actually a crisis within free market thinking. In Latin America, for example, especially countries such as Argentina, the free market solution had been tried and failed. ‘They went into meltdown,’ he said. ‘Now they no longer believe in it, but where do they go? What is the left arguing? Perhaps free market capitalism appears strong because people feel they don’t have an alternative?’
Bernard Hughes cautioned against assuming that free market and capitalism are the same thing. ‘China has capitalism,’ he said, ‘But it is not a free market; capitalism is accompanied by authoritarianism.’ Europe is the one place where you have both, he suggested, not the US which props up its own industries and is very protectionist.
Eric accepted that US military power is limited, but argued that we still ought to be thinking about what it is going to do next. ‘Where are the leaders of the free market taking us?’ he asked. Globalisation, he argued, was a relevant concept that referred to the extension of capitalism. ‘Nation states can’t regulate anymore, and states are caving in to it. We have the most obvious enemy, yet it is the least seen. It is taken for granted by huge sections of society and by our political élites.
‘Our job is to get into the cracks of this system. We have to be able to read the map to know what we can do to affect it. We have to popularise the politicisation of capital.’
A number of delegates suggested that movements such as the Make Poverty History campaign might offer space where the left can begin to do this. While limited in analysis, and largely depoliticised, they do create room for political interventions.
On Sunday, attention turned to the domestic scene. Sparked by people’s responses to the general election result, discussion quickly moved on to Labour’s policies for the public sector. Inevitably, many members and friends had their own tales of the effects that Labour’s reform programme is having on the ground.
The target-driven culture, it was agreed, is alienating staff and the people who are meant to be providing services. ‘The money is there but the idea that these are public services has gone,’ said Robert Preston. ‘Targets are part of the Brown agenda, not Blair’s. They’re there to make sure increased spending produces results.’
Barry argued that one of the legacies of Labour’s success is that an outright attack on public services is no longer viable. Yet the government is still operating under the assumption that we can have social justice in a free market economy driven by profit. Indeed, reform of public services means there is now massive scope for profit-making by private firms who move into the public sector and make 90 per cent of their profit from the state.
‘If the Tories ever return to power we are in trouble,’ said Barry. ‘Blair is making us a hostage to fortune.’
Mary Stratford agreed. ‘The reward for public services in the target-driven culture is privatisation,’ she said. ‘In the criminal justice system, there are large US corporations waiting in the margins to come in and run the prisons.’ The question is, she said, how would we run it? What would a criminal justice system run by the left look like? At the moment we don’t have answers.
A number of delegates related stories of massaged figures and false information cobbled together within the institutions they work for to satisfy the ‘bean counters’. Andy Hansford suggested that the prevalence of targets meant most league tables were based on bogus information. But there has to be some form of accountability.
‘The alternative,’ he said, ‘is to give local people some form of control and interest in the running of their schools or hospitals. Empowering people can be an extension of democracy. What’s called the “new localism” may offer opportunities for that.’
Debate moved on to the issue of religion and the rise of faith-based politics, not only in north America and across Asia but in the UK too. Barry argued that one of the shortcomings of the recent election was the lack of debate on big questions. ‘There was no discussion of what sort of society we want to live in?’ he said. ‘The left does not do this anymore and many people feel there is a kind of moral vacuum.’
The rise of religious fundamentalism is based on ‘passionate collective identities’, he said. ‘The passion hasn’t gone out of politics, it’s gone into some very difficult and dangerous areas.’
Eric argued that the left has a particular problem with some religions, such as Islam, which may directly contradict a liberal ethos. Others, including Sarah, countered that we need to look at the influence of all religions in public life, from school assemblies to religious leaders in the House of Lords.
Ending the weekend on such a daunting topic may not have been the best way to fill ILPers with hope and optimism, but it was certainly appropriate to the depth and scope of the discussions held over the two days. Delegates left pledging to continue discussions in the coming months – through Democratic Socialist, on the internet, and by e-mail – and to look for ways to make meaningful connections with emerging political movements.
‘Our changing world’, the ILP’s political discussion weekend was held on 7-8 May 2005 at The Esplanade Hotel, Scarborough