Greg Power pays tribute to Robin Cook, who died in August, and argues that his contribution to democratic socialism has been underestimated
The last chapter in Robin Cook’s memoir is entitled ‘Where do we go from here?’ It is essentially a plea for the party in government to be more explicit about the values that motivate it. Crucially, he argues, Labour must find a way of using its beliefs to explain its policies to an increasingly sceptical electorate.
Re-reading it after Robin’s death, it is a succinct reminder of the task that still faces the progressive left, and the gap that Robin Cook leaves behind him in meeting that challenge. Although many have paid tribute to him as the ablest parliamentarian of his generation, his contribution to the development of modern social democracy in the UK and across Europe is often underestimated.
Robin Cook: unique role
Robin Cook played a unique role in progressive politics. He was, despite the general perception, a keen advocate of the drive to modernise the Labour party. But his support for the party was never unthinking. Instead, each new political development was measured against a core set of principles for ideological inconsistencies or flaws. The result was a complex and nuanced set of values, not always sitting neatly with the prevailing mood of the party.
It meant that he was difficult to characterise – he never fitted easily into any of the obvious party factions – but it also meant he was impossible to ignore.
Yet what marked him out among other politicians was his ability to ally ideology with a clear sense of purpose. As foreign
secretary and leader of the House he drove an agenda based on explicit principles, and achieved more cultural and political change than is generally recognised. And although he occasionally disagreed with elements of Labour Party policy, it was the government’s failure to use its values to engage and mobilise voters that more often frustrated him.
In his resignation speech, and on many other occasions, he paid tribute to the prime minister’s achievements, stating that this government was the most successful Labour government ever – the most redistributive since Lloyd George.
His concern was at a policy he summed up as ‘social justice by stealth’. Although Labour had achieved so much, it seemed unwilling to talk about it. The failure to explain our achievements in tackling poverty and helping the worst off – let alone celebrate them – would not only weaken their stability in the long term, but also Labour’s broad electoral appeal. Entrenching social change must mean being more explicit about what the good society looks like and what it will take to get there.
These frustrations reflected his other political lodestar – his unflinching belief in political pluralism. Robin was instrumental in shaping the way that Labour approached these issues in the run-up to the 1997 election. Yet it is rare for a cabinet minister to carry these beliefs into office. The pressure on ministers to get results often sits uneasily with a commitment to greater democracy, and the latter often wilts under the pressure. Labour’s failure to hold a referendum on the voting system or properly reform the House of Lords are the most obvious examples of this tendency.
Robin Cook simply believed that political pluralism was at the root of democratic socialism. As he pointed out, revitalising progressive politics is about more than simply increasing the number of people who vote Labour. It is about shaping and entrenching the values that characterise social democracies. This cannot be done by one party. And it cannot be imposed from the top down. It must be built from the bottom up – and that cannot be achieved by stealth. It requires directly engaging, arguing and persuading.
It was for these reasons that Robin Cook provided a thoughtful and authoritative voice for a large part of the progressive left.
Those who knew Robin well have lost a good and decent man who cared deeply not only for his politics but also for his friends. From the reaction to his death it is clear that their sense of loss is shared by thousands who recognise that one of the most important figures in shaping the future of progressive politics has been lost.
With Robin Cook no longer around, ‘Where do we go from here?’ is a question we should all be asking ourselves.
Greg Power was special adviser to Robin Cook between 2001 and 2003. This article was originally published in Progress