Towards an ILP Perspective

The following is a statement – ‘a modest perspective’ – prepared by the ILP’s National Administrative Council for discussion at the 2010 ILP Weekend Seminar, ‘After the Election, What Next for the Left?’, to be held in Scarborough on 5-6 June. We hope it will stimulate comment and debate here on the website, at the seminar, and further afield. Please let us know what you think. Click here to find out more about the seminar weekend.

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.”
Tony Judt, historian, Ill Fares the Land


We live in increasingly uncertain and unstable times. After decades of ruthless, unrestrained economic growth, combined with raging social inequality and serious environmental damage, the world now faces economic crisis. That storm has not abated. Even if conditions do not deteriorate further, most people could be paying the price for the financial meltdown for decades to come. Meantime, political, financial and business elites strive to return to ‘business as usual’, offering minimal reforms to a capitalist system that has wreaked havoc.

Effective political challenges to this process have yet to be developed. Efforts to improve the quality of life for all face enormous and probably unprecedented challenges. We have a world of great plenty and technological progress, yet it’s scarred by growing political instability, gross inequalities, warfare and corporate excess. While these conditions present both dangers and opportunities, they understandably leave many people feeling confused and fearful.

For those of us on the left, the present condition raises many questions:

  • Can glaring levels of inequality give way to societies where the majority benefit?
  • Can we restore confidence in a new politics of hope and build tolerance towards cultural diversity?
  • Can we find ways to encourage co-operation and a greater sense of a shared community?
  • If so, how can we bring about such changes, and who might make change happen?

Any progressive change will have to overcome many and varied obstacles, not least those vested interests and institutions that perpetuate privilege, injustice and inequality. In the process, we will need to have the honesty to admit our mistakes, to listen to dissenting voices, and to reflect upon our failures as well as our successes. Striving for social justice is a struggle to change the balance of power in the interests of the many rather than the few. In part, this involves a battle of ideas but one that has to be conducted in an exemplary fashion; to progress, it has to secure people’s trust and, hopefully, their engagement.

There are no instant or simple answers to all these questions but we can learn from many of the campaigns and struggles, both past and present, through which people have sought to make a difference to their own and other’s lives. Some examples are fleeting; others more long-lasting; many deserve our attention. Sometimes they may seem localised; sometimes they cross continents; and they can take a rich and wide variety of forms. We should never underestimate the creativity of human beings whilst not being too blinkered to admit when things go wrong.

For some, the temptation, particularly in hard times and in the face of complexity, is to resort to fatalism, the belief that little or nothing can be done. Some think we can ignore what’s happening and just look after ourselves. Others may seek quick fixes, supposedly easy solutions, whether religious, political or personal. Still others want to surrender themselves to political demagogues who promise to solve their problems. All too often, the temptation is to blame those who are the greatest victims of injustice as the cause of society’s ills. The most self-defeating of these ideas – and probably the most destructive – is the dream of returning to a time in the past when all was supposedly well. There never was a golden age.

Any review of the past suggests that the route to a better society is littered with good intentions that turned out badly. This leads some to argue that it is better not to try, that conscious intervention simply makes matters worse. We disagree because such political cynicism is a shortcut to nowhere. But in seeking answers we have to recognise that our ideas and perspectives will always be flawed, our knowledge about the world can never be total, no matter how hard we try. But we do have to try.

A modest perspective

In formulating this modest statement, our aim is to reach out to, and connect with those who share or sympathise with our ideas and general outlook, or at least to make connections with those who would like to know more about what we are trying to say and do. The ILP comes from a long tradition on the left of the political spectrum that has sought collective solutions to the inequalities and destructiveness of capitalism. In the face of today’s problems, we seek to continue that tradition, to extend co-operative solutions to human problems by democratic means. It will take time, patience and perseverance.


Our politics are resolutely democratic and the abiding pillars of democracy – of political equality and popular control – are central to any progressive, left of centre politics.

We know, and celebrate the fact that democratic practices take many forms and operate in many different and varied ways. Parliamentary systems of government form an indispensable part of this variety. The liberal principles that parliamentary and other democratic systems need to operate properly –political, civil and personal liberties, political equality and the rule of law – are crucial to any progressive future. In many parts of the world the struggle to establish these principles is a long and bitter one, and their achievement a major accomplishment. It is a struggle in which the left has, at times, played an honourable role. In our own country the defence and extension of these principles is an ongoing necessity.

However, we recognise that without other changes in society – such as greater tolerance, protection for minorities and the vulnerable, and opposition to concentrations of power – democracy will always be incomplete. In short, democratic practice needs to be accompanied by a political culture that actively seeks to realise the promise of its basic principles.

We also think that democratic principles and processes need to extend beyond the realm of traditional, formal politics. They should be embedded in all areas of social life. We take inspiration from those communities and groups, at home and abroad, who try to find new ways of changing their lives through democratic participation and action. They may be short-lived, or limited in their scope or purpose, but they help to shore up our confidence that a different kind of society is possible.

Examples such as the London Citizens’ campaign for a living wage may be limited in its focus. However, through its democratic and participatory practice, it establishes something of broader and more enduring value, an example of a new way of acting collectively, and new means by which power – whether political or economic – can be held to account. There are many other similarly inspiring initiatives.

The principle of political equality means that no group or individual should be given a privileged role in democratic life by virtue of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or faith. Sectarianism is never justified. While we believe some ‘cultural’ practices are not acceptable in a liberal society, the question of where we place the limits of tolerance is a difficult one, and there are no simple answers either in practice or in abstract principle.

Parties, states and governments

It is both fashionable and understandable that there is much popular scepticism about government and political parties. All too often, political parties fail to deliver. While many, though not all, go into politics with good intentions, these seem to get subsumed beneath the pressures of public office, re-election, careers or simply the difficulties of governing.

But there is a danger that such scepticism undermines the positive role that the formal political process, and governments at national and local level, can and should play. Frankly, a reckoning with this arena – of parties, elections and policy – is unavoidable. Sooner or later any campaign for change in society has to deal with the process of government, of how collective decisions, whether national or local, are made and upheld. And it is as well that we accept this with a sober and realistic assessment of what it might or might not deliver.

We have no illusions about the limitations of these political arenas. Even modest attempts at change are assailed on all sides by forces that make change difficult, although all too often political leaders don’t even try. The more radical the intended changes, the more the forces of conservatism grow. And the very processes of politics, not least elections held in a society that is hostile to many radical ideas, exert a powerful constraint on what can be achieved through these routes. Herein lies the importance of democratic movements from outside the formal political system which can act as a counterweight to the conservative forces.

There is also a more positive case to be made for the role of governments. 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.

The problem of climate change is one area where action by states is both necessary, and failing. And governments proved themselves ready and able to act in the face of the financial crisis of 2008-09, demonstrating the scope and efficacy that state action can have. While the right, and those in the financial sector, welcomed this action for a short time, they quickly reverted to type, denouncing state regulation even while accepting taxpayers’ money. But if the crisis showed anything it is, in Will Hutton’s words, that ‘states, government, and the public really matter’.

We agree that national and local states, parties and legislatures all have a vital role in progressive politics. We can also look to inspiring examples from around the world where political parties have sought to open out to wider communities, encouraging participation in the political process, and enhancing the scope of popular control.

Our own politics are rooted in the British experience and the modern ILP has an honourable record of engagement with the Labour Party. While many on the left wish to avoid the Labour Party, to denounce, live outside, or ignore it, we think this is a cul-de-sac. Any attempt to progress radical change will have to go through a social democratic agency. For the left in Britain that remains the Labour Party.

However, we have no illusions about the current political and organisational state of the party. Like the rest of the Labour left we have not been immune from the corrosive effects of new Labour’s dominance over the past 16 years.

The new Labour project was, in part, 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. In our view, this attitude was unintentionally assisted by the inability of some on the left to think creatively about the future.

Part heirs to Thatcherism and part its opponents, the Blair/Brown leaderships performed what Stuart Hall described as ‘Labour’s double shuffle’, combining a dominant neo-liberal strand of thinking with a subordinate social democratic one.

While Thatcherism encouraged an ideological shift in the ‘common sense’ of British society – to a greater acceptance of the market and individualism – new Labour proved unable, or unwilling, to challenge this prevailing culture. Indeed, the leadership’s uncritical embrace of the market model in general, and the financial sector in particular, plus its support for some aspects of American foreign policy, its timid attitude to the right wing press, and some of its domestic social policies, accelerated the long-term rightward trend in British politics.

To enable this to happen – and acutely conscious of internal challenges to previous leaderships – new Labour devoted a great deal of effort in its early years to reforming the party’s internal structures replacing long-established (and unsatisfactory) mechanisms of representation with lightweight forums more easily manipulated from the centre.

The party conference is now an echo chamber for pronouncements from on high, and in most cases the political choice given to members in the selection of parliamentary candidates is effectively non-existent. Partly as a result of this shift of power to the centre, party membership has diminished radically.

Indeed, the party has a void at its core filled, not by participating members, but by conformism, as the hunger for electoral success distances it ever further from its origins in the Labour movement. The ILP has long campaigned for participatory democracy in the Labour Party and in the coming period that need is more urgent and relevant than ever.

Now, under the impact of the financial crisis, and its own political tensions, the new Labour project has unravelled, creating, we hope, an opportunity to debate the future of the party itself in the new political landscape. We will endeavour to make a contribution to that debate.


Capitalism by its nature is driven by the need to make profit, and this leads to societies characterised by inequality, corruption and, in its modern form, rampant consumerism and individualism. The world, shaped above all by more than two centuries of capitalist development, is unequal in ways that ought to offend humanity. Similarly, the very processes of democratic politics that we hope to extend are perverted and misshapen by the characteristics of capitalist economies. As David Miliband wrote in Reinventing the Left, ‘The left exists today, and needs to exist, because advanced industrial societies are corrupted in fundamental ways by inequalities of income, opportunity and perhaps, above all, power.’

We agree with the BBC economics editor, Paul Mason, when he argued that we need ‘an explanation of why the market system keeps producing these abuses: why mismanagement of banks is endemic, why regulation always seems to stoke the boom and reward failure…’ ‘If you are a critic of the capitalist system,’ he went on, ‘you must have some explanation of why it goes on producing power elites who stand in the way of attempts to control it.’ He also makes the point that capitalism in recent years has taken the form of an ‘abrasive, selfish, unequal society’, and we would add that the evidence suggests that the greater the inequality, the greater the social fragmentation that results.

The history of attempts to replace markets completely suggests to us that markets of some kind will always be necessary. However, we must seek ways to lessen their negative effects, and have more control over the role they play in our lives. In part, this means defending the role of the state in regulating, redistributing, coordinating and meeting needs. But it also means looking for new ways of organising economic life. There are no simple blueprints, but we hope to contribute to this endeavour, to seek to explain and to think about possible alternatives.

We recognise the historic advances in human development brought, to some, by capitalist development, in terms of life expectancy and material well-being. But we also recognise that this comes at a colossal price, paid in inequality, social upheaval, political oppression and environmental destruction. We support ways to make social and economic development more democratic, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable.

As well as reacting to immediate problems, and opposing the wrongs we see around us, we also recognise that without some vision of the kind of society we want to create, any process of reform, not just economic reform, can be easily blown off course. We must seek ways – slow, gradual and uncertain though they may be – to move towards an economy that is less unequal, less corrupting and more sustainable. As part of this we support the extension of cooperative forms of organisation in the economy and humane, socially just and sustainable alternatives to the destructive inequality of capitalism.

Beyond our borders

Many of the problems we face, such as environmental destruction, poverty, and economic inequality, demand international, collective action. Yet, in international politics there is no overarching authority, no government endowed with the ability to effect global change. Indeed, despite the existence of some fanciful and grandiose plans, the experience of empire suggests that we should not seek one. But nor should the scope of such problems daunt us into inaction, or into a denial of the role and efficacy of national states. Instead, real change at the international level has, in large part, to be built from the bottom up, through national states. Although the global problems we face are real and pressing, progress will be incrementally slow and difficult, and we need a considered understanding of the scope and limitations of existing international institutions.

Nevertheless, it is right that people and governments should try to achieve progressive change internationally. Part of this involves extending and defending universal human rights, and standing against tyranny and authoritarianism. While the right to self-determination is an important one, the very means by which different political communities can give expression to their collective will, we cannot support attempts by despots to turn it into a defence of their right to oppress. In cases where a state fails to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the international community has a responsibility to act.

However, any action by the most developed states comes tainted with the many deep injustices they have inflicted on the rest of the world. While the most powerful capitalist countries have made many progressive achievements possible, their interactions with less powerful countries have had a dark and bloody side. Thus, while recognising that not everything powerful states do in international affairs is necessarily wrong, we are against the coercive use of power by the wealthiest states for their own ends.

Our ability to exert influence is tiny in the face of such power, but we hope to contribute in small ways, to build bridges across national divides, to identify and support action where there are commonalities of interest.

Cynicism and individualism

As the 17th-century poet, John Donne wrote ‘No man is an island’. That applies to every family, community, political group, and nation state. We are all interconnected in a myriad of ways, historically, culturally, and socially.

Yet our societies are characterised by a heightened individualism (or ‘dutiless individualism’, as one perceptive commentator calls it) encouraged by a rampant consumer culture. Ever more areas of life, even childhood, are turned into arenas where everything can be bought or sold, and we are encouraged to pursue our own ends regardless of others. To an extent we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, complicit in this process. Part of building radical politics involves recognising this and trying to move closer to shared and co-operative ways of living and resolving difference.

We share Will Hutton’s view that, ‘A life lived well is not just about having a more valuable house next year … designer clothes next year, trying to be a celebrity. A life lived well does require some capacity to express oneself in concert with others.’

In doing so, however, we should not be seeking collective uniformity. We want to encourage social individualism. Variety and debate should be valued; they are the lifeblood of learning. We seek to encourage human creativity and recognise the importance of trial and error in our attempts to reshape society. No simple answers for the whole of humanity exist, or can exist, but that is not to say nothing can or should be done. Indeed, we would argue the opposite: social experiments in improving the human condition are vital; they can indicate ways forward and give us the shared confidence to keep on trying.

Political action

We hope to continue a political practice that is strategic, that is, beyond reactive, technocratic tinkering. Tony Blair’s mantra of concentrating on ‘doing what works’ merely begs the question of ‘what works for whom?’. But we also need to be strategic in terms of opening out longer-term possibilities for change rather than vociferous, fleeting but futile gesture politics. Ours is a politics that recognises the inevitability of short-term compromises but only in order to establish the basis for a longer-term direction of change.

Our political action must uphold the principles by which we stand: 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 use of violence – by state and non-state actors – to deliberately terrorise non-combatants is never justified.

For our part, we make no claim to a privileged knowledge of the truth. We recognise that efforts to elaborate blueprints have often been deeply flawed and we remain steadfastly open to debate, dialogue and doubt. Our actions must embrace and encourage human creativity and pluralism.

Our aims are tempered by the recognition that a politics of the left, even the very idea that there may be a different way of doing things, enjoys limited support in the wider world. Progress will depend on a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles and campaigns, each needing the other.

So, our vision today needs to be wide while our achievements are likely to be modest. We should certainly try to make the world a better place but issues and challenges will always emerge. The hope expressed here is that we can start to lay the basis of something better than we have today; that we can tackle a self-destructive society that wrecks, neglects, isolates, damages, devalues, divides, and even destroys, so many of its members.

We want to work with others, individuals and organisations, who share some or all of our desire to remake radical politics with a joyful, human face, in open, imaginative and collective ways. Let us know if you think similarly.

ILP National Administrative Council, May 2010


  1. Harry Barnes
    16 June 2010

    I provide below two links to a letter which is to be sent to the candidates in the Labour Leadership elections. It does not argue for support for any specific candidate, but it is directed to seeking to raise the level of debate so that an opportunity is provided for Labour Party Members, Co-operrative Party Members and members of bodies affiliated to the Labour Party who pay their political levy or its equivalent to begin to enter into a serious debate about the direction the Labour Party should move. A debate to be based on the democratic socialist principle contained in the Labour Party’s Constitution. These are the links to the letter –

    The letter is written by Ken Curran, John Halstead and myself. We feel that is has relevance to “Towards An ILP Perspective”. Ken and John attended the recent ILP Seminar Weekend at Scarborough and I only missed it when a family commitment emerged. Anyone wishing to support our letter in a personal capacity can contact us via one of the links provided above. We first circulated the letter yesterday and are already starting to pull in support.

  2. Jonathan
    27 May 2010

    This is a welcome attempt to define the ambitious scope of the ILP’s perspective. It is encouraging to read something which is radical in intent but realisitic in describing the prospects for the Left. Thankfully, it does not suggest that the ILP, or indeed the Left in general, has any easy wholescale solutions for the challenges we face. But nor does it conclude that we should stop struggling to come up with an alternative to free market capitalism, which can deliver social justice. From to to time, the pserspective offers small case studies of the sort of things this might mean in practice (such as the London campaign for a living wage). Where these appear, they are very powerful and perhaps the authors might consider collecting some more for their final draft.

    However, I have a few stylisitic problems with it, and it begs a few questions which I would like to pose.

    Firstly, the opening paragraph reads like a Trotskyist description of life under capitalism. For most people in developed economies, capitalism delivers a reasonably pleasant lifestyle in material terms, if not always one which is secure or stable. This must be acknowledged, even in times of ‘financial crisis’ such as our own. My mother lived through the 1930s in a working class family and our expereinces now are nothing like those she suffered at the time (in effect, she had to leave home and work from the age of 11).

    Secondly, the first question posed suggests that the majority do not benefit from the current system but are in fact subject to glaring inequalities. It is entirely consistent with the way that capitalism operates that the majority benefit (to varying extents) but a minority (or minorities) do not, so the question needs to be reframed.

    Thirdly, terms like ‘tolerance’ and describing people as ‘vulnerable’ should be avoided. They suggest an outdated understanding of equality. In particular, vulberability is an extremely unhelpful term. Focussing on individual deficit rather than organisational failure or barriers leads to poor research and thinking.

    Fourthly, I am concerned about the references to universal human rights and linking it with (presumably) military intervention in the affairs of other soverign states. Whilst in principle, I remain ‘a liberal interventionalist’, I believe much stronger rules have to be developed to authorise interventions of this sort. I do not understand how any discusssion of the issue cannot touch on the particular concerns which surround the UN, and the debate between those who seek ‘intenational governance’ and those who suspect that any moves towards international governance threaten national democracy. Also, I think the perspective refers to the narrow scope of civil and political rights referred to in the UN Declaration rather than the full scope of rights, including social, economic and cultural, which have been defined since 1948, and the positive obligations in States to tackle social ills through a human rights lens. This narrow and, frankly, conservative understanding of human rights needs to be addressed.

    Fifthly, since it is likely that trade unions will be extremely active over the next few years opposing cuts to public services, what will the ILP’s perspective be on the usefulness of such action to the Left project and what can TUs contribute to transforming society?

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