Reviewing Labour’s future

MATTHEW BROWN reports on the left’s response to the government’s spending review and Jon Cruddas’s call for Labour to embrace the ‘good society’.

There have been many responses to the coalition government’s emergency budget and comprehensive spending review, those from the left ranging from the timid “too much, too soon” sound-bite of the uninspiring shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, to the utterly predictable “fight the cuts” sloganeering of the SWP and their ilk.

In the midst of all the shock and fear, however, Labour MP Jon Cruddas has emerged as one of the most forthright and coherent voices of condemnation with his analysis of the cuts programme as “a massive experiment in social engineering”.

That view, expressed during a public meeting at the House of Commons on 21 October, one day after chancellor George Osborne revealed the extent of the government’s scything ambition, has been aired widely in the mainstream media, not least via Cruddas’s article in the current (1 November 2010) issue of New Statesman, ‘Social Engineering by Stealth’.

At the meeting, organised by Soundings, Compass and the New Political Economy Network, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham was joined by the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott and TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady to discuss the spending review and Labour’s alternative.

Cruddas’s argument will be familiar to anyone who has read the Statesman piece or heard his Aneurin Bevan memorial lecture (‘Let’s take back the big society’) on 20 October, while the fear he raised of inner city social cleansing was later given national exposure by an Observer investigation and London Mayor Boris Johnson’s ‘no Kosovo here’ comments on local radio.

Essentially, Cruddas claims the Tory’s £18 billion cuts package, especially the cap on housing benefits, is a calculated exercise to clear poorer people out of certain parts of our major cities – to “literally marginalise welfare”, as he put it. The government’s housing strategy, he writes in the New Statesman, “amounts to a modern enclosure movement”.

In the Commons meeting, he put it in these terms. “This is about nothing less than the economic, political and cultural dispossession of the poor. The effects will be absolutely massive on tens of thousands of people.” This “cleansing exercise”, he added, was described off the record by one Tory minister as their “Highland clearances strategy”.

Far from being economically necessary, as the government claims, Cruddas believes Osborne’s measures are ideologically driven, part of a calculated political agenda designed to manufacture a Conservative majority at the next election and box Labour into a corner.

“This is an acutely political project, driven by the Conservatives’ chief election strategist,” he writes in the NS. “Osborne also happens to be Chancellor, but the politics are driving the economics. The aim is a redrawing of society, the desired political outcome a majority Conservative government.”

Osborne, he claims, is “thinking very systematically about where the Labour Party will be” – will it side with the poor, the unions and the left, and back an anti-cuts campaign, or will it engage in “classic new Labour triangulation”?

Labour’s crisis

Cruddas’s view is that there is a real danger for Labour here, that if it doesn’t speak clearly for the poor it will leave a huge hole to be filled by the far right. This is a development of the argument he’s been making about Labour’s future for the last year or so, first outlined in his September 2009 Compass paper (reported here) and returned to in the Bevan lecture last month.

The party, he argues, is in a crisis of historic proportions – “the third great crisis of Labour”, he calls it, following 1931 and 1981. It is a crisis of identity and purpose wrought by the “social calamity” of the last 30 years of neo-liberalism, and compounded by the last 13 when new Labour bowed to a “desiccated materialism which left people either to sink or swim”.

“A communitarian politics built around the good society was defeated by a utilitarian privileging of personal choice and liberal individualism,” he says.

Labour has lost far more than an election. Therefore, it must do far more to renew itself than respond bit-by-bit to the government’s cuts programme and ‘big society’ agenda. According to Cruddas, Labour must refind its historic role as “a voice for the voiceless”, and build a new political economy.

The danger, he says, is that Labour will simply fall back on its “comfortable orthodoxies”. “The stakes could not be higher. Will it retreat into orthodoxy as it did in 1931 and 1981, or will it choose the politics of hope over the politics of despair?”

As to what this new “politics of hope” might look like, Cruddas points to the proposals he and others have laid out in the New Political Economy Network’s recent e-book, Britain’s Broken Economy, reviewed here by Ben Turley. These ideas, he claims, could form “a new architecture around Labour”, allowing it to “fully embrace the notion of the good society” put forward by Compass and referred to by both Miliband brothers during the leadership debates.

In the past, he writes, “Labour’s politics was the politics of a common life, a common law and a common wealth. This is a core Labour tradition that needs to be reclaimed today.

“The notion of the ‘good society’ … signals a movement dedicated to social justice and intellectual freedom and the desire for self-realisation. This is not the stripped down, atomised materialism that became new Labour’s signature tune but a politics of virtue, rooted in Aristotle, which resists commodification and nurtures community.”

Cruddas explores these ideas in more detail in his Bevan lecture, arguing that Labour needs to rediscover “a number of central propositions that lie deep within our own history”, namely that the Labour movement is a moral force, and that it’s for the common good, for reciprocity (“the give and take that creates social bonds”), for liberty and joy, and for the common wealth.

Although based on a somewhat rosy view of Labour’s history, and expressed in rather sweeping terms, much of this will find resonance in the ILP which has long argued that Labour needs to be at the heart of a moral and ethical, as well as political movement, that it needs to connect with wider desires for “the common good”, as Cruddas calls it.

In particular, ILPers will welcome his emphasis on democracy as a potential force for radical social change, not just political but economic and cultural too.

“There is no liberty for all without solidarity and democracy,” he writes. “There is only one force capable of countering the profit seeking of capitalism and the social damage and insecurities it causes, and that is democracy. Political democracy alone is not sufficient; it has to extend into the economic sphere.”

What’s still missing from Cruddas’s perspective, however, is any sense of the enormously difficult political and economic terrain Labour (and the wider left) must negotiate to move society from where it is, with all the vested cultural and ideological forces ranged against it, to a position where such a democratic political economy, such a commonly ‘good society’, might be possible.

Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest Cruddas is unaware of this failing. However, there is little acknowledgement here that Labour must not only rediscover “a virtue politics of compassion, fraternity, duty and obligation”, but find a way to win support for such a politics, let alone for the actual reforms and policies the party would need to pursue in government, all of which would be fiercely resisted.

He writes that “we are obliged to re-anchor Labour in the ordinary, mainstream culture of the country”. But it’s not embracing despair against hope, or siding with “sinister forces”, to point out that our “ordinary, mainstream culture” is not always based on “compassion, fraternity, duty and obligation”. Finding the courage to challenge the mainstream is part of Labour’s task too.

Economic dogmatism

To be fair, Cruddas isn’t alone in this omission. At the Commons meeting, Larry Elliott and Frances O’Grady were also stronger attacking the government than suggesting how Labour might build a coherent long-term response.

Elliott labelled Osborne’s slashing measures “economic dogmatism taken to a ludicrous degree”, and reiterated the Keynesian call he’s made in his columns for a 1945-style fiscal stimulus to replace the cuts. “Osborne claims the measures in this review are about reform, fairness and growth,” he said. “My view is that they’re about none of these at all. You have to wonder if the real agenda is shrinking the size of the deficit or shrinking the size of the state.”

Labour, he said, lost control of the agenda during the election when the debate became who had the better strategy for cutting the deficit, not who had better plans for growing the economy.

“Labour needs a clearly aligned, properly articulated economic strategy together with a simple, clear message. It has to have an intellectual underpinning but expressed in a way that will come across on the doorstep,” said Elliott.

O’Grady similarly acknowledged the Tories’ success in shifting the terms of public discussion so that a crisis of the private sector has become a crisis in public services. She argued that Labour does need a credible alternative for tackling the deficit, one that’s economically and politically compelling, but it should also promote an active industrial policy, built on the case for state intervention and reform of the corporate sector.

“We could be the first generation that ends up seeing our children worse off than we are,” she said. “Or we can hand on to our children a very different kind of economy – fairer, greener and more equal.”

O’Grady, who’s at the forefront of the TUC’s five-year campaign against the cuts, revealed plans for a national demonstration on 26 March next year, although, to her credit, she acknowledged that activism and protest alone are not enough.

“The right did an enormous amount of hard intellectual work before they got back into power, and we can’t short-circuit that effort,” she said. “The Tories have a very crude strategy of divide and rule – public versus private; the poor from the middle class; service users from producers. We have to be quite smart to counter that.”

What all three speakers seemed to agree was that the new-look Labour isn’t yet being smart enough.

Britain’s Broken Economy can be downloaded from the Soundings website here.