We live in challenging times. Decades of insecurity and rampant inequality are generating widespread anger and intolerance. All too often this animosity is directed at the victims of injustice rather than its perpetrators or the system that generates it.
Ours is a damaged society where political disenchantment is tangible. At home and globally, too many lives are blighted by poverty, inequality and deprivation, by fear and insecurity, or by bigotry. Many turn to the pursuit of materialism, encouraged by a culture that celebrates wealth and personal gain. Others turn to religious or nationalist zealotry.
Across the world, populist politics – often xenophobic – is on the rise. Cherished ideals of human rights, democracy, tolerance and international co-operation are under threat. None of this is simply due to fate. It is the outcome of how our world is organised, a product, ultimately, of political choices.
Founded in 1893, the ILP comes from a long tradition of organisations on the left working for a society based on social justice and equality, on broad and deep democracy, on more co-operative and mutually supportive ways of living. We aim to continue that tradition today – in short, to extend co-operative solutions to human problems by democratic means.
We set our sights high, for we believe it is possible to improve the quality of life for many, not just a few, that a humane world is possible. Human society is based on interdependence; we are not isolated individuals, communities or states but mutually dependent on each other for our futures.
We recognise, however, that in aiming to create a good society, the modern left faces challenges as formidable today as at any time in its history.
Indeed, humanity is fast approaching a crossroads. The actions we take and choices we make in the coming years are likely to be of great significance, not only to us but to future generations.
To create a sustainable society will, of necessity, demand curbing and controlling those forces that propel us towards environmental catastrophe. To create a just society will demand a serious reckoning with persistent inequalities of race, gender and age. And to create a fair and resilient society will mean rebuilding after the global coronavirus pandemic in a way that works for all.
It is vital to overcome the sense of powerlessness that so many people feel, both about their own lives and about the wider world, not least because it can lead to desperate and destructive reactions, political and personal. Broad political, cultural and ethically-based movements and campaigns for change are key to this task, but we also need progressive political parties to enact wide-ranging reforms.
Progress will depend on alliances between them and sometimes there will be tensions. Incremental gains along the way can highlight what is possible and encourage people to become part of a process of change. Our commitment is to encourage debate, respect for different views and the democratic resolution of differences.
The historian Tony Judt summed up his view this way: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest; indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes what remains of our collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth…
“Much of what seems ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”
In Britain, for more than three decades we have seen attacks on public, collective provision while the free market has been promoted over state intervention. After 1979, Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher embarked on a programme of radical change, restructuring the post-war welfare state, diminishing the power of working people, and expanding free enterprise, in particular by loosening controls over banking and finance. The UK was set on a path to what’s often referred to as neoliberalism.
The new Labour project was the product of successive election defeats and the deep desire of many to get the Tories out of office, regardless of the cost to traditional left politics. To win power in 1997, Labour largely accommodated itself to this neoliberal framework. While committed to some redistribution of wealth, it relied on taxes from a deregulated and rampant financial service sector to fund the expansion of state expenditure.
It invested massively in public services and reversed years of decline under the Tories, but new Labour often devalued the public sector in its rhetoric. It also continued down the path of privatisation, creating markets within the public sector on an unprecedented scale.
Yet, after promising ‘no return to boom or bust’, the Labour government in the end had to use the state to bail out the banking and financial sectors when economic meltdown was imminent. Despite the use of taxpayers’ money, and despite the crisis, the Labour government, and the left more generally, failed to present a credible narrative for progressive change.
Returning to power in 2010, at first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Tories have continued to subordinate public provision to the market and private sector. Many of the Tory policies that followed – in the economy, the NHS and education – have extended those that began under new Labour.
The Tories’ economic strategy, based on austerity, with massive, sustained cuts to public spending, was even more extreme than the Thatcher governments’. Austerity not only reversed new Labour’s investment in services, but reduced the public sector to a level not seen since before the Second World War.
When the global pandemic hit in 2020, the impact of these policies was felt in the most tragic way as hospitals, care homes and public services struggled to cope. Even the Tories had to admit – temporarily at least – that austerity was over.
CAPITALISM, MARKETS AND DEMOCRACY
Austerity and privatisation reinforced the normal tendencies of capitalism. For ours is a capitalist society and the logic of capitalism is to turn everything into commodities to be bought and sold in the market. It is a system that violates our humanity and the environment, and devalues and debases human beings and social life. Unregulated, capitalism destroys all in the pursuit of material gain, whether families or forests.
While we recognise the historic advances in human development brought, to some, by capitalist development, in terms of life expectancy, technological advance and material wellbeing, we also recognise that these come at the colossal price of inequality, social upheaval, political oppression and environmental destruction.
Recently, we have seen the ruin that modern, under-regulated banking and finance can cause, leaving those who can ill-afford it to pay a huge price for decades to come. This should not come as a surprise. By their very nature, unregulated market forces lead to excess, encouraging greed and selfishness at the expense of others, putting possessive individualism before collective endeavour.
The basic character of capitalism cannot change. It is defined by the pursuit of profit at the expense of collective social needs. It corrodes and corrupts, eating away at our social fabric.
Yet its agents will always balk at ‘red tape’ and attempts to restrict their freedom of action. They will complain of ruination when they do not get their way, as the employers did in the 19th century when the long working day was restricted. They will threaten to up sticks and move to places where their actions can go unchecked. They will seek to exploit cheap labour across the globe, to divide and rule, to use their vast resources to cut corners, bypass democracy and avoid paying taxes.
Indeed, there is a fundamental conflict between capitalism and democratic society. For years, neoliberalism has hollowed out democracy. As the academic Doreen Massey wrote: “The judgement of ‘the markets’ hangs over everything, setting the parameters within which political debate can operate.”
Never has this been more obvious than in the wake of the financial crash which threw the neoliberal project into crisis. For, despite colossal bail-outs by democratic governments and enormous human costs, our political options are still subordinated to the interests of the bankers.
Having said that, we do accept that markets in some shape or form are necessary in a democratic society. Markets can be very creative, they provide necessary incentives and are essential to enabling modern economies to function. The evidence of wholly planned economies, such as the Communist systems of the 20th century, suggests as much.
However, the less that markets are regulated, the more likely it is their destructive side will be unleashed. A more democratic society would subordinate markets to the collective, democratic interests of the country. In our society, it is democracy that is subordinated.
The conditions in which markets are allowed to operate should always be closely monitored and carefully regulated. In some social democratic systems – in Scandinavian countries and some other western European countries at various times – restrictions on markets have delivered real benefits such as reduced inequality, greater social provision and fairer distributions of wealth and opportunity.
They show the direction in which we want society to move, but they are not a utopian end point. These gains are always fragile and are easily undermined, especially at times of economic crisis. They require more active support and defence than traditional, top-down social democratic systems have typically encouraged.
Some areas of life should be removed from the influences of private profit entirely – health, education and public transport, for example. We must defend the role of the state in regulating the market, redistributing resources, coordinating public services and ensuring the needs of all members of a community are met.
The Tories characterise the state as overbearing, all-powerful and interfering. And at times, parts of the public sector have been too inflexible and unresponsive to people’s needs. But the state in a democratic society is the main means by which we collectively provide for our needs, and those of each other, out of our common wealth. It is our protection against the free market.
The Tories’ goal is to marketise the public sector and shrink the state. We need vigilance and a democratic culture to counter these destructive aims and the destructive tendencies of free markets. This is required at several levels – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally – while we must also develop more democratic, co-operative ways of organising business and production.
Movements and progressive parties must work together to counter capitalist values with social values based on human relationships and a respect for the natural world. While capitalism exists, this struggle continues. We also need vigilance and a vibrant democratic culture to prevent excesses by the state.
In recent decades unregulated capitalism has been dominant, creating, in the words of journalist Paul Mason, an “abrasive, selfish, unequal society”. Indeed, as the academic Edward Skidelsky wrote, “…economics and its jargon have penetrated every corner of social life… Doctors, priests and scientists are lumped together as ‘service providers’ … school teachers are urged to ‘add value’ to their pupils…”.
We agree and believe it is time to change direction.
POLITICAL PARTIES AND LABOUR’S ROLE
The ILP emerged as a political party more than 120 years ago as a reaction to harsh working conditions and the widespread poverty that unregulated capitalism brought to Britain. The perspective of the ILP has inevitably changed and developed over the decades as the world about us has changed, but our essential humanitarian concerns have remained. We hold fast to the ethics and principles of care and compassion, fellowship and fraternity, mutuality, co-operation and internationalism of our founders. Their desire to see a world of social, political and economic equity, of deep and radical democracy, remains the foundation of our politics.
In order to achieve such a society, we believe there is a need for numerous political movements, experiments in alternative ways of organising society, and for co-operative and democratic businesses. Protests against government cuts and privatisation in health, education and social care should be galvanised into broader campaigns. But lasting social change also requires political parties, for sooner or later any campaign or movement has to deal with the process of government, how collective decisions are made and upheld.
It was recognition of this need for a political voice and power that led to the foundation of the ILP, and later of the Labour Party itself, of which the ILP was an important co-founder. Actions by governments have a crucial role in addressing many of the problems we face, whether locally, nationally or through international co-operation.
In Britain, that means we have to engage with the Labour Party. Although others on the left have sometimes disagreed, we think any attempt to progress radical change will have to go through a social democratic agency. This view isn’t dependent on who is party leader at any given time but is based on our assessment of how radical change can be promoted in a British political context. It is why the ILP rejoined the Labour Party in 1975.
The fortunes of the Labour Party have changed enormously over time, and the task of enabling it to be a force of progressive change has changed as well. New Labour’s dominance had a corrosive effect on the internal life of the party even though it enjoyed electoral success. After losing office in 2010 there was much debate in and around the left and centre-left about how the party might regain public trust and how its politics might be transformed for the better.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015 led to a huge surge in membership and saw the party adopt a bolder and more radical stance. But it was a project that failed to realise its potential due to its own shortcomings, a shifting political climate, and fierce criticism from political opponents and the media.
Under Keir Starmer’s leadership Labour needs to retain and revitalise its radicalism in a political and electoral context that is extremely challenging and fast-changing.
The ILP has always sought to be part of the process of radical change, to encourage Labour to reinvent itself as a more radical party. For many years we have been consistent in arguing for the party to be an active, participatory, membership-based democracy that welcomes the co-existence of different viewpoints and upholds principles of pluralism, mutual respect and comradeship.
We recognise the need for the party to be open to dialogue and common purpose with those outside it, although, unlike some, we are sceptical of the notion that there is a ready-made progressive majority in the country waiting to be led. The electoral challenge facing radical parties will always be significant and, given the capitalist nature of our society, we do not underestimate the difficulties of enacting radical policies once in office.
The extent to which Labour can realise its radical potential will, therefore, depend on the strength and depth of its internal democracy, on the forces and movements that align with it, and with the political space they can open up together.
THE FUTURE LEFT
The left has often struggled to offer a credible politics for our times. Across western liberal democracies it is the voices of the populist right, rather than those of the left, that have the ascendancy. Of course, the left faces a barrage of opposition from various vested interests, not least in much of the media, and it has fought many a good fight, but it has not been at its best when offering pathways to a better society.
The resurgence of a more left-wing Labour Party in Britain, and new forms of activist-based political movements and parties in other countries, offers some hope of new possibilities. But against the dominance of market values progressive change will be hard won. We still need to find a way to be practical and visionary at the same time; to chart a course between a necessary pragmatic focus on the politics of the present and the next election, and the longer-term goal of more radical, wide-ranging social change.
Our political actions must also uphold the principles by which we stand. We believe that the character, actions and ethics of political movements and parties must prefigure the change they will create, that they have an obligation to act with morality, honesty and self-criticism.
Of course, there will always be arguments and conflicts and, in a society based on democracy, that is absolutely necessary. The imposition of harmony from above is the road to dictatorship and not one we should ever contemplate. While people deserve respect, no-one and no organisation is above criticism.
Living democracy is a lively business; regulating capital a constant process. No society will ever be perfect, but we can surely create a better world than the one we have today. We should certainly try to.
And along the way, perhaps we can rebuild a movement that not only fights for a good society, but conveys the collective joy, humour and warmth that helped sustain earlier generations of socialists.
“Socialism is at bottom a question of ethics and morals.”
This statement was written and agreed by the ILP’s National Administrative Council in August 2020. It is based on previous versions that received broad endorsement from ILP members and Friends at the ILP Weekend Schools in May 2011 and in November 2018.
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