In an oeuvre that encompassed studies in British working-class history, works of political and economic theory, biographies and detective novels, the guild socialist intellectual GDH Cole wrote two analyses of the condition of Britain: one penned in the middle of the depression in the 1930s, with his wife Margaret, and another in the 1950s, when the country enjoyed full employment and rising prosperity. The two studies were separated by World War II, the Beveridge Report and the Attlee government, as well as at least a dozen other books by Cole himself, and the gulf between Britain in the 1930s and what it was to become in the 1950s was wide and deep. An entirely new economic and social settlement - forged on the anvil of war and built by the 1945 Labour government - shaped post-war Britain.
Cole did not live to see the destruction of that settlement in the 1970s and 1980s (he died in 1959, the year Harold Macmillan was returned to power by an electorate grateful that they 'had never had it so good'). Were he alive today, he would recognise features of the 1930s economic and social landscape: prolonged economic stagnation, falling living standards, and sharp divides between north and south. Faithful to a profound belief in the dignity, worth and potential of human beings, he would recognise too the immense reservoirs of strength and resilience in the British people that characterise the country now, as much as in the past. These would be sources of inspiration for a politics of hope, premised on the power, capabilities and convictions of working people. Cole stood for community and fellowship, not state or market.
He would doubtless, therefore, hear echoes of his own voice at times in this edition's lead essay by Jon Cruddas and Liam Byrne. Their analysis of the condition of Britain starts from the lived experience of people in Britain today, rather than abstract categories of political thought, just as Cole's did. It seeks primarily to shape a new centre-left understanding of British society. If New Labour was 'too hands-off with the market, too hands-on with the state' , one of the party's pressing intellectual and political tasks today is to conjoin its emerging economic reform agenda with a new account of how it will approach social policy. Rejecting the pessimism, market fetishism and anti-government rhetoric of the 'Broken Britain' discourse, Cruddas and Byrne nonetheless take on the challenge of articulating a centre-left version of the 'Big Society'. As they suggest, this requires them to occupy the ground of community, not abandon it; to understand where and how markets can invade and colonise forms of collective life, as well underpin their prosperity; and to challenge a centralist 'cash and control' statecraft which, too often, can suck up political power to the centre of government, denuding individuals and communities of the power, resources and relationships that make possible a rewarding, common life.
Nick Pearce's interview with the US political theorist, Bonnie Honig, ranges across much of the same territory, at the heart of which is her arresting account of the importance of 'public things'. A democracy, she argues, is not simply made up of citizens and the procedures that govern their democratic deliberation, but of public objects too: the parks, schools, forests, public broadcasters, even the military itself, over which we argue, campaign and fight. Honig stresses that such conflict is irreducible in societies, but argues that the increasing privatisation of public things reduces democracies to a state of 'worldlessness' in which cherished public objects have disappeared. Under neo-liberalism, she argues, we can 'drown in proceduralism... but if all those things take up all our time we'll look up from our papers and our borders, one day, and see that there isn't anything left to fight over.' And it is through public things, she argues, that 'equality and liberty and justice take shape. When they become merely procedural values, or when the form they take has to do with targets or indicators, they become shapeless and unrewarding values.'
In contrast, James Plunkett counsels against a retreat into an agenda of 'pubs, parks and patriotism' just at the moment when the material crisis in the living standards of working people is most acute. He argues that the centre-left will not succeed unless it can offer a plausible account of how to raise real wages and household incomes. But he too recognises that the fiscal constraints on the state compel it to practice a new statecraft, one that reshapes the political economy of the country rather than simply redistributes its proceeds, and in which public spending is tilted sharply towards services and institutions that support fuller employment, rather than transactional cash transfers. He thereby provides some starting points for how the agenda being put forward by Cruddas and Byrne can begin to integrate economic and social policy concerns within a new governing strategy.
In these arguments, we can see a new democratic politics for the British centre-left taking shape. It is much more attentive to democratic empowerment, drawing inspiration from the socialist and cooperative traditions, exemplified by GDH Cole, and more instinctively localist. It focuses increasingly on the institutions of public life and the relationships they sustain, rather than the transactions between self-regarding individuals more typical of new public management. And it seeks to balance the desire to conserve, cherish and protect, with the urgency to reform, given the scale of the social challenges Britain faces. It is inspired, in part at least, by Blue Labour theorists. But there are rich liberal traditions on which this thinking can draw too: from the social liberalism of TH Green to the mutualism and community politics of the Liberal leader, Jo Grimond.
If these resources of the three great traditions of British politics - socialist, liberal and conservative - can be drawn together into a new post-crash politics of society, and used to respond to some of the major economic challenges of our times, the result could be very powerful.
However, the potential richness of this new conception of democratic politics will count for very little if Labour cannot restore its reputation with the electorate for economic competence. As John Curtice points out in his column, Labour would be unwise to rely on the travails of George Osborne as its sole pathway back to power. Curtice shows that the argument that the last Labour government left the economy in a mess, and that the current government is having to clear this mess up, still has considerable traction with voters - with the result that more people trust the Coalition with future economic stewardship than they do Labour. If Labour is to return to government and to be in a position to implement transformational reforms of the wider economy and of society, it needs to come up with many more concrete policies which convince the electorate that it is both fiscally credible and capable of raising living standards.
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