John Harris

Journalist & Author

Labour needs New Socialism – and coalition | John Harris

The old model of state provision is over. The left needs a new approach that recognises we live in an era of pluralism

In this week’s New Statesman, there’s a piece I’ve co-written with the chairman of Compass, Neal Lawson. With our usual sense of understatement, we’ve built it around what we call New Socialism: a set of centre-left ideas that have been cohering for the last five years or so, which Ed Miliband shows signs of instinctively understanding, and which we think points up the drastic changes the Labour party is going to have to embrace. In May 2010, we argue, Labour lost not just an election, but an entire way of being, and unless it grasps what is required, it could head yet further towards political twilight.

The problem is, Labour as a whole seems to be in no mood for such a radical rethink. A lot of the people at the top are way too quiet; but so too are poleaxed people at all levels of the party. Out of this state of shock comes a confused noise. Hold steady, say some – the cuts will soon do the work for us. Outflank the Tories from the right, reckon others: given New Labour’s record of hang-’em-flog-’em statecraft, it shouldn’t be too difficult. The new leader moves cautiously, pledging to start by listening, and you can’t blame him. But soon enough, he is going to have to flesh out the kind of modernised social democracy he seems to want.

What we suggest is that Old Labour and New Labour have fought each other to a standstill. From civil liberties to the target-driven approach to the public services, the former’s view of the state, which remained glued in place for the entirety of the Blair/Brown period, is outmoded. Post-crash, the latter’s naïve enthusiasm for free and “flexible” markets is also a busted flush. Neither school has anything to say about the far-reaching changes that will have to happen if centre-left politics is to be revived.

The Labour blogger Hopi Sen has read what Neal and I have written. Having got a mean-spirited go at Neal out of the way, he seems to agree with some of it, but he says he’s not sure what it all means. “I’m not quite sure how it translates into political action,” he complains. He sounds impatient, which highlights some of Labour’s problems. It’s not going to get to a 30-point manifesto in a matter of weeks. First, it has to learn to think again, and understand the condition of the country.

As we write in the article, everything has to begin where people are – that is, “stressed, stretched, anxious, insecure, tired and alienated”. This entails a new, human political vocabulary, so that we can at least begin to understand people’s lives, and how to improve them. It means that if Labour’s policy review is going to mean anything, it is going to have to intrude into places that post-Thatcher politics hasn’t dared go near: most obviously, the workplace, so that politicians at long last have something convincing to say about long hours, what “good work” might mean, and how people at the bottom of working hierarchies relate to those at the top. It demands that politicians start to think about the quality of places where people actually live, and what an out-of-control market and distant state have done to them.

Crucially, we also suggest that if you’re going to buck the market, you’ll have to push beyond the national limits of modern politics. Regulation based on social imperatives is increasingly only practicable on a European level, at least: how else can you match the power of high finance? As our piece says: “To match such power, there should be moves towards controls on speculative capital flows, co-ordinated corporation taxes and the establishment of the principle of a Europe-wide minimum wage.” Discuss below, if you fancy.

Sen has a real problem with this bit:

“New Socialism knows the state is vital, but recognises, too, the crisis of the bureaucratic and market state. It wants a state whose scope is determined democratically and that is made accountable, responsive and local through the boldest political reforms of public service this country has ever seen. A more proportional electoral system is only one part of the change required: the state must be reinvented so as to entrench citizens’ involvement through the principles of democracy and co-production. Parents expect meaningful input into their children’s education; patients increasingly want their treatment to be based on dialogue; the people who work in the public services can contribute far more than the implementation of diktats. Health, education, social care and much more need to be liberated from the bureaucratic, outsourced state and reshaped collectively and democratically.”

“What does this mean in practice?” he asks. He suspects that everyone from Michael Gove to Tony Blair might agree with us. They wouldn’t, and here’s why.

The postwar model of state provision is over: there is now an expectation of citizens having a voice and influence that it simply cannot accommodate. But the solutions the post-Thatcher settlement has offered to this tension have only compounded the problem. If hospital treatment is outsourced, do professionals and patients feel any more involved? If a school is turned into an academy, does that heighten a community’s involvement in local schooling ? Does a shadow state run by Serco, Capita and the rest do anything to empower anybody, apart from those companies? No: all of which highlights the left’s big problem. Is there a guiding idea that can shape the kind of public sector reform that might actually bring the state in line with people’s expectations of influence? It’ll take work, but there is: it’s called co-production.

Sen is also not too pleased about us arguing against “Labourism”, and thinks it might be a straw man. It isn’t: as we point out in the piece, it denotes the idea that change can “only be delivered from the centre by one – and only one – all-seeing, all-powerful, monolithic party.” We go on: “Today, we live in an era of pluralism, with competing centres of power. This new politics is manifested most clearly in Westminster in the form of the coalition, but can also be seen in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and on councils the length and breadth of the nation. This cultural shift is huge and, for Labour, unavoidable.” Can anyone really argue with this?

Some of this is about learning from the kind of non-party politics – from London Citizens to, say, the Save the EMA campaign – that leaves Westminster standing. But focusing exclusively on that stuff, as a lot of Labour people want to, ignores half the argument. Let’s face it: anyone who thinks anything meaningful can come of another Labour election win with – if they’re lucky – the support of a quarter of the electorate is kidding themselves.

I write this next bit in the expectation of howls of derision, but what the hell: I want the next Labour-led government to be a coalition. To enjoy the support of anything approaching 50% of the electorate and convincingly take the requisite number of people with it, it’ll have to be. I understand Labour people self-righteously banging on about “Lib Dem swine”, but they ought to recognise that plenty of Lib Dems are repelled by what their leadership has done, and are desperate to return to the idea of the re-alignment of the centre-left. Besides, a politics carved up between two monoliths has gone on forever: Lib Dems, Greens, Scots and Welsh nationalists, and more, are here to stay. To deny this and claim Labour can reclaim its relatively fleeting postwar monopoly of progressive politics is the stuff of King Canute politics, isn’t it?

And so the questions pile up. Neal and I are open to criticism – but we think the left should start coming up with answers, and fast.

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