Category Archives: Philosophy
My speech to Progress Annual Conference on Saturday 12 May.
30 January 2012
In the 1990s, progressives learned an important lesson about how to win elections: we built wide coalitions; we held firm to traditional values; but we freed the political mind for new solutions, new methods, new ways of doing business. We kept our philosophy. But we changed the policy. We forged a new path between old-fashioned leftwing statism and new-fangled rightwing laissez-faire.
That new approach worked for Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, the Australian Labor party, the New Democrat party in Canada, social democrats in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway – and, yes, for New Labour.
And today it feels like a long time ago. The political confidence of the third way has taken a battering. Yet faltering growth, worried financial markets, rising unemployment and social unease all point to one thing: the need for a new progressive politics. Yet outside the United States, Brazil, Norway and Denmark, progressives are not winning by default. We need a new way back to the centre-ground.
Now some, of course, will say: ‘New Labour was the mistake. Let’s go back to the 1980s.’ Others will counter: ‘We were not modernising enough.’ A debate like that will not get us far. In 2015 we face a new world: a new global balance of power between Asia and the west, and a budget £30bn in the red. So Ed Miliband is right: we need hard thought now about what to keep from the third way and what to change for new times.
So first, let’s move on from the 1990s. Why? Because, as the world changed, politics changed – and we did not. Tony Blair once argued: ‘What of policy? Our approach is “permanent revisionism”, a continual search for better means to meet our goals, based on a clear view of the changes taking place in advanced industrialised societies.’
But our politics did not keep pace with the change we helped to author. By 2005, progressives had helped create a vast new global market that linked six billion of the world’s seven billion people. Massive new movements of capital kept interest rates low but fuelled asset bubbles. The market, our society and technology changed fundamentally. New challenges emerged: a new inequality between the middle and the top and young and old; living standards plateaued; old solidarities, old communities felt pressured; asset bubbles burst; and banks crashed.
Back in 1958, Tony Crosland wrote: ‘The intellectual framework within which most prewar socialist discussion was conducted has been rendered obsolete.’ Economic growth and ‘a different configuration of economic power … call for a complete reappraisal of the socialist position.’ The revisionist’s lesson? Change as the world changes.
That is why, after the third way, we need a new way back to a new centre-ground. Let’s keep the insights of the 1990s but build on them for a different era. Let’s keep the best of New Labour, not least the late Philip Gould’s basic insight: ‘What most voters want is over time and without greed to advance and improve their lives. In short, to become better off.’
Let’s keep the insight that elections are won in the centre-ground by building an alliance around the values – aspiration, responsibility and community – that unite traditional supporters with footloose voters who change sides.
What does that centre-ground look like? It is bigger than before. More voters are more likely to switch sides. Look at Scotland. No one can win elections trading on old loyalties. That is true for social democrats everywhere. Attitudes have changed too. Take the latest British Social Attitudes Survey which found that support for tax increases to spend more on public services has halved from nine years ago and only a third now say that government should redistribute wealth.
This is no counsel of despair. Neither opinion polls nor by-elections point to any return to Maggie-mania. As Deborah Mattinson puts it: ‘When things get really hard the instinct to put nearest and dearest first is, understandably, paramount.’
This is why Labour’s leader is placing our party firmly in the centre-ground with new ideas not old attitudes. Globally, social democrats are pinpointing five basic principles that can deliver our values in tough times. But Labour is leading the way.
First, the deficit needs not denial but fiscal realism. That is why Ed Balls is tough on tax and public spending. But his approach marries aggressive short-term action to boost jobs and growth, with medium-term ideas to bring down debt. The crash taught us we cannot immunise the world from financial crashes; we have now had 40 since 1800. If we want to protect our room to act when future trouble breaks, we need to bring debt down. That is the best insurance policy for Keynesians. The Tories will leave us with debt at 80 per cent of GDP. That is too high, which is why we have to plan for budgets that are tight.
Second, new growth needs more than just any old jobs. We cannot compete with new economies like that. We cannot risk drawing so much of our tax from financial services. So we need a new active partnership between business and government to rebalance our economy, play to our national strengths, switch to low-carbon energy, strengthen infrastructure, redouble enterprise, and reform our banking system so that, once again, small business and entrepreneurs have the life-blood of credit to grow. This is the new bargain with business. And in return we expect business to behave in a way that values and does not vaporise trust. People want responsibility – on top pay and ethics – throughout society.
Third, we have to renew our welfare states to drive up the rate of employment. In tough times we need as many hands on the pump as possible. For some that means making sure services like childcare and social care are there to help families juggle the ‘care crunch’ so they are free to work when they like. For others it means firm action to ensure that if you can take a job, you do take a job. It is a renewal of William Beveridge’s belief that good social insurance helps people keep working.
Fourth, we know that to get through the next decade we need to draw not simply on the wealth of nations, but the ‘hidden wealth of nations’. The challenges we face today are too big to all be left to government. Governments and political parties alike need to help make it easier for good people to come together to make a difference through social action and innovation – and it is this kind of civic inventiveness that modern democracies need to renew the ties that bind strong communities together. That is why Refounding Labour is so important.
Fifth, we know that in tough times taxpayers’ money must go as far as possible. Standards in public service have to go up even when budgets are coming down. Only a revolution in innovation can square that circle. And that is very hard to mandate from the centre. So sometimes, the centre has to let go – set high standards, yes, but then free up the frontline and devolve power to speed up new ways of doing business, delivering for citizens better than before.
Finally, we need to advance this cause with confidence. Progressives win by mobilising an appeal to optimism. Conservatives want voters to feel disempowered and cynical. They want to diminish the appeal of politics. Where they are in power, they want a fearful electorate to cling to nurse for fear of something worse. Our task is to offer hope in an age of uncertainty, and optimism in an era of doubt. That is how we seize the centre-ground and build a new progressive majority.
Here is a link to my pamphlet “The new centre ground: how can progressives win a majority?” .
Full employment was the foundation for Beveridge’s welfare state. It should be the foundation for renewing it.
Every civil servant can tell you stories of ministers who are a bit demanding. I’ve had a few of those stories myself. But sometimes the same is true of civil servants. None more so than Sir William Beveridge. Back in 1941, Ernie Bevin faced mandarins in revolt at the idea of working with the illustrious knight. Looking for a diplomatic answer, Bevin shipped out Sir William to lead an enquiry into social insurance. A year later, ‘the people’s William’ had drawn up the blueprint for Britain welfare state.
Timing, as they say, is everything in politics – and Beveridge’s timing was perfect. In November 1942, the Allies had beaten Rommel, counter-attacked in Stalingrad and secured the Pacific base of Guadalcanal. It was not as Churchill said on 10th November 1942, the beginning of the end. But it was the end of the beginning. Interest in what it was the country was fighting for hit a new high, and that interest swept the Beveridge Report off the shelves.
But what turned an idea into reality, was the not the events of 1942, but 1943. After ferocious debate in the Commons – in which David Lloyd George cast his last vote against the Government – Churchill conceded that planning for Beveridge had to begin in earnest. And it was then, in government committees, that four great Labour leaders – Atlee, Bevin, Morrison and Jowitt – fused the ideas of Beveridge with a plan for full employment; the full employment that would pay to make the new welfare state a reality.
The campaign for work, for jobs, for full employment has always been Labour’s first demand. Labour. The clue is in the name. But throughout our history, Labour has insisted the right to work must come with the responsibility to work as well. Back in 1947, Herbert Morrison put it like this; ‘We have no hands and brains to waste and no resources to fritter away on those who don’t contribute to our common effort’.
Today, I would insist on the same principle. Those who don’t want to work but can are a tiny minority. But we must insist they do their bit. So, alongside our five point plan for jobs and growth, we want new ideas that enforce the responsibility to look for and take a job. Because we simply can’t afford to renew the welfare state for the 21st century without more people back in work.
New analysis of DWP’s accounts by my team reveals that the shocking costs of economic failure. The bills for the dole, housing benefit and incapacity benefit are now set to rise by an incredible £5.5 billion a year – that’s a lot of income tax.
Yesterday in the House of Lords, the government pressed its policy of a cap on benefits. It’s an idea we support in principle but we would like to see improved because we don’t want a massive new council tax bill to sort out a new homelessness. But there’s a bigger point: without work, the cap won’t stop benefits spiralling upwards. DWP’s own figures show, despite the cap, the housing benefit bill is set to rocket up £4 billion above the figure post-election, to an incredible £28 billion. That’s too high. And the way to bring it down is to get people into work.
Back in the 1940s, the British people achieved incredible things. In a famous broadcast, Labour leader Clement Attlee called on Britain to create a country where ‘all may have the duty and the opportunity of rendering service to the nation, everyone in his or her sphere, and that all may help to create and share in an increasing material prosperity free from the fear of want’. We not only won a war, we won a peace. A welfare state that gave families like mine the chance to achieve things my grand-parents could never have dreamed of. If we want a welfare state for the 21st century, that once again support working people in the lives they lead today – and want for tomorrow – then I say our starting point is simple. Let’s get Britain back to work.
Renewing our Progressive Values
By James Purnell
Sydney, Progressive Australia conference, April 2011
It’s often argued that we are facing a progressive paradox.
The paradox goes like this. After the Global Financial Crisis, we thought our progressive moment had arrived. Markets had just failed catastrophically. We were the market failure people. Surely now we’d be able to convince voters to be social democrats?
But it didn’t happen. There are now fewer centre-left parties in power in Europe than at any point since 1918.
So far, so well known. But discussing this paradox here gives it a further twist, which is vital to understanding the problem that we face and how to solve it.
The twist is this: even when we escaped recession, centre-left governments were still battered by the electorate. Your government did a remarkable job of avoiding recession and protecting people through the stimulus.
An observer from outer space arriving here on August the 21st last year would have thought that you deserved a landslide, rather than squeaking home. And you’re not alone – in Chile, the Socialist government avoided a recession and funded their stimulus entirely out of the sovereign wealth fund they’d build up in the good times.
And yet the right won for the first time since Pinochet.
So, when the economy crashes, progressives lose. When the economy doesn’t crash, progressives still can’t win. That’s the progressive paradox.
At this moment in the argument, we often play the gratitude game. It goes something like this. Why aren’t our voters more grateful for all the amazing things we’ve done for them? Tony Blair used to segue in to his Monty Python skit here – the bit from the Life of Brian where the Judeans are complaining that the Romans have never done anything for them. Apart from the aqueduct. The sanitation. The road. Oh, yes, and medicine. And education. And health.
Blair’s list would have been the minimum wage, the shortest waiting times in history, crime down by a third, Surestart, record results in schools, devolution, civil partnerships for gay couples, peace in Northern Ireland, four weeks paid leave, half a million children out of poverty, maternity pay, paternity leave, child benefit at record levels, the ban on cluster bombs, the cancelling of debt, the trebling of aid, the first ever Climate Change Act.
You get the point.
And yet, still our Judeans weren’t grateful. That is the cause of our progressive paradox.
I want to argue today that the way to answer it is not to renew our progressive values, but to return to our Labour tradition. I want to argue that it is the Labour tradition that is a better guide to re-organising and re-thinking, and then winning again.
I’m not an expert on your politics, though I’m looking forward to learning more in the next 2 days.
Instead, I want to focus on why Labour lost in Britain, and what lessons we can draw. I’ll be very interested to discuss the differences as well as the similarities.
This was a catastrophic defeat for Labour. The worst decline in the Labour vote since the War. The previous worse was a 2.4% drop between 1974 and 1979. This time we managed to mislay 6.5% of our vote. .
To understand why, we should start with the Election campaign itself. Two images dominate my memory and each provides important clues to why we lost.
The first is the third debate. Gordon Brown had just had his worst 24 hours in politics, and he’d had quite a few of those, in the aftermath of him calling Mrs Duffy a bigot. I gather that made headlines around the world. Yet what you may not have seen as much of here was his performance the next night in the third TV debate.
Imagine yourself in his shoes – you’ve been judged to have lost the first two debates, your Party is polling below the Lib Dems and looks like it’s going to come third for the first time since 1918, immigration is the biggest issue in voters’ minds and you’ve just called a Labour voter a bigot behind her back for raising that issue with you. And now you’ve got to go on TV all over again.
And yet he did rather well. He was a tough old so and so, even I have to admit.
He did rather well. He was an incredibly tough and resilient politician, even I have to admit.
However, it was a performance woven around the negative – gone was any pretence at defending Labour’s record or offering an alternative. The message was simple: the Conservatives are a risk. Labour ran a fearful campaign, in every sense of the word.
The conventional explanation for why Labour had run out of steam by the Election was that it had lost the courage to defend and to reform, and that is a good part of the truth.
But the second defining moment of the campaign teaches us even more. It is what Mrs Duffy actually said:
Look, the three main things that I had drummed in when I was a child was education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable. There are too many people now who aren’t vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable can’t get to claim.
The rest of the exchange is just as instructive, in retrospect. She says local schools are good, hopes her grandchildren will go to university, but is worried that she has to pay tax on her widow’s pension.
Mrs Duffy sums up all the reasons why we had to create New Labour. That we needed to be for aspiration, good public services, decent public behaviour and a concern for the most vulnerable. Yet, 13 years on, despite recognizing that Labour had delivered pretty much on those promises, Mrs Duffy still felt angry enough to upbraid the Prime Minister.
Why? This is where I want to introduce the most interesting part of the current Labour debate in Britain. It’s the debate between Blue Labour and New Labour. Blue Labour is a term coined by Maurice Glasman, an academic who was made a peer by Ed Miliband.
Maurice argues that Mrs Duffy and millions like her had good reason to be angry. It wasn’t her gratitude problem. It was our attitude problem. It was that we had become progressive rather than Labour.
This may sound slightly surprising. You might think that Labour and progressive are synonyms, that progressive is just the word we use at international conferences to abstract from the different names our parties have ended up with in each of our countries: social democrat, socialist, democrat, labour. You may think it’s just an accident of history that we ended up with these different names, and that we need an international word for centre left. Progressive would then be that word, the Esperanto for ‘social democrat’.
But those histories are not accidents – they are the traditions from which we each get our energy. They are right for each of our countries because they grew out of our different histories – why for example Britain never developed a revolutionary working class, a fact that perplexed and frustrated Marx all his life. Reality just wouldn’t conform to his theory, and that was because Britain was not the same as Germany.
I’ve been to lots of progressive conferences, from Chile to New York, and have found them full of great ideas and good people. I’m proud to be a progressive. But I’ve realized I’ve always had a nagging doubt that I wasn’t paying attention to, and that this too is a weakness of the progressive approach. That weakness is that we’ve subconsciously assumed that there is one progressive solution, a set of universal ideas, which can just be dropped in to different societies from a blank sheet of paper.
Our differences are as interesting as our similarities. The US has the American dream, it’s a country dedicated to a proposition, as Lincoln said, and that is why it has much less of a rhetoric of social protection than Europe. More dream equals less need for protection. Each gain for the welfare state has had to be in the teeth of the dominant ideology, as Obama’s struggles with healthcare reform, despite his landslide mandate, show.
So, part of my goal in distinguishing between Labour and progressive is to make a point about method. We have lots to learn from each other. But we should think of these conferences as a lens through which to look again at our own national tradition. It grew up in our country for a reason – it is the accumulated common sense of previous generations, and it is by shining a light on that tradition that we will renew ourselves.
But the other half of my goal is to make an ideological distinction. Of course, the Labour and progressive traditions are family cousins. Close cousins even. But they are also noticeably different.
Let me try to sketch the difference.
The Labour tradition argued three things:
- That markets were inherently unstable and exploitative.
- That Labour’s role was to protect people from the suffering this caused.
- By using the state and unions to reduce exploitation in good times, and to prevent or mop up crashes in bad.
As progressives we revised this argument to:
- First, that markets are the best way of generating wealth and tax revenues.
- Second, that Labour’s role is to use those revenues to help people fulfill their aspirations.
- And then third that it would do so by controlling the state and improving public services
I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I hope the difference is clear. Labour emphasized protection, progressives majored on aspiration. Labour emphasized how markets could hurt people. Progressives talked about how they normally worked. Labour wanted to reform markets, progressives wanted to reform the state.
And this is how we explain the Progressive Paradox. We had said to our voters that markets worked. So, when a huge crash in financial markets occurred, we had no way of explaining to them what had just happened. Political traditions work as a way of explaining the present, and predicting the future, and the progressive tradition had no space for this bit of data.
In fact, you could go further. Political traditions work when they allow you to define as mad the opinions of your opponents. Mrs Thatcher succeeded by defining as insane people who joined unions, wanted equality and worried about markets. Labour only got back in to power once we accepted that she was half-right: that Old Labour was indeed a bit bananas. In other words, we won when we became progressive rather than Labour, or New Labour rather than just plain Labour.
And then when it turned out that markets could still go spectacularly wrong, we were left looking a bit bananas ourselves because we’d said that could never happen. And, however good our stimulus measures were, we couldn’t get credit for mopping up the mess we had told people they’d be insane to fear. After all, we had claimed to have abolished boom and bust.
But there was a further reason why Labour lost. Voters didn’t like what we were offering next.
Back to Mrs Duffy. The progressive offer had started failing her long before the GFC, for two broad reasons. First, it operated outside her conception of fairness, and second it was too managerial. It was done to her, and wasn’t what she’d asked for in the first place.
Tony Blair was revealing more than he intended with his Monty Python routine. If people see you as an occupying force bent on civilizing the natives, they’re going to bristle, however good the tax credits. Treat them like Judeans and that’s how they’ll behave.
This trait is deep in our DNA. This is a family tree, after all. It’s there both for progressives but also for the egalitarian Labour tradition against which Tony Blair was reacting.
That second tradition is that of Crosland in the Future of Socialism. He defined Labour’s exogenous standard as equality. This was a modernizing move in its time – arguing that Labour should accept markets and use their dividend to reduce inequality.
For New Labour, the exogenous standard was a combination of economic growth with redistribution to the poorest. My point is that it wasn’t that different from Crosland – it was still accepting markets, and using them to generate money to improve public services and reduce inequality. We were just a bit shy about saying the equality bit out loud. But we were very proud of saying that we were helping the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
But that’s when Mrs Duffy says “There are too many people now who aren’t vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable but can’t get to claim.”
Blue Labour argues that this is where we’ve gone wrong. That we’ve ended up obsessed with the pattern of society, rather than the lives we lead. That in the name of helping the poorest, we’ve thought too much about what people get out of society, and not enough about what they put in.
Blue Labour argues that we should reach back to an older tradition, before Blair or Crosland. That we should excavate Richard Tawney, the great reformer and essayist, who wrote in 1932, that Labour’s creed is not “transcendental doctrines nor rigid formulae but a common view of the life proper to human beings, and of the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it”.
Like a Zen kōan, that is one of those simple phrases that grows richer every time you pay it attention. Not “transcendental doctrines nor rigid formulae” – so neither GDP nor the Gini coefficient. But instead starting from the life proper to human beings.
This roots politics back in the lives people hope to lead. It’s not that GDP or equality don’t matter; just that they are not the right place to start.
The danger of transcendental doctrines is that they can be rather over-bearing. They can lead to a politics, especially on the left, where the elite decides what other people need and then gets angry and self-righteous when the beneficiaries don’t agree. Hence the Romans. And hence Mrs Duffy.
Blue Labour instead starts from the things that matter – “responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory” – values that as David Miliband said in his Keir Hardie Lecture ”used to be engraved upon Labour’s heart”.
To some of you, that may sound charming but apolitical. Of course we all want friends and families, but what role does the state have in that?
What the Labour tradition teaches us, is that it’s much harder to be with your friends or see your family if you’re at the mercy of an unstable market or an exploitative employer. And what the Labour movement did in the first half of the 20th century was to bring people together, first through mutual societies and unions and then through politics, to win ways in which the life proper to a human being could be protected. A decent burial through the co-op. A pension in old age. A national health service.
The point I’m making is that renewal will not come through looking for abstract ideas. It won’t come from re-reading John Rawls or Amartya Sen. It will come from going back to our traditions.
In Britain this is happening through community organizing, as many of you will know, what Barack Obama did before he went off to Harvard Law School. He worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the movement of community organizers set up by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s Rule for Radicals has become the bible of the next generation of Labour politicians.
We’re just starting off with an initiative called the Movement for Change, which is trying to bring the craft of community organizing back in to the Labour Party. It’s similar to the Community Action project over here.
We had become rather good at new campaigning techniques – voter ID, direct mail, social networking – especially if it was online and we didn’t have to meet anyone face to face.
But in a way that had also contributed to the Mrs Duffy problem. Because all those techniques are very impersonal. They’re not about building a relationship. And again they’re very much about us telling voters what we’ve done for them. They’re about maximizing turnout rather than mobilizing for power.
In the 1990s, we renewed through policy. This time, it’s going to start with organizing. Because organizing teaches us a huge amount. It keeps our language real and our offer relevant. And it might even start to find the next generation of leaders who aren’t all Oxbridge-educated ex special advisers like me. That starts to find the Bevins and the Bevans of the 21st century, people who talk Judean as a first language.
Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals in despair at the waste of energy of the 1960s student movements. Again and again they’d put huge amounts of effort in to demonstrations and protests that would lose. He was trying to persuade young radicals to employ the same energy to win. To make sure that whoever had the power, whether a politician, a business man or a bureaucrat had to listen and compromise.
This is where London Citizens, the British branch of the IAF, come in. The Sydney Alliance is their Australian cousin.
Quite a few of us have now gone on their five day training. And what you realize immediately is that Alinsky is also a family relative. That the techniques of community organizing would have been very familiar to the dockers striking in East London in 1889 or to the founders of the Labour Party.
The root of good community organizing is relationships, and in particular one-to-ones. This is essentially spending 45 minutes talking to someone about what motivates them: what makes them angry, what they’d like to change. It’s not a team meeting, its not an interview, its not data-gathering, it’s not a break-out group – it’s a conversation.
These relationships existed pretty naturally in industrial communities. Many feel they’re dying with those factories, but what community organizing reminds us is that they can be rebuilt, if you put the work in.
Out of those hundreds of one to ones, you find a common interest. That’s where the Living Wage came from – after the credit crunch, London Citizens organized weekends with hundreds of Londoners. What came out wasn’t a demand for equality, or for a bigger GDP – what came out was that people didn’t have enough time to see their kids. They were working two jobs to make ends meet, coming home too late or leaving too early.
They were a disparate lot. Nuns, Quakers and Imams, Mums and students, cockneys and immigrants. In another setting they might have found plenty to divide them. But by the end of the weekend, they had found a common interest.
In other words, they had built relationships based on reciprocity, mutualism and trust. That is as good a definition of what Labour means as I could give. Reciprocity: that we look out for each other. Mutualism: that we all put in to the pot. Trust: that we know that others will be there for us and won’t take us for a ride.
The trust is the magic ingredient, the bit that makes the welfare state work. A belief that we’ll all put in to it, but that the welfare state will be there when we need it. You could almost call it a Labour state of grace and we have fallen from it.
Although we thought we were renewing the Covenant with the people, they thought we were breaking it. What we said we were doing in the name of fairness, they thought was the very opposite. They felt people were getting help who hadn’t paid in. And they thought that people who needed protection weren’t getting it.
I’d actually go further. I’d say that progressives almost sounded as if we didn’t believe we could protect people any more. We would say people didn’t want a hand out but a hand up. That we couldn’t protect their old job but would help them get the next one.
And the problem with that is that it can sound very hollow when the economy turns South. It’s not much good saying that we can’t protect your old job but can’t help you get a new one. In that situation, what people want is actually a hand out.
And the problem was that when people lost their jobs in Britain, they found that they didn’t get much of a hand out. If you’d paid in all your life, you were likely to get £65 a week for 6 months, and after that nothing apart from means tested benefits.
It’s from understanding this anger that we can best renew our values and policies.
An approach to welfare which grew out of the Labour tradition would ask what are the real risks people face today, and how the welfare state can genuinely protect people against them. It would mean a system that was both more demanding and more supportive.
So, when people lost their job, they would want to get a proportion of their previous wages for a few months. Then, if they hadn’t found work after a year, they would like to be guaranteed a job. The state should be the employer of last resort. People would want a guarantee of housing, of a pension in retirement, of good parental leave and pay.
That is the kind of welfare state that they would actually fight for, rather than treat with indifference. It might need to be funded out of the cash transfers and universal benefits they value much less and which are insufficient in times of need, but marginal when things are going well.
Such a welfare state would explore how we can bring back the contributory principle – how what people get out relates better to what they put in. And it would say that people couldn’t refuse to help themselves – that the job guarantee would also be a job requirement. If anyone turned that job down, they would lose their benefits.
An approach to the economy that grew out of the Labour tradition would shape capitalism rather than taking it as it is. It would be enthusiastic about the potential of markets whilst being realistic about how they can fail, sometimes catastrophically. A much more protective welfare state would be the best way of reflecting that realism – the next crash would be less terrifying if people knew their wages would be protected and that they would be found a job.
But this wouldn’t just be about state action. We progressives didn’t really ask ourselves fundamental questions about how to shape markets. The credit crunch is a great opportunity to rethink that without being denounced as bananas. Ed Miliband has rightly identified the problem of the squeezed middle – of the stagnant wages of low and middle income workers.
Our old response would just have been to say that was a fact of life, or that the way to compensate them was through tax credits. But that’s all much more up for grabs now, and that’s why IPPR is launching a major project later this month to look at economic policy again, and how we can have markets which are much better at supporting that life proper to human beings – where wages grow much further down the income scale; where people feel in control and respected at work; but also one where there is much more private sector growth than Britain managed in the last twenty years.
That is how revisiting our traditions might help us renew in Britain. That’s what Blue Labour teaches us. But by itself it’s not enough. By itself, it would lead us to rely solely on protection. Blue Labour needs its progressive cousin: aspiration. Clinton’s mistake wasn’t saying that people wanted a hand up – it was forgetting that they also sometimes do need a hand out.
They want a hand out, then a hand up.
Blue Labour needs its progressive cousin’s central insight – that modern politics is about giving people power.
That’s what the progressives got absolutely right. In conferences like this for the last two decades, we would talk about empowerment. It was a great guide to policy. It was a good summary of our ideology. But it failed as a slogan. We never said it on the doorstep. Gordon Brown didn’t use it to Mrs Duffy.
It’s highly revealing that we wouldn’t use the word empowerment to people’s faces. That’s not because it was the wrong idea. It’s because we hadn’t delivered it. We hadn’t delivered it because we were relying entirely on the state to do it. We hadn’t made people powerful because we had forgotten how markets can crash and exploit people.
If we put aspiration and protection back together, maybe we can make that promise of power real. Maybe we could say to people with a straight face that they will have the power to live the life they want, to live a life proper to human beings.
Maybe we would have an argument that would unite the different parts of our coalition, working class and middle class, rather than seeking different messages for each.
And maybe they would then want to join our parties again and fight with us. Because they would understand that these are not rights conferred from on high, but protections won by politics and which have to be won again in each generation.
And in community organizing we have the techniques which can make that true too. Techniques which teach us how to go from making a noise to winning our battles. Not just a few of us politicians having power at the centre on the back of other people’s votes. But people themselves feeling a real difference in the power they have over their lives, through the way their communities work, the way that markets work and the way that public services work.
That is how we escape the progressive paradox. Not by importing a new set of abstract ideas. But by going back to our traditions, the Labour tradition, which when properly expressed, is the sublime embodiment of the common sense of the British and Australian peoples.
Why Labour Lost, John Curtice
“Building the new politics to beat poverty”
Speech given to The Webb Memorial Trust, 19 May 2011
Can I start by thanking you for inviting me to speak to launch such an important report. It’s a great honour.
Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman and a remarkable socialist and it is fitting that so many have worked so hard to mark the 100th anniversary of her work by producing today’s Minority Report.
Over the years, people have accused the Fabians – unfairly I might I add – of all sorts of things.
They love humanity say some, it’s just human beings they can’t stand.
That could never be said of Beatrice Webb.
She was passionate about the state of the human condition.
The human condition she saw first-hand was amongst the most important source of her energy and her drive.
She believed in society.
But she believed too in the moral imperative of a state, a government, an administration that acted to help, and not stand idly by.
Conservatives might believe that the state does not solve problems. It merely rearranges them.
Beatrice Webb would disagree. She argued passionately that the state could make a difference.
And the government delivered by those she inspired helped prove that she was right.
Now you have brought together a fabulous collection of wise and clever people to write today’s report.
And because I am none of those things, I want to offer a few words this morning, not as a former minister, or as a shadow minister, or as a member of parliament,
But as a community organiser in my small corner of east Birmingham, in the fight against poverty.
Like much of the Midlands, the ancient history of my constituency is lost history; for it is a place that was only forged in the Industrial Revolution.
Its life was created by great entrepreneurs of the 19th century; industrial and civic giants like Joseph Wright, William Morris and Lord Norton.
But its life has been changed by the modern entrepreneurs of today; the actors in the wide story of globalisation, who have moved industries, firms, jobs and livelihoods elsewhere and left behind a legacy of unemployment and poverty.
Today, Hodge Hill has the second highest unemployment in the country and the highest youth unemployment in our nation.
These are the circumstances which have shaped my political life, my priorities, my outlook on the future and my determination to see the fight against poverty
As a cause we in our party take the responsibility to lead.
Let make three quick points to start you off.
First, that fight against poverty in Hodge Hill was fairer when we had a Labour was in office.
The National Minimum Wage, Tax Credits, Sure Start, children’s centres, record investment in education, EMAs, new health centres, more GPs, the working neighbourhood fund, housing renewal
These are policies that made the world of difference to my constituents
Last week we learned of figures which showed that in the last year of the Labour Government (2008/09-2009/10) 200,000 children were lifted from relative poverty.
Between 1998 and 2010, I’m proud to say that the percentage of children in relative poverty fell by 6% – or 900,000.
Do we wish we had done more? Of course.
But when the OECD surveyed the world economy in 2008, it found that Britain, was one of the only countries in the world where we had hold
In the last 10 years, together the world has created a global marketplace that links together 6 billion of the world’s seven billion people.
Powerful new forces have been unlocked.
Forces that power inequality
Inequality that has exploded all over the world
But in this world, Britain is one of only places where those new forces have been held in check.
So I say, the fight against poverty is easier when Labour is in office.
But when I go home, I am confronted with how much remains to be done.
And I’m honest; the greatest thing I have learned in my work in Hodge Hill is that ultimately the fight to roll-back poverty is a fight to roll-out power.
A couple of years ago, we marked the 150th anniversary of JS Mill’s On Liberty, the founder of the Liberal tradition.
It’s a tradition, in my book, inestimably improved in more recent times, by first John Rawls and now, Amartya Sen.
In particular, Sen argues that for freedom to be truly meaningful we must deliver a far better equality in ‘‘substantive freedoms’ – the capabilities – to choose a life that one has reason to value’.
This argument takes us beyond the idea that poverty is simply the absence of income
Beyond the notion that equality of opportunity is on its own enough.
It tells us that both income and opportunity might get you to the starting line in life, but without capabilities – and therefore power – you will only get so far down the track – stopping perhaps a long way short of your ambitions – or indeed your potential.
When I go home, it is these power failures that bedevil my community that concern me.
The lack of power to walk where you might chose for fear of crime.
The lack of power to go to college even though you have the dreams, the talent, the grades
The lack of power to get a job even though you want a better life for you and your family
The lack of power to be able to lead a life that you have a reason to chose.
Why is this perspective important?
Because it takes us into a far more sophisticated and meaningful agenda for action against poverty.
It tells you that if you want to tackle poverty you have to give people the real power to work. To get a job. To advance. Not to worry constantly about being laid off, or losing a shift.
You know, if we raised the employment rate of just one ward in Hodge Hill to the national average, we would bring in £100 million of extra wages each year. No government regeneration programme could ever match that.
That is why our party is and always will be the party of full employment.
But to give people the power to do the big things often means giving them the power over the small things. The skills. The transport links. The childcare.
But fixing power failures is about more than this.
If you want a community to do better, then the community has to act as the authors of its own shared future,
But that means you need people to have the confidence to go out of their house at night, and sit down with strangers and talk things through.
Let me tell you from personal experience that is a lot harder in a community that is riddled with crime, and drugs and distrust.
What we found in Hodge Hill, is that we were going to make no progress in building an alliance of citizens for a richer place, unless we got crime sorted out first.
For me it was my first campaign.
Meeting after meeting with local residents. Literally mapping the hot-spots, grot-spots and places where the drug dealers dwelt.
Building the dossiers for police action.
Now we have police numbers in our area up 50% – and a fall in crime of over 13% two years in a row.
So neighbourhood policing and community justice are not simply community safety issues.
They are fundamental to the fight against poverty – and the march for a more mobile country.
Respect is the ground-floor of renewal.
If you want to fix these power failures, then we need young people to have the self-confidence and savoir-faire to actually pursue their ambitions beyond school.
For five years I’ve worked with young people, my local school, and the University of Birmingham, and the Templeton Foundation, to study why so few of our young people go to university – when my surveys tell me young peoples’ top priority for new investment is learning a new skill.
I found no shortage of aspiration. Some 80% of our young people want to go to college.
But what we found is a lack of a sense of how the world works. What Prof James Arthur, who is working with me in our schools, described to me, as a lack of ‘mental map’ of how to get on in life.
This is a road-block for our young people. It’s a power failure.
To break it down our young people want to develop, not only their understanding of the things around them – but an understanding of the things inside them – self-confidence, self-esteem, ambition, motivation, nerve.
Things some of us but not all were lucky to get from our parents; things that a small few often get from the finest public schools.
My point here is that to roll-back poverty, we have to roll-out power and it’s an agenda that stretches far beyond the boundaries of a debate about simply the future of the welfare state.
I always thought the Labour movement was at its strongest when we acted as radicals with realism.
When we remembered it’s not enough to wish the country was a better place, if you can persuade the country to vote for it.
Right now, the Tories are speaking to the country’s sense of pessimism. They are happy to entertain a dialogue of the depressed.
David Cameron still professes his ambition for a big society, a stronger civil order.
But he forgets that strong societies are fair societies and fair societies have strong states.
Look at the difference between Brazil and Sweden. Sweden has a bigger state; a fairer society – and far higher rates of social capital.
Or look at Minnesota and Louisiana. Two states at opposite ends of the Mississippi River;
Different states. Same story.
Minnesota has a bigger state; a fairer society – and far higher rates of social capital.
Sometimes, I listen to the rhetoric of this government, and I am reminded of Ronald Reagan and his attack on “welfare queens” 30 years ago.
Reagan was a man determined to dismantle Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
In 1976 he told the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side who he alleged had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 social security numbers and was claiming social security, food stamps and welfare under every alias.
Reagan never named her but his myth inspired a movement that started with a call to responsibility and ended by ignoring every cry for help.
Reagan’s attack on welfare queens ended with the biggest attack on the measures to promote equality in American history.
We have to hope, this government will not repeat Reagan’s mistake.
I have to tell you, the signs don’t look good.
The Chancellor has proposed a budget that puts 200,000 people more out of work, puts the benefits bill up by £12.5 billion, and borrows £43 billion more than planned to pay for it all.
That isn’t just irresponsible economics, it’s irresponsible politics.
The result is now just a stealth squeeze of peoples’ tax credits, help with child-care, university bills, travel bills, and an attack on the most vulnerable people in our society.
What started as a call to responsibility is fast becoming a deaf ear to cries for help.
Yet what the public are telling us is that they don’t want the government to leave the field.
They don’t think the solution to the problems we face today is less government.
But they do want a different kind of government.
They worry a lot that government’s waste money. They worry a lot that they won’t get out as much as they put in.
They don’t want less government, they want a different kind of government, that restores a something for something deal, and a sense of just desserts and an instinct of reciprocity.
That is a government they would vote for.
Franklin Roosevelt once spoke passionately of the democracy of opportunity; a place where everyone, no matter who you were, or where you came from, if you worked hard, you deserved to do well.
But people want alongside it, a democracy of responsibility.
Where we don’t subsidise those who break the rules whether they are in the board-room or on benefits.
Developing that new bargain is at the heart of how we rebuild a welfare state that rewards those who do the right thing.
But which advances too our fight against poverty.
That new bargain is how we renew the politics of beating poverty, and build a new majority for progressive reform. A majority that wants to vote for a fairer country.
We know well what Nye Bevan once wrote on the penultimate page of the only book he ever wrote:
“Progress is not the elimination of struggle but rather a change in its terms.”
It is as Martin Luther King put it; ‘All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another’.
I am glad that you are unflinching in setting out the challenges we still face. But that you are determined to lay out too some of the ways that we might advance.
I think Beatrice Webb would have thought that was exactly the right approach.
Here’s the link to an excellent new book pulling together some of the debate about blue/new Labour:
Edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White.
Forward by Ed Miliband.
The ebook asks some fundamental questions about the condition of the country and the predicament of Labour following its defeat in the May 2010 general election. Out of this work we begin shaping a new story for Labour for the decade ahead.
Here are a few things I thought were interesting ahead of the Progressive Governance conference in Oslo.
Around the world, social democrats are finding themselves in Opposition – the challenge is as stark as David Miliband set out in his LSE lecture recently.
But, there are clear signs now of intellectual renewal well underway. In Oslo I’ll say a little bit more about what we’ve heard back from the public about how they think Labour needs to change.
Globally, the challenge we confront is not just economic, its social; bluntly, the middle class feels bigger and the working class feels poorer. Here are some links to interesting perspectives on this:
- Anthony Painter’s work for the Centre for American Progress on the demographic challenge
- The Centre for American Progress analysis on the decline of working class support
- Deborah Mattinson’s work identifying that the majority of British people feel ‘middle class’.
Jacob Hacker, author of Winner Takes All Politics, is one of the best analysts of how this demographic change has combined with economic challenge for lower paid workers. In Oslo, Jacob will give an overview of some of the economic challenges unfolding – most significantly in America. Here’s the link to his essay on the argument set out his book.
One intriguing strand of the renewal argument is now the Blue Labour meets New Labour debate. James Purnell did a good lecture on this in Australia a couple of weeks ago, and here’s the link to Graeme Cooke’s piece in Progress.
I spent a very enjoyable half hour or so this week in the company of Demos director Richard Reeves, who interviewed me for a slot on Radio 4′s The Westminster Hour, called Political Roots.
We talked about why I joined the Labour Party, my political beliefs and the different philosophical and political strands which make up the modern Labour Party, and I think we managed to range pretty widely, from Amartya Sen and Amitai Etzioni to The Shark Public House in Harlow, the miners’ strike, McDonalds and Hodge Hill.
Richard’s producer, Sheila Cook, tells me that it’s on Radio 4 at 2245 on Sunday, with repeats at 2045 on Wednesday 9th December and 0545 on Sunday 13 December. Once it’s played the first time, you should be able to find it on the BBC’s iPlayer – type in Westminster Hour and it should come up.