What a progressive government will have to do

Ross McKibbin

British politics at the moment seem curiously provisional. The failures of the present government are so gross and obvious that hardly anyone, even its nominal supporters, attempts to defend it ideologically. Yet at the same time hardly anyone believes that Labour will really win the next election, or that it could cope even if it did. There is also a strong sense that the re-ordering of continental Europe, whose outcome is itself indeterminate, has rendered our political life even more provisional: it has obliterated the old landmarks but made it quite unclear where we now go. This collection of essays, occasional pieces and personal and poetic reflections is thus intended to suggest new paths. The Alternative is a product of Samizdat, a journal founded late in 1988 when any alternative seemed rather unlikely. It hoped to create a ‘popular front of the mind’ – a kind of intellectual tactical voting – which would dispute what was widely perceived to be a right-wing ideological hegemony. The contributors to Samizdat, whose founding editor, Ben Pimlott, is one of the editors of this book, were adherents of the Labour Party, the old Alliance, the Communist Party and of no party at all. Many of the contributors still are these things, though some, like Michael Young, have returned to the Labour Party de jure and others de facto. It was a measure both of the successes of the Conservative Party in the Eighties and the apparent decay of the social-democratic and Marxist alternatives that such a popular front was possible.

Since 1988, history has accelerated (or ended, depending on your view) faster than the editors of Samizdat or anyone else could have imagined. What seemed impregnable then has either been swept away or now trembles on the brink. Within Britain the ideological fusion of Marxism, social democracy and ‘left’ liberalism, on the basis of a kind of progressive pluralism, has been publicly admitted, almost celebrated. This book, for example, is very similar in content and style to New Times (1989), a product of Marxism Today. Indeed, Marxism Today’s editor, Martin Jacques, is a contributor to The Alternative. Both see the Eighties as representing a profound historical caesura: an epoch dominated by the October Revolution, classical social-democratic working-class movements, and a Keynesian-Beveridge political economy, has now irretrievably passed. They also share the tendency to encapsulate the transition from one epoch to another in pithy slogans: John Lloyd speaks of ‘End-of-History politics’, for example; other contributors of ‘old thinking’.

In one important respect, The Alternative does differ from New Times. In 1988 the ideological decay of Thatcherism was only incipient; most of the essays in New Times were written in the shadow of a triumphant Conservatism, and were (on the whole) inclined to accept Thatcherism’s estimation of itself. By 1990 it is almost impossible to do this. Thus the editors of The Alternative can write: ‘The increasing signs that the Government is a busted flush render unnecessary yet another polemical indictment of the Conservatives. The Alternative takes the grubby inadequacy of the present administration for granted. Its primary aim is not to condemn the current regime but to expose TINA – whose indisputable sovereignty has lasted so long – as a naked empress.’ There was, they say, always an alternative: simply no means of effecting it. And the alternative was not what the Labour Party purportedly stood for in the early Eighties. Unlike the contributors to New Times, furthermore, most here do assume (openly or tacitly) that the Labour Party is now the only practicable basis for a non-Conservative government: and that assumption is another result of the last two years.

The contributions in this book are genially eclectic and not easy to reduce to simple propositions. It could hardly be otherwise with 30 contributors and a variety of statements and ruminations. Some are personal gripes like John Mortimer’s; others are ferocious:

It’s the time when Thatcher swoops down,
with her terrible ‘caring’ voice,
on the stricken village or town ...

This is Gavin Ewart, who adds:

If you’re accident-prones
you may hear those dread tones
and meet that baleful eye!

There are also substantial essays on our political culture, on economic and social policy, on defence and foreign affairs. Collectively, what they propose is a new polity based upon a redefined notion of citizenship and a specific social pluralism.

Alternative citizenship presupposes a radical departure from the way we have traditionally viewed our reciprocal relationships. David Marquand, in what is properly the opening essay of the book, argues that hitherto the Left has been possessed by the same ‘reductionist individualism’ as the Right. The result was a ‘paradox’: social democracy could exist only within communitarian ties but could not speak ‘the language of community’. When, therefore, the post-war boom could no longer be squeezed the Left had nothing to fall back on. Both Wilson Governments paid the price for it: the victors were the neo-liberals who did not need community. How is this paradox to be resolved? Only by what Marquand calls ‘the widest possible diffusion of responsibility and power’, which would give participants ‘a chance to experience the disciplines of collective choice’. Richard Holme points out that this in turn will involve major constitutional and political changes: above all, enormously enhancing our access to information while simultaneously circumscribing the capacity of the state to behave secretively and arbitrarily. ‘The notion that the state, and its governors,’ Holme writes, ‘are in some crucial ways above and outside the law and not accountable in every respect to the people is deeply ingrained. Our culture is still one of subjecthood, at its best paternal and at its worst authoritarian.’

This hostility to the way the Left (as well as the Right) has conventionally run its and the country’s affairs is also to be found in the essays on economic and social policy. Christopher Huhne, in a characteristically incisive piece, develops a powerful argument for the left liberal programme as against the left Keynesian one which came close to predominating in the Labour Party in the late Seventies and early Eighties. ‘There is a presumption,’ he comments, ‘that the market should be left to get on with the job, and that any intervention should be carefully justified before it occurs.’ Direct state intervention should be confined to those spheres where the market notoriously fails to work – in education and training, for example. Where the left liberal differs from the Thatcherite is in attitudes to poverty and inequality: the left liberal would make substantial transfer payments and contemplate redistribution with equanimity. Huhne’s essay suggests a readiness to adopt at least some policies normally associated with the Right. Patricia Hewitt argues that a progressive alternative should, if necessary, do that: she, for instance, proposes ‘road-pricing’ (a type of tax on road-use) as a part solution to pollution and road congestion, a policy which the ‘Left’ has so far viewed with some distaste.

The essays on social and employment policies probably go furthest in advocating the break-up of the brute Beveridge state and in adopting a vocabulary and technology always alien to it. Julian le Grand argues the case for ‘quasi-markets’ in education and health and believes that something can be saved from the wreckage of Thatcher ‘reforms’, which have attempted to impose spurious quasi-markets on the NHS and the state schools. Similarly, Raymond Plant and Nicholas Deakin (in different essays) see social policy moving away from general obligations on the state, to individual entitlements, and to the construction of individual ‘packages’ which maximise the choice available to recipients of ‘public’ assistance. ‘In sum,’ Deakin writes, ‘the model for social policy will be pluralistic, and therefore quite widely varied in its local forms and outcomes. It will be based upon citizen rights, and will lean heavily on audit and inspection to ensure that those rights can be assured in practice. It will aim to incorporate, not exclude market considerations by providing wider choice wherever possible.’

There seems little doubt now that a non-Conservative government, to the extent that it has much freedom of manoeuvre, will listen sympathetically to the propositions in The Alternative. As it should: those who present them are all men and women who possess the kind of informed knowledge and experience unknown to our present dilettante ruling class. Much of what they propose, furthermore, is unquestionable: no one can contemplate the last twenty years of our history without instinctively assenting to it. Whether a hypothetical progressive government should accept it all unhesitatingly is more doubtful. There are at least two areas where I remain not so much sceptical as unsure whether the full implications of the argument have been examined.

The first of these is the role of the state. If Christopher Huhne’s essay is representative of The Alternative (which it may not be), then I think the alternative economic position rests partly upon a historical misperception of what is the case. Until recently, and perhaps still, the received view has been that state intervention in the economy has been consistently malign: that it has somehow obstructed the proper working of the market and violated economic utility. But there has been no significant interference with the market in this country since the early Fifties and to the extent that the economy has ‘failed’ since then (or before) it has been the ‘failure’ of the country’s business middle class and the utter inadequacy of its financial institutions. This is not to attribute blame: it is simply to state a fact. The state, far from bullying and obstructing, has been drawn rather reluctantly towards direct intervention in the economy and has only intervened in the face of persistent private sector mismanagement. What the state then did it might not have always done well (and sometimes did very badly), but without the state it would not have been done at all. In practice, some kind of effective relationship between the state and the economy was haltingly being worked out in the Sixties and Seventies, and many of those firms which the present government has sold off (sometimes, as in the case of Jaguar, very unwisely) were made viable by this relationship. The gains so painfully secured have been thrown away since 1979 with consequences we can all see. It must also be said that our very much more successful European competitors/partners have much higher levels of direct state intervention in the economy than we do: the average rate of state subsidy per employed worker in France, Italy and Germany is three to four times higher than it is in Britain. Mrs Thatcher’s solution is to bring their levels down to ours: an alternative solution should be to bring our levels up to theirs. Historically, the ‘problem’ of the British economy has not been the strength of the state but its weakness. It is difficult to see how any non-Conservative government can escape that.

A non-Conservative successor to Mrs Thatcher will not only inherit a debilitated economy and society: it will be landed with a powerful political system. On the principle that it is necessary to know your enemy, the editors of The Alternative might have followed up the implications of Sarah Benton’s very interesting attempt here to analyse the Conservative Party as a structure. It is true, as the editors say, that Thatcherism no longer has any political or ideological defence, but it exists as a formidable battery of entrenched interests. Unless a progressive government is aware of this it will certainly fail. What has been created in the last decade (in part inadvertently) is a neo-mercantile state of the sort that Adam Smith and Tocqueville despised: culturally and economically sterile, but almost impossible to dislodge. The Conservative Government has attached to itself large numbers of people by a profuse distribution of state property and state favours: by the establishment of private monopolies and fiscal privileges and the wholesale dispersal of state and semi-state assets, reinforced by that other indispensable instrument of the mercantile state, the honours system. Thus many social groups have been brought into being not by what they do but by what they now possess: people whose economic and social status depends on privileged access to the state. Thatcherism as a political system stands to a degree still not fully appreciated upon trading in public assets. In the old days, the days of the Keynesian state, the demarcation between public and private sectors was fairly clear. Today the public and private spheres are almost indistinguishable as the state has been colonised by specific interests. The result is that there are now a number of functionally passive social groups who have a strong (and understandable) concern to perpetuate Thatcherism as a system even if they have no liking for it ideologically. Disentangling all this, insofar as it can be disentangled, in a way which protects legitimate expectations, may now be impossible. On the other hand, the consequences of not doing so may be found in Smith’s description of 18th-century Spain.

As Christopher Huhne points out, a successor government will also inherit very severe economic constraints: above all, the colossal payments deficit. The editors note that this may require ‘draconian’ measures – and in a political culture, as Marquand has suggested, that has shown little collective discipline. That government can expect to become very unpopular. It will need to protect itself not simply against this but also against media which, as a result of the new broadcasting act, are likely to be even more destructively hostile than they are at present. This is a problem of immediate political power which The Alternative addresses implicitly. It is improbable that a Labour government can any longer duck the question of press ownership. Jean Seaton, in a lively and ingenious essay, suggests ways in which the popular press can be compelled to offer a real choice to readers. That is one approach; another (or additional) one is simply to enforce plurality of ownership by stringent monopoly regulations. That might not make the press less hostile, but at least the hostility would be more various.

More important is electoral reform. Probably every contributor here actually favours it, but Peter Clarke in his elegant historical survey of the electoral system is surprisingly cautious in his prescription. The Labour Party’s record here is wretched: it is the only European social-democratic party which adheres to a manifestly undemocratic electoral system and has done so on the most cynical grounds. But the cynicism has also been wretched because it has done nothing to perpetuate the Labour Party in office; worse, it has done nothing to protect the people Labour is supposed to represent. The Labour Party has to recognise that the Conservative minority is traditionally more cohesive than the Labour minority, but that the Parliamentary representatives of the centre (though not always their electorate) have more in common with Labour’s right wing than they do with the Conservatives. Electoral reform will weaken Labour’s freedom of action, but strengthen its leadership. It is likely also to produce semi-permanent right-wing Labour government: for once, political expediency and political principle coincide. A Labour government which does not immediately set about reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system is not to be taken seriously either as a social-democratic party or as a party which wants to obtain and hold power. If it does these things, however, it might then be able to realise the civilised and democratic programme which The Alternative presents.