Labour is being torn apart by bitter divisions. The crisis is often attributed to the shortcomings of its leadership, but it actually goes beyond that: it is caused by the absence of a defined ideological mission. Patrick Diamond draws on Anthony Crosland’s “The Future of Socialism” to explain how Labour and the centre-left can make progressive change a reality.
The British Labour party has reached the edge of a precipice. As it veers from existential crisis towards break up, the prospects for UK social democracy a decade since Labour last won a national election could hardly appear more unfavourable. Economic pressures and fiscal retrenchment are creating a cold climate for the centre-left. Globalisation accompanied by devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have eaten away at Labour’s traditional support. In the aftermath of Brexit, the unified British state once fundamental to the vision of social progress expounded by the post-war Left is on the brink.
The Labour party’s collapse is due not merely to the manifest inadequacies of its leadership, but to the absence of any cogently defined intellectual or ideological mission. The party has been here before, of course: in the wake of defeat in 1951 after the halcyon days of the Attlee governments, Labour drifted aimlessly; it was torn apart by bitter divisions between party ‘modernisers’ and ‘fundamentalists’ over future direction, particularly the role of the state and public ownership of industry. Foreign affairs were an even greater source of conflict: acrimonious disputes erupted over the morality of nuclear weapons and the cause of European unity.
Sixty years ago, Anthony Crosland published his seminal treatise on The Future of Socialism, helping to instil his ailing party with badly needed direction. Crosland was a Labour revisionist, an intellectual but also a serving Cabinet minister who believed that the party had to apply its values to a changing world to win elections, and be capable of serving in government.
Had he observed the contemporary Labour party, Crosland would have been dismayed: he would have viewed the present leadership as reviving state socialist policies that were first proposed in the 1970s, out of touch with the new society. He would have been unnerved by the emergence of ‘Blue Labour’ communitarianism as a means of reconnecting to the party’s working-class supporters. Crosland dismissed the recurrent tendency to romanticise English working-class life; he never believed that ‘community’ was adequate as the sole guiding principle for the Left.
Crosland’s outlook in The Future was shaped by five powerful ideas still of relevance today. First, he insisted that Labour would never win as a “class-based, socialist party”; it had to build support as a national party in the name of a genuinely classless society, gaining the confidence of ‘non-tribal’ Middle England voters who may have previously supported the Conservatives.
Second, socialism for Crosland was a moral endeavour that was about more than the production of material goods and the worshiping of consumerism; Crosland emphasised the importance of quality of life alongside a public realm that broke down the “distance factors” between social classes. Instead of preaching “abstinence and a good filing system”, social democracy must enhance the right to private enjoyment and self-fulfilment.
Moreover, Crosland’s revisionism was instinctively wary of the paternalism that flourished among many British socialists: the role of collective institutions, especially the welfare state, was to equip individuals with the skills and human ‘capabilities’ needed to lead flourishing lives. As such, it is wrong to dismiss Crosland as a Fabian bureaucrat. He believed that the Left and liberty were natural bedfellows; Crosland’s deeply felt egalitarian beliefs constituted an attack on “the indefensible differences of status and income that disfigure our society”.
Fourth, Crosland argued the Left had to apply its imagination to understanding the complexity of social and cultural change. Instead of mourning the loss of the traditional institutions and identities of the cloth cap and heavy industry that gave birth to the Labour party in the late nineteenth century, socialism had to positively embrace the modern world.
Finally, Crosland was sceptical of the liberal cosmopolitan values that influenced so many on the Left in the 1950s and 1960s. Representing the East coast English port of Grimsby, he acknowledged the importance of attachment to the nation-state and local community. These identities enabled people to maintain a sense of belonging, solidarity and togetherness in the face of tumultuous change. Equally, Crosland rejected jingoistic chauvinism: having no time for “old dreams of empire”, Crosland was an internationalist who insisted “we should link our destinies with a dynamic and resurgent Europe”.
Crosland sought to put liberty and freedom at the centre-stage of Labour’s politics, while his analysis has enduring clarity and precision. British social democracy should embrace his revisionist outlook if it wants to influence decisively the future of UK politics. The veteran Labour historian Kenneth O. Morgan concurs: “There has been no significant statement of socialist doctrine in this country – perhaps in any country – since Crosland in the mid-1950s”. Crosland’s strategies and politics remain a critical reference point by which the quality of the party’s ideas and leadership should be judged. As Labour navigates the treacherous post-referendum landscape accompanied by unprecedented fragmentation in the British political system, the party should reflect on how to build the strategic alliances that swept Labour to victory in 1945, 1964 and 1997.
Britain has never been an intrinsically Conservative country. As Crosland insisted, progressive change is possible if the Labour party and the centre-left make an audacious argument for radical reforms of the economy, society and constitution to all sections and classes in society.
Note: The Crosland Legacy: The Future of British Social Democracy is published by Policy Press. A version of this blog will appear in The Fabian Review.
Patrick Diamond is University Lecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary, University of London.