Soft left or soft thinking? A response to Neal Lawson.

by Rob Marchant

Ed Miliband’s victory has brought a renaissance of the Kinnockite “soft left”. Sadly, the thinking emanating from it seems not just woolly, but dangerously flawed. A case in point is an article by article by Neal Lawson, the chair of centre-left think tank, Compass. Hold your judgment, for a moment, on the title: “Ed Miliband can help us believe in a better world again”, and on the flowery prose. Just concentrate on the arguments: the “big tent” strategy; the worry of achieving office without power; and a rather vague concept called the “good society”.

First, the big tent. Lawson wrongly implies Miliband’s backing for Compass’ controversial idea of opening up its membership to Liberals as well, tartly described by Labour blogger Luke Akehurst as “suicide”. Rightly so: “big tent” has been tried and failed three times in recent history: in 1977, in 1997 and in 2010.

Next, Lawson reveals his deepest fear: that we might be in office, but not in “real” power. The subtext being, confirmed later on in the article, that last time Labour did not achieve anything important. In reality, it seems, he means that Labour did not achieve anything important that he agreed with.

But the key paragraph is where we hear our lives described as “relentlessly anxious, stressful and exhausting”, and that we need to find a cure. There are three problems with this: first, that it seems to extrapolate the concerns of the nation from a certain kind of middle-class, metropolitan preoccupation; second, that, as the Economist’s Bagehot observes, it sees the state necessarily as the answer to these ills; and third, it is a fundamentally weak, “why-oh-why” description, which sees us all as victims of some terrible plot by the powers-that-be to destroy our happiness. We are not. We are in charge, and the state is not going to be the solution to the stress in our lives anyway.

The rest of the article is devoted to a particularly ill-defined concept, which Lawson has been recycling since 2006: the good society. And here we spin off into philosophical flights of fancy, which take in the Aristotelian communes of ancient Greece; some hand-wringing phrases such as “what hope is there for compassion in a world of endless competition”? Or the throwaway, “the last 30 years is what happens when we stop believing that anything better is possible”.  No. Thatcher is not the same as a Labour government – you cannot just lump them together and hope no one notices.

Back in the 21st century, the world has moved on, although some portions of the left have not. All this nonsense is well-intentioned, but, if taken seriously, it becomes dangerous fantasy. If we base a serious policy review on more equality and more democracy, do we really believe we are addressing the deep concerns of the British people, who want money and jobs? Who, furthermore, have just voted for a centre-right government and are patently not seeking a radical left alternative, let alone a woolly one? We need an alternative vision, not this one. And with the backing of hard, costed proposals, based on what Britons actually want.

Throughout the article we are given the impression that Miliband shares this world-view; the four mentions of Lawson’s good society in his conference speech and so on. Perhaps he does. But if so, he has not articulated those ideas much since.

Whatever the truth, I suspect and hope that Ed has already made a judgement. Not all those who eulogised him at his election, singing his praises as the saviour of their ideals, are going to be much help when it comes to practical politics. A shame because, as Akehurst says, many members on the soft left are “solid Labour partisans” who “deserve a better vehicle for their politics”. On his journey from newly-elected leader to statesman-in-waiting, he will surely need to make this call.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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14 Responses to “Soft left or soft thinking? A response to Neal Lawson.”

  1. Robert says:

    How about a coalition with the Tories, bit difficult to tell the blues from the reds.

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    In what way, Robert?

  3. Jonny says:

    I don’t think Neal is advocating a ‘radical left alternative’. He is right that bad things happen when people stop questioning the way things are done – the banking crisis, to take one example.

    I agree that Labour needs to address what you would call ‘serious concerns’, but it is important to remember that these are tied up within a wider framework and are linked more broadly with societal concerns, such as how long we work, and exactly what we are working towards as individuals and as a country. To neglect such concerns is dangerous. Society needs people to call it out on the big things, and bizarrely it is the big things that British politics doesn’t do well.

    Pursuing two lines of thought simultaneously is possible, and Neal’s ideas and ‘serious concerns’ are not mutually exclusive. Don’t get so worked up over something that isn’t even an issue.

  4. Pat says:

    Sorry – I must have missed the vote for a centre right government.

  5. Sunder Katwala says:

    Neal Lawson has staked a claim for Compass influencing Ed Miliband, though risks overclaiming about this, especially in an unfortunate Guardian interview.

    Certainly they can try and push their views, like many competing groups inside and outside of the party.

    Compass members voted for Ed in their ballot, tho they aren’t an affiliate, and that was very late.

    During the summer, Lawson and Compass had no particular preference, arguing none of the candidates were grasping the moment.

    In particular, they took the view that there were not important distinctions between the Milibands. I did a Radio4 discussion with Lawson
    Where that was his view

  6. AnneJGP says:

    Thank you, Rob, for drawing my attention to these articles.

    As I read them (and I apologise in advance for my old-fashioned vocabulary) they are describing a “spiritual void” in our society.

    No individual or political party deliberately sets out to create a “spiritual void” either in themselves or in society. It’s an unintended consequence of myriads of unrelated decisions over decades, a sort of “hole in the ozone layer” of society. And since there are people at all points on the political spectrum who don’t suffer from this “spiritual void”, it isn’t a party political issue.

    It is going to be extremely difficult to formulate policies that will encourage this “hole in the social ozone layer” to repair itself. It’s hard enough to foresee the social impact of (say) a tax change, which has a very direct influence on people.

    It seems to me that “soft thinking” (not as in woolly or flawed, but as in Soft Systems) is the only possible approach, because first of all, you’ll need to come up with an analysis of why the hole has appeared in the first place.

  7. Terry Murphy says:

    Well put. It’s wrong to re-trench around concepts and strategies that just don’t get the Labour Party elected.
    And to group the last 30 years into “the last 30 years” as a single timeframe is just silly.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    Jonny, I think you make a good point about society being “called out on the big things” and have nothing against doing so.

    Firstly, we need to choose these issues well. How long we work (assuming you mean retirement age) is a good case in point, but this faulty logic assumes that we have any choice in the matter – by simple maths, it is simply no longer an option to have an population that lives much longer but chooses not to work after 65. There are other big issues where we do have a choice, and we should think about them. But we should do it in a more focused way and one which acknowledges that individuals are largely responsible for their own destiny.

    By the way, I certainly believe it arguable that, from his comments on the last government (in his article) and the leadership election candidates (noted by Sunder above) Lawson feels that what the party needs is a swing to the left – I’m afraid I don’t buy the “left and right labels don’t apply any more” nonsense.

    Pat, not sure what colour you feel this current govt. is, but centre or left it certainly isn’t. It is making the most radical cuts to public expenditure in decades, and I’d happily predict that, if it is still in power in 5 years, it will have announced some significant tax cuts as well, once the recession is done.

    Sunder, yes, I must admit Ed has been pretty quiet on the Good Society since Conference. Fair play to any pressure groups for pushing their agenda, but ultimately I feel that endorsing none of the candidates – or rather, implying that they are all uninspiring – and then later greeting Ed’s selection with such gusto ultimately runs the risk of appearing a bit opportunistic.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    AnneJGP, I have no problem with us identifying your “spiritual void” in our society (although we might quibble about what it is called). I would summarise it as simply saying that there are a lot of areas where modern lives leave a lot to be desired, and Lawson is right in that much. But there always are: this is a fact of human life across the ages. The real issue is not identifying the problem but the solution.

    My issue is that I don’t believe governments are all-powerful bodies which can bestow happiness on us. They are best at doing modest-but-basic things like making sure we are physically healthy and educated, and have an ultimate safety net in the event of serious misfortune. So, apart from the fact that I believe the solution here is ill-defined, I take issue with seeing government as the solution. People have a right to good government and basic services: they also need to take responsibility for their own lives and not expect government to make them happy into the bargain.

  10. derek barker says:


    Yeah, most people would subscribe to the notion of self responsibility to a certain degree however, if we are to shine the trouch into the public nature of being, then lets not forget to shine the same light into those who proclaim power, the politicians.

    Giving the forthcoming AV vote, you know! the eliminator trick, so one final person can proclaim a 50% endorsemsnt of their post, seems to be lathered in confusion.

    For talking sake, the process of elimination will most probably favour the big three candidates, Labour, Liberal’s and Tories and someone who really wants to avoid any of those three being their representitive, could well see their vote being distributing to one of the said three.

    Further more, voters may have a first and at a push second choice candidate but definately don’t have a third choice, so is the vote rejected if a paper has only two choices?

    It seems to me a very daft thing to suggest that a candidate received 50% of the vote by devault’ by that i mean, they weren’t quite the first choice.

    Responsibility! Hmmm! i guess good leadership and role models, could show a better example.

  11. james says:

    Rob, I feel you’ve read Lawson through Bagehot, rather than through say Polanyi or Bauman. Your preoccupation with the terminology of left and right (which Lawson shares) mean you ignore the forces which exist in society such as little-l labour and capital.

    Now, the Tories can be described as “centre-right” if we want to use this language – but clearly, the Lib-Dems ran in the election on a “centre-left” platform. So we can’t say that the coalition represents a turn to the right – or, as I would put it, continued deference to capital. New Labour was born of a compromise, tactical on the part of the wider movement, strategic on the part of the leadership, with, for want of a better phrase, the capitalist class. So when Labour won in ’97 there was no panic in the City as there had been previously when a Labour government got in.

    Now, it’s right to reject the bureaucratic models of the past, but New Labour’s initial “social-ism” in ’94, later “new mutualism”, the “stakeholder society” or the “Third Way”, wasn’t taken forward as a vision for government as it would mean taking on some powerful vested interests. The compromise allowed Labour to govern without destabilisation and introduce the reforms which we are all proud of – but it also meant that when the global financial crisis hit, there was initially a confused response. Since there was no critique of capital accumulation at hand, the government to be able to say how finance could be better structured. Northern Rock thrived for decades as a building society, but crashed out in a decade as bank – this is an obvious lesson for us. We cannot assume that a

  12. Rob Marchant says:

    Derek, I too am unconvinced by AV – worried to see we might be agreeing here 😉 I think perhaps accountability is also a big issue, having lived in countries where system is proportional and seen that lobbying of your representative is much less developed than in the UK.

    James, you say preoccupation with left and right, I could also (in the spirit of healthy debate, as ever) comment on your preoccupation with labour and capital, which is essentially Marxist language designed 100 years ago to describe a massive working class and a much less mixed economy than ours…;)

    On the Liberals being centre-left, I confess to being unconvinced. The Liberals have always been a largely disparate group of people with often contradictory policies reflecting the internal divisions they have. Indeed, I believe the great irony of this last election was the way that significant parts of the electorate (and, dammit, the Guardian) bought the Liberal-is-left story and were then bitterly disappointed (or, in the Guardian’s case, in denial to this day). In Islington, for example, Lib Dems are mostly nasty right-wingers.

    I think there are certainly lessons to take from mutual finance, but it is still has quite a long way to go to truly compete with the private sector, both in attracting the best personnel and getting better economies of scale (it’s still too fragmented to be truly efficient). That’s not to apologise for the terrible errors of the private sector, by the way, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Where I think we probably agree is that the Third Way, or whatever we choose to call it, fell short andm if we could implement a real stakeholder society model as policy now, we could genuinely provide a distinct platform that satisfies both statists and anti-statists in a way that Cameron will only ever pay lip-service to. Ed Balls could do a good job on this, if he’s allowed to help shape this policy area (not sure if this is likely though).

  13. james says:

    Rob, totally agree as regards the great irony of the last election.

    But as for my preferred political categorisation: who funds the Labour party? Mostly organised labour. Who funds the Tory party? Mostly capitalists. Left and right describe ideas not interests, and most people don’t identify themselves in that language and wouldn’t readily understand the concepts.

    If I’m preoccupied with the labour/capital division it’s because most still rely upon their labour for their income, yet have direct ownership stake or even union representation; capital ownership, on the other hand, remains hideously concentrated in the hands of a few, and economic decision-making has become even more remote in recent decades. Yep, that labour/capital talk is so out of date… 😉

    I obviously agree on the benefits of a stakeholder model for Labour’s vision of a growing private sector – I’ve suggested that because of its roots in the co-operative and trade union movements, has the potential to make real the rhetoric of both the Tories’ “popular capitalism” and the Liberals’ “co-partnership”: I’ve even suggested a pretty good slogan “the right to own”. Will Davies wrote an ebook on the subject of reinventing the firm for Demos about two years ago, which I recommend:

    On Ed Balls, I suspect that rumour, printed in Tribue, of a deal before the appointment of Alan Johnson is true – Balls being passed over for Shadow Chancellor on the promise that he’d be involved with developing a new economic paradigm for the party.

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    James, well interesting your link between labour/capital and party funding. You are right, of course, but I would certainly prefer to see a wider mix of party funding. We used to have one – recently it’s got narrower again, and it shows in a certain narrowing of our policies: ultimately we will gravitate towards the policies espoused by our funding base, it’s only natural.

    On ownership: I suspect the Tory and Liberal rhetoric will remain just that. I believe in a wide spectrum of ownership: on the one hand there are many private enterprises which can happily stay private. However, on the other, where there is a clear public interest – quite a lot of the economy, really – there needs to be a mechanism to allow participation of ordinary people. And this should include some public services, there is no reason why they should be exempt from involvement, and more direct and accountable ownership, by the general public. We attempted a little of this under Blair, got cold feet under Brown, and now have a lip-service version under the Tories which is just monetarism dressed up. Balls may just see the sense of it, given his Co-op connections, but let’s see.

    Demos stuff looks interesting, will check it out.

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