Common sense socialism

by Jonathan Todd

“We are signposts of the modern kind, electronic ones flashing on the motorway, changing as the traffic or weather changes. And the people interpreting the conditions, deciding what to write on the signs, should be guided above all by common sense, by the axioms and attitudes of the people in the cars”.

Siôn Simon’s variation on Tony Benn’s dictum that there are signposts and weathervanes in politics is worth keeping in mind as the Tory-led government crawls from crisis to crisis.

While Bennites are signposts of a certain kind, “old, wooden affairs, pointing in the wrong direction, to a way through the woods so overgrown that it can scarcely be seen”, the modern Labour signpost is an altogether more interactive and adaptable affair. This ceaseless revisionism applies to both means, switching from wooden to electronic signage, as technology allows, and the contemporary meaning of our ends.

Of course, Roy Hattersley is right, and concisely sums up the revisionist creed, when he says that justice and equality are the only ends of socialism and everything else is means. But he’s too resistant to revising his means and thinking carefully enough about the expression of his ends. The means of comprehensive education manifestly didn’t work as Tony Crosland expected. Hence, Hattersley’s failure to embrace the electronic signage that was Andrew Adonis’ school reforms is perplexing.

It’s not just Hattersley’s means that remained wooden. There’s nothing more wooden than erecting high horses, garlanded with justice and equality, and being perplexed when people are unmoved. Such abstract values, no matter how justifiably uplifting to socialists, will mean little to most if not connected to common sense, the axioms and the attitudes of the people.

If it wasn’t for the likes of Hattersley remaining loyal to Labour in the early 1980s, we would have been lost on Benn’s overgrown way through the woods. Yet, because Hattersely stopped revising his revisionism, he’s now about as much use as a signpost as Benn. Proclaiming the virtues of The Future of Socialism only gets us so far. Given that one of the key points of that great tome is to understand the society that you are attempting to change, it was incongruous of Hattersley to berate Robert Philpot for using polling data in the Purple Book to illustrate some hard realities that Labour must confront. Hattersley went on:

“The implication is that Labour’s main task is to discover what it must do and say in order to return to power. In fact, Labour’s future depends on its success in reviving its reputation as a party of principle”.

No, in part at least, the point is to take our values beyond the conceptual to the lived actuality; the world as it appears to the people in the cars looking for signage. This is a world where “some of the (last government’s) policy tools designed to make society fairer”, according to Douglas Alexander, also in the Purple Book, “too often reinforced a sense that when we talked of fairness we were talking about someone else”.

These people believe in justice and equality. They just don’t think that this is what they always got from the last government. And they’ve got a point. The crowds offer us their wisdom if we are willing to take it. Hattersley can only arrive at the conclusion that they look to Labour to more forcefully assert our principles by conflating what he wants with what most people want. And what most people want is for us to show an understanding of their perspective and act upon this understanding.

They don’t want grand moralising. They want practical action. We should give them such action that builds a more just and equal world inch by inch. This world will be built from the shop floor and the kitchen sink upwards, not from the textbook downwards.

“Those aren’t workers’ hands. These are workers’ hands”, Ernest Bevin once compared and contrasted with the Soviet high command. The Soviet Union was nothing but disconnect between its supposed principles and its lived realities. Bevin was nothing but lived realities and practical improvements. Bevin damned the pacifist George Lansbury, who argued against sanctions on Italy after their invasion of Abyssinia, for “hawking his conscience around” at Labour party conference in 1935.

We shouldn’t hawk our consciences around in opposing the government either. We should not focus on the moral failings of the government, though these are real, but relentlessly upon on how their incompetence lets the country down. The last Tory government, after all, didn’t win another general election after the farce of the cones hotline but won again after the immorality of the poll tax.

There’s farce to compare with the cones hotline presently. As the home secretary disagrees with the justice secretary about a major piece of legislation and the police about cuts, and the prime minister concedes his defence secretary made “serious mistakes”, the government is failing to get to grips with our economic problems.

The wisdom of football crowds applies here: they don’t know what they’re doing. The Labour party should be the megaphone to that crowd.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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7 Responses to “Common sense socialism”

  1. Nick says:

    And since you’re the party with a legacy of 7,000 bn of government debt, why should people listen?

    Ah yes, I can hear it now. But its only 1,000 bn.

    However, that’s because the big debts have been Bernie Maddoff’ed off the books, for the same reason that Maddoff used false accounting. He was running a ponzi scheme, just as the UK government is.

  2. aragon says:

    Cones hot line, talk about superficial. The cones hot line is trivia, all Governments engage in it to attract attention.

    But it is when you ignore the fundamentals you really screw up.

    This Government is ideologically driven by Neo-liberalism.

    Neo-liberalism has failed. until you understand why Neo-liberalism has failed you are going to repeat the same mistakes, returning to the status quo ante is not an option for Labour or Tories.

    While we all support Human Rights some of the perverse outcomes are unacceptable, and it’s not the cat, but the intended mass murders, who cannot be deported, to where they were born.

    Labour Immigration Policy in action ?

    It is the depth of comprehension (and ideology) that should drive policy, and competence that should determine it’s implementation.

    The solution is not the superficial, and it’s not just that the Tories are incompetent on implementation, but that they have a flawed world view, expressed in policy, that doesn’t work for the public interest.

    Labour can be seen as incompetent and dishonest as the Tories, need I name names. Dog whistle politics area effective in attracting attention but also degrade all politics, when solutions are superficial or absent.

    Both comprehension and competence are needed, and not obvious attributes of politicians of any hue (or at all).

  3. Frederick James says:

    “This ceaseless revisionism applies to both means, switching from wooden to electronic signage, as technology allows, and the contemporary meaning of our ends.”

    Is it just me… ?

  4. Robin Thorpe says:

    I am unashamedly a fan of Roy Hattersley and I agree with him that Labour should not merely proclaim support for whatever cause is popular at the moment but should instead stand robustly for ideological principles; principles with sound intellectual reasoning and evidence based. However, I must concede that Jonathan (and others before him) are right when they say that standing for ideals that are not grounded in reality or are presented in a way that is incomprehensible will not aid the man in the street or the labour movement. I dislike the term common-sense; the term is meaningless. “Common-sense” is not common in that it does not occur frequently and where it does occur it does not have a common meaning. So I do not think we should attempt to base an election strategy on such a fragile concept. Moreover statistical research has shown that peoples outlook is still shifting to what we would call the political right. Therefore to represent the “common” view the Labour Party would have to stand on a traditional Tory programme. I would prefer that the PLP try to influence opinion rather than act as a mirror to the mob.

  5. JohnB says:

    Hattersley did not as you allege ‘berate’ Philpot for using polling data, but for not doing other things which, rightly or wrongly, he considers more urgent: ‘there is an absolute need to develop new Labour policy, as distinct from revising social-democratic ideology. If all that that amounts to is calculating the preferences of voters in marginal seats, the party is doomed.’ I find it hard to disagree.

    I take your own stance to be that we should eschew policy and values and go purely and simply on the competence issue. I can see three problems with this.

    First, it doesn’t make sense electorally. To get back to power we will need a convincing story about why people should vote for us and what they can expect from us – see 1945, 1951, 1964, 1979. Mere competence is not enough: 1997’s ‘policy-lite’ victory was a rarity, a response to an elderly government that was seen to have lost direction and competence. It’s noteworthy that the same ‘policy-lite’ strategy didn’t work for the Tories in 2010: despite Labour’s unpopularity they failed to get a majority. And anyway, competence isn’t exactly our strong point at the moment, since most people seem to think that we caused the economic crisis. Complete bollocks, as it happens, but you can’t wish it away.

    Second, when you get to power, you can’t just be ‘competent’: competent at doing what? Yes, ‘the government is failing to get to grips with our economic problems’ – and social ones too – and we should be giving them a harder time for it – but all the more reason, as Hattersley says, to develop our analysis of what’s wrong and what we would do about it. That’s what these books you so despise are all about – where we are and where we are going, what are the goals we offer people and how we deliver them. Have you considered that this government may actually turn out to be quite competent – but competent at achieving things we don’t want to happen, a society very different from the one we (and most people) want to live in? If so, should we simply promise to achieve these undesirable goals even more competently? Or should we offer the voters different goals? You seem to think that criticising the Tories’ values or the direction they are taking the country in is mere self-indulgent ‘moralising’, ‘hawking our consciences around’. It isn’t: it’s an essential part of politics, something the Tories understand very well.

    Finally, if you raise your eyes from your polling figures from time to time you might have noticed that we’re in the middle of an almighty global crisis, a crisis much deeper than mere technical economic management can deal with. This crisis may very well bring Labour back to power willy-nilly, though we can’t rely on it. Society is going to be faced with huge choices, just as it was at the end of the last war. If and when we get to power we need to be able to respond at an appropriate level, and offer directions forward – which will not be those of 1997, 1979 or 1945. History will not forgive us if we fail to rise to this challenge.

    Overall, I’m afraid I see nothing in your piece to contradict Hattersley’s suspicion that for some people politics is a game, like football: the thing is to find the most effective way of winning. Ever wondered why people despise politicians so much?

  6. aragon says:

    To briefly address the Torture issue:

    The Threat of Torture is non-specific.

    Torture occurs in Pakistan therefore all Pakistani citizens have right to UK residency as do about 2/3 of the worlds population ?

    If the Torture threat is specific due to the attempted act of mass murder (Terrorism), again it seems perverse reward such behavior (over the non-specific threat).

    While we do not engage in torture we can not control the behavior of nations that do not respect human rights. If only it were so.

    We should have the absolute right to remove foreign national who pose a threat to safety (lives) of the British public.

    With regard to the 21 year old age limit on marriage visas been revoked, the right to a family life does not necessary require than family life to be in the UK. The right to a family life seems to again provide carte blanche
    to immigration, do you even need a UK partner or just aspire to one ?

    We have the issue of coercion, which the judges view as disproportionate justification, from forced and arranged marriages, through the Murder of two women in Turkey, to the abuse of marriage through payment, it seems not unreasonable to put an extra lower age limit on international marriages which by their nature involve the potential for immigration fraud, especially where young people are involved.

    Parliament has created an immigration policy, and the judges should not second guess it, on the basis of a right to a family life.

    Which as I have suggested above appears to only have to meet the standard of an aspiration, or retrospectively after illegal entry or illegal over stays in this country.

    Society has the right to set it’s own standards free from an over extensive (excessive) interpretation of fundamental human rights are brought into disrepute by the judges decisions.

    This is just a comment, a better case can be made with more effort.

  7. swatantra says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the professional politician, it is no more than a game. All their efforts are put into getting one over the other bloke.
    The reason: because they’ve been in the game too long, and have lost sight of what took them into politics in the first place. An enforced ‘rest’ might actually do them some good and reexamine their values.

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