Labour needs to choose freedom

by Jonathan Todd

“The success of Thatcherism did not lie in the immediate popularity of its programme, but its ability to command the cultural landscape of Britain … The most enduring threat faced by the left is not only to be perceived as an incompetent manager of the economy, but to be out of touch with major cultural advances and the contemporary zeitgeist.”

Roy Hattersley was one leading Labour figure in the 1980s with some sense at the time of the Thatcherite threat identified by Patrick Diamond.

Freedom was coming to mean whatever Margaret Thatcher wanted it to mean: freedom from regulation; freedom from taxation; freedom from any “interference” by the “tentacles” of government.

It was all about freedom from the state and, in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s well-known dichotomy, a wholly negative concept. Taking no account of what individuals were free to do, it lacked any positive content.

The alcoholic may be capable only of begging, steeling and borrowing to their next drink. But, as long as they are unhindered by the “long arm” of government, they are free. And the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose yuppie owes them nothing. They, too, are free and the freedom of all is maximised when the role of government is minimised.

Obviously, a culture that comes to understand an idea as powerful and widely attractive as freedom in such terms is predisposed to policies that are contrary to Labour’s ends. Hattersley appreciated this. As distasteful as the yuppie and as troubling as the alcoholic are, they weren’t directly his target. This was the Thatcherite account of freedom that legitimised their conduct and circumstances. What was necessary was to reconceptualise freedom.

The freedom Hattersley articulated in Choose Freedom (1987) was a Croslandite freedom. This recast freedom in positive terms and aligned it, not with a minimalist state, but with equality: enough equality of opportunity for all to be free to achieve their potential; enough equality of outcome for all to be full social participants. There is such a thing as society and a redistributive, equalising state is needed for all to be free.

This positive account of freedom had been part of Labour’s lexicon since Tony Crosland’s the Future of Socialism (1956) and earlier classics. But equality is the concept most readily associated with Crosland. Hattersley, in recognition of the audacity and implications of the Thatcherite colonisation of freedom in the popular mind of the 1980s, reworked the classic social democracy of Crosland to put more stress upon the sense of freedom contained within it, rather than simply emphasising its egalitarian character.

(This got nowhere, obviously, as a vehicle for changing 1980s culture, as Peter Mandelson might have advised him at the time, but it was, at least, intellectually coherent, which still matters in having a sense of political mission.)

Crosland had anticipated writing in the 1950s that Britain would be much more egalitarian when Hattersley was writing in the 1980s than it proved to be. Why didn’t things turn out as he expected?

Raymond Plant attributes this to Crosland’s preference for mechanical over moral reform. Mechanical reform see social change as passing from the top to the bottom of society, through its institutions and laws, while moral reformers seek to win hearts and minds and drive change from the bottom up. The moral character of the people is taken as given by the mechanical reformer: a tax credit here, a policy tweak there, and a New Jerusalem is built with the conscience of the people untouched.

Of course, this seems preposterous. But, in essence, this is what classic social democracy asks us to believe. Its ends only require that sympathetic politicians command the levers of the central state to tax the rich and redistribute to the poor in the form of welfare payments and high quality – though, homogeneity and quality were often conflated – public services.

As well as leaving the conscience of the people untouched, the equation of quality with homogeneity implied that one-size would fit all. Moreover, the pretence that tax-and-redistribution could secure Labour’s objectives ignored the relevance of product and labour market experiences to these ends and the significant independence of these markets from tax-and-redistribution. It was all redistribution and no predistribution, in contemporary parlance.

To varying degrees, the last government moved beyond the limiting assumptions of classic social democracy. Foundation hospitals, academy schools and choice in public services stopped seeing quality and homogeneity as the same thing and recognised that, as people and localities have differing needs and capabilities, quality often requires heterogeneity. Labour should not back away from these reforms, but build upon them, with Andrew Adonis’ new book explaining how this may be done in education.

Children’s Centres and Child Trust Funds achieved much at the important interface between mechanical and moral reform: institutional changes that aimed to win hearts and minds for parenting and saving. But the shallowness of these attempts to engender moral reform has since been exposed, as Tessa Jowell recently lamented, “so much of what we achieved has proved so fragile”.

Choosing freedom, for Crosland and Hattersley, meant voting for politicians who would mechanically reform society to make us equal and free. The lesson, both of their careers and the We-Think world around us, is that choosing freedom must now mean active citizens morally reforming themselves to equality and freedom.

Tomorrow I will give some thoughts on what moral reform should mean and what Labour should do about it.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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4 Responses to “Labour needs to choose freedom”

  1. Nick says:

    Back to basics.

    None of the big debts are on the government books.

    Hence you’re just pie in the sky pontificating.

    You’re not going to provide pensions, but you’re going to provide Children’s centers.

    With what money? There’s 7,000 bn of debts, so you can’t have either. There is no choice.

  2. swatantra says:

    I agree with Nick.
    Nothing frightens me more than politicians on their high moral horses.
    Me, I prefer dealing with practical problems, and putting them right.

  3. Mike Homfray says:

    Achievements were fragile not because of ‘moral reform’ but because we made changes without altering the Thatcherite foundation of social organisation – and despite the rhetoric, that was a top-down example of the strong state if there ever was one….

  4. Robert says:

    New Labour was actually very authoritarian, which meant that it differed from the liberal views of Hattersley, Crosland and Jenkins. Equality is now very relevant after 30 years of Thatcherism and one of the main aims of the next Labour government will be to increase the incomes of people on low and moderate incomes.

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