What does Liz Kendall believe?

by David Butler

It was hard not to be impressed by Liz Kendall’s Sunday Politics interview with Andrew Neil. She displayed many of the facets that a future leader of the Labour Party should have. This was not the first time she had impressed in interviews, print or broadcast. We desperately need a leader who can win but we also need know what kind of change that leader seeks. Power for its own sake is only ever conservative. Liz Kendall’s thinking appears rooted in an undervalued, oft-forgotten Labour tradition, that of republicanism.

Republicanism has at its core a single notion: that true freedom consists of non-domination. Using a positive frame, Anthony Painter of the RSA (and formerly of this parish) calls it “powerful freedom”. What republicanism seeks is to offer people the ability to be architects of their own lives and flourish in society. The republican approach to freedom can be thought of as expanding what Amartya Sen called “capabilities” (the ability to do something).

Without possessing capabilities, a person is left to live a life where others, either directly through oppressive practices or indirectly through dependency, dominate them. This marks republicanism out from classical liberalism’s doctrine of non-interference. The divide can be illustrated the play A Doll’s House. In his book Just Freedom, Philip Pettit states that Nora would be considered free in classical liberal terms as her husband Torvald does not interfere with her choices. Yet, Pettit argues that Torvald exercises power over Nora as she is totally dependent upon him (something Torvald himself articulates in Act Three of the play). In republican terms, she is not free as Torvald dominates her and restricts her ability to shape her own life.

Republicanism, in practical terms, involves creating policies and institutional frameworks that expand capabilities, rebalance power in society and prevent coercion.  For example, individual budgets in social care would enable older people and their families to design the life they want to allow for dignity in their final years. At the more radical end of the scale, a basic income would prevent the coercive poverty trap associated with the bureaucratic welfare state.

David Marquand in his book Britain Since 1918 identified democratic republicanism as one of the four political traditions in British democracy; the others are Tory nationalism, Whig imperialism and democratic collectivism. As Anthony Painter identified, Labour is a coalition between democratic collectivists and democratic republicans (with a few Whig imperialists). The democratic collectivists, best exemplified by the Fabians, have dominated the Party’s thinking and policies programme; as Philip Collins of The Times, who co-authored a pamphlet on republicanism, once remarked, Labour’s approach to public policy could be summed up as “banned, compulsory or free”.

Although mostly forgotten or ignored, the democratic republican tradition has been ever present; for example, Michael Young, the author of the 1945 manifesto, in Small Man, Big World argued for Labour to embrace active democracy and devolve power into the hands of the people. This republican spirit can been seen in Crosland’s words in The Future of Socialism that “in the blood of the socialist there should always run a trace of the anarchist and the libertarian, not too much of the prig and the prude”. Roy Jenkins, closer to the republican tradition than most, wrote in The Labour Case that “there is a need for the state to do less to restrict personal freedom”. Jenkins kept to his word as he steered through pioneering social reforms but these democratic republican elements were too often ignored or hinted at in opposition only to be abandoned in government. Republicanism is a part of the Labour tradition but one that has never dominated.

Republicanism flows through Kendall’s criticism of the state. Writing with Lisa Nandy in Finding Our Voice: Making the 21st century state, she and Nandy stated that Labour must “champion the power of human beings to shape their own lives” and oppose “the tyranny of the bureaucratic state and an unrestrained free market”. They called upon Labour to reclaim liberty “as a defining ideal of left of centre politics”. The liberty they championed, through devolving power to the town hall and to the individual (recall David Miliband’s “double devolution”) and giving people the power to shape their public services and communities, is distinctly republican in nature.

Kendall has also shown republican thinking in her vision for public services. In their pamphlet Let It Go, Kendall and Steve Reed argued that people should have “more control over the decisions that affect their lives”. They articulated a vision of giving people greater power to shape the public services they receive. As Kendall put it in an interview with Politics Home, “money gets you choices and chances and opportunities, a cushion and networks and contacts, I want to see those available to everybody”. Kendall and Reed contended that such a move would be more efficient and allow for services to be better adapted to meet people’s needs. Rather than just relying on the paternalistic state or the impersonal market place, people, as individuals and as collectives, would be empowered to influence the services they use. These ideas clearly link to the republican thinking about power and freedom.

Kendall’s analysis of inequality is rooted in republicanism. Speaking as part of De Montfort’s Distinguished Lecture Series, Kendall argued that inequalities in opportunities (and power) and income (and wealth) were inextricably linked. She used the idea of “capabilities” to argue that the educational and social opportunities of people alongside their economic circumstance determine their ability to choose their path in life. Some of the solutions she identified, from early intervention to help families prepare for parenthood and improving parental skills, to more apprenticeships and better vocational qualifications, can be seen as seeking to expand “capabilities”. Such an expansion would increase the freedom of individuals to shape their own lives.

Kendall’s republicanism marks her out from the other leadership contenders. It is unlikely that someone who has displayed pragmatism and political sense will embrace the more radical implications of republicanism. She will also recognise that Labour will always be a coalition between democratic collectivist and democratic republicans. Nevertheless, she has tapped into a rich intellectual seam that is of increasing relevance as statist social democracy falls short of its promise. It is a philosophy that clashes with some of the Party’s basic instincts. Kendall will have to a difficult task in selling these ideas to a sceptical Party. However, if she continues to display the political skill evident in her Sunday Politics interview, she may just do it.

David Butler is a Labour activist

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11 Responses to “What does Liz Kendall believe?”

  1. Andy says:

    Interesting, I like what I read

  2. John P Reid says:

    Tafia, the news statesman, article was lost by the headline, being interpreted as the working class, who wanted something left wing lowt it for us, rather than the skilled private sector working class up north who went Ukip, many public sector worker,who saw cuts in the last 5 years stayed loyal to us, but the working class, in the private sector, probably consider themselves middle class

  3. Mike Stallard says:

    Not all Republics are like the USA. that is the mistake which Barack Obama made in stirring up the Arab Spring. Revolution – for that is what getting rid of our very popular monarchy (read the tabloids) amounts to – generally leads to a French situation of anarchy, terror and then a dictatorship. Even Plato spotted this.
    Golden rule: if a fing ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  4. swatantra says:

    God knows. Liz and Yvette and strangely enough Stella C and now Mary C are all very much alike in their mannerisms and the way they speak to the public; its all a bit condescending tone. It must be a new Labour kind of thing picked up in training, of addressing people. We have to get away from that style. That’s why I’m not voting for them.

  5. Madasafish says:

    So Labour would push a republican agenda then if Liz became leader.?

    I assume this is a rerun of a movie – Death Wish 2..

  6. paul barker says:

    As a Libdem your Republicanism sounds like plain old Liberalism to me. I would like to believe that Kendall is a genuine Liberal/Republican but Labour Politicians are often liberal in opposition & Authoritarian in Power.

  7. Anne says:

    My first choice was Dan Jarvis but he is ruling himself out of contention. My second was Chuka now he has withdrawn but I will now look more closely at Liz – I like what this article says – she seems to be ticking all the boxes – maybe Liz as leader with Tom Watson as deputy – keeping everyone in line – might be a good ticket

  8. John P Reid says:

    Anne your webpage, comes up its. Trick site, by the way, lord Glasman,agrees with your choice leader/deputy

  9. Robert says:

    Progress drones one might say.

  10. Terry Smyth says:

    Labour leadership mess? Here’s my plan. Leave Harriet Harman in charge for 2 years to let things settle, and see how the aspiring long term leaders do in their shadow roles. Possible contenders then have plenty of time to think about the implications for their families etc. The leadership election can take place in 2017. By that time too we’ll know more about who the Tories will fear the most. Nothing to be lost – a new leader in 2017 still has 2-3 years to build momentum with the public. If Labour rushes into this – and finds itself lumbered with another weak leader – then the 2020 election is lost before the end of this year! With 5 year fixed terms, we have the chance to plan properly without needing to fear a snap election.
    Some say it’s too late, and that the process will have to grind to a conclusion even if we have weak and untested candidates. Poppycock! I say it’s never too late or too early to change your mind – if you need to. Ask Chuka.

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