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