A centrist critique of David Marquand’s annual compass lecture

by Jonathan Todd

The chair of last Thursday’s annual Compass lecture, Neal Lawson, closed proceedings by asking the speaker, David Marquand, to return in 10 years time, when Marquand will be 86 years old, to reflect upon developments in the intervening period. He also expressed the hope that at this time the respondents to Marquand’s address would be the most powerful people in the land: Ed Miliband as prime minister; Caroline Lucas as chancellor; Francesca Klug as home secretary; and Evan Harris as health secretary.

Earlier, Lawson had praised Marquand for arguing that, as social democracy will never reach its final terminus, the journey towards social democracy is more important than conceiving of its end. “The goal is nothing; the movement everything”, quipped Eduard Bernstein, the grandfather of social democracy, over 100 years ago.

Lawson would doubtless claim that much more openness and collaboration between parties of the left is part of this journey. But his imaging of the 2021 cabinet indicated where he wants this to be heading. It may cause people to wonder what exactly the parties of Miliband, Lucas, Klug and Harris stand for if they agree on as much as Lawson believes.

Marquand’s lecture title spoke of a realignment of the mind. It remains to be seen whether the likely opening of Compass to members of parties other than Labour, which Miliband said he was relaxed about, will lead to the political realignment that Lawson desires. Marquand was, however, excited enough by the potential suggested by the event to say at its close that he was drunk with happiness.

The realignment that he argued for is a transition from a culture in which “the holy trinity of choice, freedom and the individual” give way to “the human trinity of imagination, empathy and critical thinking”. He sees compass, London citizens and protests against library closures and the forests sell-off as steps in this direction and, although he sees the language of the common good as having dropped out of our politics, evidence that this notion still exists.

He appeared delighted at the persistence of this notion, not least given what he perceives as a 30 year campaign against the public realm that was initiated by Margaret Thatcher and continued by subsequent prime ministers. This campaign, he argues, now reaches its zenith with the present government’s reforms to the NHS, schools and universities. There is much to critique in these reforms. But Marquand’s conception of the public realm seemed a blunt instrument to expose these weaknesses.

He appeared to claim, for example, that university education is a public good. In its purest sense such a good requires non-excludability. The benefit that I derive, for example, from the defence of our state provided by the armed forces does not exclude any other British citizen from this benefit. I have, however, enjoyed a career that I would not have been able to enjoy were I a non-graduate. The salaried benefits of this career derive exclusively to me. Non-graduates shouldn’t subsidise such benefits through general taxation, which would be the consequence of graduates making no contribution to their tuition costs.

General taxation should, however, fund university education to an extent proportionate to the benefits to society from this education. This benefit is real and part of the public realm. The government has done violence to it by scrapping the higher education grant for arts and social sciences teaching. Are we really to believe that society would be no worse off if it contained no arts or social science graduates? That is the absurd implication of government policy. Higher education in arts and social sciences, nonetheless, are not pure public goods and it is to imply poor policy so to conceive of them.

Marquand seems to see the public realm as always good, the market realm as universally bad and the former as inevitably corroded the later. However, often these realms by necessity co-exist. The higher earnings of graduates are part of the market realm and the benefits to society of university teaching are of the public realm.

When millions in the rapidly developing world have recently been lifted from extreme poverty by markets, it also seems crass to dismiss this realm as wholly wretched. As is the idea, conveyed by the claim that the public realm is always good, that only markets fail and that state agents are incapable of doing so.

Radicalism now begins by accepting that neither the public nor market realms have monopolies on wisdom, virtue or effectiveness. True political leadership applies whatever combination of them best achieves the desired ends. Such leadership may be undermined by a lack of clarity over desired ends. In this sense, Bernstein is wrong. The goal is far from nothing. Even if the ends are never perfectly realised, the direction of travel ensures that people don’t forget why they join and vote for political parties.

While Labour’s authenticity matters greatly, and is bound up with the ends which we pursue, tribalism unable to honestly acknowledge policy agreement between parties is unhelpful. And, maybe, compass is as good a place as any for these agreements to be uncovered.

But there are more urgent tasks for Labour than any which can be achieved with members of other parties. We must re-conceptualise and articulate our own timeless social democratic ends (justice and equality) and develop innovative, realistic and compelling means of shaping the public and market realms to advance them. Perhaps, then, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and John Healey will get to serve at the top of Miliband’s government.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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7 Responses to “A centrist critique of David Marquand’s annual compass lecture”

  1. Robert says:

    The thought of having Labour back in power with Miliband in charge in ten years time is a nightmare for most. I’m a socialist but to think that this bunch would be able to come to power would be a bad dream come true.

    No thanks…..

  2. Tacitus says:

    I wouldn’t worry overly. On average, party leaders only have a ten year life span (if they are lucky). Even past political heroes like Blair, or Thatcher were finally ‘gunned down’ by stalking horses eager to sieze their crowns.

    The bigger question though is whether we truly have the talent to find a replacement in ten years time. Who should we be grooming? The soft left have a few potential candidates for sure, but where are the hard left? Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn may be wonderful examples of the war horse mentality of socialism, but they are looking a bit frayed at the edges these days. Sorry guys, I am huge admirers of you both, but its true.

    The left need to be looking amongst its own and grooming now – otherwise we’ll see a continuing cycle where the Labour Party stays a social democratic party and fails to return to its socialist roots.

  3. james says:

    I get the feeling that Marquand, Miliband, Lawson, Lucas, etc, better understand the rule of the capitalist class than Jonathan…

  4. steff says:

    Jonathan Todd states ‘I have, however, enjoyed a career that I would not have been able to enjoy were I a non-graduate. The salaried benefits of this career derive exclusively to me. Non-graduates shouldn’t subsidise such benefits through general taxation, which would be the consequence of graduates making no contribution to their tuition costs.’

    The answer to this conundrum Jonathan is not tuition fees, nor is a graduate tax. The answer is progressive taxation, meaning that the highest earners (graduate or not) – who have benefitted most from the system – contribute the most to the exchequer. Non-graduates are not susbsidising graduates, because graduates on average pay much more into the system through general taxation. This should continue, preferably with a more progressive system based on higher tax rates for tax rates.

  5. steff says:

    er …. the last line was meant to say: ‘ …. higher tax rates for higher earners’

  6. Steff – Thank you. There are higher rate tax payers that have never been to university. Lord Sugar, as we’re now supposed to call him, for example. While such people are more able to afford to subsidise the higher earnings of graduates than minimum waged cleaners, say, the point still holds: benefits that derive exclusively to graduates should not be subsidised by non-graduates. As I argue in the piece, however, such benefits are not the totality of the benefits created by university education, as is implied by the government’s scrapping of the teaching grant for arts and social sciences, and these wider benefits to society should be funded, as you argue, by progressive taxation. And I would also agree that our tax system can be made more progressive than it is.

    James – Thank you for putting me in my place. I’ve become so befuddled that even etc – people, as I was always taught, who either aren’t worth naming or are too forgettable to name – are more on the ball than me.

  7. james says:

    Jonathan, I didn’t mean to put you in your place. It’s just I read this: “When millions in the rapidly developing world have recently been lifted from extreme poverty by markets, it also seems crass to dismiss this realm as wholly wretched.”

    You appear not to have picked up on Marquand’s euphemistic synechdoche: the mentioned and the etc. people don’t mean market exchange – they are using the term “markets” in place of capitalism – a part in place of the whole, but also a ephemism for capitalists. At least, that’s what I thought. Please put me in my place if you think I’m wrong 😉

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