Sunday 24 May 2015

Dear Liz Kendall

Dear Liz,

Re: Leadership of the Labour Party

As I noted the other day, leadership contests are that rare occasion when MPs and ordinary members are frank about the personalities and policies at the top of the party. Some also over egg the pudding and go for outright abuse. I'm thinking mainly, this time around, about the people who are mostly Andy Burnham identifiers and think attacking you as the Conservative Party candidate for Labour leadership is a smart way for their man to win. It isn't, it's unfair, and it's clear from an acquaintance with your material that a Tory you're most definitely not.

That doesn't mean I think you're well suited to lead the Labour Party.

In the spirit of honesty customary to these times, I'm going to tell you why. Don't, however, make the assumption I'm rooting for Andy, or Yvette, or Mary, or lamenting the dear departed Tristram or Chuka. Like many tens of thousands of party members I am far from enthused by any of the meagre policy pitches so far made. I am also worried that every single candidate's pronouncements on the subject of why Labour lost and what it needs to do to come back is so far from the mark that, already, it does not bode well for our chances in 2020. That might change, of course, but I'm writing to you because your candidature condenses all the faulty analyses and mistaken policy conclusions that are not only most egregious, but potentially most ruinous for our party over the tumultuous five years ahead.

Rather than pick over your comments about various things like others have done, I want to look at your core philosophy and go from there. Thankfully, a lot of the (sympathetic) spadework has been done by Labour Uncut, and I think your opponents should show the courtesy to find out what you really believe rather than throwing meaningless insults your way. Nevertheless, I read this piece with some interest. I agree with you that Labourism as a tradition is overly statist, that too often the left cede questions of individual choice, liberty, and freedom to the right. On paper at least, you are right that social security shouldn't disempower its recipients, that public services should be receptive to the needs of those who use them, and the pressures of state and the market should come second to flesh and blood human beings. However, while the Uncut piece flatters the radicalism of this "republicanism", at base there are few politicians on the centre left and centre right who would disagree. That's because what we're really talking about here is liberalism.

The defining feature of liberalism, classically conceived, is individual sovereignty. It is a "republican" political tradition in the sense that authority should not derive from a body that over-arches society and responsible to no one but itself - see medievalist despotism old and new. Instead, authority should rest on the consent of the governed and representative democracy is the best means yet devised for aggregating the preferences of the citizenry. Fair enough, this is the basics for all forms of democratic politics. But it's only the basics. Socialism, which is both the heir to liberalism and its consistent application (among many other things), recognises its strict limitations. For liberalism property ownership, for instance, is a strictly private affair. Our freedom to own things is a cornerstone of individual sovereignty. That, however, is as far as it goes for liberalism. It's an abstract right that should be defended to the death. Socialism differs. It does not start from first principles but rather takes its departure point from an analysis of the social world. It notes that the liberal/utilitarian objective of the greatest good for the greatest number is blocked by the very way our societies are structured. Not only are good jobs, which we will define here as being well-paid and having a large degree of satisfaction and autonomy, in scarce supply, but more fundamentally the bulk of the economy is owned and directed by private individuals. When you have a situation where one vanishingly small proportion of the population primarily lives off the wealth accumulated by their capital, and the overwhelming majority have to rely on working in return for a salary or wage and collectively are responsible for generating that wealth, you have a political problem. As much as liberalism tries to shy away from the way the world works, because the fates of vast numbers depend on economies working, the idea ownership and control are private matters is an absurdity: it is very much a public issue.

I'm sure you're well aware of this critique without subscribing to it yourself. But you might want to pause and reflect, because it illuminates well the blind spots of your political position-taking. Let's concentrate on your pledge to reform public services. Your approach is entirely consistent with your philosophy: a public service should serve the public and responsive to their needs. Fine, but what would this reform look like? As the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, I expect you would eschew the democratisation of public services and go for market mechanisms instead. Such as the model of the funding following the patient, as per past NHS experiments, or tuition following the student as per the free market in higher education due to be operative from this September. These arrangements make the assumption that markets are the best way for individuals to signal their preferences, hence making service provision more accountable. It sounds neat and elegant, the sort of solution a mind attuned to abstract patterning would find attractive. The problem is that, if anything, markets have made public services less accountable. We hear the excuse that hospital, schools, and council chief executives have to be paid top whack because the market demands it. Across the public sector organisations are beholden to targets supposedly conditioned by competition, such as call handling times in the 111 service, patient turn around times in surgeries and hospital beds, and so on. And because markets is what business supposedly has an intuitive understanding of, the public sector is opened up to profit-making and profit-taking. Typically, especially in the care sector, this has meant holding or forcing down staff wages so margins between cost and price can be widened.

What worries me is you appear blind to this on two counts. Firstly, that you approach public services as so much machinery to be tinkered with and not as aggregations of human beings who, in large part, made an active choice based on their values to undertake a career in public services. Second, and in keeping with a technocratic mindset, you appear utterly oblivious to the notion of interest, that the organisations of public sector workers are the backbone of the movement that has provided you a seat in Parliament. You either forget or just don't realise that the public sector is a constituency in and of itself, and it is supremely harmful to your own political interests to attack their wages and working conditions, to outsource them to third parties, to make their conditions of work less gratifying and less secure. Just go and take a look at the Conservatives across the chamber from you. Do you seriously think they won't tackle zero hour contracts, abuses in the city, and executive pay because they have the wrong ideas? Or does it have something to do with the interests they represent?

This is why your leadership would be a disaster waiting to happen for our party. You have no conception that Labour is not just a party but a real movement in society. Even your letter to trade unionists smacks of their being one constituency among others to be courted.

That, I'm afraid, concludes this letter. Like I said, you're not a conservative. You are a liberal with all the limitations and problems that come with it, and as such because you do not understand the party you're aspiring to lead that makes you particularly ill-suited to the position.

Yours sincerely,



jaydeepee said...

Great read. A very good, succinct definition of socialism and the observation that many miss: Labour is a movement. If a few more politicians in the party took cognisance of this point then Labour would be in a better place. Good read.

Malcolm said...

What a brilliant letter / analysis. Far too often this distinction between Tory and liberal is lost,mea culpa!

Phil said...

Unfortunately, in this leadership election so far analysis has all been concerned with personality and the virtues/limitations of individual characteristics or imputed positions. This is why I have been very irritated by the nonsense that has been thrown her way about her being a Tory and being in the wrong party - none of it has even tried to touch on substantive issues of belief.

As the Labour Uncut piece I cited notes, the tradition she stands in has *always* been part of the labour movement, but with her candidacy it's never been more visible and, for a variety of reasons, less embedded in all the other strands that make up Labourism. This is because the alliance our party is built on is steadily eroding and under her leadership, I firmly believe the politics she wants to hitch our party to will explode it asunder.

Anonymous said...

So Liz Kendall is n old-fashioned liberal, but not a Tory. Jolly good. Not a serious part of the Labour movement then.

Phil said...

Well she is part of the labour movement as are others who share her politics in the party - but see my comment above.

Dave K said...

Ever since the 50s "democratic republicanism" or "radical democracy" has been raised as the project for reformists or Labour parties as "socialism" (reformist or revolutionary) is now impossible given the changes in the class structure of society and / or the world economy.

Instead of the working class the agency for this radical democracy/ republicanism is a broad coalition including some businesspeople, the middle class, churches, social movements etc and the more traditional labour movement and organised working class. The most detailed version was elaborated by the people around Marxism Today in the 80s. Through them and less trendy thinkers a diluted version became part of the DNA of New Labour. Hence Labour Uncut ascribing this to Liz Kendall

However the same fundamental contradiction occurs with all of these projects. If the "democratic republicanism" and "radical democracy" is to mean anything, it must surely mean a redistribution of power from the wealthy and priveliged to the poor and disadvantage. In that case just as unlikely to be in the interest of those who feel themselves wealthy / and or priveliged to support "democratic republicanism" as "socialism".

The broad democratic alliance has to beshackled to the interests of the most reactionary and backward constituency their appealing to and any radicalism is sapped away. Liz Kendall critiques Ed Miliband for being both to left wing and not 'radical' enough. But its clear by radicalism is little more then rhetoric for a shift to the right to avoid scaring the horses of the powerful, wealthy and priveliged.

Richard said...

Interesting post but it seems to me that you left the term 'conservative' undefined you merely assume that conservative and liberal are different, and unless you define conservative as well as liberal and socialist then you cannot reach the conclusion that Kendall is not a Tory.

Many Conservative party members/supporters would happily define themselves as liberal using the definition you gave and would feel very comfortable in Kendall's company. What is more, the common term for the modern Tories is neoliberal, a term they are happy to own, though not to shout from the rooftops, which goes to support my point that conservatives can be liberals, perhaps even are liberals.

I don't disagree that since the working classes parted company with the liberal party to create the Labour Party, that 'liberalism' has had its place in the ludicrously 'broad church' we call our party, though I feel that they were always clearly out of place with the old clause IV calling for public ownership, hence the fact they changed it. In fact it could easily be argued that the Militant were more deserving of a place in the party than 'liberals' in terms of an ideological 'best fit', but that's ancient history.

The problem is that the 'liberal' right wing of the Labour Party, the bulk of LibDems and a large swathe of Conservatives are ideologically very similar, they are liberals as you defined them in your article above, and they could have all done what Ken Clarke did before he joined the Tories, tossed a coin to decide Labour or Conservative to become involved in politics.

This is why the left of the party feel entitled to call those around or ideologically in tune with Progress 'red Tories' as they can't see the difference between them and Tories of a liberal persuasion, because there is little difference to see. We would rather they banded together in the LibDems and left us to decide our politics, but there is little chance of that happening because the 'careerists' want to have a career and being a LibDem is unlikely to give you one of those. The more insidious and dangerous to our movement are those in the party like Lord Sainsbury whose goal is to undermine any leftward shift of party leadership for ideological reasons, for the danger it presents to neoliberal capitalism. They care little for the party and are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that the Labour Party is 'safe'. The trouble is they disguise themselves as 'liberals' as well and this causes confusion amongst some on the left who, deservedly angry, throw insults willly nilly and 'good liberals' fall prey to the same insults as the wreckers.

Clearly, by definition, if an individual is a member of the Labour Party rather that the Conservative Party then they are not 'Tories', thus Kendall is not a Tory, but you need to understand our comp,eye argument to get why we throw the insult 'red Tory'her direction.

Phil said...

I understand well why Liz and friends were so-called during the Labour leadership election. From a hard left perspective there is little difference between market fundamentalist austerians. However, I still don't think Liz & co are Tories.

As you point out, there are people in the Tories and LibDems who aren't very far away from her politics. The reason why this broader liberal tradition is split between three parties are historical, and a result of the ever-lovely first-past-the-post system. Because of that the two big parties are broad coalitions of interests. Were there a proportional system, it might be viable for a centre party to emerge - be it the LibDems on steroids or something else - that could unite these liberal forces. In other words, it's not that Liz is a Tory, it's that there are a number of Tories who are really liberals.

As for driving this tradition out of Labour, why bother? Half of them are completely disoriented and are likely to fall foul of deselection after the boundary review is done. And the other half are abandoning market fundamentalism and thinking anew. Liam Byrne is making a speech this week that looks to be interesting. Expect some commentary on it here.