There is much more to Labour than being the party of higher public spending, and we need to remind ourselves of that if we are to form transformative governments in the future, argues AIDAN SKINNER
There’s a lot of fretting going on about how we deal with the fact that the next Labour government whether in Scotland, in the UK as a whole or in both will not (hopefully, unless we’re out of power for a long time) be able to distribute ever increasing real terms funding for public services in the way the last Labour government did.
But that’s to miss the point. The last Labour government had to massively increase public spending due to the neglect of the Thatcher and Major years when they literally let the fabric of our society fall apart. I learnt all my high school maths in a wooden hut with a heater above the door. In 1997. Jack McConnell opened the replacement buildings four years after I left, over thirty years since the temporary buildings were put in place. There’s a lot of legitimate criticism about the way that PFI was used to fund some of that investment, but Labour indisputably had to rebuild the physical fabric of our public services. It did that and got visible results for the money spent ‒ raising school achievement, cutting waiting times in the NHS, improving life expectancy and taking many out of poverty. It wasn’t perfect, but a good job well done
But that job is done. The Tories are cutting investment but they daren’t actually reverse much of it this time round. Instead they’re trying to privatise parts of the NHS and schools by stealth and we must fight them in England and Wales (fortunately devolution is working as intended in Scotland and preventing that madness here, just as Scottish Labour prevented it here when the UK party unfortunately started down that road).
The argument in the UK about the size of state spending has largely been settled for 40 years. It’s varied between 36.4% of GDP and 49.7% since 1963, essentially fluctuating with economic fortunes ‒ as the economy contracts spending necessarily rises as a proportion as there’s less overall and more going out in benefits, as it expands it falls as a proportion as there’s more to go around and fewer benefits being paid. Only until the crash had it exceeded 41% since John Major was prime minister. In fact, the peak of public spending as a proportion of GDP in the last 30 years was 1982-83 when it hit 48.1%.
So, really, it’s no longer a question about the size of the state. Britain is relatively settled on that. Labour won that argument. It’s
accepted that there’s a need for quite a big state. One that’s there for us when we need it; be that teaching our kids, looking after us when
we’re ill or helping us out when we fall on hard times. One that’s pretty much 40% of GDP.
Of course, in the past that 40% of GDP in real terms went ever further as the economy was growing much faster than inflation. That most likely won’t be the case next time. With careful stewardship Scotland, the UK, Europe and the global north as a whole will be doing quite well if we can keep GDP constant in real terms.
So what’s the point of the Labour Party next time if there isn’t more cash to go around? Wilson put it well when he said in 1964 that “it is a crusade, or it would be better that it did not exist.” That’s often misquoted as “The Labour Party is a crusade or it is nothing” which slightly misses the point. Nothing is benign. It is absence, void, emptiness. Wilson goes much, much further. If we are not a moral
crusade, then we are actively harmful.
Nobody really likes managerial politics. I reckon that’s really the root of the “all the politicians are the same” perception. A bunch of people all claiming to be a bit more competent then the rest but, with the exception of the Greens, basically leaving the game the same.
The game stinks. The game’s brought the country to the edge of collapse. We had to nationalise the banks, fulfilling part of the 1983 manifesto, a manifesto which lost only partly because of it’s radicalism and mostly because of the Argentinians but has been used ever since as a handy brush with which to tar thing. It’s the political equivalent of “yer maw” and should be taken as a sign not of great political knowledge and gravitas but that the speaker has no legitimate criticism and should wheesht.
Wilson said some other, less often quoted, things in that speech. Things like “We are democratic socialists, our Movement exists because we fight for people, not in the mass but as individuals” and “in everything we do we extend and make more real the freedom of the individual in an increasingly complex society”. Things like “the only war we seek ‒ [is] the war against poverty and hunger, illiteracy and disease” and that Britain must be “unequivocally heard on the side of freedom and equality”.
“It is our task to be worthy of the torch they have handed on to us” he said, having urged the people in the hall to honour the generation of socialists past by working “to create that new and just society”.
That’s our crusade. Right there. A new and just society. One that emphasises individual freedom, both by removing restrictions on our
actions (negative freedoms, for those of you who know your Berlin) and by enabling people to take the opportunities available to them (positive freedoms).
Which is all well and good, but what does that actually mean? Well, I’ve been involved with Open Source since I learned to program as a teenager; everybody had beards and sandals and it was called Free Software. While the key thing is the freedom for programmers to modify the programs they use and for people to share the software it’s also partly a political philosophy. It’s fundamentally about empowerment, about transparency and accessibility of decision making, getting out of the way of people who want to do things while giving them the tools to do them. It’s pretty good, and if this sounds like crazy hippy talk, it’s not: over the last decade or so it’s started to dominate the industry.
So, as I see it, the point of Democratic Socialism isn’t about changing the spending balance as an end in itself, it’s about rebalancing power. Which is fortunate, as we’re going to be.. fiscally constrained… for a while.
That means changing the balance of power in the workplace, ensuring that workers aren’t at the mercy of their employers in terms of working practices, pay negotiations and tenure. For too long we’ve been obsessed with improving “competitiveness” by building it on the backs of workers. Instead we should be genuinely empowering workers, which the evidence shows boosts productivity and productivity is what really matters when it comes to competitiveness. It doesn’t matter if I cost twice as much to employ if I’m three times as productive after all. I’ll also be happier, healthier and more likely to stick around and reduced staff turnover means reduced training costs. If other countries want to devalue and degrade their work force, let them. That’s their business. It’s not how this country should work and it’s certainly not something the Labour party should advocate (clue’s in the name).
It also means changing the balance of power in our communities. Rather than moving powers between Westminster, Brussels, Holyrood and councils, in Scotland that’s really meant centralising power in Edinburgh, we need to push as much as possible as far down as possible, along with the means to achieve that and to hold the decision makers accountable. That doesn’t necessarily mean devo max or full fiscal autonomy, it means an honest, ongoing discussion about the best place to make decisions and clear mechanisms for transferring those powers. In some cases this might mean pushing things up to the EU e.g. instituting a band for corporation
tax so member states can vary it between say 30% and 40% to prevent a race to the bottom, but in general it means pushing as much as far down as possible. It also means working on improving the democratic accountability of the EU.
One last quote from Wilson’s speech. Perhaps somewhat presciently he urges us, when we defeat the Tory-LibDem government at Westminster, to “remember that these are men who thought that at birth they were ordained by Providence to rule over their fellow citizens; and to find themselves rudely deprived of the powers they exercised cannot have been easy for them”. So when the time comes let’s not gloat, let’s look forward to the things we’ll do in the next Labour government. When we defeat the SNP in Edinburgh let’s not gloat there either, some of them are also starting to perceive themselves as ordained by Providence and defeat will be no easier for them, but most importantly we can’t ever again consider ourselves (as we have done, and some still do) as similarly ordained.
Aidan Skinner is a member of the Labour Party trying to stay involved. He’s professionally involved in developing Open Source software and enjoys arguing on the internet. Complaints to @aidanskinner on Twitter.