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.

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16 thoughts on “Crusading, not just spending

  1. You are mad if you can think you can defend the imposition of PFI/PPP on the public purse be it a recourse to revisionism. Public services are paying too a high price for such incompetent politics. PFI/PPP constitutes a political dereliction of care and protection of the public.

    Lets hear no more nonsense on this.

  2. Maybe the Labour party could stop its support for nuclear weapons.That might leave a few quid extra in the kitty for social democratic policies.

  3. Both Mac and Kev have the right idea here. Scottish Labour could accept that the Empire is dead, nuclear weapons are anathema to most Scots and apologise for loading the debts of today onto our children. Then and only then, we might be in a position to offer ourselves to the Scottish people with a straight face. Anything else is kowtowing to the bankers of the City and the ex-Colonels of the Daily Telegraph. And the people of Scotland will tell us, quite rightly, to get on our bikes because we are indistinguishable from the Tories for all practical purposes.

  4. Aiden,while your point regarding ’empowering the workers’ is laudable,it is also incredibly naive. PFI has tied up in knots ,the rights of the workers and whether you like it or not who ‘facilitated it’ ?
    Yes the union reps really thought they had been invited to the party,when they agreed and THEN informed the workers that their contracts would be changed.
    Who were the majority of the workers-mature,part-time women-fact.
    While we are surrounded by technology, the mobiles were going straight to answer phone that day and however petty it may seem to the ‘big picture’people,workers lost lay weeks, agreed terms oh and their contracts and most of all Aiden they lost their trust in Labour

    1. PFI was a terrible means of financing projects, and the way it lead to arbitrary changes in terms and conditions was shocking, no argument there.

  5. I see your mentioning Isiah Berlin – I wouldn’t if I were you, it’s one of Blair’s biggest embarrassments. The idea behind positive and negative freedoms. What a disaster that proved to be: This is from an old post of mine from another website. Follow the link to the Adam Curtis films to watch, they’re very interesting.

    Something fundamental changed in ’97 when Labour came to power. They had already decided that govt. could not deliver the aspirations and dreams society has and so they decided that the financial markets could do it. The final vestiges of government power over the markets were handed to the Bank of England when Gordon Brown gave them control over the interest rates.
    De-regulation of the markets would offer untold wealth to many and prosperity to a wider society. It was a continuation of previous tory policies. Politicians no longer controlled public life – instead they had become managers of it. They had a simplified vision of society, based on the ideas of Isiah Berlin, of whom Blair was a great disciple.

    In doing this Blair decided that the each person, as an individual had the opportunity of ‘self fulfilment ‘ – and that this could be delivered by the use of computer systems. So huge computer systems were set up through many of our great institutions, the Police, the NHS and Education. People were encouraged as individuals to think and propose new ideas that could improve these services. Each individual was to become it’s own little ‘machine’ – both autocratic and democratic in it’s own right.

    It was a bizarre vision, but it seemed to be working over in the USA. On Clinton’s first election he had been told that the country did not have the money needed to carry out his reforms, and he had to tell the people that they were facing more cuts instead. It was suggested to him that he should deregulate the markets completely and that they alone would deliver the wealth required for the president to carry out his reforms. Of course on doing so the market responded and share prices started to increase dramatically. Those in power finally believed they had solved ‘boom and bust’ because of one thing – the computer.

    Through technology it was believed that computers could deliver the complex calculations and financial tools to keep the market from slipping back. It was hailed as world changing and eventually lead to the famous phrase from Gordon Brown, ‘boom and bust is dead’

    And so this became the fundamental idea that was used by Labour – and it seemed to work at first but soon went drastically wrong. In our great services, Police,NHS and Education – new computer systems were used to implement ‘league tables’ of performance. Designed to improve services, they actually ended up creating a system of fear and reprisal. If you didn’t hit your targets you were sacked. Downing St. press conferences became renowned for their used of charts and diagrams and were often referred to as ‘boring’ by members of the press.

    These systems proved disastrous . In education school league tables only encouraged a housing bubble because property in catchment areas of good schools increased dramatically. A system designed to help the poor actually worked against them by accentuating the poorer areas and schools. And education itself changed. No longer did we have the broad based system but instead kids were taught only the things that required them to pass exams.
    In the Police and NHS, not hitting targets caused new managements to take drastic action. Some hospitals began to fiddle their figures, whilst other looked to other methods. Hospital re-designated trolleys in corridors as ‘beds in wards’ and employed staff just to greet patients as they arrived so that they could say the patient had been seen within five minutes of arrival. One hospital, in an attempt to cut the backlog of operations, even went as far as finding out when patients would be taking their holidays and then book their appointment during that time when it would most likely be cancelled.

    There are hosts of examples of how this new policy from Labour completely failed the people it was supposed to liberate. Of course, liberating the markets was a huge mistake, a financial bubble began to grow virtually from the get go and was ignored by all. Notably Alan Greenspan noticed it as early as 1996 but was basically hushed up at the time by those around him. It was only ever going to crash. The belief that the computer could save them was just a fantasy.

    And this is what we are left with, a Labour strategy in complete ruins after 15 years of it’s inception and the party does not know what it has to do. through these policies we now have a Labour party that would charge for university education/medicine and just about everything else that it once held as vital to provide for the population for free.

    They are not the Labour party I knew as a younger man, they are the tories.

    Many of the ideas here come from the work of Prof. Adam Curtis. he has made various films for the BBC and if you aren’t familiar with his work, I would thoroughly recommend viewing these films. You can do so here;

    Look for the series called ‘The Trap’

    1. I’m not sure how this relates to Berlin? In any case he just uses positive / negative as a classification system to describe different types of freedom, he explicitly states that it’s impossible to make a value judgement about which is better – just that positive liberty is a more easily distorted concept.

  6. It wasn’t perfect, but a good job well done.

    Aye, right.

    We pay five to six times the buildings worth and still don’t own it at the end while all risk is removed for the contractor.

    1. Maybe if we hadn’t done so many PFI projects Labour might actually be able to spend on the provision of public services and investments in the coming years!

      Instead we’ve been given a bloomin long bill and all Labour parties should be very very frankful that Labour’s wastes here were kicked out in 2007. Otherwise it would have burst like a big bubble and they’d have had a mighty shock in realising:
      a) The annual cost meant they would find it difficult to provide the services they are paying that annual cost FOR.
      b) They were no longer able to afford the new investments to replace the next lot of infrastructure needing renewed.

      Basically they’d have been much worse in the situation Aidan explains above.

      So anyway – the SNP is offering what the above argument calls for.
      They are the ultimate managerial politics. Meeting Scotlands call for pragmatic left wing policies, making them affordable (long term as well – their nationalism has the nice side effect of them actually caring about Scotland’s long term future – as oppose to the odd fact that Labour’s ‘socialism’ has no real long term thinking (which should in fact be core).

      Anyway Aidan I think your wrong. The truth is there are more ways to help those less well off and that goes beyond ‘managing things’ – its about imagination. The SNP is focused on running things – its been doing okay – but it needs an outside force pushing for change and new ideas.

      You mention nationalising banks. Why not create a national bank? Not a ‘nationalisation’ but a new entity – looking at investing directly in Scotland and benefiting the Scottish population. We all know the current private model isn’t just inefficient in terms of costs but also in terms of the benefit to society.

      We need something ‘new’ – just spending on old institutions is ‘managerial’ its also ignoring the fact they have so far not helped change the huge poverty problem in Scotland. Or any of the long term problems that remain unchanged (despite governments of all shades).

      1. Doesnt matter whether you mention it or not. Its always thrown in our faces.

        Out of interest, what do our resident nationalists make of the SNP’s “Scottish Futures Trust”, which proposes public bodies pay an annual fee to a third party company who then borrow the money to design, build and maintain a building for a period of 25-30 years, including the transfer of existing staff where applicable. The fee paid to the 3rd party covering their borrowing costs and profit.

        Will we, in years to come be deriding the initials SFT as much as PFI are now?

  7. If Labour’s vision is simply a slightly nicer version of the capitalist system, then it really would better if they did not exist. Socialism, which is a word you seldom hear from the party these days (this website included) means a fundamental re-structuring of the way we organise society. Tinkering with how much we skim from the capitalists in tax is a poor relation to the labour movement when it was born with righteous fire.

  8. Aidan, Are you perhaps the last socialist standing in the Labour party, I thought we had all been culled as part of the new labour project.

    I and a lot of other people in Scotland who had always voted Labour knew the party had abandoned us, our hopes, dreams and aspirations in search of votes from middle England.

    Labour has lost our trust & I don’t see any way to get it back while tied to the London party and always having to put their needs first.

  9. perhaps unwise to quote Wilson too much. Remeber that under Wilson and Callaghan – and under Blair and Brown as well – the very poorest people in Britain became a little bit poorer. Not much poorer admittedly, but when you are really, really skint, even the smallest deterioration in your income is a sever problem. The reason so many of the poorest people in our society don’t vote is that they don’t see a lot of difference between the parties, and frankly, they are not wrong. Do we really think it is OK that a GP gets 20 times as much money as a single parent? Do we really think it is OK that a single parent on benefit is effectively denied child benefit, but rich people get it automatically? I wrote to Ed Miliband to ask about this and did n’t even get a reply. Come to think of it, Ed’s family will be entitled to child benefit and his income (like all MPs) is enormous.

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