Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Keir Starmer’s ‘Contribution Society’: a step backwards from Social Democracy.

with 14 comments


Family, Hard Work, Communities, and Patriotic Pride.

Since the years when Tony Blair’s Third Way flourished demands for equality of opportunity have dominated centre-left politics. Stronger demands for equality, the hallmark of many different kinds of socialism, were shelved.

The 1950s ‘revisionist’ current inside the Labour Party, which remained influential until the 1980s, had believed that a society of abundance had arrived, that issues of public ownership were echoes of the past, still held to the principle. Anthony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism, (1956) He believed that a broad sweep of progressive legislation could be achieved because, “the absolute rule of private property, the subjection of all life to market influences” and other features of classical capitalism had been reformed by post-war governments. They had created a consensus around the mixed economy and the welfare state. With this backdrop, socialism was not a matter of doctrine about ownership of industry or class struggle, but concern for the “bottom dog” and a vision of a “just, co-operative, classless society.”

How, here and now, could the cause of the downtrodden be promoted? For the academic and Labour politician the case for equality rested on the objectives of a “better society”, ethical goals of social justice, and ending the tragedies of wasted lives. To further these goals, Egalitarian changes were needed in education, the “distribution of property, the distribution of resources, in periods of need, social manners and style of life, and the location of power within industry. and. but certainly a smaller changes in respect of incomes from work.” (Page 148). In Britain, equality of opportunity and social mobility […] are not enough. They need to be combined with measures […] to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustices of large inequalities and the collective discontents.” (Page 169) The “revisionists” considered that reforms to achieve these aims could be achieved in a society in which ownership is “mixed up”, nationalised, private, co-operative, mutual, in a pluralist society promoting “liberty and gaiety”.

Crosland believed a whole-scale conservative “counter-revolution ” to restore full-bloodied capitalism unlikely.

That happened. Thatcherism came to set down a new consensus, based on free-market mechanisms privatising nationalised industries, and making the state serve the market.

Labour in the 1990s adapted and accepted much of the outline of what would come to be known as neo-liberalism (1)

The emergence of the Third Way: Giddens and Blair (David Morrison New Labour, citizenship and the discourse of the Third Way).

(Giddens) argues that ‘[a] democratic society that generates large-scale inequality is likely to produce widespread disaffection and conflict’.12Giddens argues that promoting equality means more than merely promoting equality of opportunity13 and that equality should be seen as inclusiveness.14 He explains: ‘Inclusion in its broadest sense refers to citizenship, to the civil and political rights and obligations that all members of a society should have not just formally but as a reality of their lives.’15 It is notable that Giddens does not mention the social rights that were once seen as integral to post-war social democracy. In contrast, Blair’s account of the Third Way barely mentions equality. Instead it offers ‘opportunity’, with but a single reference to ‘equal worth’.16 Gordon Brown, who argued that in the context of the 1990s equality meant equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome, made clear the meaning of equality for New Labour.17

How does this relate to Labour today?

The Road Ahead begins uncontroversially enough,

“The next Labour government will be focused on creating jobs people are proud of, reimagining our public services for those who use them, creating a new and better relationship with business and delivering world-class health and education. And we will build his on solid foundations, with security at home, in the workplace, on the streets and from those who would do us harm.”

But lets go straight to the many problems about the pamphlet:

Kier Starmer’s ‘Contribution Society’ does not make many, if any, steps forward from that period, Its emphasis is “on “hard-working families”, the need to be “rewarded fairly” if you “work hard and play by the rules”, government being a “partner to private enterprise”, a rejection of “waste” in public spending, and the importance of being “proudly patriotic” but not engaging in “the divisiveness of nationalism”.

The Guardian cites Starmer,

Highlighting the challenges facing children from low-income backgrounds, he says Labour would help provide the “soft skills” that allow private school pupils to emerge with “enviable self-confidence, self-worth and belief,”

That would mean ensuring that by the age of ten they have the opportunity to “play an instrument, join a competitive sports team, visit the seaside, the countryside, or the city, go to cultural institutions, ride a bike and learn how to debate their ideas.”

“From my days at university, through my legal career and as a politician, I’ve seen supremely talented, hard-working people from ordinary backgrounds held back, not just by material circumstances but by self-doubt or a sense they don’t quite ‘belong,’” he says.

In other words, this is a programme for equality of opportunity starting from the school. It is also dosed through and through with a kind of family-centred, patriotic Blue Labour lite. That is, the need to be “once again be Britain’s bricks and mortar – a symbol of solidity, reliability, shelter and the prospect of building something new and better”.

Ideological dressing up can be quickly tossed aside, less masonry than puffery. Nevertheless, this is praise beyond the needs of product placement. Starmer will get the “resources of the state and the innovative brilliance of the private sector to work together rather than against each other”. Dusting off the memories of the Blair years it implies continuing the Conservative pioneered, “partnership” with the private sector” which seems like an excuse not to rid the public sector of private parasitical companies ‘delivering services’ from ‘training’ on the dole, ‘outsourcing’, to provision that should be in-house in the NHS. Not to mention the removal from democratic control of public goods like transport, trains and buses, and the hiving out of local government work.

And yet….The real problem is the premises, the kind of fairness and equality, such as it is, advocated. That is “fair pay for fair work”.

Starmer offers no step forward on a central issue of socialism, equality.

This can be seen not only by comparing his words with Crossland’s call for a push for egalitarian reform, progressive taxation onwards. You can also see it by looking at critics of meritocracy.

Interviewed about his book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) the ‘Communitarian’ US political philosopher Michael Sanders, observes,

“The solution to problems of globalisation and inequality – and we heard this on both sides of the Atlantic – was that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. This is what I call in the book the ‘rhetoric of rising’. It became an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.”

The article, Michael Sandel: ‘The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit’ (Guardian. 2020) continues,

Sandel has two fundamental objections to this approach. First, and most obvious, the fabled “level playing field” remains a chimera. Although he says more and more of his own Harvard students are now convinced that their success is a result of their own effort, two-thirds of them come from the top fifth of the income scale. It is a pattern replicated across the Ivy League universities. The relationship between social class and SAT scores – which grade high school students ahead of college – is well attested. More generally, he notes, social mobility has been stalled for decades. “Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults.”

But the main point of The Tyranny of Merit is a different one: Sandel is determined to aim a broadside squarely at a left-liberal consensus that has reigned for 30 years. Even a perfect meritocracy, he says, would be a bad thing. “The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,” he says. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.” Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own. “On globalisation,” says Sandel, “these parties said the choice was no longer between left and right, but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Open meant free flow of capital, goods and people across borders.” Not only was this state of affairs seen as irreversible, it was also presented as laudable. “To object in any way to that was to be closed-minded, prejudiced and hostile to cosmopolitan identities.”

There have been books that have made this point from a more explicitly left wing standpoint. Pierre Rosenvallon’s  La société des égaux (2011). The influential French writer (like many I have read many many of his books and followed his public lectures on-line) traced out the British debate about revisionism, Crosland, equality and ‘meritocracy’. He underlined, as Starmer does not, he massive increase in inequality over the last decades. Rosanvallon offered acid criticisms of equality of opportunity (‘égalité des chances’) and proposed his own substantive egalitarianism as part of broader social relations, “relation sociale”. These themes, taking account of the complexity of equality and inequality, have been developed in his more recent books and articles.

Une brève histoire de l’égalité, Thomas Piketty (2021) has just been published.  The author of the internationally debated Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and Capital and Ideology (2020) advocates restoring levels of progressive taxation on high incomes – as was the case between 1930 and 1970 -, a capital endowment paid to everyone at the age of 25 equal to “60% of the average wealth per adult (ie 120,000 euros) ”in the case of France, a carbon tax proportional to income, the “de-commodification” of sectors of common interest (education, health, culture, transport, energy) entrusted to “public, municipal, associative or non-profit structures” .

That is the kind of social democratic reformism, or ““democratic, Green socialism.” you could warm to. A lot more than putting ” contribution and community at the centre of our efforts” and the prospect of a “nation remade”.

Or indeed this,

“Self-managing socialism aims at reducing the role of the state to its coordinating functions whereby various self-managing initiatives can be brought together, just as they might be at local, regional, national and international level. What is important is that any state-level ‘coordination’ must, by very definition, come and be controlled from the ‘bottom up’.”

“..the emergence of new social movements mens that we mus rethink ‘socialism’ in such as way that their emancipatory demands blend into an alliance with the demands of the fighting sections of the working class.”

Keir Starmer. ‘Wapping: End of the Street?’, Socialist Alternatives, vol. 2 no. 1, April/May 1987


(1) A convenient list:

Areas of political consensus after Thatcher

  • Britain was now in a globalised market and needed to improve the education and skills of the workforce and remove many labour regulations to help firms compete against those in other countries.
  • Wealth creation by business and particularly entrepreneurs was to be encouraged and would provide the resources to pay for public services. This would also raise incomes overall so that there was no need to redistribute wealth by taxation of the rich.
  • The trade union reforms of the 1980s would remain in place. Blair distanced himself from the trade unions that were affiliated to the Labour Party and did not involve them in developing policy.
  • There would be no reversal of the privatisations carried out by the Conservative Government.  The provision of public services could be contracted out to the private sector if they were cheaper and more efficient. Private finance could be used to build major public projects such as hospitals by means of the Private Finance Initiative.
  • Consumer choice was important in all areas.   People should be able to choose between schools and where to have a hospital operation.  Public service reform would be carried out through league tables and performance measures so that local authorities and hospital trusts worked efficiently.
  • People should be encouraged into work and off benefits by programmes to help them do this but with sanctions, if they did not participate.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 23, 2021 at 12:24 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Rule No.4 doesn’t account for people who through no fault of their own have physical or mental conditions that impede their ability to contribute.


    September 23, 2021 at 1:07 pm

  2. Marx, in The Critique of The Gotha Programme, sets out that “equality of outcome”, or as he puts it “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” is only something that could arise in the higher form of communism, which would take a very long time, if ever to develop out of the lower stage of communism developing out of capitalism.

    To demand equality of outcome under capitalism is, therefore, utopianism. As Marx puts it in the COGP, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

    The problem with Starmer’s right-wing agenda is that it accepts capitalism as eternal, and only seeks mollification of it, not that the mollification is not radical enough.


    September 23, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    • Because Marx, who offered only a sketch of what communism might be, said it proves nothing about the viability for more egalitarian forms of social democracy. Piketty argues this,

      “A combination of war and progressive taxation led to dramatic falls in inequality over the first half of the 20th century, setting the stage for the social democratic regimes of the second half.

      Evidence on these postwar regimes confirms that very high marginal tax rates are both reasonable and effective. But they had a lurking weakness, which Piketty views as fatal: they accommodated highly unequal access to education. Not only is educational equality the biggest factor in economic development (more so than property rights, he argues), the sharp division between graduates and non-graduates produced political schisms that, by the 1990s, had left the working class electorally homeless.”

      Not sure about the last point though…

      Andrew Coates

      September 23, 2021 at 2:49 pm

      • The idea that the fall in inequality was due to increases in taxation is nonsense. Income inequalities fell, for a time, just as they have during other similar periods in history, for one simple reason, the expansion of capital took the form of an expansion in the demand for labour-power, which reaching its limits given the level of productivity, caused wages to rise, and profits to be squeezed. As in every previous occasion of such events, when profits became squeezed to such an extent that they began to turn into losses (a crisis of overproduction of Capital as Marx describes it in Cap. III, Chapter 15), capital responded as it again always has. It revolutionised production, replacing huge amounts of labour with technology. Unemployment rose, wages fell sharply, profits rose. The technology also reduced the value of wage goods, which meant that even with constant money wages, living standards would rise, but, thereby, also meant that with falling money wages, and so rising money profits, living standards could still rise – for those in employment – provided money wages fell by less than the rise in productivity. In fact, nominal wages rose, because central banks printed excess money tokens so that the currency was devalued and both wages and prices rose against the devalued currencies.

        The social wage rose at the same time, because capital also needed a better, technologically educated workforce, and that also requires it to be healthier, and for each worker to provide their labour-power consistently for longer, hence socialised education and healthcare. It also meant it was directly under the control of capital, and not workers as the consumers of those commodities. So, inequality fell in the post-war period for those reasons, not because of increased taxation and so on, which is merely a phenomenal form of these underlying material conditions and relations. In the 1970’s/80/90’s, the proof of that is given. In the 70’s, the crises of overproduction of capital materialise. Social-democratic governments begin cutting the social wage, as those of us involved in Cuts Campaigns against the Callaghan government remember. They begin trying to hem in the labour movement, for example, Wilson/Castle’s “In Place of Strife”, Callaghan’s Social Contract. Capital introduces new technologies, such as those in the print industry, labour is replaced and economically weakened. Syndicalist “more militancy” fails as a strategy, and the idealist/subjectivist politics of reformism and social-democracy also hits he buffers, as with Mitterand in France, as well as Labour in Britain, the Democrats in the US, SPD in Germany etc. Much the same happened with Blum in the 1930’s.

        By the 1980’s, the weakened economic and social position of labour, as its replaced by technology manifests in the defeat of the UK Miners, US Air Traffic Controllers etc, despite ever more bitter, and militant struggles, illustrating Marx and Engels point marvellously. With no adequate answers for the changed material conditions, social-democracy and even more the Left that had attached itself to its coat-tails, but merely as a more ardent statist wing placing its faith in the capitalist state to solve the workers problems by nationalising the top 200 monopolies, and then handing them to the workers gratis, had disgraced itself, and deservedly was shunned by the workers. They looked to their own immediate interests, and the easy immediate solutions provided by others, which were inevitably reactionary. The reduced inequality of the previous period was quickly reversed, and inequality grew rapidly, most grotesquely in the form of asset and wealth inequality, as asset prices were inflated by the actions of central banks and the promotion of debt and financial and property speculation.

        It proved again, Marx’s point that it is material conditions that dominate and determine, not the subjectivism of idealists, and their schemas for taxation and redistribution, much as Lenin also pointed out against the Narodniks in the 1890s. when they advocated all of those same ideas. That materialism is the basis of Marx’s dictum that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

        Or as he also put it setting out why the bourgeois concepts of taxation and redistribution is a fraud,

        “Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”


        September 24, 2021 at 11:02 am

        • This is a fantastic explanation. Would you consider helping me answer the question of how far socialists agree on human nature, with regard to Marx and revolutionary socialism, social democracy, and the Third Way. I’d also like to involve elements of Starmer’s essay in this answer.

          L Rayment

          September 25, 2021 at 1:02 pm

  3. I see that the latest New Statesman has given Prof Jonathan Rutherford three pages in which to attempt to revive ‘Blue Labour’ with a lot of pretentious waffle that could be boiled down to his definition of its central aim: “Blue Labour was an attempt to recover Labour’s politics of paradox … After the upheavals of liberal globalisation and historically unprecedented levels of immigration it argued for the restoration of the conservative disposition to counter liberal domination …”

    Jim Denham

    September 23, 2021 at 4:28 pm

  4. We need unprecedented levels of immigration again, both as moral and practical imperative. Clearly many (although not all ) immigrant communities vote left and this is obviously a benefit to us. Secondly immigration benefits economic growth and higher birth rates ensures the next generation of workers. Unlike America (where White people will soon be in an overall minority) the White population of the UK is at something like 87%. It will take many decades before they are a minority. Labour cannot run on a near Open Borders policy while in opposition however it can do what Blair did and not mention or downplay the issue of immigration while in opposition but once in power basically open the borders. The White population will basically howl and moan but the Left can use its enormous Cultural power, control of social media (allied with so called Woke Capitalism and liberal sections of the deep state) to push back. This is how the Left is winning in America. The Left really need to focus in UK demographics to win.


    September 23, 2021 at 5:03 pm

    • @ IainF

      Theresa May basically opened the borders when she was Home Secretary, eventually admitting that she didn’t know how many had been let in because they’d lost count, could have been a million, could have been two, something that the Red Wall Class Traitors seem to have forgotten in their urge to “get Brexit done” .


      September 23, 2021 at 5:34 pm

  5. You seem to be confusing Anthony Crosland (one “s”) with Richard Crossman (two “s”s). That’s a pity, as they were two very different people. Starmer doesn’t mention either of them, or anyone else in Wilson’s governments. I wonder why.

    Copy Editor

    September 23, 2021 at 5:48 pm

    • Indeed.

      When writing this I was trying to locate one of *Anthony* Crossman’s statements, pretty patronising in retrospect, about the idealistic Labour activist membership being a kind of necessary steam engine to keep the party going but which needed to be kept in its place. This seems to me to sum up what Starmer’s restricted Labour democracy, with J.S. Mill style plural voting for our betters, aims to do.

      I know the source but not the exact words.

      Andrew Coates

      September 23, 2021 at 6:58 pm

  6. ‘Security’ and ‘opportunity’ – but for who?
    Caroline Molloy.
    Some of Starmer’s instincts in The Road Ahead are right: people will vote for a party that offers them “security” and “opportunity”. Our food, housing, energy needs, health and working lives are as insecure as they’ve been in decades.

    Unfortunately the Labour leader seems more intent on soothing the insecurities (and maximising the opportunities) of corporate investors than voters. When it comes to concrete policy ideas, his pamphlet is just a wordy relaunch of Blair and Brown’s business-courting “prawn cocktail offensive”, with a dollop of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” and David Cameron’s “big society” thrown in for good measure.

    A majority of voters want to see the basics of our daily lives – energy, water, health and care, mass transport – put back into public hands. Running for Labour leadership, Starmer promised to deliver just that. After all, it’s hard to feel secure when our essential needs are delivered by firms who cut corners as they extract profits, leaving us with unreliable and costly public services, and businesses that cut and run if they don’t get taxpayer bailouts when the going gets tough.

    This kind of behaviour is hardly the “contribution” and “hard work” that Starmer tells us should be rewarded. Yet on almost every page he finds a way of telling us that the role of government is to be a “partner to private enterprise, not to stifle it”. Indeed, Starmer is so busy cheerleading for the private sector’s “innovative” approach that he forgets to mention the £37bn we’ve just spent on a privatised test-and-trace system that delivered next to nothing. I don’t know about you, but I’m suddenly feeling a lot more insecure.

    Caroline Molloy is editor of openDemocracy UK

    Andrew Coates

    September 23, 2021 at 6:46 pm

  7. Time was when working-class politics was at least partly about finding ways people could work less hard. But this is Starmer, whose sole merit seems to be that he’s not quite as clueless as the rest of his party’s front bench…


    September 24, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    • A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed. I, who do not profess to be a Christian, an economist or a moralist, I appeal from their judgement to that of their God; from the preachings of their religious, economics or free thought ethics, to the frightful consequences of work in capitalist society.

      In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity. Compare the thorough-bred in Rothschild’s stables, served by a retinue of bipeds, with the heavy brute of the Norman farms which plows the earth, carts the manure, hauls the crops. Look at the noble savage whom the missionaries of trade and the traders of religion have not yet corrupted with Christianity, syphilis and the dogma of work, and then look at our miserable slaves of machines.

      Paul Lafargue
      The Right To Be Lazy

      Paul Lafargue 915 January 1842 – 25 November 1911) was a French revolutionary Marxist socialist, political writer, critic of political economy, journalist, literary critic, and activist; he was Karl Marx’s son-in-law having married his second daughter, Laura.


      Andrew Coates

      September 24, 2021 at 3:34 pm

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