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

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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

Norway: Left Election Win and the Much Exaggerated Death of Social Democracy.

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Latest Norway Election Results

Norway’s left-wing opposition wins election in a landslide

Labour expected to form coalition with other left-leaning parties as it seeks to reduce inequality and wean the economy off oil.

Norway election results in brief

  • Jonas Gahr Støre’s Labour Party are the biggest single party. He is set to be Norway’s next prime minister, leading a coalition of Labour, Socialist Left and the Centre party.
  • Erna Solberg’s 8-year tenure as prime minister is over. She has congratulated Støre on his victory.
  • The battle for the 4% threshold to win levelling seats was a fascinating one. Far-left party Rødt made it over for the first time, winning an expected 8 seats.
  • Venstre were the only former government party to retain support, staying above the threshold to retain 8 seats.
  • Despite a very visible campaign in the closing weeks, the Green Party failed to make it over the threshold, picking up just an expected 3 seats.

Is this a result with wider implications? The German left, notably the Sozialdemokratische Partei DeutschlandsSPD, looks as if it may perform well in their national elections on the 26th of September.

This comes against a much less encouraging backdrop for European centre left and left wing political parties. They are often said to be facing long-term decline, if not existential crises.

This has a history going back some decades. In the final chapter of The Retreat of Social Democracy (2000) John Callaghan outlined what he described as “epoch making changes” that had weakened left parties across Europe. First of all was the decline of the manual working class in the ‘post-Fordist” economies no longer based on mass production and revolutionised by the robotic and information based transformation of production. The possible end of the “class mechanism” behind voting patterns, “class solidarity” indicated by drops on party membership (not only on the left), and the decline of trade union membership was, it had been argued, long-term mechanisms undermining any form of left of centre politics.

This for example, more recent observations What happened to Europe’s left? Jan Rovny (2018)

Having lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, the home of the Volvo, I eagerly visited the Volvo factory, looking forward to meeting the contemporary proletariat. What did I see? Halls and halls of conveyor belts shuffling skeletons that would become fancy SUVs in about an hour, while silver robotic arms added various parts to them. And the working class? I saw precious few of them. They were mostly young women, sitting on comfortable chairs surrounded by computer screens and keyboards, listening to their iPods… I later learned that these workers earn as much as Swedish university professors (that means – a lot).

To continue,

The traditional working class as we imagine it from the times of Henry Ford does not exist anymore. Most of the workers at Volvo with their above-average pay, comfort and job security can hardly be considered as such. Today’s working class is much less visible, and much more atomised. Today’s working class are the masses of unskilled service workers who predominantly cook, clean or drive. Often, their jobs are short-term or part-time, and low-paying. These people do not come into contact with each other nearly as much as the traditional factory-floor workers did. They are more often than not from diverse minority backgrounds, and thus are separated by cultural boundaries. In short, these people have significantly reduced ability to organise, and they do not. As my research with Allison Rovny shows, their political belonging is weak, and – in the absence of a formative subculture – it is malleable.

Callaghan nevertheless concluded his study by observing that Labour and other parties from the reformist tradition had adapted to the environment consolidated by globalisation and neo-liberalism pursuing “market orientated strategies” that expanded their appeal to non-socialist voters. In Scandinavia and Germany the “case for managing capitalism in a social democratic way” remained strong and had popular appeal.

The British socialist left, after years of fighting Tony Blair and the Third Way between capitalism and (what?), trying to make the Labour Party more left-wing, tended at the time when Callaghan wrote, to focus on the possibility of creating socialist vehicles. Was Labour potentially one? Written in the spirit of Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1961) The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (2001) argued that “the route to socialism does not lie in transforming New Labour”.

There have been attempts to find a path to socialist politics outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Alliance (1999 2003) which included a few people from the Labour left (coughs), grouped for a few years, until being dissolved into Respect, small parties such as the SWP, the Socialist Party and other groups. Unlike Respect the SA had no electoral success. It also proved impossible for many democratic socialists to work at close quarters with ‘revolutionary’ organisations. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) had more success, winning 6 seats in Holyrood in 2003. Internal disputes around Tommy Sheridan broke the SSP apart. Its supporters are now backers of the More Borders campaign for Scottish Independence.

The dream of creating a new socialist party in Britain has been revived by some individuals, ‘in exile’ or still on the margins of the Labour Party. But the nightmares of the SA, the SSP, and, obviously George Galloway’s Respect – not to mention his present red-brown vehicle, the Workers Party of Britain – weigh heavily on the living.

What does remain is the belief in the long-term decline of social democracy. Study and debate has focused on the cultural effects of the halting of the forward march of labour. The development of a new form of working class Toryism, and its counterparts across Europe, in ‘left behind’ and formerly industrial regions, is one issue. Another is the appeal of national populism to a cross class constituency, bringing together self-identifying ‘real’ working class and wealthy right-wingers. The rise of far-right identity politics, the ‘anti-woke’ and anti-immigration, has parallels across our continent. Sovereigntist ideas (the basis for the pro-Brexit left), nationalism, political confusionnisme, and other issues come into the mixture of ideas that have, it is said, weakened the appeal of classical social democracy and democratic socialism.

Over the last couple of years – that is since Jeremy Corbyn left the leadership of the Labour Party – the threat of “Pasokification“, named after the the Greek centre-left party that lost three-quarters of its voters in just three years.- has been brandished. “Recent decades have seen the decline of social democratic parties across Europe, with some becoming so atrophied as to lose any hope of winning office. “With more resonance than the collapse of the French Socialist Party vote in the Presidential elections in 2017 (a result partly diffused by the deft switch to Emmanuel Macron of some Socialist figures) this theme became ubiquities in the pages of the US left populist journal Jacobin, and such organs as Novara Media.

How will the supporters of this theory explain Norway away? Bets are being laid on Scandinavian exceptionalism.

This poor chap has his own pet theory:

Full election statistics.

2021 Norwegian parliamentary election.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 14, 2021 at 9:29 am

France, “A Social Democratic Compromise of a Third Kind” ? Henri Weber.

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Henri Weber (far-left) in Happier Days.

Henri Weber is a former member of the Trotskyist Fourth International.

He played an important role in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in May 1968 and the decade that followed. This included a stint at the “special operations” section of the LCR (Commission Très Spéciale, CTS) and editorship of their weekly Rouge.

An intellectual, whose writings were known in the UK through New Left Review and International Marxist Group publications, he was a sympathetic critic of Eurocommunism and a defender of radical democratic socialism.

After leaving the Ligue he became an academic, conducting further research into Eurocommunism, and German Social Democracy. His book  Le Parti des Patrons : le CNPF (1946-1986),  1991 is a sociological and political account, some might say a rather plodding one, of the French bosses’ organisation (their CBI).

Weber has been a member of the French Parti Socialiste since the mid-1980s,  was a  Senator (1995 – 2004) and is now a European Deputy, MEP, (first elected 2004).

He has moved considerably to the right, even within the moderate terms of European social democracy.

The former revolutionary Marxist is best known these days for defending the idea that  one can broadly (extremely broadly) outline three modern types of “compromise” that define post-War social democracy (Nouveau compromis social -démocrate.18.3.2014)

The first was the ‘post-war’ compromise between the labour movement, the left, and the states and societies of the West . Full employment, growth, expanding social and workers’ rights and the welfare state marked this period.

The second, that followed the late 1970s crisis of the Welfare state and Keynesianism, was defensive. It accepted that redundancies and wage restraint had to take place, but offered increased social spending and more social rights.

A third type of social compromise took shape at the turn of the century: the compromises to adapt to globalisation, and more broadly , the changes in capitalism. That is, the digital revolution, the emergence of new industrialising  countries, the internationalization of production have required  a restructuring of of Western economies. These are axed towards  high-tech industries and services with high added value.

The new social democratic compromise is based on mobilising the social partners for to specialise and adapt to this role. Unions and socialist parties agree on the deregulation of the labour market (flexi-security), the stagnation of real wages, a reduction in  the level of social protection. They demand in return the defence of employment and preservation of national economic power.

In Germany, for example, the SPD and the unions accepted the Hartz accord: unemployment compensation is reduced from 32 to 12 months (24 for over 50 years); the age of retirement is pushed back to 67 years (in 2029 …) the unemployed are forced to take a job……..public health care provision is being reduced……

The German Hartz agreements loosened strong social protection and created so-called “mini-jobs” (at extremely low pay), subjected welfare claimants to stringent “contracts”, lowered benefits, and undermined many of the fundamental aspects of the welfare state.

Weber’s assertion (echoed on the European Right and Business) that their focus on industrial competitivity and growth, are the basis for the country’s economic success, is by no means universally accepted. It is pretty obvious that it’s unlikely that many on the French, or the German non “social democratic” left (except for the Die Grünen, who are often to the right of social democracy) would agree.

But the fact remains that in Germany there has been an economic upturn, unemployment has gone down, and if there is a very heavy downside to these reforms, they are now backed by the population, and represent for the present the basis of Angela Merkel’s popularity.

One can see what the French Socialists would look with envy at the German Chancellor’s ratings in the opinion polls (even if a hard-right anti-European Party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), did well with 9.9.% in a regional election in Saxony,  this Sunday –  Taz).

The assertion that a progressive slant to this new compromise, depends on growth, and the weight of employees (that is, workers), within a European structure remains to be tested. At present the Socialists have simply gone for what they believe is a strategy for growth.

Last weekend Weber addressed the Parti Socialiste’s Summer School at La Rochelle.

These are some extracts from what he said, 7 moyens de refonder la social-démocratie.

Weber outlines the reasons for the change towards a new compromise.

The principal backdrop is that the globalisation of the economy is changing the balance of power in favor of the owners of private economic power – entrepreneurs and financial operators – at the expense of employees and governments. Markets, companies, production have become global; States, parties, trade unions remain, essentially national actors. The result is a growing disjunction between the political and the economic spheres

The ‘third industrial revolution’, the rise of digital and biotechnologies, the fragmentation of  social classes based on production and the working environment, the rise of individualism, social insecurity, and mass migration, have eroded the basis of traditional socialism and communism. Global warming and other ecological challenges pose further questions to the left.

Weber offers seven principal axes for a renewed social democracy which I present in a slightly adapted form.

1 European social democracy must reconnect with its original internationalism.

2. Social democracy must break with the focus on producing more and more and discover an eco-socialist alternative .

3. European social democracy must find ways of using people and companies’  savings to finance future industries and services with high added value.

4 European social democracy must assert, more than it has done so far, a’ project of civilisation’ (a vision of society).

5 European social democracy must be resolutely feminist .

6 European social democracy has to invent a renewed twenty-first century form and structure of democracy

7 Social democracy should promote an ‘alternative’ globalisation (that is, not be simply ‘anti’ globalisation, but find a different way of globalising). 

The substance of Weber’s contribution seems to be this:

European social democracy should become a continent wide political actor through the mechanisms of the European Socialist Party and the European Confederation of Trade Unions. It should endorse environmentally friendly policies. It should promote investment. It should advance a communitarian project that would promote social values, including feminist ones. It should back democratic reforms. And, finally, it should attempt what regulation of globalisation it can.

A pretty stodgy set of idées reçues  that would appeal to those in the UK, from Will Hutton to Jon Cruddas, who have not the slightest intention of mounting any radical challenge to austerity – and that’s just to start with.

Meanwhile…..in the real political world…..

Prime Minister Valls was received coldly by many delegates at the same La Rochelle Summer School.

Communist and Green speakers, critical of the government’s turn rightward, were well received at fringe meetings (Libération).

In the main hall when the Prime Minister appeared some shouted Vive la Gauche! – the name of the new left ‘frondeur’ alliance (you can see more about them here).

Why?

Well, there’s the talk about ending the 35 hour week and a whole raft of measures designed to weaken workers’ rights. His Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron,has gone out of his way to appeal to business, not the left. More and more austerity remains on the cards. A few words about he also loves the Parti Socialiste won’t change this.

It is unlikely that French unions, even the ‘social liberal’ CFDT,  are overjoyed at the prospect of having to defend what little remains of ‘social democracy’.

The idea that anything approaching the Hartz measures will go down well in France.

One might question the assertion that this “third type” of compromise is anything other than a series of concessions, made in different European countries in different ways, to neo-liberal anti-left policies. One wonders where Brown and Blair fitted into the Second Compromise, or were they part of the Third?

Far from being a social democrat it appears that Manuel Valls and his team are economic liberals.

 It would be interesting to see if he tries something resembling the Hartz reforms.

Hah!

A second’s thinking shows that this is extremely unlikely to happen.

Note: Weber’s own site is here.

On it we learn this fascinating information:

Etat civil: Marié
Enfants: 3
Icône: Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Pierre Desproges
Hobbies: La marche à pied
Livre préféré: “La Promesse de l’Aube” de Romain Gary
Film favori: “Les Enfants du Paradis” de Marcel Carné (1945)
Groupe de musique favori: Les Beatles
Emission TV préférée: Thalassa
Plat local favori: La potée auvergnate

Some might comment that this shows a profound mediocrity.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 1, 2014 at 11:13 am