Listening to Labour leaders espouse whatever intellectual fad is currently doing the rounds on the other side of the Atlantic is nothing new for those of us who follow these things.
The odds are that Ed Miliband’s advocacy of predistribution will be no longer lasting than Blair’s embrace of communitarianism or Brown’s support for progressive universalism. Indeed, if anyone can even remember what the latter was, kindly enlighten the rest of us.
But in tantalising interview with the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Miliband demonstrated that his political thought is also anchored in traditions that are at least indigenous to the British left. While the article is being spun as a tribute to Thatcherism – and in Telegraphworld, what isn’t? – that interpretation will strike more observant readers as somewhat strained.
What Miliband actually said was that he is ‘now much clearer than I was two years ago about the depth of change we need’ if he is to attain his stated goal of saving capitalism from itself.
In demanding a break with the consensus of the last 30 years – although his exact words are not reproduced – he implicitly accepts that New Labour was a continuation of the Thatcher project, and that Britain needs to move on from these twin schools of thought. That much is the beginning of wisdom.
Somehow the tone of the piece – authored by Eton and Oxbridge educated Thatcherite diehard Charles Moore – reminds me of Bill Grundy’s infamous televised 1976 tête-à-tête with the Sex Pistols, with the writer constantly imploring Ed to say something outrageous.
By trying too hard to get Ed to praise the ideas of his famous Marxist father, Moore fails to draw out Miliband on positive proposals. But dad is tactfully disavowed, and what caught my eye was a favourable namecheck instead to Tony Crosland, the most important thinker the Labour right has ever produced.
Crosland’s 1956 book ‘The Future of Socialism’ essentially set out the basics of an outlook that became known as revisionism, and which was to remain influential within the Labour Party until its remaining standard bearers departed to form the Social Democratic Party in the early eighties.
Rather than emphasise nationalisation and planning as goals in themselves, as did the Bevanite Labour left and those influenced by the Communist Party, Crosland and the revisionists instead laid the stress on egalitarianism.
The capitalist state had become a welfare state, the revisionists argued, and democratic institutions could be used to ensure that profit created in the private sector could be reinvested in socially desirable projects rather than squandered on privileged consumption, he argued.
Full employment had given unions a real degree of clout, and the sellers’ market for labour power meant that workers could ensure perpetually rising living standards.
This, the Croslandites believed, was possible because capitalism had been permanently transformed since its near death experience in the 1930s, with Keynesianism ensuring perpetual prosperity.
So when the Tory prime minister of the day told Britons that they had never had it so good – the favourite phrase of those who’ve always had it better – he was only telling the truth.
The trouble is, the country in which we live is no longer much like that. Nearly 60 years later, Brown’s Crosland-like contention that the boom and bust can be abolished by the sagacity of labour government’s stands exposed as at once hubristic and credulous.
Britain is in a double dip recession, with living standards falling and not rising. While idea that economic recovery will kick in next year or the year after cannot be definitively excluded, the odds against renewed upturn grow larger by the day.
The ruling classes of Europe and beyond have turned to austerity, and are stepping up their efforts to dismantle the remnants of the postwar social democratic settlement. Their ability to do so is enhanced by three decades of neoliberalism, in which three successive Labour governments in this country were not just complicit but central.
In short, there is no material basis for a return to Croslandism, or for that matter, even pretty modest schemes for predistribution. If Miliband really is clear about the depth of the change that is now necessary, he might indeed do well to reread some of his father’s literary output.