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On Lawson’s letter, jargon and how not to unite the left

Compass's Neal LawsonMost readers of Left Futures will by now have read the letter from Neal Lawson (he of Compass fame) and others in yesterday’s Guardian. The purpose of the letter is said to be to stiffen Labour’s resolve to be radical and not to try coasting to power on the back of Coalition failure. So far, so good. But we haven’t got further than general intent.

The problem is that as soon as you further and try to understand the nature of the radicalism proposed, it crumbles to dust. The letter proposes five so-called principles to act as the basis for stiffening Labour’s resolve to be radical. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

(1) “Accountability of all powerful institutions, whether the state or market, to all stakeholders.”

What can this possibly mean? Accountable about what? Accountable how? And who are the stakeholders? If a company decides to switch its production out of the UK that impacts on us all. How exactly is the proposed accountability to work? Will I be asked? And will my opinion count for anything?

(2) “Devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people.”

Is that ALL state institutions? The Army? If it is not all, then which is it? What does “giving away power and resources … where possible” to “the people” mean? It would be possible to give the resources of the NHS to people in each locality. Is that what is being proposed?

There are some functions that need to be centralised and others that don’t but this “principle” is so blunt that it allows for no evaluation. It would almost certainly do more harm than good.

(3) “Prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance.”

That’s a big one! Prevent the causes of our physical health problems. What if the causes are genetic? What if the cause is old-age? Is it being proposed that we can prevent that? The letter writers obviously did not intend such ludicrous conclusions, but their formulation is so loose that they allow them to be drawn. And how is a “holistic and long-term approach to governance” possible if the resources that governance is meant to govern have all be given away to “the people”?

(4) “Co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient.”

I am tempted to say that in the new world proposed in this letter “academic will speak unto academic” and “political activist will speak unto political activist” but neither group will speak to anyone else. I can’t imagine how else it could be imagined that a phrase like “co-production of public services by workers, users, and citizens” could mean anything to anyone outside those groups. Come to think of it, I am an academic and a political activist, and it doesn’t mean much to me.

(5) “Empowerment of everybody, so they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens.”

Just what is this supposed to mean? Everyone who takes their politics seriously knows that it is very difficult to understand many political problems. Many of us struggle over a period of years to understand single issues. So what exactly is being proposed here in terms of “time, money, support”?

Polly Toynbee gets quite excited about the letter in the Guardian today but she mounts no good case for feeling so encouraged. When Polly deals with issues that she is passionate about, such as child poverty, she reads the reports and statistical materials and helps the rest of us see what is at stake. But when she sets herself up as an Ed Miliband cheerleader, the analytical stance takes back seat. And it’s ultimately ineffective.

Luke Akehurst may not be the first port of call for many on the left when it comes to commenting on Labour policy issues, and yet his criticism of the letter on LabourList makes a series of very good points. He offers five policy proposals  instead of the five “principles” – which seems altogether far more sensible in getting our message across.

A final piece of nonsense. In the letter we read: “the days of politicians doing things “to people” are over. The era of building the capacity and platforms for people to ‘do things for themselves, together’ is now upon us.”

Can they be serious? Every politically active person knows how difficult it is even to get a tiny minority to take an interest in local and national politics. Fewer than 50 per cent can be bothered to even vote in local elections, let alone participate in policy formation and its implementation.

This all seems terribly well-meant. But these five “principles” suffer from the vagueness to the point of meaningless which is one of the trade marks of the Labour policies to which they are intended to provide an alternative.


  1. Student says:

    Most readers of Left Futures will by now have read the letter from Neal Lawson (he of Compass fame) and others in yesterday’s GuardianI/i>

    I haven’t, and I doubt that ‘most’ have, for the reasons you go on to outline. Nothing that any of these people has any interest or relevance whatsoever to anybody outside Westminster (and some of the more biddable hacks at Kings Place).

    In two weeks nobody will even remember this ‘letter’ was written. Best ignored.

    1. David Pavett says:

      The media coverage and readers letters (e.g. in today’s Guardian) suggest that this letter may be of wider concern than you suggest. Incidentally, I provided a link for people who did not happen to have read the letter. I am slightly mystified by the fact that you feel able to comment without having read the letter or, apparently, any of the discussion about it.

      1. Student says:

        As in my original comment: these people are of no interest. I don’t have to read the ‘letter’ to know that, I just have to see the co-authors to know their output is not worth paying any attention to.

        So, who outside the circle jerk of centre-left pointyheads has shown any interest in this letter then?

        1. David Pavett says:

          Nice debating style. No reply is possible to your well-reasoned points.

          1. Student says:

            I haven’t made any points, I asked a perfectly clearly-phrased question. Aside from the chin-stroking nobodies at the Guardian, who on earth cares what these people think?

            As a left-wing Labour activist, I’m absolutely infuriated by the oxygen we give to irrelevant hacks like Neal Lawson with no grassroots support, originality or relevance.

            The left has literally no future as long as our agenda is set by the likes of them. Of course it’s a long time since the Guardian was anywhere near the left of the Party but it’s depressing to see their feeble-minded witterings being given further airing by websites supposedly on the left.

  2. David Ellis says:

    Well done David you have exposed the usual vacuuous platitudes from the Compass Camp. All that is useless disolves into crap.

    Here is a real way of devloving power:

    Replace all fat cat executives appointed via political patronage, the Old School Tie Network or absentee shareholders who treat UK industry, utilities and services like a personal pig’s trough with worker-elected management.

    No need to wait for a Labour government however. Committees of all grades of workers should be established in every workplace to challenge the imposed management and argue for social ownership in the larger concerns.

  3. Howard Reed says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. See also my guest post on Richard’s blog for more criticism of the letter.

  4. john problem says:

    All this counting of the angels on the head of a pin don’t mean a thing to the public. They believe that whatever is promised today may never see the light of day. Instead of lots of intellectual chopping of various possible policies, Labour should simply beat up on every single thing that Cameron and Co. do or say. Ridicule it. Take the mickey. Make them look stupid (not too difficult, but you have to be determined about it…). Slag off every thing they say and short of calling them liars make them look very shifty. Toffs rattle easily if you give them the vocal elbow. Labour needs more sting like a bee and less float like a butterfly. Particularly as Ed hasn’t come across as a fighter, so far. The public loves a fighter, not a philosopher…..

  5. Mike says:

    Lawson has been peddling this vacuous waffle for years. Remember those horribly naive articles in The Guardian urging Brown to also ‘be bold’, break with New Labour and express his true social democratic principles?

    Except he was as central to New Labour as anyone else and his boldness was limited to celebrating the new dawn of endless growth that the City of London was delivering – only months before Lehman Brothers went under.

    The way to push Labour to the left is to build a left that is capable of placing real pressure on the PLP and holding them to account. Pleading with them is pointless.

  6. McCurry says:

    It’s time Labour woke up to the fact that the Tories are running rings around us. That Bingo poster was intended to cause us to react in a predictable way, it was never meant to be serious. That’s how they distracted us from the real issues of the budget. Now they sit back and watch us attack ourselves.
    We don’t deserve to get elected right now.

  7. John reid says:

    Mike, I think defining new labour as anyone post 1988 when we junked most of the legislation we wanted back, since we introduced it in 1974′ and New labour as a Blairite ,are two different things, also anyone still arguing Neil Kinnock not being able to back Scargill due to not balloting mr ers or taking on militant. Isn’t necessarily anew labour too.

    I find it odd that a Michael meacher has a similar comment in the article above, yet you’re drawing on this article as a New labour one,

    The Fabians were never new Labour, compass, and Blue labour both affiliated with John Cruddas, have never Ben new labour,it’s strange that the critic of this article is Luke Akehurst, who normally gets slated here as Progress party within…, or Blairite

    I didn’t agree with the article Lawson, Glasman, wrote, but to as that Lawson’s new labour is wrong,

  8. David Pavett says:

    @John Reid

    I don’t think that it is true to say that the Michael Meacher Left Futures piece, to which you refer, is similar in content to the Lawson letter. The only similarity is that both call on Miliband to be bolder. In the case of Lawson et all the call is to be bolder on the basis of some so-called principles which are so vague as to be meaningless (at best). Michael Meacher,on the other hand, suggested some very specific key policy proposals such as nationalising the rail companies and at least some of the energy companies. So the two viewpoints are very different.

  9. swatantra says:

    Tribal Politics don’t work any more.
    What we need is Consensus Politics where all voices are listened to, aand a way forward worked out in a spirit of cooperation. The fcatr is we literally cannot afford the divisive politics we have at the moment. So Gove brings change to the Education and then when Labour gets back in we spend money undoing those Gove changes and introduce changes of our own. 10 years later the Tories get in and we’re back to Square 1. And the Teachers and Unions are on strike because they can’t stomach either Party interfering in their profession and jobs..
    So thats billions down the drain. Can we really afford that any longer? No.

  10. peter willsman says:

    On the doorstep it is bread and butter issues that matter to voters, our core vote,the working class.Labour has to focus on these issues, not go off at a tangent.Pied Piper Lawson has never managed to get his head round this simple fact.There has never been a tangent that he has not explored.Goodness knows what a group, calling itself”Class”,is doing following the Pied Piper.In many ways the ‘welfare cap’is a class issue.I see that almost all the Labour MPs that stood firm on the cap have a working class background.Except Jeremy C.We must award JC honorary membership.I will give him some gum boots for birthday and he can let the Pied Piper have his wellingtons.

    1. David Pavett says:

      If an issue does not resonate on the doorstep does that mean that we are wasting our time discussing it? I have in mind such things as arguments about economic theory, constitutional issues, reforms to the justice system, international politics.

      I am with you in rejecting the so-called principles in Lawson’s letter but I think that it would be a great mistake to react by rejecting all discussion of principles even if these are not front rank doorstop concerns. Is that not precisely the problem of the Labour Party? If you follow that line of thinking you end up with psephology replacing political philosophy and that is pretty much where Labour is.

      I would also not judge, either, the gamut of people’s concerns by what they are prepared to discuss on the doorstep. If a Tory tried to engage me on the doorstep with his/her view that the smaller government and taxes are the better I doubt that I would get involved in a debate (especially if I was engaged in something else at the time). Should the canvaser conclude that “People are not interested in broad questions of government and taxation”? I think not. Generally, I think the doorstep argument is not very helpful in discussions about policy.

  11. John reid says:

    Peter,you’ve lost me by what you feel bread and butter issues are, to the working class voters I know, they have been, low Electric gas bills, low inflation, low interest rates

  12. David Pavett says:


    You wrote “I haven’t made any points”. You didn’t get the joke! Good job I didn’t go into stand-up!

  13. David Ellis says:

    The only bread and butter issue worthy of the name for the under 30s working class is the question of employment. An entire generation is being fucked over never to recover.

    They will not vote for any politician that does not pledge a regime of full employment by sharing the available productive work and paying each the minimum of a trade union living wage. Everything else is derivative. School and college leavers and unemployed workers who cannot find their own job must be bought into the local workforce. Capital can no longer be allowed to maintain an army of unemployed in penury and hopelessness. We must impose our will on it on this and many other questions such as the environment which it believes it can degrade for profit without fear of retribution.

    1. David Pavett says:

      But my question remains: should socialist discussion be limited to “bread and butter” issues. I have a problem with politicians who cannot grasp these issues (many in Labour sadly) but, on the other hand a political standpoint which includes only these is bound, in my view, to be ineffective because bread and butter issues are dependent on other issues which are not of immediate concern to the majority of the population (i.e. those who are not politically active).

  14. David Ellis says:

    No I agree with you David a socialist manifesto or programme should also include its vision of `the good life’. I think with transitional demands like `full-employment’ by sharing the available productive work with each on the minimum of a living wage’ addresses both the most immediate bread and butter issue and outlines a new society, a new idea of what `the good life’ is.

  15. David Ellis says:

    If the working class just deals with its own bread and butter issues and fails to offer society a way out of the capitalist malaise then if it is weak those issues will be ignored as now and if it is strong it will eventually face a vicious backlash from the squeezed middle classes as per the 1980s.

    Socialism is about the working class taking power in the name of society as a whole. It must offer a vision of the future that is beyond bread and butter issues without for a moment ignoring them.

  16. peter willsman says:

    To the Davids.I apologise if in my short comments’ pieces I am polemical/take the P ,rather than theoretical.Of course,the bread and butter issues have to interrelate with the praxis of the class struggle, in order to advance the cause of the working class and of a socialist society.But the Pied Piper does not do this.He is leading the impressionable ‘children’ off on a tangent.

  17. John reid says:

    Peter, the class struggle, most working class people, since 1979′ were prepared to give up trade union rights.lose welfare rights,if it meant low inflation, and interest rates,andt he chance of own gt heir council home, and nothing was more insulting to those who born working class, were told that through socialist utopia, they may get good pay rises if they striked, but had to pay tax locally for it,all they saw was middle class, people pretending to be working class, trying to get into positions of power to tell them how to live their life,while pretending to still be working class,and assuming that the working class were as socially liberal as they were.

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