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Dear Liz Kendall, about the differences between socialism and liberalism…

Liz KendallDear Liz,

Re: Leadership of the Labour Party

I noted the other day that leadership contests are that rare occasion when MPs and ordinary members are frank about the personalities and policies at the top of the party. Some also over egg the pudding and go for outright abuse. I’m thinking mainly, this time around, about the people who are mostly Andy Burnham identifiers and think attacking you as the Conservative Party candidate for Labour leadership is a smart way for their man to win. It isn’t, it’s unfair, and it’s clear from an brief with your material that a Tory you’re most definitely not.

That doesn’t mean I think you’re well suited to lead the Labour Party.

In the spirit of honesty customary to these times, I’m going to tell you why. Don’t, however, make the assumption I’m rooting for Andy, or Yvette, or Mary, or lamenting the dear departed Tristram or Chuka. Like many tens of thousands of party members I am far from enthused by any of the meagre policy pitches so far made. I am also worried that every single candidate’s pronouncements on the subject of why Labour lost and what it needs to do to come back is so far from the mark that, already, it does not bode well for our chances in 2020. That might change, of course, but I’m writing to you because your candidature condenses all the faulty analyses and mistaken policy conclusions that are not only most egregious, but potentially most ruinous for our party over the tumultuous five years ahead.

Rather than pick over your comments about various things like others have done, I want to look at your core philosophy and go from there. Thankfully, a lot of the (sympathetic) spadework has been done by Labour Uncut, and I think your opponents should show the courtesy to find out what you really believe rather than throwing meaningless insults your way. Nevertheless, I read this piece with some interest.

I agree with you that Labourism as a tradition is overly statist, that too often the left cede questions of individual choice, liberty, and freedom to the right.

On paper at least, you are right that social security shouldn’t disempower its recipients, that public services should be receptive to the needs of those who use them, and the pressures of state and the market should come second to flesh and blood human beings.

However, while the Uncut piece flatters the radicalism of this “republicanism”, at base there are few politicians on the centre left and centre right who would disagree. That’s because what we’re really talking about here is liberalism.

The defining feature of liberalism, classically conceived, is individual sovereignty. It is a “republican” political tradition in the sense that authority should not derive from a body that over-arches society and responsible to no one but itself – see medievalist despotism old and new.

Instead, authority should rest on the consent of the governed and representative democracy being the best means yet devised for aggregating the preferences of the citizenry. Fair enough, this is the basics for all forms of democratic politics. But it’s only the basics. Socialism, which is both the heir to liberalism and its consistent application (among many other things), recognises its strict limitations. For liberalism property ownership, for instance, is a strictly private affair. Yours and mine freedom to own things as a cornerstone of individual sovereignty. That, however, is as far as it goes for liberalism. It’s an abstract right that should be defended to the death.

Socialism differs from liberalism. It does not start from first principles but rather takes its departure point from an analysis of the social world. It notes that the liberal/utilitarian objective of the greatest good for the greatest number is blocked by the very way our societies are structured. Not only are good jobs, which we will define here as being well-paid and having a large degree of satisfaction and autonomy, in scare supply, but more fundamentally the bulk of the economy is owned and directed by private individuals.

When you have a situation where one vanishingly small proportion of the population primarily lives off the wealth accumulated by their capital, and the overwhelming majority have to rely on working in return for a salary or wage and collectively are responsible for generating that wealth, you have a political problem. As much as liberalism tries to shy away from the way the world works, because the fates of vast populations depend on economies working, the idea ownership and control are private matters is an absurdity: it is very much a public issue.

I’m sure you’re well aware of this critique without subscribing to it yourself. But you might want to pause and reflect, because it illuminates well the blind spots of your political position-taking. Let’s concentrate on your pledge to reform public services. Your approach is entirely consistent with your philosophy: a public service should serve the public and responsive to their needs. Fine, but what would this reform look like?

As the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, I expect you would eschew the democratisation of public services and go for market mechanisms instead. Such as the model of the funding follows the patient, as per past NHS experiments, or tuition following the student as per the free market in higher education due to be operative from this September.

These arrangements make the assumption that markets are the best way for individuals to signal their preferences, hence making service provision more accountable. It sounds neat and elegant, the sort of solution a mind attuned to abstract patterning would find attractive. The problem is that, if anything, markets have made public services less accountable.

We hear the excuse that hospital, schools, and council chief executives have to be paid top whack because the market demands it. Across the public sector organisations are beholden to targets supposedly conditioned by competition, such as call handling times in the 111 service, patient turn around times in surgeries and hospital beds, and so on. And because markets is what business supposedly has an intuitive understanding of, the public sector is opened up to profit-making and profit-taking. Typically, especially in the care sector, this has meant holding or forcing down staff wages so margins between cost and price can be widened.

What worries me is you appear blind to this on two counts;

Firstly, that you approach public services as so much machinery to be tinkered with and not as aggregations of human beings who, in large part, made an active choice based on their values to undertake a career in public services.

Second, and in keeping with a technocratic mindset, you appear utterly oblivious to the notion of interest, that the organisations of public sector workers are the backbone of the movement that has provided you a seat in Parliament.

You either forget or just don’t realise that the public sector is a constituency in and of itself, and it is supremely harmful to your own political interests to attack their wages and working conditions, to outsource them to third parties, to make their conditions of work less gratifying and less secure. Just go and take a look at the Conservatives across the chamber from you. Do you seriously think they won’t tackle zero hour contracts, abuses in the city, and executive pay because they have the wrong ideas?

This is why your leadership would be a disaster waiting to happen for our party. You have no conception that Labour is not just a party but a real movement in society. Even yourletter to trade unionists smacks of their being one constituency among others to be courted.

That, I’m afraid, concludes this letter. Like I said, you’re not a conservative. You are a liberal with all the limitations and problems that come with it, and as such because you do not understand the party you’re aspiring to lead that makes you particularly ill-suited to the position.

Yours sincerely,


This open letter previously appeared at All that is Solid 


  1. swatantra says:

    Basically we need a Unity Candidate and not one that would polarise the Party even more into haves and havenots.

    1. Robert says:

      Do you know one, one who is looking to be a leader.

    2. John P Reid says:

      Kinnock endorsing Burnham ,this is the bloke after backing Ed,who has lead us 2 our worse ever defeat,said of the manifesto, we’re got our party back,yes years of defeats

      O.k I admit I backed Ed Too!

  2. Matty says:

    Good article Phil but even middle of the road Labour people are wondering whether Liz is in the right party. She says Labour in Govt spent too much, she supports the welfare cap and then tops it off saying that defence spending should not fall below 2% of GDP.

    1. Robert says:

      Just another career politician.

    2. pam says:

      If Liz Kendall is leader of Labour, I will leave the party forthwith. I would have hoped for a leader which can break away from the Blairite past, and present radical idea and policies leading Labour to be the party of the people, millions are dying out for a party to be just that, anti- austerity, and to use Tony Benn’s words of say what you mean and mean what you say. The problem seems to be that having to have 35 MPs is keeping the choice limited, I would have liked to have seen someone else apart from the current four. Unless anyone else would step up.. Lisa Nandy? kelvin Hopkins? John McDonnell, Or even newcomer Keir Starmer or another . At least it would be a first choice recorded, and a second choice to Andy Burnham could resolve it, I just hope if it is Andy, he will look to reforming democracy within the Labour Party. I hope we are not put back decades by a party split. At my age it’s starting to look like a Tory government for the rest of my life.

      1. John P Reid says:

        I’m sorry you’ll leave, but many people have left come back, when they realized the Labour Party was the only alternative. Regarding the 35′ look at Diane Abbott,she got them but come the actual first choice, she got 8′ worth remembering she an aged to get her views in that leadership competition, I don’t agree with lix’s views but she’s not pretending something she’s not

        From Wilson, Kinnock/Gould after 1987, Cruddas, Burham, labour has had many a m.p pretending to have different views than they really had to appeal to the electorate, they all eventually ended in disaster

        1. Rod says:

          “they realized the Labour Party was the only alternative”

          But the Labour Party doesn’t offer an alternative. Labour worked with the Tories in the Scottish independence referendum. Labour voted in favour of the Tory austerity agenda earlier on this year (only Katy Clark voted against). And like the Tories, Labour supports Trident and backed the bombing of Libya which caused consequences disastrously similar to those produced by Blair in Iraq.

          The LP merely offers a weaker dose of Tory medicine.

          That ain’t an alternative.

          And that’s why I didn’t vote Labour on the 7th.

          1. John P Reid says:

            It offers an alternative, if labour actually win elections rather THan TUSC where one candidate hot 0 votes

          2. Rod says:

            John Reid: “TUSC where one candidate hot 0 votes”

            Ukip didn’t do so badly.

          3. John P Reid says:

            Are you saying that if labour is Tory lite, and there’s no left wing alternative to the Tories people will vote Ukip.
            Isn’t that like, the tony Benn view ,to get those, ex labour voters back ,who went SDP in the 80’s ,we have to be more left wing,

  3. Dave Walsh says:

    You got it, she is in the wrong party. She represents the Dilettante Tendency in Labour. I know my post is troll-worthy, but the case was really well made above .. like the other responders, I can’t really add to it.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Tens of thousands of members agree we need a more left wing candidate than those on offer, you wish, a thousand hard lefties in the party at most

  5. Jenny Smith says:

    There is an old Quaker saying “Those named have not occurred to me”. So can we have some more names please who are not old out of date Blaire’s children and hangers on.

  6. Barry Ewart says:

    Interesting piece which confirmed why I not a social democrat (a few crumbs from the table for all those who have to sell their labour to live).
    I am proud to be a democratic socialist who (working with others) wants to democratically redistribute wealth and power and to change society.
    We need to campaign to get policy making back to Annual Conerences and for Constituency Labour Parties to be able to draw up their own Parliamentary shortlists and pick their own candidates.
    We should have a minimum membership fee of say £5 and then on a sliding scale based on income (like some trade unions) to try to build a mass party.
    We also need more working class democratic socialist candidates (social classes 3-6 based on occupation parent/s).
    We need to change Labour from top down to being bottom up and with a leader who reflects the ideas of the grassroots.
    We need to appeal to working class people, the progressive middle class (who often work on the front-line with the poor) and to try to win the general middle class (socialised to vote Tory) to the progressive middle class.
    Finally many of us are socialists because we want all human beings to reach their full potential.

  7. swatantra says:

    Why I could never be a Liberal: I don’t believe in laissez faire ie letting people do what they like, and saying what they like,or even livin the life style they like. Unless that is they get their own deserted island and scarper off from Britain. What the bloke does down the road affects you, especially if they happen to be a antisocial behaviour type, so, I’d want to see that individual controlled and conform to decent standards of neighbourliness.
    And I couldn’t be a conservative because I believe in enforcement if people behave badly or say the wring things, or keep accumulated wealth to themselves and don’t quite understand the concept of sharing.

    1. Robert says:

      Swat your brilliant mate out standing. Still a Pratt, but what a laugh.

  8. John reid says:

    who does understand the Party they aspire to lead, one whop doe’snt want a labour vicotry in certain places breaks the rules tells people to vote for non labour candidates Ken Livingsotne

    one who doesn’t get the Democratic part of democratic socialist, the Trots we use to have

    then there’s Harriet Harman with her assault on equality, Descrimination is equality, Cancel innocent till proven guilty in rape cases

    or tom Watson, men and women separated at Muslim functions

    a party that’s against racism yet has diane Abbott,

    freedom of speech.yet has labour backing no platform for racists so anyone who disagrees with them is banned form talking at student union evnents

  9. Alan Brooke says:

    Some people conveniently forget that the Labour Party constitution still states that it is a democratic socialist party. I have done my fair share of leafleting, canvasing, attending meetings and taking part in protests. If Liz Kendall is elected as leader then I think we might as well give up any hope of seeing a truly reforming government. I for one will reluctantly say goodbye to the party. We have seen many careerists come into the party and then go on to fill their boots working in areas opposed to the principles of the party such as private health care firms (e.g. Alan Milburn, Patricia Hewitt). From the noises Liz Kendall has made I fear she may also be in this mould.

  10. Sandra Crawford says:

    Leopards do not change their spots.
    Writing to Liz is a waste of time.
    Just do not vote for her.

    1. John P Reid says:

      And if she wins ,would you want to talk to he then?

      1. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

        I think I would want to leave.

  11. David Ellis says:

    Liberalism believes private property in the means of production is an absolute principle and a human right. For it the enslavement of the working class and the theft of the social product must be defended at all costs. Democracy and equality in front of the law are entirely formal matters for it. Socialists believe that the means of production should be held in common and its fruits distributed according to need and that true democracy and justice require equal access to resources.

    1. Robert says:

      Sadly not to many in the labour party believe that.

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