In the conclusion to his essay, Labour as a radical tradition (PDF, pp.14ff.), Maurice Glasman (see previous post) sets out a number of “axioms” of Labour’s “radical tradition” (bullet points and bold highlighting added):
- Capitalism is based on the maximisation of returns on investment, which creates great pressure to commodify land and labour markets. Human beings and nature, however, are not created as commodities and should not be treated as such.
- Human beings, in contrast, are dependent rational beings capable of trust and responsibility, who need each other to lead a good life. People are meaning-seeking beings who rely on an inheritance to make sense of their world, on liberty to pursue their own truth, and on strong social institutions which promote public goods and virtue.
- Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money. In that sense, Labour holds to a theory of relational power as a counterweight to the power of money.
- The building of relational power is called organising and this is a necessary aspect of the tradition.
- As a theory of the Common Good, Labour holds to a balance of power within the Constitution, and in all public institutions, including the economy.
Labour recognises “the innovation, energy and prosperity that markets bring”. However, it also retains “an awareness, absent in liberalism, of the concentrations of power, the disruption and the dispossession that are its accompaniment”. Labour’s response to this is
not the abolition of capital nor the elimination of markets, but their democratic entanglement in regional, civic and vocational relationships.
Glasman then suggests a number of forms which this “democratic entanglement” can take:
- A commitment to local, relational or mutual banking.
- A commitment to skilled labour, with “real traditions of skill and knowledge” in a “vocational economy”.
- A commitment to the balance of power within the firm, so that “managers are held accountable” and “strategy is not based on the interests of one group alone”.
- A commitment to forms of mutual and co-operative ownership.
For those whose heads hit the table in despair when they hear phrases like “Blue Labour” or (saints preserve us) “Purple Labour”, and who cry out “Why can’t we just be Labour?”, I suggest that what Glasman is describing in these “axioms” and “commitments” is precisely that: Labour values. Indeed, I think Glasman’s entire thesis is that Labour has distinctive values arising from its unique origins, rather than just being a classic, post-Enlightenment “social democratic” (let alone “liberal”) party.
While I don’t think Glasman’s list is exhaustive – in particular, I do think basic Labour values include a commitment to greater equality, and that this has deep roots in the English radical tradition – I do think it forms a basis for thinking about how Labour can once again present a vision of the common good that can inspire people, and maybe even win power again.
Dave Osler at Liberal Conspiracy has a good analysis of the Conservatives’ embrace of employee cooperatives (or “advocacy of workers’ self-management along the lines of 1950s Yugoslavia”, as he puts it) (see previous post).
He observes that this “has to be read as part of the continued drive on the part of all major parties to privatise public services”, and argues that:
After they are ostensibly mutualised, social enterprises will be subjected to competitive tendering, internal markets and divisive incentive structures. The economies of scale and low cost finance available to large public sector organisations will also be lost. As an added bonus to the right, a serious wedge will be driven into national pay bargaining and public sector trade unionism further weakened.
In other words, forget all Cameron’s talk about ‘Conservative means to progressive ends’. The big idea here is to open up Jobcentres, schools and NHS trusts to marketisation. Those guys remain as high on Hayek as they ever were.
Nailed it. This may have come from Philip Blond originally, but it’s clear the Tories are filtering Blond, keeping what suits their instinctive marketisation agenda – albeit dressed up in warm “Red Tory” language about cooperatives – and ditching all the stuff about breaking up Tesco and banning gay adoption.
The Conservatives have announced plans to allow public sector workers to set up cooperatives to run services such as primary schools and jobcentres. Unsurprisingly the response from the Cooperative Party has been sceptical, and my own initial reaction was to wonder whether this might be a way to privatise public services by the back door: set up cooperatives which are then “allowed” to demutualise.
More to the point: George Osborne says that these mutuals “would be contracting services to the local authority or the National Health Service [or] for community nursing or for primary education”. I’m not an expert on public procurement rules, but presumably if mutuals were set up to contract with public authorities at arm’s length then it would be necessary to have a competitive tendering process.
Is the real story here a Tory plan to put primary schools, jobcentres and nursing services out to competitive tender – with the figleaf option of encouraging bids by workers’ mutuals? At the very least, I hope journalists will start probing into how competitive tendering would affect this plan – let’s see if it holds up any better than the last few policy announcements from the Conservatives.
Setting such cynical thoughts to one side, however, supporters of the cooperative movement should take some comfort in the fact that the Conservatives – along with “ownership doesn’t matter!” Blairites and centralising statists in the Labour party – are now expressing support for mutualism and cooperation. As Slavoj Žižek observes, the surest sign that a political ideology has triumphed is when it is appropriated by its former opponents:
The true victory occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy.
If the Conservatives are sincere in their support for mutualism, that is a good thing. Even if they are insincere or skin-deep, the very fact they perceive talk of mutualism to be a vote-winner is a sign that this may indeed be “the mutual moment”.