Labour needs to learn a language of freedom

This article was originally published on LabourList on 15th March 2011.

Freedom and democracy are not things that the Labour Party does altogether well.

The party leadership election and Tower Hamlets mayoral contest represent the tip of an iceberg of dissatisfaction and anger for many members concerning internal democratic processes. As for freedom, the word barely gets a look-in in Labour circles except when talking of foreign countries.

In the Labour Party, we are not alone in this. Britain as a whole is in something of a rut when it comes to democracy. Participation in elections and in political parties is way down over time, and faith in democratic politics badly damaged. When it comes to freedom, many of us take for granted basic freedoms of thought, speech, conscience and movement.

On the liberal-left, the political wind has blown in some mysterious ways, to the extent that some self-styled liberals have developed an alarming tendency to aggressively shout down opinions that do not conform to their own way of thinking. This has in turn caused significant self-censorship, restricting free discussion and debate of issues that get bottled up or go stale – to the benefit of no one.

This sort of social censorship is not a factor only for the liberal-left – it exists across all social strata. But the fact that so many people have been browbeaten into not using some of the important freedoms that they possess (publicly at least) is a real tragedy of democratic politics, and one that Labour needs to participate in rectifying.

Thankfully, the party leadership has grasped the nettle of a need for internal reform and revitalisation, and it will be interesting to see where this leads – hopefully to more open and transparent internal democratic processes that will start to break down the cronyism that blights existing party processes.

But Labour, and the country, needs more.

A different kind of freedom narrative

Specifically, Labour needs to start embracing a language of freedom, and a language definably different from the neo-liberal version based on free markets and absence of interference on individuals – especially by the government or state.

But the Labour conception also needs to move on from the only significant narrative about freedom run by the liberal-left over recent decades, concerned with securing equal rights in existing society for workers, women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. These arguments are now won, to the extent that even much of the centre-right accepts the bulk of this agenda.

A sense of disappointment and even anger lingers, reflecting perhaps how limited are the levers of rights legislation in effecting real social change.

This is something the rights agenda has in common with the neo-liberal economic consensus – they are both quite limited, and are also both based on a form of zero-sum logic which holds that there is a limited amount of freedom to be had in society, with the role of politics being to allocate that freedom in a fair or economically efficient manner.

Neither narrative has branched out much and concerned itself much with the broader society and the life of the people within it.

But this is where the Left should go now.

The freedoms that we take for granted in everyday life give us a good point of departure. For we can see that giving everyone the right to be free on equal terms with others – at the ballot box, in housing, employment and all the rest – has been a big step forward. But we also know that conferring those rights is very different to those same people actually becoming free and equal in practice.

This is of course familiar ground for Labour.

The NHS, the welfare state, and more recently the minimum wage and Sure Start children’s centres, are just a handful of examples of policies Labour has implemented intended to raise families and individuals up – and thereby increase their freedom to live fulfilling lives. This is what a Labour language of freedom should be all about, grounded in the world around us, in our families, friends and communities – and also in democratic politics and indeed the state.

Freedom, the state and democracy

The state is a problematic issue for the Left, and rightly so.

The age-old right wing narrative of a state that has grown bloated and over-bureaucratic, serving little purpose but to eat up tax revenues, does make at least some sense to many of us. In practice, public services are often unwieldy, process-driven and unresponsive, failing to take account of the people they are dealing with and neglecting their reason for being: to serve the public.

However the right’s antagonism towards the state and fetishisation of the profit motive is as flawed or more so than the public services they constantly deride. The idea that only the profit motive can deliver decent services from organisations is as absurd as the idea that state-run bodies cannot – compare for example the level of service you experience in your average branch of Dixons to that you find in a likewise average NHS hospital or SureStart centre. And this is without even getting started on the Big Society.

As John N. Gray has pointed out:
“The free market is not, as New Right thinkers have imagined or claimed, a gift of social evolution. It is an end-product of social engineering and unyielding political will. It was feasible in nineteenth-century England only because, and for so long as, functioning democratic institutions were lacking.”
The Thatcherite 1980s and 1990s also saw their fair share of social engineering and unyielding political will, as the Conservatives presided over an unprecedented increase in central state power (but this time under a mass democratic mandate) – to the extent that quangoes employed more people and spent more money than the whole of local government put together.

More recently we have seen it again with the banks and rail franchises, that the ‘free’ market (itself an oxymoron) requires huge state support to maintain it.

The overriding point here is that our freedom to go about our lives on a basic level is always dependent on the state to an extent. It provides a context – of laws, rules, regulations and public services like rubbish collection and the police, without which it would be impossible for individuals, families and businesses to operate freely.

And the state, by taking powers and saving us the trouble, does in many instances actually make us freer to lead the lives we want.

It is the role of our democratic institutions to circumscribe the range of powers and ensure that the choices made under them are good ones.

Democracy is something that we largely take for granted, but Britain has been a fully-functioning mass democracy for less than a hundred years, and it is no coincidence that the creation of social welfare, public education and the NHS in Britain – and the withdrawal from Empire – coincided with its onset.

Democracy has been on a relentless march over the last few centuries all over the world. In 1790, there were just three parliamentary democracies in existence in the world – the United States (with slavery), Britain (with nothing like universal franchise) and Switzerland. By 1900, there were thirteen; by 1960, 36; by 1990, 61; and in 2009, 119.

We can see the progress that has been achieved under democracy both here and abroad, but we have become complacent about it. Democracy is something that needs to be nurtured and protected; it should be the heart of Labour ideals and daily practice.

We all need some education

The practice of democracy is often undermined by weakness of democratic culture, just as a lack of public spirit sometimes undermines the practice of state institutions.

The solution can only lie in education of some form in both cases.

As the German philosopher Hegel said, “The final purpose of education…is liberation and the struggle for higher liberation still.” To turn this comment on its head, to spread liberation requires education – and not just through school and university but in the everyday life of civil society.

People need to understand better what democratic life means and why it is important to get involved. Likewise for the public sector, a greater concentration on ethos and the purpose of the state would surely be beneficial (as would a more robust regime for those not practising it). It is not good enough for the Sir Humphreys of this world to remain detached and (sometimes) indolent on the basis of political neutrality.

Such reforms are admittedly more easily said than done, but that is no reason for not trying.

The introduction of citizenship classes at school is an example of what can be done; another is the process of gaining citizenship which Labour introduced. As Alastair Campbell pointed out on his blog recently, we need more of this – not less as Michael Gove has proposed.

There is potential for Labour here as an educational force, immersing itself in local communities as a third sector institution that it always present, open, and accessible to everyone.

That may not be practicable for the moment (not least due to lack of resources), but we would certainly do well to model a revived party on what we wish the wider society to look like.

That means a much greater emphasis on democratic culture, certainly. But it should also mean starting to speak a language of freedom that embraces an idea of the good life – one that is grounded in community and society but not dominated by it.


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