One Nation – Many Rivers:
Shaping a 21st century English Radical Politics
Introduction: towards a new English politics
This article explores ways in which a new radical politics, specifically in England, can develop which builds on the best of its democratic, socialist, liberal and co-operative traditions but learns from practice in other parts of Britain and across the world. It deals with specifically English rather than British, politics, acknowledging the growing autonomy of Scotland and Wales, whilst stressing the importance of working together and sharing from each other’s experience within the British Isles. Within England, I argue that there are many traditions that make up a distinctly English radicalism –‘one nation – many rivers’ -reflecting the great diversity of this nation. The vision is for an England of the regions, as part of a democratised UK. A new England should arise! (1)
Some of the arguments in this paper have been strongly influenced by Jon Cruddas, who in his George Lansbury Lecture last November, began by admitting that “orthodox social democratic politics has crashed across Europe. Millions have voters have been lost. We have to find a new politics to reconnect with people and the way we do that is to reclaim parts of our history that will help.” In Socialism with a Northern Accent (2) I argued that there were several distinct but complementary streams within British radical politics, based on local and regional cultures which developed through a complex relationship between class, industry and place. Within the North of England there were strong traditions in places such as Cleveland, West Cumbria, the Yorkshire coalfields, the West Riding woollen districts, the Durham coalfield and the Lancashire cotton belt. Together they added up to a strong, ethically-based Northern Socialism, which was at ease with its brothers and sisters in central Scotland, the Fife Coalfield, the Black Country, the south Wales valleys and the East End of London. Even very local radical traditions developed and prospered, such as in the Forest of Dean, parts of East Anglia and Leicester (3).
What was the shape of this radical political culture? It was founded on democracy and a passion for human rights: from Tom Paine, through the radicals of the early 19th century and the Chartists of the late 1830s and 1840s, British radicalism has been founded on ideas of popular democracy, rather than state control or ownership. The co-operative movement grew out of northern Chartism, a home-grown working class solution not only to short-term ‘consumer’ issues, but offering a ‘new moral world’ based on co-operative communities. The radical Liberalism which flourished in the 1880s in parts of the North (as well as Wales, Cornwall and much of the Midlands) was another very important part of the patchwork of political radicalism in the UK that, at least in part, flowed into the Independent Labour Party, or continued within Liberalism itself.
It was communitarian in spirit. The state would not be trusted to usher in the new utopia: working people would do it themselves, through their own institutions. For many on the left, well into the 20th century, the aim was ‘the co-operative commonwealth’ not a monolithic socialist state.
Cruddas’ lecture is of immense importance in rebuilding a dynamic, radical and inclusive politics which is relevant to the 21st century. Echoing the early ethical socialists of the 1890s he says “This re-imagined socialism is romantic, not scientific; humane and warm; passionate yet humble; it is about re-discovering a political sentiment. It pushes back against party orthodoxy, careerism and transactional politics.” (4). Without this ‘re-imagined socialism’, Labour risks consigning itself to a slow decline, offering nothing to people other than ‘supermarket’ politics and finding itself out-manoeuvred by populists of the right who do have a compelling moral narrative, however much we might disagree with it. We need to campaign on territory where we are strong and where our message can be popular and inclusive, not the old, discredited machine politics (5).
We can wallow in nostalgia a bit too much. We are in a very different world to that of imperial Britain in the 1890s – or even 1945. I very much agree with Cruddas that there is much in the history of the early ILP which is relevant to where we are today, but we need to be careful in recognising that the world is just a tiny bit different and continues to change with frightening rapidity. John Prescott talked of ‘traditional values in a modern setting’. But what are those traditional values? And how can we interpret them in a way that doesn’t wallow in nostalgia or actually hold us back from embracing new ideas?
This paper outlines the scope for a new English radicalism which could help heal the historic split between socialism and liberalism, whilst embracing green, feminist and other libertarian traditions. I began writing this paper with a mainly Labour Party audience in mind. I have come to realise that’s a mistake and we need a new radical coalition which has to go well beyond Labour, whilst recognising that it might be, at least numerically, the largest partner in any such coalition. But a genuine coalition, or better still alliance, isn’t about allocating ‘power’ based on size. It’s about recognising the strengths each partner brings to the table and treating everyone as equals.
One Nation politics?
There are some rich seams of early radical history that we can mine to identify some values which remain relevant. Cruddas refers to the creation of a ‘domestic socialism’ represented through institutions such as the Labour Church and the Socialist Sunday School movements. Katharine Bruce Glasier, a near-forgotten but crucial figure in Northern ethical socialism, wrote an ILP pamphlet on ‘Socialism and the Home’ (1909). I would add the immensely popular Clarion cycling clubs, choirs and walking groups, and the socialist clubs which blossomed in the Northern industrial towns promoting a distinct socialist culture (6). Each of these have relevance in creating a 21st century politics which – to use Edward Carpenter’s words – forms part of a values-led ‘Larger Socialism’. ILP’ers such as Jowett of Bradford constructed a socialist approach towards local government and ‘the city’ which highlights the lack of a radical vision for local government today. GDH Cole’s ideas for ‘guild socialism’ harked back to a medieval society and proposed a new form of industrial democracy based on small-sale units of production and real workers’ self-management. (7) The values of the early English socialists were based around democracy, equality, co-operation and good fellowship. And they had a sense of humour.
Jon Cruddas has appropriated these traditional values, part of what he terms “a now exiled English socialism” to help bolster a new Labour politics, adding “let’s call it One Nation politics”. And why not? There are different ways of interpreting ‘One Nation’ politics as heralded by Ed Miliband and the Labour front bench. It can risk becoming a bland catch-all phrase that does nothing to challenge inequalities and justifies a dull uniformity. It can ignore diversity in the name of mono-culture. But clearly there is a more radical alternative, which Cruddas exemplifies in his Lansbury lecture. He uses some of the great radical thinkers of English history – Ruskin, Morris – to develop the lineage of a “distinctly English, radical transformative politics. One that is sometimes (sic) identifiable within the Labour Party.” (8) I would argue that to succeed it needs to extend way beyond Labour and embrace many different traditions.
Cruddas levers out the huge contribution which Morris made to the early socialist movement, ontrasting his politics “built around the search for an authentic human life and growth…a society that releases other human virtues” with the Fabian rationalism of the Webbs and the orthodox Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation (9). As he states: “Here stands the classic fault line within the history of socialism as later defined by Tawney – between its economic and its ethical traditions (10).That fault line is about more than economistic versus ethical approaches. It is also, fundamentally, about centralisation versus decentralisation, between ‘we know best’ and genuine empowerment. And as he recognises, the bureaucrats won. Whether it was the Labour Party of Dalton, Morrison and Bevin or the Communist Party of Dutt and Rust, the romantics lost, though the flame of the ‘larger socialism’ was never entirely extinguished. It lived on through the co-operative movement, parts of the ILP, the short-lived ‘Commonwealth Party’ after the Second World War, and even in sections of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
To say that it was completely obliterated within the Labour Party itself would be wrong. One of the most outstanding figures of post-war socialism was Michael Young, who ran Labour’s policy team and wrote such gems as Small man – Big World (11) which sets out a compelling case for a decentralist, grassroots-based politics.
A Transformative Politics
‘One Nation Politics’ needs to be pulled towards the sort of transformative politics which Cruddas espouses, setting itself against the ‘transactional’ approach which has become so deeply ingrained within Labour. By ‘transactional’ politics we mean the traditional paternalistic ‘we’ll sort it out for you’ approach of the Labour Party, which assumes a passive electorate who dutifully turn out every five years to cast their votes in our favour. Cruddas argues “Transactional politics is about slicing and dicing the electorate in search of victory. People are reduced to votes and units of calculus ……. Too many of our manifestos end up as lists of policies, an offer to this group, a promise to that, the different parts never adding up to anything that makes sense to people”. By contrast, a transformative politics is about mobilising people, building alliances, devolving power and encouraging grassroots democracy.
Take Cruddas again: “Labour has too often renounced the transformative in favour of the transactional. It has too often retreated from the compromises and messy realities of people into the order and security of the state. Transactional politics delivers real benefits to people. But they don’t change anything fundamental in the economic structures and social hierarchies that are the dynamo of inequality. On their own they don’t generate power and self-confidence in people. For that sense of personal fulfilment, self-knowledge, achievement, dignity, self-esteem, of a life lived well and true to one’s self – you need something more – you need a story that speaks to people’s hopes and dreams and in which they recognise themselves”.
What should that look like? Based on Lansbury’s own ideas, published in the mid—30s, Cruddas suggests:
• “First, what Lansbury calls a ‘national popular’ patriotic socialism.
• Second, a transformative agenda that rejects a shallow end transactional labour politics.
• Third, a socialism hinged on gaining power to give it away- a trust in people and a radical democratic bent.
• Four, a feminism driven by a specific understanding of human equality.
• Fifth, an ethic anchored within a conception of the human condition and its creative possibilities, duties and obligations and sense of fellowship”.
These five points form the basis of a radical new politics, but need to be informed by an environmental politics and internationalism, both of which have deep roots in the English socialist tradition. And we could – and should – learn a lot from other movements in different parts of the world, including radical campaigns in parts of Europe and the ‘Common Wealth’ organisation in the USA. Social media should make it so much easier, yet we (the English Left) are pretty ignorant of what’s happening in Scotland, let alone USA, China and other parts of Europe.
If we looked at each of these in turn, adding environment and internationalism, we can begin to see the beginnings of a radical politics which speaks to the 21st century.
A national patriotic socialism?
This is probably the most difficult concept for the English left to accept. ‘Patriotism’, in recent years, has been the monopoly of the right. Yet it wasn’t always so, and ‘patriotism’ in the 1830s and 1840s was very much part of the Chartists’ political toolbox. It is not the same thing as chauvinism or xenophobia – at one end it is buttressed by ‘civic pride’ at a more local level, and at the opposite end by internationalism and friendship between nations. Labour and radical Liberalism share a common heritage in opposing imperialism and jingoism. A modern patriotism should be about pride in our democratic heritage and love of our country – but sharply critical of our colonial past.
There are great opportunities during 2014 to develop a ‘patriotic’ sensibility which can celebrate England’s achievements without indulging in jingoism. There’s much in the English cultural heritage which radicalism has rightful claim to – Milton, Shakespeare, Purcell, Blake and Dickens to name just a handful. The current debate over the First World War is the beginning of what will continue to dominate politics this year. Who were the real patriots in that conflict? The 19th century left was very effective at highlighting the anti-nation and selfish actions of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Can some of that be captured? Perhaps it can, but we need a much more considered view of ‘nationhood’ and what it entails. This links to Lansbury’s third point, about ‘a socialism which gives power away’. England remains enormously centralised and the left needs to work with allies to promote a decentralised England – an England of the regions, with real power devolved to regional assemblies elected by PR and set up to encourage active participation. As it stands, England is hugely unbalanced, with an over-heated London and the South-east and a struggling North, with similar but perhaps not quite as acute problems in the Midlands, South-West and East of England. It’s hardly ‘patriotic’ to defend this huge structural inequality.
It’s in everyone’s interest to change this and the best way to do that is by devolving real power to the regions, and ending the paternalistic ‘we know best’ view of the London civil service. A new patriotism has to be sensitive to the importance of re-balancing the nation and encouraging strength through diversity and decentralisation. Linda Colley’s recent Radio 4 series based on her book States of Union and Disunion have highlighted the growing tensions within the United Kingdom but also pointed out that even in the years before the First World War there was a serious debate about decentralising power within Britain and Ireland. As she argues, the two world wars only served to put on hold a process that has much more political mileage left to run (12)
It’s about more than institutions; it involves a vision for a diverse but distinctly English culture which is reflected in the arts, sciences, sport and media. This should be about building on cultural achievements from the past but informed by the new waves of immigration into England and the transformation this has brought about in all our lives.
Changing how we do politics
Changing the way we do politics is one of the most urgent issues facing Labour and the left. The recent Guardian/ICM poll showed how angry – not bored, angry – people were with politics and politicians. And they have every right to be. Labour far too often comes across as narrow-minded, tribal and intolerant. The days of Labour being the only political show in town, with the partial exception of the CPGB, are long gone. Labour needs to much more effective in working in alliances, both locally and nationally. Not for short-term expediency, but because it can often bring better results.
My own local authority has a substantial group of Green and independent councillors who are not short of good ideas on both environmental and community politics. Yet we treat them like lepers because they are not ‘one of us’. That attitude has got to change so that building alliances with different political forces with whom we have some things in common with becomes the natural way of doing things, not the grudging exception. Part of that must involve long overdue political reform through proportional representation.
There’s also the way we do politics in the community. Far too often our model remains the transactional approach of ‘we’ll sort it for you’, rather than encouraging united community action – which very often we’re scared of, unless we can control it. The fact is that we’re increasingly not able to sort it out for people and the old paternalist approach towards politics is all but defunct. We need to encourage new forms of community organising and create neighbourhood institutions to give people real power over their communities and lives. We need to move away from the idea that all public services should, invariably, be delivered by the state – be it local or national – and look at ways in which people can be given direct power through co-operatives and worker ownership, supported and facilitated by the state. We need a new settlement between what a democratic state should provide directly and what others should be encouraged to offer which rejects the neo-liberal ‘shrunken state’ of recent years but isn’t a return to the discredited Labour-statist model either.
Devolving power and radical democracy: a new municipalism
Whilst we need to decentralise power from the national level to the regions, it should not end there. Local government has been allowed to wither to the degree that many senior local government professionals are questioning whether it can survive in its present form. The big question is – should it? We need to re-think local government and build a new civic politics which involves re-balancing what the local state does and what is provided by community enterprise – with the local authority’s support. We need to go much more local. The stakes are very high: if we do not empower communities at the neighbourhood level, we can’t expect democracy to flourish on a wider scale. The US radical activist Gar Alperovitz has argued: “Is it possible to have Democracy with a Big D in the system as a whole if you do not have real democracy with a small d at the level where people live, work and raise their families in their local communities? If the answer is no, then a necessary if not sufficient condition of rebuilding democracy in general is to get to work locally.” (13)
We don’t have to go that far back in our history to find some great examples of radical, decentralist politics promoted by Labour local authorities. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s we had a ‘town hall Spring’ in many cities. It was all too short-lived and seldom embraced by the Labour Party leadership – but it made real achievements. The work of Labour politicians in cities including London, Southampton, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh and parts of the Midlands and North-East was truly transformative. (14)
Today, local government within England is in very poor shape and the current round of cuts are leading to the loss of many services which people have long taken for granted. However, we should also recognise that this crisis is an opportunity – forcing us to look at doing things in different ways. One the one hand many local authorities are collaborating with each other on ‘back office’ functions, there is a need to take a deeper look. Local government has become more and more remote from people’s lives, as authorities have merged to create new entities which no longer reflect people’s sense of identity (e.g. ‘Kirklees’, ‘Tameside’). There is a strong democratic – and ‘efficiency’ – case for going back to smaller, empowered local authorities which can share some responsibilities with each other, not least ‘back office’ functions. At the same time, we should not be frightened of handing power and resources over to community-based social enterprises which can provide services which were once delivered by the co-operative movement (e.g. libraries but also many other services too). Labour and its allies should embrace a radical ‘neighbourhood politics’ where it is people themselves, through co-operative organisation, who deliver most of the services to the community.
Ways in which local government itself works should be questioned. Has cabinet-style government worked? I would say the results are mixed and in many cases has led to the dis-empowerment of many elected members and the creation of leadership cliques in many councils. Different approaches should be tried, letting a hundred flowers bloom. Above all, it should be about sharing power, devolving where appropriate whilst retaining what is right – and possibly doing more, particularly in economic development. Many councils still run things – be it bus companies, airports, or trams – and they do it extremely well. They could do a lot more and demonstrate that public ownership can be dynamic and entrepreneurial, with high levels of user and worker involvement.
The issues of local, regional and national democracy are intimately related. Within the British Isles we should build a vision for a Federal Britain based on largely autonomous governments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe the Irish Republic could have some status within this). England, if it was just left to an ‘English Parliament’ would dominate all the others, as it has always, historically, done. Within England we need an ‘England of the regions’ based on large, well-resourced, units – the North, Midlands, East of England, South-West, London and South-east. London does of course already have its own regional government. The assumption should be that most powers are eventually devolved, over a period of 5-10 years, leaving a limited number of core functions such as defence and foreign policy at the centre. Within this structure there should be no reason why the English regions should not form a ‘sub-federation’ to discuss issues of common ‘English’ concern, though the main federal parliament should cover British isles as a whole.
Clearly there would be a risk of new regional bodies becoming just as bureaucratic and remote as the centralised institutions they replace. That’s why it would be important to ensure the regional assemblies are genuinely new forms of governance, learning from experience elsewhere across the world and ensuring they are fully representative of the communities they represent. Creating new forms of regional democracy is an exciting prospect and there should be an assumption that it will be very, very different from old forms of governance. The regions can learn from the experience of bodies like the GLC which used their power and resources to encourage a myriad of local, autonomous activities.
Neighbourhood democracy and the English Tradition
Within the English radical tradition there are plenty of positive examples of thinkers who see politics as going beyond the conventional formula of being allowed to vote every five years, who were committed to real, grassroots democracy. William Morris is someone we pay lip service but who is seldom read. Writing in Commonweal in 1889 he said: “…it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself (sic) to be responsible for its details and be interested in them; individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life onto the shoulders of an abstraction called the State but must deal with each other.”
Edward Carpenter was probably a century ahead of his time in melding grassroots socialism with the environment, sexuality and spirituality. His lectures on The Larger Socialism, Civilization – its Cause and Cure, and Non-Governmental Society are as relevant now as they were in the late 1890s. Above all, we should re-visit the work of Michael Young, who was a veritable ‘ideas machine’ in the 1940s and 1950s yet whose work has been almost forgotten in mainstream politics. He was author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto and the party’s Director Research, though he subsequently left the party, re-joining late in life as a Labour peer. He had much valuable things to say on local democracy, consumer rights and community politics. In the Labour Party pamphlet Small Man – Big World he makes a powerful case for ‘neighbourhood democracy’ arguing for neighbourhood councils in urban areas, working in partnership with existing, larger, local authorities. He suggests they could “build and run community centres where old and young could dance and sing, act and paint…they could open new playing fields, children’s playgrounds, swimming pools…they could establish restaurants, local museums and galleries.” He goes on to suggest that the local authority could delegate some existing functions, including responsibility for managing local schools, health centres and housing estates. As he points out, “Local government at all levels should flourish more than ever before in the new democracy.” (15)
Nothing has happened in the last 66 years to weaken anything suggested by Young. The idea of neighbourhood councils is now more than ever appropriate. But could they be constituted in ways which ensure higher levels of participation, structuring them as a community co-operative? The original local co-operative societies of the mid to late 19th century ran libraries, laundries, restaurants and produced furniture, flour and a range of other goods and services.
Could a modern-day neighbourhood co-operative be established to take on some existing council functions but also develop new business projects which generate employment and contribute to local sustainability? Energy production is one area, cultural industries another – everything would depend on local needs and opportunities. The basic principle should be that everyone in a particular neighbourhood could be individual members, with an executive elected each year.
‘Lansbury’s List’ does not directly include economic activity, which is a surprising omission. But if we look at it from a socialist and democratic perspective, the old certainties of the past are no longer tenable. Socialism should not be reducible to state ownership, and attempts to do that have led to disaster. We have a rich tradition within English radicalism which has promoted ideas of industrial democracy, from the early co-operators like William King of Brighton and Manchester’s John Doherty, to Edward Carpenter, whose Towards Industrial Freedom represents a very different approach to workplace democracy, and industrial production, to what became the accepted norm. The Bolton worker-philosopher Allen Clarke’s Effects of the Factory System, published in 1899, offers a critique of industrial capitalism and a Tolstoyan manifesto for small-scale production which is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
It’s ironic that the obvious way forward for a socialist economic policy has been staring us in the face for decades and we’ve done precious little about it. The co-operative movement, rooted in North of England working class radicalism in the 19th century, is in good shape for all its recent problems and offers a viable economic model for a wide range of services and sectors. And without wresting some control over economic activity from the huge trans-nationals, ‘One Nation’ will be a meaningless abstraction. ‘The nation’ no longer belongs to us, be it train operations, energy supplies, manufacturing industries or football teams – and we need to find ways of getting it back, through co-operative production. (16)
A radical economic policy needs to dovetail with plans for regionalisation (above), with democratically accountable regional development agencies supporting research and development and providing grants and loans to start-up social enterprises, in collaboration with their local government partners. Small clusters of business based on shared resources should be developed at neighbourhood level, as suggested above (‘Neighbourhood democracy’) in creative partnerships between local social entrepreneurs, councils and a reformed regional banking system.
Feminism and equality
Lansbury was one of the many Labour men in the early years of socialism who were strong advocates of feminism. He was part of an honourable tradition that included Morris, Carpenter, Keir Hardie. There were outstanding women socialists, particularly in the ILP tradition – Hannah Mitchell, Selina Cooper and Caroline Martin to name only a few. Not many would say that the battle has been won, either within society as a whole or within the Labour Party and other parties of the left and centre-left. And obviously it is not just about women’s equality, it’s about class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and other factors which make each of us different. If we’re serious about a new form of democratic government, and a dynamic economy, Labour needs to be much more emphatic about embracing diversity. It will be a matter of time before governments are compelled to introduce measures to ensure better representation of women and minorities: Labour should put itself at the head of this movement, building on the work it has done in ensuring more women are selected for parliamentary and local council seats.
It’s ironic that very often the strongest advocates of social equality are apolitical business people who recognise the need to have a much wider pool of talent than the traditional white male. Some very hard thinking needs to be done about how to open up politics to a wider cross-section of people, helping to drive a new approach to political activity and representation. The proposed new regional assemblies represent an opportunity to find new forms of representation which encourage young people, women, people from non-white ethnic backgrounds and other minority groups to play an active role. We’ve got to stop accommodating to right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric and recognise that immigration brings huge economic and cultural benefits. We must find ways of making the best out of our legal responsibilities as members of the European Union.
Fellowship is life!
The fifth point on ‘Lansbury’s List’ sounds the most unfamiliar – ‘an ethic anchored within a conception of the human condition and its creative possibilities, duties and obligations and sense of fellowship’. Now, a socialist in the 1890s would have recognised exactly what Lansbury meant. William Morris was the great prophet of ‘fellowship’: “Fellowship is Life – Lack of Fellowship is Death” became the rallying call of the Clarion movement and inspired several generations of socialists. We live in a cynical world where the privatisation of individual existence has gone a long way. But people do yearn for community and this gets expressed in a million different ways. We are a nation of ‘joiners’ – anyone who says that people don’t want to ’get involved’ should look at the membership of charities like the National Trust. People do want to get involved but they’re fussy what they get involved in! And that rules out most political parties, including Labour. We don’t make it very attractive to people.
‘Fellowship’ is the sister of ‘community’ – it might be a community of place, neighbourhood – or it might be a community of interest, ethnicity or age. But fellowship also suggests an active engagement, a warmth that ‘community’ on its own doesn’t offer. Cameron knew he was on to something with his ‘Big Society’ and we didn’t help ourselves by cynically dismissing it. We need our own socialist take on community action which recognises its positive nature and gives it more depth and wider involvement. There is plenty of experience within England on good practice in community development and we need to use the skills that are out there, and usually sympathetic towards the left. And we need to look at ways in which we ‘do’ our own politics, making it a much more attractive and creative activity. This means far fewer boring meetings, many more sociable events and activities and outgoing campaigning.
One of the strongest means by which the early socialist movement was built was through local, open-to-all clubs where a range of socialists, radicals and others could meet in relaxing surroundings. Few of those survive, but the great Clarion Cycling Club, whose members once numbered in their tens of thousands, still exists and is experiencing a modest revival in towns like Brighton, West Lothian, Cheshire, Bolton and Saddleworth. In Huddersfield, ‘The Red and Green Club’ has been formed to provide a place where people on the left can meet and socialise, organise events and run conferences. Every town should have one.
Lansbury’s point about people’s ‘creative possibilities’ should strike a chord with many people today, from young people forming a band, people involved in writing groups, painting – as well as the much wider sense of creativity, expressed through work and careers. Far too many people’s creativity never gets a chance. Philip Snowden, in his lecture ‘The Christ That Is To Be’ set out his vision of a freed people: ”I see a people healthy, happy, cultured, contented whose wealth is life, full and free..”
This takes us into another area which has potentially great contemporary resonance – spirituality, which was once a very major feature of socialism, through the Labour churches, spiritualist lyceums and socialist Sunday schools. A modern politics should not tie itself to any particular creed or faith but it should be alert to spirituality and its importance, as well as building close friendship links with faith groups that share some of our values. The old ‘scientific socialism’ is as dead as many as the creeds it attacked and many people do have a ‘search for meaning’ which goes beyond the purely material. A new creative dialogue with faith groups – including Quakers and Nonconformists, radical Catholics and Anglicans, but also Muslim and Hindu scholars – could offer some exciting perspectives which strengthens and enriches our political practice.
Beauty in Civic Life: A broader environmental awareness
The issue of climate change is probably the single most important challenge facing humanity. Under the current Government it has been relegated to a fringe interest and within labour there is a sense that it is less central an issue than it was five years ago. Yet it would be a monumental error, and a huge dereliction of responsibility, if we followed the Tory line that ‘the environment’ was less important than ‘jobs’. We know all the arguments that the two should be inseparable. It is not just about the long-term but also how we live our lives now. Issues like better public transport, safe walking and cycling, pleasant places to live and work mean a lot to people. Protection of open spaces and the natural landscape can be some of the most powerful motivators of people and can sometimes run up against developer pressures and local authorities’ desire to create jobs at any costs. We urgently need to move away from the current neo-liberal approach towards landscape and built heritage and recognise both as precious.
As long ago as the 1890s Lancashire writer Allen Clarke, in Effects of the Factory System, exposed not just appalling working conditions in the mills, but the effects of pollution and despoliation of the landscape by industrialism. He was part of a mass movement in the 1890s which protested against attempts to enclose parts of the Lancashire moorland so that the local bourgeoisie could practice their shooting. A love of the countryside, and a willingness to take militant action to safeguard access to it, stretches back through the 19th century. The 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass, by Manchester socialists and communists, is a relatively recent example. This is no modern day ‘fashionable middle class’ issue but is at the heart of the English working class radical tradition.
It is not just about the countryside; it’s about how our towns and cities function. The work of Ebenezer Howard is an important part of the English radical tradition, but we also need to acknowledge the more recent work of anarchist Colin Ward in developing a radical, democratic and humane view of planning. Encouraging a new sense of ‘beauty in civic life’, as Edward Carpenter called it, would differentiate us sharply from current free-market laissez-faire. We should be sharing ideas with the Greens, not running away from them as rivals. There is enormous scope for local energy-generating schemes which provide an environmentally-friendly source of power, create local jobs and potentially generate a surplus to invest in community facilities. Similarly, community enterprises – or the local neighbourhood co-operative – could run what are currently dismal unstaffed railway stations and develop them once more as hubs of community life instead of abandoned shells, offering bike hire, shop facilities and other services that meet local needs.
A real internationalism
Britain is an old imperial power which has left all sorts of residues, mostly bad ones. These include racism and militarism, but also a sense of our own entitlement in the world. It’s sad that the real democratic potential of ‘the Commonwealth’ was never realised though it was inevitable that the emerging nations would want to draw a line under the imperialist past. Today, Britain no longer has a clear place in the world, though it does still command some respect, not least for our role in the Second World War in defeating fascism. Internationalism ran through the early socialist movement like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. It was fundamental to socialists’ sense of being part of the world. It sprang from radical Liberalism and earlier republicanism and in turn Chartism – a profoundly internationalist mass movement. We need to champion a new internationalism which resists the seemingly constant temptation to use force in foreign conflicts but instead plays appositive and peaceful role in world politics, using our armed forces for good (e.g. flood relief, other natural disasters, skills development in developing nations, etc.).
We need to end the uncertainty about our place in Europe. There’s plenty that needs to be done to improve the EU but leaving it will not help. We need to build positive relationships between communities in Britain and other parts of Europe – as well as in other parts of the world, through the internet and actual exchange visits. That also means that radicals in the UK should have stronger ties with activists in other parts of the world. Internationalism isn’t about a few diplomats jetting across the globe, it’s about meaningful solidarity and friendship and a new international sense of ‘fellowship’.
Conclusion: In praise of Slow Politics
This paper has argued for the re-discovery of traditions which have been all but lost over the last 50 years. We need to integrate them with modern-day approaches to radical political activity that have been developed both in Britain and in other parts of the world. We need to recognise the strengths and also the weaknesses of the Socialist tradition. Its fetishisation of state control and centralism is politically redundant. But its’ championing of co-operative ownership, fellowship, internationalism and perhaps above all equality should be cherished. Socialism needs to re-connect with radical Liberalism and the newer forces in the Green, feminist, anti-war and communitarian movements. There is a shared radicalism out there but we need to spend time building a new radical alliance.
A friend of mine, from a quite different political tradition and a younger generation, made some very telling comments. After reading an earlier draft of this paper he suggested we need to welcome diversity and difference because it makes us better and stronger. “It’s about anti-homogenisation, anti-globalisation, it’s ‘slow politics’, like ‘slow food’. That’s not the same as reviving a tradition just because tradition is good in itself, it’s that places should grow their own, and when they do, they grow things that are rich and meaningful. It’s also valuable because comparison between things that are different is a good way of learning to do things better. Redundancy of capacity is very valuable – don’t strip things down to the one most efficient way, because that leads to fragility, and no system for adapting to changes” (17). Which I think sums up what I’ve been trying to say very well.
I’ve written this from the perspective of a member of the Labour Party. I think many Labour activists share some if not all of the views within this paper though whether any of it would strike a chord with the front-bench leadership is questionable. I hope it will. We need a strong, radical, simple moral message that connects with the best in people. But there is much that can be done at a local level to create a radical culture, through alliances, projects and campaigns, which do not need the stamp of approval of any head office.
Jon Cruddas has done much to re-establish the ethical and democratic tradition at the heart of Labour policy-making, bringing a better balance to Labour’s politics. It should strike a chord with many people who may not see themselves as ‘socialists’ or Labour voters. He argues that: “A transformative politics is about voicing what people already know and feel but struggle to find the words for”. His appropriation of the ‘One Nation’ agenda and propelling it in a much more radical and creative direction may not be what Ed Miliband quite had in mind, but it is light years away from the platitudes and often hypocrisy that has surrounded the term.
I’ve written this as an English political activist, stressing an English radical tradition that we need to re-energise. Strong progressive movements in Scotland and Wales can only help propel that forward. A new English politics is about moving away from the spurious ‘unity’ of Great Britain which only served to hide the reality of English domination. The future must be a federation of nations and – within England itself – regions. For now, we should be developing friendly ties with campaigners in Scotland and Wales who share similar values to ours, not assuming any mantle of superiority.
Can we recapture the élan of the early days of socialism in a way which really does speak to people’s hopes and dreams today? Labour has the chance to put play a leading role in a new progressive movement which recognises regional and local distinctiveness and is willing to devolve (and share!) real power, both political and economic. It will not be able to do it all on its own and has to learn the positive art of alliances and creative partnerships. We do not have all the answers in what is an increasingly uncertain world. For now, Labour is the largest player in this new ‘red and green’ radicalism for the 21st century – but it will only work if built in partnership with others.
1. Edward Carpenter’s socialist anthem, England Arise! was for many years much more popular than the dirge-like Red Flag. The following ideas are a response to the Jon Cruddas George Lansbury Memorial Lecture, November 7th 2013 LSE
2. Paul Salveson Socialism with a Northern Accent, Lawrence & Wishart 2012
3. There are many studies of local socialist traditions, e.g. George Barnsby on the Black Country, Dai Smith on the south Wales valleys. But see Socialism with a Northern Accent for an overview.
4. Cruddas ibid. In her autobiography The Hard Way Up (1968) Hannah Mitchell writes of the early socialists in the Bolton ILP and Labour Church: “….we realized the injustices and ugliness of the present system. We had enough imagination to visualize the greater possibility for beauty and culture in our more justly ordered state. If our conception of Socialism owed more to Morris than to Marx, we were none the less sincere” (p.116)
5. The CPGB developed an intelligent theory of alliances in the 1970s (cf ‘the broad democratic alliance’) though it came too little and too late to avoid suspicion it was just Stalinist manipulation – which to some CP’ers it probably was
6. The Clarion movement deserves a detailed history but see the excellent booklet by Denis Pye Fellowship is Life: the history of the Clarion Cycling Club, Bolton 1992
7. Sheila Rowbotham’s monumental biography of Carpenter – Edward Carpenter, a life for liberty and love (2012) does much to restore his reputation. Other radical thinkers at the time included Allen Clarke of Bolton (see my Lancashire’s Romantic Radical: Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton , Huddersfield 2009. Clarke was a Tolstoyan anarchist. Fred Jowett’s Socialists and the City was published in 1907 after he had become an MP. Ian Bullock and Logie Barrow’s Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914 is an excellent source for this period.
8. Cruddas ibid. The best biography of Morris remains EP Thompson’s revised version of William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1996
9. The Social Democratic Federation originally really was a federation with a mix of different ideas and tendencies, including some radical democratic/ethical socialists. It morphed into the British Socialist Party which ultimately became part of the CPGB. By then, most of the ‘ethical socialist’ elements had gone into the ILP.
10. Tawney, like Michael Young, is now largely forgotten and in urgent need of rehabilitation. His Acquisitive Society (1921) remains an outstanding critique of capitalism.
11. Michael Young’s Small Man: Big World is subtitled ‘a discussion of socialist democracy’ and was part of Labour’s ‘Toward’s Tomorrow’ series, published in 1947
12. Linda Colley Acts of Union and Disunion, 2013
13. See Hilary Wainwright Labour, A Tale of Two Parties, 1987
14. Gar Alperovitz America beyond Capitalism: reclaiming our wealth, our liberty and our democracy Boston USA 2011, p.43
15. Michael Young Small- Man – Big World, Labour Party (London) 1948 p.11 . See http://www.youngfoundation.org
16. See Paul Salveson Railpolitik – bringing railways back to communities , 2013, for a discussion on how the rail industry could be run under co-operative ownership.
17. Email from Andrew Wilson, Huddersfield