It’s nearly five months since I was selected to stand as the Labour candidate for St Clements. A lot of doors have been knocked on and constituents spoken to since then. This blog has been somewhat neglected, though I am now writing with the wonderful Mags Waterhouse for the HuffingtonPost on issues to do with Labour politics and the challenges ahead.
I love the campaigning aspect of activism. It’s good to talk to people, to find out their views and I feel much more connected with my local community as a result.
There have been some real highlights.
A visit from Tom Watson was amazing, especially as he was extremely nice, funny and supportive: a fine example of the kind of authenticity that we need in our politics.
There have also been some funny moments: most recently, helping a chap move his sofa during a very chilly doorstep session. (It could only have been topped in the chap in question had been a certain David Cameron being moved out of Downing Street. Well, a girl can dream.)
But amidst all this activity it can be easy to lose sight of why you want to campaign for Labour in the first place, and this Saturday was a good reminder of the principles that underpin all that campaigning.
One of the best things about my political life is being a member of Labour Left. A grassroots Labour group, it campaigns for policies that will bring about a more equal society. On Saturday, we had our first open meeting for the tour to celebrate our Red Book which was published in November. Co-hosted by our local Labour Women's Group, it was an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas in the Red Book with three of the authors: Sophie Bryce, Rhiannon Lockley and myself. It was a reminder about why socialism is something of real relevance to today.
Below is a copy of my talk, based on my chapter in the Red Book. As I gave it, it reminded me again of why I am a socialist and a member of the Labour Party. It also reminded me (if I ever really doubted it) of why I think Labour is best suited to representing the needs of local communities. The meeting took place on a very snowy day but was really well attended by intrepid souls who braved the cold to talk about socialism today.
As we race towards May’s local elections, it’s given me the encouragement I need.
Labour Left describes itself as ‘the home of ethical socialism’, and I want to kick us off this afternoon by talking about what I think this means and why I think it forms the basis for a contemporary form of socialism that is relevant for today.
First, though, we have to accept that the very word ‘socialism’ is far from popular in the British context. Sure, the response to it here is not as bad as the kind that it gets in the States but it’s not far off.
Why is that the case?
I think there’s a particular conception of what socialism involves that makes sense of that rejection. There is a widespread assumption in the English speaking world that socialism is something grim, joyless, bureaucratic and soul destroying. George Orwell’s description in 1984 of the affect totalitarian regimes have on the individual could just as well sum up the image many have of socialism:
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Under socialism - the argument goes - human individuality and creativity will inevitably be crushed. This conclusion comes from a particular understanding of what the commitment to a more equal society involves. Emphasising ‘equality’ is often read as meaning that the goal is to make everyone the same. In order to achieve this goal, there will be an inevitable levelling down and – so the argument goes – everything will inevitably become bland, lacking life and vigour. If we think about some of the petty rules that used to control council house tenancies, we can see why some might stereotype socialism in this way.
And if socialism is not being viewed as something brutal and life-denying, then it is often pictured as the naïve response of the sixth former or student politician. I’ve lost count of the number of TV debates about the crisis of capitalism that start by saying, ‘of course, no one is seriously looking at socialism as an alternative’. ‘Of course.’ Socialism when not viewed as something brutal and inhuman, is seen as impractical and irrelevant.
In response to these common characterisations, I want to argue that there is a socialist approach that is well suited to addressing the problems we currently face.
The form of socialism I want to advocate is found in the early writings of the Labour movement. Locating it in that history does not mean that it is out of date. Far from it, for it is a vision of socialism that speaks well to the contemporary context. And it is particularly relevant because it takes seriously the creativity of the individual, while always understanding the individual as located in society.
This is ethical socialism, but we could just as well describe it as socialism with a human face.
This vision of socialism is found in the very first use of the word. It first appears in 1827, used by the visionary social reformer Robert Owen in his Co-operative magazine. For Owen, a socialist was ‘someone who co-operates with others for the common good.’
‘Someone who co-operates with others for the common good.’
Immediately, we get an image of the socialist as someone acting in their community with other people in order to create a better kind of community for all. It is an ethical vision of what socialism involves because it focuses on the quality of human relationships. It is about working together to achieve a goal. And that goal is the good community.
It’s the idea of action that’s vitally important here. The socialist is someone who takes their belief in a common humanity, a shared society, and lives it out in their day to day life and relationships.
It’s this grounded idea of the socialist that is extremely promising for new left politics. It’s promising, because it connects us to the co-operative movement, and in an age when even the right is talking again about society and co-operation this has got to be a good thing. We are not kicking against the pricks. There is a shared concern with how to think again about society.
But it also helps us to start from where we are. And this means confronting our society’s promotion of the individual.
We have lived through an era that has glorified the powers and choices of the individual. We might call this with social commentators the Age of Neo-Liberalism. For the neo-liberal, individuals are – in the words of the late Labour leader John Smith - “decision making units, concerned exclusively with their self-interest, making transactions in the marketplace”. The individual pursues their own ends, wants to make their own choices and is, importantly, defined as a consumer. This vision of the individual was enshrined in the New Right politics of Thatcher and Reagan and continued - albeit in modified form - under New Labour.
The financial crisis has revealed the paucity of this model of the individual as consumer. But as we race to point this out, we should be wary of failing to recognise the continuing attraction of individualism.
We all long for lives that are full and fulfilling. At its best, that is what the promotion of the individual advocates. The kind of socialism we need today is one that starts from where we are – with a society that emphasises the individual – and that moves on to show how the flourishing of individuals is best achieved when the social dimension of being human is recognised.
We are not without resources to help with this task.
We might start with philosophy – though as someone who makes a living from philosophy, I would say that! According to Aristotle, writing many centuries ago, humans are best understood as ‘social animals’. We are not units existing in isolation from others. And if we are to flourish, we need good, strong relationships and strong communities.
If we don’t like philosophy, we might look to social science. Recent research by the New Economics Foundation found that feeling good about your life doesn’t only come about through achieving your personal goals. Feeling good also comes from knowing yourself to be a part of a wider community. Over emphasising ‘the individual’ while ignoring the social dimension of human beings ignores the fact that we need each other to live well.
The clue to socialism’s relevance is, then, in its name – social-ism.
And if we start to think again about the kind of society that allows for human flourishing, we must deal with the affects of economic inequality. For too long the growing gap between rich and poor has been ignored. It seems a fairly obvious point to make, but in order for people to flourish, their material needs must first have been met.
But I think our arguments for the redistribution of wealth have to go beyond that. In an individualistic society, we have to show that a more equal society is better for all, not just for the poor or the worse off. And if you are in any doubt that this can be done, read Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s brilliant book The Spirit Level. As they show, in a more equal society, there is less crime, less stress, less mental illness for all, not just for the less well-off members of society. All feel better in a society that is not divided between haves and have-nots; that is more integrated and more united.
These principles, this kind of socialism, form the basis for an agenda for the future.
But we are not in power.
That does not mean, however, that we are powerless. Far from it. Ethical socialism emphasises the basis of socialism in ordinary action. Each of us can act in our daily lives in such a way as to prepare the ground for the kind of socialist society that we hope for. We can act now to create a better society through co-operating with others, through acting in our local communities. This does not mean political campaigning necessarily (though obviously as a Labour candidate I’d like as many of us out door knocking as possible!). In the smallest of transactions with others, we can act justly, showing everyone the respect that all human beings deserve. In our daily lives we can build the basis for the socialist society we wish to create. All have something to offer. All have the potential to contribute to building that better society.
This is socialism with a human face, and that is where we can start to build a credible socialist vision for the future.”