This is off topic from Theatre. Except in so far as the theatre industry is doomed until we can get the Tories out.
Tony Blair today waded into the Labour party leadership debate. He reiterated what has become the mantra of the reactionary wing of the labour party – that they want to keep our traditional values but update the methods to the modern day. If that is right I couldn’t agree more… But I’m not actually sure it is true. So here are what I take as my core labour values:
1) Equality is the primary and most important value – we all do better the more equal we are.
2) That we should all contribute to society according to our abilities, and receive reward and support from society according to our needs.
3) That democracy and self governance is important in all aspects of life, including the workplace.
Now because of these principles I think certain policies are the correct ones considering the world as it is today.
I agree with Unions because in a system where wealth and power is held by a few, they are the most effective way for the powerless workforce to get its voice heard – if they didn’t succeed in getting the voice of the workers heard then profiteering employers wouldn’t hate them so much.
I agree with a publicly owned national health service because it’s the best way to make sure that everyone receives the support they need (not just what they can afford), and prevents the development of a two tier public / private system that will promote inequality.
I agree with co-operatives, worker owned companies, and union representation on the boards of publicly limited companies – because they are the best way to make sure that pay settlements, and working condition are fair, and that the workforce have a democratic say in how the company is run.
I agree with redistributive taxation – because where companies don’t succeed in coming up with fair pre-distributive pay settlements that promote a more equal society, you need a safety net to ensure the government does it for them.
I agree with social housing, rent control and a rebalance of power from the land lord to tenant, because land value and speculation is, and always has been, a massive driver of inequality.
However all that being said, I would absolutely love and welcome any suggestions for alternative policies which could implement those values in a way more fitting for the modern world. I am a pragmatist – the point is to change the world not just describe it.
Yet I do fear that what is at stake is far more than a discussion of means rather than ends. It suits the reactionary wing of the party to say that we all have the same values, but it’s just a matter of updating the means of getting them into practice in the modern world. This is of course the wing of the party who want to return to the failed experiment of the ‘third way’ whilst describing moving backwards to 1997 as modernising. However I question whether it is actually just a debate about means; I think their values are different. I think what they care about is aspiration, equality of opportunity and a safety net of public services.
As far as I can see in their ideal world, everyone would begin equal on the same starting line, with an equal aspiration to get rich. Those who did well in the race would end up with the spoils of victory, those who didn’t win would get a lot less, and anyone collapsing out of the race would have a safety net public service to catch them so they wouldn’t ever starve to death or die too horribly in the street. I don’t criticise them for it. I don’t think it’s an evil or immoral view, but I don’t think it’ll succeed to create human happiness, so I disagree with it (even if it’s a perfectly respectable and widely held belief system). It’s what the Tory party also now claim to support and it’s what the Democrats in the USA subscribe to as well. But it doesn’t describe my values or the values that have always made up the left.
And they are not values which are mutually supportive of each other, or which could be coherently combined in the same program of government. Supporting the sort of aspiration which leads to large financial rewards for the winners – the ‘filthy rich’ that Peter Mandelson was so supremely unconcerned by – even if there was an equality of opportunity in getting there, is in direct opposition to the equality I believe in. It doesn’t matter how society ends up becoming unequal – the problem is the inequality.
So I think this leadership debate is more interesting than the candidates are making it out to be, because it’s not just about how we implement our values but a fundamental clash of values competing for the heart of the Labour party. And for those who say there is no longer any place for left wing values in the modern world, since when did the right wing get so Marxist and materially determinist? I don’t believe values are dictated by economic systems. They are argued for and won on the back of logic, passion and leadership.
You should never change your values because they are temporarily out of fashion. If you’re not winning the argument, you need to come up with better arguments, not different values. Ed Milliband didn’t lose because his ideas or values were wrong, but because he failed to inspire. Hell – I agreed with pretty much everything he said and he still didn’t inspire me. We need inspirational leaders who can change the debate, we need to be creating a new narrative of hope, not just playing the role the Tories have given us in their narrative of fear. We have changed the world before – it’s time we did it again.