Despite popular myth making by both its opponents and its allies, and the evidence of its record in government, the Labour party has not always been about a centralising, exclusively administrative approach to government. In many ways its origins are small ‘c’ conservative – as Burkean little platoons resisting the tyranny of market and state, with trade unions, faith groups and other facets of community life providing practical rather than just theoretical resistance to the laissez-faire of a Gladstone or a Thatcher on the one hand, and generations of top-down planners in Whitehall on the other. The free market and the Poor Law state were the twin centralising systems that the Labour movement was born to resist.
In The Politics of Paradox, I argued that a renewal of British politics requires ‘not the abolition of capital nor the elimination of markets, but their democratic entanglement in regional, civic and vocational relationships.’
The party has taken some important steps in this direction since 2011, and Hilary Benn’s recently proposed ‘English deal’ constitutes one of the major potential reforms here. But there is a lot more work to do.
Launched today on the Fabian Review online, the essay series ‘England expects: The new English Deal and the politics of positivity’ by Richard Carr and Dominic Rustecki, set out several ways in which the English deal can deliver on the challenges facing Labour in the twenty-first century. On skills, they argue for greater engagement between local business, skills providers and the labour force. On banking, they build on the example of transformative bodies such as the Bank of Salford, and asserts that Ed Miliband’s January 2014 announcement that Labour will introduce challenger banks must include a significant local dimension, with local governance.
The findings will not be agreed with by all, but they clearly stimulate some of the debates we need to be having. We need both new institutions and a new mindset – and this analysis is rightly looking in both directions. There needs to be a new political consensus that is pro-business and pro-worker built around the insights of Catholic social thought, particularly around subsidiarity and the renewal of solidarity. Pope Francis is the guiding light here, supported by Archbishop Welby in talking about an economics of the common good. It should be mentioned that more than any other political movement Labour healed the reformation schism within the English working class and that task needs to be renewed.
Our recent past has been a story of centrally-led governance, the building up and proliferation of debt, and a reliance on industries such as globalised financial services which are, by definition, not grounded in a politics of place. Whilst our politics has become more interconnected, it has also become more distant from those it purports to serve.
If we want to change all this, we have to begin in the relationships between one another, in the local rather than the national, and acknowledge that not everything can – or should – be done in the corridors of SW1 or the City of London.
These are profound leaps. And this series is an important contribution that deserves a wide audience. It will go down as a very important step towards the restoration of England, its counties and cities as political communities that are part of the body politic of our country.
The essay series ‘England expects: The new English Deal and the politics of positivity’ by Richard Carr and Dominic Rustecki is available to read online here.