Few would lump the words ‘Crosland’ and ‘communitarianism’ into one sentence. In outlining his vision for the future of socialism, Anthony Crosland barely gave a nod to the importance of community in the functioning of political life. Indeed, when Maurice Glasman launched the Blue Labour initiative, Crosland was his chief villain. According to Glasman, in Crosland’s view “the ends were everything and the means were nothing.”
This overstates matters, of course. Crosland never argued that the movement is nothing. No doubt he was too astute a politician to view it as a binary choice. Yet Crosland’s curious failure to address this component of Labour’s historic success does sound a note of caution and suggests there is a limit to the lessons we might draw from Crosland for Labour’s current revisionist moment. To those who are as interested in how Labour ‘does politics’ as in what it does politics for, Crosland falls short.
The question, then, is what does Crosland offer those re-thinking the practice of Labour politics in communities?
In The Future of Socialism, Crosland famously outlined a dozen traditions which found their political expression through Labour. In doing so, Crosland did not merely note the truism that “Labour is a broad church”. He pointed expressly to Labour’s multiple traditions, unconstrained by rigid doctrine, as a basis for its success.
This insight is worth consideration. The certainties of the Fabians’ dominant orthodoxy bear much responsibility for the current state of Labour’s organisation. Centralist by instinct and focused on the state, that orthodoxy formed the intellectual basis of an approach to politics that was about doing things for and to people rather than with them. That Labour became, in organising terms, a shell of its former self owes much to the mindset promoted by the Fabian orthodoxy. As the heterodox Fabian thinker RH Tawney noted: “The certainties of one age are the problems of the next.”
Crosland reminds us that this centralist practice of politics is only one tradition from which current revisionists need draw. It may be dominant, but it is not exclusive. The rich and often contradictory wider traditions of the Fabians need their place, whether Tawney’s conception of the common good or GDH and Margaret Cole’s ideas of self-government.
Drawing on these many strands, the Blue Labour initiative gave intellectual force to the idea of relational organising. Many of its insights remain salient. A reliance on administrative methods to achieve transformative ends cannot suffice. Yet it stalled in realising a more community-based politics. Having articulated the vision, Blue Labour’s architects did not succeed in realising it at scale. The practice of Labour transforming communities through organising was left to a third-party organisation without formalised institutional support (Movement for Change) and an American community organiser-cum-consultant, whose individual reach was inevitably limited (Arnie Graf). In these circumstances, their ability to achieve transformative impact beyond circumscribed projects was compromised. As an intellectual project uncoupled from practice, Blue Labour did not generate the energy, strategy or narratives which could have translated it into a political project. That is the work of organising.
To realise communitarian values within a pluralist Labour tradition, an organising mindset is required. This means framing Labour’s overall basis for action in terms of building and disrupting relationships. It means organising “in the country a political Labour party”, as clause I of Labour’s constitution calls us to do. This requires a new approach to Labour’s organisational strategy, one which integrates organising methodology and practice rather than setting it apart as ‘community organising’. This, in turn, requires courage in thinking more broadly about Labour’s founding purpose. Labour winning at the ballot box will – must – be its ultimate test. Yet a party whose way of doing politics does not reflect the values to which it lays claim will never achieve the transformative impact that was its founding promise.
In this work, the movement is neither everything nor nothing. If we believe that how we do politics matters as much as what we do it for, then the choice is nonsensical. Organising is the means by which we create and then realise a political project. But without an end in mind, we might well ask: movement to where?
In The Future of Socialism, Crosland described a Labour party “furiously searching for its lost soul”. He rightly labeled this effort futile. No one tradition encompasses that soul. We cannot dust off the works of Crosland, Tawney and others expecting to find answers for our current moment, any more than Crosland could lean on Hardie and Lansbury for the right focus with which to capture his current realities. At best, then, Crosland’s articulation of Labour’s multiple traditions, refined through practice and creative experimentation, can mark a direction. Adapt those traditions for the world we live in today. Refine them through sustained organising and reasoned argument. That is the Fabian way.