The future of the left since 1884

Onwards and upwards – Vol 2

The second online instalment of Onwards and Upwards, a celebration of 140 years of Fabianism originally published in the Spring 2024 Fabian Review. Featuring Anas Sarwar MSP, LJ Davies, David Blunkett and Kirsty McNeil



Reaching across the UK

Anas Sarwar MSP

2024 could not be more critical for Scotland and for Scottish Labour. We face the most important general election in a generation. The SNP say they want to send a message to Westminster – we want to send a government. This is our chance to deliver the change that Scotland needs.

Scottish Fabians research last year showed that not only does Scotland have a crucial role to play in delivering a Labour government, but that the answers to how we renew and revive Labour’s appeal across the UK lie in Scotland – “the first red wall to fall”.

This year is our opportunity to send Scottish MPs to Westminster who will sit at the heart of a Labour administration. The Fabian Society and the Scottish Fabians have been crucial to making this possible by turning Scottish Labour back into a party of government.

As the Fabian Society celebrates its 140th year, the Scottish Parliament will celebrate 25 years. A quarter of a century from when our party created the Scottish Parliament, our opponents have failed to make it work for the people of Scotland.

We have come a long way, but there is still much work to do. The election is on a knife-edge. It will take all our activists working hard to get these seats over the line. I know I can rely on Scottish Fabian members to get out and fight for our shared values.

A Labour government will be an opportunity to reset devolution and take it back to if founding principles. Devolution was always meant to be about Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. It was always meant to be about empowering local communities. It was never meant to be an end in itself but a means to an end – a fairer, more equal society. I know that the Fabian Society shares this vision, and I look forward to working with it to deliver the change that Scotland needs.

Anas Sarwar is the leader of Scottish Labour

LJ Davies

Politics affects us all, but much of its infrastructure is heavily concentrated in London. Right from the start, however, we at the Fabian Society have had a presence across the United Kingdom in the form of our local societies. Local Fabian societies provide a space for people on the left to meet and debate political issues and how they affect their local communities.

Each local society is different. Some focus on local government issues and act as a thinktank for their area. Some provide a forum for discussion of national issues. Some are small, others large, with bigger branches having more than 100 members. Many are affiliated to their local Labour party units and feed policy expertise and ideas into their constituency structures. All of them contribute to Fabian traditions and our reach across the country.

The local societies are part of what makes the Fabians special, and after a difficult period during the pandemic they are going from strength to strength. You can find details of local societies near you on the Fabian website – or contact our local societies convenor if you’re interested in setting one up and taking Fabian ideas into the future throughout the country.

LJ Davies is the local societies representative on the Fabian Society’s executive committee and a Labour & Co-operative councillor for Smethwick

The Fabian Society’s place in the labour movement

David Blunkett

When I was a student at the University of Sheffield, one of my tutors was Royden Harrison, professor of history. After he moved to Warwick – where his reputation blossomed – I kept in touch with him and his wife Pauline (they retained their home in Sheffield). On many occasions I had a very pleasant evening meal with them, though they often felt more like a tutorial – and when I was in government, an inquisition!

Royden later took on the task of writing a biography of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who formed the core of the early Fabian Society. To the outside observer, Fabianism, and therefore the Fabian Society, was a euphemism for gradualism. Yet, as one of the three strands that led to the establishment of the Labour party, and which still shapes the British left today, it was much more than that.

The Social Democratic Federation, the craft trade unions and the Fabian strand of social democracy blended together. The first – contrary to its name – was, of course, Marxist. The second represented the practical implementation of the struggle of Labour to counteract exploitation and to give a voice to workers. But Fabian discussion and analysis was the educative core and, in many ways, the moral voice, arguing for the values of equality, mutuality and reciprocity which so desperately need shoring up today.

On this anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on the tension, so common on the left-of-centre, between nostalgia for a bygone era and the stark reality of modern challenges, and how the Fabian Society has navigated this tension in the past. Historically, partly because of the influence of Sidney Webb, the Fabian Society was seen as promoting the ‘big state’, taken up in the post-second world war era by Herbert Morrison, and a top-down approach to both nationalisation and the welfare state. Yet over 40 years ago, I, together with Professor Geoff Green (now at Sheffield Hallam University), wrote a small Fabian pamphlet called Building from the Bottom. It was the Fabian Society which gave us voice to describe the ‘Third Way’ long before Anthony Giddens coined the phrase in the 1990s.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer. He served as Home Secretary, Education Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary under Tony Blair

Kirsty McNeill

The Fabian Society has sometimes been characterised as the home of ‘pamphlet’ Labour, a place for thinkers and theorists who hold themselves apart – perhaps even aloof – from ‘leaflet Labour’, the tribe concerned with the nuts and bolts of winning elections. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I used my speech at the Fabian new year conference in January to call time on this damaging distinction.

Our Fabian predecessors helped form the Labour party precisely because the redistribution of power to working people through parliamentary means was their ultimate objective, both ethically and strategically. In joining forces with the trade unions, we created the greatest fighting force for fairness this country has ever known, and we have been combining the politics of ideas and the politics of organisation ever since.

Over the last 140 years, this bilateral partnership with the trade union movement has become ever more porous. We have also learnt from and incorporated a plethora of other progressive traditions including feminism, environmentalism and the co-operative movement. While we must constantly be adapting to new times and new trends, one thing has remained unchanged since the society’s formation: as Fabians, it is our privilege but also our obligation not just to generate policies but to get out there and fight for them. That is how we will make 2024 a year that our Fabian forebears would be proud of – and that will inspire those who follow us. I look forward to seeing many of my fellow Fabians on the campaign trail in the months to come.

Kirsty McNeill is the Labour parliamentary candidate for Midlothian. Her pamphlet, Counter Culture: How to Resist the Culture Wars and Build 21st Century Solidarity, co-written with Roger Harding, was published by the Fabian Society in 2021


Illustrations: Matt Holland

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