Critics of Labour’s time in government are often heard describing new Labour as Croslandite, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.
The argument goes that the 1997-2010 government embodied three failings that came straight from Tony Crosland: the pursuit of equality as a statistical abstraction over meaning and relationships in the lives people really live; a belief that the market should largely be left to its own devices; and the proposition that the main engine of egalitarian politics is redistribution through tax and spending.
Read Crosland and you quickly see that these are not a simplification of his views, but plain wrong. I’ve just been skimming his seminal 1952 contribution to the New Fabian Essays, and there is much to counter each of these charges against the Croslandite tradition as well as a great deal that speaks across the decades to the party’s present post-new Labour conversation.
Crosland’s political vision has a strikingly ‘one nation’ quality: ‘the purpose of socialism is quite simply to eradicate this sense of class, and to create in its place a sense of common interest and equal status’. Of course, he thought this entailed economic reforms to equalise living standards and opportunities. But we often forget a second dimension, which for Crosland was more important. He insisted on what he called ‘socio-psychological’ measures that would bring people together, so that British people could live shared lives.
It was this objective that was the hallmark of his socialism; and he explicitly rejected the extension of free public services and the further redistribution of income as alternative ways of conceiving of the essence of socialism. Not very new Labour then. He thought each might be desirable, but they could not be transformational in terms of people’s relations to each other.
The short list of prescriptions in Crosland’s Fabian essay speaks more to today’s Labour debates than those of the 1990s and 2000s too. He thought reforms in three domains would transform ‘socio-psychological’, not just material, relationships between citizens. He wanted the ending of ‘social hierarchy’ in schools, something of course he did much himself to bring about, but remains unfinished business. This was a concern for new Labour and remains so now.
But his other two priorities were largely ignored over the last 20 years but have been rediscovered since the financial crisis. First Crosland raised the question of wealth, an issue neglected by Labour in power, but now back on the agenda in the context of the affordability of housing. Second he wanted to transform the relationship between business owners and employees from one of hostility to joint endeavour, something that lies at the heart of the Miliband agenda.
Indeed in the 1952 essay Crosland mooted the sort of Germanic corporate structures that are much in favour among shadow ministers and Labour thinkers today: ‘to alter the legal structure of company ownership as to substitute for shareholders’ sole control, a constitution which explicitly defines the responsibilities of the firm to worker, consumer and community; workers would become members of the company, and have their representatives on the board of directors.’
So Crosland still matters, perhaps more than ever. And Fabian essays are well worth re-reading.