Fabianism and the common iceberg
The Fabian Society is now and always has been an odd duck. Founded back in 1888, it defended imperial forays by way of a socialist version of white man’s burden; it also sought welfare reform on the level of the German system pre-1914. At the centre of it were people like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, for whom Stalin’s Russia wasn’t that bad, but god forbid they miss a garden party due to a General Strike.
Having received my usual quarterly copies of the Fabian Review and Fabian Ideas today, I diligently poured over them and came to the conclusion that the Fabians and I are living in different worlds. Apparently the whole and exclusive reason for the collapse in Labour’s fortunes and the abandonment of General Election 2007 was Cameron’s policy on the Inheritance Tax.
So utterly unreflective has our Party become that we are thought ready to accept such utter rubbish. It was a John Redwood-led think tank which came up with abolishing the Inheritance Tax – but right along side that were drastic reductions in things like Corporation Tax. Of course an aggressive campaign to get Britain’s corporate citizens onside can’t possibly bear any responsibility.
The change in media narrative happened subtly: one day the media was reporting Alistair Darling denouncing the rightward lurch of the Tories, and Vince Cable’s attacks on Osbourne as being stuck in Thatcherite Britain, all of it in the shadow of the ‘Brown bounce.’ Weeks later it was reporting on a bumbling Brownite administration and no one quite understood how the change had arrived.
Evidently the Fabians would like to pin the change on new Conservative policies, but that flat out ignores that Labour has been underwhelming in opinion polls for quite some time. From April 2006 til Gordon Brown took over, Labour’s ratings were consistently below the Conservatives. Scandal after scandal, incompetence following ignorance and we’ll to believe that actually it’s all the Tory fault.
Damn them for predictably trying to appeal to the baser of Middle England’s instincts. How terrible that the leopard hasn’t changed its spots. Yet for all that we can blame the Tories, it offers an unsatisfying and incomplete picture. If the only alternative we offer is a liberal-reformist one, well a perfectly fine brand of that can be acquired from the Conservative Party.
It was a Tory government with Enoch Powell as Minister for Health who approved oral contraceptives. It was Edward Heath’s government which made secondary education compulsory up to 16. There are plenty of cases where each Party has acted just like the other upon replacing it in government, or where one Party has made the occasional out-of-character ‘progressive’ moves.
Thus, any analysis which attempts to brand the Tories as the ‘nasty’ Party – a term used in the carpet bombing of the Tories up until it became apparent that there wouldn’t be a General Election 2007 – is prima facie shallow. It ignores just how much resonance the Tories can get by taking a populist line on green taxes whilst simultaneously further expanding market mechanisms in public services.
Any such shallow analysis is compounded by those who fail to realise that any insinuations we make that the Tories are a shower of bastards are likely to be turned against ourselves because, well, our leadership is also a shower of bastards. Even the one gem in New Labour’s crown, that of child poverty eradication, has been shown to slip ever so slightly out of place these last few months.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can’t keep his own house in order, our Party is a million score in debt and all the Prime Minister can do at PMQs is talk about job creation whilst no few people are working two of those jobs just to get by. That’s before we get to the important stuff, like screwing up education worse than the Tories or the fiasco of Connecting for Health and Foundation hospitals.
The less said about Iraq, Afghanistan and Trident, the better.
All of this, however, escapes Fabian chair Sunder Katwala if his introductory article to the Fabian Review is anything to go by. If “the Blairite right-flank worries about appeasing Guardian-reading liberals,” it hasn’t shown it because such liberals have been deserting Labour in droves as Gordon completes Tony’s legacy of building a State with more power than at any time since the Second World War.
Katwala comments that “those who lacked support to put up a candidate when there was a vacancy last year should shut up” demonstrates just why Fabian analysis is so shallow. It’s caught up in the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ of things. How the Tories turned things about, what strategem was the visible part of the iceberg which crushed New Labour, will be seen as irrelevant when history is written.
There are deeper powers at work. John McDonnell’s campaign didn’t succeed but the Fabian chair doesn’t ask why not. Those whose ideals benefit from the status-quo in the Party, or who don’t like the conclusions to which challenging that status-quo leads, are all too often complaisant when it comes to asking the difficult ‘why’ questions. ‘How’ is elevated to omni-importance: McDonnell didn’t get nominated.
It doesn’t matter why not because the why is an awkward question. It only matters that he didn’t and that this was done within the framework of Party rules. Again ignoring the nine-tenths of the iceberg lurking in the shadows beneath the calm surface water. This attitude is just as evident in the Fabian critiques of New Labour which are peppered through their recent offerings.
The underpinning question has not been, “why have our policies got little traction?” but has concentrated on “how do we get traction?” These seem linked, because one can’t demand that we translate a ‘too technocratic’ vision into ordinary terms without the assumption that our failure is due to bad communication efforts. Yet the first question opens a range of options as answer, the second acknowledges current policy as a starting point.
No doubt the ever-ambitious Young Fabians will enjoy such wankery, looking so principled and social-democratic, but so far as I’m concerned dressing up the visible portion of the iceberg in fine colours and having an orchestra play doesn’t mean we’re not going to be holed below the waterline if we continue in our current direction. Katwala can celebrate the obsolescence of McDonnell et al only so long.
Eventually their complaisance will be disturbed by electoral defeat – which is coming with or without the advocated abandonment of ‘triangulation.’ The shock of a Conservative victory, and the violent Tory triumphalism afterwards, will break the confidence of those who already trust in an ideology shaped by yesterday’s defeats. The result will be a right-ward drive, not the emergence of a left alternative leadership.
From the point of view of the socialist societies trying to influence the direction of the wider policy, more of the same (and reverse defections) is about all we can expect within the Party until more people delve below mere hows – which are the first line of defence of jingoists – and ask the why. The answer, so far as Tory success is concerned, is much less palatable than merely plans to abolish the Inheritance Tax.