If there is one message that defines the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, it is anti-statism. The Tories and Lib Dems agree that the British state is too big, too interventionist, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too authoritarian, too inefficient. The key task of the current government, they concur, is to set the people free by reducing the size and scope of the state and decentralising what remains and subjecting it to the disciplines of the market.
The imperative of deficit reduction, as Nick Clegg argued in his Hugo Young lecture last week, is a blessing in disguise. The pain the cuts will cause, as he didn’t put it, will be a price worth paying for liberation. Much the same point was made by the Tory journalist, author and former Thatcher apparatchik Ferdinand Mount in the annual George Orwell lecture on Friday, in which he argued, unconvincingly, that Orwell, in life a democratic socialist Labour supporter, would today endorse the coalition’s hostility towards “oligarchy”. (For a pointed demolition of Mount’s case, see Anna Chen here.)
“We need to get the state off our backs!” is hardly a novel narrative – it’s very much in line with what the Thatcherites proclaimed in the 1970s and 1980s and what liberals of a certain stripe have argued since time immemorial – but it’s one that Labour is finding hard to counter.
This is partly because Labour itself fought the general election earlier this year on a programme of cuts (albeit less rapid and less draconian), but that’s not the whole story. The reasons it embraced cuts were many and varied. Some of the party’s leading lights had bought into parts of liberal anti-statism (though not the whole package), and many beyond this group were genuinely convinced that the scale of the deficit demanded drastic immediate action. Others, however, saw the promise of cuts opportunistically as a useful gesture to placate the bond markets, the right-wing press or tax-averse “aspirational” middle-class voters, to be reconsidered in the fullness of time; and still others accepted cuts only through gritted teeth because the alternative was a potentially catastrophic revolt by some on the Labour right.
In other words, the root problem is that Labour is seriously divided on some of the most fundamental political questions, those of the proper roles and proper organisational principles of the state. Its upper echelons include bigger-staters and smaller-staters, centralisers and decentralisers, democratisers and quangocrats, privatisers and anti-privatisers, authoritarians and libertarians. And just to confuse matters further, there are bigger-staters on macroeconomic management who are smaller-staters on benefits spending and housing, centralisers on education who are decentralisers on urban planning, authoritarians on anti-social behaviour who are libertarians on detaining suspected terrorists without trial, and so on.
The upshot is that Labour doesn’t have a strong, coherent over-arching message to counter the anti-statism of the Tories and Lib Dems. It can of course argue that the anti-statist message is simplistic, iniquitous, impractical and hypocritical (which it is) and selectively oppose those coalition cuts, deregulatory measures and other reforms that are least popular. But this falls a long way short of articulating a convincing and attractive distillation of the case for social democracy in the early 21st century, which is what Labour desperately needs.
Can it develop one? I think so, but only if it begins by subjecting the coalition’s anti-statism to a rigorous critique and restating some basic social democratic political principles that it was mealy-mouthed about at best in government.
For a start, Labour needs unashamedly to make it clear that, contrary to the coalition’s rhetoric, there is a strong case for a big state – one that manages the overall level of demand in the economy, redistributes income and wealth to ensure freedom from want for all, plays the major role in provision of education, health care and other welfare services, and generally steps in to deal with market failure, particularly in transport, housing and energy policy.
Secondly, it needs to revive the argument that a big state does not have to be and should not be authoritarian, unaccountable, stiflingly bureaucratic, frivolously meddlesome or ultra-centralised. Here, some profound self-criticism of the New Labour era is in order, as well as a raft of big symbolic libertarian, decentralising and democratising policy measures. Right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for radical libel law reform, handing control of the schools curriculum back to councils, ending both central government capping of local taxation and ring-fencing of local spending, proportional representation (not the alternative vote) for the Commons and a democratic second chamber. This is by no means a definitive list or one that will necessarily be apposite come the next general election – nor is this sort of stuff a panacea for all of Labour’s ills – but you get my drift.
I haven’t a clue whether Ed Miliband’s policy review, announced yesterday, will go in anything like this direction. But I can’t see any credible alternative.