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Beyond Revisionism

Beyond Revisionism
New Labour, socialist basics and
the dynamic market economy
Marcus Roberts

Since his election as party leader in June 1994, Tony
Blair has enthusiastically set about building a New
Model Labour Party. In a sense, his prospectus represents
only the final ceremony in a long and arduous process:

the so-called ‘modernization’ of the Labour Party. The
forced march to modernity had set out from the electoral
ruins of 1983, and it continues to bear the marks of its
genesis in that catastrophe. Under the aegis of the Shadow
Communications Agency, Labour’s development – in
particular, during the Kinnock years – came to be largely
determined by the electoral imperative. Labour’s very
survival, the communications moguls argued, required it
to reform in response to a psephological landscape that
had been transformed by Thatcherism. An (allegedly)
‘programmatic’ party had now to become a ‘positioning’

party: ‘attempting to corner as large a share as possible
of the electoral market by fashioning policies which more
closely matched public perceptions than those of
competitors’ .’

Superficially, modernization was evinced by the
‘Glitznost’ of the image-consultants – the party came up
smelling of roses and marching to the strains of Brahms.

More significantly, it inspired a Policy Review which
was finally to issue in a series of accommodations to the
Thatcherite dispensation: the long goodbye to unilateral
nuclear disarmament; resigned acceptance of
privatization; embrace of the bulk of Tory trade-union
law; and an unapologetic conversion to free-market
capitalism in something very like its Thatcherite
incarnation. 2 But this – often undignified – scramble for
position was to prove largely self-defeating; it was all
too transparent that Labour was losing its anchorage in
any set of fundamental principles: ‘It can be inexpedient
to abandon principle for expediency, because it is hard to
hide the fact that you are doing so, and everyone, N eil
Kinnock included, knew that the Tories were right when,

to powerful effect, they accused Kinnock of that
unprincipled abandonment’ .3
Here is a clue to the specificity of Blair’s project:

posing as the telos capable of retrospectively dignifying
what had looked for all the world like an undignified
retreat in the face of the New Right, he is current! y in the
process of rewriting the scramble for position as the
forward march of Labour towards a new programme for
the millennium (most obviously, via the recent redrafting
of Clause Four of the party’s constitution). Thus, a
celebratory editorial in the Guardian greeted Blair’s
ascension to the leadership with the proclamation that
this event symbolized the party’s final deliverance from
the ‘lunacies and irrelevancies of the early 1980s’ (i.e.

the long shadow ofBennism), under a leader articulating
‘a clear, consistent and persuasive vision of what a new
Labour project can mean in the 1990s’.4 The dusk of
Kinnockite modernization having drawn down, the Owl
of Sedgefield had taken flight.

So, what is the content of Blair’s ‘vision’? To begin
with, he demands an unblinking confrontation with the
exigencies of new and difficult times. A transformed
occupational structure has deprived Labour of its social
and electoral base in the (manual) working class (class
and partisan de-alignment); the integration of the global
economy has placed severe inhibitions upon the freedom
of strategic and programmatic manoeuvre of national
labour movements, as well as sounding the death knell
for the sort of Keynesian economic strategy that had
sustained labourism in the immediate postwar period
(capital global, Labour gobsmacked); and the collapse of
historical Communism has accelerated, and supposedly
validated, a near universal conversion to free-market
capitalism (the ‘End of History’).

Given a bleak assessment of socialism’s results and
prospects, it might be anticipated that Blair would

Radical Philosophy 73 (SeptlOct 1995)


conclude that his party’s survival demanded a full and
frank admission that socialism (as well as old-style
labourism) had now been discredited, and was therefore
irrelevant to the 1990s. But no. Blair denies that there is
any tension between the electoral imperative and the
reassertion of a radical socialist prospectus rooted in the
traditional principles of the Left (,true socialism’):

‘There is no choice between being principled and
unelectable and being electable and unprincipled … we
have tortured ourselves with this foolishness for too
long.’5 The completion of the modernization project,
then, demands neither more nor less than a rediscovery
of socialist basics.

The principle from which the left builds remains
the same: a belief that we are members of a
community and society as well as individuals alone
and a conviction that it is, in part at least, through
acting together, collectively, that individual
freedom and aspiration are advanced. That is the
principle from which notions of social justice and
equality gain practical strength. 6
But, while the principle remains the same, or so Blair
argues, it is necessary to liberate it from the ‘outmoded’

policy commitments with which it has somehow become
entangled. Currently, for example, socialist principle
dictates the abandonment of the supposedly discredited
commitment to ‘common ownership’ contained in
Clause Four of the party’s 1918 constitution, in favour of
a modernized clause signalling a passionate commitment
to the ‘dynamic market economy’ .

The radiant ambiguities of

So, which principles underwrite New Labourism? Are
they, as Blair alleges, ‘traditional socialist principles’?

Consider the cornerstone of this reconstructed labourism:

invocation of the spirit of community. Surveying the
wreckage ofneo-liberalism, New Labour seeks Britain’s
salvation in a social reconstruction guided by, and
conducive to, the resurrection of community and the
reassertion of the ‘solidaristic virtues’. But what,
precisely, is meant by ‘community’, and how is it
proposed to rebuild it? In a well-received address to his
party’s 1994 conference, Blair declared that ‘community
is not some piece of nostalgia … it means what we share
… it means working together … it is about how we treat
each other’ .7 Yet Blair’s efforts at clarification – here as
elsewhere – sow their own harvest of ambiguities. Most
obviously, the question arises of who we are, and of what
it is that we share.

Thus, in a recent discussion of Modern Conservatism,


David Willetts has argued that ‘community’ is in fact a
Tory value. Yet for the New Right, the reaffirmation of
the spirit of community is not only compatible with, but
actually requires, free-market capitalism: (neo-)liberal
capitalism is what we share. Responding to that
‘nostalgic labourite socialism’ inclined to doubt the New
Right’s concern with community in the light of the
devastation of working-class communities over the past
two decades, Willetts proclaims that communities merit
our allegiance and protection only in so far as they
’embody the deeper traditions and values of our society’

(business communities evidently do; mining communities
presumably do not).8 It is tempting to conclude that the
appeal of ‘community’ will all depend upon which
community we have in mind, and on what our other
values are, and therefore that the concept is bereft of any
intrinsic normative purchase: ‘It is possible to agree that
good communities are good, whereas bad communities
are not so good.’9 This, however, would be too quick.

The architects of New Labourism are concerned with
‘how we treat each other’. Not just any form of society
will qualify as a community, but only one that is
animated by those solidaristic virtues: in the words of the
American sociologist Etzioni (who has directly
influenced the development of New Labourism),
‘community’ is characterized by rather more in the way
of ‘caring, sharing and being our brother’s and sister’s
keeper’ .10
If the problem is to change the way people relate to
one another – from instrumentalism to solidarity – then
how is this to be done? In particular, will such a
transformation of individual motivation not require the
transformation of those economic and social structures
which mediate interpersonal relationships? For academic
communitarians – MacIntyre, Taylor et al. – the answer
will surely be in the affirmative. They have argued contra liberalism in general, and social contractarianism
in particular – that ‘the individual’ is a social
construction. If this is so, then changing the individual
will require social reconstruction. Only via fundamental
social change could the emaciated form of homo
oeconomicus be (re)enthused by the ‘spirit of
community’. Certainly, it would be spectacularly wrongheaded to try to sell community to the unreconstructed
rational utility-maximizer. And yet this is precisely what
New Labour is currently attempting to do: individuals
ought to embrace community because it is in their own
self-interest to do so: enlightened self-interest dictates
the acquisition of the solidaristic virtues. 11 The problem
with this is transparent: to admonish people to care and
share as a means to the advancement of their own
interests is barely coherent.

A principle of charity suggests an alternative reading
of this injunction – one which rescues it from incoherence, but leaves it light years away from any
recognizably socialist principle: pay taxes in order to.

secure adequate collective provision of social services
because it is in your own self-interest to do so. Addressed
to the better off, this argument is designed to appeal to
those government ministers incommoded by the
homeless on their way to the opera; addressed to those
who depend on some public services (say, health and
education), but do not anticipate making use of others
(say, social security and public housing), it argues only
in favour of supporting those services that are used.

Indeed, it is in the logic of arguments of this kind that the
optimal solution for the self-interested individual is to
benefit from good public services, but to contribute
nothing towards their provision (‘free-riding’):

To appeal to the self-interest of the majority
(dressed up as an interest they have in common
with the poor) as a central reason for relieving the
poverty of that minority may work electorally …

that depends … on whether they will reckon that
higher taxation is a smaller price to pay for their
own health and security than what they’d have to
shell out on BUPA, improved anti-burglary
systems, a house in the suburbs, and so on. But,
however they figure these sums, inviting them to
consider the issue primarily in that framework,
under a pretence of common interest, is a cop out
at the level of principle. 12
Socialist principle says that we eliminate poverty not
because it is in our own interests to do so, but because we
ought to do so whether it is our interests or not. House
the homeless because they need housing, not because
they are a threat to public safety.

If the attempt to market community to the
unreconstructed utility-maximizer is, at best, a deeply
anti -socialist enterprise, and if, as academic
communitarianism implies, transforming individual
motivation presupposes social reconstruction, then the
question arises of whether or not community is
necessarily an anti-capitalist (and not only an antiliberal) principle. Unfashionable as it may currently be,
there is surely nothing very provocative or surprising in
the assertion that socialist values are incompatible with
capitalist economies. As Cohen argues, the principle of
community simply is an
anti-market principle according to which I serve
you not because of what I can get out of doing so
but because you need my service. This is antimarket because the market motivates productive

contribution not on the basis of a commitment to
one’s fellow human beings and a desire to serve
them while being served by then, but on the basis
of impersonal cash reward. The immediate motive
to productive activity in a market society is
typically some mixture of greed and fear.13
Some familiar objections to this sort of proposal are
entirely beside the point. Neither the judgement that freemarket capitalism is the most efficient of all available
systems of production, nor the lack of any clearly
articulated alternative economic strategy, nor the poor
electoral prospects of radical socialism, have any bearing
upon the question of whether community is an anticapitalist principle. Blair’s enthusiasts need to be
reminded that there is a world of difference between
saying that socialism (or any left-of-centre alternative) is
undesirable or impossible, and concluding that whatever
it is that they want and think possible is eo ipso socialism.

A more credible objection points out that
disinterested concern for the well-being of others is
common enough within market societies. Certainly; but,
as Cohen proceeds to point out, this does not bear upon
the socialist (and not only socialist) critique of the
capitalist system: ‘People can operate under a sense of
service even in a market society, but, in so far as they do
so, what makes the market work is not what makes them
work. Their discipline is not market discipline’. 14 If
people were entirely motivated by a ‘sense of s~rvice’,
then the market would be redundant. But, surely,
capitalist markets can coexist with an invigorated sense
of community – for example, the market principle
governing wealth creation and the community principle
supporting (some) wealth redistribution? Again, this is
true enough, but beside the central point: coexistence is a
quite different thing from reconciliation. The proposal
that the spirit of community should be confined to those
areas of social life beyond the frontiers of the marketplace brings to mind a well-known passage from Marx’s
On the Jewish Question:

Where the political state has attained its full
development, man leads, not only in thought, in
consciousness, but in reality, in life, a double
existence – celestial and terrestrial. He lives in the
political community, where he regards himself as a
communal being, and in civil society where he acts
simply as a private individual, treats other men as
means, degrades himself to the role of a mere
means, and becomes the plaything of alien
Of course, any left-of-centre party will require not
only a set of basic principles, but also a credible


prospectus for government: the abolition of capitalism within the lifetime of a parliament – is (to put it mildly)
not an option. But it does not follow from this that the
Left should embrace market capitalism to the extent of
arguing that it is a means to the realization of the basic
principles of ‘true socialism’. An anti-capitalist party is
not prohibited from allowing that capitalism is (currently,
and perhaps for the foreseeable future) a necessary evil.

After all, this is neither more nor less than Adam Smith
had been prepared to argue. Aside from securing
consistency between socialist principles and a political
strategy, requiring accommodation to an inhospitable
conjuncture, this approach would have a number of
advantages. In particular, the articulation of a critique of
capitalism might provide a basis in principle for defence
of the welfare state and opposition to the privatization of
the public utilities, while concentrating socialists’ minds
upon the Left’s central dilemma: the development of a
credible alternative economic strategy. Once again,
Cohen goes to the heart of the matter:

The large fundamental values help to power (or
block) the little changes by nourishing the
justificatory rhetoric which is needed to push (or
resist) change. Fundamental socialist values which
point to a form of society a hundred miles from the
horizon of present possibility are needed to defend
every half-mile of territory gained and to mount an
attempt to regain each bit that has been lost. 16

Social justice and dynamic markets
New Labour is not a socialist party, but nor does it signal
the long-postponed triumph of Gaitskellite revisionism.

This is the case for two reasons at least. First, in the 1950s
the argument in favour of the replacement of Clause Four
of the 1918 constitution was premissed upon the claim
that the postwar humanization of (domestic) capitalism
via Keynesian demand management offered an
alternative to further nationalization for the realization
of Labour’s traditional objectives (by securing full
employment, for example). Times have changed. There
is a clear difference between surrendering (allegedly)
redundant weaponry in the aftermath of a (pyrrhic)
victory for labourism – the humanization of capitalism and doing so in the wake of a series of catastrophic
defeats – the dehumanization of capitalism under the
superintendence of the New Right (from ‘we have an
alternative’ to ‘there is no alternative’). Second, the
Gaitskellites sought further change that was undeniably
consonant with Labour’s traditional values: in particular,
a progressive equalization of wealth through
redistributive taxation. As signalled by the draft for a


modernized Clause Four, and made all but explicit in the
Report of the Commission on Social Justice, New Labour
has abandoned any serious commitment to a fundamental
redistribution of wealth: ‘[the Report of the CSJ] may
have lasting historical significance as the document in
which the left (sic) finally surrendered in the battle
against inequality of income and wealth … the closest the
opposition gets to espousing a radical redistribution of
wealth nowadays is to enclose Littlewoods pools
coupons with copies of the Labour Party News.’ 17 The
Blairite pejorative ‘Old Labour’ embraces Crosland and
Gaitskell, as well as Livingstone and Benn.

Prior to examining New Labour’s conception of
social justice, it is necessary to say something about its
economic strategy (or, rather, its lack of any alternative
economic strategy) – if only because, reluctant to raise
taxation in order to redistribute resources and finance
improved social services (,there are’, Blair tells us,
‘different and better ways of redistributing power and
wealth than simply taxing some people and giving that to
others’18) it is depending upon economic growth to
‘deliver people from the tyranny of poverty’ and to
secure for all ‘the opportunity … to work and prosper’ . 19
Denying that it has entirely capitulated to the economic
orthodoxies of the New Right, Labour is currently
struggling to distinguish its vision of the ‘dynamic
market economy’ from the ‘crude’ free-market dogmas
of the Tories. So what, if anything, does distinguish
Labour’s approach?

At most, this is a difference of degree, and not of
kind: a passion for training and education offers to make
good the supply-side promises reneged upon by
successive Conservative governments; a more
interventionist approach to make good the interventionist
promise reneged upon, in particular, by the President of
the Board of Trade. No fundamental change of economic
direction is proposed. In particular, Labour has
abandoned the goal of full employment for the embrace
of the anti-inflationary strategies of the New Right – a
capitulation which was starkly illustrated by Labour’s
commitment to retaining the pound (on steroids) within
the ERM. Noting that this rendered Labour’s economic
programme ‘virtually indistinguishable from Mr
Major’s’, the Guardian pointed out at the time that this
anti-inflationary strategy depended upon mass
unemployment for its effect: ‘The ERM will mean low
inflation but it also guarantees unemployment of 2.5
million or above for the foreseeable future. ’20 Writing in
1990, the National Institute of Economic and Social
Research concluded that ‘the economic policy
differences between the two major parties are narrower
now than they have been for about twenty years’. As

Shaw points out: ‘Given the extent to which the
Conservative Party has moved to the right during this
period, nothing attests to the scale of the transformation
Labour has undergone more than this convergence. ’21
Aside from the fact that Labour’s strategy also ran
aground on the rocks of Black Wednesday – unable to
deny that a Labour government would also have been
plunged into economic crisis, the Shadows contented
themselves with protestations that they would have
handled their crisis rather better – nothing very much has
changed, in this respect, during the past five years.

Given New Labour’s lack of plans to interfere with
the existing mechanisms which govern resource
distribution – that is, to tamper with the free market – it is
unclear that any other way of redistributing wealth and
income is available to it, apart from ‘taxing some people
and giving that to others’. Convinced, however, that a
commitment significantly to raise the tax burden of the
better-off would be tantamount to electoral suicide,
Labour is profoundly reluctant to rediscover its
(sometime) vocation as a ‘tax and spend’ party – to
employ the currently fashionable pejorative. At the very
most, it now proposes only to squeeze the undeserving
super-rich until their pips are just a tad on the sore side.

In so far as New Labour has retained any commitment to
the traditional value of equality, it has altogether
abandoned the pursuit of ‘a mythical equality of

outcome’ in favour of attempts to engineer ‘a
genuine equality of opportunity’ .22 In other
words, it is proposing to make good another
broken Tory promise by finally delivering
Major’s ‘classless society’.

Thus, The Report of the Commission on
Social Justice contrasts the ‘Investors’ Britain’

advocated by its authors with the ‘Levellers’

Britain’ still embraced by Old Labourites. The
Levellers seek ‘to achieve social justice
primarily through the tax and benefit
systems’23 and, according to the Report, do so
primarily because they have lost faith in the
prospects of any alternative economic
strategy: ‘If the economic cake cannot be
expanded’, conclude the Levellers, then
‘government’s responsibility is to share it out
more fairly.’24 The Investors, on the other
hand, believe that what is socially just is
(fortuitously) conducive to economic
improvement for the benefit of all:

Like Levellers, Investors seek to narrow,
rather than widen, the gap between the
richest and the poorest, and to ensure a fair
and adequate benefits system. But while
Levellers seek primarily to redistribute income,
Investors believe that the original distrib}ltion of
life-chances is as important as secondary
redistribution of income; they therefore seek first
to redistribute opportunities – to earn, to save, to
own. 25

Aside from the disturbing implications of the
commitment to a benefit system that is both ‘fair and
adequate’ – might benefits, then, be fair but inadequate?

– the problems with the Investors’ strategy are
staggeringly obvious. To begin with, it is, at least, far
from clear that a redistribution of opportunities to earn,
save and own (the trinity of the Thatcherite Right) will
do very much to promote social justice. So long as
earnings remain grossly unequal (and there is little in the
report to suggest any very serious commitment to
narrowing income differentials), then so will
opportunities (including to save and to own). Moreover,
Conservative policies to extend opportunities for private
ownership (in particular, the sale of council houses and
the sale of shares in the public utilities), have hardly
produced a more equal Britain. More fundamentally, it is
clear that redistribution of life-chances requires the
redistribution of wealth and income. Obvious as these
objections are, they are not engaged by the report’s
authors. The Levellers’ strategy is despatched by sleight


of hand. Recall that the Levellers’ demand redistribution
via the taxation system because they are pessimistic
concerning the prospects for economic recovery. This
strategy is dismissed, primarily, on the grounds that it
underestimates the prospects for economic revival: the
economic cake can be expanded, ergo the government’s
responsibility is not (only) to share it out more fairly and not to do so at all in so far as this would require any
fundamental redistribution of wealth and income. But,
of course, the vast majority of those who remain
committed to wealth redistribution believe both that there
is a much better alternative to the economic strategy of
the New Right, and that justice demands a redistribution
of wealth and income. It is unclear what, apart from sheer
disingenuity, might support the claim that resource
distribution in ‘Investors’ Britain’ would be significantly
different from what it is at present, after nearly two
decades of regressive redistribution of wealth and
income under successive Tory governments.

Perhaps this is to miss the point that the authors of
this report, and the supporters of New Labourism, defend
equality of opportunity as opposed to (‘arithmetical’)
equality of outcome. After all, as has often been pointed
out, equal opportunity is not only consistent with, but
also senseless in the absence of, substantive inequality:

it is all about securing fair competition in a battle for
unequal rewards. But how is this to be secured? A
familiar answer is that it is sufficient that careers should
be opened to talent: no one should be handicapped in the
competition to acquire and sell scarce skills on the basis
oftheir gender, sexuality, ethnic origins, ‘class’, etc. This
is more or less the position of Blair and his cohorts, and
it fully embraces a liberal conception of meritocracy. But
while this is to be welcomed, ending such discriminatory
practices falls a long way short of securing ‘a genuine
equality of opportunity’, to take an obvious example,
even if Eton and Harrow were to adopt model antidiscriminatory practices – and even if the mere fact of
having attended one of the better-known public schools
were no longer an advantage in securing access to some
of the better careers – it would remain the case that the
rich could purchase educational advantages for their
children inconsistent with the principle of equal chances
for equal talents. But New Labour is not even committed
in principle to abolishing private education (or private
health care). On the contrary, Labour’s leader was swift
to rebuke the party’s education spokesman, David
Blunkett, for audaciously suggesting that the shadow
cabinet might be prepared to consider levying VAT on
school fees and ending the charitable status inexplicably
enjoyed by ‘our’ public schools. Indeed, the champion
of ‘Opportunity Britain’ was soon refusing the courage


of his party’s convictions – and forgoing an opportunity
to show solidarity with his local community – by sending
his own son across London to attend an opted-out and
grant-maintained school.

It is clear that a genuinely fair competition for
unequal rewards presupposes a substantial redistribution
of wealth and income: the greatest barrier to ‘getting on’

is precisely a lack of access to these resources. But New
Labour has not altogether given up on the redistribution
of wealth. In the words of The Report of the Commission
on Social Justice, the party remains adamant in its
opposition to ‘unjustified inequalities’. Indeed, Blair’s
modernized Clause Four commits New Labour to
constructing a society ‘in which power, wealth and
opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’ .26
But what, if anything, does this mean? Well, there are
very few of the few (‘there are top-rate tax-payers who
are hardly in the super-rich bracket and I think we’ve got
to be extremely sensitive to them’27), and very large
inequalities will continue to divide a many encompassing
(virtually) everyone whose income is insufficiently large
to outrage public opinion. (The bosses of the newly
privatized utilities are, almost uniquely, a safe target for
Labour’s outrage.) Never in the history of the Labour
Party, then, has so little been owed to so many by so few.

In so far as any principle is discernible here, it is,
according to the Commission on Social Justice, that
unequal rewards will be justified wherever they Rave
been (somehow) earned: ‘a qualified doctor should be
paid more than a medical student. ’28
There are problems with this principle which are
obscured by the example of the doctor and the medical
student. First, there is room to doubt that those with
greater inherent talents (or inherent propensity for effort)
should receive disproportionate rewards. If achievement
is determined by good or bad fortune in the natural lottery
plus initial social position, then it is extremely doubtful
that subsequent advantages in the labour market have
been earned in any morally relevant sense. Second, and
relatedly, allowing that individual effort is to some
degree determined by the individual’s will, it remains
true that the success of those efforts (and, therefore, their
continuance) will depend upon the opportunity,
assistance and encouragement extended to the individual.

So, reward might begin to approximate to effort (given
some initial endowment of talent) only once the
conditions for ‘a genuine equality of opportunity’ are in
place. And even then, success would be partly
determined by inherent talents that the individual has
done nothing to merit or deserve. Finally, and crucially,
markets (not excluding ‘dynamic’ ones) do not distribute
income and wealth proportionate to past efforts: a


principle of justice appealing to merit and desert is an
anti-market principle.

Why so? Simply because markets allocate resources
in accordance with the ‘laws’ of supply and demand. Of
course, markets will often, perhaps typically, reward
highly those skills and talents that are the most difficult
to acquire. But such skills are not rewarded because of
the efforts required to develop them: they are rewarded
because they are scarce relative to existing demand.

Quite obviously, it is possible to expend considerable
efforts in developing skills that are unable to attract a
price in the market, and to make very large sums of
money selling ‘talents’ that cost comparatively little to
acquire. The market does not care how you came by the
skills and talents that you possess, or what intrinsic value
they mayor may not possess, but only whether they can
be profitably exploited. Equality, so understood, like
community, is therefore an anti-market principle.

Again, it may still be the case that substantial and
undeserved inequalities will be justifiable given a
commitment to other, non-compossible, moral principles
and social goals. For example, it is often argued that the
attainment of far greater substantive equality would
require unacceptable infringements of individual liberty .

Possibly, but notice three things here: (i) the only rights
that need be infringed to secure significant wealth
redistribution – assuming a democratic mandate for such
a programme – would be those ‘inviolable’ property
rights revered by libertarians; (ii) the maldistribution of
wealth and power undermines the effectiveness of a
whole range of other rights and liberties (we are all at
liberty to speak, but it is the wealthy and powerful who
tend to get heard); and (iii) lack of income and wealth
directly affects an individual’s negative liberty.29 Few
socialists doubt that equalization of wealth would require
the infringement of neo-liberal property rights; but many
have lost faith in arguments appealing not only to the
value of equality, but also to the value of liberty itself to redistribute wealth is to redistribute freedom (and
unfreedom). To the extent that lack of money ‘is (a form
of) lack of freedom’ – you can’t have or do what you
cannot pay to have or do – wealth redistribution is, with
respect to liberty, a zero-sum game. But in so far as a
more equal distribution of income and wealth would
enhance the effectiveness of a range of civil and political
freedoms, wealth redistribution will actually increase
effective freedom.

Of course, this ignores the effects of any such
redistribution upon wealth creation. As Rawls has
famously argued, the removal of those inequalities that
provide the incentive structures required to motivate
efficient economic production could have dire

consequences even for the least advantaged members of
society: better to be comparatively well provided for at
the bottom of a grossly inegalitarian society than to starve
in a perfectly equal – and, consequently, economically
stagnant – one. Moreover, there is ample historical
evidence to show that civil and political rights would not
long survive under conditions of economic ruin. But all
that this shows is that equality may have to be sacrificed
to economic efficiency – and not, of course, that the most
‘efficient’ distribution of resources is, therefore, socially

There are two further points here. First, the question
arises of what levels of inequality will be necessary to
motivate productive endeavour. This is sometimes taken
to be a straightforwardly empirical question: we examine
the available evidence relating levels of productivity to
levels of remuneration, or whatever. But this dodges the
issue of why the empirical relationships are as they are.

Motivational structures are a product of definite
economic, social and ideological conjunctures: in
particular, so long as the market principle prevails,
productive effort will be determined by ‘impersonal cash
reward’; but, to the extent that the market ethos is
supplanted by a ‘spirit of community’, people will be
motivated instead by the desire to ‘serve … [others] …

while being served by them’. Second, socialists, of all
descriptions, have always allowed that unequal returns
will be required to secure productivity within a socialist
economy – what would be abolished is returns to capital
(that is, private profits). Interestingly, the Social Justice
Commission has nothing at all to say about profits: for
example, it might have addressed the question of what
exactly those purchasers of shares in the privatized
utilities have ever done to earn their dividends.

‘The party of moderate progress
within the bounds of the law’

Setting out to show that there is no tension between
socialist principle and ‘electability’ (a recent coinage
with a highly convenient dual meaning, combining
ability to win the next general election with possessing a
sensible and coherent programme for government),
Blair’s Labourism is characterized by a quixotic
endeavour to reconcile a long series of irreconcilables.

For example, the new Clause Four commits the party to
community and (neo-)liberal capitalism; to partnership,
solidarity and social justice and to ‘the enterprise of the
market and the rigour of competition’; to increasing
Britain’s share of world trade in an (unexamined) global
market and securing global ‘peace, freedom, democracy,
economic security and environmental protection’; to
maintaining Labour’s identity as a ‘democratic socialist


party’ without committing it in principle to public
ownership, significant wealth redistribution, or full
employment. If these are the fruits of New Labourism,
then its roots help to identify the underlying determinants
of this development.

The left of the party attacks the entire modernization
project for sacrificing socialist principle upon the altar of
electoral expediency. Now, whjle it might have been
credibly argued that commitment to a radical prospectus
would spell electoral catastrophe for Labour, and that it
would be politically irresponsible to gift office to the
Tories, this is not what Blair and his supporters have
argued: to think this way is, they argue, to be tortured by
‘foolishness’ . Instead, Blair has claimed, quite
incredibly, that a programme designed to secure electoral
victory – in particular, by securing the votes of the
southern middle classes, and other barely repentant exThatcherites – is socialism: all that is required to win
Basildon and the rest is the rediscovery and reassertion
of ‘true socialism’. This is nonsense. Of course, it may
be true that Labour would be denied a turn in office were
it to articulate a genuinely socialist programme.

Apologists for New Labourism will point out that it is
not only the electoral landscape that prohibits the party
from standing by its erstwhile principles, it is also the
bleak prospects for any left-of-centre project given a
desperately inhospitable economic, social and
ideological environment. For example, were Labour
significantly to depart from anti-inflationary orthodoxy,
then it would be destroyed by the City of London, with
the full support of European and international financial
institutions. But while this is true, it simply beggars belief
that New Labour can seriously claim that the economic
strategy commanded by national and international
finance is compatible with socialism. This strategy
requires mass unemployment and huge inequalities
(global and national) in the distribution of wealth, and it
is markedly unenthused by the ‘spirit of community’ . The
obvious point here is that the impracticality of socialism
– given the ascendancy of its ideological opponents does not bear upon either the content or validity of
socialist principle. If, as Eric Hobsbawm somewhere
remarks, moral victory has too often served as a
euphemism for defeat, then it is nonetheless true that the
historical triumphs of (neo )liberal-capitalism do not ipso
facto secure its moral victory.

Blairism is not socialism. Nor, incidentally, does it
offer anything to left-liberals. Blair is, of course, at
liberty to designate it social-ism – an attenuation via
hyphenation that brings to mind a phrase from
Kierkegaard’s diaries: ‘That dash should be as long as
the radii of the earth’s orbit’ .30 Of course, many ofBlair’s


admirers have welcomed the advent of New Labourism
precisely because it has abandoned any residual
commitment to socialism. This is true of a number of
well-wishers from the disbanded Social Democratic
Party. Indeed, amongst the remnants of the broad Left
most apologists for the New Labour Party are hardly
enthusiasts. Conceding that Blairism is little more than
New Rightism with a (more) human face, sick to death
of its inhuman face, fearful of the tabloid press and the
City of London, desperate for electoral success, and
aware that ‘public opinion’ has been (de)formed during
the past decade-and-a-half in such away, and to such
devastating effect, that socialism is (electorally) the
political inclination that dare not speak its name, Blair’s
apologists see no alternative.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Fundamental beliefs and
values should not be abandoned in order to secure shortterm advantage. What a party stands for should not be
determined by what it thinks it can get: this is a case of
sour grapes. At the same time, any credible political
programme is bound to represent a compromise between
basic principles and current conditions and prospects. For
example, instead of dismissing the entire debate over
public versus private ownership as a sterile one – thus
betraying all those who, taking their lead from Labour,
passed over the free money offered by Tory
privatizations in the name of principle – Labour should
champion the case for public ownership of the privatized
utilities, while explaining why it may not be possible to
deliver renationalization in the short term. Or again,
instead of appealing to the self-interest of the better-off
in defence of adequate welfare provisions, the party
should argue that even those ‘top-rate tax-payers who
are hardly in the super-rich bracket’ have a moral
obligation to support the least advantaged. But what if
these arguments fail to win electoral support? Aren’t four
consecuti ve moral victories enough ? Well, much
depends upon why the arguments fail. If it is because the
underlying principles are flawed, then it is time that the
Left frankly admitted that it has lost the argument against
neo-liberalism; if it is because the coherence of an
argument is now entirely irrelevant to its political
effectiveness, then it is time to embrace the Shadow
Communications Agency, and to rely on marketing
strategists and advertising agencies to drag left-of-centre
parties into the next millennium; if it is because, whatever
the merits of socialism, it is not in the interests of the
majority, then the Left should surrender its claim to speak
for the many against the few – and if it does not speak for
them, then who does it speak for? As Michael Heseltine
observed at his party’s 1994 conference: ‘If Labour now
adopt our language, mimic our ideas and try to usurp our

policies, we should see this as the greatest tribute they
can pay us …. [an admission that Labour’s past] … was
all a giant mistake.’3l But it wasn’t a ‘giant mistake’ – at
least, not in the intended sense. To paraphrase a remark
from the Benn diaries, the Left never lost the battle of
ideas. It simply capitulated.

1. E. Shaw, The Labour Party since 1979, Routledge,

London and New York, 1994, p. 157.

2. See ibid., esp. pp. 81-107. It was not only the left of the
party that opposed this process. For example,in the wake
of the 1987 election defeat, Comrade Hattersley offered a
piece of his mind on Channel Four’s A Week in Politics:

‘The idea that six weeks after an election defeat somebody
can come along and say: “These are all the things we do;
we change the policy, we abandon nationalisation, we give
up our view of equality. What we do, we send out a lot of
marketing men into the country … and say ‘what are the
policies people want’ and then we find out what they’ll
vote for, we’ll write that into the manifesto” – that is not
the sort of politics I want to be involved in … I’ve not gone
through the last six years – the defeat of 1979 as well, the
humiliation of ’83 – to make the Labour Party into a new
sort of Social Democratic Party’ (quoted in C. Hughes
and P. Wintour, Labour Rebuilt – The New Model Party,
Fourth Estate, London, 1990, p. 39).

3. G. A. Cohen, ‘Back to Socialist Basics’, New Left Review
207, September-October 1994, p. 9. Cohen continues:

‘The Commission on Social Justice should not pretend to
run an exercise in the examination of principles whose
real focus is not principle but electoral success, because it
will then certainly betray principle and possibly contribute
to electoral failure.’

4. ‘The Clear Choice, the Clear Opportunity’, Guardian, 22
July 1994.

5. T. Blair, Leader’s Speech to Conference 1994,4 October

6. T. Blair ‘A Battle We Must Win’, Fabian Review, vol.

105, no. 5, September-October 1993, p. 3.

7. Leader’s Speech to Conference 1994.

8. D. Willetts, Modern Conservatism,
Harmondsworth, 1992, p. 76, my emphasis.


9. ‘Freedom and Community: The Politics of Restoration’,
The Economist, 24 December 1994 – 6 January 1995, p.


10. A. Etzioni, The Spirit of Community, Crown Publishers,
New York, 1993, p. 260, emphasis in the original.

14. Ibid., n. 11.

15. K. Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, in R. C. Tucker, The
Marx-Engels Reader, Norton & Co., London and New
York, 1978, p. 34.

16. Cohen, ‘Back to Socialist Basics’, p. 5.

17. R. Chote, ‘Equality fades as Labour edges to the centre’,
Independent, 30 October 1994: ‘The extent of the common
ground between the Tory left and “New Labour” is
remarkable. The Commission [CSJ] argues that people
should be able to use the money spent on their benefits as
a subsidy with which to attract potential employers; the
government is already running a pilot scheme. The
Commission urges that unemployment benefit, income
support and family credit be reformed to encourage parttime work and to encourage people off welfare into work;
the Chancellor has already signalled that this will be a key
theme in next month’s budget [it was – MR]. And the
Commission argues that the married couple’s tax
allowance and mortgage interest tax relief should be
phased out gradually; this is already happening.’

18. ‘Give them a half-inch’, interview with Tony Blair, New
Statesman and Society, 15 July 1994, p. 12.

19. ‘A New Credo for Labour’, New Clause Four, Guardian,
14 March 1995.

20. Quoted in Shaw, The Labour Party since 1979, p. 208. As
Shaw notes, John Smith was quite candid about this: ‘A
fixed exchange regime … would, as John Smith explained
in an interview to the Independent on Sunday, depress
inflationary expectations by denying employers the option
of a competitive devaluation if they succumbed to pay
claims too easily. If they conceded inflationary demands,
they would price themselves out of the market with the
result – as Smith pointed out – that “there would be
unemployment wouldn’t there” (Independent on Sunday,
6 May 1990). In short, not only had the fight against
inflation supplanted full employment as Labour’s prime
economic goal but it intended to use the prospect of job
losses – created by the commitment to a fixed currency
regime – as a means to achieve that goal’ (ibid., p. 98).

21. Ibid., p. 107.

22. See, in particular, S. Crine, ‘Basildon, Brixton and
Opportunity’, Fabian Review, vol. 105, no. 5, SeptemberOctober 1993.

23. Social Justice – Strategies for National Renewal. The
Report of the Commission on Social Justice, Vintage,
London, 1994,p.4.

24. Ibid., p. 99.

25. Ibid., p. 111.

26. ‘A New Credo for Labour’.

27. ‘Give them a half-inch’, p. 12.

11. Consider, for example, Blair’s statement of the essence of
socialism: ‘It contains an ethical and subjective judgement
that individuals owe a duty to one another and to a broader
society – the Left view of citizenship. And it believes,
objectively, that it is only through recognising that
interdependence and by society as a whole acting upon it
– the collective power of all used for the individual good
of each – that the individual’s interests can be advanced. It
does not set apart individual interests of society as the
Tories do.1t takes an enlightened view of self-interest and
regards it, broadly, as inextricably linked to the interests
of society … socialism is … based around the notion of a
strong and active society as necessary to advance the
individual’ (T. Blair, Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565,
July 1994, p. 4, my emphasis).

28. Social Justice – Strategies for National Renewal, p. 18.

12. Cohen, ‘Back to Socialist Basics’, p. 14.

31. ‘Rally round the Flag, Boys’, Guardian Outlook, 15-16
October 1994.

13. Ibid., p. 9.

29. See Appendix to Cohen’s ‘Back to Socialist Basics’:

‘Suppose someone is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol
… as far as her freedom is concerned, that is equivalent to
“trip to Bristol” not being written on someone’s ticket in
… [an] … imagined non-monetary economy. The woman
has the capacity to go to Bristol. She can board the
underground and approach the barrier she must cross to
reach the train. But she will be physically prevented from
passing through it … the only way you won’t be prevented
from getting and using things is to offer money for them’

(p. 16).

30. P. Rhode, ed., The Diary of S9ren Kierkegaard, Citadel
Press, New Jersey, 1960, p. 13.


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