• The Socialist Way – A Review

    The Socialist Way edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, Palagrave Macmillan, 2013.

    This stimulating and thoughtful collection of essays from across the British Labour movement is long overdue. Throughout what must now be regarded as the New Labour years of wasted opportunity, criticism of the performance of the Blair/Brown government was understandably muted. Now, it seems, a clear judgment of the past and a clear signpost to the future are possible.

    The first hint that times have changed is the title of the book. It is a long time since mainstream British politicians have dared to describe themselves as socialists. It is of course appropriate that one of the two editors is Roy Hattersley – never a left-wing firebrand but someone with an unchallengeable record of commitment to the Labour movement and one of the few to maintain a consistent, reasoned and principled critique of New Labour on the precise grounds that it lacked both reason and principle.

    The second editor is the leading political academic, Kevin Hickson; between the two of them they have assembled an impressive list of contributors – prominent academics, journalists and politicians from both national and local politics. A collection such as this is inevitably uneven, but the best contributions (and there are many of them) strike what is unmistakably a new note.

    That note – belated but for that reason even more welcome – is one of renewed confidence. Perhaps the most striking feature of the political history of Britain in the last three or even four decades has been the left’s loss of intellectual self-confidence. The extent of that loss can be seen in the left’s failure to capitalise on what was on any reckoning the ultimate judgment on neo-liberal politics and economic policy – the global financial crisis.

    Instead of driving home the message that the GFC showed conclusively that unregulated markets would inevitably lead to economic and therefore social disaster, the left (perhaps because of the culpability shared by New Labour) ran scared. What was always obvious, and we now know, is that once you start to run, you can never run far enough. One concession (or failure to make an argument) will inexorably be followed by demands from emboldened opponents for the next concession, and the next.

    What The Socialist Way does is to raise once again a powerful voice that has not been heard in British politics for a long time – the calm and thoughtful voice of democratic socialism, of those who understand that a more equal society in which not only the material rewards of living in society but the respect owed to each individual citizen are fully and fairly delivered is a society that is both stronger and more efficient.

    The remit identified by Roy Hattersley in his opening essay is largely fulfilled by his contributors. What is refreshing is the willingness to take long-established values and to show their relevance to the solution of current and future problems. From economics to the environment and industrial and social policy, from the constitution to the international context, the tone is one of moving forward to grapple with real issues from the starting-point of principle and the traditional left values of compassion, tolerance, social solidarity and equity.

    There is still the sense, however, that left commentators are more comfortable with social issues than with the hard issues of economic policy. There is clearly a growing confidence in developing an effective critique of the failures of neo-liberalism and of austerity as a response to recession; but there is perhaps less willingness to offer a fully developed alternative economic strategy that would address not only the immediate weaknesses and failures of current Tory policy but offer as well a longer-term solution to endemic problems that are now so familiar a part of the landscape that they are scarcely noticed.

    The real significance of this book, however, is that it reflects an understanding of the difficult truth that, in democratic politics, there are never any final battles. The goal must always be to persuade, convince and prevail; but what matters is never giving up, never vacating the battlefield and continuing to fight the battle. The Socialist Way shows that that commitment is alive and well.

    Bryan Gould.

    28 August 2013.