Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Labour and the Conservatives – A Question of Values

General elections in the UK have over the last 100 years almost invariably been contests between the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour. In 2010, however, the landscape changed: neither was able to form a government without coalition partners and the same outcome is widely predicted for this year’s elections.

There may be many complex reasons for the erosion of this traditional two-party dominance, accompanied as it is by increasing public disenchantment with politics and falling voter turn-out. But among them has been the growing complaint by voters and non-voters alike that “there’s no difference between the main parties” and “we don’t know what they stand for any more”.

But does the parties’ competition for the centre ground perhaps obscure clearly diverging political principles which are as important to politicians and activists today as they ever were? What are the key ideas and ideals which inform the vision which each has for society and underpin and explain the parties’ distinctive approach to policy? To what extent and how has each party’s political philosophy adapted to the modern world; what core values remain the same and are they still relevant?

Two senior Parliamentarians measure their parties’ contrasting values.

Jon Cruddas MP

Labour

Jon Cruddas has been the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham (and formerly Dagenham) since 2001.

Before entering Parliament, he spent 12 years at the Labour Party, first as a policy officer then as Senior Assistant to the General Secretary and, following the 1997 election, as Deputy Political Secretary to the Prime Minister Tony Blair with special responsibility for liaison with the trade unions.

He contested the Party's deputy leadership in 2007 and in May 2012 accepted Ed Miliband's invitation to join the Shadow Cabinet as Labour's Policy Coordinator with responsibility for the drafting of the Party's general election manifesto.

Jon has an MA and PhD from the University of Warwick. He is married with a son.

Rt Hon Damian Green MP

Conservative

Damian Green has been the Conservative MP for Ashford since 1997. Having held various shadow roles between 1998 and 2005, he was appointed Minister for Immigration in May 2010 and from September 2012 to July 2014 served as Minister of State for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims.

Before entering Parliament, Damian was a financial journalist and worked in the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit from 1992-94.

He was born in 1956 and educated at Reading School and Balliol College, Oxford. He was President of the Oxford Union in 1977. He is married with two daughters.

Damian is Chairman of European Mainstream and Vice-President of the Tory Reform Group.

Proposition

Democracy, Participation and the Common Good

I’m Labour by inheritance and the Labour tradition is an important part of my identity. I think it was a modern miracle that in the face of their dispossession from the common land by the enclosures and exploitation by the factory system in the industrial revolution, the people of our country combined together in a democratic way to campaign for their rights.

They wanted a seat at the common table and to play a part in the governing of their country. They insisted that the voice of labour should be heard and that those who work were part of a society which should no longer be dominated by the already rich and powerful. The Labour approach has always been both democratic and focused on the lives and rights of working people.

A concern for the preservation of social relationships when everything, including human beings and their natural environment, is available at a price is an inspiring ideal. It was a principle which was put into practice by the early labour movement as workers came together to create burial societies, building societies and trade unions. Labour principles grew out of this culture of collective self help and the value of reciprocity. In a world dominated by the great power of vested interests, they found strength and dignity in each other. I still find that amazing.

Work and its value are important concepts in themselves. Liberal economists and reformers attach little real value to labour or the labourer. We have got to the point where everything other than work generates value: capital, technology, risk taking, innovation, anything other than accomplished work and skilful co-operation. The preservation of the dignity and social value of work is one of Labour’s great achievements in the British polity.

Then there is democracy. Labour campaigned hard for the vote for workers - both men and women - and for the idea that politics matter and that there is a common good that can be secured through participation and negotiation between competing interests.

There is tradition too. British Conservatives since Burke have had a tin ear for the disruptive power of markets and their tendency to destroy as well as create. To view individuals simply as economic units has degraded not just their earnings but also their sense of belonging and their cultural inheritance. So Labour has also been a force for retrieving lost status and with it pride and dignity. That is important too.

So my vision is of a democratic nation in which people participate in their governance and turn their individual fate into a shared destiny. A key feature of that vision is the sense of a common good which includes rich and poor, religious and atheist, immigrants and locals, workers and bosses.

These ideas of relationships, democracy and devolving and sharing power have permeated the Labour Party’s policy review which has been built around three themes; family, work and place. These are what matter to people but they are threatened when the market, and particularly financial markets, become too powerful.

These themes will be part of the mix going into May’s election along with a recognition that in the past Labour has had too much of a love affair with the state which at times could undermine democracy, relationships and labour value every bit as much as the market.

It is the historic understanding of the enclosures and the poor laws that underpins the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. The working poor have had to confront debt and exploitation by payday lenders as well as increased demands on their time both at work and at home.

Labour is trying to find a way to address problems which affect the daily lives of millions and which I don’t think the Conservative Party – which has lost its one nation roots in tradition and community - really understands.

Proposition

Individual Freedom and Social Responsibility

In an era when conventional wisdom dismisses politicians as being “all the same” it is important to remind ourselves of the underlying values and philosophy which set political parties apart. In the case of the Conservative Party there are a number of streams which have come together, which provide a source of tension but which ultimately are a strength as they enable the attraction of wide support from different social groups.

As a Conservative I inevitably reach back into history to explain our ideas. Part of the essence of British Conservatism is that we do not believe in starting afresh with a clean sheet. Our historical development into a parliamentary democracy under a monarchy cannot be undone, so we should learn from past successes and mistakes and reform, adapt and build as we go along.

There is of course more than pure pragmatism in the Conservative approach. From Lord Bolingbroke’s eighteenth century assertion that we are made free “not from the law but by the law”, through Edmund Burke’s elevation of the “little platoons” as the bedrock of a free and ordered society, on to Benjamin Disraeli’s fear of “Two Nations” set entirely apart (the rich and the poor) and the twentieth century writings of Michael Oakeshott with his emphasis on the limitations of Government, a coherent view emerges.

Conservatives believe in individual freedom which is best obtained through a law-abiding orderly society in which mutual obligations are expressed most importantly through voluntary activity with the state as the ultimate guarantor of safety and freedom but not as the first resort for practical solutions. David Willetts has brought this tradition up to date with his book Civic Conservatism.

Within the broad Conservative tradition lurk a number of strands. Modern Conservatism, for example, absorbs the free market Gladstonian Liberal tradition, brought into practical effect most successfully by Margaret Thatcher, while retaining its Disraelian attraction to “One Nation”. The two titans of late Victorian politics would today be difficult colleagues in a Conservative cabinet.

One of the skills required of Conservative leaders is to strike a balance between the need for free market economics to provide growth and prosperity and the preservation of social ties between citizens which enable the expression of our mutual obligations. These voluntary links and the institutions from which they spring were Burke’s little platoons and today they add up to the Big Society.

This combination of entrepreneurial energy with a largely self-regulating society is a particularly attractive basis for politics in this century. The world is now digital and fast-moving, which is why we need to allow individuals to be creative and nimble and to retain the benefits of their efforts.

But to maximise these benefits we need institutions that exercise control through consent. A Conservative will want the minimum amount of state control necessary to achieve wider societal goals. We are not libertarians, but nor do we believe that wisdom inheres in Government. The internet would never have been created in a socialist world, but without the technical agreements between private sector players it would not work and without the regulation of Governments around the world it would (and does) do serious harm to some vulnerable people. Its almost instant ubiquity is an exemplar of what regulated capitalism can achieve.

Oakeshott said that “to be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”. Conservative philosophy has a spectrum, and I am to the optimistic side of Oakeshott in that I would place more emphasis on the possibilities for individuals to achieve great things if society is ordered correctly. But he is closer than anyone to a wise definition of Conservatism.

Response

I agree with Damian that what is needed is a stronger conservative tradition based on Oakeshott and Burke. I agree with the centrality of the rule of law, the small platoons, the institutions through which people learn sacrifice, character and virtue and that our liberties are indispensable to a good society. The problem is that the Conservatives have become far too liberal and uncritical of the free market. They are not nearly conservative enough.

The market, and particularly the financial markets, centralise every bit as much as the state and both need to be resisted by political and economic decentralisation. That's why Labour's policy review advocates devolving political power and establishing regional banks to make capital available so that local people can form businesses. That's why we are promoting vocational colleges and apprenticeships so that people can learn skills.

The crash of 2008 indicated the limits of regulated capitalism. Our financial institutions had become so centralised that both society and the state were threatened by their vices.

A self regulating society should be our ideal. It requires the participation of the workforce in corporate governance so that there is some accountability by people who have an interest in the flourishing of the firm and some respect for labour value as a source of growth.

Burke and Oakeshott understood the paradox that Britain could modernise through its traditions and compete through strengthening solidarity. But this is lost on modern Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher was more Gladstone than Disraeli and there has been no real reform of the financial sector. The Big Society did not take the fight to the market. The small platoons are nowhere to be seen among Conservative Party donors. It is Labour that represents best the conservative tradition.

Response

When I read Jon’s opening salvo I smiled at what was carefully left out. The word socialism does not appear and even more surprisingly the trade unions do not merit a mention. The airbrush is clearly alive and well on the left of British politics.

But if we are discussing the underlying ideological drivers of the Labour Party, it is impossible to ignore socialist thinking and the brute power of the unions.

I will happily concede Jon’s fair-mindedness in admitting that “in the past Labour has had too much of a love affair with the state”.

But I would question whether this love affair is now over. It certainly cooled to an extent during the Blair era but I know of no one in the Labour Party who thinks the current leader hankers after the Blairite reforms to the public sector which were sadly not embedded firmly enough in Labour thinking. The Third Way was an interesting journey for the British left but for most of them it was a dead end.

As for his characterisation of British Conservatives as having a “tin ear for the disruptive power of markets” I would make two points.

The first is that disruption is often necessary to break up cartels which are always a conspiracy against the public. Adam Smith pointed out that these cartels often involve businesses but since the eighteenth century they have become equally common between the state and public sector trade unions. Contrast today’s telecoms market with the old nationalised industry when it took six months to have a landline installed.

The second is that Conservatives do not want to dismantle the Welfare State or the NHS. We do want to make them work better so they can provide protection for those who need it and this requires hard-headed reform.

Conclusion

I am slightly disappointed by Damian’s response as this discussion was entered into with a candid and open heart. There was no ‘careful’ omission of either socialism or trade unions so perhaps this is the moment to engage with that.

Socialism is based upon the idea that individuals are not purely self interested - as proposed by the kind of economic liberalism that Damian, along with about two thirds of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, seems to propose - who emerge from nowhere to maximise their personal gain in competitive markets. In contrast socialists, as our name suggests, hold that we are born into families, that we inherit a language, grow up in relationships and long for connection with others.

We did not call our ideology statism or individualism but socialism to draw attention to the social nature which human beings share. And we called our party ‘Labour’ because we hold to the value of work in which the worker is not treated as a commodity but as a creative partner in production.

Under the conditions of capitalism workers were dispossessed of their land and their social status and they formed associations to gain recognition for this status and for the dignity of work and these were called trade unions. They, along with the burial societies and building societies, asserted that through voluntary association people could resist the domination of the rich and the poor law state.

They campaigned for the extension of the suffrage to women and workers, for an eight hour day, for a day of rest and for the recognition that labour generated value. As Pope Francis has said, "trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism."

While recognising the creative power of markets, Damian seems to blind to their tendency to centralise power, destroy the environment and exploit people. The cartels that affect us now are the oligopolies that dominate our economy. The corruption and cheating of the banks that led to the economic crisis is a case in point. The domination of Conservative Party funding by the financial sector means that there has been no decentralisation of power by this government.

We all want our public services to be more humane and efficient and that involves the participation of the workforce and users in corporate governance, not the expansion of the power of unaccountable cartel-like private institutions. Hard headed reform means confronting centralised power in the market and the state and honouring work.

One thing to emerge from these discussions is that Damian has not questioned the dogmas of Thatcherism and is still their prisoner.

Conclusion

I am absolutely delighted with Jon’s remark that it is “Labour that represents best the Conservative tradition.” We are agreed, then, that the Conservative tradition encompasses what is most desirable for the British people and what divides us is whether the Labour or Conservative party is more likely to adhere to that tradition. I cannot wait to have this argument in front of the electorate between now and 7 May.

The underlying problem with Jon’s argument is that he believes he is still fighting the Conservative Party of the 1980s. He makes the valid point that Margaret Thatcher was more Gladstone than Disraeli but it is a quarter of a century since she left office and the Disraelian tradition within the Conservative spectrum is alive and well. In terms of economic policy we have moved from closing pits to creating the Northern Powerhouse. In terms of social policy we have moved from Section 28 to gay marriage. This Government has created two million apprenticeships and aspires to create another three million during the next Parliament. All of these are classic One Nation policies.

Of course Tory Reformers like me are one part of the Conservative family and others are keener on pure free market solutions. There is yet another group whose Conservatism is expressed in dislike of social change. What unites us is the belief that we must be wary of state power, must respect the traditions which encompass the wisdom of past generations and must create institutions which can bend with the winds of change in case they break resisting the irresistible or are broken by Utopian vandals seeking perfection in a single act of change.

Just as I recognise the different Conservative traditions, Jon must surely acknowledge that his praise for Burke and Oakeshott and for a self-regulating society would be anathema to many of the leading forces within the Labour movement. He may shy away from the word socialism but I need not, precisely because so many of his colleagues do not.

When Neil Kinnock welcomed Ed Miliband’s election by saying “we have got our party back”, he confirmed that the heart of Labour is once again beating firmly on the left. This Labour leadership seeks to find statist solutions - an energy price freeze at a time when the market is driving prices lower, anyone? - which show something between ignorance of and contempt for the private sector. The ghosts of the Webbs, Harold Laski and Douglas Jay must be cheering. The gentleman in Whitehall once again knows best.

The collision between this philosophy and the real world has always ended in disaster. Fortunately there is a moderate, pragmatic Conservative alternative available to help Britain stay on the right course.

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