The Larger Socialism

By Winter, Barry | Soundings, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Larger Socialism

Winter, Barry, Soundings

Paul Salveson, (2012) Socialism with a Northern Accent: Radical Traditions for Modern Times, Lawrence & Wishart 2012

The Labour Party's response to the 2010 general election defeat contrasts markedly with what happened after the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979. Then the party tore itself apart in a self-defeating civil war. This time, although there are undoubted tensions, something far more reflective and creative is emerging. Paul Salveson's book makes a lively contribution to the debate on Labour's future.

It is in tune with themes that have been closely associated with this journal (and what, for a time, was known as Blue Labour): namely that to renew the Labour Party means creating sustainable forms of democracy, and both encouraging and engaging with diverse communities. For Salveson this is intimately connected with two important aspects of his central argument - the need for the retrieval and remaking of an ethical socialism, and for the regions to reclaim their unique and diverse histories of socialism, which for him means one 'with a Northern accent'.

To show what this could mean he reviews the rich and varied political contributions made to the socialist tradition by generations of women and men in the North of England, from the nineteenth century onwards. Not as an exercise in parochialism or nostalgia - although this is a passionate tale lovingly told - but to draw inspiration from and rekindle progressive politics in hard times.

For Salveson, it is the Independent Labour Party (ILP), with its attachment to ethical socialism, that best embodies the idea of socialism with a Northern accent. As he writes, 'the political culture that grew up around the ILP between the early 1890s and the First World War has many lessons for us today'. The books places great emphasis on the importance of culture to the socialist tradition, and documents extensively the role played by popular newspapers and magazines, particularly the Clarion, in developing the movement and encouraging campaigning. The Clarion clubs that sprang up across the North featured horse-drawn Clarion vans conveying speakers to the city streets, and Clarion cyclists spreading the message as they sped through the countryside. This was often a fun-loving politics, and with a sense of humour.

Salveson argues that this Northern tradition generated much of continuing political significance and relevance; not just in the workplaces but in communities and districts; and not only with specific reforms but through an array of cultural, educational and recreational activities, for men, women and children. These helped to create what the Sheffield-based campaigner and lover of the outdoors Edward Carpenter described at the time as 'the larger socialism'.

Salveson wants to enable the North to contribute to these broad ambitions again. Salveson argues that the retrieval of such traditions both requires and can help rekindle the arguments for directly elected, regional government. No doubt many will groan at the idea of adding yet another layer of political representation to what already exists, particularly given the present high levels of political disenchantment. And New Labour's failed 2004 referendum in the North East hardly evokes pleasant or positive memories. Yet the answer is not to retreat but to re-imagine. A more grass roots, civil society, approach to regionalism would enable politics to be reconnected to localities. This kind of approach resonates with Ken Spours call for a politics of 'democratic localism' in Soundings 49. (1) It requires real power to be devolved to the region.

Salveson's 'radical regionalism' not only has the potential to regenerate politics in the North (and elsewhere); it can also provide the means to breathe new life into Labour's politics, connecting party members to varied communities and wider movements. For this reason, he has played a leading role in the recent formation of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (named after an early feminist and ILPer), whose aim is to campaign for a regional assembly (or assemblies) in the North. …

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