The Politics of Jon Cruddas: Ethical (Neo)liberalism

By Whittall, Daniel | Soundings, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Jon Cruddas: Ethical (Neo)liberalism


Whittall, Daniel, Soundings


The politics of Jon Cruddas: ethical (neo)liberalism Jon Cruddas, The Future oj Social Democracy , Compass 2009

Despite having recently declined the opportunity to stand for the Labour leadership, Jon Cruddas remains likely to play an important practical and intellectual role in the future of the party, and in centre -left politics more broadly. In light of this, his political thought now demands attention, and his recent Compass pamphlet, The Future oj Social Democracy (available at www.lwbooks. co.uk/ebooks/socialdemocracy.html) is a good place from which to begin such an examination.

Cruddas contends that the Labour Party currently has 'no sense of animating purpose', and therefore 'no compelling case for re-election' (p5) - a point which was surely proven by Labour's record loss of seats in the recent election. Faced with this, he hopes to explore a question often asked in recent years, namely 'what does Labour stand for any more?'. He sketches a vision of a party beset by three significant losses. The first is the loss caused by the 'radical changes of the working class, its culture and institutions, over the last four decades' (p6). The second is the lost model of social democracy found in Anthony Crosland's revisionist work, The Future oj Socialism, which prioritised redistribution based on taxation, driven by the 'receipts of capitalist progress', but has now foundered in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. And, thirdly, Cruddas suggests that Labour has lost its sense of optimism, something which he argues came about because of the Party's subservience to 'Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman . . . [or] our old friend Rational Economic Man resurrected in modern garb' (p7).

To move beyond these losses Cruddas articulates a vision of socialdemocratic politics which rests on four main pillars - equality; community; sustainability; and democracy. He argues that these four pillars, and his broader political project of ethical socialism, require a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between the Labour Party and liberalism. His vision is of a politics driven by the principles of 'reciprocity, empathy, fraternity, and the individual embedded in social relationships' (pi 2); he even goes as far as to argue that 'It is wrong to think of socialism as a tradition that stands in opposition to liberalism' (pi 1). But he is also wary of certain elements of liberalism, drawing on the work of Mark Garnett to identify two rival traditions of liberal thought, the one 'fleshed out', the other 'hollowed out'. Hollowed out liberalism, for Cruddas, is 'extreme laissez-faire', and is rooted in a model of society in which ruthless self-interest predominates. 'Fleshed out' liberalism, on the other hand, emerges from the work of the so-called New Liberals, including Thomas Green, Leonard Hobhouse and John Hobson, and is centred more on a striving for the common good and collective well-being.

It is in this tradition of 'fleshed out' liberalism that Cruddas roots his understanding of ethical socialism, a political framework which he sees as having guided such influential Labour figures as G. D. H. Cole, Harold Laski and, most significantly, R. H. Tawney. Tawney has emerged lately as a key figure in debates around centre-left politics, no doubt in part because his 1932 essay 'The choice before the Labour Party' reads as an eerily appropriate critique of the Labour Party defeat of 2010. However, in his discussion of Tawney's vision of ethical socialism, some of Cruddas's ideas appear surprisingly close to those of the group centred around Demos, of whose project he has several times written critically, including in this pamphlet (p24).] In a recent Demos publication, We Mean Power: Ideas for the Future of the Left, James Purnell and Graeme Cooke deployed Tawney in order to argue for the central significance of individual agency within a society based on relationality and reciprocity: for Purnell and Cooke Tawney stands for a rejection of 'state paternalism and collective conformity' in favour of 'a reciprocal society where people forge a common life together' (p20). …

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