Socialism: The New Divide: Fifty Years Ago, a Book Regarded as a Seminal Text for Labour Was Published. in an Exclusive Essay, Jack Straw Argues That the Future of Socialism Has Vital Lessons for Blair, Brown and the Government's Warring Factions
Straw, Jack, New Statesman (1996)
"For God's sake, Jack, just tell us there is one," said a Blackburn party activist and close friend when I told him I was writing a piece on the future of socialism to mark the republication of Tony Crosland's work of that name.
My pal is notorious for his gallows humour and his pessimism. His life is a parable for new Labour. By day, he's a senior manager of a large British plc. By night, in all weathers, he can be found pounding the streets, canvassing and leafleting because, like so many party members across the country, he believes profoundly and passionately in The Cause. He does it for no bauble or personal gain. He has never been a councillor. He holds no other public office. He's always ready to take on the "I-did-but-now-I'm-not-so-sure" brigade and point out that voting Labour has transformed their lives. But deep down, there is a nagging doubt that The Cause may be under threat, submerged by the forces of post-cold war capitalism and globalisation, and blighted by general disillusion with a government almost ten years in office, and by the unpopularity of some of its policies. Add this past week's display of raw disunity and one can see why my friend is worried.
Even half a century on, Crosland still brilliantly captures the reason for my friend's sense of melancholy, and maybe a reason for our party's ever-damaging propensity for self-immolation. He quotes Olaf in Strindberg's play the moment the Reformation triumphs: "Oh, how I should like to begin all over again! It was not the victory I wanted, it was the battle!"
"When the things wrong were so manifest," writes Crosland--the glaring evils being squalor and injustice--"we all knew what to do, and where the enemy was and what was the order of battle." Labour governments, he went on, have often found the responsibilities of power somewhat harsher than they expected, while the full employment of the 1950s, coupled with the bedding in of the welfare state, had "destroyed the rationale of much of the old emotional enthusiasm" felt by party activists used to fighting grotesque inequalities.
What Crosland understood acutely was John Maynard Keynes's observation that "sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil". And for ideas to have power, not least in sustaining the "emotional enthusiasm" of the party, they had to stand up to scrutiny and to have credibility. So he was excoriating in his criticism of the ideological muddle by which Labour had hopelessly confused means and ends and then wondered why the public hadn't grasped the point.
Crosland's statement of democratic socialist values--above all, his emphasis on equality--is brilliant and timeless. He got few thanks for it in his lifetime, but he can justly claim to have been the original inspiration for the new Clause Four, which was Tony Blair's seminal achievement in the first few months of his leadership.
By equality, Crosland did not mean some unattainable equality of outcome. He meant a very enhanced idea of how opportunities should be rebalanced at every stage through life. I believe that he would have been extremely proud of this Labour administration's achievements in this regard: for example, lifting 800,000 children out of poverty, reducing unemployment, raising pensioner living standards and transforming the education and health services. He would have admired our programme to equalise political power, from devolution for Scotland and Wales, or the Human Rights Act, to the Race Relations Acts and civil partnerships. And, in all this, we have indeed been more successful than any previous Labour government.
Crosland also had the self-confidence to label these values as "socialist". And what we've been doing these past nine and a half years is putting these democratic socialist principles into practice. Indeed, in an increasingly atomised society, it is all the more imperative that we make our voices heard in arguing for solidarity, for a sense of community and for the democratic socialist way where, by working together, we can be stronger. …