21st Century Socialism – What Next?

Labour Party

Labour’s highly successful conference has given us the term “21st Century Socialism” as a label to describe Corbyn’s new political strategy. Cynics and plotters may observe that this term, rhetorically, performs the same role as “New Labour” – it looks back, but moves forward. But I really like it. Restoring socialism to the centre of public policy is a smart move that will advance political debate in this country.

Socialism remains a spiky and challenging word in modern Britain. But it is much better to claim it and to define it than to let your enemies use it against you. Watering down ideas to please the middle-ground convinces no one. However, it will still be necessary to define this “21st Century” version of socialism, both in terms of policy and deeper values. 21st Century Socialism must have wide appeal, while also addressing the real challenges and opportunities of our times.

It will also be necessary to honestly reflect on the failures of 20th Century Socialism – the things to be avoided in the future. Socialists are often tempted to make two interconnected errors. The first error is to confuse equality with sameness. The second error is to confuse democracy with the state. True justice, which socialists rightly seek, is not achieved simply by putting increased power into state institutions and imposing standardised solutions on atomised and weakened individuals.

“We have little faith in the ‘average sensual man’, we do not believe that he can do more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe the remedies.”

This reveals a disdainful attitude to ordinary people that is reflected by the early Fabian support for eugenics and for its strong preference for policies that reduce people’s freedom, control and sense of solidarity. This same attitude is reflected in many of the policies developed under New Labour. To take just one example, the vicious and damaging Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and its associated Work Programmes, are a mess of private greed, public interference and administrative incompetence. It is a great relief that Debbie Abrahams of Corbyn’s team has had the sense to end Labour’s previous support for this nonsense.

True justice is achieved by enabling individuals and communities to have the power and resources they need to flourish. True justice encourages growth, creativity and diversity. True justice welcomes debate and disagreement as a means to promote social development.

One of the fundamental lessons of the neoliberal era is that democracy matters, and that democracy means much more than what goes on inside the Palace of Westminster. If people are not involved in their local communities then they will not care when local services are savaged by cuts. If there is no union representation for disabled people or care workers then it is much easier for Government to cut social care by 50%. If political parties are not accountable to their members then you can expect corruption to flourish.

If millions of people have their lives ruled by a handful of professional politicians, an army of bureaucrats and its tame media circus then, surprise surprise, government can get away with almost anything. This is not hyperbole, for example, examine the increased suicide rates caused by the WCA or the UN report on the UK’s human rights failings, which has barely been covered by the mainstream media.

21st Century Socialists will need to remember that we are all equal, but that we’re also all different. Social justice should be measured, not by whether someone has got a little bit more than you, but whether we’ve made sure that everyone, is able to play their own unique part as a full and active citizen, with a life of meaning. Instead of a paternalistic and controlling welfare state we need to promote policies such as:

  • Universal Basic Income to provide security for all, taking stigma out of the benefit system.
  • Universal and properly funded social care system, abandoning mean-spirited means-testing.
  • A new settlement for local government (not the current half-baked models) but constitutional reform to put power back into our local communities.

There are many good ideas, practices and innovations out there that show us what is possible. Ordinary people, up and down the country are already figuring out how to achieve elements of 21st Century Socialism. It’s time our politicians caught up. We share lots of examples through the Centre for Welfare Reform’s website. Recent philosophical papers that explore the possible underpinning for 21st Century Socialism include my Citizenship and the Welfare State and Henry Tam’s excellent essay Political Literacy and Civic Thoughtfulness.