Friday, December 03, 2010

What's wrong with the New Socialism

John Harris and Neal Lawson have written a very long article on the Compass website claiming that it is time for "The New Socialism".

After painting a gloomy picture of the current situation, they write:

"So where is the light? It comes from two places: from leaders, and from people. Both tell us that it is both feasible and desirable to renew social democracy - socialism even - but that renewal must be truly transformative. It cannot be about a change of direction, but a paradigm shift to a very new form of left politics.

Let's start at the top."


If you want to talk about a New Socialism, then absolutely and fundamentally you do not "start at the top". Apparently "among writers, thinkers and activists outside parliament, a new socialism has been cohering for the best part of five years". What Harris and Lawson don't realise is that this is the problem, not the solution.

After paragraphs of praise about how imaginative they and their friends have been, with a bit of sucking up to Ed Miliband, Harris and Lawson don't discuss how ordinary people have been involved in the development of the new socialism, beyond an anecdote about how managers and cleaners alike would like to get home from work in time to read bedtime stories to their children.

This article, and Lawson and Harris' entire approach, could do with a big dose of "show, don't tell". They tell us about how the New Socialism will be an alternative to the crisis of social democracy, but they don't show any evidence for this. Jon Cruddas, who has been involved in developing all this stuff, was in a tough re-election campaign earlier this year. The logic of Harris and Lawson's analysis is that his campaign should have been about an alternative to materialism which emphasises caring and sharing, action on climate change, electoral reform, user involvement in public services and making the tax case for the public sector. Suffice to say that none of these were major features of Labour's campaign in Dagenham and Rainham.

The process of grassroots campaigning, of trying to persuade people, involving them and reshaping ideas and policies in line with their priorities, is absolutely vital. Rather than being a top down project, where a few influential people persuade the leader of the Labour Party to adopt their ideas, New Socialists need to get out into neighbourhoods across the country - building from the roots, getting their power by persuading people to vote from them, rather than from pamphlets.

No one should take seriously claims that the "New Socialism" is a better electoral alternative to social democracy/New Labour/Labourism until leading "New Socialists" actually make use of these supposedly popular arguments and win elections with them. I'm sympathetic to some of the ideas which Harris and Lawson put forward. But until the New Socialism is shaped by people at the grassroots, rather than just being a project of "writers, thinkers and activists", then it is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful.


At 4:40 am , Blogger Unknown said...

I think this is the best critique I've read of Harris and Lawson - and perhaps Compass itself. Sure, there are campaigns that the organisation has and is running to lobby for policies at the level of parliament and the party leadership, but there's a gap between this and work to rebuild the party at a local level. That said, there is some value in having the kind of debates that Compass have initiated - not least because this doesn't have to be a top down process.


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