By Louie Woodall.
As the Fabian Society prepares for their showcase New Year conference in January, now is a good time to ask what the oldest think tank in Britain can offer the Labour Party through 2013 and beyond.
How are the Fabians relevant today? In decades past, the organisation was associated with a distinctive brand of socialism; an evolutionary approach that opposed the violence and turmoil of the Marxist-Leninist model.
‘Fabianism’ championed such causes as the minimum wage, a national health service, and a welfare state in the twilight years of the 19th century, ideas that formed the cornerstone of Labour policy from Macdonald to However, Fabianism seems to attract a bad press these days. Rendered outmoded and obsolete in the wake of trendy new ideologies like Blue Labour and One Nation, the Fabians are looked down on as the stuffy, statist grandfathers of the labour movement- a liberal elite as out of touch as Cameron’s conservatives.
Perhaps we are the victims of our own longevity. Founded in 1884, it is hard for the Fabian Society to expound modern ideas while weighed down by the shackles of history. The existing constitution proudly identifies us as a socialist society, while founding patrons Sydney and Beatrice Webb wrote a glowing report of Stalin’s Russia in the 1935 omnibus Soviet Communism, a New Civilisation.
Today, Fabianism has become indelibly associated with an obsession with the state and the centralization of power. New Labour is not impressed with the Fabian’s rejection of the market as the cure for social ills. Blue Labour, meanwhile, believes that Fabianism suffocates the ability of civic activists to provide local solutions to local problems.
Unfortunately, the Society does not seek to rebuff its detractors, and is in danger of surrendering Fabianism to its critic’s assaults. This year, it even commissioned a pamphlet on the Blue Labour theme of ‘relational politics’ by Jon Wilson, an academic intimately involved with the movement.
Perhaps this is an evolution in response to changing times. The Fabians fear that championing socialism in the 21st century threatens its influence in the modern Labour Party. Redefining itself as a space on the left for all those with progressive ideas
might get around this stigma, but undermines the unique contributions Fabians have, and continue, to bring to the party.
Returning to One Nation, it would be a mistake to attribute all the good ideas it’s generated to Blue Labour. On themes like a national industrial policy, a revitalized welfare system, and intergenerational justice, the Fabians have just as strong an influence as the Friends of Glasman.
In addition, while the new philosophies agitating to direct Labour’s future bring a wealth of new ideas on how politics should be conducted, they have little to say on how a modern state should function. Important aspects of statecraft like the funding of public services, the redistribution of wealth and provision of benefits are sidelined by those who fear talking about spending money and see equality as more about mutual respect than a fairer allocation of resources across the population. Right now, Labour is in danger of losing any coherent statement on political economy in the blue fug of ‘radical conservatism.’
Furthermore, beneath the Blue Labour rhetoric on the importance of community, local politics and ‘institution building’ is a
thoroughly negative conception of the state as something to be pushed out of the mission to protect and provide for the vulnerable. The problem is that the state actually isn’t very good at promoting localism or institution building- just look at the recent PCC elections.
What it is very good at is moving money around- vast quantities of it. The redistribution of wealth is an imperfect, but effective, mechanism for cultivating social equality. More importantly, it is something that can be measured, quantified, and felt in society. The difficulty is in making a strong case for it, and justifying the transfer of private gains to public goods.
This kind of challenge occupied the Fabians intensely in years past.
It is time it did so again.
Louie Woodall is Editor of Anticipations, the Young Fabians magazine.