The Leadership contest is over – bar the counting. It has raised, but not always answered, a number of fundamental questions about the party in the early twenty first century.
One of these is the electability of socialism. In response to that, a Leeds NW Party member has sent in the following piece.
Its author, Bill Stafford, has written extensively on the history of socialist thought, on Marxism and on political thought more generally. His piece is especially rooted in the British socialist tradition.

His conclusion is guarded, but positive:
‘Is socialism electable? Possibly, if we respect both our Labour heritage, and the context in which we now live. But to achieve this requires, not simple slogans or theories which no longer have purchase, but serious, imaginative, hard thinking and powerful, coherent, well-planned communication.’
It’s a long read! But these are important questions which concern us all in the modern Labour Party. They deserve careful thought.


Comrades are discussing, both in NW Leeds Labour party and more widely, whether socialism is electable. The following thinkpiece does not attempt to cover all of the issues which might be relevant: it omits discussion of internationalism, the green agenda and ethnic and gender politics, for example.

1. Nationalization and a command economy

To begin with, we might consider, as a possible definition of socialism, Clause IV:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

This is not a perfectly unambiguous definition, and is not without difficulties. For example, how is the demand for the ‘full fruits’ to be reconciled with compensation for saving and investment, and to the contribution through taxation to state and municipal service providers? But the real problem lies with the later demand for ‘common ownership’ and ‘popular administration and control’. Once again it is by no means clear what these demands mean, and the authors of the clause signal their own uncertainty in the expression ‘best obtainable system’.

Now if they mean nationalization of all companies, or of a certain number of top companies, accompanied by state control of the whole economy (a ‘command economy’ by contrast with a market economy) then it is questionable whether this is sensible, and it is certainly not electable. Command economies, in for example Russia and Britain during the Second World War, were successful in their limited and specific aims of producing the materials of war and (at least in the case of Britain) keeping the population alive. But in peacetime, when the purposes an economic system must fulfill are more complex, command economies have signally failed in the efficient allocation of resources and in the satisfaction of the needs and wants of consumers. Accordingly most countries, for example the countries of Eastern Europe, which experimented with this system, have given it up.

Even when only limited nationalization is proposed, there are severe difficulties. In Britain, nationalization has always been with compensation to expropriated private owners. But this is expensive and takes money which might better have been spent on schools and hospitals. For this reason it is dubiously electable. Hard liners might argue for nationalization without compensation: but this is certainly unelectable and probably impossible. Far too many electors have a stake in private companies, either directly as shareholders or indirectly through their pension funds. In any case many British companies are owned, wholly or in part, by foreign investors including foreign governments and state owned enterprises.

This is not to say that all nationalization, or establishment of public companies, is a bad idea or even unelectable. Companies could be taken into public ownership when limited term franchises terminated, as in the case of the railways. Polling evidence shows that this would be popular, hence electable. Harking back to the early Fabian idea of ‘municipal socialism’ important services and enterprises might return to public ownership and control: housing through a loan financed programme of council house building, the bus service, a direct works department competing with private contractors. There is no reason to suppose that such measures would be damaging electorally.

2. There is more than one valid definition of socialism

But now we need to recognize that Clause IV is not the only definition of socialism. For example, the co-operative socialism founded in the early nineteenth century by Robert Owen, a movement which still influences the Labour Party today, did not propose state ownership and control. Nor did William Morris or Edward Carpenter.

An important theoretical point is this: capitalism, and the market, are not identical or even necessarily connected phenomena. It would be possible to have a capitalist economy without a free market, in which all enterprises were privately owned monopolies. Conversely, It would be possible to have a market economy which was not capitalist, in which competing enterprises were owned miscellaneously by the state, by municipalities, by ‘third sector’ organizations and by co-operatives. Perhaps this is the way forward: for arguably the failure of the command economies lay, not in their attempt to replace capitalism, but in their attempt to replace the competitive market.
At the end of the twentieth century some radical political theorists developed a conception of ‘market socialism’ along these lines, thinking of a mix of enterprises which included capitalist ones alongside co-operatives and state and municipal ones. If the Labour Party chose this as a socialist direction of travel, it would imply a reinstatement of municipal enterprise, and measures to facilitate the formation of co-operatives and to encourage, for example through tax advantages, the transition of private enterprises into co-operatives. Such measures could include the possibility of a half-way house: for example, Wilkins of Tiptree, which makes the best commercial jams and pickles, is partly owns by its employees. There is no reason to suppose that such steps would be unelectable.

3. Equality

Most socialists would contend that equality is a central component of the socialist ideal. This too is deeply problematic. It is absolutely clear that absolute equality is absolutely impossible and absolutely unelectable. To give a homely example. Let us suppose a socialist utopia in which all were remunerated equally for equal work, or with marginal adjustments for those with special needs. Now let us suppose a comrade who, after doing her fair share of work, grows delicious vegetables in her spare time which she sells to other comrades only too happy to buy them. Immediately absolute equality is gone. It could only be maintained if the law stepped in to forbid the transaction, thus unacceptably limiting the freedom of both buyer and seller. Of course one can imagine individuals who, in an equal society, would happily give away their surpluses, and I am sure that there are admirable individuals in NW Leeds Labour Party like that. But it is not plausible to suppose all electors so altruistic. This example may seem too trivial to count: but if we bring in others with special skills in high demand who could gain extra rewards for extra work – artists, performers, sportsmen and women – then the impossibility of absolute equality becomes plain. And to give a historical example: when Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he attempted an incomes policy which would have given a flat rate increase to all workers. This would have benefited the lowest paid most. The policy failed through the opposition of Trade Unions determined to maintain differentials.

So what about a different approach? What about equality of opportunity? This too is a deeply problematic, even self-defeating idea. For equality of opportunity essentially means the opportunity to become unequal. If we could suppose that, miraculously, perfect equality of opportunity was created – everybody starting at the same line in the race of life instead of some already halfway down the track – the winners would have advantages to pass on to their children, and so equality of opportunity would be subverted in one generation. Surely socialists must require a measure of equality of outcomes, as well as a measure of equality of opportunity.

Equality then, whether equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes, can never be perfectly achieved. Rather as much as possible of both sorts must constantly, though imperfectly, be promoted, and this is a task for a socialist party which can never be ended, never finished. The ideal of equality of opportunity focuses attention on the education system; perhaps excessively so. To blame schools for entrenched inequality is an attempt to distract from the fact that inequality begins in the home, determined by whether it is disadvantaged or privileged, and that the ability of even the best education system to counteract this is limited. Hence the great value of the Surestart policy introduced by the last Labour government. But recognizing that inequality of opportunity has its main root in the home brings attention back to equality of outcomes. How do we make families more equal, so that they can all give their children a good start in life?

4. Promoting greater equality of outcomes

Arguably the most successful equalization has been by the provision of universal benefits. The National Health Service, universal, free school education and access to leisure opportunities in the form of parks and access land mean that the less well off can enjoy these vital benefits at a standard as good as, or almost as good as, the rich. The Labour Party has no more vital task than defending these benefits and their defence surely has electoral appeal.

All Labour governments have sought to promote greater equality by taxation policy. Unfortunately, however, this is often an election loser. Vested interests are successful in frightening electors at the prospect of any tax increase, even those who would be benefited by redistributive changes. Cleverness and good propaganda are essential if this route is to be followed. But given the growing, widespread anger at the obscene rewards given to those at the top of industry and finance, there is some scope for popular tax increases here.

Radical thinkers have mooted the idea of ‘constrained inequality’, i.e. stipulating a fixed ratio between the highest and lowest pay, say ten to one or twenty to one. It is difficult to believe that electors would vote for such a system being imposed by the state, and the international nature of so many companies means that it could not be imposed in one country. But perhaps there are practicable ways of moving in that direction. The late Labour peer Lord Gavron proposed in the Lords that all large companies should be obliged to publish their ratios. Then, the measure got nowhere, but perhaps, given the aforementioned public anger at excessive executive pay, its time has come.

Other measures for controlling high pay need not be election losers. Quite simply, shareholder votes on remuneration should by law be made binding, not merely advisory. And companies should be obliged to have workers on their boards and on their remuneration committees. The Bullock report of 1975 proposed such measures: they got nowhere because of the opposition of union leaders who saw it as potentially diminishing their role. Many of them were in any case wedded to a class conflict model of industrial relations, hostile to the more co-operative arrangement which have been so successful in Germany, where workers’ representatives do sit on boards. It is time to revisit this.

5. Class

Which raises the issue of class. Is socialism fundamentally about advancing the interests of the working class, and is this a way forward to government? Both of these suggestions are blind alleys. Britain has never had a homogeneous proletariat with a revolutionary or radical consciousness, as work by labour historians over the last half century has demonstrated. The decline in the proportion of those employed in ‘blue collar’ jobs has further diminished such homogeneity and consciousness. A recent opinion survey revealed that an overwhelming majority of Britons think of themselves as ‘working class’ but this is not obviously comforting for Labour. They define themselves in this way by contrast with the super-rich, the one percent, which certainly opens up the possibility of raising the top rate of tax. But many also define themselves against those who do not work, against the recipients of welfare, regarding the Labour Party as the party for ‘benefit scroungers’.

6. Selfishness and service

The great economic historian and Labour party socialist R.H. Tawney contrasted an acquisitive, capitalist society in which people were motivated by greed and selfishness, with a socialist society in which they subscribed to an ideal of service, an ideal made flesh for Tawney by his witness of self-sacrifice in the trenches of the First World War. The ideal of service and honourable professionalism are closely related. The true professional – doctor, teacher, nurse, social worker – is self-regulated, not by cash incentives, not by a desire to get as much money for as little sacrifice as possible, but by a sense of what she owes to the people she serves and what the job entails. Of course the best blue- and whitecollar workers, even in a capitalist society, may also be motivated by a conception of a job well done, and whether they feel it or not all of these are insulted by ‘efficiency bonuses’, by the cynical assumption that only an appeal to their greed will cause them to do what they ought to do. I guess that no Labour party member would disagree with Tawney’s analysis and suspect that many would see the ideal of service as the kernel of socialism. Here again, from an electoral point of view, the news is not good.

When I graduated in 1967 there was a widespread feeling among my contemporaries that employment in the public sector – in civil and local government service, education, nationalized industries, the health service – was more meritorious than in private. Friends who chose to work for private industry often felt the need to apologize and justify their choice. How attitudes have changed! Now those who serve the public, receiving public money (which they are regularly charged with wasting) are regarded as morally inferior ro the ‘wealth creators’. The proposal of the American neocon publicist Ayn Rand (I will not dignify her with the title of philosopher) that pure self-interest is alone creative and altruism destructive, has influenced prominent Republicans and, apparently, some British conservatives. Neocon politicians and opinion formers have been all too successful in this regard.

If Labour is ever to make headway against this malign cultural hegemony we must become more effective in advocating our core ideals. It is not just specific policies which must be sold to the electorate: we need a serious strategy to promote our moral and cultural heartland. The honours system, which ought to help in this area but apparently does not, should for us be a matter of serious review.

7. Conclusion

Is socialism electable? Possibly, if we respect both our Labour heritage, and the context in which we now live. But to achieve this requires, not simple slogans or theories which no longer have purchase, but serious, imaginative, hard thinking and powerful, coherent, well-planned communication.

Bill Stafford


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