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Liberty, equality and community – read the ancient texts to build a New Jerusalem

My review of Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto by Paul Richards

Labour has elected a new leader. Now comes the hard part – getting the party elected at the next general election. It is not enough to hope that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will collapse, sending voters running into our arms. We need to re-evaluate our entire policy platform, rooting it in our values while ensuring it is relevant to people today. As our new front bench team are experiencing, long term policy-making has to be made while fighting today’s battles. So we need signposts on the road to renewal.

A commitment to change and renewal is only a first step. It is more difficult to define what it actually means. Paul Richards has made an impressive early attempt with this book. Despite the subtitle – The Modernisers’ Manifesto – and Richards’ past career as a special adviser this is not the place to go for an über-Blairite policy agenda. Richards’ political philosophy is rooted in Labour’s traditions.

The book begins by setting the policy debate in the context of Gordon Brown’s premiership and the general election campaign. Richards explores how Labour lost public support in an account that is in part a personal reflection. To gain inspiration for the future, he considers progressive voices from the Civil War onwards – including William Morris, Keir Hardie, RH Tawney, still an inspiration to Christian socialists and others today, and George Orwell.

Richards does not draw a religious parallel but it is there. Just as the Israel of Biblical times was renewed through the rediscoveries of the Torah, so we should build the New Jerusalem after re-reading the Labour movement’s ancient texts. Richards reviews more past leaders and thinkers later on when making the case for a new phase of revisionism.

Labour’s Revival identifies Labour’s core values as liberty, equality and community. When applied together, they are self-reinforcing and stop Labour “becoming a party of pure pragmatism or ideological extremes”. All Labour’s leaders past and present could sign up to them, yet the policies and tools to implement them “would be almost entirely alien between the generations.” This is Richards’ central point. We must remain anchored to our values but we need to revise our political narrative and policy platform. Moreover, the author argues that we should rediscover ethical socialism and eschew the big state tendencies acquired in government.

Three chapters propose new policies. Richards argues that Britain has “a half-grown, adolescent democracy, over reliant on one form of democratic governance”. He believes that Labour politicians become seduced by our parliamentary system to the detriment of other forms of democratic engagement, such as local democracy. Perhaps I, too, am entranced but I feel that his democratic reforms can go with the grain of British tradition. To create a fairer society, Richards looks for policies which marry equality with aspiration. Finally, in a rather short chapter, he calls for an economic policy based on co-operative values. This is the weakest part of the book. More mutualism is desirable, but it needs to be part of an economic narrative which addresses the current situation and promotes sustainable growth in a way that benefits everyone.

Having led a project of revisionism in the Christian Socialist Movement I found myself agreeing with a great deal of Paul Richards’ argument. In the Christian Socialist Movement, we engaged all our members in debating and examining our values. We were able, collectively and democratically, to extract our values from the policy prescriptions of earlier times. That is helping us propose progressive policies fit for the 21st century without ditching our traditions.

Revisionism is sometimes feared on the left. Perhaps we worry that we will wake up one day and find ourselves in a different kind of political party. If we always keep our values before us that will never happen. But we do need to renew for the sake of the country. Labour’s Revival is a well-argued contribution to the debate that we must now have.

This article was first published in Tribune on 26 November 2010.
Tribune, December 2010, 04/12/2010

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