Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism was published in 1956. Crosland had been a Labour MP (and would be again) but had lost his seat in the 1955 general election.
Labour had won power in 1945 on a welfare state programme that included the creation of the NHS and a new system of benefits.
Their Keynesian policies aimed at full employment, limited nationalisation and the first steps to decolonisation.
By 1948, this programme had been implemented and divisions began to open within the Labour government and Party. The majority of the leadership wanted to go no further in limiting capitalism. The left argued for more nationalisation, faster decolonisation and a foreign policy not aligned to the USA. But the Labour government had built the British nuclear bomb and was playing second fiddle to the US-led war in Korea. Labour lost power in 1951 not because of its radical ideas, but because it had run out of ideas.
The problem then for the right-wing Labour leaders was that the Conservatives had mostly accepted Labour’s reforms and Labour had no clear political alternative to the Conservatives. It is in this context that Crosland wrote his book; he wanted to create a “revisionist” programme that was distinctive both from the left wing of the Labour Party and the Conservatives.
It is thus odd that Peter Hain (Labour MP for Neath and the holder of a series of minor Cabinet posts under Blair and Brown) should look to The Future of Socialism as a source of reinvigoration for the Labour Party. Today the basis for difference between the parties (and one Hain strongly asserts) is the rate of deficit reduction.
Furthermore, the basis of The Future of Socialism has been falsified by events. Crosland argued that capitalism no longer existed in a meaningful sense since industry was run by managers, balanced by the power of the trade unions; that the mixed economy and instruments of economic planning meant that private companies were circumscribed by the democratic state; and the state’s ability to redistribute wealth made the private ownership of some economic assets largely irrelevant.
Crosland believed that these gains could not be reversed and that socialism in Britain had only two goals: ending of disadvantage through welfare, and eradicating the importance of class. That would be done through increased equal opportunity, particularly in education and the equalisation of life chances through redistribution.
Hain is clearly aware that Crosland’s optimism was not founded, that the capitalist class has strengthened its grip on society, but does not draw conclusions. Hain recognises that the weakening of the organised working class has allowed inequality to increase, but he does not see these changes in terms of class. Rather, history is presented as a series of accidents. New Labour was too timid, he says, and too much in the thrall of neo-liberal ideas. It thus regulated the banks too lightly, and allowed the banking crisis to take hold.
The Conservative-Liberal coalition’s austerity policies are not seen as attacks on the working class, with the downward drive on wages and welfare boosting profit. Rather, the Conservatives are ideologically-beholden fools. Hain’s mantra is higher spending now would create growth and that would take care of the deficit.
Hain proposes to tax the rich more, through higher income tax, national insurance, inheritance tax, mansion tax and luxury goods VAT. All welcome, but won’t the rich just decamp to the nearest low tax jurisdiction, taking some of their higher paid managers with them? Hain has, as they say, no Plan B. Such capital flight should be met with expropriation of that capital.
Hain proposes a national investment bank to support small and medium sized businesses, regulate the banking sector more, and invest more in training. This may all make sense for a rational capitalist economy, but does not add up to the future of socialism.
Although Hain criticises New Labour for being too neo-liberal, many of his proposals are utterly imprisoned in New Labour ways of thinking. His proposals for helping disadvantaged children in education consists of changing Ofsted rules to give “outstanding” only to schools that address disadvantage. This is actually less radical than Labour’s policies after 1997 which focused on ending child poverty and sought to redirect resources for early intervention into poorer areas through Sure Start.
This is a feeble book bereft of any real understanding of what the Conservative austerity agenda is and the need for a working class response to it.
As Tony Crosland wrote in 1956, “to-day, conservative and indolent-minded people on the Left, finding the contemporary scene too puzzling and unable to mould it in old familiar categories, are inclined to seek refuge in the slogans and ideas of 50 years ago.” Here, at least, Crosland had a point with staying power.