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Is there yet a new New Labour agenda?

Reflections in relation to Anthony Giddens’ latest publication Over to you, Mr. Brown


Even before Gordon Brown took over as UK Prime Minister in June this year, one of New Labour’s masterminds, the renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens, published his latest book entitled Over to you, Mr Brown. His ambitions are bold. Almost a decade after the publication of his widely debated The Third Way, which provided much of Tony Blair’s intellectual underpinning, Giddens attempts anew to set the framework for a renovated ideological position and policy outlook for the centre-left. Its outcome is ambiguous.

Anthony Giddens, Over To You, Mr Brown : How Labour Can Win Again, London, Polity Press, 2007, 256 p.

Does the work display a spirit of continuity or is it animated by an impulse of change? Against the background of New Labour’s (overall positive) governing record (e.g. continuous low rates of unemployment, a buoyant economy, the containment of public debt despite massive investment in public services, fall in absolute poverty) as well as three successive election victories this question naturally begs to be answered. In politics, the extent to which voters appraise past achievements remains utterly unclear. Instead, it is policy innovation and ideas for the future that matter. Giddens evidently intends to embrace both, continuity and change, but ultimately appears to fall back on the former while being too reticent on the latter.

His approach is straightforward. After offering a brief assessment of Labour’s successes and failures and scrutinising the political environment in the UK Giddens sets out a triad of key objectives for the new government to pursue: achieving security in the social, economic and criminal justice spheres; developing identities in its distinct variants – national, local and personal – whereas identity is closely related to security, given that feelings of alienation (moral, social and physical) have caused considerable anxiety among parts of our population; and upholding the virtues of diversity in preparation for a world of global linkages. In short, a new blueprint for the global challenges of the 21st century.

This blueprint, in turn, is backed up with in-depth exploration of the major transformations affecting our societies, including increased life expectancy with its consequences for pensions and social care, and extended life choices for women with their impact on the differing fortunes of one-earner and two-earner households. Technological change means fewer low skilled jobs. The age of affluence has fuelled the rise of the knowledge and service economy, led to the emergence of new health and social risks and a shift to post-materialist values.

This is Giddens at his best, reducing the complexity of the ongoing societal transformations while elaborating new policy concepts that respond to them. For instance, a post-industrial welfare society ought to distinguish itself from the traditional welfare state by replacing the dominant remedial approach with a more preventative form of welfare and increased investment in human capital. In the face of the climate challenge, energy crisis and growing levels of obesity, diabetes and mental illness, lifestyle change becomes a core concern of the welfare system. By detaching pensions from the concept of retirement, pension funds could be available at a diversity of ages and for diverse purposes. Governments need to collaborate with employers to identify and promote job opportunities in particular for older members of the population.

Without doubt, Over to you, Mr. Brown offers a rich account of such proposals and concepts. As such, it extends the logic of ‘third way’ politics based on recognising the need for constant reform and modernization of socio-economic models if we are to maintain prosperity in an era of rapid change. The book’s indisputable strength lies in setting new priorities reflecting a world in flux. And Giddens interestingly combines the quest for reformism with his repeated call upon New Labour to “rejoin the social democratic family of parties”.

At the same time, however, these efforts are somehow insufficient. On the one hand, the work falls short of addressing more emphatically the shortcomings (e.g. the persistent high-levels of inequality, partly malfunctioning public services, high rate of early school leavers) and criticism (e.g. excessive debt rates of individual households, unsustainable patterns of high-paid employment in the knowledge and service economy, a misleading foreign policy) of New Labour’s agenda; on the other hand it fails to outline a new centre-left programme that captures the magnitude of the principal challenges of our times. Several observations can be made here.

First, there is a gap between an ethical framework underpinning the assessment of socio-economic changes and the unqualified acquiescence of current global transformations. Globalisation, for example, is not an unstoppable exogenous force. On the contrary, it is politically driven by ever deepening forces of capital mobility, trade integration and the globalisation of labour. The first wave of globalisation, for instance, ended in World War One and went into reverse for three decades.

‘Third way’ responses to globalisation were largely constrained to facilitating labour market adjustment and investing in education and human capital. While this approach still bears much relevance, modern social democracy must go beyond it, holding true to its own radical vision of global integration and how market forces need to be shaped in order to work better in the interest of society. Social democracy must rise to the challenge of devising what kind of globalisation and society we want and marry a normative framework with pragmatic and realistic policy solutions in the light of current transformations. It needs to overcome the unconstructive and simplistic polarisation between those who favour globalisation and those who are hostile to it [1].

Indeed, critics such as Colin Hay and Paul Commack have questioned in particular New Labour’s understanding and conception of globalisation and social democracy, dismissing calls for greater social justice as little more than spin [2]. Yet, progressive politics has to confront the possible trade-offs and intractable dilemmas between openness to globalisation and the emergence of new inequalities, providing more compelling answers to how competitiveness and solidarity can actually be reconciled. Giddens’ contribution to this puzzle is merely rhetorical – when he acknowledges, for example, that “we should work out more explicitly what sort of capitalism we want” but does not approach this question in any detail throughout his book [3].

Second, the last decade has seen an unprecedented pace of changes. The basic progressive argument since the 1990s has been that the knowledge economy’s reliance on human capital made it possible for a social democratic government through investment in education, training and skills (together with active labour market intervention to reintegrate the losers from economic change) to spread opportunity and lay the foundations of a more socially just society – without reliance on the traditional interventionist tools of socialism, such as nationalisation, state planning and sharply redistributive taxation.

In this new economy, markets could be used as a positive tool by progressives to promote a faster rate of innovation and new enterprise. The European Union’s Lisbon agenda and also the Schröder-Blair paper in 1999, for example, were precisely based on this assumption. Scholars, such as Anthony Giddens, brilliantly captured the need for socio-economic reform and renewal if societies wanted to adapt to and thrive in these rapidly changing circumstances.

However, the new set of challenges in the 21st century are even bigger than those conceived in the mid-nineties, ranging from the geopolitics of energy, climate change, the potential instability of the current financial system and stark rises in economic inequality, to problems of migration and integration, cultural and religious conflicts over notions of the ‘good society’, and the individualisation of values alongside the decline of traditional institutions.

Take, for example, modern financial capitalism which appears to favour a small number of financiers who make large sums out of speculation rather than production. At the same time, the risks are unevenly distributed among our society. Yet the global economy will not be durable unless the winners are prepared to share more of the gains with the losers and unless we seriously tackle the new regulatory, social and political challenges which the current financial system entails. It requires a clear conception of how the interests of both the trader in assets and the long-term producer can be reconciled. And ultimately how governments can maintain their primacy over market forces. In this context, introducing a “wealth tax” for the top earners, as Giddens proposes, does not seem to be enough [4]. It rather requires a mode of thinking that breaks with the old certitudes.

Above all, these challenges throw up an unprecedented dilemma for social democracy. Historically, social democrats have been concerned with enhancing economic and social cohesion through policy instruments that presuppose the existence of national economies. Governments in the 1970s and 1980s could attempt to strike a balance between the power of capital, labour and the state by embedding the market within a regulatory framework that sought to reconcile economic efficiency with the values of social solidarity and social justice. In the US, this led to the concept of the New Deal; in Europe to the ‘social market economy’; and in Britain to the post-war welfare state of Beveridge and Keynes.

It would be wrong to envisage that there was ever a ‘golden age’ for the welfare states of Western Europe. But in an era of globalisation, the mobility of capital, goods, people, ideas and pollutants increasingly leads us to question the basic viability of social democracy. While its values – the rule of law, political equality, democratic politics, social justice, social solidarity, economic efficiency – are of enduring relevance, the key remit today is to work out how to put these values into practice given the changing global constellation of politics and economics [5].

This remit, in turn, demands new approaches. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, for instance, proposes a new cosmopolitanism which would meet the needs of the “world risk society”, combining concerns for national and global justice with an interest in the survival of each individual [6]. A better understanding and a deeper analysis of the global interconnectedness will certainly be a prerequisite for successful public policy in the 21st century.

Third, the very notion of social justice needs to be redefined. Giddens tends to avoid any precise meaning of social justice but rather subordinates it to his concern for ‘security’. However, the idea of social justice has been the driving force of social democratic politics in Western societies for over a century. As David Miller argues, it is the idea that best distinguishes centre-left parties from their neo-liberal and Marxist rivals [7]. Miller identifies four principles at the core of any social democratic enterprise: Equal citizenship; the social minimum; equality of opportunity; and fair distribution. The challenge is to apply these principles of social justice in new circumstances: no social justice project is likely ever to be complete, as social and technological change constantly generates new challenges.

At the same time, the relationship between globalisation and social justice is inherently complex. This is largely due to the fact that movements associated with globalisation raise serious questions with regard to both ‘global social justice’ and issues relating to social justice in the national domestic context. On the one hand, social democrats are concerned about global social justice and the need to meet the collective challenges of securing minimum humanitarian, economic and environmental standards. This is best advanced through a twofold strategy: First, economic openness that permits developing countries to grow through trade. Second, international political engagement that addresses key issues such as poverty and development, energy and climate change, security and migration, and improved global governance. On the other hand, in industrialised democracies this political approach will only be sustainable if the economic, social and cultural changes unleashed by globalisation are seen to benefit the majority not the privileged few, and if we find ways to advance social justice ‘at home’.

Hence, the new social democratic mission carries a substantial burden. It wants to tie in with the history of successful revisionist projects, attend to feelings of insecurity as well as hopes and ambitions, and respond efficiently to the new set of circumstances which somehow seem to be at odds with social democracy as we know it. In fact, the ‘third way’ formula has always proved better as a critique of the past than a guide to the future. In his latest publications Anthony Giddens has shown that he has considerably broadened his approach [8]. Yet it does not seem to be enough to grasp the principal challenges of the global age and resolve the dilemmas of modern social democracy. More radical thinking will ultimately be required.

Further reading

To quote this article :

Olaf Cramme, « Is there yet a new New Labour agenda? . Reflections in relation to Anthony Giddens’ latest publication Over to you, Mr. Brown », Books and Ideas , 12 November 2007. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Is-there-yet-a-new-New-Labour.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

by Olaf Cramme , 12 November 2007

Footnotes

[1Giddens offers little on this debate, see Anthony Giddens, Over to You, Mr. Brown, p. 50-53.

[2See, for example, Colin Hay (with N. Smith) ‘Horses for Courses? The Political Discourse of Globalisation and European Integration in the UK and Ireland’, West European Politics, 28 (1), 124-58, 2005; Paul Cammack. ‘Competitiveness, Social Justice, and the Third Way’, Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness, No. 6, Institute for Global Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2007.

[3Anthony Giddens, op. cit., p. 29.

[4Anthony Giddens, op. cit., p. 115-118.

[5Cf. David Held, Global Covenant – The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus, Polity Press, 2004.

[6Cf. Ulrick Beck, Weltrisikogesellschaft, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2007.

[7Cf. David Miller, The principles of social justice, Harvard University Press, 1999.

[8See also Anthony Giddens, Europe in a Global Age, Polity Press, 2006.



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