Out of her tree. Lost the plot. Such are the continued howls of derision that have greeted Harriet Harman’s various ill-judged pronouncements on men generally being massive bastards. The more perceptive analysis, as offered by Rachel Sylvester in The Times, amongst others, is that the underlying arguments have a much deeper resonance for Labour and the centre-left.
There is a great deal of debate at the moment surrounding the relative merits of the liberal and socialist traditions within the Labour movement and to what (if indeed any) extent these traditions may be reconciled. This has otherwise been characterised as Brownite v Blairite, Left v Right, Centralisers v Federalisers.
Looking back, the Party emerged against a background of Edwardian Liberalism that sought to ameliorate the conditions of the poor, sometimes through large-scale programmes, but always in a piecemeal fashion. The Labour Party came to reject this piecemeal progressivism in favour of millenarian utopianism courtesy of, amongst others, the Fabians.
Of course there was a time when this utopianism was easy. Socialism was what a Labour Government did and wide-scale nationalisation was the panacea. By 1948 everything that was bolted down and a whole lot else besides was in public ownership, yet socialism – somewhat obstinately – hadn’t arrived. The utopians searched for something else to strive for. Crosland’s The Future of Socialism decided that public ownership shouldn’t be the central aim of a Labour government and that equality was the new goal. This created a new problem; what did equality mean?
Looking at Harriet Harman’s recent Equality Bill, it seems that the law will seek to define equality as the absence of discrimination. Putting aside the fact this is a fairly unsatisfactory definition, it comes to the crux of the problem. A large segment of the Labour movement has a mindset that is at odds with reality; there is amongst some a genuine belief that inequality, indeed any social ill, can be solved simply by new institutions and fresh legislation (I saw an article on here recently proposing making pre-nuptial agreements compulsory – I can’t remember why, but it outlines the problem neatly).
Don’t get me wrong; institutions and legislation are important and have their place in the promotion of a progressive agenda. On their own though, they are not enough. Since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, the rights agenda has been appropriated by a Left shorn of public ownership as a programme -with class as a defining concept. The rights of women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, and homosexuals were the new battleground that the left would fight on. Giving people rights would give them a common humanity; it would make them equal.
Or would it? As people more eminent than me have pointed out, there is a whole world of difference between abstract rights conferred by law and the concrete squalor of human existence. In short, in pinning our hopes on rights, on legislative freedoms, we reject the more fundamental politics of the left; the constant struggle between vested interests and the disenfranchised, between those who have power and those who do not.
My problem with the Deputy Leader, then, is that she is very much immured in the rights agenda and that this, as a result, determines her attitude towards the relationship between the individual and the state (and therefore puts her on the side of the centralisers against the federalists). The Equalities Bill sets out to empower the state to enforce the rights of the citizen. Great.
Despite my critical overview, I’m supportive of more and better rights (the Human Rights Act is one of the best pieces of legislation enacted by any government). But as I’ve said above, rights are not a substitute for proper politics.
And more importantly, the question of enforcement is the most important one. To take one example, it’s over one hundred years since the legislative abolition of slavery, yet women are being bought and sold into the sex trade right under our noses in Britain. The state can’t be in all places at once, nor would I want it to be; lumbering it with extra responsibilities is not likely to yield results.
The word that matters for me then is empowerment; ultimately, we need to empower individuals in their communities and their workplaces if we want to see the pluralist, progressive society that the centre-left is working towards. We need to allow a civic culture to flourish by giving local people local powers and the budgets to control what goes on in their communities. We need to tackle the entrenched cultural opinions that see women oppressed in their own homes, let alone their workplaces.
That requires sustained education. And on the subject of the workplace, we need to empower staff through encouraging worker participation in management structures rather than simply burdening companies with ever greater lists of regulations to comply with.
More than anything we need to recognise that politics doesn’t end with rights, it begins with them. Until we do that, we’ll continue to get lost in abstractions and risk, to paraphrase Ms Sylvester, inculcating a state of permanent victimhood rather than encouraging aspiration.