Kier Hardie lecture 2011 – Marc Stears

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Hirwaun, Cynon Valley Constituency Labour Party, 26th November 2011.

It is an enormous pleasure to be delivering a talk in honour of Keir Hardie. He was the man whose efforts gave our party life, whose vision continues to provide its soul to this day.

Keir Hardie understood many things about politics. He understood that in order to do politics well, we need to do three things.

First, he knew that we need a hard-headed campaigning strategy. We need to be willing to knock on doors, make our arguments, and take the fight to our opponents. That’s why he thought that working people needed a political party of their own.

Second, he knew that campaigning by itself was never enough. As we do political battle, we need to be guided by values and principles. We need an ideology that helps us to distinguish between right and wrong, and that provides our sense of direction, shaping our programme and our strategy as it does so.

Third, and most importantly, he also understood that we need a spirit. An emotion, if you like. In order to get out there and do the work that is demanded of us, we need to feel, as well as to think. We need to enjoy the comradeship of our peers, to be passionate about our cause, to inspire and be inspired in turn.

Politics, Keir Hardie told us, is a combination of all three. And that is why we still remember him. And that’s why as long as there is a Labour Party we will keep on remembering him.

But I don’t just want to talk about our Party’s past tonight. I want to talk about our Party at the moment. History is crucial. But so is the present.  I want to know where the Labour Party is today. I want to know how has it has got to its current state. I want to know where it should go next.

As soon as you ask these questions, and especially as you do so in the Westminster village, you immediately invite policy speculation.

Journalists want to know about the policy review documents. They want to know what is going to be Labour’s position on tax credits, on environmental regulation, on the European working time directive, or on any other issue that you can imagine.

But that is to go about things entirely the wrong way.

We don’t just need to know what our policies are or what our strategy will be. We need to know what our party is for and how our party should feel.

Keir Hardie himself once said:

“The attitude of multitudes of people towards Socialism is that of the man who could not see the wood for the trees. They are so engrossed in the contemplation of petty details that they never get even a remote glimpse of the great unifying principle underlying Socialism. [But] Socialism is much more than either a political creed or an economic dogma. It presents to the modern world a new conception of society and a new basis upon which to build up the life of the individual and of the State.”

We need, then, to go back to that “new conception” and then work out how we build from it.

Socialism began, not from abstract theories or grand intellectual enquiries, but from one single observation from everyday life.

There are two distinct ways of being in the world – of living with others, of thinking and feeling.

The first is the way of being that characterizes the worse aspects of capitalism.

It sees life as beginning just with ourselves and then moving out.  Seen this way, other people are, at worst, obstacles, to our own ends, or objects to be manipulated. Life is always a set of transactions.  It is, at best, a constant effort to deal with others. At worst, it is a constant effort to get them out of the way.

This view is cold and it instrumental. But we all live like it sometimes.

It is how we are when we are dashing from one place to the next. It is how we are when we are rude to the person in the supermarket who is standing where we want to be. More importantly, it is how the boss of a firm is when he dismisses his workforce without a moment’s notice because profit demands it. It is how a councillor is when she closes down a library or a meals-on-wheels service with no regard for the human beings who use those services. It is how we are when we approach things in an entirely in a rational, cost-benefit analysis. It is life as lived on a spreadsheet.

The second is the way of being isn’t like this. It characterizes us in our other mood.

It sees life as always about our relationships with others. It sees other people as giving us meaning and purpose and not as obstacles to our own ends. It celebrates the sense of duty and obligation we have to each other simply by virtue of living alongside each other.

We are like this in our everyday lives too. We see it in our willingness to say hello to the stranger at the bus-stop. We see it when we spend a moment longer with the person behind the till in the supermarket, just because we want to make the day go better. We see it when we look in on a neighbour who has been unwell.

It is simple really. It is planning, thinking, and feeling for the good of others. Not just for ourselves.

It wasn’t only the early socialists who started from this distinction. The great twentieth century theologian Martin Buber argued that these two ways of being structured our entire lives.

He called the first an “I – It” mentality. There is only “I” and “it” in the world. Me and objects. Me and things to be manipulated for my own convenience.

He called the second an “I – You” mentality. There is still me, but there are other people too. And the richness of life lies in the experiences that we can share.

The sense that there is a difference here is deep in our everyday life.

My dad has been very unwell of late. He was in the Heath hospital in Cardiff.

The machines – the tests – the medical expertise – the manager’s organizational prowess: they all mattered enormously. There is no question of that.

But something much simpler gave him the strength and the courage to get through it all.

A nurse, Mel, a guy from the Philippines, dropped by every day. And whenever I went to see my dad, he would mention him.

Why? Because he talked to him like a human being. And not like an object. He knew my dad wasn’t just something to be tested or examined or made physically better. He was a person to whom it was still possible to relate.

I asked my dad what they chatted about. He told me that they agreed that James Hook should never play outside half for Wales again!

Whatever it was, though, it transformed my dad’s experience.

It showed that it is not just the objects did not matter. They are not enough on their own. As Martin Buber said, “without its no human being can live, but whoever only lives with its, is not human.”

But what, you might ask, has all of this got to do with politics? What does it have to say to Ed Miliband and the Labour Party today?

Once again, it’s worth going back to Keir Hardie. For he knew the answer to that.

Hardie said that “co-operation and not competition is the only true basis upon which progress can be built. Socialism implies brotherhood, and brotherhood implies a living recognition of the fact that the duty of the strong is not to hold the weak in subjection, but to assist them to rise higher and ever higher.”

What he meant, is that we need to build a society which draws out the second way of being.

A society which encourages us to be more relational. A society which encourages us to look after each other. A society that draws out our best side, and not our worst.

How do we do that? What would a Labour Party that was committed to that ideal look like? What would it try to achieve?

In order to answer that, we need to know how well have we tried of late.

In government, Labour did some wonderful things. We all know the list: the minimum wage; transformative investment in our hospitals and our schools; devolution to Scotland and, of course, to Wales.

But as Ed Miliband recently noted, something very important was missing. “We improved the fabric of our nation, but we didn’t change its ethic.”

We see that in New Labour’s reliance on government. On targets. On a sense that the man or woman in Whitehall knew best.

We see it too, in the fact that some issues weren’t discussed with the people in anywhere near as much detail as they should have been. Immigration is the most obvious example. But there was also a continuing decline in real wages for those in work, but not at the top. And there was a worry about the place of our nation in the world. And the relationship between England, Scotland, and Wales.

Most importantly, though, we never addressed the question of how we could build a more relational life, or shape a more I-You mentality?

In fact, no-one even asked the question.

The result was not only that we failed to address our ethic. It led directly to the financial crash of 2008. It led to that because we did nothing to say that short-termism in business is not acceptable. We did nothing properly to tackle the corrupting influence of the pursuit of imaginary money. We did nothing – simply put – to say that greed is not good.

We can’t make those mistakes again.

Ed Miliband might well bring Labour back to power.

The economic crisis facing Britain is so severe that no government, and especially not one with Nick Clegg and George Osborne at its core, might be able to survive.

That means that there could be a Labour majority again, and not just here in Wales.

But that means that we have to ask what is going to happen when he gets to No. 10?

The same as before? A tinkering around the edges?

Or a sustained effort to realize Keir Hardie’s dream? An attempt to build a more co-operative society. One dedicated to the ideas of mutual support. One that shifts the predominant ethic of our nation.

I hope that it will be that. But such change won’t happen overnight.

So, I want to conclude tonight by indicating four general areas that Labour will need to address if it is to make a real difference, if it is to have a chance of reshaping our national ethics.

First, it is going to have to realize that places matter to people.

For too many years, we have conducted our politics in the abstract. We’ve spoken as if people didn’t live in particular villages, towns, or counties. As if people were akin to entries in a spread-sheet. We’ve spoken about patterns of distribution, about gini-coefficients, about social mobility. We haven’t spoken about the feel of the places that matter. We haven’t spoken about people coming together in halls like this one, getting to know each other, and feeling a pride in their locality. That has to change.

I spoke to a friend of mine recently who works for the Royal National Institute of Blind People. I was talking to him about the campaigns he had been involved in. He told me something that will stay with me for a long time.

What matters most to people in the RNIB, he said, aren’t the grand campaigns, the arguments about national strategy, or even about the health service. It is the local campaigns. The campaigns that help people get overgrown bushes cut back or pavements laid safely. And why? Because it they that enable blind people to live well in their own communities. To walk their own streets. To go safely to their own shops or their own churches.

Making a difference in the places people live. That’s what matters most.

It is not just place that is important here, though. Second, our politics is going to have to realize that people need more time with each other.

So many aspects of our lives seem to have sped up in the last decade or so.  Our working days got longer, our breaks got shorter. We started to eat lunch at our desks, instead of with our colleagues. We started to think that we haven’t got the time to visit our families or spend with our neighbours. I can’t do that tonight, my friends would tell me, I haven’t got the time.

Occasionally, this was just due to bad planning.  But more often, it was a result of the pressures of an obsessive form of economic competition. Advancement was what mattered. Continuity was seen as a failure. Sometimes, it was the direct result of the failings of our economy. Since moving to London, I have heard so many stories of parents who have to work two, even three jobs, in order to pay for food for their kids. They manage to get by, they manage to provide the meal, but they don’t have the time to eat their dinner together. It is a genuine tragedy.

Labour has to do what it can to stop this. It has to commit itself to enabling people to spend time with each other, and to protecting them so that they can do it. That is why Ed Miliband’s commitment to a Living Wage – a living not a minimum wage – resonates so powerfully.

Third, it is not just place and time that is important. People also need organizations and institutions in order to be able to interact over time.

Think about it. We are all here tonight not because of our individual purposes, but because we belong to something. We belong to a movement. And to a Party. That is what keeps us coming out in the rain, to listen to lectures, to meet each other.

Here in South Wales, there still is the Labour Party, the trade unions, the rugby clubs. But it is unusual like that. Too few people in Britain today have this infrastructure. People lead lives on their own, or with their most immediate families, because they don’t have organizations or institutions that bond them together.

Our task as a Labour Party is to help to turn this around. That is why I am so proud that friends from Movement for Change are in the audience tonight. Of all the people involved with Labour at the moment, they know the importance of this organizational, institutional story, and they are helping us remember it on a daily basis.

Place, time, and organization. All three are crucial. But they are not the most important features of a renewed politics. That lies with our fourth area of concern. With the fact that people need power.

Unless we feel as if we really count in the world, we can never build effective relationships with others. A sense of responsibility for others can only emerge when we feel as if we can make a difference. If we feel hopeless and helpless, then we will not be able to shape our own lives, let alone the lives of others.

That is how far too many of us feel today. And Labour has not done anything like enough to stop that.

When Labour was in government, it didn’t build people’s sense of power. Too often it did the often. It sometimes felt that our lives were run for us, in our interests, by people who “knew best”. It didn’t feel as if we were trusted, if we were the ones to make the decisions, if we were the ones to shape our own communities, our own workplaces, our own families.

We just need to think about how our own Party changed. Moving from a democracy of shared concern. Where policy was made in meetings like this. To a Party with a “message”, decided on in the centre, and passed down from “experts” to the rest of us.

We have to change that. We have to say that power should always lie with the people, especially in the people’s party.

If Labour can help turn this around, if it can help us all feel that we have power in our own lives again, then it can create a more relational life in Britain. If it does not, it cannot.

 

“The ILP is guided by its heart, not by its text-books. The letter killeth, the spirit alone giveth life.” That’s what Keir Hardie said.

“The speculative side of Socialism has but small concern. Its common sense which appeals.”

That’s how he concluded.

That common sense lies in our soul. Not in our policy reviews.

It is what makes night like tonight special.

It is why I stood in a neighbour’s living room in Dinas Powys in 1992 with a glass of beer in hand waiting to cheer Neil Kinnock into Number 10. It is also why the disappointment of that night did not last. It is why we all got up again and continued the fight.

Because we know we are best when we work together. When we work for each other. When we know that we are building a co-operative nation together.

Because we know that’s what it is like to live a proper human life. To be together, always in support. Not to see each other as objects.

That’s what Keir Hardie knew too. And that is why it is always a pleasure to remember him.

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