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A radical agenda for a new millennium

Robin Cook


First published in Renewal vol. 5, no. 1 (1997), pp. 9-16.


It is vital that the left does not now accept the role of merely conserving what was best in the New Right revolution of the 1980s.


Political debates require an intellectual content. My opposite number, Malcolm Rifkind, recently delivered a lecture in Zurich on the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill's historic address. Mr Rifkind spoke at the start of his address of the descriptions of crowds lining the pavement and covering Churchill's car with flowers as he arrived. I detected a certain wistful quality to his description of Churchill's reception. What arrested my attention was his reference to the four weeks' hospitality by the lakeside provided by the Swiss Government in order that Winston Churchill could prepare his speech. To the modern politician, four weeks would be an inconceivable luxury for a single speech. Churchill was working to the more dignified pace of the Statesman, whilst today's MPs scurry at the more frantic pace of the practising politician.

In my twenty years in parliament the pressures have multiplied. When I first arrived there was only a solitary microphone in a single studio anywhere on the campus. To symbolise its marginal significance, it was located in a converted garden shed. Today there are as many broadcasters on hand as there are full-time MPs. There are more television channels and more radio stations than ever before, and they broadcast current affairs around the clock.

The result is unremitting pressure on senior figures to provide a soundbite in immediate response to what has happened within the past hour. It is a kind of Andy Warhol politics in which every issue has its turn at being important for thirty seconds.

It is a rare treat for a politician to have the opportunity to think for more than an hour about the same issue, and an unusual invitation that asks him to talk about it for longer than the standard four minutes on the Today programme. This is not a good formula to develop the intellectual content of political debate. Nexus and Renewal can be of immense value in supporting those of us in the front line by keeping open our lines of communication to people who are blessed with the freedom of thinking beyond the next bulletin.

The second limit on politicians attempting an unguarded expression of free thought is the nature of today's print media. Today's press are not dominated by respect for a free spirit of enquiry. In the past few months isolated articles by minor stars in Labour's constellation have exploded across the headlines as evidence of a party in crisis. These are not encouraging precedents for their colleagues to attempt original thought. It therefore would be immensely helpful for others to open up paths which we might more safely follow after some of the mines in the way have been exploded.

I would not therefore suggest that Nexus and Renewal fulfils anything so humble as the back-up to the political figures who are on display front of house. On the contrary, I think you have the much more exciting task of providing the cutting edge of the advance party of radical thought.


Trailblazers for the party

I have given as the title of this article 'A radical agenda for the millennium'. I want to explore with you the agenda where Nexus and Renewal could most usefully trail-blaze on behalf of the Party's spokespersons.

However, let me first defend two of the terms in that title. I believe it is essential that any agenda which we develop must be radical, challenging and cut with the grain of change rather than oppose it. Tony Blair has made an invaluable contribution to the Labour Party in transforming it into the party of change rather than the party that is opposed to change. An integral part of the crisis for the left during the Thatcher years was that we were transformed into the political force that defended the post-war settlement. As a result, we became trapped in a political culture that was defensive — even, ironically, conservative. By contrast, Thatcherism in part succeeded in capturing support because it conveyed an image of thrusting radical change.

It is vital that the left does not now accept a role of merely conserving what was best in the New Right revolution of the 'eighties. We will not develop a viable long-term political project by offering the electorate the opportunity to take a break from change. We must develop our own radical programme of change.

I use the term 'millennium' as the focus for that programme because I am confident that Labour will be in power when we enter the next century. The turn of the century will be accompanied by several acres of newsprint about the new challenges of a new millennium. The left should not merely be ready for that debate, but should aspire to lead and set the terms of that debate.

We therefore must address now the intellectual challenge of shaping a distinctive, radical project which will be relevant to the issues of the new century, which will mobilise support for the left-of-centre, and which will offer solutions to new problems.

I therefore want to outline four major features of society as we will find it at the turn of the century which challenge traditional concepts of socialism, but for each of which our ideology offers a better starting point to interpret change and to respond to it if we can supply the imagination and the innovation to adapt our policies.

The first of those features is the growth of individualism in economic activity and the fragmentation of society.

Socialism was born out of an era of mass labour. It took particularly strong root among workforces such as the mining community, where production depended on team effort by large numbers of labour, enhanced by ever-present common dangers.

Over the Tory years, the number of centres of employment with over a thousand employees has fallen to a third of the level of only twenty years ago. The number of pits has fallen to less than one tenth of the previous figure. The typical experience of modern work is at an individual work-station interfacing with other employees through a VDU. Individual assessment of pay is at least as common as collective bargaining.

Moreover, the decline of identity with other employees is accelerated by more frequent changes of job. My grandfather performed the same job at the coal face from his teens to his sixties. Today's young generation can expect half-a-dozen changes in employment in a working lifetime.

A further feature which shaped the origins of socialism was the stability of residence. My grandfather walked to work all his life, and most of his contemporaries grew up in the shadow of the pit wheel or mill where they worked. Most of my constituents drive daily long distances to their place of work and return home to a street in which no other resident shares their occupation. As a result, the community of interest between residents of a neighbourhood is no longer reinforced by a shared experience of unemployment.


A faith in the future

Part of the mindset which produced the conservatism of the left in the 'eighties was an unhealthy nostalgia for the vanished society which produced the electoral strongholds of Labour. It is important that we resist the attractions of a retreat to a sepia-tinted Hovis socialism. Believe me, nobody who lived through the real experience of a working class community of fifty years ago feels remotely tempted to return to it now. Life today, with all its problems, is richer, more diverse and more free for my constituents now than it was then. A vote among them on whether they wish to live in 1996 or 1946 would produce a majority for the present which would have made even Stalin blush.

The task for progressive politicians and intellectuals is not to carry a candle to the past, but to adapt our thinking to the future. The old models of collectivism may be inappropriate, but that does not mean that modern society does not need collective solutions to common problems. On the contrary, I would argue that the increased fragmentation of society itself stimulates new needs for a collective solution.

For example, the rise in the numbers of very elderly in society coincides with the decline in the extended family which would previously have provided a structure of support. The typical elderly resident of the next century will have had only two children, both of whom may have gone to live at the other end of the country in pursuit of their career.

The heavy reliance on informal carers by the present Government assumes that we can meet a problem of the next century from the family patterns of the last century. And the problem is already present. More people today have an aged parent than a young child. Proper provision for their elderly relatives will only come from shared, rather than individual, solutions.

Similarly, the welcome increase of participation by women in the workforce has given rise to a new need for proper provision of child care. At the same time, the decline in the extended family has made it more difficult for individuals to resolve that need from among relatives. Britain now has one of the highest rates of participation of women in the workforce, yet still has one of the poorest rates of official childcare. As career opportunities must and will increase, it will be essential that we develop adequate shared provision of child care.

The issue of pensions has been heavily debated today, and I most certainly do not wish to add to the current controversy. Let me take the rather longer-term view permitted by the title of my article.

It is possible that we are currently witnessing the peak of the occupational pension as a means of provision for old age. The increasing frequency of job moves and the decline in permanent contracts of employment, together with the shift of employment out of large companies into small businesses, all raise questions about the extent to which the conventional model of an occupational pension can continue to cater for even the half of the population at present covered it. In addition, the high rate of marital breakdown further reduces the number of those adequately provided for in old age, even when a modest occupational pension is split evenly between two people. Whatever solution may eventually emerge from the current pensions debate, it is unlikely that we will satisfactorily provide for all the retired population by leaving the individual primarily responsible for his or her pension.


The radical economy

The second feature of society at the turn of the century which invites a radical agenda is its economy. The New Right have tested to destruction the theory that a competitive economy can be built on the fractured basis of laissez-faire economics and individual competition. The result has been the period of lowest growth in Britain's post-war history and, for that matter, the worst growth rate for any period of similar length of any of the major industrialised nations.

Paradoxically, those countries which have proved most competitiveness in the global economy are those nations, such as Germany or the tigers of the Far East, whose domestic economy provides structures of long-term cooperation.

There is a depressing lack of confidence in the traditional left about entering into the economic argument. Resolutions on macro-economic management are striking by their absence from the agenda of Labour's conference, other than demands for specific action on unemployment.

In part, this may reflect the prolonged retreat from public ownership. State ownership of commercial enterprises producing goods for sale in a market has gone and is not going to return. I would argue that there are positive reasons why socialists should welcome this development. The big public corporations created by Herbert Morrison failed to offer either empowerment to its workforce or accountability to its consumers. Alienation of both from the board of directors was often indistinguishable from the private sector. The future case for public ownership will revolve around activities which are better when they are not distributed by market allocation, such as health care or the letter mail.

But there is another reason why it would be impossible to organise a successful modern economy around the structure of a large national corporation. The key elements in success today are technology, knowledge and skill. These are not commodities which the state should aspire to own. They will thrive best in a pluralist, decentralised industrial structure which allows for maximum innovation and initiative. The more relevant role of the state is not to contest ownership of capital, but to regulate controls over access to technology and to promote technology transfer and skills training.

Yet in this new context of knowledge-based industries there is a clear opening for a new statement of our traditional values. It is the left that should position itself as the political force that wants to empower the individual with skills and is more likely to do it through public intervention to boost trade.

Secondly, it is the left that can offer a more sympathetic political environment to the culture of cooperation and common enterprise which is more likely to produce success in an age in which the skills and initiative of the workforce are the prime assets of a company. The case for our advocacy of a stakeholder economy is that those companies who will do best are the very companies who recognise that their workforce have a stake in the economy as important as anybody else. The third challenge is how do we redefine the nature of the state and the identity of a nation in a new century of increasing globalisation.

Traditional versions of socialism have often identified themselves with the state. Indeed a frequent criticism from the radical fringes has been that official parties of the left have over-identified their socialism with the state.


A future of internationalism

Today the state is in a crisis of identity. The borders which defined the visible extent and the sovereign authority of each state are crumbling. The rootless nature of modern capital has given rise to a network of transnational corporations which source their products in a score of economies and promote them in every market. The revolution in telecommunications has enabled data to be transmitted instantaneously around the globe and put whole oceans between the production plants and the clerical offices of the same companies. Ironically, the national representatives of each state are obliged to make their chief objective dismantling their own frontiers to facilitate inward investment, technology transfer and free trade.

In today's world, states are more interdependent than they are independent. Their prosperity depends on their success in developing positive economic relationships with other states. Their security depends on their success in securing agreement to control intercontinental weapons of mass destruction. Their survival depends on their success in negotiations to halt global climate change.

We are living through an era that is truly internationalist and demands an international political agenda. The left is best placed to offer an agenda that matches the new internationalist imperatives. Socialism has always been an internationalist movement and takes its inspiration from the writers of many nations. Labour enjoys the strength of a network of sister parties in every country of the European Union and in most of their governments. To the left, international relations have never been a zero sum game, in which the objective is to extract a competitive, not a mutual, advantage.

The Social Chapter is of immense symbolic significance in this context. The actual substance of the Social Chapter is modest. Its importance is that it represents one of the first attempts by nations to regulate international economic forces rather than compete against each other to extract favours from those same forces.

The left should be capable of producing a wider agenda that matches the new global dimensions. The pressure for free trade must be paralleled by fair trade for the developing nations and a social clause in GATT. The end of the Cold War must be taken as an opportunity for meaningful agreements on arms control and new security structures. And the present danger to our global climate must put sustainable development and ecological conservation at the heart of international relations.

This reality brings me to the final challenge — the increasing extent to which environmental pressures will push their way up the political agenda.

I do not wish in any way to minimise the health risk which could have arisen if action had not been taken to reduce BSE in the national herd, and have in any case contributed volubly to that debate. Nevertheless, I am puzzled by the extent to which as a nation we can become transfixed by statistically modest health risks in the food chain while blithely ignoring the near-certainty that a next generation will slowly casserole unless we change our lifestyles.


A global crisis and a global solution

The left-of-centre share a common feature with environmentalists. All analysis by the left-of-centre starts from understanding the nature of economic relationships. It is a key part of our analysis that any significant shifts in economic activity will have an impact in altering those economic relationships and in changing the host society. Similarly, environmentalists begin from a perception of the delicate relationships in any ecology and a recognition that even modest changes that place stress on that ecology can produce dramatic damage.

Both these approaches stand in fundamental contrast to the ideology of the New Right, which is limited in its perspective to the sphere of action by the individual and has difficulty in analysing, let alone regulating, the collective impact of individual decisions, either on society or on the environment. Their ruthless stress on short-term acquisition by the individual has no means of accommodating the need for long-term respect for shared goods such as the common environment.

We will only resolve the pressures on the environment if we develop policies based on the collective ethos of the left of centre. Control of pollution will only be achieved by collective regulation through a democratic public process. Reversal of the greenhouse effect will only ever happen if we develop public transport alternatives to individual use of the motor car. Changes to the global climate will only be altered through international cooperation which recognises that the western nations have a common interest in relieving the poverty in the Third World which results in pressure on their own environment and subsequently on the climate of the planet we share with them.



I have focused on the millennium. Discussion of the millennium naturally concentrates on the future. However, a millennium is only possible because of a thousand years of history. We will only face our future with confidence if we have pride in our past.

I find the left-of-centre at the present time oddly lacking in both pride and interest in its past. Any political movement requires both a sense of ideology to lend cohesion to its analysis and also a sense of its history from which to interpret its response to the present.

Mrs Thatcher may have taken Britain on a route march to change, but she most certainly had a very firm sense of the historical roots of her ideology. The New Right can name its intellectual heroes from the past. One of the prime think-tanks of the right is named after Adam Smith.

I find it interesting that when we form a left-of-centre intellectual network we call it Nexus rather than after an inspirational figure. Has the left-of-centre no intellectual heroes from our history? Let me abuse my privilege of making this inaugural lecture to nominate a potential candidate. Who could be more inspirational as a pioneer on the present direction the left must take than William Morris? A century ago he exemplified that socialism that celebrated the self-expression of the individual, long before our emphasis on training, he was an evangelist for the skills of the craftsman. And nobody on the left has ever written more vigorously on the need of men and women to live in harmony with their environment and in respect for nature. How better could we demonstrate the rich historical roots of the left than by adopting William Morris as a patron for our drive to develop that radical agenda for the millennium. 

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