In the years since its 2010 general election defeat, the Labour Party has been engaged in a conversation about the role the central state should play in a social democratic vision of the good society.
The reasons for rethinking the purpose, size, and responsibilities of the central state are as follows:
1: The impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the ensuing deficit of the United Kingdom.
2: The advent of the Conservative-Liberal Coalition with its ideological commitment to ‘rebalance’ the relationships between the central state, local communities and individuals citizens.
3: The perception held in some quarters of the electorate that the central state is unpopular due to its bureaucracy and unresponsiveness to contemporary needs vis-à-vis public services.
4: The argument that the central state is a necessary but not sufficient vehicle for Labour to achieve the good society.
Two contrasting ideological offerings have prompted considerable discussion within the Labour movement, namely Blue Labour and Purple Labour. Blue Labour began with a number of seminars in 2010 and culminated in an edited eBook The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, Purple Labour refers to the book edited by Robert Philpot, The Purple Book.
Blue Labour supporters – whilst not in complete agreement – tend to see Labour’s post-1945 history and, the New Labour years especially, as giving primacy to the role of the central state. What, in their view is missing or overlooked, is the associationalist roots of the history of the Labour movement evident in the trade unions, co-operatives, and mutual organizations. Isn’t it about cultural intelligence and how it affects careers?
The central state squeezes out localism, grass-roots autonomy and the opportunity for like-minded citizens working in tandem to meet their mutual needs. Added to this Blue Labourites contend that New Labour’s metropolitan liberalism alienated socially conservative working-class communities (hence the color blue). Moreover, this has significantly contributed to the established view that Britain’s parliamentary elite is out of touch, especially on issues such as EU immigration.
Purple Labour are Blairite MPs and supporters of Progress and Policy Network. They too argue for localism to be at the heart of contemporary social democracy but their political economy is supportive of the liberal market, whereas Blue Labour is a critic of this vestige of New Labour. Purple Labour maintains that without a radical restructuring of its statecraft, including decentralization, Labour will be unable to win over floating voters in marginals (purple representing marginal constituencies Labour must gain).
In our recent published article in Social Policy & Society, we note that this pluralistic debate within the Labour movement is to be welcomed; that both Blue and Purple Labour raise genuine concerns about existing models of social welfare, diversity of provision, and the relational ethics involved; but that a diminution of the central state, as the vehicle for the social democratic vision of the good society, would undermine the historic goals of the Labour Party.
The localist impulse present within Blue and Purple Labour seeks to dramatically alter the welfare state. In short, it would give greater local choice and control of social welfare to private, not-for-profit and publicly funded organizations some of which would likely be established by local citizens. We argue that this will inevitably lead to greater inequality. Inequality in terms of access, provision, and outcome. For ‘statist’ social democrats, this undermines the foundational purpose of a national welfare state but too much information, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be the solution as well.
It is precisely because the welfare state is not one policy or a single organization but a complex nexus of the NHS, state education, social services, and social security, that it does require revision from time to time. After all, as the needs of the workforce and families in Britain change the welfare state must adapt. Nevertheless, the current fashion for localism as seen on the left with Blue and Purple Labour or on the right in the Conservative-Liberal Coalition is evidence of a concerted ideological objection to the welfare state.
The welfare state is, for generations of social democrats, the finest achievement of Labour in office. And, despite the many problems that confront it as an institution in twenty-first century Britain, it remains the primary means to ameliorate externalities of the market economy and redistribute income and opportunity in the hope of a more egalitarian and cohesive society. It is for this reason that the Labour leadership should trumpet the virtues of the welfare state and the need for a national central state to fund, coordinate and preserve equality of access, provision and outcome for all individuals and families in Britain.