Thursday, July 16, 2009

Compass hosts left / right love in

I went to the Compass "The Communitarian Face-Off: a left vs right debate" last night. It was an extremely interesting discussion with a welcome absence of cheap point scoring or tribal party politics despite the fact that it was billed like some sort of grudge prize boxing match.

Speaking for the right were Oliver Letwin (shadow home secretary) and 'Red Tory' Philip Blond. For left we had John Cruddas (pictured) and Neal Lawson. There were a number of interesting aspects to the debate. Firstly that it was conducted at a far higher level than I was expecting, the focus was on political philosophy rather than the ins and outs of Tory / Labour policy. Thank God, if you're going to have a politically narrow platform the speakers really do need to pitch high.

Secondly, Philip Blond aside, there seemed to be very little engagement with what the opposition was actually saying. The speakers essentially said what they'd come intending to say which was disappointing to be honest because it meant the 'left' speakers ended up letting the Tories claim whatever ground they chose to take.

For example Oliver Letwin began the night by saying our "goals are broadly shared across the political spectrum" ('better' hospitals, protecting the most vulnerable, rehabilitating prisoners). If I was a Labour member I would have spewed there and then, but apparently it wasn't controversial enough to even attempt to rebutt. Partly this was probably because if you define the 'political spectrum' as all the way from Tory to Labour and back again I guess it's got some truth to it.

Now, I'm pretty hard on Labour sometimes but even I don't believe that Cruddas and Letwin essentially share the same political goals. Whilst Letwin described a vision of the welfare state as a fragmented hodge podge of organisations where "the state pays the bill" but does not manage the services, Cruddas talked about strong community organisations, including trade unions, and a more developed sense of social justice. Cruddas talked about how the "market destroys communities", Letwin how he'd put the market in charge of them.

I don't think that's a nuanced difference that needs teasing, it's a glaring chasm of opposing ideologies surely? Don't get me wrong I don't think Cruddas should have chinned Letwin... at least not in the actual meeting... but if you can't contradict someone in a set piece political debate when can you?

Perhaps it comes down to the Philip Blond's (pictured) contribution which must have been pretty uncomfortable. He identified Labour's biggest failure as failing to implement Will Hutton's ideas even as they touted them to give Labour more ideological weight. "If only Labour had taken Will Hutton seriously", cue lots of nodding Labour heads.

Blond certainly sounds far to the left of most of Labour's cabinet. He denounced cuts and hiving off services. He denounced home ownership (or mortgaged housing as he described it) as a speculative market and that we needed a whole variety of ways of providing housing including council housing and co-ops. How often have Labour Ministers said that kind of thing in the last twelve years? Pretty rarely if ever.

When Blond described how the "strongest communities today are weaker than the weakest communities in the seventies" it does make you think why he thinks that is and whether he has a strategy to reverse the trend. If he does it won't be the Tories who implement it.

At the end of the day it was Neal Lawson's contribution that probably highlighted best the similarities and differences between the two sides. Lawson described how he wanted to "save capitalism from itself" which, to be fair, is basically what Letwin and Blond want too, from what they said last night anyway.

However, at least Lawson spelled out that "community organisations will be eaten if they become spaces for profit." I doubt if even the Red Tories could say that.

Whatever the weaknesses of the debate (mainly coming from the left of the platform) Compass should be congratulated for laying on the debate both here with the right and on other occasions with those to their left. Even if it's just a project to make Labour slightly more palatable at least it proves that political debate isn't entirely consumed by neo-liberalism, even on the right.

A different reports from Byran Young and Stilettoed Socialist


Jacob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacob said...

I think social democracy, from Bismarck to Keynes and Blair has always been about saving capitalism from itself. If this is the most novel idea for a new direction Compass can bring to the table, I'm not sure it's heading anywhere.

- Written by Salman, not Jacob - I hate Blogger!

Jim Jay said...

Salcob - or shall I call you Jaman?

I'm not sure it was the high point of the discussion - but it was extremely telling and, I think, probably the best definition of the common ground between the speakers.

The Tory Philip Blond was definitely the most interesting of the four although that's partly because he seems to be arguing something I'm genuinely unfamiliar with - a kind of social democratic Toryism... perhaps it's just I'm too young to remember Edward Heath

Jacob said...

I think that's true. The Tories before Thatcher were very much sold on the basic principles of Keynesianism. And even then, let's not forget that public spending under Thatcher actually increased - partly due to the massive numbers unemployed - but even then the NHS was sacrosanct. Blair's Third Way was an attempt to 'humanise' the market economy, and I think our next prime minister, David Cameron, will be Blairism without Blair. All of this is just tinkering around the edges of what has been, more or less, a fundamentally social democratic society and I really can't see much to get that excited about.

- Salcob/Jaman