What I learnt from speaking with Paul Mason about Labour labels

  • Everyone wants to be ‘radical’ but the truth is a bit different

  • Chuka Umunna MP

I had an interesting exchange last Thursday on BBC2’s This Week, alongside Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo, with the writer and broadcaster Paul Mason. It got me thinking about the labels we attach to people.

I’ve known Paul for several years; I like him and think he is one of the more thoughtful people on the left. I think it is a great shame he has been drawn into the endless and, frankly, counterproductive talk of the deselection of Labour MPs because, though I may not always agree with him, he has much to offer and provides an important challenge to a lot of orthodox thinking.

I would identify myself as a “social democrat”. I subscribe to Keynesian economic theories and believe a “social market” model – where the private and public sectors work in partnership together – provides the best vehicle through which we can build a more equal, fair, democratic, sustainable and prosperous society.

I think building a society where we can all lead happy fulfilling lives requires that we collectively provide every person with the tools they need to thrive so they are not bound by the circumstances of their birth. Every person wants to have autonomy in their life, so the aim is to empower them as much as possible, rather than making them dependent on the state and therefore denying them of any agency themselves.

Equally, leaving it to the free market to manage all our affairs would be disastrous. We have to make sure we maintain the right balance between the interests of capital and labour. It’s a delicate balance, for sure – and perhaps too nuanced in an age of populism that demands black and white answers to fiendishly complex problems. Nonetheless, that’s what I believe and what I think works best in practice.

Many would describe someone like me as centre-left. Those further to the left, of course, place more emphasis on the state and pulling the levers of central government. Karl Marx is often a strong influence on their economic thinking. Those on the right put more emphasis on the market and reducing the size of the state as advocated by Friedrich Hayek and others.

Everyone likes to think of themselves as “radical”. But do all these labels matter? Do they serve any useful purpose in 2018?

Paul Mason and I come from different sides of the left, and when we talked he argued for a new economic model – something I have advocated since I was elected in 2010. Yet, in so doing, he suggested that the Labour administrations of Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010 were “neoliberal”.

The phrase “neoliberal” is often thrown about as a term of abuse in and around the Labour Party – but there’s very little engagement with what it actually means. At its bare bones, neoliberalism as a theory usually means favouring free trade, privatisation, minimal government intervention in business and reduced public expenditure on things like social services. Most dictionaries define neoliberalism that way, and while there is a wealth of debate on the facets of neoliberalism, most writing on the topic also supports that definition.

It is true that the last Labour government didn’t reverse many of the Tory privatisations that went before it, preferring to prioritise investment in schools and hospitals. But it nationalised Northern Rock bank and took 81 per cent and 43 per cent stakes in RBS and Lloyds banks respectively at the height of the financial crisis of 2008/09 in order to maintain a functional banking system.

It introduced a national minimum wage and increased support to low income households through tax credits, lifting millions out of poverty. It made it easier to claim for unfair dismissal at work as well as for trade unions to be recognised in the workplace, and extended protections to those discriminated against on the basis of their religion or sexuality.

Before the financial crash, spending on social security did not reduce but in fact increased by 1.4 per cent a year on average in real terms and by 5.3 per cent on average from 2008 onwards – it did not fall under the last Labour government. There were many more state interventions into the economy during those years.

So, by any stretch of the imagination – as I said to Paul on Thursday – the last Labour government was not a neoliberal one.

Should Labour in office have done more to challenge neoliberal thinking? Of course – but you can’t jump straight from one economic model, Thatcherism – which dominated economic thinking for two decades – to a model which sits right at the other end of the spectrum immediately.

There are different stages of economic transformation. That is why many who for years described themselves as Marxists have now become “radical social democrats”, a precursor – once they have secured power – to perhaps heading in a more socialist direction.

Paul Mason is a good example of this and has complained about being mislabelled himself. Those who share his world view are sometimes pejoratively described as “Trots” by some on the centre-left. While I have no doubt Paul will be able to give you chapter and verse on Leon Trotsky, I suspect most who are described as such probably have little idea who Trotsky was or what the key elements of Trotskyism are. Personally, I don’t like the use of the term and think any abuse through labelling – wherever it comes from – should be consigned to the democratic dustbin. We can leave such name-calling to the Tories.

Paul was accused of being a “revolutionary Marxist” in the House of Commons in May 2016 by the then Tory Chancellor George Osborne, who was mocking Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for signing Paul up to speak at John’s New Economics lecture series. In fact, during last Thursday’s show, Paul quoted Marx. But, while he has previously admitted to John Rentoul that he was a revolutionary and hardline Marxist in his youth, in response to Osborne he said: “I am radical social democrat who favours the creation of a peer-to-peer sector (co-ops, open source etc) alongside the market and the state, as part of a long transition to a post-capitalist economy.” And when I asked Paul on Thursday whether he wants to tear down capitalism altogether or merely wants a different form of it, he indicated the latter.

So just how radical are the former Marxists? Nationalisations, higher rates of income tax for the top 5 per cent of earners and free higher education – which were all part of Labour’s 2017 manifesto – have been described as radical by the left but, strictly speaking, they are not new ideas and were all implemented as policy by previous Labour governments.

Equally, I have been bemused to hear that the inclusion of a national investment bank and regional banks as centrepieces of Labour’s economic policy under Jeremy Corbyn now count as “radical”: in reality, those have simply been reannounced in a different way by a new frontbench team. A national investment bank was in fact announced as policy by Ed Balls at Labour’s 2011 conference, and regional banks were announced by Ed Miliband in March 2013.

All these labels would be more useful if they were not thrown about as weapons in our movement. The truth is that all of the shades of left – from your Marxists to your centre-left social democrats – should have a place in the Labour family. Unless they do, because of our broken First Past The Post electoral system, the left – whatever shade – will not be able to govern in any enduring way. Slagging each other off is not a goal; making your values real is.