The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

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Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.

David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.

His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.

He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.

The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.

And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.

While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.

7 thoughts on “The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

  1. Thanks for a very thoughtful response, James. I think you are right that the issue of measurement goes to the heart of this, and I do – in fact – take issue occasionally with my own New Economics Foundation on this issue, and for exactly the reason you suggest – that they are being too Fabian.

    Of course we can’t give up measuring, but in the end political statistics and targets are the tools of centralised empires, so we have to do better than just compromise on the issue – we have to find whole new ways of radical re-localising and organising services more via face to face contact.

    Where I don’t quite agree is that I am basing a ‘critique’ solely on a fringe meeting. For one thing I couldn’t possibly claim to criticise an organisation which only launched a week or so before I wrote the article. It would have been beyond arrogance to criticise the Forum before they had done anything. What I was writing wasn’t a critique, it was a contribution to a debate about how the organisation should be – horribly aware, as I am, of the Fabian tone in which Lib Dem policy is now so often being discussed.

    If the Social Liberal Forum can avoid that pitfall then I’ll be their most enthusiastic member, but I don’t think it is yet a done deal.

  2. Charlotte: in that I haven’t known and worked with your for a decade, yes. Don’t take it personally. 🙂

    David: I’m not claiming you are laying any specific accusations at the SLF’s door but bringing up Fabianism in this way does smack somewhat of innuendo; the philosophical equivalent of “when did you last beat your wife, minister?” It really isn’t clear why you are so anxious we don’t go down that route when you can’t seem to cite any clear grounds for your concern.

    You might not have had much to go on a week into our launch, but the following was already up on our website by that point:
    a) David Howarth’s article on Social Liberalism, which we explicitly and specifically chose to associate ourselves with at launch.
    b) Richard Grayson’s speech about public services.
    c) The launch of our Ideas Factory, which I think it is fair to say demonstrates our eagerness to adopt a non-dogmatic approach.
    d) Tim Leunig’s right to move proposal, which is not SLF policy but does feature the comment by Matthew Sowemimo that it is “absolutely consistent with Social Liberal Forum’s philosophical approach”. Regardless of its practicalities, I’m not at all clear how this proposal could ever be described as Fabian!

    In short, even within seven days of our launch there was already a lot out there to indicate the direction we were planning to take and it would have been fairer to reflect that fact.

  3. I’m not sure why you are so coy about this Fabian business. Sitting in on Lib Dem policy discussions, I am confronted the whole time by the spectre of Fabianism, a kind of unthinking embrace of everything corporate and 1970s – whether it is the conservative rejection of radical kinds of political participation or our failure to call for the break-up of the banks. Even George Osborne beat us to that.

    Take our latest education policy, excellent though it is as far as it goes – it is so stuck in what seems to me to be a Fabian mindset, of uncritical faith in the centralised state, that it fails to tackle the two key issues about education: providing for a massive increase in the number of schools, and massively downsizing the schools we’ve got to allow for human-scale schooling.

    It may not be obvious to outsiders, but the suspicion of self-help, and of spontaneous citizen action or anything like it, still runs far too deep in our debate. Yes, I can point to so much the party is doing that is brave and breathtakingly Liberal. But I can’t be the only one to notice the other side.

  4. At the risk of repeating myself…

    Firstly, I don’t think Fabianism is a helpful term. Your objection is to a Beatrice Webb-flavoured Fabianism, not primarily the modern Fabian Society (I’m not claiming there are no centralisers in the modern Fabian Society, merely that they are far more multi-faceted than that). Fabianism is at best jargon, at worst name calling. Your objection is to state socialism – a far more precise and less emotive term.

    Secondly, did Osborne beat us to calling for a break up of the banks? The loudest applause at Harrogate was for the section in Clegg’s speech when he called for us to break up the banking system and split the investment banks from the high street banks. But who is going to do that anyway, and ensure they don’t slip back into bad habits, if not the state?

    Thirdly, education policy. What would you have our policy say? The policy calls for massive decentralisation. What would you have us do beyond that – set targets for an increased number of schools? The consequence of rejecting centralising policies is that there is only a limited amount your national policy can say.

    But ultimately my objection to your article is not over whether ‘Fabianism’ is bad or even that it is present within the party, but that it was directed at the SLF. If I wrote an article calling for David Boyle to resist the urge to join the BNP, even if I took pains to emphasise that I didn’t think you were about to defect you would rightly object as it would reek of innuendo. It feeds into the ‘no smoke without fire’ heuristic.

    If we are calling for something you don’t like, then take us to task for that. Don’t have a go at us for things we might or might not do at some unspecified point in the future.

    And is the ‘left’ in the party really where our centralising tendencies are coming from? All too often the party’s right flank, with it’s ‘tough liberalism,’ has veered towards authoritarianism. The SLF hasn’t been calling for Clegg to come out in support of a minimum price for alcohol sales, yet that’s what he has done.

    And who was the greatest single champion of the centralised state in the last fifty years? Thatcher – no Fabian she.

    People in the Lib Dems love going on about the need to find a ‘narrative’ but fail to notice that we have had one for quite some time. The one being fed to the media on a daily basis is that the party is embroiled in a cold war between the illiberal left and the liberal right, with Clegg the champion of the latter. Read any leader in any national newspaper about the Lib Dems over the last three years to see what I mean.

    Your article, however unwittingly, helps to feed that narrative by cracking down on the authoritarian tendencies of the left while letting the right get off scot free.

    The reality is far more complex than that and your article should have reflected this fact. We aren’t fighting the ideological battles of the 1920s. You would be well advised to not encourage lazy thinking of that kind.

  5. It is a fascinating experience crossing swords with the great Quaequam Blog. We will have to agree to differ on the business of smoke without fire, but I very much agree that the Cold War inside the party between right and left is a myth – though there is clearly a dull, unthinking corporate right that hangs on in there, sucking the life out. My contention is that the dull, unthinking corporate right in the party (though small) and he dull, unthinking corporate left in the party (also small) feed off each other.

    Apart from thatm two points:

    1. Simply dividing high street banking from investment banking is barely controversial any more, though it must happen: the point is to break up the banks into their constituent businesses to provide us with a proper local lending infrastructure again.

    2. It isn’t enough just to talk about decentralising power, in education or anything else, as if Liberalism was simply a machine for devolving and nothing else. Liberalism is a moral force and a vision of a different future, or really it is nothing more than letting everyone do what they want – not really a political creed at all.

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