Martin Bright

Tony Judt’s Manifesto for the Left

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Anyone who cares about political debate should read the essay by the historian Tony Judt in today's Guardian. It is an astonishing piece of work which argues for a renewal of social democracy in response to the failure of the New Labour experiment (which Judt considers as evidence of the redundancy of the philosophy of Thatcherism so willingly embraced by Blair and Brown).

You may quibble with the detail -- Judt remains over-sentimental about the public sector -- but it is a challenge to received wisdom in all strands of dominant contemporary political discourse. 

He captures what many of the liberal left feel here:

"It's difficult to feel optimistic about the upcoming election. Voters are invited to choose between two major parties: one – New Labour – that has governed for the past 13 years and is responsible for the political and financial crisis facing the country; the other – the Conservatives – who are largely to blame for "breaking" the society they now promise to fix. Neither party conveys any sustained understanding of what is wrong with Britain today and both propose remedies which would do little to address the underlying challenges.

Social inequality on a scale unmatched in western Europe; dependence on and deference towards the most irresponsible financial sector in the world today; an over-mighty state, in thrall to private media influence and increasingly deaf to the concerns of civil libertarians and lawyers; a governing class drunk on "reforms", "innovations" and the presumptive merits of the private sector: these should be at the heart of public conversation in Britain today.

We need to rethink the state, and rearticulate the language of social democracy. Social democrats should cease to be defensive and apologetic. A social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector. The welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidised education or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services. We have long practised something resembling social democracy, but we have forgotten how to preach it."

And here:

"If it is to be taken seriously again, the left must find its voice. There is much to be angry about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy. But it will no longer suffice to identify the shortcomings of "the system" and then retreat, Pilate-like, indifferent to consequences. It is incumbent on us to reconceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.

If we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private sector and, in particular, the cult of privatisation. With the advent of the modern state (notably over the course of the past century), transport, hospitals, schools, postal systems, armies, prisons, police forces and affordable access to culture – essential services not well served by the workings of the profit motive – were taken under public regulation or control. They are now being handed back to private entrepreneurs.

What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility on to the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatisation is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue. For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount. But when the state sells cheap, the public takes a loss. It has been calculated that, in the course of the Thatcher-era UK privatisations, the deliberately low price at which longstanding public assets were marketed to the private sector resulted in a net transfer of £14bn from the taxpaying public to stockholders and other investors."

It struck me while reading Judt that there remains one serious block on Cameroon thinking. Where New Labour recognised the limitation of the state as the default provider of public services and accepted the Thatcher-Major era consensus on the mixed economy, David Cameron has never recognised the failings of privatisation. This is why he can't claim to be a true radical. I once asked him whether he would ever consider renationalising the railways and he told me that as far as he was concerned, Britain's rail network has vastly improved since privatisation, thus spectacularly missing the point. 

I do not accept every point of Tony Judt's analysis -- most of Britain is a a far more tolerant and generally pleasant place to be since Labour came to power and not all the reforms of the Thatcher-Major era were completely unprogressive. But he is the first public intellectual of the Left to call for some genuine new thinking and I salute him for that.