Values, ethics and New Labour / John Lloyd - [Electronic ed.] - London, 2001 - 6 Bl. = 25 KB, Text . - (Working papers / Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, London Office ; 2001,5)
Electronic ed.: Bonn : FES Library, 2001

© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung



John Lloyd
August 2001

A dilemma haunts New Labour, as it does all of the centre-left governments. It is the dilemma of values. What constitutes a meaning for their governments? What is the end to which they are tending?

For them, even more than for the governments of the right, there have been two losses of faith – the first historical but still resonant, the second contemporary. Both losses have been largely benign in effect. But they pose problems, which the centre-left must now face.

The first is the loss of religious faith in government – or more precisely, the separation of direct religious purpose from the conduct of the state. This happened, in Western states generally, from the 18th century onwards (earlier in Britain). Governments whose authority was bolstered by that of the Church, and which in turn were under the Church's influence, were gradually replaced by governments whose object was, at least in part, to perform a secular duty of providing stability, security and even a limited degree of welfare for their citizens.

But the narrow limits of the degree of welfare became – once the religious veil had been stripped away - more and more obvious. By the late 18th-19th century, government had come to be seen as a means for perpetuating the rule of the rich. At the very least, the starkness of the divisions in the society became more obvious, and lacked (at least for many) the sanction of God. And thus a new faith grew up – that of socialism.

Socialism has for a century and a half solved the problem, at least for socialists, of what government and the state was for. It was for the achievement of socialism. Whether revolutionary or reformist – the SPD has been both, the Labour Party only the second of these – socialist parties assumed that the aim and end of their time in government would be the achievement of socialism or, at the very least, a shift in the institutions and values of the country they governed, which would make socialism more achievable next time. In practice, this was often elusive – governments of the left before the war, especially in Britain and France, were meagre and low on achievement. After the war, however, both the totalitarian and democratic versions of socialism enjoyed apparent and/or real successes. Parties and governments of the right bowed to the necessity of creating welfare states and mixed economies, and the achievement of socialism by democratic means seemed again possible.

But that possibility is, at least for now, over. The collapse of the socialist possibility in the eighties and nineties of the last century means that governments of the left have lost their founding ethic. Socialism is not seen as a goal – at best, it is a stock of practice which can be raided for ideas and rhetoric. Governments of the left do not, in the main, believe they are putting in place a set of institutions and practices which cannot be altered, and which constitute one of a series of ascending steps to socialism.

Nowhere is this more true than with the New Labour government in the UK. It has been among the most explicit of the new generation of centre-left parties in its rejection of socialism. It thus finds itself more unambiguously naked when it comes to the matter of values and ethics. Without socialism, it has no transcendent appeal either to the electorate or – more importantly in this case – to the party members and activists. To the question (unspoken but at the heart of political activism) "what are we here for?" there is only the answer – to help the government make life a bit better for your fellow countrymen. This is much more useful than class war, but it is not so inspiring, especially for the young. And even for those who are no longer young, it is easily countered by the observation that, after all, another form of activity – as charity work – is as valuable.

The search for values and an ethic to underpin the party and the government is thus, in Britain, quite intense. It featured a good deal in the speeches made, especially by Prime Minister Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, during the election campaign – though there was no fully worked-out version of what such a system of values might be. In fact, the search continues. It is a search common to the left worldwide.

Blair's own ethical being is made up of a strong attachment to the Anglican Church (his wife, Cherie, is a Catholic, as strongly attached to her church, in which their children are baptised). This is mixed with an equally strong predisposition in favour of social responsibility. One of his famous phrases, coined when he was an opposition spokesman for Home Affairs in the early nineties, was "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". It is a phrase which, more neatly than any other, summed up his view that, while Labour should retain its traditional sympathy for the circumstances which draw people into crime, it should also see crime as an act for which the perpetrator should take – be forced to take – full responsibility.

Gordon Brown is more complex, in this as in everything else. He was brought up within the household of a Church of Scotland minister – that is, a Presbyterian church, similar to the Lutheran tradition – where a high moral seriousness was encouraged. He was a brilliant student and postgraduate; he rose quickly in the Labour Party and became an MP in his late twenties. His intellectual journey, much more conscious than Blair's, has been from a leftist socialism through to an eclectic position where he will find value and inspiration in a range of thinkers and policy analysts, usually from the US, who give him help in his quest to achieve socialist values within a capitalist framework.

When, recently, I spent much of a day with him in the early stages of the British election campaign, I was surprised to hear him recommend - with great warmth – a book by the US political philosopher James Q. Wilson, whom I knew to be a man of the right. That book is Moral Sense, a book whose message is closely parallel to that which New Labour wishes to see as the heart of its ethical stance.

Wilson's main point is that advanced societies have lost confidence in the "moral sense" - even though most people still have one. That "moral sense" knows the difference between right and wrong, between good and bad behaviour, between decency and indecency. It is the task of those who lead society – above all, governments – to reassert it. Wilson writes:

    "Testing limits is a way of asserting selfhood. Maintaining limits is a way of asserting community. If the limits are asserted weakly, uncertainly or apologetically, their effect must surely be weaker than if they are asserted boldly, confidently and persuasively. How vigorously and persuasively we – mostly, but not entirely, older people – assert these limits will surely depend to some important degree on how confidently we believe in the sentiments that underlie them. Some of us have lost that confidence. The avant-garde in music, art and literature mocks that confidence." (Moral Sense, p9)

In that quotation, much of New Labour's working philosophy is to be found. It believes, with Wilson, that the testing and breaking of limits, especially by young men, is destructive of society and community – and that it is up to government in the first instance to re-assert the limits. It believes, with Wilson, that these limits have been or are being asserted too weakly because many people, especially on the left, have fallen victim to a habit of relativism. Relativism is a cast of mind which denies the existence of any moral absolute, in favour of an approach which says that everything is understandable – and forgivable – when it is understood in relation to its history, or background, or need. As the memories of the great crimes of the 19th and 20th centuries recede, the view that no-one is truly guilty because every deed, no matter how apparently wicked, has its explanation and excuse, becomes stronger. And New Labour believes, with Wilson, that intellectuals and artists ("the avant-garde in music, art and literature") do indeed mock the moral approach – one reason why there is now mutual distrust between many intellectuals and artists on the one hand and New Labour on the other, even though the two sides hailed each other as friends when Labour first came to government in 1997.

Thus Labour seeks to construct its value system on a kind of balance – between rights on the one hand and responsibilities or duties on the other. Good citizenship depends on having the first on condition the second are well observed. A good citizen is one who knows that society is exhausted if he simply claims as many rights as possible from it and fights against fulfilling his responsibilities. It will ultimately disintegrate, or become a police state.

On this basis, New Labour believes that people as a whole know well enough that there is a decent way to live. They must therefore be protected from the minority who do not share this view, and who deliberately or casually wreck community and society. A large task of government must thus be to construct institutions, to shape the justice system and to re-order the welfare state in such a way as to reward virtuous behaviour and punish – sometimes severely – evil and/or criminal behaviour. It is this which lies behind Labour's much discussed 'hard line' policy on crime: a belief that decency has suffered in the past by not being adequately protected by the state. But it is also this which informs its policy on, for example, education, health, discrimination, and social security – where one can see an effort to work against the more obvious inequalities, and to bring up the condition of the poorest.

Already, after the election, two initiatives have been launched which illustrate this approach. The first, causing a growing revolt among the members of parliament and Labour activists, is a measure which subjects those receiving 'disability benefit' – that is, payment for a chronic illness or injury which prevents them from working – to periodic tests in order to ensure that they really are disabled. If it found that they are fit to work, the benefit will be stopped and they will be asked to present themselves for a job.

The fierce polemics around this measure show 'old' and 'new' Labour values in the clearest of terms. For 'old' Labour, the disabled are practically untouchable: the victims of work-related injury or sickness, who should be subjected to no more than the checks they receive from their doctors. For 'new' Labour, the fact that many who receive this benefit either exaggerate its severity or produce fake medical certificates is an outrage, which must be stopped, both because it wastes money and because it confers a right with no reciprocal responsibility.

The second is a series of moves made by David Blunkett, the remarkable man who, though blind, had made a generally-agreed success of his job as Education and Employment Secretary and now has the more senior job of Home Secretary. Blunkett has accelerated moves already being made to 'de-criminalise' cannabis use – that is, though it is still nominally illegal to possess cannabis, it is now unlikely that anyone will be arrested for using it or having small quantities of the drug in their possession. A significant part of the prison population is in jail for cannabis use and sale; it is now increasingly believed that to be punished for taking a drug less harmful to oneself than alcohol or tobacco is anomalous.

On the other hand, Blunkett has highlighted the fact that the majority of crimes are committed by relatively few – less than 10,000 – habitual criminals. These people, he has said, should be removed from circulation and put into prison for longer sentences. These sentences may increasingly be coupled with efforts to bring the criminal face to face with his victim(s) and to work out a programme of reparation which the criminal could perform.

The project is presented as one in which fairness – no longer discriminating against soft drug users – is mixed with discipline – using more severe legal punishment against those who habitually offend. In this way, New Labour's leadership believes, it is serving the construction of a robust social morality in which justice is seen as reasonable, not arbitrary, and responsibilities are shouldered, or sanctions applied where they are not.

Complementing these values – of the reciprocity of rights and responsibilities – is one which New Labour, as with the New Democrats in the States, has made particularly its own. It may be described as the value of multiculturalism – that is, that all traces of discrimination, racism and racial disadvantage caused by deliberate acts should be eradicated as a matter of urgent policy. A report into the murder of a black teenager whose murderers, though known, could not be arrested for lack of evidence became the occasion of a wide ranging examination of racism, conscious and unconscious, in the police force. A further inquiry into racial disadvantage in employment has been ordered by the Prime Minister.

Overarching these actions and analyses is the beginnings of a theoretical-cum-ethical framework which assumes that community does not reside in ethnicity, or in nation: that it must be created by adherence to common institutions and values. It opposes the view – put most starkly by Samuel Huntingdon in his The Clash of Civilizations – that the world is composed of potentially hostile, mutually excluding religious-political conglomerates of states or "civilisations" (as the western-Christian, the Orthodox, the Muslim) which have their own geographical entities. Against this, the centre-leftists pose a model in which religion, race and culture matter less than standards, law and values. The best example of this in recent practice has been, not in the UK, but in Germany. The all-party commission on immigrant labour, chaired by the Christian Democrat Rita Süssmuth, has recommended the entry of some 50,000 skilled workers from abroad each year - on condition that they submit to at lest 600 lessons in German, and are given a series of civics lessons in order to acclimatise them quickly to the do's and don'ts of German life.

The liberal-social ethic which these efforts are aimed at constructing is one which is partly articulated in speeches, partly emerges in practice, partly is still being constructed. No political world simply switches from one age to another. In the UK, as elsewhere, there is a lingering (but very minor) attachment to religious values in public life; more strongly within the Labour Party, there is a reluctance to give up "real Labour" positions in favour of the New Labour ones. However, the latter are now dominant.

But they face strong challenges. A new system of values must prove itself to be robust, rather than simply a dressing on political speeches or legislation. New Labour – or new centre-left – values have already run into criticism or rejection in three areas, where they must either show themselves to work or must retreat.

First, there is the problem of equality. A values system for a centre-left government finds it hard to ignore the growing distance between the rich and the poor. This is true on a number of levels – the gap between rich countries and poor ones, the gap between the very rich individuals (billionaires and multi-millionaires) and average incomes, and the gap between the relatively comfortable and the very poor or socially excluded. Not all of these gaps are widening in all respects: for example, as the UN Development Programme report for 2001 shows, the advance in developing countries' incomes over the last decade has been very marked, while at the same time leaving behind a "tail" of desperate states which are getting worse.

However, there is no doubt that the possession of wealth, and of positional goods like advanced education, put increasing distances in some areas between citizens as between states. To demand of all that they adhere to a common ethic in which some benefit much more than others is to lay open the government to a charge of hypocrisy: of creating a society in which the poor are subject to disciplines and the rich can buy their way out of these same disciplines. In practice, the centre-left has recognised that it cannot do much – or only a little, through the tax system – to curb the growth of income inequality of this kind, and that it must concentrate on creating publicly-available education, health and social security systems which provide at least reasonable services for all, so that the basic needs and props of life are there for all.

Second, the multicultural ethic, fundamental to the new centre-left for both moral and practical reasons, is far from being accepted. Part of this – the easiest part to oppose – is racism, the desire of the members of one racial group to keep down and out the members of others. Though the most vicious in practice, it is also the easiest to oppose because there is presently wide acceptance of its inadmissibility across a left-right spectrum which includes police and other agencies. The more difficult questions are raised in the areas of national and cultural identity: whether or not people will take the risk – as it seems to them – of distancing themselves from the cultures into which they were born and brought up in order to attach themselves to civic institutions and values which may be wholly or partly alien to them.

Indeed, within the left, there exists a strong challenge to the multicultural ethic. Within the UK, nationalist parties – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all oppose the continuation of the multicultural state which is the UK. All of these parties base themselves to the left of New Labour. While none, apart from the Irish republican group Sinn Fein, embraces any kind of violent means, they argue that the British form of multiculturalism or multinationalism has failed. Beyond that, there is a strong movement which holds that different cultures within the UK must be allowed to express themselves fully, even where that expression runs counter to any sort of national consensus. Indeed, this argument would dispute the existence of national consensus. Brian Barry, a critic of this strand of argument from a left perspective, argues in his Culture and Equality that it "undermines a politics of redistribution" because it assumes that certain groups must be treated unequally.

Third, the essay into an overtly ethical area – the announcement of an 'ethical dimension' to foreign policy – has had mixed results so far. In particular, critics of it point to a steady stream of weapons – in which Britain is highly competitive – exported to states which may well use them against local insurgents, or to fight with or put pressure on neighbouring states. They point to a continuation of realpolitik measures to increase the power, wealth and security of the UK, even as it preaches a new ethic. Against this must be set the advances – the successful intervention in Kosovo, with the effect of bringing down the Milosevic regime; the working of the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, to which Milosevic, with other alleged war criminals, has been brought; and the creation of the International Criminal Court. But anomalies – sharp anomalies – remain.

The proponents of the new ethics argue that these are early days; that no ethic can be perfect in execution; that the ethic itself is still a work in progress. These arguments are correct. However, the project remains a tentative one, lacking as yet a strong champion and a prey to realist behaviour which usually returns to classic considerations and manoeuvres of power. Both religion and socialism had their prophets – outside of the political system. The new ethic has prophets – but they are often within the system: politicians and policy developers groping for a new basis. This does not condemn the project to futility, but it points to the need to broaden the base and engage a wider participation, as well as a wider audience.

John Lloyd is a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Associate Editor of the New Statesman

The opinions expressed in publications of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London Office are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.

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