Into the future, cautiously

The considered view is that Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester last week was rather dull: a prosaic outline of the goals a Labour government will pursue if elected next year, and the concrete measures by which it will try to meet them.

The least hostile commentators have contented themselves with an observation that Miliband is just not a very good speaker, and quietly moved on to an assessment of what he actually said.

Certainly I’d agree that his attempt to memorise an hour-long speech of 6,000 or so words was probably ill-advised. And I think it’s also fair to say he’s more comfortable when speaking off-the-cuff at smaller gatherings than in front of the camera lights in the stage-managed environment of a conference hall.

But the most interesting interpretation I’ve read of the address was made in a short post by Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of The Fabian Society. Harrop argues that Miliband’s speech was deliberately low key, because it was a quite consciously Fabian speech, delivered by a life-long Fabian member, designed to reassure rather than excite.

Fabianism is the most pragmatic of all socialist political philosophies, holding that movement towards a progressive, egalitarian society only stands a chance if pursued step-by-step rather than by giant strides, through the setting of realistic goals capable of realisation through practical, measurable policies. In Harrop’s words:

Specifying what success looks like is the first step on the road to a comprehensive strategy for economic reform, as future governments can then work backwards to consider what actions will lead to change of the required direction and magnitude … our inclination [is] to begin by asking how the world could look in many decades time and then to work backwards, setting clear goals and seeking practical and specific tools to bring them to realisation.

He suggests that is precisely what Miliband was trying to do in his methodical speech, with its talk of ‘national goals’ to be attained gradually over a 10 year period.

The central part of the speech set out six goals: the halving of the number of people on low pay; a commitment to ensuring wages keep pace with economic growth; investment in a green economy; a big increase in apprenticeships; the building of as many new homes as necessary to meet the housing crisis; and additional investment in the NHS and the integration of health and social care. These objectives are to be achieved by 2025 through the disciplined implementation of affordable, measurable policies, including: an increase in the minimum wage; the restructuring of the banks; the devolution of power to local government; energy decarbonisation; the setting up of a Green Investment Bank; extra funding for home insulation; the requirement that developers bring dormant land into use; the building of half a million new homes; extra funds for the NHS paid for by a mansion tax and increases in tobacco levies – and so on.

Worthy stuff perhaps, but difficult to set out systematically in a showcase speech without being somewhat boring. Perhaps though that earnest sense of purpose was exactly the impression Miliband was trying to give. As he said in introducing the goals:

Not a false promise on day one. Not some pie in the sky idea that can’t be delivered. Real, concrete ideas that can transform our country. That can restore faith in the future. A plan for Britain’s future. Labour’s plan for Britain’s future.

As Harrop argues, this methodical strategy, workmanlike as it is, is perhaps both the most pragmatic and most radical option available to the left. Labour only stands a chance of being able to drive through any kind of reform agenda if it does so through piecemeal, incremental change, sustained patiently through multiple terms of office. Fabianism has proved a long-lasting and effective philosophy for the left because it is earthed in the real world: its a hard-headed unsentimental political philosophy designed to implement progressive reform against the winds of opposition from hostile conservative establishments:

[A]bove all Fabian thought has been defined by its orientation to the future. The society is the home of a left version of the Enlightenment tradition which champions social progress, rationality, expertise and evidence … The Fabian belief in the gradual, long-term path to social progress was once a cautious doctrine, in opposition to revolutionary utopianism. But now it makes us the radicals, in contrast to the left’s social conservatives and timid managerialists. Fabian gradualism is distinct, not because we believe in small footsteps, but because we see them in a strategic context, where many incremental steps can form the road to transformative social and economic change.

Fabianism emerged at the turn of the last century as one of the many socialist schools that competed for the soul of the early labour movement. Some advocated revolution, some the rejection of modern life for a return to a mystical quasi-medievalism, and others the reconfiguration of the capitalist marketplace into a network of small scale co-operatives. The Fabians sought to distinguish themselves from these competing philosophies by developing a very practical utopianism, one that embraced rather than rejected the radical possibilities of modernity. They believed the energies of the modern, industrialised, capitalist world could be channelled towards socialist ends. A benign state guided by Fabian technocrats would measure by measure, reform by reform, bring the means of production under collective control and direct the proceeds of economic growth more equitably.

Thomas Linehan in Modernism and British Socialism writes:

The Fabian future would be an unambiguously modernist utopia involving science, technology, modern industrial methods and rational planning which, according to its advocates, would bring about a genuine social transformation. All this would be overseen by a highly ‘efficient’ state machine and a new meritocratic class of enlightened intellectuals working on behalf of the public good.

The early Fabians sought to make a virtue of their pragmatism to set themselves apart from what they saw as unrealisable, impractical rival socialisms:

Fabian political strategy was pragmatic, rational and shorn of sentimentality. Socialism will come, said George Bernard Shaw, ‘by prosaic instalments of public regulation and public administration enacted by ordinary parliaments, vestries, municipalities, parish councils, school boards and the like’. In short, ‘the lot of the socialist is to be one of dogged political drudgery’. For the Fabians, this approach was highly logical and entirely in keeping with their evolutionary perspective which was premised on the understanding of history as a relatively pre-determined process. In other words, they felt that the laws and direction of social evolution impelled them to work with the grain of modern industrial and political development. To do otherwise was unscientific and profoundly naive.

Any history of the labour movement reveals how much it owes to Fabian gradualism. The detailed programmes for government researched by Fabian intellectuals have laid the groundwork for some of Labour’s greatest achievements, including the laying of the foundations for the welfare state, the organisation of the NHS, the rolling out of comprehensive education, the mass building of social housing, and the design of fiscal and monetary tools for economic management.

These practical successes make it perhaps the most successful of all of the philosophical strands that have guided Labour. But its cool pragmatism has frustrated as much as inspired a movement that by its nature attracts idealists and radicals impatient for reform. As Linehan observes:

In their determination to bring socialism ‘back down to earth’, make it more relevant to mainstream processes, Fabianism subverted and closed off these alternative understandings of socialism and diverted the socialist aspiration for change along a narrowly scientistic and materialistic path.

Fabianism’s continued influence on today’s Labour Party is evident from the tone and structure of Miliband’s conference speech, and the Society’s prolific output of research papers, books and policy proposals. But the underwhelming response to Miliband’s restrained speech indicates that historic reservations about that influence remain: like all parties of the left Labour needs to inspire as well as convince, and Fabianism’s legacy in that regard is a complex one.