Is Labour’s future Purple?
The debate about Labour’s future colour leaves me somewhat aesthetically torn because, if pressed, I would name both red and purple (the, deep, dark and brooding imperial kind) as my favourite colours. Politically, however, my favour definitely falls on red. Despite all this the release of the Purple Book by Progress is a welcome contribution to the increasing ferment within Labour which, in itself, is welcome after the intellectually dead and stifled Blair years.
It’s premise is however, fundamentally flawed. Anthony Painter, writing on Labour Uncut explains it thus:
The frame for the collection comes from David Marquand’s Britain since 1918 where he discusses four British democracies. Tory nationalism and Whig imperialism speak for themselves. The other two are the major fault-lines that exist with the modern labour movement: democratic collectivist and democratic republicanism. The former finds expression in the old-style socialism of much of the trade union movement and in traditional (and caricatured) Fabianism.
It should never be the way of the left to falsely counterpose the freedom of the individual to the collectivist duties of the state or indeed ‘collective power’ in general. All can and should exist in tandem. No individual can be truly free living in a bubble, cut-off from the rest of society just as no collective should see its role as to squash or superimpose itself on the individual. Instead, the role of any collective is to support the individual and help them flourish and realise their full potential. The ‘individual v state/collective’ discourse is one that has been cynically created by the right-wing to further its own political agenda and the left should not accept it into its own discourse and politics.
Such is the nature of the beast that some of the policy suggestions within the Purple Book will even curry favour with left-wingers; mutualising banks and/or turning some into co-operatives is a good idea, as is free universal childcare and free at the point of use elderly care. All good stuff – all stuff that Labour should be doing. We should be radically reforming the finance sector and be the leading proponents of a new way of doing things economically after the crash. We should also ensure our most vulnerable citizens are cared for; so, I can happily and enthusiastically sign-up to these proposals in principle.
However, in some areas the book flatly contradicts what it purports to want to do. For example, why should we impose directly elected mayors on cities without first asking the people that live there? Generally, I think it’s a good idea to ask the people first before you do something like that. If Purple Booker’s are committed to localism, as Anthony seems to think they are as ‘democratic republicans’ then I ask them this, how is it fair to tell local communities they must have a directly-elected mayor and give them no choice?
In other areas, because it accepts the false dichotomy above as its terms of reference the ideas within the book are slightly repugnant to be honest. For example, I have long been an opponent of merging income tax and national insurance and continue to remain so, as I oppose any attempts to undermine the universal nature of the care provided by the National Health Service. Why provide free child and elderly care but leave people to the mercy of the market in-between? We need to return to the principle that the state will help, provide and enable from cradle right through to grave.
Especially in these suggestions we see how the Purple Book falls into the trap of accepting a fundamental dichotomy between the interests of the collective and individual. It also makes a bit of a slapdash implication that there is no difference between the state and ‘collective’ power. Many different kinds of collective power exist; trade unions are one, community, activist groups others. In seeing the ‘collective’ as always being a bad thing, as always being something that must be opposed, the premise of the Purple Book misleads us by airbrushing these other kinds of collective power effectively out of existence.
This is why ultimately I would choose a future for Labour that is red because a red future understands that individuals need collectives and that collectives must be democratic enough to ensure individuals can flourish within them. It does not get trapped travelling up a blind alley that the purple one does by accepting a cage provided for us by our political opponents. I would urge everybody to read the Purple Book, to comment on it, to critique it (or defend it, depending on your own preference), but ultimately though I support some of the suggestions within it, I urge the Labour Party not to choose the future it prescribes because that future is not the best one for our Party, nor indeed our country.