Stodgy Fabianism haunts Britain. The Liberal Democrats can offer an alternative

In just over a month’s time we will have a new government. But what kind of government will it be? We already know that Starmer is in love with councils, arms-length commissions, and quasi-public bodies of all kinds. Labour is committed to a British Infrastructure Council, a National Wealth Fund and Great British Energy (all under the sponsorship or direction of a Treasury Enterprise Growth Unit). There has also been a commitment to centralise policy delivery in Downing Street.

The reflex to embrace concentrated bureaucratic power has deep ideological roots in the party, going all the way back to the Fabian Society in the 1890s. For someone like the redoubtable Beatrice Webb, Socialism could only become a serious political proposition if the intellectuals and managers within the young Labour movement learnt to use the State-machine more efficiently and imaginatively than Britain’s traditional stilted governing class. In this regard, the Fabians agreed with George Orwell’s later assessment that ‘(England) is a family with the wrong members in control’.

But in time Labour administrators became just as stodgy as the elites they sought to replace. Rachel Reaves, and Keir Starmer are inheritors of a long Labour tradition of peculiar complacency in the sphere of political economy. They display the naive assumption that Labour at the helm is enough to steady the ship. They dare not check to see if the ship is leaking.

It is easy of course to mock the Labour leadership’s current pretensions, but it’s not as if the contemporary Centre-Right has a compelling alternative. Confronted with bureaucratic blight, Conservative politicians (and on occasion some Orange Book Liberals) have alighted on two dubious remedies.

The first is to leave the structure and functions of the state intact but starve agencies of funds in a bid to drive up efficiency. Bureaucracy may wither in the short-term but faced with the social fallout of a dysfunctional governmental machine, pressures inevitably begin to mount for renewed expansion. The machine slowly drifts back into its old position, sometimes more centralised than before.

The second response of the Centre-Right is to leave state liabilities unchanged while contracting out core public functions to the private sector. Nearly thirty years on, we have seen the results. A ballooning public apparatus concerned with tendering, compliance, and targets has replaced inhouse services. The government spends ever more on consultants. Accompanying this explosion of external providers, we have seen a proliferation of arms-length semi-public bodies (Academy chains, Universities, the water utilities) that are neither fully accountable to citizens, nor to Parliament. We appear caught between life-sapping statism on the one hand and unresponsive corporate power on the other.

What alternative might their be to this rather grim future? Whatever the precise character of the next government, I continue to believe that we in the Liberal Democrats have the political vision to chart a different course. Liberals believe that self-creation and initiative are just as freeing as secure homes, municipal parks, or public healthcare. We believe that the human spirit finds deep and enduring liberation in the capacity to craft a life of which the individual can be proud. We are not however Libertarians. We accept the necessity of governmental organisation, but we also insist that tools for local self-organisation and mutual aid are more powerful and life-giving than any quango. It is for this reason that Liberals have historically insisted on what Jo Grimond called ‘Socialism without the state’. In place of great centralising monoliths we have championed worker-owned co-operatives, mutuals and community land-trusts.

If electors are generous, we may have packed benches after the next Election. We will have new Liberal Democrat voices, ready and willing to take our case to the Executive. And our case must be this: Democracy must be given substance, not through a proliferation of office holders, but through the capacity of people to make their lives better.

Labour wants to bring rail firmly back into the public sector. But will those who work on the network be given a voice in how the industry is run? Labour wants to improve public childcare, but will parents have a chance to create services that work best for them? Labour’s ambition is to strengthen people’s rights at work. But will individual employees have more power in their workplaces? Will they have a vote on boards or a share in the business?

Keir Starmer is fond of the word ‘service’. But his idea of service appears to depend too much on government doing things ‘to’ or ‘for’ people. At the present time there is not enough space, either in economic life or political architecture for the kind of social and economic renewal we need, one which makes service reciprocal and shared.

* Ben Wood is currently an Academic Support and Skills Tutor at the University of Leeds and a Project Editor at the John Stuart Mill Institute.

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12 Comments

  • I do not watch Question Time. However tonight it is in Epsom, part of Epsom and Ewell constituency, Surrey for goodness sake. Where is the Lib Dem representative? None that I can see, the nearest might possibly be Piers Morgan!!! heaven help us, certainly not Nigel Farage?
    Has the party protested about this in the strongest possible manner?.

  • Stodgy Fabianism ? Sorry Ben, but I would have thought an Academic Tutor at Leeds University would know that a number of very prominent Liberals (Richard Haldane, Herbert Samuel, Charles Masterman, and Bertrand Russell – (and in Glasgow, Robert Shanks and his Study Circle) were involved in the foundation years of the Fabian Society.

    Whatever else it may or may not need, the modern Liberal Democrats are certainly in need of a radical progressive think tank.

  • Alan Franck 30th May '24 - 8:46pm

    Why is Ed Davey going on photoshoots where he throws himself off paddleboards and grins maniacally as he freewheels on a bicycle down a hill? What is wrong with the man?

  • Come on, Alan, work out why? It’s not that difficult.

  • The funny thing is that the ideas expressed hear are largely held either by liberals or by leftists that hate us and like to pretend that liberal means centrist or anyone who isn’t far left.

  • Big Tall Tim 31st May '24 - 12:17am

    Alan Franck – Obvious. It gets us coverage. The ultra-purists who object to it, are the same people who want 200 word densely typed policy articles in FOCUSs. Do you really think a 30 minutes speech at a lectern on the intracacies of our housing policy for example, would get any coverage?

  • David Blake 31st May '24 - 8:18am

    The only coverage the stunts get is pictures of Ed Davey doing things. No policy, no discussion. If it happens more, people will begin to think that we have nothing to say.

  • Chris Moore 31st May '24 - 9:14am

    Except what you’re saying isn’t true: the clips I’ve seen on Sky and ITV all include discussion of LD policy.

  • Robin Stafford 31st May '24 - 9:15am

    Boris Johnson got coverage for his stunts. So does Count Bin Head. The choice is not between stunts and dense policy pieces. I’ve been asked often enough what LibDems stand for to know that we are missing distinctive messages.

  • Mark Frankel 31st May '24 - 9:19am

    There’s a lot to be said for the ‘strange survival’ of Asquithian New Liberalism. For more on this and on how the Quaker and Liberal MP T. Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) exhibited Liberal values in peace and war see my PhD thesis https://etheses.bham.ac.uk//id/eprint/14059/

  • Sitting down with a cup of tea between bouts of delivery. Thank you David Raw – your excellent comment has cheered me enough to go out again and do another lot!

    In an attempt to wean myself off of a podcast addiction I will look forward to reading some of Mark Frankel’s thesis when I get home! BTW Haldane was a big lad – probably these days he would be body shamed for not delivering enough FOCUSes.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Jun '24 - 2:27pm

    People involvement in policy formation and implementation is an essential part of liberal democracy. The latter is more challenging following decades of top down government. Perhaps the national parks provide a template for more non-government involvement in policy administration.

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