Cruddas is right on local democracy, wrong on Mill and Aristotle

By Graeme Smith
18 Dec 2012

Last week Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP charged by Ed Miliband with leading the Party’s policy review, gave a speech to The Centre for Social Justice. The speech was billed as a major statement of the direction the policy review was taking. It was a preview of those ideas which were likely to be shaping the future of the Labour Party. So when a New Statesman tweet appeared with a link to the speech I thought it was worth a look. It is fair to say I was horrified by what I found.

Even for a popular speech it seemed littered with casual, ill-considered aphorisms, an abundance of non-sequitors, and some truly astonishing elementary mistakes in political theory. If this is the future of Labour Party thinking, I am appalled. However I do agree with the conclusions.

It is probably best to start with the bits Cruddas got right. He ends his speech by advocating local democracy. He argues that we "need to give local authorities more power over public spending" (hear hear!); he would like to see us "rebuild the vocation of political and managerial authority in the public sector"; he advocates workers on the boards of private companies, the support of active, organising community groups; and he wants "public sector leaders" to be more visible and "better able to publicly respond to challenge". All of this is great, we do need far more local democracy and devolved power.

The problem, of course, is that John Cruddas is by no means the first to argue this, as he himself recognises. David Cameron argued for the same, as did Gordon Brown and as did Tony Blair before him. The real question is: why do political leaders promise devolution and then increasingly centralise once in power?

I suspect it relates to the problem of being seen to deliver change: a problem which needs to be resolved before any real devolution and local democracy is possible. Cruddas does not address that problem.

If this is right, then what did Cruddas get wrong? He builds his analysis on a perceived division in England. This is, he reckons, between "utilitarianism" and "one nation politics". Utilitarians believe that everything can be ‘quantified’. According to Cruddas they believe "the good things in life can always be given a monetary value"; "welfare, happiness, joy are things that have a price." Further "utilitarians say people don’t know what their own interest is", they, again according to Cruddas, "believe in an elite that makes the rules"; they "push people to 'maximise' their satisfaction – as the elite defines it."

This is nonsense. Surely, no one who has read John Stuart Mill would write such things? In fact no one who has had a conversation with someone who has read Mill could be excused such grotesque simplifications. Later in the speech Cruddas argues that the tradition that produced Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, is suspicious when people "have freedom to put across their point of view." There is a very serious misunderstanding of the utilitarian tradition here, which belies the claim made in the speech that academics have been consulted.

If the utilitarians are out, then who is in, who belongs to the one nation tradition besides Disraeli? The answer is Aristotle! The man who saw politics as the preserve and practice of an elite group of male citizens, while slaves did the economic work and women were restricted to the home, is Cruddas’ ‘inspiration’. Aristotle teaches us about the ‘common good’ and about virtues and friendship and love. Not that Cruddas tells us which of Aristotle’s virtues he especially approves of, or how love is meant to inform contemporary politics. Nor did Aristotle write especially about the ‘common good’, depending to a degree in how you translate eudaimonia, although translating it ‘common good’ would be unusual.

The reference to Aristotle starts to explain some of the confusion. John Cruddas seems to be referencing, in a disjointed way, the Red Tory / Blue Labour trends in political thinktanks. These tend, as Cruddas has done, to blame all society’s faults on a state that is centralised, authoritarian and bureaucratic, responding to an ideology that is excessively individualistic, consumerist and selfish.

If anything this tradition is neo-liberal individualism, but even then it is an unfair caricature. What is offered as an alternative is a tradition that is associational, mutual, based on community and shared responsibility with some self-help thrown in. It could be socialist and unionised, but might also be religious and charitable. Cruddas’ attempts to praise the mutual association and reject the state leads him to claim the foundation of the NHS was not about "state socialism" but instead about the "1920s ILP radicalism of Clem Attlee’s East End."

This is a remarkable re-writing of history; if nothing else Cruddas should read Archbishop William Temple to understand what the state can do. I fear for a Labour Party that cannot imagine a positive role for the state as an instrument of social justice.

The question is how does all this confusion and error get to the positive conclusion of more local democracy? To understand this we need to be aware of a phrase that keeps popping up in the speech. John Cruddas repeats the idea that we need to "trust people". His faith in local democracy is founded on the idea that people can be trusted – a good old-fashioned liberal idea. It is because people can be trusted that local democracy will work.

This also explains what Cruddas really means by the ‘common good’. He is not referring to notion of peace and justice as might be found in religious common good traditions. Rather the common good is a ‘common life’, a working together, a living together, a sociability. Cruddas is hoping that if basically good people work together locally then a good society will result. Really what he wants are more people being political. He says, "a common life, indeed a political life, provides the basis of our personal fulfilment."

Personally I share Cruddas’ faith in people. But to fulfil this faith, we need to extend the powers of the state into the whole of society, not dismiss it with cheap rhetoric. A democratic state protects the weak, which is why powerful people always want to undermine it. It is also the case that utilitarianism is a good ethical framework for working out the details of how to live together well. It is certainly a better hope than the communitarian rhetoric that Cruddas repeats so confusingly.

My hope is that by the time he reports back to Ed, and to the Party, he will have shed the confusions that detract from his fine conclusions. The Labour Party should be the party of the majority, not the elite, it should empower people in the place that matters to them most, their locality, and it should serve the greatest happiness of the greatest number – a phrase I seem to remember from somewhere.

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© Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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