Dickens, Mrs Duffy and a big dilemma for the left

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This week, the cerebral Ed Miliband attempts to impose his authority on a fractious Labour Party coming to terms with opposition. What is his political philosophy? More broadly, what is an appropriate philosophy for a European party of the left in the post-socialist era? Do such parties actually have a continuing rationale? Their incapacity to formulate any coherent account of, or response to, the global financial crisis puts that question in sharp focus.

Political philosophy has been the subject of a strong, decidedly individualistic American influence since the second world war. The most influential figure is John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice develops the notion of social contract initiated by Locke and Rousseau centuries ago. Rawls invites his readers to consider what agreement individuals might reach behind a “veil of ignorance”, in which they have no knowledge of the economic or social position they will occupy in society.

Rawls argues that risk-averse individuals will choose an egalitarian economic order. The individualistic, contractarian approach is followed by others, such as Robert Nozick, who use it to reach more conservative conclusions. Political philosophies based on contract and individualism have a natural affinity with neoclassical economic models.

The most consistent strand of opposition to this approach comes from a group that includes Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel. On this side of the Atlantic are Maurice Glasman and John Gray. These writers believe personal identities are largely the product of the communities in which people live, a perception which makes nonsense of the idea that society could be constructed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. The school can be labelled communitarian, although its members dispute the term or that there is a school at all.

The individualistic-communitarian divide crosses political parties. The phrase Red Tory is used to describe communitarians like Phillip Blond, who are associated with the Conservative Party, while Blue Labour is used to describe communitarians, like Mr Glasman, associated with the Labour Party. The distinction between individualism and communitarianism describes the different approaches of political leaders who may have little knowledge of the canonical texts. Tony Blair and David Cameron are instinctive communitarians, Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher natural individualists.

The Conservative dilemma reflects the party’s long-standing coalition between Burkean conservatives, who value tradition and consensus, and economic liberals, radical and confrontational – a coalition in which the former were generally dominant until Lady Thatcher snatched the party leadership. Cameron’s ‘big society’ seeks to redress that balance.

Labour’s dilemma is more recent. Intellectuals of the moderate left seized on the Rawlsian approach. It resonated with a new language of rights – human and economic – which provided an alternative discourse to the tired categories of Marxism.

But the electorate mostly does not know that communitarianism is no longer in intellectual fashion. Few voters were ever much interested in the old rhetoric of socialism, and they have equally little interest in the new rhetoric of rights. Support for social security is based not on recognition of claims to entitlement but on considerations of solidarity, sympathy and desert – there but for the grace of God go I. With Charles Dickens, they laugh at Mrs Jellyby, who loved humanity rather than people.

So there is a division within parties of the left between those who cherish human rights, multi-culturalism and the environment, and the majority of their supporters. The latter are concerned about personal and economic security, and are suspicious of ethnic or religious groups which assert distinctive values. For them the deteriorating environment is that of the community in which they live. Cocooned Gordon Brown was confronted with that division when accosted by Mrs Duffy, a disgruntled voter from Rochdale whom he insulted, and failed to cope.

But Ed Miliband must cope if he is ever to regain office for Labour. Mr Miliband has communitarian inclinations. When a scholar at Harvard, his mentor was Michael Sandel – in contrast to his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, whose Harvard mentor was the neo-classical economist Larry Summers. Mind the gap, and watch this space.

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