Before getting back into the detail of day to day politics it seems a good opportunity to give some attention to what we may mean by Labour Party values. Getting back to ‘our values’ is a phrase that is currently used widely to initiate discussions about how to prepare alterative policies to those of new labour, but is it possible to talk about values that we all share? Are we referring to an ethical view of society? And where might we find out about these values?
It is difficult to give more than a cursory answer to these questions; you may have further questions and members might find some of the points controversial or objectionable. So I’ll post this short attempt up on the constituency discussion and education web site where members can post comments or if you respond to me as an email I’ll cut and paste those comments onto the site. I’ve also mostly used Wikipedia as a first source which is not entirely satisfactory, but does enable you to move on to more specialised sources of you wish.
Tony Judt just before he died in 2010, produced a book that has been widely read in the Labour Party called ‘Ill Fares the Land’, where he argued that neo-liberalism and the free reign of market forces unleashed by Thatcher and in large part left in place by new labour, had undermined much of the post second world war progressive reforms, leaving society greatly degraded and unequal as a result. He suggested that we need to return to those social democratic principles that underpinned those progressive reforms that Labour Government had put into place. Clearly in the current political climate where ‘austerity’ and Tory reaction are gaining an upper hand, such a proposal indicates the need to consider an alternative programme that will challenge these forces of the right.
Hence, it is the values of social democracy that many in the Labour Party would argue we need to re-consider, to enable us to return to an alternative political programme that is about using the wealth of our society for progressive social improvement and not being ruled by the market, which only benefits the rich. Such a view can be described broadly as being ‘humanist’ having a concern and a respect for human values as can be applied practically now and for these not to be disregarded for a higher or more metaphysical purpose.
Such values have a long history and exist both within and outside religions: they are not exclusively the concerns of humanists or atheists. However, it was with the historical period during the 18th Century that became known as the enlightenment with the rise of action based upon reason, backed by the change in understanding brought about by the application of reason to science, which enabled the idea of progress in relation to the way we live to start to come to the fore. The project of the enlightenment is probably more understood today as ‘modernism’ and it is seen as a universal view of the world that applies to all humanity.
Both the enlightenment and modernism are not easily defined terms and nor how they have played out in historical practice been consistent as debates over the last 200 years have been seen to underpin both totalitarian regimes, such as the Nazis in Germany and alternatively, the spread of democracy. Within science the tensions can be seen clearly where Einstein’s work in physics has led to a more comprehensive understanding of how the universe works but at the same laid the basis for the atomic bomb.
So recognising that we as humans can use reason to understand and improve the world, does not necessarily provide an easy ethical basis for the choices to be made about whether the application or practice of modernist understanding is of a benefit to humans, other species or the planet. Room exists for ethical consideration about what is good, beneficial or just in social practice and the Labour Party has a range of affiliated and supportive organisations that take up these debates such as the Christian Socialists; other religions such as the Jewish Labour Movement; black, asian and ethnic minority communities raise religious as well as social values; and the Labour Humanists raise values based upon agnostic or atheist world views. These are examples of the existing representative organisations that raise ethical issues that could underpin our Party values and social policy. Historically the debates that led to the reforms introduced by the 1945 – 51 Labour Governments emerged from earlier considerations about ethics and social values from people such as R H Tawney; Beatrice Webb; G D H Cole; J M Keynes; Edward Carpenter; and earlier socialists such as William Morris and radicals such as J S Mill.
We tend to be familiar in the UK with the Christian approach to ethics largely based upon the 10 commandments. However, we tend to be less familiar with humanist ethics and social values that can be derived directly from the application of reason and the understanding and methods of science. I understand that it will be controversial to do this, but in order to stimulate debate and write briefly about the application of at least one area to social thinking I’ll outline a humanist approach to social and political values being the one I’m more familiar with. I hope that if you find this unacceptable or wish to add or correct what follows you will let me know through email or through the website.
Can we respect for the planet as an integrated sustainer of life? Evolution as an explanation of how life developed on our planet provides a persuasive explanation about how and why we are here, what we share and what differences we have with other species and how we depend on each other. Chemical elements we are all and our planet is composed of were created by and within stars that have died since the start of universe about 13 billion years ago. Life as we experience it has evolved on Earth as we live in a specific – Goldilocks – habitable environment. These findings indicate how vulnerable life forms on earth and ourselves as a species are and how we as individuals only have one life and how our time as a species may be limited. It can be suggest there is a very strong ethical conclusion to draw from this situation, in that we should act to ensure the planet stays habitable, as a species we should aim to always be custodians of our future and we have only one life and therefore we should ensure we do not endanger our own or others existence.
Change and uncertainty is a constant but can we exercise conscious control over the direction of change and work at reducing uncertainty? Modernism: the application of both social and scientific understanding has brought radical change over the last 250 years. Much of this has been the result of increased specialism, allowing individuals to follow their interests and abilities and social benefit from this has been achieved through increasingly sophisticated and complex forms of social cooperation and communication. Scientific truth stands as long as it works or can be shown to be valid and works through trying to tackle new uncertainties. Discoveries usually lead to more questions. This has all been created by social activity and is, as a result. understandable to all of us and we are all able to consider how and why it might be used.
Some ethical conclusions we could draw from these consideration include that as humans we are immensely creative and the more all of us are equipped through education and opportunity to participate in our own way the more we benefit as human kind. Poverty, inequalities of power and ownership, the inequitable distribution of wealth, unemployment and the lack of democracy shut our fellow human beings from being able to participate in the process of being creative and having a conscious say over the direction of change: those with power and wealth being allowed to pursue their own interests at the exclusion of all of us has led us to the current crisis situation. We can all contribute in our own way and should have the power to do so.
Is it possibly that in the method of science and reason there resides the most direct relevance to social and political ethics? Essentially the method is a social process based on the assumption that the basis of social relations is that the option will always be left open that one could be wrong and, in part, probably are: there are, as a matter of fact, no absolute truths. Experience, practice, new evidence, re-conceptualisation will continue to change reality or truths that provide a more adequate understanding. Like the Roman Emperor who always had to be warned that they were mortal, the methods of science and reason always warn us we could be wrong.
Such an approach allows for an accumulation of truth where it works in practice or can be tested but at the same time requires the inclusion and tolerance of others as it is only through social processes that we will ‘stand up’ reality, this only happening through debate and discussion not by the forcing of views upon others through the misuse of power. These methods are universal in application and exclude no one through the application of absolute criteria such as through forms of discrimination. As a socialist I will argue that I have the evidence to show that inequalities of power and wealth are widely harmful to society now and into the future, but it does not exclude those who are rich from the debate, as they can change their minds. Only those who wish to deny the relevance of the process of reason are in danger of excluding themselves if they seek to stop the process taking place: fascists would be a political example and Ayan Rand an example of absolutist winner ‘take all’ neo-liberal thinking that has been influential over the last 40 years.
A recent article in the latest New Statesman by Michael Brooks is a fine example of how the process of reason works within science. In general terms such an understanding of how reason works is known as pragmatism and a German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas through his concept of ‘communicative action’ and a British historian E P Thompson have done much recently to explore the kind of approach to social ethics that I’m trying to suggest. In an earlier generation Herbert Marcuse and Raya Dunayevskaya explored this approach within the context of socialism and Marx’s concept of ‘praxis’.
Such considerations can provide the basis of an individual socialist ethic and also the underpinnings of a programme for the Labour Party. They do not solve all detailed policy issues but perhaps provides a starting point and a method of evaluation. Policies based on such values might include:
Re-distribution of power and wealth through changes in ownership, control and progressive taxation
A social commitment to full employment
Growth that progressively reduces the risk of climate change within a defined timescale
Widest possible introduction of democracy in all aspects of social life
Sustaining of human rights law
Inclusive, rational and humanistic based education
Radical freedom of information with a distributed media ownership and control and no secrecy where the public have an interest to know
Encouragement of international democracy and governance
A purposeful reduction in military spending and reliance on the use of force of arms
A universal welfare system that supports the needs of the population throughout life and when people are not able to support themselves or have access to defined basic needs such as housing or in need of care
Recognition and legal support for organisations such as trade unions that provide countervailing power, support and representation
Not a comprehensive list but one that provides an indication of the kind of policies that would flow from the humanist values that have been suggested here.
Anyway hope this makes some sense and over to you to decide whether it does or not.
All the very best
Len Arthur PCLP political and education officer