Labour and the politics of ownership
Last week I somewhat facetiously suggested that Labour should adopt another new clause IV. The idea was to do away with the idiotic blather that had replaced a coherent (albeit flawed) position on property ownership.
Anthony Painter pointed out that he had written a more fulsome version of this article before we even lost power.
Referring to Demos’s progressive conservatism project and Red Toryism, he wrote: ‘While the left was quickly dragging itself away from discussing any meaningful concept of ownership a very different thing was happening on the right: it was very actively discussing ownership and it proved to be an intellectually and politically reenergising discussion.’
Since then, we have experienced the occasionally awkward, yet nourishing interventions of Blue Labour advocates like Jon Wilson, Jonathan Rutherford, Maurice Glasman and Marc Stears, whose offerings suggest that these conversations need not happen – and historically, have not happened – exclusively around the Conservative party.
They have drawn on a rich vein of thinking that includes the work of John Ruskin, GDH Cole, RH Tawney, William Morris and many others (whose names you may well have become sick of hearing) living around the turn of the last century.
I don’t intend to go over their ideas here. And the co-operatives, mutuals and other forms of common ownership (exercising control and deriving benefit, as opposed to ‘public’ ownership which merely involves the latter) which we spend so long discussing these days are not their property alone.
GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, perhaps less well-loved figures on the left, were important in shaping these alternative theories of ownership through their advocacy of ‘distributism’, which suggests that property ownership should be as widely spread across society as possible.
They combined support for ownership of property (and power) by individuals and small interest groupings with a belief in the vitality of participation in decision making by the latter’s members. They argued that wherever possible, people ought to be able to make a living without relying on the use of capital in which they had no controlling interest. And they had a deep attachment to traditional forms of life: the family, the guild or union (where properly democratic) and local public administration.
Chesterton’s wry observations could easily be substituted for Blue Labour’s critique of the previous Labour administration: ‘Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity.’
Indeed, the very notion of ‘the common good’ – around which this site is built – can be traced back, through these devout co-religionists, to a long line of Catholic social teaching stretching back to Thomas Aquinas. It had its contemporary manifestation in a number of papal encyclicals, including Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: ‘Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree.’
Pre-occupied, amongst other things, with ‘the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses’, Pope Leo suggests that ‘every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own’. This is a troublesome notion for the left, but one worth grappling with – particularly since we share the indignancy about the ‘misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority’ that lies behind his writing.
He justifies this ‘right’ on two principal grounds: that through the process of labour, people impress their personality on the object of their work, and thus have in some way incorporated it into their wider being.
And secondly, that property allows us to make moral choices, ‘not only as to matters that regard [our] present welfare, but also about those which [we] deem may be for [our] advantage in time yet to come’. And, I would add, about even those which may not be to our advantage.
This ability to exercise choice, which has been so preoccupied in recent times with the ability to choose which hospital you have an operation at, is surely most significant when it comes to choosing our partner, our home, or our employer.
The less you possess, the harder it is to make those choices. Perhaps this observation could form the basis of a better ‘clause IV’ for Labour: if not in writing, at least in its heart.
Patrick Macfarlane is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds. He writes the Blue Labour column for pressure group Progress