Caution has long been the watchword of the Labour Party. Roy Jenkins’ famous analogy comparing Labour’s caution in 1996 with a museum curator carrying a priceless Ming vase across a slippery floor still features in articles today talking of Starmer’s chances. This is where the comparisons should end however. Labour’s caution then was underwritten by a leadership engaging with pressure groups, academics, activists, and journalists in a way the current leadership did not. Under John Smith, a man described as “reassuringly grey”, the Party launched a Commission on Social Justice that today’s leadership would do well to emulate.
The Commission was made up of a panel of experts with a dual mission; to rejuvenate Labour policy at a time when the Party was still reeling from the surprise loss of the 1992 election, and present an image of change and newness to voters who had not warmed to Labour after thirteen years in opposition.
The sheer intellectual scale of the project is astounding. The commissioners invited input from the public, and thousands of people wrote in describing their experience or how they thought things could be improved. At a time when the Labour Party is over-anxious about the cost of public services, the Labour leadership would do well to draw on the memory of the Commission and try to reignite the Party’s creative thinking on social justice.
The commission’s work was swift, producing a total of thirteen interim reports on topics ranging from the nature of social justice to the details of social insurance, and in 1994 it published a final report titled “Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal”. Drawing on contributions from dozens of individuals and pressure groups, the commission had a real impact on Labour’s agenda. While the tragic death of John Smith in 1994 meant the commission didn’t have the impact it could have had, some of the ideas espoused, like the abolition of mortgage interest tax relief, or rhetoric around the welfare state as “springboard” into opportunity rather than just a failsafe in hard times, were enacted when Labour finally entered government in 1997.
During the 1990s, a time when progressive ideas were in retreat across the globe, the Commission on Social Justice managed to present an alternative vision where a growing economy would work for the poor rather than just the rich. In our time, when inequality runs riot and austerity has shown itself to be a disastrous mistake, it seems mystifying that Labour’s frontbench are unable to embrace a positive vision for social justice.
Despite accusations of being unimaginative, during the New Labour years a multitude of new ideas to tackle poverty and inequality sprung up, from Tax Credits to SureStart. Labour’s National Minimum Wage fought low pay while the Winter Fuel Allowance and Pension Credit brought old-age poverty to its lowest levels. Labour’s paucity of ideas isn’t, as some might suggest, a legacy of the Blair years or a product of dominant ‘neoliberal’ thought. Instead, Labour’s time in opposition has been an ideological graveyard.
Labour has long been wary of proposing big improvements to public services, with both New Labour in 1997 and the Starmer leadership in 2023 pledging to stick to Tory spending plans. Even during the not-overly-cautious Corbyn years, huge areas of policy were vague and underdeveloped, such as welfare, or nationalisation.
By contrast, many of the Commission’s proposals stand out for their foresight. The report proposed a national “Learning Bank” to fund all kinds of education for people of all ages, rather than focusing policy on young adults studying at university full time. Instead, the government, employers and individuals would all contribute, which would afford flexibility to people re-entering the labour market after a period of absence or looking to enter a new trade. Given pundits’ current obsession with the ‘skill shortage’, this might be worth revisiting.
Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is lacking the kind of careful analysis that was undertaken by the commission. While Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting waxes lyrical about the potential of AI or advanced computers to transform our NHS, an alternative way of raising standards is through giving patients better access to information about what they have a right to expect from the health service. One proposal was to establish a universal “healthcare guarantee”, setting out the treatments and prevention measures people would have a right to receive. Currently, some of those in need of treatment are left in limbo; operations are constantly postponed without technically being cancelled. Creating a legal right to receive healthcare and setting out acceptable standards for treatment could be an important step forward in ensuring that waiting lists come down and stay down.
One of the most active social policy debates in the Labour Party over the last few years has been over the question of benefits for families. During Smith’s leadership, such debates were just as lively. The Commission on Social Justice recognised that universal payments are more efficient than means-tested payments, and so they proposed to raise Child Benefit to levels closer to the costs incurred in the process of raising a family, and pay for this by making Child Benefit taxable for higher-rate earners and abolishing the Married Couple’s Allowance.
Today, Britain is in a situation many times more challenging than that of the 1990s. At the time, John Smith was a notoriously cautious leader; critics derided his “one more heave” approach, he was moderate even in his moderation. Despite this, he commissioned and engaged with an extremely ambitious body of research that went on to reinvigorate Labour policy even after Smith’s own untimely passing. It’s telling of Labour’s current ideological malaise that Keir Starmer, a leader with an enormous poll lead and a desperate need for new ideas, has refused to engage in anything more than the most basic exposition of his theory of politics or his social justice priorities. Caution doesn’t have to manifest itself as a paucity of ideas, Labour should look to the Commission for Social Justice for a way forward.