Movement politics: a century ago


10:23 pm - February 16th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    


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The new movement politics – the lessons from Obama and the potential of the internet for progressive campaigning, which new spaces such as Liberal Conspiracy seek to realise
– is both the idea of the moment and quite an old idea too.

If politics is the art of the possible, progressive change has depended on the arguments and campaigns which can change the possibilities of politics. One of the best descriptions of why this matters was offered a century ago, as Beatrice Webb recorded in her diary the reaction of Winston Churchill, then a New Liberal member of the Asquith cabinet, to her campaign for the abolition of the poor law.

That campaign arose from the publication – one hundred years ago tomorrow – of the Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law.

October 3rd 1909 – Winston and his wife dined here the other night to meet a party of young Fabians. He is taking on the look of the mature statesman – bon vivant and orator, somewhat in love with his own phrases. He did not altogether like the news of our successful agitation. ‘You should leave the work of converting the country to us, Mrs Webb, you ought to convert the Cabinet’. ‘That would be all right if we wanted merely a change in the law, but we want’, I added, ‘to really change the minds of the people with regard to the facts of destitution, to make the feel the infamy of it and the possibility of avoiding it. That won’t be done by converting the Cabinet, even if we could convert the Cabinet – which I doubt. We will leave that task to a converted country’

Beatrice Webb will strike many as an unlikely source of such an argument. The Webbs have become deeply unfashionable. If they are remembered today, it is usually to bemoan their dominant influence on the 20th century left. That argument, most recently a central theme of David Marquand’s new history of ideas in British politics, has been made as often from within the Fabian left – by GDH Cole, Tawney, Crosland – as outside it. (I write more about the reputation of the Webbs here).

The 1909 Minority Report began a deeply ideological argument in British politics and society about the nature of poverty. (A useful bluffer’s guide to the Poor Law and Minority Report is provided by my colleague Tim Horton). The Minority Report did not just argue for the abolition of the workhouse, but made the first case for a comprehensive welfare provision as part of our common citizenship. Many then innovative, even heretical, ideas which later came to pass began with the 1909 minority report: labour exchanges, a national health service, a minimum wage. So did others – a citizen’s income – which remain ideas, perhaps to be realised yet.

Indeed William Beveridge, a young researcher for the Webbs in 1909, wrote of his landmark report of 1942, that ‘the Beveridge Report stemmed from what all of us had imbibed from the Webbs’. Another personal connection on the road from 1909 to 1945 came with Clement Attlee, employed in 1909 as a part-time organiser of the Campaign to Abolish the Poor Law.

Jose Harris, biographer of Beveridge, writes of how the Minority Report has often been seen as a seminal moment in Britain’s welfare history.

In historical accounts of modern social policy, the Royal Commission of 1905-09 – and in particular its famous Minority Report – has often been closely twinned with the Beveridge Plan of 1942, as one of the two most seminal public inquiries into the workings of British social policy over the past hundred years. Together they are seen as having progressively demolished the institutions and practices of the old, stigmatising, semi-feudal Poor Law and replacing it, first in 1908-11 with the lower storey and then after 1942 with the complete edifice of the modern, universalist, citizen-based welfare state.

Needless to say there has been a good deal of myth-making and wishful thinking about the perceptions of both these episodes. But – as with Magna Carta – neither of these ‘myths’ is so useless or so wholly untrue

But the problem today is hardly of too much mythologizing, but too little. The story of the 1909 Minority Report is perhaps now known mostly to researchers and specialists. As politics, it has too largely been forgotten. But we should draw on moments like this if we are to make our ‘better history’ in campaigns for change today. What is most striking about returning to the debates about poverty in 1909 was how much resonates today. There were Daily Mail campaigns and scares about the palatial conditions inside the Workhouse too.

In interrogating that history, and asking what progressives can learn from it today, our new collection finds a good case for restoring this mythology as well while also, at times, debunking some of it.

So, in fair minded Fabian fashion, we publish Nick Bosanquet making the now unfashionable case for the majority report, drawing on his family connection to Helen Bosanquet: Beatrice Webb’s chief antagonist on the Royal Commission and the public champion of charity-led welfare provision. Helen Bosanquet was not, he argues, ‘the fearsome anachronism of social policy myth’, as Nick Bosanquet connects the debate of 1909 to his personal journey away from Fabian optimism about the benefits of state activity into the low tax advocacy of Reform.
(Another remarkable feature of the debates of 1909 was that the ideological argument which dominated much of 20th century domestic politics was contested primarily between the two women on the Royal Commission, in a political society which could not decide whether to grant women the vote).

The failure of the Minority Report in 1909 had important institutional consequences, as well as at the level of ideas. The Fabians shifted from ‘permeation’ of all of the parties to building up the fledgling Labour Party from a trade union pressure group in Parliament to a distinctive party competing for government. The anti-poor law campaign newsletter The Crusade led to the birth of the New Statesman in 1913. The Webbs had also just created the LSE, believing that dispassionate academic study of the social facts would lead to collectivist solutions.

This awareness of the value of parallel institutions to shift arguments and ideas in society was a central lesson which the New Right – in Britain and America – learned when seeking to counter the advances of the 20th century left. (This has been well documented by Richard Cockett for Britain, and John Micklethwait for the US).

But perhaps the left, because it had learnt the value of the state, forgot that its politics needed to persuade society, and not simply make arguments to government. The Webbs may often be blamed for this but, in fairness, it was not their left which forgot the need to educate, agitate and organise.

Perhaps 1909 should be recovered as one moment in progressive history when radical ideas were allied to movement politics.

We might ask too how and why the left which got us Beveridge was different to that which has lived off it since.

* The Fabian Society publishes ‘From Workhouse to Welfare: A Centenary Celebration’ to mark the centenary of the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law, with contributions from Nick Bosanquet, Jose Harris, Roy Hattersley, Dianne Hayter, Tim Horton, Sunder Katwala, Seema Malhotra, Peter Townsend, Jon Trickett MP and Sarah Wise. The a centenary conference takes place at LSE on Saturday: full programme.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


But perhaps the left, because it had learnt the value of the state, forgot that its politics needed to persuade society, and not simply make arguments to government

I think this point is key and could have been brought out a bit. The modern left certainly needs to think more about mass mobilisation (though without the SWP?) on key issues. The question is, what are those issues?

Did you see Hugo Rifkind’s piece in the Times about the upsurge in student activism?
http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article5739655.ece

The left is missing a trick here isn’t it?

A letter in the Guardian about the centenary
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/feb/17/beatrice-webb-poor-law-centenary

Today marks the centenary of one of the most important moments in British welfare history: the publication of Beatrice Webb’s minority report to the royal commission on the poor law. Her call for the poor law and workhouse to be scrapped and replaced with a universal welfare state may have been too radical for its time, but it paved the way for William Beveridge, her young researcher on the minority report, to use that vision three decades later to usher in the postwar welfare state. Beveridge wrote that his great report “sprang from all we had imbibed from the Webbs”.

Poverty debates today contain too many punitive echoes of the fierce arguments put by defenders of the poor law a century ago. We call on politicians of all parties to remember the key insights set out in the minority report, and the debate it stimulated, in efforts to tackle poverty today: that we have a collective duty to ensure a basic minimum for all; that charity, while important, can never guarantee this on its own; and that tackling poverty must both support individual efforts and address the wider social and economic causes, not retreat to simply blaming the poor for their own poverty.

Sunder Katwala Fabian Society, Diane Hayter Webb Memorial Trust, Prof Julian Le Grand LSE, Richard Rogers, Kate Green CPAG, Martin Narey Barnardos, Will Hutton, Roy Hattersley, Patricia Hewitt MP, Simon Hughes MP, Prof Peter Townsend LSE, Jon Cruddas MP, Fiona Mactaggart MP, Meghnad Desai, Stuart White Oxford University, Terry Rooney MP, George Howarth MP, Sarah Wise, Peter Hain MP, David Drew MP, Ian Gibson MP, Denis MacShane MP, Danny Alexander MP, Alf Dubs, Nick Bosanquet, Seema Malhotra Fabian Women’s Network, Audrey Mullender Oxford University

Sunny (1) ‘The question is, what are those issues?’

Full employment has to be the number one issue. Much as I’d like other people to share my concerns on civil liberties or the environment, its obvious from the protests at Lindsay that this is the one issue that will bring people onto the streets and its an issue the Right can so easily hijack. I’m not just talking about jobs lost to migrant workers here (lets not get sidetracked onto that one aspect), I’m talking about an economy with a strong manufacturing and agricultural base rather than the consensual illusions of the financial sector.

Full employment gives people the liberty to worry about other things.

The ‘new movement politics’ might rely upon internet campaigning but I do think many in Labour hoping to claim the mantle of Obama’s success miss a trick when it comes to the actual ideas and the people embodying them that they can use the internet to campaign for:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/01/labour-list-obama-internet-prescott

My.gordonbrown.com anyone?

1. Sunny Hundal. The Labour Party could do with a Ernie Bevin, Dennis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Don Concannon type figures who would attract a broad swathe of political support. Bevin is considered the best Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Healey the best Secretary of State for Defence since WW2. Someone who was a craftsman and served in the Armed Forces with extensive combat experience demonstrate the shallowness of many of the Tories. Admittedly the person would show up the shallowness of much of the Labour Party as well. Callaghan obtained the respect of many one nation Tories. It was the undermining of Callaghan by the left wing of the Labour Party which persuaded many tradtional Labour people to vote Tory.
The Labour party need politicians who traditionally minded Labour voters can emotionally relate to rather than not vote or vote for the BNP. It would appear that there is no Labour MP who is craftsman and/or has combat experience . Bearing in mind the number of times the Labour Party has sent the Armed Forces into combat and the fact that manufacturing has lost 30% of the people employed in it ince 1997; the inability of the party to attract working class MPs shows how distant it has become from it’s roots. Don Concannon was that he served as a NCO in the Guards , Healey was a Beachmaster ( guided landing ships onto the beach during an invasion) at and Callaghan was Chief Petty Officer in the RN in WW2 . These sorts of men earn peoples resepect from all backgrounds. If there were Labour MPs who could speak with the authority of being a craftsman and foreman with over 10 years experience this would peoples respect. Most labour MPs are people who have no experience outside of some office and have never had their mettle tested.

Why are we so obsessed with this Marquand stuff? Is slotting stuff into some categories really anything new?

Funny I was just thinking about this albeit in a rather inchoate way , well I do have a real job wife kids an`all. My answer is Conservative I suppose , but I do see the importance of continuity in bringing change about. Emphasising how much Labour thinking has become unquestioned is a way of re -centering the Party and curing it if its addiction to change . A move right in some shape or form can be couched as a defence of much loved territory . The NHS is still , I think , the strongest card . Had Blair won arguments and not fudged them then slower but surer change mnight have been effected. If you think lurching off into coollectivism is the answer then you are finished

http://iznewmania.blogspot.com/2009/02/rats-and-lifeboats.html

I knew an lady who had known the Webbs in South London as a girl . She taught me at Sunday school and my mother looked after her when she was very old.


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    […] Liberal Conspiracy » Movement politics: a century ago | creating a new liberal-left alliance Beatrice Webb will strike many as an unlikely source of such an argument. The Webbs have become deeply unfashionable. If they are remembered today, it is usually to bemoan their dominant influence on the 20th century left…The Minority Report did not just argue for the abolition of the workhouse, but made the first case for a comprehensive welfare provision as part of our common citizenship. Many then innovative, even heretical, ideas which later came to pass began with the 1909 minority report: labour exchanges, a national health service, a minimum wage. So did others – a citizen’s income – which remain ideas, perhaps to be realised yet. (tags: uk poverty history class socialservices welfare) […]





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