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1 October 2008

The Fabians should be a movement, not just a think tank

The Fabians must draw on their campaigning history to help Labour meet the
challenges of the future says Omar Salem

The Fabian legacy

One day in June 1888 Annie Besant attended a Fabian Society meeting on
female labour. She was appalled to hear about the conditions of women
workers at Bryant & May, a matchmakers in East London. While the company
announced huge profits, their employees were forced to work for pitifully low
wages, which were further reduced by a system of unfair fines (e.g. for going
to the toilet without permission). The next day she interviewed some of the
workers at Bryant & May, and set about publicising the conditions that the
workers suffered. She wrote an article entitled “White Slavery in London” and
when the company tried to bully the workers into denying the article's
description of working conditions the workers went on strike. After three
weeks with their workers on strike, Bryant & May caved in, agreeing to abolish
fines and deductions as well as give the women union recognition.

Here was an early example of the Fabians working with the trade unions to
fight for workers' rights at a time of challenging circumstance for many. These
practical campaigns were combined with an intellectual backbone provided by
the pamphlets, speeches and plays of, among others, Beatrice and Sidney
Webb, George Bernard Shaw and GDH Cole. When the Fabians developed
ideas - including for a national health service, equal rights for women and
proper employment rights for workers - they did not simply write pamphlets
and allow them to gather dust with a vague hope that someone, somewhere,
would implement them. Instead, they took their ideas and they built support
for them: George Bernard Shaw attended over 1,000 public meetings across
the country to argue for social justice; Beatrice Webb wrote article after article
against the Poor Law; and Annie Besant helped organise women workers in
East London to fight for their rights. It is this radical but practical approach that

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we should ensure is at the heart of the Fabian Society today. After all, it was
this approach that laid the foundations for the welfare state so that when the
Labour Government of Clement Attlee (himself a Fabian) came to power, they
had both the ideas and the wide base of support to change Britain for the
better. Additionally, pre-War Fabians played a key role in channelling the
energies of the left into a constructive and democratic politics through the
Labour Party and the trade unions – helping the UK avoid anti-democratic
Fascism and Communism.

Of course, that was one of the most radical, progressive and reforming
governments ever. Unfortunately, it was followed by more than a decade of
Conservative rule. Fortunately, during this time the Fabians once again
helped provide ideas for progress through Anthony Crosland’s
groundbreaking 1956 publication, The Future of Socialism. Although it now
sometimes reads as a little naïve and idealistic - Crosland believed Britain to
be “on the threshold of mass abundance” and that “one cannot imagine to-day
C a serious attempt to enforce, as so often happened in the 1920s, a coal
policy to which the miners bitterly objected” – it renewed Labour thinking and
provided a nuanced understanding of what the good life might look like.

Inspired by Crosland, the differentiation between ends and means became a

motto of those working to reform the party. They defeated Militant and,
inspired by another Fabian pamphlet – this time Giles Radice’s Southern
Discomfort – ensured a landslide victory in 1997. The minimum wage, human
rights act, civil partnerships, more paid holiday, NHS Direct and more were to
follow. These changes did not come about just by chance, not just because
someone had an idea for them, but because campaigns were run, arguments
made and votes won – both inside and outside the Labour Party.

The new challenges

Today we face new challenges. Global economic difficulty, climate change,

terrorism, demographic change, new pressures on children and families, knife
crime, globalisation and increasing international competition are just a few of
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these. Anybody who has watched Robert McNamara’s film about the Cuban
Missile Crisis cannot help but fear the future effects of nuclear weapons on
our world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites research showing that
an influenza pandemic could kill 2 to 7.4 million people globally. Following
more than a decade of uninterrupted growth the economy seems rather less
robust and former titans of the economy, like Lehman Brothers, have fallen.

But where there are new challenges there are new solutions. Using similar
approaches to the Fabians of the past we can face and overcome the
challenges of the future. We will also need to draw on other thinkers and
traditions from Bentham and Mill to the participatory budgeting of Porte
Alegre, Brazil. What we need is the imagination to challenge preconceptions
and the willingness to campaign and work hard to get from idea to reality. The
Fabians can fill a space between the internal policy processes of the National
Policy Forum and the more departmental focus of individual Ministers and
their Special Advisers.

In practice, this will mean that there are three things that the Fabians and
Labour need to especially focus on at the moment: economic fairness, being
radical and being in touch.

Economic fairness

Given the economic difficulties that Labour is facing, economic fairness, in a

broad sense, must be at the heart of Labour’s agenda. We need to show two
things to inspire the public’s trust and support.

First, we must show we can take the decisive and tough action that is needed
to protect the economy. The Prime Minister did this last week in handling the
falling stock market. The public want to know that there is a Prime Minister
and party in power that is resilient in the face of challenges and resolute in
acting to deal with them.

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Second, we must show that Labour has a different approach from the Tories
when dealing with difficult economic times. We cannot only say that we are
more competent that the Tories, however true that may be. We must show
that our values and principles will result in better and fairer solutions – at a
time when individuals and families are suffering.

As a Labour government we cannot allow people to freeze to death in the

winter or face being homeless at Christmas. We are Labour precisely to stop
these things. We must show that Labour’s response to the economic
difficulties of today will be different from that of the Tories - not only because
our approach involves action, but because that action is firmly rooted in clear
Labour values. Our response should differ from that of past Conservative
governments not only by being more effective but also by being fairer. While
the Tories would walk away, we must show that Labour will help to insulate
the British people against economic storms. We must make sure that people
know they will have a roof over their head, will be able to afford to heat their
home and feed their families. We should also hold firm on our commitments to
reduce child poverty.

A big part of economic fairness will involve looking at how we can rebalance
the tax system to help those who are on lower and middle incomes and
whose living standards are most under threat. This would make a real
difference to people’s lives and demonstrate that Labour has a distinctive
approach to dealing with tough times - and it is one of the areas where policy
changes can have a tangible effect very quickly. One idea might be to make
April 30th, 2009, a ‘tax fairness’ day where we see the tax system rebalanced
to reduce taxation on those on low and middle incomes.

There is an increasing feeling that economic rewards are distributed unjustly

and undeservedly. Indeed, Crosland’s analysis of the British economy in the
1950s sheds an interesting light on today’s economy. He argued at the time
that Britain was no longer a capitalist society, in part because of the transfer
of decision-making at the level of the unit of production from ‘private owner-
managers’ to ‘a largely non-owning class of salaried executives’. What would
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Crosland have thought of today’s million-pound bonuses (which are often

many times the recipients salaries)? Many of us feel some discomfort that
bonuses get paid out seemingly regardless of performance and with
questionable correlation to the recipients' contribution to society. We could
look at how targeted property taxes could be used to make sure that the uber-
rich, who would otherwise avoid it, pay their fair share. At the other end of the
income spectrum, we should not only continue to raise the minimum wage but
also aim to ensure that public sector workers and those contracted by the
public sector are paid a living wage.

Being bold, brave and radical

Although the Fabians come from a tradition of democratic gradualism, that

need not mean being tame or unimaginative. New challenges need new
solutions. Someone once said that we were “best when we were bold, best
when we are Labour”. When Fabians first mooted the NHS and the minimum
wage they were not mainstream ideas. Now they are part of the furniture of
British life. For a party in its twelfth year of government, we are more likely to
suffer from being too timid rather than from being too radical. Much as it is
important to defend and be proud of our record to date, we cannot rely on
restating old policies or trying to be better at claiming credit for what we have
done. If we do that alone we will lose the next election.

What we need is an agenda of the change we want to bring to people’s lives

in the future. Challenges such as climate change will require us to be willing to
take bold, sometimes politically risky, decisions to bring about the change that
is needed. We should not shy away from this task but rather embrace it. We
are best placed to succeed, because progressive politics is about changing
things for the better rather than settling for the status quo.

Being in touch

Successful progressive change depends not only on having the right values
and the guts to see change through, but an understanding of what is wanted
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and needed. The early Fabians' success did not come as a result of simply
dreaming up good ideas. Rather these ideas came from an understanding of
the sometimes grim reality of life at the time. Charles Booth's detailed studies
of life in London informed Fabians' thinking, while Clement Attlee’s politics
were influenced by his experiences as a social worker in East London. Linked
to this is the need to renew our democracy - electing the House of Lords and
giving more scope for people to control their local community.

Those in power are often afraid of change because they fear a backlash to
anything too radical. The way to avoid this is to be in touch with what people
are thinking by getting out on the doorstep and into communities, so that new
policies are based not only on remote theory but also practical reality.
Keeping in touch is not always glamorous, but it can be rewarding because
that is how you get the right policies for a better, fairer world.

To help with keeping in touch all parts of the Labour movement, including the
Fabians, must look at how they can open up and reduce barriers to entry for
those we want to engage – just as Barack Obama has done with his
‘movement for change’. Not least in the case of the Fabians this means
finding ways for members to take part – wherever they live in the country –
beyond reading pamphlets and attending debates. Unlike other organisations,
the Fabian Society has a significant and committed membership that with the
right support can make an even greater contribution to the Labour movement.
There need to be clearer and more open ways for members to develop and
collaborate on ideas through the Fabian Review, publications and the website.
Local Fabian societies should also be given more support and
encouragement to build links with local charity and community groups, as well
as open up their activities to a wider group of people beyond already engaged
Labour Party members. Another idea might be for local societies to be
encouraged to base their policy discussions and speaker meetings explicitly
on the issues that have been coming up on the doorstep in local canvassing
sessions – with meetings open to the public.

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The future

In pushing for a fair, radical and in-touch agenda we must ensure that the
Fabians do not only produce ideas but that we also push for those ideas to
become action. That means going beyond seminars and discussion groups
alone, and allowing more scope for the ideas and energies of members to
drive the work of the Fabians. It will also mean reaching out to build stronger
links with others in the labour movement including the Trade Unions, Co-
operative movement, fellow Socialist Societies, Compass and Progress.
Learning from the Fabians' venerable history and contribution to the labour
movement shows how this can be done. If we want progressive change in the
future to be driven by the Fabians we must be a movement, not just a think

Omar Salem is a member of the Fabian Society. He writes in a personal


1 October 2008


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Omar Salem can be contacted at omarsalem[at]gmail.com or on 0774 761