The Long and Winding Road

By Liam Payne

In the history of left-wing thought and strategy, the concept of the ‘road to socialism’ has long played a meaningful role. A slew of books and programmes across the decades have borne some variation of this concept – Chile’s Road to Socialism, written at the time of the Allende government; ‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism’ from the Scottish Left Review in 2007; and the current Communist Party of Britain’s programme British Road to Socialism. Indeed, the image has such a relevance to the idea of socialist transformation, that is has even been co-opted and inverted by the fiercest opponents and critics of such an outcome – neoliberalism’s premier intellectual driver Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, for example.

The image and concept posits the idea that to achieve a socialist transformation of society is akin to embarking on a journey of travel – distance and time will be prominent aspects to be accounted for. In this process, the socialist left must engage in the hard work of organising, educating, recruiting, proselytising and ‘intellectualising’ for the cause.

The recent resurgence of the left in Britain in the shape of the fragile dominance of the Labour left in the Labour Parties across Britain brings the image of the road to be travelled back into consideration. The unexpected success of the Corbyn leadership bid in 2015, its defence in 2016, its performance in the 2017 snap election, and the eventual unravelling following the bruising 2019 equivalent have led to a lot of theorising about the methods and tactics adopted and neglected in this recent socialist surge.

Where there has been a clearer consensus of qualified success was in the field of policy proposals. The narratives that the left proffered in this period around the major issues at hand have largely seeped into the national discourse, and represent a positive impact on the ideas of ‘accepted practice’ in British politics. However, the concept of the ‘road to socialism’ can be discerned by the fact that many of these policies have been in gestation amongst left-wing circles for a lengthy period.

In 2005, The Red Paper Collective (RPC) published a new 30th anniversary version of its ‘Red Paper on Scotland’. Bringing together academics, activists and politicians from across the left-wing spectrum of Scotland at the time, the paper dealt with prevalent issues and left-wing proposals to combat these and advance the cause of socialism. One of the contributors was the then GMB Political Officer in Scotland, Richard Leonard.

In 2016, Leonard was elected to the Scottish Parliament as one of the Labour Party additional members for the Central Scotland region, under the country’s Additional Member System of voting for devolved elections. A year later, he was swept to victory in Labour’s leadership election on the back of the euphoria at Corbyn’s ground-breaking performance in the earlier general election, and the general leftwards shift in Labour and the trade unions. He was elected with 56.7% of the vote, on a 62.3% turnout.

Leonard’s contribution to the 2005 iteration of the RPC was titled ‘Towards a New Economy in Scotland’. It provides necessary and innovative economic policy proposals, many of which formed a core part of the ‘left platform’ in the Corbyn/Leonard era. Leonard’s approach to this issue deserves renewed recognition, and this legacy of thought provides a potent example of the concept of the ‘road to socialism’ – the long and winding road.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…

As a first step, Leonard outlines the recent economic history to the context of Scotland in 2005. He correctly acknowledges the impact of de-industrialisation on the country from the year 1970 to the time of writing. Employment in manufacturing fell from 708,000 to 235,000 jobs in this period, with only 10.3% of the workforce remaining in this sector. These industries tended to be community-wide employers and anchors, and the huge contraction of them has had a devastating effect in areas across Scotland.

In the context of 2005, Leonard points to the increasing prevalence of outsourcing and offshoring of productive jobs to explain the continued withering of the sector in modern Scotland. This can be attributed to the classical economic theory of the ‘law of comparative advantage’ – trade will be most profitable to individual nations if they concentrate their productive capacities only in areas in which they excel, or have a natural advantage, even if a country could effectively and efficiently do more.

This drive to shed ‘uncompetitive’ industrial capacity in Scotland led to the removal of whole sectors of the economy to other geographical locations across the globe. As of 2005, this practice had started to seep into the service industries as well. This sector was promoted at the time of de-industrialisation as a more advanced and competitive replacement to the old industries. Thus, to Leonard’s mind, the cycle appears to be repeating itself.

To explain this footloose element to British production and services, Leonard looks to the ownership composition of British companies in these sectors. In Scotland, only 8% of the top 100 registered companies were Scottish-owned. The majority of the rest are ‘Stock Exchange-quoted’. This leads to financialised short-termism in how these companies operate, which has had a devastating impact on inward investment and development:

“It is for this reason that our industries have suffered from not only a productivity gap, and technological backwardness, not only from a research and development deficit, but from a production gap too.” (p.73).

Towards a New Left Strategy

Following this, Leonard starts to chart socialist answers to these issues. Many of these policy proposals will be familiar to readers now.

As a preliminary, Leonard makes the following crucial observation:

“Key to this must be an understanding that there is a huge concentration of control in the economy by an unaccountable oligarchy. This control will not be readily ceded. Moreover, because this oligarchy is not only unaccountable, but increasingly also concentrated overseas, a successful left strategy will need to be internationalist.” (p. 73).

To counter this power and the manifest problems it creates, Leonard begins by considering the outline of what he terms ‘Liberation at Work, Liberation from Work’. The alienation inherent in the capitalist mode of production may be obvious to many of us caught up in it, and Leonard argues that this aspect of modern work should be a ‘wedge issue’ utilised by the left. The increasingly blurred line between work and leisure, and the constant strain of performance assessment and target-based workplace cultures has led to an experience of “job monotony and long hours, management by stress and overwork. A culture of high dividends and low wages mean that too many people don’t live, but exist.” (p.74).

The left should aim to reinvigorate the debate around ‘economic democracy’. Unlike more limited ‘industrial democracy’, according to Leonard, this would not only increase general ‘participation’ over ‘partnership’, but also increase women’s role in this area. The labour movement needs to expand on its old adage of the ‘right to work’ to include the demand for “full and fulfilling employment, and full and fulfilling lives.” (p.74).

Shunning consumerism and growth-dominated agendas for production, the left should champion a switch to socially useful production, as blueprinted by the Lucas Aerospace plan in the 1970s. A ‘Just Transition’ of defence industry diversification, renewable energy, and public-over-private utilities and essential services would be the first stage of this paradigm shift. These changes should take full account of “communities and safeguard[s] the income and security of workers.” (p.75). As stated previously, Leonard avers that this switch must be international to have the desired progressive effect.

At a local level, Leonard advocates a form of proto-community wealth-building. Local authorities should have the revenue-raising powers, which have been progressively stripped from them over the previous decades, replaced and enhanced. Through this increased financial capacity, they can be proactively involved in the paradigm shift earlier mentioned – (re)-municipalising utilities and services, for example. Working with the recently created Scottish Co-operative Development Agency, the local state can aid in the creation of a new ‘social economy’ of co-operative and social enterprises.

Building on the ‘radical and popular’ Land Reform legislation of early devolution, the Scottish Labour Party should proceed to introduce something similar in the industrial arena. The Land Reform bill led to the “virtual abolition of feudalism, to the right for communities to buy land when it is up for sale with the aid of a Scottish Land Fund.” (p.77).

Adapting this, industrial reform legislation should provide workers and communities with the option to convert a threatened enterprise into their ownership. This would need to be backed up with the requisite state funding and support. Leonard believes this could inculcate a flowering of “socialising ownership from the bottom up.” (p.77) – a ‘Mondragon of the North’.

Sitting atop enhanced community and local authority capacity and power, Leonard proposes a re-founding of regional industrial planning (both indicative and directive), development and investment. This should involve establishing Regional Invest Banks which would have a remit of “supporting sustainable production and ownership models through loans and equity stakes.” (p.78). These should work in tandem with a Public Development Bank, which would take a more long-term economic viewpoint compared with the private sector, and have the important inclusion of democratic oversight and accountability.

An Important Addition

In a section titled ‘Awaken the Sleeping Giant’, Leonard makes a very compelling argument for re-engaging with the oft-derided concept of ‘pension fund socialism’. Alluding again to the foreign ownership and investment direction of UK-listed private companies, he highlights that as of the end of 2004 the largest institutional shareholders of these companies were in fact pension and insurance funds (32.9% compared to 32.6%).

Although managed by a handful of large and powerful financial companies, Leonard declares that in effect these funds are already ‘popularly owned’, just not ‘popularly controlled’. Made up of the individual policies and contributions of millions of workers, these funds amount to the “sleeping giant in the economy.” (p.79). By fully democratising these funds, at a Scottish and then further UK level, the socially-created wealth invested in them can be utilised to finance the transformations that Leonard has previously outlined.

In conjunction with this, and perhaps as a lodestar, Leonard proposes that public sector pension schemes should be similarly democratised and grouped into a Scottish Public Provident Fund, with a reflective investment and social responsibility remit. This would incorporate such funds as local and national government pension schemes, the NHS scheme, and the Scottish Teachers Superannuation Scheme.

As an example of the scope of investment this move could unlock, the Strathclyde Local Government Pension Fund alone had over £7 billion in holdings as of 2005. The control of this provident fund could conceivably be made up of a board “comprising 50% employee/union nominees and 50% Scottish Parliament/Local Government Appointees.” (p.79).

…A Single Step

The fact that many of the proposals contained in Richard Leonard’s contribution to the 2005 RPC have only recently found a broader audience in British public life is a testament to the image of the ‘road to socialism’. Nevertheless, concrete thinking such as this plays an integral role in the journey. Allied with increased engagement and organisation in communities, workplaces, culture, political education and media, the formulation of left platforms for the socialist uses of local and national state power are invaluable to the prospects of the recently marginalised left in the Labour Party, and the continued relevance of the UK labour movement in general. These are endeavours that all on the left should welcome and become involved in – tackling the long and winding road several steps at a time.  

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: Richard Leonard, The World Transformed 2018 in Liverpool; Source: Richard Leonard; Author: Kevin Walsh from Preston Brook, England, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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