‘New Moods, Old Problems’: What we Might (Re)learn from Tony Crosland

By Phil Child / @philchild

It sometimes seems that barely a week goes by without a new article, blog or comment piece drawing upon ‘lessons from Labour’s past’, with the contents of Labour’s history (recent or otherwise) excitedly rummaged through for answers, like a sort of jumble sale of socialism (and we all know how much socialists like jumble sales). This piece will not entirely shy away from that great tradition, but it will advise the reader not to assume that clear answers can be found in the ancestry of Labour. Instead of assuming that the past is a source of clarity in a murky present, the argument here will be that the past is no less messy, but it can be utilised with a critical mind. In this light, this piece will approach Tony Crosland’s contribution to Labour revisionism in the 1950s and 1960s, and consider how it might challenge us to think a little more broadly about housing in the present.

Tony Crosland – MP for South Gloucestershire 1950-55, then MP for Great Grimsby 1959-77 – a debonair, erratic Oxford don and Labour thinker, has hardly escaped the interest of the politically curious. As a close confidant of Hugh Gaitskell as well as intellectual cornerstone of the post-war ‘revisionist’ Labour grouping through his magnum opus The Future of Socialism (1956), a constant voice of devaluation and Keynesian economics in the troubled economic climate of the 1960s, the bringer of comprehensive schools as Secretary of State for Education 1965-7 and finally, Foreign Secretary from 1976 to his untimely death in 1977 – Crosland has left plenty for the scholar to draw upon. Most recently, the former MP Peter Hain published an optimistic reassessment of Crosland’s Keynesian thinking in 2015, and academic historians such as Ben Jackson have examined Crosland’s ideas on equality in some depth.

So why return to Crosland? Two reasons. Firstly, his economic thinking has attracted most interest – not without cause, as Crosland certainly saw himself as an economist and aspired to be Chancellor of the Exchequer – but he also wrote on equality and in a less well-studied sense, on land and housing. Secondly, his status as a revisionist of the ‘Gaitskellite’ Labour right has meant that those on the left have tended to be wary of Crosland’s writings. He certainly was viewed with suspicion by the Labour left of his time – the 1956 Tribune review of The Future of Socialism claimed that Crosland’s ideas were little more than a “sterile defence of Welfare Statism” – but his thinking was considerably more interesting than either the attacks of his left opponents or the plaudits of revisionist fellow-travellers allow. Indeed, Martin Francis argued in 1997 that we should see The Future of Socialism as less a battleground between different Labour factions, and more a statement of Crosland’s own philosophy.

Where Crosland’s thinking can be of particular interest to us is in his consideration of how Labour could evolve as a party within the context of core Labour aims, given the rejection of the party by voters in two successive general elections (1951 and 1955). He listed five aims, or ‘basic aspirations’ in The Future of Socialism: 1) ending the material poverty and squalor of capitalism; 2) social welfare for those in need; 3) a belief in equality or a classless society; 4) the rejection of “competitive antagonism” and focus on cooperation; 5) critiquing the inefficiencies of capitalism as economic system. Crosland’s list should not be regarded as exhaustive. He went on to claim, incorrectly as it turned out, that as material poverty had been largely overcome (though he acknowledged the existence of relative poverty) and that social welfare was provided, only the final three aspirations needed to be focused upon. Mistakes aside, what should be drawn from this is that Crosland did not believe in killing sacred cows for the sake of it – with the one exception of excessive puritanism amongst socialists, leading to the memorable sentence that “total abstinence and a good filing-system are not now the right sign-posts to the socialist Utopia.” Instead, he wanted Labour to respond to the rejection of the voting public, but Crosland’s future was still a radical one.

A practical example of this is in Crosland’s thinking on housing. Although housing is generally given a higher priority by Labour members than the voting public, it nonetheless usually is in the top three popular concerns expressed by the electorate. Moreover, with Whilst Susan Crosland stated in her biography of her husband that he professed to ‘know nothing’ about the subject, when housing came under his shadow ministerial remit in 1970, Crosland nevertheless had addressed the question of how best to provide the housing that people might want extremely effectively. Throughout the postwar period, extensive tracts of substandard housing persisted across Britain and a wider housing shortage ensured that many remained trapped in decaying slums. Moreover, postwar housing policy largely alternated between the two major parties’ housing tenure of choice: the council home for Labour, and the owner-occupied private house for the Conservatives (then, as now, the private rental market was somewhat neglected). For Crosland, the issue overall was fairly straightforward. As he put it in 1971, “there is not and cannot be a free market in housing”, asserting that housing must always be planned or controlled to some degree. This included private houses – in The Conservative Enemy (1962), Crosland argued that “if the property is well distributed, a property-owning democracy is a socialist rather than a conservative ideal.” As he put it, left to its own devices, private enterprise could never meet the needs of the British people, as they would find it “profitable to meet the middle-class demand but not the working-class demand”. In Crosland’s view, it was a question of ends over means for the socialist observer – he argued that “it is in practice easier than most socialists suppose to persuade private enterprise to alter or increase its pattern of spending and investment.” Moving to land in a later section, Crosland argued that public control was essential, given that land use affected far more persons than the individual land purchaser.[1] Crosland invited his readers to take a critical view of the way the market could work, without removing the socialist aim of public control (or as he preferred, ‘social ownership’).

Can we rationally draw upon any of Crosland’s thought when considering Labour policy in the present day? The housing situation in the postwar period was different in several key respects to the one in which we now inhabit – extraordinarily poor housing and decaying city centres as well as far greater public support for council housing being two of the more obvious elements. Housing issues today are marked by a lack of affordability, whether private or rented, rather than scuttling rats in the dark corners of terraces. So what can Crosland offer us? What we could re-learn is a clarity of purpose – what we are actually aiming to do, in the short term, as well as in the more distant future. Crosland was unequivocally a socialist, and interpreted and re-interpreted his solutions on those terms, without being too fastidious about the exact manner in which it was done. On this basis, we might begin to question what sort of homes Labour should want to provide, and how this meets our ‘basic aspirations’ as a party. To take just one example, do we simply wish to ensure people can buy a house by increasing the supply of them, or do we want to ensure that prices are held to a truly fair level and that developers cannot profiteer? As Crosland himself stated in The Conservative Enemy, his proposals in 1962 were more than a reversal of Conservative policy – they were a reversal of “Conservative priorities.” If our aim is to provide a more equitable future for all and redistribute the wealth, then we might start by considering the bricks and mortar of our society.

[1] A (limited) form of land control which fell short of what Crosland was suggesting was by this point Labour policy – see Glen O’Hara for an account of why it didn’t work especially well when implemented under the Wilson government.

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