The Fabian Society is no ordinary thinktank, it is a piece of political history. They are the oldest such group in Britain, stretching back to 1884, the year after Karl Marx died and two decades before the Labour Party, to which they are now affiliated, was established. That position, between revolutionary socialism on the one hand and working-class representation on the other, neatly describes the position that Fabians have held for the century-and-a-bit since. Fabianism is almost synonymous with social democracy and gradualism; it may also be the factor that best explains the failure of a Marxist party to take root in Britain, unlike most of Europe in the 20th century.
Sunder Katwala clearly takes this history seriously, claiming proudly that from a young age “some of my heroes were Fabians”. Early Fabians included the founders of the London School of Economics, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, as well as members of the intelligentsia like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Katwala admits that his influences were not all from this mould, “I read a lot of Orwell when I was younger…Orwell hated the Fabians”. But this is something else that he insists upon throughout our interview: the importance of “pluralism”. He talks of pluralism within the Fabians, pluralism on the Left, pluralism in national politics. It is clearly founded on a great belief in the constructive value of debate and criticism, because “politics is by its nature collective”.
Katwala says that it was just such an inclusiveness that brought him to left-wing politics and eventually to the Labour Party. He was “political” from the age of fourteen or fifteen and found himself reacting strongly against the Thatcher and Major governments of the eighties and nineties. Just as he holds up the Webbs and Orwell as heroes, he offers Norman Tebbit as a significant figure in his political development, though for very different reasons. Tebbit’s crude ‘cricket test’ of Asian integration awoke a questioning of identity and inclusion, but also a reaction against a party that thought this was significant. “I did support England at cricket” he tells me, “but my Dad didn’t, so I kind of felt the divisiveness of that”. The issue of ‘Britishness’ and what it means is still something that interests him greatly; he resists those on the left who consider such debates a distraction from tackling social inequality and injustice, insisting instead that understanding how people perceive themselves and identify with others is crucial to “build coalitions”. Again, pluralism is an essential precondition to progress in Katwala’s view.
‘If you risk losing then you also want to fight with pride for the causes you believe in’
I was not surprised to learn that Sunder Katwala studied PPE at Oxford. ‘Who didn’t?’ is sometimes a better question where the British political establishment are concerned. It turns out we took very different modules; he admits thinking Philosophy of Mind was a bit of a “mind-fuck”, preferring instead to immerse himself in the history of British politics, where the Fabians, incidentally, loom large. I was more surprised that he had not been a member of the Labour Club during his time in Oxford. To be part of OULC in the early nineties, he explains, you had to be a “miserabilist”. Katwala was more interested in the cut and thrust of Union debating, though not Union politics. The arch-pluralist obviously resented the stand-off between Labour Club and the OUCA-dominated Union, meaning that he sat uncomfortably in the ‘wrong’ camp – plus, he adds, it made the Oxford Union “a bit too tosserish”. Plus ça change…?
Despite eschewing the Oxford Labourites, Sunder Katwala admits to being “gutted” when Neil Kinnock lost in 1992, the first election he ever voted in. What emerged after that was a genuine enthusiasm for the New Labour project, which clearly put winning at the heart of the centre-left strategy. He tries to sound upbeat about New Labour, reminding me that they were “popular” in the mid-nineties, and importantly for him they were “pluralist” as an electoral force. In the dying days of a twelve-year Labour administration, cynicism is the default reaction when people look back at Blair’s rictus grin and Alistair Campbell’s spin. So, what changed? Katwala’s analysis is interesting: “they didn’t change enough” he suggests. When I insist that you don’t change a winning formula he explains that New Labour was a “very of its moment, mid-nineties phenomenon” and it “struggled to deepen and move its analysis on”.
He is not a vicious critic of Brown, however, offering much praise for the “real Gordon” that lurks promisingly behind Brown the media bungler. I can only chuckle when he insists that in Brown “there’s quite a lot of the Jed Bartlett in the West Wing, that kind of politician with conviction”. It is not that I doubt Gordon Brown has these impulses on international development and child poverty, but he has been so abysmal at showing it. I agree with Katwala that “you win or you lose in politics but if you do risk losing then you also want to fight with pride for the causes you believe in”.
I suggest to Katwala that the Fabian Society’s affiliation with the Labour Party limits its independence, but he insists not. He views the role of an organisation like the Fabians as being “up-stream of the government” in debates, to be a campaigning force not an apologist for current policy. As such, they constantly look eighteen-months to two years down the line to what the government will be tackling and in which ways they can shape the debates to achieve the “fairness and equality” which lie at the heart of Fabian thinking. He articulates a vision of the thinktank tackling issues at three levels: principle, policy and politics. Ignore any one of these pillars and you get a deficient programme. In particular, he decries the “tone taken by the likes of the Economist”, which is content to believe it has the answers but doesn’t care whether or not they are politically sellable. Such ‘Cassandras’ in politics are of no use to anyone. Far better to be down-to-earth, principled and forthright: perhaps the Economist could learn a thing or two from Sunder Katwala.