This week's editor
The heavyweight guide to Ukraine
Mark Perryman has written a typically astute analysis of the current predicament of the Labour Party for Compass (We’re All in this Together: Towards the Political Practice of a Plural Left, PDF here). In it, Mark essentially argues that for Labour to recover any sense of a radical project, then it has got to accept a situation in which it cannot be seen as the sole representative of progressive politics in the UK electoral arena: a role which it has taken upon itself throughout most of its history.
I entirely agree with Mark's analysis, although I think his narrative is either a little disingenuous (which is forgivable, given the need to focus minds urgently on the issues at stake) or slightly mistaken. For while Mark identifies this situation with the loss of Labour's legitimacy following the invasion of Iraq, I think it is clear that it has in fact obtained, to all intents and purposes, since the early 1980s.
Where were you in '92?
A little self-aggrandisement now: I hope I will be forgiven. When I was 20 years old, in 1992 (it may have been very late in 1991), I took a motion from my polytechnic Labour club to the national Labour Students conference. The great cause amongst mainstream Labour students at the time was proportional representation. All right-thinking young Kinnockites knew (despite Kinnock's own reluctance) that persuading the party to adopt a commitment to implementing the Additional Members system for the House of Commons - in the teeth of Roy Hattersley's reactionary resistance - was the single greatest struggle we faced that year. (Try to remember that at this time, Hattersley was still widely understood as being on the right of the party, while Brian Gould was seen as a leading moderniser. That's how far to the left of anything we can imagine today the Labour mainstream was.). I had persuaded my Labour club to let me take a motion to the conference which went further, however. This motion argued that in supporting PR, we were, rightly, implicitly supporting an end to the dream of majority Labour government, and accepting the principle of political pluralism. As such, our motion argued, we should embrace the new future and open exploratory fraternal talks with the student wings of other potentially progressive parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats.
The motion fell, of course, in the face of the dogged insistence of most of my soft-left comrades that this would be a capitulation to bourgeois liberals, and that once we had PR we would quickly and easily build the mass party for democratic socialism that would deliver us over 50% of the popular vote. I'm not joking. That's really what most of them believed...
An OurKingdom conversation. This is Jeremy Gilbert's response to Rosemary Bechler in OK's debate on liberalism and democracy [History: Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part 1; part 2) > this post]
Agreeing to Disagree?
Reading Rosemary's double response to me Unselfish Individualism and Power and the Many, I'm reminded of a conference at which I heard Ernesto Laclau reply to a question about the differences between his philosophy and that of Alain Badiou. In response to a technical query about their respective attitudes to post-Cantorian set theory and its implications for the ontology of the political event, Laclau quipped ‘The real difference between myself and Badiou... is that Badiou is a Maoist and I am a Gramscian'
Not funny? Well, maybe you had to be there.
What got a laugh from the audience that day was the recognition of the truth implicit in Laclau's remark - that discussion of the technical differences between a pair of contrasting philosophical positions must at some point cease, if it is not to degenerate into endless, circular babble. It ceases at the point where each side accepts that there are some fundamental differences at stake which neither party it likely to be talked out of.
I think Rosemary has helpfully clarified the differences between us, because to the majority of her remarks I can only respond that I simply disagree, not with many of the finer points or details but fundamentally. What is clear is that the difference between myself and Rosemary... is that she is a liberal and I am not.
I really don't mean this in a pejorative sense. (I know there is a danger that it will be taken as such, because both Rosemary and I have backgrounds in political traditions which are contemptuous of liberalism.) I also don't mean ‘liberal' in a casual sense: certainly not in the current United States usage of a general supporter of social liberalism and welfare egalitarianism. I mean quite specifically that Rosemary's operating assumptions and priorities, like most of her civic republican sources, are clearly those of the great liberal tradition which is, after all, the major tradition of Western political thought in the modern era.
The assumption that political and cultural individualism does not necessarily imply an assent to the basic philosophical assumptions of the most violent kinds of possessive individualism; the belief that communities are or should be formed on the basis of individuals choosing freely to belong to them; the belief (implicit or explicit) that the rights and freedoms of individuals are the highest good to be defended by any political project; these are the core assumptions of the liberal tradition.
Of course Rosemary is a much more interesting and thoughtful sort of liberal than say, Richard Reeves in the UK and his hero John Stuart Mill (so too are David Marquand, or most followers of the great philosopher of republican justice, John Rawls). Nonetheless, most of Rosemary's criticisms of me amount to criticisms of any position - radical or conservative, left or right - which does not share these cores assumptions of liberalism.
Now I recognise that, not only are these Rosemary's assumptions: they are also likely to be beliefs which many, perhaps most, oD readers will not only share, but will regard as too self-evidently true to be rationally questionable. On top of all this, it is important to recognise the enormous power and success of liberalism in recent years, as it has transformed the world in its image and freed up the lives of millions of people in the process. Nonetheless, it is also crucial to recognise that for all of their power and global popularity, these liberal assumption have not been and are not shared by a vast majority of human beings at any time in history: and they are also assumptions which I freely, gladly, joyfully admit that I do not share.
A set of reflections on issues which any campaign such as Real Change might have to address, constituencies it may want to work with, examples it might like to consider. This post led to an OurKingdom conversation [History: this post > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part one; part two) > Jeremy Gilbert]
Two weeks into the public scandal over excessive expenses-claims by members of parliament, and the air is thick with cries for reform.The blogosphere rings as the liberal commentariat cry with one voice ‘Electoral Reform! A constitutional convention now! Charter 88 at last!'
(Can I exempt myself from this caricature? Sadly not. A well-known commentator and activist phoned me up the other day to ask what I thought the democratic left should be proposing. My response? ... ‘a constitutional convention!')
But as usual, the bulk of the liberal commentariat wants too little too late, is still fighting the battles of the previous generation, and remains in denial about the sheer scale of the challenges which it faces (with notable exceptions). So let's see if we can't move this debate along into the 21st century.
In the latest contribution to OurKingdom's Labour after Brown debate, Jeremy Gilbert argues for Labour without neoliberalism.
This is the first in our new OK In Depth essays. It's long (4,500 words) and sets out a framework for what is arguably the most important electoral change in England since 1997. The pdf function for printing it (and the email to a friend) are at the end.
On 1 May Ken Livingstone - arguably the most intelligent political operator on the left in Britain and a bold, relatively principled and creative politician whose originality greatly exceeds that of Tony Blair - was defeated by Boris Johnson in a direct election to be Mayor of London. Johnson was known as an entertaining character (like ‘Ken', he is usually known by his short given name), but one who was so unreliable he had already been expelled from the Conservative shadow cabinet. So how did he win?