To save democracy the left must fight for both collective and individual freedoms

The first National Democracy Week launches amidst front page headlines warning of right wing coups. How should the left respond? 

Peter Coville
2 July 2018
jrm freedom.jpg

Image: Jacob Rees-Mogg, pub quiz - love freedom. Credit: Tom Phillips/Flickr, CC 2.0.

Of all the duplicitous slogans that helped clinch it for the “Leave” side in the Brexit referendum, one of the most effective was no doubt the conceit that “we” could “take back control” of our country. In a world in which control over the direction of our society feels as far beyond the sway of ordinary folk as the weather or the movements of the planets, the promise of greater control certainly delivered the political goods for the “Leave” campaign.

Yet the promise is already half-broken. Social and environmental laws are being ripped up before our eyes. Potential free trade deals threaten more of the same. As a result even greater power is being handed to the large corporations which already control so many aspects of our lives and our democracy, whilst the machinery of government slips ever more firmly into the grip of the Westminster elite.

As we approach National Democracy Week with its “programme of events, talks and fun activities” the irony could not be more pronounced. The threat of a right-wing coup in the Conservative Party and a more extreme Brexit looms, and an election could come at any time. The key question now is: will the left sit tight and hope that a few popular policies and the Brexit train crash will be enough to enable them to pip the Tories at the post in the next election? Or, will they seize the initiative now with an ambitious programme of reforms which would empower ordinary citizens to really take back control, both of our lives and of our democracy?

“Taking back control” is another way of saying restoring our liberty, our individual and collective capacity to influence events. Liberty is perhaps the most powerful of political ideals. The promise of greater liberty invariably wins power, and if politicians make good on the promise, lives really are transformed. Thatcher won election after election by casting herself as a champion of individual liberty, offering tax cuts and a bonfire of regulations for the few, and popular share offers and home ownership for the many. Several decades later it is clear that the few had benefited a great deal more than the many. Thatcher understood liberty in a way that the philosopher Isaiah Berlin would have called “negative liberty” or freedom from, in this case freedom from State interference.

Negative liberty is often seen as the sole preserve of classical liberals and the neoliberal right. Over seventy years ago, however, Labour swept to victory on the strength of promises of a very different kind of negative liberty, and one that benefited all: freedom from Beveridge’s “five evil giants” of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Beveridge’s five giants are back and as a first important step the left should reassert Labour’s 1945 epoch-defining commitment. In a wealthy country like the UK no-one should be relying on food banks, enduring homelessness or living in cramped or uninsulated housing, or waiting on a stretcher in a hospital corridor for hours. Nor should anyone be obliged to breathe polluted air - a sixth evil giant which currently kills 40,000 Britons every year.

The progressive government of one of the richest economies in the world country should however be proposing more than these basic individual protections. Berlin also spoke about positive liberty: freedom to realize one’s full potential. The wealthy and the powerful - with their nannies, private schools, elite universities and friends in high places - have always had strategies for helping their offspring to fulfil their potential. But the majority never enjoyed such benefits and years of austerity have cut back such support as existed. Paid parental leave should be extended in order to give all children the best start. We should reopen the closed libraries, children’s centres and youth clubs. The exam factory model of education should be ditched in favour of one which pursues knowledge and creativity for their own sakes.

Can we afford such a menu of delights? Yes! Study after study has demonstrated that targeted spending on social and educational programmes avoids higher costs down the line in terms of criminal justice, health spending and lower productivity. This is real investment, not the bankers’ gambling on derivatives or oil companies striving to extract every last drop from some pristine wilderness. To combat overwork and creeping exploitation of the workforce, alternatives to capitalist enterprise like cooperatives and commoning should be incentivised, and workplace democracy extended.

Above all, the left must restore our collective freedom, and it can do this in three ways. Firstly, taking our democracy out of the hands of wealthy donors, corporate lobbyists and the Westminster elite and returning it to the people. Parties of the left must pledge to act quickly once in power, reforming party funding, wedging closed “revolving doors” between business and politics, and introducing much stricter rules on lobbying.

Secondly, the left must summon the courage to reform the media landscape. A press largely concentrated in the hands of a few right-wing billionaires is not a free press. The same is true of the audiovisual media, as Murdoch and Disney battle it out for influence over British hearts and minds. There is no democracy without a genuinely plural media.

Thirdly, politics itself must be reformed. Proportional representation should at last be embraced by Labour. Ultimately, however, a more fundamental overhaul is required. As Graham Allen, the former Labour Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform has argued, we should pilot citizens’ assemblies chosen by lot, a system known as sortition. Experiments around the world are proving that given relevant information, and time to deliberate, such assemblies are not only truly representative but produce decisions which are unaffected by electoral short-termism or party tribalism. Sortition could be the medium-term solution for our broken political system.

Despite predictions that a left-turn would prove disastrous, Labour improved its performance in 2017, and has been doing better than many thought in the polls, but it has still to make a decisive breakthrough, and will not achieve this without a more inspiring programme. The recent antisemitism affair has shown just how vulnerable Labour is. Harder tests will no doubt come when the present model is put under more serious pressure due to the Brexit fallout, or external shocks like another financial crisis, war or climate-related catastrophe. In any such crisis many may seek security in the simple solutions of authoritarian right-wing politics. Labour - and its potential partners in a “progressive alliance” - would do well to preempt such developments. In order to win, the left needs to upstage the mendacious Brexit rhetoric, and make the promise of taking back control a reality, with an ambitious programme of measures designed to enhance our liberties and reclaim our democracy.

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