Democratise or Die: The status quo is not an option for Labour

The UK Labour party must become far more open and democratic if it is to renew itself as a force for progressive governance.
Jeremy Gilbert
31 May 2010

There is one key reason why we now find ourselves in a new political era; one aspect of the election result which few predicted and which has decisively prevented it from being a re-run of 1979 and 1997. That is the surprising robustness of the Labour vote in various key constituencies up and down the country. Had it not been for the unexpected success of the party on the ground in many constituencies, Labour would have been defeated as convincingly as incumbent governments were at those two critical elections.

Despite the failure of the campaign as it was managed and presented from the centre, in those places where Labour has a vigorous local culture of organising, involving members and politicians in an active and participatory dialogue with communities, the Labour vote remained solid or even increased. This was even more true in Wales, Scotland and London, where devolved power has enabled Labour-led administrations to deliver real social democratic reforms for their electorates in recent years.

These facts are striking because they indicate the final failure of the New Labour strategy. Probably the best term ever coined to describe that strategy was Anthony Barnett’s phrase ‘corporate populism’. New Labour was based on the idea that a new kind of popular politics had to imitate the organisational and communications techniques of corporations, while pursuing a political programme which tried to align the interests of voters with those of actual corporations. When reflecting on this history, it’s striking to consider that New Labour’s full embrace of market liberalism came some time after its adoption of this approach as its own basic organisational mode.

Long before it became clear that New Labour wouldn’t break in any serious way with Thatcherite economics, while Blair still tantalised his supporters with references to Christian Socialism, ethical communitarianism, and the ‘stakeholder society’, the organisational form of New Labour prefigured the models and the value that it would later try to impose on the state, the public sector, and the country at large.

The basic organisational idea of New Labour was that the party membership were the problem and not the solution. Between 1994 and 1997 huge numbers of new members were recruited to Labour, enthused by the prospect of electability which Blair seemed to have brought back to the party. At just the same time, however, a programme of ‘reforms’ saw almost all meaningful decision-making about policy or campaigning strategy taken out of the hands of local parties and their memberships, and handed over to largely unaccountable bodies and officials, appointed by the leadership and only weakly accountable to anyone else.

Key decisions which required some degree of democratic legitimation, most notably the re-writing of the Labour constitution to remove any commitment to the socialisation of the means of production, were to be taken through postal ballots which presented members with the opportunity either to endorse the leadership position unequivocally or to reject it outright (a politically suicidal option for the party), without any significant opportunity for modification or discussion. The ideal New Labour member was someone who paid their membership, who got their messages from the leadership via the BBC or The Guardian, and who might deliver a few leaflets at election-time, but who never even wanted to participate in localised discussions or decision-making.

There was a certain logic to this. The prevalent idea in intellectual circles at the time was that the professionalisation of politics was an inexorable process: like it or not, political parties could no longer be vehicles of mass democracy, but had to fulfil their new historic function of producing and servicing successive generations of a specialised political class. This in itself was based on a partially-accurate, but ultimately lop-sided understanding of the many ways in which the world was changing at the time.

The decline of old forms of social solidarity, old industries, old patterns of geographical settlement, class culture and party loyalty all seemed to have resulted in a situation in which every voter would be a floating voter, and the only way to communicate with them effectively would be through the mass media. Only the experts who knew how to play the media game could be trusted both to formulate and to deliver the party’s message.

At the same time, according to New Labour thinking, those strange individuals who did remain nostalgically attached to ideas like democracy and collective actions were precisely the kind of people to whom the swing voters of middle England could never relate; and unfortunately those were exactly the kind of people who still showed up to Labour party branch meetings. Creating a new body of non-participating members, and removing all power from the party’s own democratic structures, was an understandable response, as was the decision to turn to focus-groups and opinion polls as better guides to policy than the will of party activists.

But there were two problems with this strategy. On the one hand, its basic analytical presuppositions already look antiquated. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, which enable millions of citizens to share ideas, to build campaigns and to communicate across great distances, the idea that a handful of professional politicians touring the TV studios of central London can be an adequate substitute for democratic politics looks clunky and forlorn. And while the televisual persona of the leader clearly remains a crucial factor in determining the success of a party today, the failure of Cleggmania to materialise at the ballot box shows that this is clearly not the overriding issue which can determine electoral outcomes. Add to this the failure of the Suns’s endorsement to deliver a clear majority for Cameron, and we have a mountain of evidence that the era of Spin, when a command-and-control communications strategy could always win the day, is now behind us.

But this isn’t just about shifts in the media landscape. What these changes demonstrate is that New Labour only ever understood one part of the story about the decline of old political forms. While they may have been right that the 19th / 20th century model of mass political campaigning was reaching its end, they failed to notice the extent to which the coming era would present new opportunities for community-building and for democratic action, and new problems for any attempt to stifle democracy and debate. The success and growing political importance of the blogosphere and of sites like this one is just one sign of this!

The second major problem with the New Labour model was this: in politics, as we so often forget at our peril, form dictates content. Lenin’s bloodthirsty, secretive revolutionary organisation produced a bloodthirsty, secretive state, despite the nobility of its aspiration to liberate humanity from servitude. New Labour started off promising to rebuild community, but in the end all it could offer in government was more corporate populism, always putting the interests of capital ahead of those of the people it was supposed to represent, and pursuing an unpopular programme of public-sector ‘reforms’ designed to fit all social relationships into the mould of transactions between corporations and their customers.

This programme never had any democratic legitimacy -  polls showed time and again that most of the public, and the vast majority of Labour voters, didn’t want to have the same kind of relationship to their schools or their government that they had to Tescos - but New Labour pursued it relentlessly anyway. Only where Labour seemed to stand for something different did it escape electoral meltdown at the general election.

The lessons from this history are clear. The details of the programme on which Labour will fight the next election could not possibly be determined now, when so much remains uncertain about the intervening half-decade. What is certain is that unless it is the product of a radically renewed  democratic process, that programme will not have the capacity to inspire the public, to mobilise the membership, and to break the Con-Lib coalition which now threatens to do to Labour what Blair and Ashdown once dreamed of doing to the Tories, shutting it out of government for at least a generation.

As Jon Cruddas, Compass and others have argued, a complete overhaul and reinvention of the Labour Party for the 21st century is the only thing that could achieve this end. In the era of ‘we-think’ and network culture, the collective intelligence of the membership - including the 12,000 who have rushed to join now that the age of New Labour looks likely to have ended - is the greatest possible resource that the otherwise-impoverished party has at its disposal.

New Labour was predicated on the idea that it was the membership that stood between Labour and power, but the election result has turned this assumption on its head. All over the world, from  Brazil to Scandinavia, new experiments in participatory governance and radical democratic renewal (see, for example, Hilary Wainwrights’ book Reclaim the State) are finding ways of developing such collective resources in ways which go way beyond the kinds of mild constitutional reforms which the coalition is now contemplating, which themselves threaten to make Labour look like a democratic dinosaur.

If the party is to begin to learn from such experiments and to empower itself for the 21st century, then it will have to begin at home, with the most radical review of its own structures of decision-making and membership participation in its history. The alternative: fossilisation, petrification, extinction. 

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