Everyday Ed - Labour can win by leaving democracy to us

For Labour's new leader to win and make a difference, change in Britain has to come from below and not from Westminster - argues one of Ed Miliband's close advisers in a new pamphlet timed for the party conference - and a veteran campaigner disagrees. In a swift exchange of emails they clash over whether 'Everyday Democracy' can undo the influence of neo-liberalism if the old regime itself is not also set on the path of reform.
Marc Stears
25 September 2011

Marc Stears has a new ippr pamphlet out and available on line: Everyday Democracy. A professor of politics at Oxford, Marc was a university friend of Ed Miliband, remains an advisor, is a fellow of ippr and was involved in the debates around Blue Labour. He argues that for Labour's new leader to win and make a difference, change in Britain has to come from below and not from Westminster. Anthony Barnett, OurKingdom Co-Editor and veteran campaigner, disagrees. In a swift exchange of emails they clash over whether 'Everyday Democracy' can undo the influence of neo-liberalism if the Whitehall and Westminster are not also set on the path of reform from the outset. 

AB: Your concept of "everyday democracy" is striking. It makes a change from Cameron's praise of the 'bigness' of society in that you go about defining it in a practical fashion. It is also a political concept and it implies that the state does not have a monopoly of democracy - a pretty radical and attractive challenge to Whitehall and Westminster. But before probing whether this can become the core of a popular strategy I want to query your introductory history. This is self-serving as I am going to mention Charter 88. The main point, however, is that you repress the democratic record of New Labour and its predecessor. This weakens an attractive part of your argument - that you are proposing Labour not govern in the same way. In your introductory overview you write:

There have also been individuals and groups in the past who have campaigned for further democracy still, exemplified by the guild socialists of the early 20th century, under the guidance of GDH Cole and RH Tawney, some of the critical left intellectuals of the Attlee years, including JB Priestley and Barbara Jones, and those who shaped the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Even during the New Labour years, there were individual initiatives that leant in a democratic direction. More often than not, though, the attention of the centre- left has been directed to the thorny issue of striking the right balance between state and market and away from democracy. As a result, centre-left forces have rarely grappled effectively enough with the challenge of enabling and empowering the people of Britain to take more control over the decisions that actually shape their lives.

This is misleading. First, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall had no influence at all on Labour under Wilson and Callaghan or the Foot/Kinnock years of opposition that followed. It was an epoch dominated by obsession with the State and market as you say, with 'nationalisation' and the role of sterling as major themes.

Second, later there were many others, such as David Marquand famously or Paul Hirst (Associative Democracy), to name but two, who wrote and argued directly about the importance of focussing on how the UK was governed and the need for democracy. But most important you miss out, indeed you erase, a massive attempt to confront exactly the problem you identify, the movement around Charter 88.

At the zenith of Thatcherism in 1988 it identified the authoritarian state as a crippling problem for the left in Britain and joined forces with the Liberal Democrats to demand a programme of democratic reform: Scottish and Welsh parliaments, a human rights act, freedom of information, fair elections, a democratic upper house, real local government and a democratic constitution. It was a programme expressly conceived to 'turn subjects into citizens'. Its call was for a democratic culture, not just (important though they were) institutional reforms. With the Labour Party on the back foot (to put it mildly) in terms of the market, the centre-left's main focus was on the relationship of the State to democracy and whether it could be trusted in government.

Within months of the Charter appearing more than 10,000 signed - the number would rise to 80,000 - and started sending money and a campaign was launched. Gordon Brown's conversion to the need for a programme of constitutional reform came in 1991, Blair's astonishment at its popularity ("where do all these people come from" he asked me after a meeting in 1992) ensured it became part of the modernising energy that would condense into 'New Labour'. The critical political turning point was John Smith's Charter 88 lecture, which he asked to give, in 1993, when as the party's new leader he committed it to a "new constitutional settlement" and specifically to a human rights act. At this point Kinnock who had become an electoral reformer signed the Charter as a regular MP.

So what happened before the 1997 election, after Blair became leader, and when he took office? My argument in 1999 was that under Blair and Mandelson, New Labour embraced "corporate populism" rather than constitutional democracy.

At the same time its refreshing 'can do' spirit (compared to past Labour governments) meant that it delivered on a slew of major democratic reforms from Scotland to Freedom of Information. But it retreated from a new settlement that would have challenged the centralised executive power of the old British state, which Blair set about enjoying to the full. Of course this also meant that the humiliating subjecthood that we suffer wasn't challenged either.

In other words there was a chosen turning away from addressing the empowering of people and reforming the relationship between people and the state, aka democracy, in favour of a modernised focus on the state and the market, with the market seen as in the ascendency in the form of globalisation.

If as it seems, you are looking for a way to help the new Labour leadership convince the public that it won't govern in the same way as its predecessors, then you should surely want to acknowledge Blair and Co rejected the democratic course that was opened up by John Smith.  By emphasising  that the relationship of the state to the citizen has been central to the debate over Labour policy for 25 years you can draw on this learning experience to strengthen your case and ensure it is not seen as merely opportunist.

MS: The democratic tradition in Britain in general, and Labour in particular, is rich and diverse. You are absolutely right to suggest, therefore, that there are people and movements missing in the very brief history I present at the start. You are right too to suggest that Charter 88 was an important moment in recent history. It prompted a new and vigorous debate about the British state which fed into both New Labour's action on devolution and some of the most strident criticism of New Labour, especially its over-reliance on the quasi-authoritarian powers of the British executive.

I do think, however, that there is a key distinction that can be drawn between the historic movements that I am most attracted to and some of the others that my essay overlooks.

That distinction is between those who see democracy as an everyday activity and those who primarily associate it with the formal sphere of politics and the state.

Those in the first category - including the early guild socialists and parts of the New Left - believe that democracy is, above all, a state of mind. It is developed in the care we show for others, in our willingness to forge relationships with those to whom we are not close, and our commitment to working towards common goods in our neighbourhoods, communities, and workplaces. It sometimes requires institutional support, of course, and it certainly requires the absence of government repression. But it is, at its core, more of an ethic than a structure. It is a way of living life with others grounded on a spirit of mutual responsibility.

Those in the second category - including many historic liberals and perhaps Charter 88 itself - think that this emphasis on ethic and mindset is mistaken. They think that at its core democracy is an institutional matter. A democracy simply is a state with the right structures, with constitutional guarantees, a system of electoral representation, and an active judiciary to protect the rights of individuals and minorities. Hoping for anything more than this - especially hoping for a new ethic of the common good to emerge - is often presented as utopian or naive. All we can hope to do, they think, is get the structures right, put the protections in place, and then see what happens.

Naturally, this distinction can be made to seem starker than it is. Both groups often want the same things in practice and can certainly work together in common cause. But the core empahsis is different. One group asks how we can build a society where people display their care for each other and strive to deepen their attachments to people from all different backgrounds, and makes institutional questions secondary to that. The other group asks what does fairness and justice in political institutions look like and how can we get those structures built in modern Britian.

My own sense is that the first of those groups speaks more loudly to our national concerns. As Ed Miliband has said, New Labour thought about the fabric of our country but rarerly about its ethic and it is time to put that right.

AB: If Ed Miliband does not develop Labour's policy in the direction you suggest he will fail, indeed there would be no point at all in voting for him. But if he limits the changes to them he will also fail. What you say in your pamphlet is as important and as potentially dangerous as that.

The upside of what you are arguing is a welcome attempt to demand that the basis of Labour policy should be a different relationship to the market and capitalism. In turning away from its embrace of market fundamentalism Labour politicians need policies that are local not global, that challenge corporate domination of the mind and the workplace and also do not presume the state knows best when it comes to welfare. People themselves exercising power - creating democratic relationships that end the domination of what you call the "transactional mindset" and its "horrific consequences" - is what is needed.

Three cheers, but my question is how is this to be achieved? You go about the answer by separating of "everyday activity" from "the formal sphere of politics and the state" - between democracy as an "ethic" and as a "structure". This is misconceived.

Recent history needs to come in here because its absence permits you to suggest that a policy of encouraging popular, 'ethical' democracy has not been tried. The whole point of the Charter 88 movement was to insist on the essential relationship between citizenship (clearly an ethic) and the structural reform of the centralised state and local government. It was a constitutional campaign (not an institutional one, an important distinction) that addressed both aspects at once.

In response to its influence there were a whole series of attempts to call forth the activity of democracy-for-itself and the ethics of participation separated from a challenge to old regime as such, in ways that echo your new pamphlet.  In 1994 Demos launched 'Lean Democracy' with a long argument by Andrew Adonis and Geoff Mulgan, no less, called "Back to Greece: the scope for direct democracy". Their approach led a decade later to Tom Bentley at Demos calling for Everyday Democracy, your very term. Indeed Demos launched an Everyday Democracy Index. In the meantime, under Blunkett Bernard Crick launched citizenship classes to light the commitment of people to one another without a written constitution (while he took a knighthood). The ideas of Blue Labour can also be seen as a continuation of this tradition of seeking to inspire social commitment and shared democracy without actually demanding a democratic constitution or the necessary showdown with the Westminster and Whitehall, whose entire purpose is to throttle all such forms of self-government if they can.

Ignoring all these efforts you suggest that your approach has no immediate predecessors and that the history of the centre left since the collapse of the paternalist welfare state and the rise of Thatcher has been a single-minded, misplaced obsession with the formalities of institutions, and how they deliver rights and justice, rather than a concern with the ethical need for the humanity of joint action and personal democracy that people really desire. In fact, time and again, right through to Brown's relaunch of Britishness, the centre left is littered with efforts to light the ethical fire of such shared or common commitment (without burning the timbers of central power).

The centre-left is indeed also, just as you say, littered even more with those who took the institutional, top down approach as well.

You summon up the name of Raymond Williams on whom I'm working at the moment. He argued consistently that it was not hard for reformers to see the changes they wanted within this or that area of existing society. The hard part was putting these changes together. This is when the system is genuinely challenged, as its strength lies in its overall architecture.

I don't argue this in a conservative way to suggest a return to a Charter 88's linked-up approach to reform. As I have just written for its successor organisation, Unlock Democracy, the strategy of pure, far-reaching constitutional reform of the old regime is over and belongs to a previous epoch. Because the old regime has been broken by the double impact of New Labour's actual changes (especially the Scottish parliament) and the penetration of corporate power into government. Any reform movement now must, as you eloquently recognise, confront and combat corporate power and the marketisation of power and public life. This calls for an entirely new approach.

Yours is part of the answer to this. But the separation you seek to reinforce needs to be overcome or all will be lost. In your reply you say:

One group asks how we can build a society where people display their care for each other and strive to deepen their attachments to people from all different backgrounds, and makes institutional questions secondary to that. The other group asks what does fairness and justice in political institutions look like and how can we get those structures built in modern Britain.

You conclude that we must support the first group not the second.

But how can people build a society where they care for each other if the institutions that govern us are unfair and unjust? And how can you build institutions that are fair and just if people are not committed to everyday democracy? It is wrong to distinguish and then pit against each other the advocates of ethical and structural reform, the two must go together or both will fail.

In this area such a relationship means power. You rightly emphasise power and its non-consensual reality. But then you seem to back away. In the pamphlet you say,

People must have shared places in which to relate, the time in which to do it, the organisation to sustain it, and appreciate the connection between their relationships and the broader power structures of which they are inevitably a part.

Why the slippage from “must” to “appreciate”? Why is it that people "must" have place, time and organisation, but they need only "appreciate" the power structures?  For the first three "musts" to have traction, people must also have a claim on the power structures, which "must" give way. This is what self-government entails if it is to release the energy of what you call everyday democracy.

MS: I am glad that we agree about so much. And I entirely share your sense of the urgency of this agenda. Ed Miliband's Labour has to embrace this democratic agenda. It speaks to the spirit and the needs of our time in a way that no other agenda can.

I agree too, of course, that there have been efforts along the lines that I suggest and that all lot of them have struggled against the odds. I do say towards the end of the essay that "the idea of everyday democracy is not new". Its important that we remember our predecessors and learn from both their successes and their failures.

We need, then, a reckoning with the past and not a rejection of it. In other words, we need to appreciate why efforts to open up Britain's politics and to build a spirit of mutual enagegement and care have struggled so badly.

My sense is that in answering this question we have looked too frequently to Whitehall and Westminster and not often enough to streets and workplaces across Britain. It is true that our formal politics is too centralized, too impervious to outside influences, too undemocratic, in short. But my argument is that although this matters, it matters less than the undemocratic experience of our everyday lives. It is the exclusion of workers from decision-making at work, the denigration of the understanding and influence of the users of public services, the distance between councils and local citizens that have the most dramatic effect on the mindset of British citizens. If we can make a difference there, we can begin to turn the tide. And when we do that our influence will eventually be felt in Westminster too.

What I am saying then, is that we need to decide where to place our efforts. We can't do everything at once. And the problem of the past has been that our focus has been on the centre and the formalities and not elsewhere and the everday. We need to turn that around.

AB: Neal Ascherson once said that you can no more get socialism [let alone democracy]  from the British state than milk from a vulture. The warning still stands. Even to try and use government to inspire 'everyday democracy' that will be "eventually" felt in Westminster will set the leather armchair's leaping if they think it might work. Nor, it seems to me, can you present the argument of your pamphlet as gradualist justifying it by saying, "we can't do everything at once" for you write  "It is only such relationships [of everyday democracy], I will contend, that can provide the opportunities that we seek as a nation today" and that it will "secure a fundamental change in our nation's spirit".

Marc, it does not add up. We do indeed need fundamental democratic change but the weight of this can't just be placed on democracy in everyday life, even if it won't succeed without this. Note, for example, that the nation has to be England if you don't want the Scots up in arms for telling them about their democracy. But here in England everyday patriotism can't speak out because it is deprived of any form of civic government within which - or to which - it can be expressed. This makes my point about an essential relationship between the centre and the citizen. In democracy they go together like a horse and carriage.

In a striking reflection in the recent Renewal, Beyond the Westminster model: The Labour Party and the machinery of the British parliamentary state, Patrick Diamond looked back, saw that New Labour had failed to democratise the state when it could and should have, and argues that it must move to a participatory model "decentralised and citizen-centred", linking the lived with the institutional. Can you really argue against this that while enjoying all the executive authority Westminster and Whitehall offers, Labour should turn its head away from their undemocratic nature because this "matters less than the undemocratic experience of our everyday lives"? Call us cynical, or call us pragmatic subjects, but regular people won't find it convincing that we must live democracy but not our masters.

If I may say so, I think that Labour has always suffered from a form of political schizophrenia. On the one had there is a genuine and important salt-of-the-earth tendency that really seeks to improve the real lives of working people, to empower and respect them, and does everything it can to deliver whether in local or national government or by helping from opposition. On the other there are the statists seeking to win and wield the power of existing institutions and reform them when necessary in what they see as a progressive fashion. Don't take sides in schizophrenia, the separation needs to be overcome not reproduced.

MS: We will, of course, need reform of the state and I look forward to the day when, as you say, England joins Scotland and Wales in having a form of civic government that gives expression to its democratic impulses. But the action has to start somewhere, and that's what I mean about not being able to do everything at once. For too long, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have supposed that democratic energy has essentially to come from the centre, and they thus understandably believe that democratic reform should begin with our formal institutions. But to my mind, that gets things in reverse. Our great democratic transformations have always begun with the people, with the "movement", if you like, and then Westminster politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats have played catch up. That's been true since at least the nineteenth century. Even devolution, which can look as if it was "gifted" to the people of Scotland and Wales as a result of the benign actions of the early New Labour government, actually resulted from decades of on-the-ground struggle and political change in Scotland and Wales.

This isn't to say, of course, that there isn't a role for national political leadership in this process. It is just to say that such leadership should focus on helping to foster a democratic spirit in everyday life. That's what I love about the historic reformers of the guild socialist and New Left eras. They realized -- and Raymond Williams is core here -- that national politics could aid the process of democratic  reform, but it could never bring it about by itself. That's why the emphasis was on helping to create common spaces in our communities, where people of all different backgrounds could meet and associate, or in striving for a living wage so that people had the time and energy required for democratic action, or in helping trade unions to assert themselves in the workplace so that our firms and factories could become sites of democratic rather than autocratic life.

That's what I would like to see Ed Miliband calling for. Not reform of the formal structures of our politics so much -- although, as I say, that will come -- but reforms that will help people as they develop new democratic relationships for themselves in their everyday life.

You say, Anthony, towards the end of your comments that "regular people won't find it convincing that we must live democracy but not our masters." But I want to put that another way round. It is the democratic behaviour, and democratic demands, of "regular people" that offers the only means of ensuring that "our masters" behave democratically themselves. The energy starts with us. We might need assistance, and our politicians can help out in that process, but democracy begins with the actions of the citizens, not the centralised reformers. It has always been so. And it always will.

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