From Occupy Democracy to One Nation Labour: real democracy now?

The left's demands may be becoming somewhat repetitive and yet look no closer to being realised. Surely the real question is, under what social and constitutional conditions could those demands be met?

Jeremy Gilbert
1 November 2014


Russells Revolution? 

It’s hard to remember a moment quite like this in recent years. Demands or proposals for major reform, or total reinvention, of our political institutions have rarely been louder or more widespread. The impact of the Scottish independence referendum has not yet begun to be felt across the UK, and won’t be until it becomes clear how many Westminster seats Labour have lost to the SNP. But there can be no doubt that Labour will suffer this blow at next May’s general election: a suitable punishment for running a wholly defensive and visionless campaign. Last week’s Occupy Democracy protests, continually harassed and disrupted by police, were not calling for an end to global capitalism (as previous Parliament Square protests have tended to do), but for a constitutional convention and the introduction of proportional representation. Jon Cruddas MP and his long-term collaborator, Jonathan Rutherford, have recently published a pamphlet drawing together the conclusions of arguably Labour’s most dramatic Policy Review since the early 90s, in which the main thrust is the need for a radical redistribution of power away from central government and financial institutions. This week, Occupy London will initiate a series of debates on the future of democracy which, like their 2012 gatherings, take explicit inspiration from the famous ‘Putney Debates’ of the 1640s. The relatively new but highly productive think-tank, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), holds a major conference this weekend in anticipation of the May general election. A major public campaign against the Private Finance Initiatives and their consequences also launches this weekend. And Russell Brand has been all over the TV.

I’m not going to join in with the Brand-baiting that has characterised most commentary on his interventions, following the publication of his recent book Revolution. He has done important work in publicising campaigns such as the E15 mothers and Occupy Democracy, in raising public questions over the whole nature of our corrupt and failing democratic institutions, and even in trying to deconstruct the corrosive individualism which pervades our culture. If anything is really problematic about Brand’s stance it is its divisive monomania: only creative direct action should be our focus and never electoral politics, he keeps telling us.  Anyone who actually examines the history of progressive and radical politics since the industrial revolution can see that there is never a simple choice to be made between these alternatives, and that it is only ever a complex combination of them which actually produces results. We didn’t get the NHS just because we voted for it, but we wouldn’t have got it at all if we hadn’t.

But advocating political pluralism is easy. I’ve done it here before, as have many others. What is more difficult is to start trying to answer the question which Brand keeps being (unfairly) criticised for not answering: what is to be done? What are our demands? What is it that radicals want? 

What do we want? 

Most of the events to which I’ve just referred actually seek to go some way towards answering that question. Occupy Democracy marks a significant break with the established practices of the Occupy movement in having formulated a determinate and specific set of policy demands around democratic reform. The Labour Party policy review is, in theory, all about formulating the next Labour manifesto. The CLASS conference this weekend is explicitly oriented towards formulating a set of policy proposals for the moderate left of the labour movement to advocate, and includes a strand committed to formulating a draft manifesto.

Most of the demands can be put into two broad categories. On the one hand even much of Brand’s commentary, and pretty much everything that we’re hearing from the Labour movement and the traditional Left, all amounts to an expressed desire that government should adopt the historic social democratic goal of reducing social inequality. On the other hand, we have a set of radical democratic demands which all, in different ways, argue for power to be redistributed away from institutions in which it is currently concentrated. These are entirely the range of demands which a progressive movement in the 21st century ought to be making. I’m not going to argue otherwise. What I want to do here is merely to consider some of the terms in which those demands are being made, and to consider what productive relationships might be imagined between them.

One Nation Labour 

Labour’s Policy Review, led by Jon Cruddas MP, has received remarkably little recent coverage. A flurry of reports in July followed Cruddas’ complaint at a public meeting that very little of it was being taken up by the leadership because of a ‘dead hand at the centre’ (generally assumed to be that of Ed Balls). Since then there seems to have been almost no public discussion. The publication several weeks ago of a pamphlet written by Cruddas, and his long-term collaborator Jonathan Rutherford, summarising the review and setting out both the intellectual rationale and main programmatic agenda of ‘One Nation Labour’, seems to have attracted almost no commentary at all.

This is a shame because the project, summarised by the pamphlet, ‘One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal’, is an ambitious one and certainly one of the most politically adventurous to have been commissioned by a Labour leadership since the early days of New Labour. Intellectually, it offers a synthesis of communitarianism and radical democracy, drawing heavily on a set of mid twentieth century sources, not to mention Burke and L.T. Hobhouse, which give the whole document a strangely vintage feel. It is understandable that those wishing to emulate Labour’s social democratic success in the 1940s should look back to key social democratic thinkers of that moment (Karl Polanyi and Michael Young are cited directly… the ghosts of R. H. Tawney and G.D.H. Cole hover not too far away); but one can only wonder what Young would have said in 1945 to an adviser who had apparently read little that had been published since the 1880s. As the reader can probably tell, I have doubts about this post-Blue Labour attempt to present a project for radical democratisation as somehow merely an organic expression of the traditional, patriotic, conservative instincts of the ‘the British people’: partly because trying to ground radical change in a reified ideal of national ethnic culture has a very bad history indeed (see: fascism), and partly because I don’t think those instincts define the British sensibility nearly as exhaustively as Cruddas and Rutherford seem to. Mark Fisher and I deal with this issue at length in our new pamphlet, where we argue that such an approach should celebrate its modernity, not hide from it.

Despite such reservations, there is a great deal to commend in Cruddas and Rutherford’s plan. Although they are careful not to say so, their proposal for a British Investment Bank supporting a network of regional banks in order to sustain and develop “the nearly five million small and medium-sized businesses which produce over 50 per cent of our GDP”, if carried to its logical conclusion, would constitute a major blow against the excessive power of finance capital in the UK today. It also offers a partial answer to the question which ‘localism’ can rarely address with any persuasiveness, which is the fundamental one I want to draw attention to  here: the question of how to constitute new sources of collective power in situations where none obviously exist.

Beyond naive localism  

What we might call ‘naive localism’ is a persistent problem in British political discourse today. Perhaps the best expression of it I’ve heard recently was a comment from former Labour minister Ben Bradshaw in a recent Radio 4 interview: “People in places like Manchester, civic organisations, want more power - why can’t we just give it to them?" The answer to this question is simple. The reasons that Whitehall and Westminster can’t just give power to places like Manchester or to civic organisations is that they don’t actually have much of it themselves anymore: they’ve already given it away to financial institutions, commercial media, property speculators, private-public service providers, management consultants, accountants and PFI profiteers, while ceding ultimate authority over national macro-economic policy to the bond markets. That was the whole point of the entire neoliberal project.

That process necessarily involves power being drained, relocated or withdrawn from those institutions which constitute established expressions of democratic power: for example, national states, trade unions, municipal governments and public broadcasters. Those were developed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as much as anything as a response to the growth of industrial corporations and the great financial institutions of the epoch, as means by which populations could contain, regulate, and even redirect much of their power. As we all know, however, the mechanisms, organisational techniques, technological capacities and international scope of the corporations are now very different from,  and vastly in excess of, those of their Victorian and twentieth-century predecessors. We have all known this for a long time now, and we have all known that simply restoring, reinstating or re-entrenching those old institutions would consequently be unlikely to produce the same democratic effects that they might once have achieved. The question is, in that case, what new, or re-imagined institutions might enable 21st century populations to respond to these developments in ways which reasserted some of their lost democratic potency ?

Of course, put in these terms, this seems obvious, and it is hardly original of me to have raised it. This only makes it all the more depressing to note that it is hardly ever raised explicitly in British political commentary, even from the Left. The latter is generally much more comfortable, even today, with condemning the complicity of successive governments with the rise of corporate power than with actually proposing alternative measures that could prove in any way efficacious.

More precisely, it is this issue which differentiates naive localism from potentially more productive projects for devolution. In the Scottish referendum campaign, there seemed to be a marked difference between the simplistic nationalist rhetoric of those who genuinely believed that ‘Westminster’ was hoarding a glistening pile of power that could simply be transferred to Holyrood at will, and those who understood that the independence campaign could only be a means to an end, and that the end was the constitution of new institutions and new forms of collective organisation which could give the Scottish people a chance of governing themselves in the face of global neoliberal hegemony. The most exciting aspect of  Common Weal’s agenda, for example, is its precise implicit grasp of this distinction, and its focus on generating a set of policy proposals which are both practically implementable and which would have the immediate effect of increasing the collective power of various social groups in Scotland, making possible further egalitarian progress in the future (e.g. here and here).

Cruddas and Rutherford’s other key proposal is the devolution of many governmental responsibilities to a municipal level. This would no doubt constitute a major democratic advance if it could be executed effectively. That’s a big ‘if’. What my argument so far would imply is that it could only really happen if ways could be found of mobilising local populations in support of these measures, enabling them to form self-conscious groupings, new communities of interest or what I have called ‘potent collectivities’, capable of actually inhabiting and using the new mechanisms of local self-government. Certainly this could happen and government could play a lead role; but it surely could not happen in England—which lacks the nationalist focus of Scotland or Wales—without the kind of grassroots passion and open-ended sense of possibility which Occupy Democracy expresses. Along with the ongoing project of the People’s Assemblies, it is arguably the best manifestation we have today of that adventurous spirit which must infuse any successful democratic institution-building. Without that spirit, the project of municipal devolution could only turn into a kind of devolution by diktat, and the result of that would clearly be simply to hand more real power to the same set of private and commercial agencies which have been accumulating most of it since the 1970s.

The Role of the Unions 

The more desirable of these outcomes, I think, could not arise without the enthusiastic participation of the unions. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the unions remain the only civil-society organisations with anything like the resources or the membership to be able to contribute to such a popular mobilisation. Secondly, history makes very clear that in a capitalist society, attempts to democratically empower the citizenry have little chance of success if they do not include attempts to empower them collectively in the sphere of work. There is a very clear correlation between the growth of unions and the growth and growing efficacy of at least partially democratic political institutions, and the declining effectiveness and popular legitimacy of such institutions since the 1970s can be quite clearly correlated with declines in union membership. As such, no government which is serious about democratic and social renewal could ignore the need to take active steps to increase union membership. There is above all a clear need to extend union participation into those many new and expanding economic sectors in which unionisation is almost non-existent. At the same time, the unions themselves can only play a productive role to the extent that they can continue to develop their capacities for political engagement beyond the traditional confines of the Labour Party.

This make the emergence of CLASS and its conference this weekend particularly welcome, and its programme of moderate social democratic reform—improving wages, defending and expanding the welfare state, resisting further marketisation of the public sector—is clearly an important contribution to current debates. But something about it all feels depressingly familiar. Essentially CLASS looks like an organisation set up to defend the interests of public sector workers. God knows they need defending. But most of the policies and rhetoric coming out of CLASS look defensive in nature. Much like One Nation Labour, this doesn’t look like an organisation which is interested in understanding the historical processes which led to the crisis of the welfare state, so much as one which hopes to be able to reverse them with an act of political will. I’m sure nobody involved in CLASS believes that things are this simple, any more than do Cruddas and Rutherford, but in both cases, the lack of concern with how to connect with emergent social trends is quite worrying to this sympathetic ally and observer.

The only session at the CLASS conference which plans to discuss democratic reform, it seems, is one focusing on the tired issue of  how to persuade young people to vote. When one sees this question being phrased in this way, one is reminded of why we need Russell Brand. The question in 2014 is surely not ‘how do we get young people to vote?’: it’s ‘why don’t the political class understand that young people are not going to vote as long as voting makes no difference to their lives’?

This is in turn is why the questions being raised by Occupy are so important, and why it’s so disappointing that the unions seem so totally uninterested in them. Ultimately, labour movement strategy today seems still to be confined to attempts to pressure the Labour leadership to adopt a desirable programme. This is understandable. The British unions are traditionally uninterested in democratic reform and tend to see any engagement with it as a bourgeois parlour game, of no relevance to its members or their interests. We can only hope that sooner or later they will wake up to the fact that the entire current parliamentary system is part of the problem facing them, and not just a neutral mechanism which they can influence via the Parliamentary Labour Party.

One partial exception (and there are others) to CLASS’ retro-labourist tendencies is Prof. Stephen Ball’s proposal to replace the current, increasingly neoliberalised school system with egalitarian and democratically-run schools. In our pamphlet, Fisher and I have referred to the more radical work in this area of Ball’s colleagues at the Institute of Education, Fielding and Moss, who propose the new ideal of the ‘common school’, and to the very similar proposal from IPPR for ‘citizens schools’. As we argue, the real importance of such proposals is that they recognise the potential for empowered, democratic, collective self-organisation that exists in contemporary social situations, and also the need for government assistance to realise that potential. In this case, we suggest, proposals for ‘Common’ and ‘Citizen’ schools recognise both that the aggregation of parents, teachers and students who are involved with any given school does not normally constitute an effective political community, under conditions of enforced neoliberal competition between all parties. But they also recognise that with government assistance and a willingness to experiment, such aggregations can become ‘potent collectivities’, on which the effectiveness of democracy really depends.

Conclusion: real democracy now!

Two sets of issues emerge from all this. On the one hand, these two sets of demands, for radical democratic reform and for social equality, need to be articulated together more often than they are. Compass is a good example of an organisation which, like Common Weal, tries to address this full range of issues. On the other hand, it would be very useful for there to be a wider sense of what the strategic preconditions might be for any of these objectives to be realised. For example, as I have suggested, one implication of my arguments would be that government-supported measures to extend union membership and union density within the working population should be given far higher priority than they currently are as a key demand for radicals.

More fundamentally, demands should be clearly focused on the need to build up new collective capacities among diverse populations, new loci of social power which can, over time, challenge that of finance capital and its agencies. I’ve mentioned in passing the idea that government could contribute to the development of an alternative, non-commercial media sector. I haven’t dwelt on this simply because it seems so blindingly obvious that this would be both beneficial and easy to do, in the age of rapid digitisation (you want a concrete proposal? Tax Murdoch and give the money to open Democracy…) This would be another example of collective capacity-building. And crucially, as I’ve suggested, calls for devolution must move away from naive localism towards an understanding that it is not merely the redistribution of power, but the constitution of potent collectivities on multiple scales which must be the real goal of a democratic politics. Understood in these terms, the demands of the social democrats and radical democrats can be understood as in fact expressions of one common desire: for real democracy, now.


For more articles on reform and constitutional change, see our new series, the Great Charter Convention, examining the case for a people's constitutional convention and with an eye on next year's 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

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