Our country stands at a crossroads.
Look at our ancient institutions.
So many of them are in decay, with little sense of purpose.
The British Establishment is uncertain whether their economic future lies with Europe, the United States and Trump, or in some other form of global alignment
The nation has lost faith in the ruling class but can’t yet see another way forward.
When countries enter a prolonged crisis like this - the future unknown - events become increasingly erratic and unpredictable.
One possibility is that a dominant figure will emerge to build a new Britain.
A British Bonaparte.
Boris Johnson thinks it is him. But he is an agency of a failed elite.
He cannot therefore deliver a new progressive set of arrangements, which is what the country is crying out for.
It’s up to us. That’s you and me in this room. And others like us outside.
We must show the way forward. The alternative is the collapse of our country into a decade or more of sterile decline.
So today I want to talk about our political institutions, why they are failing, and what we might do about it.
And don’t worry, I am not going to argue that a simple change of government ruling over the existing failed system will do the trick.
Though we do need a new government.
But there is more to it than that.
Let us step back for a moment and think about the bigger picture.
It is said that among the glories of the British Constitution is the fact that it is unwritten, that it is flexible, that it evolves over time and is infinitely adaptable.
That may be true.
But its flexibility has also meant that the British Establishment has often been able to bend political power to its own purposes.
Sometimes they have to make concessions to a rising tide of anger from below when things deteriorate.
In more normal times, but also often in periods of great crisis, they accrue further power to themselves.
Yet from time to time, things surge away from ruling elites and their dominance is imperilled.
When that happens, you can be sure that the mask of civility will slip, and the old way of doing things quickly gets jettisoned.
We see it now.
Normal rules have been torn up.
- The Conservative Government - unsure if it could command a majority in the House of Commons - so they instructed their MPs to simply stop voting;
- They also effectively stopped legislating;
- They suffered the worst defeat in Parliamentary history, and for the first time ever, a British Government lost a vote of censure. But still they carried on;
- They also changed their Prime Minister twice without a general election.
And now we see an unelected PM suspending Parliament, in order to avoid a crucial votes.
This is not the benign and incremental change to our politics that is often talked about with pride by conservative advocates of our unwritten constitution.
It is a rapid and divisive twisting of the knife inserted deep into the body politic.
We have reached this point because the Establishment - unsure of where its interests lie - and rapidly losing the consent upon which liberal democracy depends - feels threatened.
It is clear that the new Prime Minister sees himself as the best answer to this crisis.
Boris Johnson is trying to stand above democracy. He is seeking to sidestep Parliament and forcibly bind a large part of a divided Establishment to his personal leadership.
His promise is that he alone is capable of solving Brexit.
And that he alone can save the ruling class from the prospect of a radical Labour Government under Jeremy Corbyn.
It is the fear of the latter that is forcing many to go along with the Boris show, even if it leaves a bad taste.
In many ways this reminds us of Antonio Gramsci’s description of Bonapartism, which he said “represents the fusion of an entire social class under a single leadership, which alone is held to be capable of solving an overriding problem of its existence and of fending off a mortal danger”.
We must resist this.
To make sure we defeat this resurgent right-wing populism, and to fulfill our ambition of securing social justice, we have to change the way we do politics.
We need a democratic revolution.
Clearly at this moment of great danger we must defend our existing institutions against power grabs and back-room manoeuvres by an over-mighty Executive.
This is crucial. But it is not enough.
Our understanding of the present moment must go deeper and our actions must be bolder.
We will see what happens in the courts in the coming days but the fact of the matter is that the current constitutional arrangements give extraordinary powers to a PM, even an unelected one, whose wafer thin majority in the Commons is based on a grubby £billion bribe to the DUP.
Just look at how effortlessly Johnson was able to suspend Parliament.
The idea that Prime Minsters have throughout history been able to commit British troops to war without parliamentary approval further illustrates the point.
Of course, this changed in the case of Iraq, a war which was designed to demonstrate the alignment between British and American elite interests.
I voted against the war in Iraq.
But the point is that parliament was lied to with the connivance of a good part of the British political class, the deep state and the mass media.
And then there were the MPs expenses, the 2008 financial crisis, the lies and austerity that followed, and the Conservative Party’s handling of Brexit - all of these have also contributed to a breakdown of public trust in politics.
This breakdown of consent is at the heart of the current crisis.
There is a sense among many people that as a nation we are hurtling towards an unknown destination at breakneck speed, and with the wrong people at the steering wheel.
Across the country, this lack of control has bred fear, resentment and even anger.
Ironically, for the majority of people, these feelings about political failure and about politicians comes from a deep seated-belief that democracy matters.
Polls show that the overwhelming majority of people place extreme or significant importance on living within a democracy.
Yet when asked how democratic this country is, the answers were much less favourable.
And who can blame them?
Democracy has value in itself, but it is primarily judged on whether it can help deliver good government and a good life for working people.
On this it has failed.
The class divisions in our society are deeper than ever. Back in many ways to Victorian times.
Between 2009 and 2018, the richest 1000 of this country increased their wealth by £466 billion, while in the same period the 33 million working people of this country together lost a similar amount in income.
Meanwhile, four million children live in poverty.
That’s almost a third of children in the UK.
Austerity for the many.
Prosperity for the few.
Above all we have to conclude that universal suffrage has failed to deliver social justice and a classless society.
Our political institutions are failing.
And what the events of Peterloo teach us, is that movements for political and constitutional reform arise when economic and social conditions are no longer tolerable.
The men and women who gave their lives at Peterloo understood this, and we should too.
Here in Manchester you can still hear their voices, read their words, see their banners, visit their graves.
They demanded a proper democracy.
Suffrage for all.
The women often organised separately, attending meetings and demonstrations dressed in white.
Here are a few words from a letter written by a group of women campaigners to the local newspaper:
“The day is near at hand ,when nothing will be found in our unhappy country but luxury, idleness, dissipation and tyranny on the one hand; and abject poverty, slavery, wretchedness and death in the other.”
To avert these evils, the women argued for reform of the House of Commons.
And there you have it.
In their minds, democracy would create a more equal country based on the principle of social justice.
I have no doubt they would be shocked to find out how little things have changed for so many of their descendants, 200 years later. Poverty and injustice remain.
It’s also hard not to read accounts of what happened that day at Peterloo without recalling how the miners’ strike was policed.
The truth is we know more about Peterloo than we know about Orgreave.
There must be a proper independent inquiry into this matter. Labour will set one up as a part of its early initiatives in office.
But the central question we must ask ourselves today is whether or not our generation has organised things in a way which honours the dead and injured at Peterloo?
The only honest answer we can give is no.
Our politics is broken.
Our country is riven with conflict.
As for social justice.
As a consequence we are in a moment of profound crisis.
We need a new Government, yes. And we need it urgently.
But nothing less than a government which is fundamentally transformative will do.
Why should we accept the fact that 8 generations later the great great grandchildren of the Peterloo martyrs should be living in poverty in Manchester here today?
But they are - 63,500 children. In Manchester, today.
Let's be honest - the British State - its powers and constraints, who it serves and why - is incapable of tackling the problems that the country faces.
It emerged in a different epoch and to fulfill different purposes.
It still bears the imprint of our imperial past.
Over-centralised, remote and lacking any sensitivity to the new currents flowing through modern British social and political life.
When we think, for example, about the House of Lords, especially the farce of hereditary peers, it’s hard not to think that Parliament is more responsive to thousands of years of privilege than it is to the concerns of most people today.
Politics is not serving the interests of the whole electorate.
It has been captured by the rich and the powerful, the global corporations, the city boys and the spivs.
Look at the outsourcing industry.
£1 in every £3 of Taxpayer funded services is now in the private sector - no longer subject to democratic scrutiny. Profits made from hospital services, schools, the care of our older people.
Where once there was an accountable public service ethos now there is ‘get rich quick’ mentality, tax avoidance, and two-tier working conditions paid for by you and me.
And then there is the explosion of commercial lobbying and lucrative second jobs, with the revolving door, and with the flood of dark and big money into our politics.
And Parliament weakened, its reach reduced, our vote having decreased significance.
In the triangle of competing powers the argument in Britain has always been about where sovereignty lies. Is it with the government, with parliament or should sovereignty lie with the people?
If by sovereignty we mean where is the central locus of power in 21st century Britain, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sovereignty of the people barely exists when compared to the strength of the executive and the privileged elite who control the levers.
Bold Action is required.
Firstly, in the short term we must tackle corporate and elite capture head on.
Secondly we need to take seriously the long term reform of our constitutional arrangements
Thirdly we need to tackle gross wealth privilege and power outside the formal political structures.
We have already begun to make proposals and will continue to unravel more, intended to address each of these matters in the coming period.
Quick steps to begin to clean up politics will help.
- A move towards insourcing across the public sector;
- Strict controls over commercial lobbying
- An overhaul of our political finance rules to end the influence of dark money;
- Strict regulations on the revolving door whereby members of the British Establishment rotate between one privileged position and another on the old English principle of you scratch my back and I scratch yours.
- My own view is that lucrative second jobs for Parliamentarians is out of order.
I think though that these immediate actions would be short term ameliorative fixes unless they are accompanied by fundamental and lasting reform of our constitutional and political arrangements.
This is why our 2015 and 2017 Manifestos committed us to the creation of a Constitutional Convention which could be the driving force behind this process.
For the first time in this country’s history it should be the people who get to decide how we do politics, and not the ruling class.
Some of the issues which the Convention would handle would be:
- Major transformation of our second chamber. As we said in our 2017 General Election manifesto, the Labour Party’s “fundamental belief is that the Second Chamber should be democratically elected”.
- Further devolution, which would finally give areas like the North of England the powers to truly decide their own future. This could start in our area with setting up a Council of the North, which is nothing less than we deserve. As do other held back regions. Radical Federalism is surely the future.
- The list of areas which need to be transformed is too long to enumerate in full, but here are some: Reinvigorating local government, tackling the archaic processes in the Commons, ending the access of graduates from a handful of top universities to elite jobs and replacing it with more diversity are all issues that also need to be addressed. Others will add issues such as electoral reform.
All of this implies a new constitutional settlement, that puts sovereignty in the hands of the people, not powerful elites.
So much power and privilege stands outside of our political structures. This needs to be addressed too if we are to build a society for the Many.
It was this ambition that motivated me to commission George Monbiot to pull together the Land for the Many report, which tackles head on the powerlessness many people feel with how their communities change around them with no consent.
We can see this same thinking behind Labour’s plans for economic democracy.
Anything less and we will fail to live up to the inspiring legacy of the Peterloo campaigners, who matched their beliefs with a fierce courage that we need today.
So let me end with one thought.
This is not a task which falls only to me. And it must not be the property of a single party either.
It is a task for all of us.
There will always be centralisers, authoritarians, sectarians, people who think that they know better, powerful interests who will attempt to stop us. And there will be many who say that either the task is too big, or that there are other priorities.
We will need to build an unstoppable movement if we are to succeed.
Let's take our inspiration from Henry Vincent of the Chartist Movement which built on the events of Peterloo, when he said:
“When a nation rouses from its slumber and its people display signs of returning vitality – the rulers of that nation are sure to take the alarm.”
Let’s do our radical ancestors proud.
Lets see if we can finish the job they started.