Labour must trust the people

Lenin is dead. And so, if you hadn’t noticed, are Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Yet the Labour Party is still in the grip of the politics of elitism. For the party to reclaim power, it must lay these ghosts to rest and embrace democracy - not as a means to grab state power, but as an end in itself.
Neal Lawson
12 February 2011

Lenin is dead. And so, if you hadn’t noticed, are Sidney and Beatrice Webb.  But the political ethos they shared and its impact on the British Labour Party lives on. It is an ethos that may have been well meaning, but it is cold, insular, remote and bureaucratic and its time has gone. Yet it still has a grip on Labour’s psyche.  

At its core it represents the politics of elitism. The people can’t be trusted and need to be lead by a pure vanguard who know what is best for them. A chosen few are the only people capable of making change happen. In Britain it has become Parliamentary Leninism and unless and until Labour decisively shakes its culture off the prospects for any transformative change to our nation are negligible. 

This is where it has got us.  At the last general election the Labour Party, the political formation that represents the politics or at least the hope of a democracy that is social, polled 29 per cent.  This was one per cent better than Michael Foot managed as leader in 1983 – a result that was not just the worse since 1931 but was so incompetently managed that it sparked the long march to modernization through Neil Kinnock, briefly John Smith and then finally Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. 

The difference and similarities between 1983 and now are many but what stands out today is the scale of what has been lost; not an election but a way of being. After 1983 the path was difficult to walk but the direction seemed clear.  Labour had to modernize – its program and its organisation. Today the same direction of travel is being sought by the leadership – there is a policy review – just as there was in the 1980s and Labour is looking to renew its organisational form – this time the solution is not one member one vote but citizens organizers.  All of this is necessary but is far from sufficient if the Party ever wants to be in power again (and not just in office).  

Social democracy is the organised political response to the negative social effects of capitalism. It is the political formation that allows certain groups of people to more effectively struggle against free markets and those who benefit economically from them.  One of the main problems of New Labour was that it stopped trying to struggle because struggle only meant you lost elections.  The capitalist tiger could not be tamed just ridden. So they convinced themselves that economic efficiency and social justice could go hand in hand. In a warped continuation of Crosland the game was now just about distributing the proceeds of growth. The social lamb could lie down with the capitalist lion. The crash was of course the wake up call on that decade and a half wild goose chase. The interests of capital and labour are not identical and the fact that the Labour Party had to be reminded of this feels strangely remarkable.

But even if Labour were to adopt a more realistic social democratic approach to political economy – one that recognized the need for the regulation and democratic control of free markets – the fall of New Labour signaled not just the failure of the Third Way but of the very mode of social democracy itself. For what New Labour never modernized was the operating assumption of social democracy – that the game and the goal was control of the state, through a singular party and that through such control social democracy could be ushered in from above. As the central dictum of this Parliamentary Leninism goes  ‘Socialism is what Labour governments do’.  In 13 years, with the blessing of a largely strong economy (albeit one built on the quicksand of debt and a house price bubble), huge majorities and a pretty useless opposition, it did some good things and some bad things and we all have our little list, but what it proved beyond doubt is that that the days of social democracy by an elected elite, by a small group in a single party, are over. 

Indeed they are long over.  They were over in 1979 as the post war settlement finally unsettled. This reality of course caught up with actually existing socialism in 1989.  But like mad men Labour kept doing the same thing expecting a different outcome. Deliver the leaflet, make the speech, get elected, pull the levers and hey presto – socialism. We did it in 1945 and it worked and so we can do it again now?  It is the politics of one more heave and has been a remarkably resilient mobilizing ideal given how useless it has been at delivering anything that has since transformed our country. 

The 1945 moment captured the imagination of Labour and the party has been living off the vapors ever since. All political moments need their myths to sustain and guide them. But when a myth holds no basis in reality it becomes not a catalyst for change but a barrier. There are two problems with Labour’s 1945 myth. The first is that it is an imaged 1945. It is a 1945 that remembers only Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and Herbert Morrison as the people who delivered socialism.  Its forgets the unions, the friendly societies, the left book clubs and Clarion Cycling clubs, the socialist societies, the Methodists and of course the intellectual impact of Liberals like Keynes and Beveridge and even Tories like Butler.  It was not a singular and elite entity that created the post war settlement, rather it was rich, deep and nuanced. But all Labour remembers is the Labour Party, or more precisely its leadership.

The second problem is even more profound and that is the horrible truth that 1945 was a unique and therefore unrepeatable moment. It came off the back of the Depression and a socially unifying war that meant even Churchill could not stop it happening.  Critically it was the high water mark of Fordism and all the paraphernalia of mass production and mass parties that went with it. It was a moment to make a certain type of bureaucratic history because the conditions in which history could be made in this way were right – but unrepeatable. All of the conditions of 1945 evaporated long ago.  

This insight is of course far from new. Much of this was put forward around 20 years ago by the former Communist Party intellectuals around Marxism Today and the New Times project. They felt the death of Leninism more keenly than most. It is also captured in the brilliant 1996  Demos publication by John Gray After Social Democracy. Charter 88 was another vital response to the end point of this form of social democracy and they were more successful in getting at least elements of their programme on to the political agenda, not least because the ‘old’ Labour leader John Smith got at least some of the requirement for a new politics.  Even with his death the moment was not gone.  Blair at least effected to get it. He brought in Jenkins and cosied up to Ashdown – but he let the moment to realign politics to the left go and today we pay the price with the realignment of the right.

So what does a post Leninist left look like? It’s not that hard to imagine. It is a political formation that respects more than anything the principles and practice of democracy. It shifts from democracy being a means to and end (grabbing state power) to being an end in itself. It sees democracy as the only tool the left has to re-engage in the struggle with capital. Through democracy we decide as a society when, where and how capitalism operates. Politics, through such a democratic prism, stops being about reaching an end point and starts being a never-ending journey. Socialism stops being what Labour government do and starts being what people do.

So not only would Labour re-ignite the constitutional reform touch paper set off by Charter 88, they would apply the test of democracy to every meaningful social and economic institution in the land; in public services, workplaces and communities. Power would rightly be regarded as plural rather than singular.  Such pluralism would shatter the brittle and rigid structures of our adversarial political system in the recognition that change happens not by force but through argument, engagement, debate and discourse. It is the politics of the campsite; of clear identities but shared values.  It is about winning allies, forging partnerships, coalitions and alliances.  It is a war of maneuver not a war of position.  It is Aesop’s sun not Aesop’s wind.

In all this, Labour in opposition must start in the only place it can, with itself. Labour has to democratize its structure and show it trusts its own members and supporters.   

We can and must go on describing what a post Leninist politics looks and feels like; to make it tangible and seductive. That is part of the battle. What we want matters but what matters more is the conditions in which we want it.  Are the conditions right for a shift to a post Leninist form of politics? Are the political and economic failure of New Labour and the birth of a centre-right Coalition the conditions in which Labour can junk vanguardism for good, or will there be one more ‘one more heave’? The unpopularity of the Coalition and Clegg in particular makes the lazy assumptions of OMH attractive. If being in office is all that matters, socialism can be administered once again from on high, then why take a chance? But another round of bitter disappointment and inevitable failure in office if this mode of operation is repeated would be too much to bear. 

The century of the centre is over. Centrifugal forces have become centripetal. The all-seeing, all-knowing hierarchy has had its day. What was linear, straight, and mechanical has given way to what is fluid, liquid, plural and complex.  Under these new forces Britain itself is breaking up.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are more and more going their own way.  New mayors are being elected across the land. Whatever we think of this process it is inconceivable that it will be reversed – the only issue is how far will it go? The politics of one leader, one party and one state cannot hope to survive in this context.    

This allows Labour to pick up on old themes and inspirations; of Levellers, Chartists, Diggers, of mutual’s, guilds and associations. Critically though, it gives permission and legitimacy to become part of the Facebook generation, where you join multiple groups and have multiple allegiances and identities. Where what matters is that you march against student fees and protest against corporate tax avoidance – not what party card you hold or what leader you follow.

Later this year, Richard Sennett is to publish a new book beautifully entitled Together: The History, Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation. It will set the tone for the debate to come between a politics that is plural and a politics that remains singular and elite-driven. Between a future that is negotiated, and one that is dictated.

This cultural shift is essential for the left. The planet burns and the poor get poorer.  These two crises combine to create a third – that of democracy itself.  For what is the point of politics if it doesn’t put right the big things that are wrong with our world?  The struggle for equality, sustainability and therefore democracy are no longer singular campaigns – but will only be solved together, as a joint narrative, programme and movement for change. Leninism failed even in the era of mass society.  The vanguard is hopelessly positioned today to control because there is no one to command. Lenin believed that you could force history. New Labour found that you can for a while but it inevitable unravels without a broad coalition of moral support behind and ahead of it. Meaningful and sustained change happens because of the people – not against them.  The challenge is to retain an ideological stance but practice it through pluralistic means. And to say goodbye to Lenin.

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