Open Labour: the only way for Corbyn to replace Blatcherism

Britain needs an open Labour party as well as a democratic one if it is to turn the astonishing energy Corbyn's success has released into a lasting gain for the country

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
28 September 2015

Flickr/lewishamdreamer. Some rights reserved.

 “It is a long overdue reform…  something I should have done myself. It puts individual people in touch with the party and is a great way of showing how Labour can reconnect with the people of Britain.”

Tony Blair on Labour’s new system for electing its leader[1]

A great institution is under assault, how will it respond? It played a critical role in forging unity during the war. It helped create post-war Britain. It modernised itself, if often reluctantly but all the same with stunning successes, through the end of the last century and into the start of this one. Always under pressure from the Tories its funding is now being attacked with renewed vigor by the Cameron regime which wants to squash its influence. I could be talking about the Labour party - and I will - but this is the BBC. And it may provide a model for Jeremy Corbyn.

How has the BBC responded to the government’s Green Paper on its future? First it abandoned the old Reithian assurance that it knew best by claiming that the people ‘owned’ it. Then, early this month it made a bolder move. Its director, Tony Hall, declares that he wants it to become at least in part an Open BBC. It will open up its platform and networks to forge alliances with other public service providers; not to centralise and monopolise but to release the public value in the experimental energy of our digital times.

This is a far-sighted proposal for the BBC and sets an example for Labour. There has to be a different foundation for public service broadcasting than relying upon those who ‘know best’, just as the Labour party can no longer rely on leaders who are ‘in touch with the future’, as Blair would say. Provided the Cameron government does not confine it to legacy broadcasting, the change to an Open BBC proposed by Hall could be profoundly significant. It will need underpinning by ensuring people do indeed own the BBC, say by turning the Trust into a mutual. But at the heart of what seems a simple idea is an essential democratic response to the deep transformation of the British state, which now threatens the BBC and the Labour party alike.

Labour needs to make a similar, open, digital response. Thanks to the enthusiasm that swept him to its leadership, the ‘improbable candidate’ Jeremy Corbyn is in a position to oversee this should he grasp the need for openness in addition to his commitment to democracy.

Briefly, an overview of the transformation of Britain’s unique regime that now threatens all progressive institutions, certainly in England. It goes go back to the founding period of modern Britain between 1940 and 1945 when an empire went to war but a country emerged from the conflict[2]. After 1945, thanks to its ‘good war’, an establishment that was largely trusted made a great effort to orchestrate a consensus on the way it ran British society. Within a quarter of a century, with the onset of globalization, the establishment’s ‘hide-bound’ ways were assaulted and along with its undoubted restrictive practices and elitism its integrity and form of Britishness were dispatched to the knackers yard. The twin perpetrators of this were Thatcher and Blair. There was a build-up and an aftermath, but the era of Blatcherism was the 25 years from the 1982 Falklands war, when the unifying myths of Churchillism were expropriated, to the financial crash of 2007. It was a period that witnessed a narrow, political-media class displacing the establishment. To the syncopated drum-beat of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and The Times the leaderships of the two main parties came to collaborate in a new consensus: a duopoly of corporate populism. Riding the bubble of techno-growth, declaring it was the future and there is ‘no alternative’, the new commanders of the UK joined themselves the global financial elite, on the back of the country. It was a deceitful, manipulative and centralised form of rule that worked… until the crash.

Now, two things are underway. Osborne seeks to turn the screw yet further. A naked admirer of Tony Blair he has substituted Xi Jinping for George W Bush and dodgy power stations for dossiers, as his springboard for ultra-Blatcherism - remortgaging the country to global growth as he drives through deep privatisation despite a chorus of warnings. But, second, the public have had enough, or rather enough of the public can see they have been had. This time, and here is the true significance of the wave of support for Corbyn that swept through Labour supporters, there will be no all-party agreement that we must embrace corporate interests, surveillance and the war on terror, at the cost of our democracy, give or take an argument about amelioration.

The huge mistake of bereft professional commentators, suddenly deprived of their insider connections, is to manage their sense of bereavement by focusing on whether Corbyn is ‘electable’ - in four-and-a-half years time for goodness sake! What matters is the insurgency that has found expression in his elevation. That he has, in the words of Brian Eno, “changed the conversation”; that the desire for this extends much further than Labour. Many who would not (certainly, not yet) dream of voting for him are delighting in his challenge to the managerial conceit of the status quo. Furthermore, the uprising is not confined to the unwashed. The narrowness of the London political-financial class will contribute to its undoing just as much as its venality; what has happened in Scotland being the proof of this.

How should Labour respond now? It faces a twin crisis of the good and the bad which I described when Corbyn was elected leader. I argued that despite the ruthless efforts that will be made to crush him and his movement there is a “golden opportunity”: that if he “can make Labour part of a wider progressive democratic alliance… he is in with a chance”. I now want to suggest more specifically how this can be achieved.  As he starts his novel attempt to democratize both Labour and Britain it is becoming clear that team Corbyn should take a similar approach to the one proposed by the BBC. It is in a good position to do so having already democratized itself in the way it chose its leader. It should replace Old Labour and New Labour with Open Labour.

For it can’t go back to being the traditional trade union establishment party, any more than the BBC can revert to Reithianism. It can’t do so because the public has said goodbye both to deference and the old form of collectivism (which was also a form of deference) that underpinned the post-war epoch. Added to which the Attlee type welfare-socialism depended on the conservative side of the establishment playing the game, as it did through the wartime coalition and afterwards and can no longer.

If Labour is to challenge the individualism, corporatism and privatisation of society overseen by today’s monstrous elite it has to do so with a different political culture: with intelligent, deliberative democracy, not collectivism; through voice, liberty and collaboration based on human rights, citizenship and self-determination. There can be no return to public values unless they are grounded in such active participation of the public. Now that the traditional establishment has abandoned conservative patriotism for global profiteering we need to see elite sovereignty replaced by popular sovereignty. 

This poses the Corbyn leadership with a choice full of strategic implications of the most testing kind because they are impossible to foresee exactly. His death has just reminded us of what Yogi Berra told us, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” That is what Jeremy Corbyn is doing now. Two directions open out before him. He can decide that he must take the party down the path of the socialist views he has spent his lifetime defending, bringing with him as many of its expanded membership as possible. The presumption here is that the tremendous burst of support was an endorsement of his pre-existing worldview and its arguments. Or he can decide that without abandoning his own opinions his duty is to follow the novel force that embraced him: uncertain, unruly and full of democratic energy.

The first fork points towards a classic attempt to capture the British state by electoral means and use it to carry through his programme, with him and his team as a kind of elitist anti-elite boosted into orbit by the enlarged Labour membership. This is what the mainstream media expects, as it is a form of politics which however extreme they can understand, it being full of splits and purges. The other fork points to building and encouraging the British public to democratize the state and take it away from elite control as we have known it; a form of politics beyond the ken of mediacrats whose idea of ‘the people’ is a focus group not a force.

All the routines and demands of leadership will press Corbyn to take the first route, of melodrama, heroism, isolation and, most surely, defeat. Not least because, seen from the Westminster optic, the other way looks even risker. Yet only a turn towards the people, not policies, can ensure Corbyn will be the carrier of change. Will he use the wave of democratic support to empower Corbyn or will he dedicate Corbyn to empower democracy?

The received wisdom does not see it like this at all. The pre-conference overview in the Financial Times, dripping with contempt, suggests that the fork in the road that faces Corbyn is between leading without any compromises in his own views or starting to “look a bit like a normal politician” and conceding, for example, that the UK should not leave NATO. The possibility of his doing politics in a different way by reaching outside Westminster to the insurrection has simply not entered their heads.

It may be that ‘open Labour’ is also beyond the imagination of Corbyn and his advisors. There are some indications that it might not be. He told the Trade Union Congress in his first set piece speech as party leader, “Labour must become more inclusive and open”. He told Andrew Marr, who was not in the slightest bit interested, that he wanted Labour to become a more democratic party and Britain a more democratic country. He has appointed Jon Trickett to be Shadow Minister for a Constitutional Convention. Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson sees the leadership campaign as demanding a change in Labour’s “internal culture”. Jon Cruddas sees the need for a federal opening, stressing that “England will decide Labour’s future… We have to break out of the traditional top-down, Whitehall knows best approach, and take decisions about England out of Westminster… we need a broad alliance for change – constitutional reform, devolution of power, and citizen empowerment that stretches from Clacton to Bristol, Newcastle to Penzance.” Ed Miliband’s speech-writer Marc Stears, writing in the current New Statesman says “the future is democracy not dirigism, experimental innovation not narrow ideology”[3]. Ben Sellers who worked on the Corbyn social media campaign has responded to Owen Jones’s call for a mainstream media strategy by arguing that social media is not an “echo chamber”. Reporting on the extraordinary numbers touched by the online Corbyn campaign Sellers argues, “It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and ideally their action. It has been about building people’s confidence by showing them that they are not alone. It has been about showing them examples of other activity around the country, and encouraging them to take action locally”. There are reports that Corbyn will use his leader’s speech to stress the need for the party to turn itself into a great democratic movement.

None of these arguments make a clear-cut case for Labour becoming an open platform, however. All can be seen as leaning towards an enlarged form of sucking in – aimed as making as many as possible part of the Labour tribe, rather than collaborating with others to create an open, citizen politics. The danger is losing sight of the overriding need for a more democratic Britain. And because the country is now a much more plural, argumentative place with different national parliaments and cities with their own national figures, this means doing democratic politics differently without as well as within Labour and its supporters.

Open Labour means three things then: first, to be sure, a much more open Labour party, with a culture and democratic ways of doing things that really is fraternal not sectarian or administrative. Second, a party and movement much more open to ideas from within and without, especially over how the economy and the constitution works in in a European context, in addition to social policy where Labour is on more familiar ground. Third, respecting and working openly with others wherever possible, especially other parties, for example on defending our liberties: seeing alliances as a positive rather than a last resort, most obviously by embracing a fairer voting system. In other words not collaborating instrumentally but being open to being improved externally as well as internally by partnerships, and ending the ghastly, reactionary, Westminster politics of ‘winner takes all’. 

Each of these three levels of openness can reinforce each other and together can change the way Britain is governed.

With respect to the party, the immediate issue facing the huge expansion with over 160,000 new members since Corbyn’s success, is whether the incomers will be ground down with endless canvassing and procedures. How will they prevent the older, often wounded figures who have run the local machines through thick and thin, from marginalizing and then boring to death the influx? In the first instance the party needs to address the isolation and unrepresentative milieu of its MPs. The parliamentary party voted almost unanimously against their new leader. But what else could they have done as figures trapped in the Westminster bubble? Rather than treat them as enemies, have fights over reselection and go back to the old sectarian shit, new members should try and prick the bubbles around Labour MPs. They should be adopted by the younger new members, linked to on facebook, asked to make videos of their views, taken to food banks and met with in parliament. They must be hugged not purged. The point I’m trying to illustrate is the need to bring the open energy of the Corbyn wave into the party in lively ways that make sense to people outside.  

When it comes to ideas perhaps the best place to start is with a mass read-in of Peter Mandelson’s memo. It looks forward to an increasingly “acrimonious” internal culture and crudely opposes the politics of the street with that of parliament, and protest as against power, as pure alternatives, the assumptions behind which are alone worth consideration. But he is also scathing about the intellectual nullity the party has become and the need for completely fresh thinking, which deserves debate. I know it is a bit rich coming from someone who hammered those with good, challenging ideas to ensure they had no influence whatsoever, as I know all too well personally! But there is a strikingly well-written, passionate explosion of critical concern and alarm at what the elevation of Corbyn might mean from different Labour thinkers who have been constricted by years of tactical asphyxiation[4]. They should be welcomed back from the phantom zone. This too is part of the release of energy that Corbyn has triggered and intense listening should be the order of the day. Now that he has succeeded in ‘changing the conversation’ the new conversation must not fall back into an alternative set of predictable routines and clichés in the tradition of Labour anti-intellectualism that Nick Pearce skewers in his funeral oration for classical social democracy. As Suzanne Moore argues, "hating the media, the Tories and austerity are not policies. They are feelings. Thinking, actually thinking anew, is the challenge".

When it comes to being open to the country of course the aim is to replace one kind of government with another. To put the human values that Corbyn espouses rather than the market values Blair embodies, at the heart of this they need to be more than just ‘Labour values’; they have to be tested and rooted in the country at large, in collaboration with other parties and institutions. The promise of a constitutional convention points towards this. But others have got to this point and then pulled back at the risk of losing control. Only an open, inventive Labour party that expands the process of public democracy across the cities, towns and nations of the UK, and is willing to be shaped by the energy this releases, will prevent the dispersal of the electrifying forces for a generational change that the elevation of Corbyn symbolises - but is far from being realised.

The unwashed are hammering at the portcullis, that symbol of medieval closure with which the British parliament chooses to brand itself. Given the chance by Corbyn to participate in the assault, they took it. For every one who joined or registered with the party, tens are cheering them on, not to elect Jeremy necessarily, but to haul down the grating, sack the elite, fire the Lords and make the UK a democracy. For Labour finally has “reconnected with the people of Britain”, in the delightfully misconceived words of Mr Blair quoted at the top.

A shudder of fear and rage describes the reaction of the London media gatekeepers. Up with the drawbridge! Reinforce the portcullis. Prepare Mandelson acrimony to pour on them the moment their numbers start to dwindle. Spread lies and disorientation. Stir divisions in their leadership. Invite the leader into the privy most council and challenge him to kneel.

None of this can alter the way that Labour already has breached the norms and routines of Westminster party politics. Only through widening the breach can it turn this this most welcome moment into a lasting gain.

[1] Quoted by Andrew Grice, The Independent, 28 February 2014.

[2] See my introduction to the new Faber Finds reprint of Iron Britannia, drawing on the research of David Edgerton, also published in openDemocracy.

[3] Not yet on line

[4] For example, Taylor Parkes in Quietus, On the Wrongness of Corbyn by publicpolicy, or here in openDemocracy by Shaun Lawson.

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