Real Change? Problems and possibilities

A stern view that calls on trade unions to act in the UK's democratic crisis
Jeremy Gilbert
18 July 2009

A set of reflections on issues which any campaign such as Real Change might have to address, constituencies it may want to work with, examples it might like to consider. This post led to an OurKingdom conversation [History: this post > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part one; part two) > Jeremy Gilbert]

Anthony Barnett has set out a series of measures and potential interventions which could very conceivably work to catalyse the kind of democratic revolution in Britain which many of us would like to see. I have no criticism to make of this position, which I entirely endorse. What follows here are a set of further reflections on issues which any such campaign might have to address, constituencies it may want to work with, examples it might like to consider. In particular I will consider the potential role of the unions, the absence of a political organisation which can mobilise young people and the different conceptions of radical community activism embodied by the Climate Camp, London Citizens, and the World Social Forum.

No representation without organisation

My first observation derives directly from Saskia Sassen's recent analysis in openDemocracy of the legacy of neoliberalism, which demonstrates the direct connection between the unchallenged intensification of ‘corporate economic globalisation' and the concentration of power in the hands of national executives at the expense of representative legislatures. Similar observations form part of Colin Crouch's broader ‘post-democracy' thesis, which I have already cited more than once in oD. All such analysis points to a particularly crucial fact: that the unchallenged spread and intensification of capitalist social relations does not tend to the democratisation of political institutions. The implication of this observation which I would like to develop is that the historic defeat and marginalisation of the labour movement has played a key role in undermining the social conditions for the democratic gains of the twentieth century.

This is not a complex argument: it is clear enough that that defeat was a precondition for the implementation of the neoliberal programme, and that the weakening of the political power of organised labour has removed one of the props which once supported representative governments in the face of corporate pressure. In particular, governments of the left cannot threaten capital with the sanctions which were once at their disposal - when they could pose as neutral intermediaries between social blocs of apparently equal power - now that unions themselves are seen as having few resources with which to threaten global corporations.

On a more general level, we can speculate with some confidence that the fact that fewer people now have any experience of self-organisation, consultation and representation in a crucial sphere of life - work - tends to weaken habits of democratic engagement and social solidarity on which any effective collective defence of democratic rights against overweening corporate power must depend. Perhaps more fundamentally, the rise in average working hours over the previous generation even in the wealthiest countries (the first such rise since the industrial revolution) is indicative of a real-terms decline in the value of labour which cannot be unconnected to the decline in unionisation. This reduction in the value of labour clearly reduces the capacity of citizens to engage in the time-consuming business of participative politics, because it requires them to spend more time working than was the case a generation earlier, in order to maintain a relatively comparable standard of living. This rise in working time has implications for family life, for the welfare of children (most notably, perhaps, those children in their early teens whose parents receive the least support in their out-of-school care at a notoriously pivotal moment in their emotional development) and for personal relationships. Unfortunately, both mainstream journalism and liberal commentary habitually fail to link these social problems to their most obvious material cause: the time-deprivation inflicted upon workers once their capacity to organise politically has been undermined. The implications for democracy are no less serious: if there is no time to read the papers, to discuss issues with friends, to go to meetings, to deliberate and reflect, then there can be no democracy.

The point of these observations is to emphasise the necessity of effective labour politics for any broader revival of democratic politics. This is not to say that the forms of trade-unionism which typified 20th century industry could or should be revived or that vibrant unions are a sufficient precondition for democratic renewal, or that they can or should lead campaigns for it. In a way, the point I am making here is a reversal of the classical ‘Marxist' emphasis on class struggle as the essential form of politics, of which democratic struggles are at best epiphenomenal expressions (which of course was always a distorted version of Marx's actual position or that taken by any of his more serious followers): instead of arguing for democratic struggle merely as a pragmatic tactic on the way to socialism, I am suggesting that effective labour organisation is itself a precondition for any successful democratic struggle, whatever its socio-economic objectives (if any) may be. This may be a banal observation, and it is certainly not original, but it is one which is not often made in the current climate.

At the same time, the more pragmatic issue facing the kind of campaign which Barnett proposes will be whether it can get the kind of support that it needs and deserves from the trade unions themselves. Despite their limitations, there are few institutions or organisations with even vaguely progressive agendas today which have comparable resources, and it is questionable how far support from the press would go for any democratising campaign once it became clear what a threat it would pose to real powerful interests in the UK. Under these circumstances, support from the unions might well prove invaluable.

At the same time, from the unions' point of view, this is an issue which they simply cannot afford to ignore any longer. Despite plans for proportional representation forming part of the Labour Party's first manifesto, the British labour movement lost interest in democratic reform as soon as it became feasible for it to achieve a clear majority in the House of Commons, in the 1940s, and it has never really regained any such interest. The terrible consequences of this uninterest can be seen today in the movement's utter failure to mobilise public opinion against an unpopular programme of deep privatisations. Unwilling or unable to offer leadership to anyone beyond their own rank and file, none of the unions which lobbied against the Private Finance Initiative seem to have been able to imagine what it would be like to run a broad-based political campaign which did not depend on the Labour party to achieve its objectives. Over a decade of ineffectual lobbying of Labour ministers has seen the unions waste a historic opportunity to gather public opinion against the neoliberal agenda. To have been able to have capitalised on this opportunity, labour leaders would have had to recognise and emphasise the extent to which it was democratic and not just socio-economic issues which were at stake.

Put very simply, nobody voted for New Labour's privatisation programme. This is is the bottom line: the key fact around which a campaign against that programme could and should have been mobilised. But to have highlighted this fact and to have made an issue of it, trade union leaders would have had to bring into question an unrepresentative system of government within which they themselves still hoped to reassert themselves as the powerful players - as they had once been in the 1970s. Their aim was to install Gordon Brown (whom they believed to be their friend and ally) in the Treasury and then finally in No. 10. This catastrophic miscalculation has left the struggle against neoliberalism in the UK far weaker than it should have been, and has further undermined what remains of our democratic settlement. Trade unionists should reflect on these issues and consider whether they will not have to address themselves to the renewal and radicalisation of that settlement if they ever wish to be able to pursue their more immediate goals with any success.

Compass and the Lost Youth

Democracy is a theme which already runs through the most forward-thinking campaign against New Labour neoliberalism, that led (and largely constituted) by the lobby group and membership organisation, Compass. Compass' invocation to ‘dare more democracy' carries echoes of the New Left's prescient critiques of bureaucratic welfarism in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguing that the paternalist state could not command the long-term support of working people, the New Left accurately foresaw the loss of legitimacy which would make possible the very public privatisation drives of high Thatcherism, and would become the alibi for New Labour's continuation and intensification of this programme by more discrete means. Compass has become the latest in a series of voices calling for greater participation in decision-making and democratic control on the part of service users and staff as the obvious way to enable services to become responsive to the needs of both individuals and communities in the complex world of the 21st century. Where they have had a programme for reform at all, the public service unions have tended to argue along similar lines, but it is surely clear by now that such arguments cannot be made effectively with reference only to the governance of public services. Rather they must be made in terms of a far wider critique of the degeneration of political democracy here and across much of the world.

One area of politics in which Compass has had some success is in its mobilisation of a cohort of young Labour activists disillusioned by 12 years of Blairism. And Sam Tarry of Compass Youth has recently been elected chair of Young Labour itself. However, it seems very unlikely that the appeal of this organisation - rooted as it is in the Labour Party, and primarily in the disillusionment of a cohort of ‘soft left' activists who came to maturity in the 1980s - can extend to many of the young, beyond those who happen to come from Labour families. Those young people who have parents who were once active in the Labour party (and let's not forget that there are tens of thousands of them) may have some personal social context within which to understand the history of the party and its current predicaments in terms which would not lead them to recoil from it in disgust. But there is no reason for anyone else under 35 to remember much about the party's history beyond a tale of venality, duplicity and hubris; the very real and welcome social reforms which Labour have implemented feel like far too little, and with far too many strings attached, for most young people to be inspired by them.

At the radical fringes, among some poor urban constituencies and on the campuses, it remains the Socialist Workers Party, of all things, which continues to offer often the only refuge for those in search of a militant politics of the left which seems capable of making some sense of the realities of contemporary power relationships. But the SWP, committed as ever to Leninist revolutionary orthodoxy, not only ignores such bourgeois issues as democracy and political representation; it actively tries to steer its cadres away from any issue or line of argument which might lead them towards an immediate critique of our democratic crisis. The SWP, as ever, is a machine designed to ensure that the radical energies of the most militant youth are wasted on causes which have nothing to do with the immediate sources of their continued disenfranchisement at home, at work, and at university: forever trapped in the cycle of tokenist politics, empty rhetoric, meaningless factionalism and romantic nihilism which ensures that the vast majority of their activists grow weary of politics altogether before they reach the age of 25. But why should the SWP have any effective appeal, when the organisation is both so ugly and so patently ineffectual? The fact that it still functions at all speaks of a significant vacuum on the British left.

This raises a number of interesting questions. For one thing: where is the Green Party on British campuses? They ought to be the default point of political identification for idealistic youth, of whom there is no evidence that there are any fewer today than there ever were. I don't know the answer to this question - it would be for the Green Party themselves to address, but I think that it is a question which democrats of all shades in Britain should probably be asking ourselves. One observable fact is that it is only in the single most obvious bastion of academic privilege - Oxford itself - that university-based Green Party activism has had any clear impact on even local politics. One might also observe that People & Planet, the ecologically-oriented student activist network, is also best represented at the most privileged universities, and conclude that for most of the very young, green politics must feel like a long-termist luxury which was little immediate relevance to their overworked, cash-strapped lives.

From this point of view, it must be clear that a yawning space exists for a politics which could speak to young people realistically about the connections between work, consumption, exploitation and democracy. It is very unlikely that a campaign around political representation could do anything to occupy this space, but occupying it is something that progressive forces will have to think about doing. Again, it is the unions who could really do something here if they wanted to: an open and pluralistic network promoting progressive democratic politics and trade-union membership, unencumbered by obligatory ties to the Labour Party, would require relatively small amounts of funding from the TUC to be able to outflank the SWP, and the long-term benefits for both the democratic and trade-union movements could be incalculable.

Radical Communities

Of course, more militant forms of ecological activism continue to function as a pole of attraction for active citizens of all ages. The Climate Camps this year are likely to be the biggest and most high-profile so far, and their participants are capable of great eloquence in defence of a particular ideal of democracy as well as great imagination in its practical realisation. The political position of most climate camp activists is clearly an anarchist one (although few might use the label), hostile and sceptical towards all institutions of government whatsoever; but this should not mean that any campaign for democratic reform can safely fail to engage with the critiques and utopian aspirations emanating from such sites of innovation, or even from the anarchist tradition as such. Democracy which does not at least aspire to the levels of participation, non-coercion and equality which would meet the demands of those aspirations can only ever stagnate, as we have seen in recent decades. On the other hand, while Climate Camp may be a powerful symbolic gesture and important site of self-constitution for a particular political collectivity, it does not seem to mark the point of convergence between middle-class ecology, suburban conservationism and urban popular culture that Reclaim the Streets did at the height of its success. In particular, the voices of the urban poor are conspicuously absent from its conclaves.

The one British organisation which has managed to make such voices heard in recent years is, of course, London Citizens, the community-based campaigning organisation which has had such success in pushing both elected London mayors to support their campaign for a living wage for all workers in London. London Citizens is an inspiring organisation which evokes justifiable awe in activists from other strands of progressive politics, desperate for such successes and for the feeling of a genuine mobilisation of grassroots communities which its events carry with them. On the other hand, there are clear limitations to LC's model of operation, derived as it is from the American ‘community politics' tradition. Although much is made of the diversity of its constituent organisations, the fact remains that the vast majority of them are churches and mosques. What's more, any detailed conversation with key LC organisers makes very clear why this should be the case, for they tend to hold fast to an extremely prescriptive understanding of what constitutes a ‘community' and of how rigidly any group must conform to those criteria before being allowed to participate in its project.

Ultimately, LC's political programme is informed by a critique of the weakening of social and political communities which is ethico-spiritual rather than being properly political in character. Their solution to the problems caused by social atomisation and political disenfranchisement is not to find new ways of mobilising the potential power of those who suffer most from such conditions. Rather it is to mobilise those communities which are already bound together by the very high levels of personal commitment, and the very high levels of social homogeneity, typical of almost no type of social institution today other than church congregations. This is a fantastic way to mobilise those communities which already possess the levels of self-organisation, commitment and self-consciousness required to engage in meaningful campaigning. But as a solution to the far bigger problem of how to allow those citizens who do not belong to such delimited communities (and who never will again) to act together meaningfully to address social problems, this programme has very little to offer.

A New Social Forum

Scanning the globe, perhaps the most radical and far-sighted attempt to engage with this problem remains the models thrown up by the World Social Forum process. Of course, the strengths and weaknesses of these are precisely the obverse of those of community politics. Radically inclusive, discursive and participatory, a social forum is not something that can make a decision and act on it, as a disciplined and ethically homogenous community can. But the ideal of the social forum as a space of potential and open-ended engagement between an unpredictable range of social actors surely remains crucial to any attempt to reinvigorate democracy in the twenty-first century. It is interesting to reflect that the rules which govern participation in a social forum are almost precisely the reverse of those governing participation in London Citizens. According to the rules governing the World Social Forum, anybody may participate in it and nobody may claim authority within it on the basis of their representing anyone else.

This may sound like a recipe for chaos, until we appreciate that it is a model predicated on the recognition that, of course, representative bodies (political parties, trade unions, London Citizens, etc.) exist and must exist, and must discipline themselves appropriately; but that the complex fluidity of postmodern global society is such that such organisations can now never be sufficient for the achievement of meaningful democracy. Social Forums were created by political parties and campaigning membership organisations who realised that some new kind of space was needed in which they could encounter each other and engage with new ideas and new problems. One lesson of the failures and successes of respective social forums around the world is certainly worth taking note of here: paradoxically, they only seem to work when they are initiated by some respected and well-established organisation, which is seen as sufficiently disinterested that other groups and organisation will get involved without fearing for their own ultimate autonomy. There are few such organisations in the UK today, but they do exist: London Citizens might be one; Friends of the Earth might be another; again, the TUC could play a role. A proper social forum for London or England would be a startling achievement and a real contribution to democratic renewal in the whole UK, and either one of these organisation could make it happen it if they wanted to.

Here, then is a final idea for any such democratic campaign as Barnett envisages: it should call upon these organisations to have the courage to help to institute a new kind of deliberative democratic institution, over which they would have no control, but which might actually have a chance of creating some space for active democracy in twenty-first century Britain: a social forum for us all. This would not be an alternative to the kind of detailed demands for representative reform which Real Change envisages, but it would be vital to the fostering of the kind of democratic climate within which such reforms could take root, flower and grow.

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