I really like John McDonnell. I’ve met him a couple of times, and corresponded with him a lot more, and I can attest to the widely held view that he’s not just deeply principled, but also genuinely egalitarian in his approach to others; he’s one of the only MPs, indeed Westminster inhabitants in general, that I have met/corresponded with who don’t supply, alongside the bonhomie, a steady supply of hints that I am the supplicant and s/he holds the balance of power .
But I think John’s new campaign ‘Radical Labour’ is misguided, at least at its starting point
John explains the campaign in an introductory post on the new website
I am launching this website to host a debate on the issues the Labour leadership candidates have to address and to promote some of the ideas and policies people think any new leader should adopt.
The problem is that such a focus on what a new leader should or shouldn’t do is at odds with his much better statement, made last week:
Leaders play an important role, but it is the Labour party’s supporters and potential supporters who should take the lead in discussing and determining the sense of purpose and direction of the party if we are to return to being a social movement aiming to transform our society. It is that process many of us want to see before a leader is selected.
The mistake John now makes, in seeking to organize a debate about how we can radicalize the Labour movement, is to do so within the context of the leaders’ debate. But that is, as John himself has recognized in the earlier statement, the opposite of what we need.
If we are to debate properly how the labour movement moves forward, with other social forces, in these uncertain times, then we need to see the party leadership contest as irrelevant. I say this for two reasons.
First, debating change in the context of who will or should be party leader will almost certainly end us with those involved succumbing to what Chris calls Bonnie Tyler Syndrome (BTS).
Second, while the debaters succumb to BTS, much of rest of the population will almost certainly get a big dose of Stranglers Disease, in which they take one look at the new leader, and start wondering aloud about whatever happened to all the heroes .
No Conservative leader has ever matched Thatcher as leader and, love him or hate him, the same in true of Blair for Labour. For at least the next decade, any Labour leader will be a disappointment for a large section of the population, because that is what Labour leaders are supposed to be.
Given this, the idea that the labour movement/left should pin its hopes on a new leader, rather than make plans to take power in spite of her/him perceived failings, seems ludicrous. Much better in my view, simply to ignore the leadership context, and get on with what it is able do: the kind of organisational and institution building work at local level that I have suggested (and which I’ve suggested should build on but supplant the heroic failings of the anti-austerity movement).
Indeed, it might be a good idea to make a very deliberate statement that, when it comes to building the social movement to which John rightly aspires, sisters (and brothers) really are doing it for themselves. Such a statement might be made by a deliberate mass spoiling of leadership ballots, creating a clear vote differential between leader votes cast and deputy leader votes cast (on the basis that the deputy leader’s function in ensuring PLP resource sharing may actually be relevant ). I’ve never spoiled a ballot in my life, and I think I’d find it hard to bring myself to do so, but the idea of strong but active rejection, by the rank and file, of the leadership fetish, is an attractive one at first sight.
There is still time to rescue John’s Radical Labour initiative, before it too falls into the cycle of hope and despair at a new leader’s personal qualities being drowned by the tide of popular distrust. But not much. This post is my response to his invitation to engage, and I’ll be asking him to post it on his Radical Labour site.
 The only others one I can remember getting this vibe from is Will Straw, while he was at IPPR, and Anna Turley, while she was at NGLN (I count the think-tanks as Westminster). My refusal to kowtow to such power signals did me no good at all in my (ex)-political career, thoughy my inability to string a coherent sentence or two together didn’t help either.
 I do feel bound to point out that I’ve always found the Stranglers’ equating Sancho Panza and Trotsky as true revolutionary heroes very odd, but maybe they’re reading something into Cervantes which I’ve never got.
 Much more to come on this as I will be engaging with this contest.
John Harris’ piece on the scale of the crisis facing social democratic parties like Labour is not bad at all. It’s the first journalistic piece post-election that I have seen which moves beyond whiny plaints about the need for Labour to reconnect, and at least hints what we might actually start to do:
Campaigning for child benefit, for example, began in 1917, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP from Liverpool. A semi-independent offshoot of the board of education began lobbying for the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1926.Meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes was blazing a trail away from austerity, and there was a cacophony about a whole range of other subjects, from nutrition to new towns.
I can just about imagine some latter day version of all this – it might encompass everything from Mumsnet through Britain’s churches, what remains of progressive academia, and out into single-issue campaigns that can these days acquire momentum at speed. It would also push the centre-left’s lamentably economistic agenda into places in which it is too uncomfortable: loneliness, family breakdown, an obvious crisis in masculinity, the return of hunger to our towns and cities, and more. The trouble is, I cannot imagine most of the Labour elite having either the wit or humility to get involved.
Well yes, the whiny tone returns in the last sentence, but the idea that we might be the agents of our own change – and that the Labour party is not the only vehicle for progress – is a step forward.
It reminds me, in fact, of the concluding chapter of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (pdf) which, though now more than 50 years old, remains probably the greatest analysis of emerging crisis of social democracy. Habermas’ key focus in the chapter is on the degradation of the public sphere from its high point in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and what this has done to the electoral process:
Ideally the [the nineteenth century] vote was only the concluding act of a continuous controversy carried out publicly between argument and counterargument (p.212)…….
As a rule [come the twentieth century], precisely those who are most decisively predisposed to avoid a public opinion formed by discussion are the ones most likely to be influenced in their views – but this time by the staged or manipulatively manufactured public sphere of the election campaign (p.214)
That’s UKIP, that is, benefiting from the collapse of public debate, and the rise of political messaging.
But like John, Juergen sees the solution in the recreation of a modern public sphere, operating beyond the boundaries of those institutions, like Labour, currently trapped by the need to kowtow to a public opinion manufactured for the electoral cycle, in a closed loop. The way forward says Habermas is that:
Under the condition of the large, democratic social welfare state, the communicative interconnectedness of a public can be brought about only in this way: through a critical publicity brought to life within intraorganisational public spheres, the completely short-circuited circulation of quasi-public opinion must be linked to the informal domain of the hitherto nonpublic opinions (p.249-250).
I’d go further than John, and argue that a ‘Habermasian’ public sphere comprising a better educated public creating their own areas of argument, can be most effectively recreated in 21st century modernity by the deliberate, indeed provocative, formation of associational institutions which challenge assumptions about the state’s right to impose itself “via an essentially plebiscitarian legitimation for….legislative actions against independent associations in civil society” (Paul Hirst, The Pluralist Theory of the State p.19). Such institutions, the genesis and function of which I outline here, are preferable to Mumsnet et. al in that they combine public discourse with active challenge to the status quo.
John doesn’t get as far as he might, and he does fall back into the post-election “someone else’s fault” default whine. Nevertheless, it’s good to see at least one member of the leftie commentariat getting beyond the blandness of who we need as next Labour leader.
The most obvious way (though arguably not the best) way to win power in a liberal democracy is to win elections. Nationally, Labour have not been doing very well at that of late. So as I appear to be quite good at it, I thought I’d offer a few tips.
The bare facts in support of my credibility:
1) On Thursday I won a council seat from a Conservative in a leafy farming area of Lancashire and became the first ever Labour councillor for the ward, again. I say again because I won it for the first time in 2007, before standing down in 2011 for family and work reasons, at which point the Tories regained the seat by 40 votes from a last-minute Labour candidate that no-one knew (I won’t cover the personal details that made this occur).
2) On Thursday, I won the seat on an election expense in the order of £15, this being five reams of A4 paper from ASDA and an ink cartridge. I kept cost down by printing on ‘fast normal’ setting. I canvassed no houses and did not go out on my ward on election day, as I has no canvass data. I leafleted around 90% of the houses, though work meant I didn’t get to quite a few of them until the day before the election.
Now, I’m a scruffy, paunchy middle-aged bloke with quite bad teeth. Earlier half-hearted attempts to climb up the political hierarchy by becoming, in turn, an MEP and a PCC, failed dismally at longlisting stage because, although my CV is ok, I’m fairly inarticulate and just don’t ‘present’ well.
So that’s not what won the seat.
What won the seat, people have told me in the last couple of days, is something close to what Nora demands:
The people of this country don’t demand politicians who agree with every last part off their world view. The vast majority of people don’t demand ideological purity of the left/right/liberal/conservative/secular/religious/and-so-on variety – what they want is something far more achievable, far more reasonable: respect. Not of the ‘when I see a white van’ variety, but a genuine respect that is borne of familiarity, understanding and yes, even affection, for the way they live their lives.
It’s a bit more than that though. I won because I help organise stuff that needs doing, but without wearing a shiny “Look at me, I’m Labour and I’m a caring community organiser” badge on. I don’t think there’s any point in the last 10 years that, when turning up to get stuff done, I’ve mentioned my Labourness. But in the end, when I shoved my badly printed leaflet through people’s letterbox, enough people thought something like: “Ah yes, Paul. The one with the bike. I don’t give a monkey’s about politics, but he’s ok.”
This, it seems to me, is pretty well the opposite of most orchestrated Labour campaigning. In all such campaigns that I’ve seen, the subject matter is almost an irrelevance. The real purpose is Voter ID, mixed with a false-looking effort to show how much Labour cares about “hardworking families”.
People aren’t stupid. They get what you’re after, and if it’s you’re just after their vote, it may well make it less likely that you’ll get it, not more.
So my bit of advice, as a winner? All politics is local, even at constituency scale. Just do stuff. Throw away the Labour stickers. Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder. Come election time, if people know what you’ve been up to, they’ll vote for you. If not, they won’t.
Here’s my election leaflet. It’s 8 pages of text, saying what I’d done and what I’ll try and organise now. People tell me they actually sat down and read it.
HM Drucker’s (1979) in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party:
Since Labour’s ethos emanates from a specific past one may ask what the implications of this task are for the future…….Labour cannot be simpliciter a party of the future. Such a possibility may be available to a radical social democratic party. It is not possible for the historic Labour party. The attempt by Crosland in his The Future of Socialism (happy title) (1956) to condemn Labour’s tendency to cling to the principles of its past is futile. Any attempt to redefine goals for future action must always be seen to be strictly consonant with the past.
A second implication is that Labour’s support can be eroded by a general change of consciousness. If the ties of class-consciousness are weakened, then Labour is threatened. If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ….Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it. Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another – one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s. As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties. As this happens, one witnesses an exchange of one past for another as the new choice comes to appear more vivid. If in future elections Labour loses parliamentary seats as a result. it will be paying a high price for the loss of class-identity (p.39, my emphasis).
So strong are the old assumptions that the import of the weakening of the two-party system have only just begun to sink home. The belief that Britain is inevitably a two-party country is deep-seated, and there is a strong inclination to treat any deviation as either or minor or temporary. This inclination still predominates in the Labour Party. These attitudes would be shattered, however. if future Labour leaders were forced to negotiate a formal coalition with the leaders of other parties….
The collective popularity of the Liberals, Scottish and Welsh Nationalist, the Irish parties and the National Front is considerable and will not disappear…..
We may, I think, further speculate that in the emerging multi-party world each party will need a strong core of support most of all – not a majority or a near majority of voters. And at the same time it will have less need for its doctrinaires and policy-writers, for in a multi-party world the manifestos of the parties will be but bargaining-counters which will be traded for Cabinet seats by the party leaders after each election. This, at the same time as Labour’s doctrines are reveled as threadbare, those ho write them are losing their usefulness in the party. Labour, with its solid support in the trade union movement and its ideology securely founded on the ethos of trade unions, ought to be able to play the new multi-party game to advantage (p.119-120).