Archive for the ‘Labour Party News’ Category

Four ways to a living wage

Liz Kendall pledges:

As Labour’s next Prime Minister I would extend the legal remit of the Low Pay Commission to work with employers, unions and civil society to identify practical, non-statutory ways to move wages towards the living wage, sector by sector.

Some of the responses to this pledge or not favourable e.g.

“Non statutory”? Sounds a bit like… “and, as leader, I will ask you very nicely, and if you laugh at me and ignore me, I’ll ask you in another letter, in a slightly more serious tone”….

So what would Liz PM’s methods to get toward a living way without legislation, either through the Low Pay Commission or otherwise, actually be?   I think there are four broad options:

1) Increase union bargaining power by removing the restriction imposed by Tory governments (and not removed by the last Labour government)

Hardly likely as a sole act, of course, as this would be seen as unelectability material and in any event in itself would foster a further division at least in the medium term between unionised and un-unionised sectors.  But we’ll come back to unions and unionisation

2) Use public sector purchasing power to drive up wages, by ensuring (by non-statutory means) that all contracts for public money e.g. building jobs in schools, housing associations etc. stipulate that employees must be on a living wage.  Moves towards this are already taking place, though (in my area) reality has struck home about how manageable it is on all local authority contracts.

There are complexities here.  First, blunt implementation by public bodies would probably lead to sub-contracting so that the non-living wage is further down the supply chain (however artificially) and this would require either greater bureaucracies in contract management to manage, thus creating lower contract award diversity.   Second, non-statutory application of the method would probably require the incentivising of public bodies to get on board.  Third, it doesn’t cover all sectors of the economy, even if it is fed through the supply chain, and the creation of a dual economy remains a risk. Fourth, and most obviously, forcing living wages onto low wage sectors through contract conditions may push some organisations out of business (though it may create some room for social enterprise and co-operatives to fill those gaps).

Even so, as part of a larger strategic package (involving localisation of supply chains through local business development support and purchasing ledger scrutiny to encourage sustainability as well as local economic growth) it might have some legs.

3) There’s the fiscal option: simply put an employee tax cut through PAYE and make the same or similar charge on employer NI. Liz PM could/should also take the opportunity to adjust thresholds which currently create a perverse incentive for employers to keep lower paid employees on hours just below the PAYE threshold.

This has its attractions, though it will be painted simply as another way of raising tax on hard-pressed employers unless it is packaged as a fair deal for all, including part-timers currently held back from full-time work.

4) More creatively, a scheme developed during Liz PM’s life in opposition, rooted in union organising principles and ‘ready to go’ in 2020, where employers receive a PAYE rebate if they can evidence that they have voluntarily encouraged unionisation of their workforce (or perhaps co-ownership in some cases), such that unionised workplaces are in a better position to work towards living wage set-ups without recourse either to statutory means or perceived trade union ultra-militancy (see 1).  This can be sold both a tax cut to employers and a route to a wage-led economy.

Against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid

Phil says it’s “clearly …in the interests of our party and our movement” that Jeremy Corbyn gets enough nominations to enter the Labour leadership contest proper.

I’m not sure I agree.

Such doubts are, I hasten to add, not related to Jeremy’s personal qualities.  His combination of integrity and unassumingness has been widely commented on and, while I’ve never met him, I have no reason to think that he is anything other than a principled socialist.

My concern is that, by investing hope and energy in a campaign to get Jeremy into the contest, and then presumably win it, the Labour left is both fetishing leadership and getting distracted from the more important task ahead: creating the proper conditions for the re-emergence of democratic socialist government in Britain.

By the former, I mean exactly what Chris says:

a focus upon ritualistic aspects of “leadership” whilst neglecting the question of how exactly the rituals are related to outcomes.

By the latter, I mean that Labour has little chance of taking power again any time soon unless the hard spade work is done at local institutional level to show that solidaristic action creates real, local material benefit for the working and middle class, and thus get the very many marginal candidates we’ll need to win, if we are to form a government on revised boundaries, over the line [1] No leader, however principled and charismatic, can do that for us, and investing our hopes in Jeremy is just delaying getting started.

If Jeremy was looking to run for Deputy Leader, then I might argue differently; the Deputy Leader post may well offer up opportunities to influence the necessary radical restructuring of Labour party of movement resources, so that we can start a proper ‘ground game’.  It would be interesting to hear his proposals against those of the only existing candidate with potential for such creativity, Stella Creasy [2]

I know I’m swimming against the Labour left tide, here, and I won’t be too saddened if he does get to 35 nominations..  If he does, I hope he will use some of the limelight that he’ll be expected to focus the correct(ish) but largely pointless anti-austerity preaching on what actually counts – how we can rebuild the movement as a producer of politics, from bottom up, and what a PLP, humbler in his image, might do to support that.


[1] A more achievable goal in the medium term may be taking power at sub-national levels, and building extra-state institutions through Trade Councils and Mondragon-style innovation, in concert with local councils etc.  But that’s another post.

[2] I am yet to be convinced of Stella’s conviction or potential for the role, but her past and her understanding of proper engagement suggests she may have what it takes if she is prepared to be humble.


Categories: Labour Party News

White working class educational underachievement: a reply to Wes Streeting

I find this post on white working class educational underachievement, by new MP West Streeting, infuriating.   Having read it through twice, my overriding thought is: “you’re better than this, Wes.”

Here’s  Wes’s central point:

The failure of state education in so many white working class areas is utterly unacceptable. Not to talk about it or to have any answers for how we overcome it, equally so.

There are two errors here.  First, there is the suggestion that no-one, until Liz Kendall came along, has been talking about comparative underachievement by white working class children. This is just wrong.  I’m a Chair of Governors at a maintained secondary school in a predominantly white working class town.  I talk about ‘closing the gap’ a lot with staff.  We look carefully at pupil premium spend to make sure it’s doing the right stuff.  We discuss how we can best arrange what can seem like dizzying number of intervention and support strategies in the context of our ever evolving (because young people evolve) understanding of where those ‘cohorts within cohorts’ are at with their lives.  We’ve made progress [1].  We want to make more. We keep searching, we keep engaging with ‘pupil voice’.

We don’t “not talk about it” because it’s some kind of taboo to do so.  It’s a figment of Wes’s imagination to  suggest that educational inequality is not being talked about by people involved in education. It is, dare I say, just a tad insulting.

But here’s the rub.   It won’t work.  Or it won’t work completely.  Whatever we do, within the confines of our schools, will be insufficient to close the gap.  The research is very clear that educational inequality is, to a very significant extent, rooted in factors beyond the school gates.  Here’s Stewart & Cooper (2013), for example:

Our review indicates clearly that money makes a difference to children’s outcomes. Poorer children have worse cognitive, social behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, and not just because poverty is correlated with other household and parental characteristics….

Our calculations suggest that closing the gap between FSM households and the average income for non-FSM households would not eliminate the achievement gap, but might be expected to reduce it by more than half.

It’s not all money, of course.  If it was, white students on FSMs wouldn’t, overall, be doing worse exam-wise than students of other ethnicity.   When I look at the students in my town, both in and outside of school, I see how much truth there is in Garth Stahl’s superb study of how white working class boys can make a conscious shift towards underachievement because of the threat to what Giddens would call their ontological security if they overachieve.

The empirical evidence Stahl provides suggests that young people from ‘traditional’ white working class families are victims of Richard Sennett’s ‘culture of the new capitalism’ (pdf )[2], to a greater extent than those who, purely in economic terms, may sometimes appear more vulnerable.

What all this research shows is that schools are only part of the solution.  Classroom education is, as Chris Cook has suggested (and backed with lots of data), the ‘last mile’ stuff.   Acknowledging this is absolutely not an excuse  – it is context.  But it’s a context which Wes, in his rush to claim an “unacceptable” “failure of state education” seems unwilling or unable to countenance, at least until he’s read this blogpost.

This second error is, of itself an unacceptable failure on Wes’s part.  It is unacceptable because effectively indulging in false claims about schools being solely responsible for educational underachievement of white working class kids actually obstacles to doing the right things at a wider societal level – with educators as key partners.   These things include stuff like links with employers of the type that foster aspiration to cool jobs in technology – and there’s some really good stuff going on there, like the marvelously overstretched but willing-as-hell Class Careers.  But they also need to include wider community ‘decision-making’, perhaps rooted in Amartya Sen’s social choice theory, where whole groups of families and others come together and commit to both solidarity and aspiration around educational achievement, and start to build real working relationships with schools in a way which can help students, and their friends, access the cultural capital  they need in today’s difficult-to-navigate network society.

All of this can and will happen (and my schools is going to be part of it) but it will be hampered by people like, Wes, unless they themselves “get with the programme”.

Let’s finish with Wes.

He’s a good guy, with lots of talent.  He won his election when lots lost, so he must get stuff.  If he reads this, I hope he’ll take me calling him an unacceptable failure in good heart, and in the knockabout but productive spirit it’s intended.   But my main worry for Wes is that he’s already being dragged into what I call ‘managerial MP mindset (MMM).

MMM is where MPs, especially those more recently into the trade, come to believe that their main very important job is to demand answers, and find things unacceptable on behalf of their constituents.  Advanced MMM includes not being remotely interested in what people do to make things happen, but just want answers on their desk by 5pm.  It is the very essence of black box managerialism.    Simon Danzcuk, for example, is an expert MMMer – lots of demands for answers around Child Sexual Exploitation in greater Manchester – no obvious interest in fellow (and non-MMM) MP Ann Coffey’s superb research and recommendations [3] about what we might actually resource the tackling and prevention of it [4]

Wes is better than MMM.  He has the energy, know-how and ‘feel’ for what it’s like to be a working class kid of today to actually help develop and resource the wider actions we need to reduce educational inequality, rather than just bleat about schools failing their kids.   It’s his, and lots of his new colleagues’, choice.



[1] 15th most improved school in the North West in 2013, FSM gap narrowed considerably.

[2] Sennett says:

A class difference appears between those laborers – mostly immigrants in the informal or “gray” sector of the economy – who find themselves in a fluid or fragmented economy and those traditional working class people, one protected by pyramidal unions or employers, who have less room for maneuver; in the middle, people fear being displaced, sideline or underused.  The institutional model of the future does not furnish them with a life narrative at work, or the promise of much securiy in the public realm. In the network society, their informal networks are thin (p.132)

[3] Commissioned by Police & Crime Commissioner and non-MMM ex-MP tony Lloyd


[4] We wait to see which way Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, proto-MMM though with real doing-stuff experience behind her, will go.  The early signs, judging by this patronizing guff, were not good:

Now that I am “one of them”, I can report back that Parliament is actually full of normal people who care passionately about representing their constituents and making changes that will have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.  What we need to address is why people don’t believe that’s true, and why people don’t think their voice is heard.



How should Labour campaign for a yes on the EU?

Andy Burnham tweets, in reference to a Daily Mail headline:

One month into 1st Tory Govt for 20 years & already falling apart over EU. Why we need separate Labour Yes campaign

I agree, but I suspect my vision of what a good Labour yes campaign might look like is different from the vacuous nonsense most Labour MPs will come up with in support of EU membership.  This is because I understand a little bit about the EU, while most MPs have not bothered to do any kind of detail on it, and are happy with the soundbites fed to them.

So this is how I’d approach it if I was in charge of such things….(and yes this is largely copied from a post a cuple of years old, because the substantive arguments have hardly moved)

A referendum on membership may not a bad thing for Labour.  As opposed to tactical Cameron’s sham ‘renegotiation’, Labour is free to engage with like-minded European partners on the development of a social democratic alternative/revision to the Lisbon Treaty, and to sell this to the UK electorate in a way which more clearly distinguishes it from the Tories on Europe than it has managed to date.  Francois Hollande will still be in office for most of the period, and and Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and others have a more than 50% chance, I’d say, of having governments with whom Labour can do business on the development of a centre-left treaty to replace/modify Lisbon.  It is on the basis of a clearly better-for-the-people Treaty that Labour should campaign.

What would a revised, social democratic Lisbon Treaty look like? well, I think six things should be top of the list, reflecting how different a social democratic Europe post-2019 (ie. after the 2019 Euro elections and a possible leftist majority might look):

1) A revised treaty should establish the primacy of the European Parliament as decision-making agenda-setting body, with the European Commission removed from its role as one of the three key bodies involved in the current co-decision making process, and developed into a ‘neutral’ civil service operating under democratic command.

This will set Labour and its fellow European parties aside from the Tories, who under Cameron have stated clearly that the sole legitimate democratic voice in Europe is the intergovernmental European Council of heads of state.  Labour should argue that the Euoprean Parliament, as long as it reforms its election system away from the current regional list system towards one where each MEP represents  distinct constituency, is now the body with the expertise (and Commission support) and legitimacy that is needed to govern the European Union, albeit with due reference to intergovernmental institutions (not just the European Council but also the strangely similarly named Council of the European Union).

This is not just the right thing to do, as it brings into play the importance of parties working across Europe to establish a majority and then coherent policy within the Parliament; it is also tactically useful, because it allows Labour to go into the 2019 European elections on the basis that the Tories and UKIP are actually just putting up ‘gravy-train’ candidates to be members of an institution they don’t even believe in, while Labour candidates actually want to get some work done.

2) The new treaty should create the legal conditions in which the frankly absurd Stability and Growth Pact and the accompanying ‘six-pack’ directive, are subsequently abolished.  These directives are the ones which effectively outlaw Keynesianism by imposing ludicrous constraints on surplus/deficit spending.   The treaty should then set out an alternative framework under which member states are required to use their spending power to maintain and enhance levels of social security, employment and income equality.  Whether this should include numerical targets and some form of sanction for non-compliance, mirroring the surplus/deficit targets/sanctions set out under a neoliberal EU, is open to debate (currently I would favour such).

3) In keeping with this significant change in emphasis to the EU’s role and the legitimacy of the European Parliament, the new treaty should reverse the decision under Lisbon to remove democratic control of the European Central Bank from the Parliament.

4) The treaty should enhance the existing, but ignored provision in Lisbon, to vary single market conditions on a temporary basis so as to allow for a form of artificial devaluation in countries running behind the EU’s economic leaders in terms of citizen incomes in a way which promotes convergence without the self-defeating austerity measures currently being used for that task.  EU structural funds should be used to make this happen.

5) Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a way which a) gears subsidy to low wealth producers rather than to richer landowners who are able to use the income-based mechanism to rake in the cash; b) creates both long-term sustainability/reliability of supply, in a time of adverse climate change, and affordability i.e. the CAP should effectively become part of universal welfare provision around decent food.  Currently, the Tories have absolutely nothing to say on the CAP, and it is astonishing that Labour appears not to have even noticed how far they are compromised on this by their own vested interests.

6)  The restatement of the principle of free movement of labour, but with protection  from exploitation enhanced by the enactment of something similar to the UK’s Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, but broadened to encompass existing EU procurement law and to cover multi-nationals.

If the Labour leadership gets its collective head round both the short-term tactics of using Cameron’s own reckless ‘renegotiation’ against him, and then starts setting out its distinctive view of a new social democratic EU shaped by it and its fellow leftist parties, it could do well in 2017, and then in the 2019 euros.  I’m not holding my breath, though, that a new Labour leader will actually get beyond the usual vacuities

Categories: Labour Party News

Why Labour lost and what we do now

May 21, 2015 2 comments

I cobbled this together for a submission at the new Radical Labour site, but the site appears so radical it’s decided only to publish articles from established radical voices.  I’ve had no reply.  Heh ho, so I’m publishing here, because at least I answer myself.


Labour lost the general election in large part because it didn’t connect with people in the way that UKIP, the SNP and even the Greens connected with them.   People saw Labour as too close to a now widely distrusted set of democratic institutions – institutions which were healthy once, but which have been corrupted by people just like us.

How do I know that?   I know that because, contrary what many #labourdoorstep campaigners may claim on twitter about the “fantastic response”, I’ve been on lots of doorsteps where people tell me Labour, or I as there representative, are full of shit.   Alternatively, they don’t open the door, which is the same message put more politely.

At least with a Tory fatcat, you know what you’re getting, goes the argument…. It’s not so much the greed; it’s the perceived hypocrisy that makes people hate us.

So if we are so much part of the problem, how can we be part of the solution?

Logic suggests that, in order for Labour (ever?) to win again as a democratic wanabee socialist party, the party and labour movement must first help restore trust restore trust in our democratic institutions?

But how do we do that, from a position of opposition? And how might such restoration of trust benefit Labour, the party which exists to further the interests of the working class? [1]

This recent paper from Carolina Johnson, based on analysis of individual-level data from the UK Citizenship survey, suggests that the best approach may be to get people participating, not in the electoral process – which is as far Miliband’s argument with Russell Brand got to – but in any form of “collective activity directly producing or determining public services and political outcomes in their communities” (her shorthand for this is “civic participation” [2]).   Johnson’s central finding is that:

People who report greater participation in any of a range of local public decision-making activities report a greater sense of influence in government decision-making and allocate stronger importance to the values of democratic process. This relationship is independent of whether respondents are satisfied with local government outcomes and of traditional predictors of efficacy such as education, race and class.

Of course, civic participation and the valuing of democratic processes is likely to be a two-way, or self-reinforcing mechanism, and the author acknowledges that the strong correlation she finds is not direct evidence of causation.   Nevertheless, Johnson’s finding that “the change in predicted attitudes for a 1-unit increase in civic participation, whether at low or moderate levels, is statistically equivalent regardless of contextual demographics (education level, participation in non-civic activity)” does suggest that there is something about civic participation specifically which enhances people’s legitimation of broader democratic processes.

Personally, I think there’s a lot of cause-effect going on.   Having spent more years than I care to remember at the heart of one form of ‘civic participation’ or another – community agitation and organising for “public services and political outcomes” in the parts of life political parties don’t (currently) reach is what I do – it seems fairly obvious that when people organise stuff together, the mish-mash of learning and confidence (aka “social capital”) that this, allied to a realisation that just standing and shouting at people who are organizing themselves is a) not as much fun; b) not as effective,  feeds into a wider grasp of and interest in democratic processes.  The other word for this is ’empowerment’ [3].

It’s not just me, though.  In the mid-2000s at least, some key actors in New Labour/Milibandism understood all this stuff, and seemed committed to it.  Stella Creasy, for example, got the dangers of sham public engagement (pdf):

There is a danger in the current vogue for public engagement that confusion over methods and motivations on the part of both the public and politicians could quickly corrode the willingness of all to participate, much to the detriment of our democracy and society.

Done well, public participation can not only enrich our democracy by helping strengthen accountability for decision making, it can also encourage and empower our citizens to work with the state and each other to meet the challenges of our time. (p.2)

So why are Labour not now reaping the benefits of being seen, by the hitherto disaffected, as a more legitimate part of the overall body politic than the Tories, or UKIP or the SNP?  If New Labour got it in 2007, where did it all go wrong?   Why did a Labour PPC about to lose in this election still feel bound to lament thus?

You see, it’s our fault.  The reason Ukip are here and doing so well is because of the political elite and the powers that be ignoring the mostly working-class communities who in their droves are saying they will vote for a party that for all intend [sic] and purposes is a parody of itself.

The answer to these two questions are, I think, also twofold.

First, the reason the SNP and UKIP currently have the advantage when it comes to looking like a party intent on re-legitimizing democracy is less that they are actively enabling it, and more that the people now attracted to them feel as though they are engaged in a useful form of civic participation.   To a great extent, this is an internet/social media phenomenon – the rise of the Cybernat and the UKIP troll is a feature of the current surge – and it will wane in time, but only with further deleterious consequences for democratic legitimacy, such that forces even further removed from the objective interests of the working class come to be seen as a bastion of hope.   As Ukip declines, an even darker force may emerge, unless we can (re)fill the perceived democratic void [4].

Second, and returning to Labour’s role in the creation of the democratic deficit in the first place, the insights and efforts at encouraging civic participation in the mid-2000s were so suffocated by New Labour’s enduring managerial operational code that they simply never stood chance.  Ironically, for example, the words from Stella Creasy, quoted above, are from a pamphlet written by experts and MPs, with a foreword from Secretary of State for Communities Hazel  Blears which celebrates of the passing of the enormous Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act (2007).  This Act gave, amongst other things, detailed direction on how and when the public needed to be engaged in the state’s public policy planning, and was therefore the precise opposite of what was needed to facilitate genuine civic participation.

But if Labour, and other comrades on the left. are willing to learn from last time round, there is still a chance that it can be part of the solution to the democratic deficit, by fostering – or in some cases simply by not getting in the way of – new approaches to civic participation.

I have written before about how such civic renewal might come about. In particular, I’ve written about how the initial impetus might come from a new organising coalition of like-minded Labour party members, trade unionists and people emerging, battered & bruised but better organisationally skilled for all that, from what I’ve called broadly the anti-austerity movement.   As a new focus for organisational efforts in a somewhat more conducive fiscal environment, this informal coalition will be well placed both to populate existing institutions of local civic participation and to build on labour movement traditions in the forging of new ones.

In terms of existing institutions, I’m thinking of Foundation Trust memberships, Healthwatches,  school bodies, town and parish councils and more.  In terms of new ones, I’m thinking particularly of the potential to rejuvenate Trades Union Councils, with additional service user engagement, very much in the model set out in 2007 by Dave Prentis (p. 113, pdf), when Unison was more outlooking than it is now.   But with both existing and new the focus should, I suggest, be on the development of robust democratic processes which, over time, come to have a local legitimacy parallel and then exceeding the managerial institutions developed imposed during the Thatcher/Labour years.

Just as one example of what I mean by parallel legitimacy, the local ‘Trades Council’ could challenge the legitimacy of a school Ofsted inspection which seeks to place a school in special measures (and that often means the forced exit of the headteacher), in favour of a locally agreed action plan for school improvement, including better resourcing and an agreed plan for community input and involvement.  As another example, the same Trades Council may decide that it wants to call in the council Chief Executive to respond to findings it has generated from its own investigation that child protection processes are not sufficiently strength- and community-based enough, because of enduring de-professionalisation of the workforce.  The Chief Executive will, as local legitimacy grows, know that s/he should pay as much attention to this call to account as s/he would to a centrally generated one.

Such developments will, of necessity, be locally driven – indeed it is up to organisers and activists in localities to determine what is local.  This builds on existing traditions of local organisation, and all the Labour party needs to do is to not get in the way, though celebrating this new brand of bottom- up civic participation will not go amiss.  Labour will benefit politically by osmosis, as people come to see that the party is onside, but no longer seeking to dominate and stifle.   National assemblies, we might then expect to see, will become less rally and preach-to-the-converted, more sharing of good practice.

Of course, such new/remodelled institutions of civic participation will not, initially at least, engage those most disaffected, and here, there may be a more pro-active role for a creative Labour opposition (operating initially at least through its local government power bases), if it able to throw off its managerialist shackles.

Another example may help: Sure Start’s original mission under New Labour mark-1997 was to empower low-income parents via a process of civic participation, and there are some great examples of this having happened.  Sadly, much of this early institutional progress was swept away from 2001 onwards, as the Sure Start programme strove for a universality of service which was never needed at the expense of a community development approach that was.  Labour’s job should now be to a) accept that it got it wrong from 2001; b) campaign for reinvestment in such models via innovative funding models,  particularly through the re-professionalization of social work (aka putting the social back in social work) [5] [6]

If Labour is to get serious about reconnecting with the disconnected working class, it needs to get beyond Youtube as the communication method, think through what institutions help people connect to democracy, and allow the space for these institutions to develop.


[1] What I mean by this is that may be counter-productive to the interests of the working class if a surge in trust in democratic institutions is of benefit only to the traditional parties of capitalism.

[2] Its worth being clear on what she does and doesn’t include within the definition of civic participation:

‘Civic participation’ thus excludes a number of actions commonly considered part of political participation more broadly: electoral activity such as voting and partisan campaigning
and lobbying of officials or politicians, as well as voluntary non-political social activity such as organizing or joining bowling clubs, volunteering with under-privileged
youth, writing a letter to the editor, or choosing to buy fair trade products. Activities that would be considered civic participation include attending an open public meeting on a
local development plan, becoming a member of a neighborhood association, serving as a member of a school’s board of governors, participating in local government consultation or focus groups, or participating in a survey about potential policies.

[3] The same processes are at work when it comes to working effectively with disaffected learners.  There’s plenty of evidence (pdf) from what’s become known as ‘character and resilience-building programmes that the best way to re-engage young people in education is through a process of participation and empowerment similar which enables them to relegitimize the role of learning (and within that teachers and school institutions).

[4] I accept the SNP surge may last longer than UKIP’s because it is more grounded in genuine civic participation activities.

[5] Again, it’s handy to look back at the Dave Prentis model of this (p.115, pdf):

Some of the most exciting innovations on this front are being led by public servants who work with users at greatest risk of exclusion or marginalization.

For example:
— Social workers developing new citizen-based approaches to supporting vulnerable clients through a focus on self-help, campaigning and community action
— Modern mental health nursing, which is built on “therapeutic alliances” in which those suffering from mental health problems take a proactive role in finding their own route to recovery
— Carers developing new models of social care that place user participation at the centre of professional practice

[6] Compare also the Lankelly Chase Foundation’s new programme of support for workers working on the frontline with the most disadvataged. This programme, although it comes from a different tradition of social action, ends up sounding very similar in its aspiration to the Dave Prentis call for frontline staff expertise to be taken seriously as a route to genuine civic engagement:

Those working at the frontline with some of the most vulnerable people in the country are often under-heard, under-resourced and over-stretched. They can see the ways in which with the system that they are working in needs to change so it can work better for those it’s trying to serve, but rarely have the time or the space to really think about – and champion – alternative approaches and solutions.

As a response to this, LankellyChase, in association with The Point People, have developed the Systems Changers programme – the first of its kind in the UK. Systems Changers will serve as a way to amplify the insight of frontline workers supporting those facing severe and multiple disadvantage, and will be an investment in these workers, enabling them to develop their voice, their collective knowledge and their influence on a wider system.

‘Radical Labour': from Bonnie Tyler to the Eurythmics via John McDonnell & The Stranglers

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 [1].

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 [2].

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 [3]).   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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Much more to come on this as I will be engaging with this contest.

Categories: Labour Party News

Harris, Habermas & Hirst on the way forward for the social democratic left

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.


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