Fairer representation and recall must become core demands of the left

There is a strong traditional case for ditching our traditional voting system. Like many British traditions, is basically doesn’t work as the tradition apparently intends.

Whatever people think elections are, constitutionally and objectively they are about picking MPs who are representative in a parliament, which then decides whether to support a given government. It’s more complex than picking a president, and rightly so in my view. It encourages people to think more about what a local representative will do.

As long as we maintain a system of Parliamentary assent and consent, it’s important that those elected to it represent who people want to sit there.

The moral as well as the traditional case is strong, and I think but the mainstream and ‘outside’ left would profit greatly if they argue it.

For me this is not a side note to economic policy, but in the chartist model; it’s an acceptance that the constitutional and the economic cannot be divorced. Continue reading

The Labour leadership – some initial thoughts

Wow. What a thumping. There are clearly some exacerbating factors. Our complete collapse in Scotland (and the hammering in England we took for its consequences, unable to change the narrative) being some key ones.

The Blairites are placed in an ideal internal situation by Ed Miliband’s defeat. They are therefore making the running whilst the centre left, having advanced internally over the last decade, are stunned.

So now, people are talking about the leadership contest as if the economy is the only thing that matters.

It does. In particular, how do we create a high growth economy that works with society rather than against it, and protect the life progress that aspirational workers have already made? We had too little to say.

But there are several issues which are considerably more serious even than whether we win next time round, particularly around existential threats and secular decline. Continue reading

Labour’s challenge and the ‘big lie’ tactic

There are two very strategic and very effective political ‘big lies’ routinely levelled against Labour.

Both have much wider support of significant sections of the public than they did before 2010, which is interesting, because Labour before 2008 was largely pretty fiscally conservative.

In England and Scotland respectively, each lie has gained significant currency and is playing a large role in the General election. This has been the case for some time – a situation which a hostile media has done as much to stop Labour from rectifying, in both cases, as far as possible. Continue reading

Dear political hacks: please be more normal

Maybe it’s because it’s election time, but politics really annoys me these days where it used to inspire me.

It seems to have such a humanity deficit, and often as a starting point, as an accepted norm. There is so little respect for others or behaviour which reflects it. And maybe I’m not cut out for this.

I get so sick of people lacking fundamental human respect for each other, seeing just allies or opponents, looking to use, dismiss or discredit all the time.

There are people stuck entirely in their own bubble, happy not to genuinely engage with anyone else, to deal with the realities of others, to give them the benefit of the doubt, treat them respectfully, or generally credit them with some value.

At senior levels on the left there are terrible employers, and people who other far worse than would be accepted in most of the private sector. This is not to mention the bullying and the sexual harassment.

I know that’s what it’s like. But that’s a shame. Why not do your bit to make it better? Go to the pub. Have friends, political and non. Have other interests. Refer to the real world when you make decisions, and when you’re dealing with other people.

People active in politics should have at least the compassion and decency of those outside hackdom in the ‘real world’ – and they shouldn’t be divorced from it in the first place. This is not to say that my own personality or behaviour are awesome, but basically there is a lot that could be lots better, very easily.

We need to talk about solidarity

This looks like a massively important piece of work.
One of the chief reasons that the left has spent so long on the back foot has been the retreat among many working class people of values of solidarity – partcularly but not only among workers who are white. Usually in these cases, it has been replaced by resentment, or distrust.

In my view this is often because of the loss of community and workplace insitutions that fostered ideas of solidarity, and the confluent loss of the idea of working class self-education. But the lack of those things stops us building any movement or party able to get them back. Catch 22.

People in pubs and social clubs used to agitate over pints for a welfare state. Now they are far more likely to agitate against health and safety, or working class people who are browner or younger than them.

There are reasons for that loss of ‘solidarity’ and the loss of other left-wing concepts among the people the left are supposed to represent. We need to understand why it has often been replaced by resentment culture. Our bosses and their journalists have been extraordinarily succesful at getting the least well off to find enemies in each other. How, and why?

Labour: ‘grow the offer’!

Some of the coverage of the recent letter from think tanks and others to Ed Miliband has been typically opportunistic press nonsense.

I’m not sure that the timing of the letter was superb, and the technocratic language feels like hitting yourself with a frying pan. That said, the letter made good constructive proposals, and the general feeling that we should be saying more, and that it should be bold in content.

But there is one very obvious person that it was at least an oblique attack on. Gordon Brown.

Against Brownism

Gordon Brown is a figure who evokes mixed feelings within the Labour Party, and whose legacy is not even considered, bearing in mind the groaning weight of Tony Blair.

Blairites hate him. And a lot of the reason for that, given his behaviour as Chancellor, is understandable. At the same time though, what else would they expect from someone who from was immediately positioned as a leader in waiting.

The left of the party feels a lot more mixed. Many from the soft left in particular were seduced by Gordon as Chancellor, always happy to play to the Polly Toynbee gallery as that slightly-more-left-wing alternative to Blair. Whilst I knew Brown as leader would never be all I wanted, I can’t claim to have been immune to this. It’s what happens when you haven’t had a look in when it comes to policy or personnel for over a decade.

For the whole of the left, the enormity of his moves after tha banking crisis, his initial opposition to all cuts, and his moves to make sure that some of the burden fell upon the richest meant that he still gets a much kinder view . He wasn’t posh, and had been a genuine socialist long before he was elected to Parliament. Less uncomfrotable with attacking the left as a tactic to shore up his support, he was always seen as ‘one of us’ in a way that Blair was not.

The problem is, that has made him harder to encapsulate and deal with in legacy terms, and is has made it difficult to come to conclusions on his supporters. His lack of definition has made it difficult to tell who those people even are, and the bitterness of the split with Blair combined with election defeat in 2010 has made it very difficult to have a debate about style.

That needs to be done. Gordon Brown was not left wing. But he was a centralist.

The standard Gordon Brown response to a problem of public policy was to promise to ban it – carbon emissions are an example of this – but this is nothing more than a glorified target.

The best policies Brownism has brought us were forced on it. But the default mode was ‘centralist and banal’, as was the style. And the style, at least, survives.

Brown’s policies promised were leftward facing but timid as hell and usually boring. You could tell that the inspiration was heavily filtered through the civil service, to the point that it did not relflect real life. Pet Asbos. The ‘right to request’ flexible working (as if there is not right to have a conversation with your bos already).

Gordon, I love and miss you, but I would rather be rid of this.

What about Ed?

One of the areas where Labour needs to do better at the moment is that we seem to rely on announcing the same thing over and over again. The opposition discipline of not forcing your hand does encourage this – but by the same token, we need some equivalents to ideas like ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’.

Part of the issue is that some of the manifesto  process seems tied into the same logic, when actually, as the letter writers state, we should be putting out a load of stuff that is eye grabbing and able to inspire.

What kind of Labour government are we proposing?

I’m a decentralist sort of socialist and I’m keen on seeing this approach taken. More can be done by local councils, and in the economy by trade unions. The NGO and charity sector can be used to save money in the public sector (as one small example, we could save vast amounts of money to the NHS by imrpoving care for Schizophrenia, as outlined by expert charities in the area).

But there is one key point missing from the letter and what Miliband has generated so far, which I think illuminates the key to making the next Labour government (and our offer before it) really radical.

We’ve talked about what Miliband should be offering on htee public sector, but little about what a decentralising approach would look like in the private sector and the ‘real economy’.

Firstly, in the state, how does this match up with things like transport infrastructure and health? What will be done about the aging population or the mounting political injustices experienced by young people? And do we need to seriously refinance local government, perhaps introducing a needs-based model of taxation to fund it? How about returning local control over local schools and health provision?

Secondly, if we’re talking about decentralist socialism, how about freeing up trade unions and putting in place national protocals to help them engage in bargaining with private sector bosses? A great way to redistribute wealth and power if you’re not relying on Government departments.

How about looking at some ways in which government can assist them in recruiting?

What about education for low-paid workers and people in depressed areas of the country? Active citizenship in schools?

For some reason, we only seem to be talking about what happens in the state, rather than the world outside it. The letter is a good start, but without covering half of the economy it cannot fully grasp just how transformative our offer to the public can and will need to be.

Let’s talk about transforming the world of work. Let’s talk about how our population is changing and the new pressures it is subject to. Let’s talk about rebuilding the movement that Labour sits on top of. About control, and ownership. About the rewards we get for being productive, and how the private sector treats us both at work and as consumers.  Let’s talk about how we want the place to look by 2050, not just how we dampen cuts now.

In policy terms, all of the challenges above require us to substantially grow the offer – not to shrink it. And to get noticed against a Government with this many friends in the media, we have to.

America’s insurgent ‘centre-left’?

Among some centrist Democrats, the response to the rise of the insurgent centre-left has been sputtering rage. In a widely-discussed op-ed published in the conservative Wall Street Journal, the leaders of the neoliberal think tank Third Way (whose very name is a reference to the “Third Way” movement of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) denounced de Blasio and Warren and warned that “populism” would lead the Democratic party back into the electoral wilderness. But while these sentiments find strong support among Democratic donors in the financial industry and the think tanks they fund, Democratic activists and voters are shifting to the relative left. Like the neoconservatives on the right, the neoliberals on the left may end up as an elite sect, a group that has funding and spokespeople but little or no voter support.

Well, Amen to that.

Reform of Labour Students elections is long overdue. It is right to campaign to change it.

What’s good enough for the Labour leader (as well as the Fabians and the bulk of Young Labour) is “sexist” according to the Labour Students’ paid officers. To the extent that they will break their own constitution to avoid debating it.

In any event, roles are already gender balanced by the constitution.

That’s the definition of a questionable motivation and a silly and undemocratic reason to break the organisation. An accountable and contestable leadership is a serious deficiency which makes an alternative organisation worth considering.

Given how their arguments against the same system to be used to elect the Party leader are clearly disingenuous, and actually arguments *for* room packing, the status quo, might it be that there are reasons they might not want members to vote directly on who runs them?

Room-packing elections should be a thing of the past and are bad for developing young people. They are not worth being ‘neutral’ on. Good on this lot for fighting and not being shoved into swallowing it.

Solidarity and political violence

The ethics of solidarity are an interesting thing when it comes to violence. It’s weird enough that I come to it from the position of ethics rather than dried out economic relationships, which immediately cuts against more vulgar elements of Marxist thinking about the term. I think this is important however, because we’re talking about something which is strategic and needs to appear to have ethics as a precondition for building political support for the oppressed.

Let me set a counter-factual scene and reach for a European analogy.

Britain sleeps whilst the Spanish Civil War wages. Eventually, its government donates money to Franco. Facing defeat on the home front, Spanish republicans decide to bomb a series of pubs and civillian offices in London and Glasgow.

There are those on the British left who would say that their comrades were duty bound to support these actions. It is often applied to things like the conflict in Northern Ireland and hte background of discrimination against catholic republicans.

The basis for justifying this would be that it advances struggle and speeds up emancipatory developments. It is also a core principle that it is up to the movement in Spain (or independence fighters in the North of Ireland) to decide what to do without external advice, despite them wanting solidarity from Brits with a decision that the British part of the left has no say in.

The second part of the justification is what seals this. It is pithily summed up in one phrase:

The violence of the oppressed is not the same as the violence of the oppressor.

It’s easy to identify with some of the logic of this. If you are Nelson Mandela, and are deliberatly shut out of the democratic process, what else can you do but disrupt everything? And when this is met with massacres or beatings, what can you do but arm yourself and get violent?

Likewise in Northern Ireland, when a militia is intent on burning down your whole street, are you not justified in filling it with sub machine guns?

Here is the ethical problem. In Northern Ireland there was a clear political relationship where one side oppressed the other and manipulated democracy to stop them being fairly represented as part of this strategy.

But there is also an oppressed/oppressor relationship between someone who is armed, trained and supported and someone who is not. There is also a big difference between whether you are carrying out the business of an oppressive state or non-state actor, or simply happened by grace of god to be born on the ‘side’ they claim to support – expecially if your position is as a regular worker and you are not particularly grand or powerful yourself.

What if you are bombed for going to the pub? Should your human value be dimished because you are protestant, or not a Spanish Republican?

Luckily in those days the left didn’t go around justifying attacks against ‘neutral’ and powerless civillians because their bosses backed the opponents of the left.

Now, there is often a mentality of ‘fair game’ if you happen to be, say, Israeli. And Maoists don’t even see there as being a working class in developed countries, which makes organisations like the Shining Path practically immune to the humanity of their victims.

I want to suggest an alternative principle based on the relationship between oppressed and oppressor:

“Violence against the oppresser is not the same as violence against the oppressed”.

That would mean a completely different approach to solidarity and political violence, based on the vitims of violence rather than those who carry it out. It means a less nationalist approach and one based a little more on the class relationship between people rather than the class relationship between the governments of states.

It means the left testing their views on what actions do or intend to do in practice rather than simply who carries them out, which I think is always a strange way to viewany kind of action. It encourages people to think about how political violence affects others, to be careful about it for human reasons, and to be more careful about doing it in a way which is more likely to get political support. It’s more ethical, more popular, and more class-based.

Unlike the ealier maxim, it can be applied to both oppressed states and individuals, is open to adaption even by those who are under occupation by ‘civillians’, but it means both a more morally and politically solid response.

It avoids blaming civillians for the politics of their rulers, and in doing so gives them a bigger weight in how the ethics of violence are considered.

It’s a much easier principle to sell if support for justified and emancipatory political violence is to be the aim. And let’s not forget, the solidarity of the past has plenty of good examples to offer.

Stuart Hall

He was not interested in the sterile opposition to Thatcherism and its ideological cousins but in formulating the kind of response that could actually defeat it.

Not only did he remain faithful to principles of equality, humanism and social justice. He held them so dear he did not want to see them sacrificed at the altar of cheap rhetoric. He was not interested in the kind of formulaic “left” responses that offered solace but no solution. “If we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British left.

– Gary Younge

I was a revolutionary socialist in my teenage years (wasn’t everyone?). Given my innate distate for street hangings and labour camps, by the time I went to University, I decided I was a Bennite. I’ve never been the kind of person that never likes to change, and I like myself to be open to influence.

Stuart Hall was a Marxist, and a massive influence on me. He believed in a Marxism that was fluid, dynamic, rooted in the real world and the politics which took place there rather than abstractions in books, or economic gospels and dogmas.

Although an intellectual enemy of ‘Marxists’ who are so sure of themselves that they politically ignore others, he was a virulent critic of the culture of the right-wing press, and the cutural currency they so succesfully pour into our everyday conversations. In particular, his work on race and perceptions of it is absolutely masterful.

The main thing that influenced that was conversations in pubs, and doorsteps doing Labour campaigning, or with my family.

Like Hall, this long evolving personal experience emphasised the pressure that Thatcherism and its supporters had put on society, and how this had fundamentally changed the culture of working class people at both the lower and upper end of that designation. The way people debate. What they joined, or didn’t. How they like graphic design, or conversational style. What they wanted from their own life, and how that related to their communities.

The Left’s resistance to cultural change is reflected in our everyday practices and languages. The style of propaganda, party political broadcasts, of much educational and agitational material locks us into very traditional and backward-looking associations. Our political imagery is even worse in this respect. We virtually fought the 1983 election on the 1945 political programme.

I am not suggesting that the Left can survive without a sense of history. Our own people know too little, not too much history. But developing a real popular historical consciousness on the Left is not the same thing as thinking the present in the language and imagery of the past.

Reading Hall gave language to the years I had experienced, what I had heard from people, and what I expected from them.

It gave me an understanding that understanding that thinking in this fashion was one of many key preconditions for succesful political activists, movements, or intellectuals. You shouldn’t have to explain to socialists the importance of listening to and recognising popular sentiments and how they evolve, but sadly I was in need of that, and many more are.

Hall made me completely rethink my position on what kind of left I believed in. This thinking does not just apply to the Labour Party, but to the style of the left as a whole. It is sad that I still have to speak about its applicability in the present tense and that he wasn’t simply universally heeded.

He appealed to the Marxist core which remained in my thinking as a Labour Party member (and still remains, albeit altered by Stuart Hall). His work and that of those who inspired him (Poulantzas, Althusser) appeals just as much to people who are members of the SWP, for example.

To someone who was a Bennite, being open to his thinking meant departure, opening one’s mind, and to embrace something a lot less solid and comforting: a vision of the left that actually recognised changing culture around itself, and was willing to adapt to it (whilst still remaining solid against neoliberalism). We might not be able to rely on tradition, on past policies, on unchanging styles and organisation forms, or historical determinism as some kind of faith-demanding prophecy. In fact, to do so neglects our duty to people who work or are socially oppressed under capitalism.

Since I was about 20, Hall’s blend of leftist principle and rooted, practical application has defined my politics, and I haven’t moved since. I am glad I believe in something I  think about and that takes into account other people and the world I am in, rather than simply following something I feel without thinking, and as a divorced individual rather than as part of society or real life.

But I can’t thank Stuart Hall for things I learned myself from complex, changing webs of those around me, or how I choose to pass that on. I suppose that’s exactly what he would have wanted.

You can read two of Stuart Hall’s most influential pieces here and here.