A not so quick thought on deals in politics

Anything to avoid using that picture with Bono…

This is a bit of an abstract thought process about being practical, but hear me out.

You get some interesting perspectives in the Socialist movement. I suspect that some of these go back a hundred years or more. Should social democrats join a bourgeois government, for example?

The automatic response of most people who accept the terminology tends to be ‘no’. While this is also my emotional inclination (and there is no way I would ever let myself get mugged off like Ramsay MacDonald), I am nevertheless opposed to automatic responses. Bad way of thinking. Or to rephrase, of not thinking.

I don’t agree with doing deals with Tories unless it stops Fascists or organised bigots of some kind. I don’t agree with doing deals with Nazis full stop. But apart from that, I pretty much feel that people in the labour movement should give others open consideration.

Deal, you say?

The biggest, toughest deal in politics has to be the Good Friday Agreement.

Consider how far ‘physical force’ Republicans in particular have some since the Easter Rising. A century of bitter conflict, most of which has been very local and community based to the North. But who seriously denies that in their weakened state and with the potential for a long-term strategic upswing, they should have avoided dialogue with unionist and the British Government, or that after this they should not have signed up to Good Friday? Should the IRA really still be bombing pubs?

In politics anyone at some point has to consider offers they are made by opponents.

I think this should be done in a way that weighs up the actual material case for and against, rather than simply relying on old slogans and the desire to fly a flag.

Often, having the maturity and emotional discipline to do this ends up being key to advancing their cause, or protecting those they seek to represent.

This stuff applies just as well to more banal decisions.

Do we trade slate places for an internal election? It’s amazing how differently people can feel over doing this just as a one off! Should Labour consider a coalition with, say, the Lib Dems, if we are eventually forced to? I think this would probably create an even more annoying split.

In my view, what your slogan or image is has some importance, but it’s normally a very bad idea to leave posturing and gesture as your sole or most important justifications for pretty much anything you do. Anyone can revert to type. Gaining by avoiding it is much more tricky, but much more rewarding.

What the circumstances are and how you can deal with them is usually a far more important question to consider on its own merit than by making it all about whether you have had a decent play to your gallery.

The simplicity of this truth means that your decision always has an arguable justification: whatever image you want to cultivate, in politics, good deals are worth taking, bad deals are not. Sometimes a deal can be good or bad for everyone involved.

This should all be fairly self evident.

In the most common deals (such as red-green coalitions in Nordic politics) there is a clear overlap of interest that mutual working can solve. Great.

Some deals (like the Good Friday agreement) can be good for multiple parties even if they are resolutely opposed, for example Good Friday. This is much rarer, but still possible when the outside circumstances are right.

In this example, both parties needed to end violence. Republicans, whose armed struggle had failed and were at a moment of historic weakness, gasping for breath. Unionists also had a big interest. They had come out better politically before Good Friday was agreed, but had also suffered greatly in the real world, particularly the working class elements of their national-political community.

This party to the agreement needed a period of consolidation for their community and freedom from the terror tactics which sucked their own young men into paramilitary organisations, and killed hundreds of civilians.

Nationalists and Republicans, on the other hand, wanted guaranteed human rights, and end to state oppression, and the long term possibility to realise their shared goal of a united Ireland democratically. They too suffered heavily from paramilitarism, sometimes in collusion with or carried out by the state (side point, but I would argue that the policies of the British state were ultimately responsible for beginning the process, and for exacerbating it on multiple occasions).

For many years within the armed groups on both sides, it was difficult to even steer through a tactical ceasefire, even if it was of clear benefit.

By the time of the deal the conflict itself had created conditions where a deal worked best for both sides.

That has subsequently been allowed to be tested and proven in practice, because both parties were open-minded and mature enough (most of the time) to actually work on the project in good faith. I think both parties were very brave. Being able to do this is an enormously important personal and political skill. It has also been pretty important for people who don’t want to live in a society where waking minutes are ruled by the gun.

Good Friday works. The only losers in that situation are dogmatists and posture politicians – people who don’t have a problem with using their own allies and constituents, regardless of the exigencies of their situation. Unfortunately, this is nothing special.

So, do you deal or not?

Surely it just depends.

MacDonald was a fool. Mitterand was noble but eventually unable. Gerry Adams, on the other hand, was both brave and successful. Same for Ian Paisley. None of these are even the temporary deals that often spring up, but at best semi-permanent ones.

I’m betting the gents in the Irish example felt pretty horrible doing it, on all sides. It was still right.

If you turned up to look like a person with great integrity, letting the appearance aspect (I’M SUCH A FIGHTER’) undermine a real opportunity for your politics is probably something that should be reconsidered. That’s the only way you know if you are doing a bad deal or not.

Political principle is not just about how you look, but about what you do, and even more, what the actual outcome is.

Sometimes, this means saying ‘yes’.

What is ‘one nation’ politics?

“Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”

“Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

“You speak of–” said Egremont, hesitatingly.


At this moment a sudden flush of rosy light, suffusing the grey ruins, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and through a vacant arch that overlooked them, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star.

-Sybil, or the Two Nations (Disraeli, 1845)

History pleases me, especially given the dire content of the present. And one of the lovely things about history is there where we cannot agree much about the future, the past is something in which we can all take any stake we choose.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech marked an ascendency of trust from both party and press, though I have some scepticism as to how much conference speeches influence a sceptical public these days. In any event, it’s certainly sparked some thinking among people whose views I appreciate. I have had some interesting thoughts triggered since by two people whose views I respect, despite the wild divergence of their politics. One is conservative, Ashton Cull, who chaired Conservative Future locally when I was at uni in Manchester. Another is Liam McNulty, who it would be fair to describe in the broadest terms as a Marxist.

I’ve been prompted twice to ask myself what is really meant by ‘One Nation’. On one level, the adaption of Tory rhetoric, expecially class collaborationist Tory rhetoric, marks a reactionary step for the leader of a Labour Party. At the same time, the founding ideas of the philosphy of One Nation Toryism find themselves significantly left of Blairism, which accepted the ceaseless march of a society moving apart from itself – the poorest satisfying themselves with the workfare crumbs of those who got ‘filthy rich’ and (sometimes) paid their taxes, the middle bought into wrestless neutrality with tax credits.

Consider this:

“If a society that has been created by labour suddenly becomes independent of it, that society is bound to maintain the race whose only property is labour, from the proceeds of that property, which has not ceased to be productive.”

– Disraeli

This is no Marxism. But the mutual obligation implied can have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ obligations, and is just as rightly the property of social democratic reformists as it is moderate Tories. So for that reason, whatever the merits of reformist social democrats, it is far from charlatanism for them to take up the slogan. And further, it may well be a way of blocking together part of the professional so-called ‘middle class’ workers with the lower paid parts of the working class who are currently being hit with the freight train of austerity – making this part of the ‘middle class’ a progressive one. As a front in totality, if theis is a majority, ‘One Nation’ can be a broad project which is also some distance left of the common sernse, and also potentially hegemonic, if done right. Anyway, this is basically my response to those (such as Liam) who might believe that the notion is wholly useless to the left. It’s not revolutionary, but it can just as much be consciousness raising and majoritarian as it can be damaging. It depends on the substance.

The seeds, by the way, of the left undoing that, are treating supplicant, weaker groups and individuals as part of a different nation – one where food banks or immigration detention centres are acceptible human situations, while a land accross the social waters knocks back a Friday night Sauvingnon or two.

No doubt pressure for this kind of ‘two-nationism’, of making positionally weaker humans into ‘others’, will surely form the substance of the Tory response to this speech – alongside subsequent a Blairite call to triangulate it (or as I prefer, ‘submit’). Labour, after all, isn’t learning – right?

But moving back, I was moved to a deeper thought about what social democracy in the first place means to me by Ashton (whose opinion I value and await).

He asks:

…This has been niggling me for a couple of days. How do you feel about the One Nation rhetoric?

Very much in favour. For me my social democracy can basically be summed up as ‘settled consensus that we have obligations to each other, that bodies must carry them out in a way which is widely democratically accountable, and that fulfilling them helps to make us each more free’ [*].

I don’t think that society and the state are the same thing, but I also think it is artificial to seperate them when the goal of the state is to serve society, when much of society benefits from the state, much of society works for it, and pretty much all of society to some degree or another pays for it.

What I’m saying is that I think the heritage of One Nation stretches beyond individual philanthropy, though Disraeli himself probably would not have approved. I think it stretches from one nation Toryism, deep into social democracy. Economic liberalism is not totally alien to it either, but I think that there is still a mad dash for economic liberalism which is massively socially divisive, and is as contrary to One Nation philosophy as exiling the rich.

Anyway, I think it’s a bold move, and whether Tory or Social Democratic, the driving feature is basically human compassion – something that I think is the main thing our society is forgetting, lamentably. I don’t want someone ruining my mortgage or cutting my wages – nor am I happy to see people spit in the face of bus drivers.

Common manners and respect need a big return, in society and in the economy.

Anyway, here’s my family secret. A political one too.

When I was very young, indeed before I can remember, my father was awarded custody of me. I have lived with him and my Stepmother since when he met her (I was three). My biological mother has been estranged to me for what I make twelve years, for various reasons, though I am considering getting in touch with her now.

Anyway, turns out that one of Ashton’s predecessors as the Tory Chair at Manchester Uni was her father**. Uber One-Nation MP. I never met the bloke, and having politicised into the left at a young age, and with a class background of skilled manual labour via my father and his family, it rather shocked me. His wife was descended from Charles II! Mad.

Oh well. There is plenty of determism aside from the genetic.

The fact is, as happy as I am to accept the rhetoric of One Nation, if I was a Tory, I would be a Thatcherite. I respect ideological leadership, sticking to guns, and having guns to stick to in the first place.

I think if there is to be one nation, that’s all well and good. And if the term helps gain support for it, that’s just as well.

But Disraeli’s mistake was that he thought a society that encouraged freedom and was at ease with itself was the rightful gift of the honourable rich.

But wealth is not gained for honour. Nor is it spent in the pursuit of obligation.

Wealth under neoliberalism is precisely and literally the privilege of being in a different nation. If the poor don’t like tax, they buy less food. If the rich don’t like tax, they move. The same logic applies to pay rises in the two nations.

We need One Nation. ‘Middle class’ workers are essential to engendering this. But it’s not the disadvantaged who split the nation in the first place. If the nation is to be brought towards a tolerant, pluralist and relatively equal place – ‘One Nation’ – then democratic and civic power over divisive market dogma must be massively increased, and on terms which are inclusive of the disadvantaged – our subaltern ‘second nation’. It’s simply not One Nation if they are forced into a cramped island with no way out. And make no mistake, that’s where they are headed, and have been headed for decades.

This inclusion is not something achieved through centrist vaccilation. Particularly in this climate of divisive attacks, and the intended resentment culture that now sits in place of solidarity. In situations where forces are jockeying beneath the surface for position, it’s achieved by creating a social coalition which is broad, yes, but also genuinely progressive, and has reason to be. Good luck getting that from establishment wets! It’s a path we have tried for years.

There are very, very few ‘progressive’ Tories. Show me a Tory as left wing as Disraeli these days, and I’ll show you a Compass member. Leadership towards a more cohesive society isn’t just something the broad left has a claim to.

When it comes to questions of motivation and material ability, they are the only forces in the country capable of taking the claim up, and the labour movement in particular the only one with the withdrawable surplus and power in numbers for the battle ahead.

The die is cast. The struggle of note will therefore be that to achieve leadership within the paradigm itself.

My next post will be about the virtues of populism. It will be shorter.

* Note – perhaps I should have added in ‘that economic class as related to ownership is a major obstacle to this’?
** In the interests of my own credibility, not that proper lefts judge us on lineage, I should point out that I am also descended from a Communist militant immigrant bus driver from the T & G who sacrificed his life to fight Franco. I think that means I genetically average out somewhere near Roy Hattersley.

The left should pursue former Tories – but on our terms.

I was reading a well penned blog post by Aiyan Maharasingam on the Next Generation Labour website about our attitude to ex-Tories, swing voters, and the like.

Thought it worth recording a few thoughts there.

My view for a long time has been that Labour has been losing two groups of voters, both of whom I identify with, so perhaps a personal bias. But those two broad groups are the less well-off and the more left-wing, including many Guardian type liberals. It has also lost some chunks of voters to its right – but a word of caution – centrist swing voters in swing constituencies still make up a minority of the Labour vote there, and need a motivated core themselves.

In terms of how this is addressed, I think it is crucial that Labour is a party which is much more clearly identifiable with the left as a whole, firstly, but also that those who constitute the organised parts of the left have a long think about their strategic aims and how it they are met, especially given the continual slow weathering of traditional class organisations like unions.

For those of us acting within the party itself, there also needs to be a hell of a lot more thought on what defeat and victory means to the left, and whether the left of Labour in particular wants to put the larger part of its focus focus on what I shall call ‘specific demand politics’ or ‘directional/orientation politics’. Cards on the table, I’m for the latter.

There also needs to be thought about how we engage with plurality. The ‘pluralism disputes’ within Compass and its subsequent fall from relevance to the debates within the Labour Party answered some of these questions. But they are not yet resolved organisationally. Compass was an organisation with strove for breadth, particularly as the moderate Labour left (and its more liberal wing, at that), a party faction capable of and committed to fostering plurality, tolerance and breadth, took a leadership position within the organisation.

But there is no clear articulation of this kind of left politics within the party, simply organs of the moderate left which are defunct or irrelevant, and hard left dominated factions which are more active but similarly (if not more) irrelevant to the actual structure of political power within party or country.

How do we engage with liberals or greens who share some key aims, without putting them in a leadership position which encourages open hostility to Labour, the largest left-of-centre party, or the unions, the bulk of our movement?

How does the moderate left itself regain political expression within Labour?

Outside the left, should we really be writing off those who currently back the right, who might be moved to backing social democratic policies on social democratic terms?

At a more fundamental level, how do we halt the decay of movements and the subsequent trend towards reliance, even by parts of the Labour leadership, on dehumanised money of the right?

These are all questions that are lying there without answer.

In my view, from a ‘big public politics’ point of view, Ed Miliband is partly pursuing the correct strategy – float ideas which are left of the established consensus (i.e. the hegemonic ideology), but will still appeal to swing voters. Try to encourage an open approach to those who are leftish minded, even when they are spineless (like Vince Cable), or unhinged (like the Green Party).

But from the point of view of being a paid party organiser covering at least one swing seat, what I would like to see a bit more of would be angry working class left-populism.

A good start would be an all-fronts attack on workfare, but specifically from a class standpoint rather than simply that of individual rights, which are very well, but have more narrow political appeal.

Why is it that the Government, in the middle of a huge recession, is replacing paid vacancies for working people with compulsory free labour, undercutting the job opportunities and wages of those who work hardest but rightly expect something back? All very well to target benefit fraud, but what about tax evaders? What about the fact that people who pay into the benefits system their whole life are receiving so little back if they find themselves short of work?

if we were to ask that, why would it mean losing the prospect of votes from the middle? Most people have to work for a living. But everyone’s living standards are declining unless they have ‘independent means’, or in other words directly constitute part of the bourgeoisie. Mums and Dads can’t afford Waitrose anymore, at one end. At the other, people are being expected to choose between work and pay, except without the choice of pay.

Quality of life should be something that we are hammering day in, day out. A perfect cross-class, left consensus type issue. It should be the title of our conference, really.

We have a lot of room to expand our left flank, but still hold our right one, as long as we avoid latter-phase Blairite policies which are deliberately offensive to our own base. The idea that those are the only policies that will appeal to the centre are a mutual fallacy of both the hard left and hard right within the party.

But the background remains. The continued failure of pretty much all of our internal factions to respect internal plurality or to seriously lead with new ideas themselves undermines our ability to get on with any strategy properly, right or wrong. It’s a great thing that we have avoided an internal war. But we can’t be content to resort to stagnation, in its place. So let’s challenge all the orthodoxies, and see what remains?

Predistribution and New Labour: a new hegemonic project?

I had many axes to grind with New Labour, which I thought fell short in a lot of areas. Most of all was the idea that being in office was all – a notion itself founded on the preconception that being in office meant that Labour, and perhaps by extension the movement it was born to express in parliamentary form, was in power.

Obviously the equation of office and power is not generally true (see Clegg, 2010), and was certainly not true when so much of New Labour was about fighting people who wanted often achievable and effective left policies.

In short, New Labour saw itself as being in government because it accepted the core premises of Thatcherism – in other words, it accepted the leadership and domination on policy of the conservative project and a conservative common sense. In other words, by its own admission, New Labour was an admission of conservative leadership of ideas, and domination of ideas – it accepted the hegemony, therefore, of the conservative project.

And if that is so, it cannot be that it had any kind of project to build or assert a hegemony of the left.

If you want to make the case that it did, it’s particularly hard to do, as many of the key politicians involved defined themselves as being in the ‘centre’ – rather than the ‘centre-left’ favoured by Kinnock/Smith era social democrats, ‘democratic left’ favoured by Gramscians and other ‘broad leftists’, and the ‘Labour left’ favoured by partisan traditionalists of both the Benn/Briefing and Foot/Tribune varieties.

It proudly accepted conservative hegemony in many senses, as well as defined itself as the centre (a centre, it must be remembered, forged by Thatcher). It thus opposed broad structural hegemony for the left on two separate but related grounds.

Part of the reason that it was necessary for parts of the thinking left to be on the left of the party in the first place, therefore, was to ditch the strategy of New Labour not for some abstract failure of general policy, but for strategic reasons. It was necessary to move the party leftwards to ditch a disciplined, top down and self interested project that was counter-hegemonic for the left in the long term. Whether it had the strategy right for winning elections is one debate, but whatever the outcome, it had no strategy for winning the country, and even if it did, it would for winning the country to the centre (i.e the general balance of how it is already) rather than any permutation of the left.

It was necessary to ditch New Labour because as well as leaving left voters with nowhere to go by appropriating their natural party, it was against the interests of the whole movement within the country in the long term. It was not strategic to any structural end shared by the left.

So, I’m glad we have Ed Miliband, and I was glad to vote for him at the time. It’s good to see that others are too.

And after a bit of a educational non-debate with a friend on facebook (we both agreed with each other), I was left thinking about ‘predistribution’ – and how well it fits into a more ambitious, hegemonic style of social democracy.

First things first. The name. People don’t like it, because it’s a wonk word. But I feel that around half of the people who say that should simply go away. Why? Because they spent years plugging something called ‘public service reform’, including such populist notions as ‘foundation hospitals’ and ‘internal markets’. Something you always hear from people down the pub, no doubt.

None of these names are good, and that is certainly important for an idea to gain currency. It is a wonk word, and hardly an everyday topic. But I can’t think of a better one that is as general. So for now, ‘predistribution’ will do.

An idea with hegemonic potential

There are several advantages from the point of view of hegemonic strategy (and note at this point that I am reproducing facebook)…

Like the Scandinavian social democracy admired by the soft left, it firstly offers a way to transpose the institutions of the left into the economy, thus providing a fundamental change to the temporally immediate class structure of local capitalism, and increasing hegemonic potential – a dual benefit. Cooperatives. Unions. Management board modifications. Shareholder transparency.

But secondly, I think it underscores rather than diminishes the role of redistribution as well as predistribution more strongly than redistribution can itself (via discourse)… predistribution implies that there is something wrong about how we are paid and treated in a way that is not immediately evident to people simply because they pay progressive tax rates or receive working family tax credit. As well as offering the organising and material base as per the paragraph above, it also pushes the argument that capitalism produces unjust and inadequate outcomes right into our everyday lives. It forces people, especially those reliant on wages, to question the equity and suitability of their situation. This leads to emphasis on collective redistribution as much as it does predistribution itself.

As such, it has the potential to actively attack the current common sense around distributive justice, as well as having two different ways to embed a new one.

So for me, leaving aside the impact on party politics, there are three cultural and organisational reasons to see this as a really exciting intellectual project.

And it’s free.

And it means that some of the huge pile of corporate savings might be released back into the real economy.

Stuff Blue Labour, this is where it’s at.