Narrow and brittle, or broad and democratic?

This is a hard thing to write because I generally try to stay away from discussing individual disciplinary matters in the Labour Party. It’s difficult to know for sure what the real circumstances are in such cases, because after everything, details are still selectively leaked and briefed about anonymously. Often the individuals concerned will make a big public complaint about some areas of the concerns raised about them, but leave out important details, or whole areas of the complaint. In some respects, we will never know if the cat is in the box.

That said, we seem to be going through a particularly dark time for natural justice in the party. The most openly Machiavellian voices on the Labour right will simply resort to Lenin-style nonsense about eggs and omelettes to defend this stuff. These are the sort of people who would have looked at the Dreyfus affair and said “you know what, I think this is good for the military”.

Concern about this stuff is entirely justified. The factual gap is an obstacle for sure, but the moral argument for basic principles of justice should not be something which is up for grabs in any political party that supports democracy.

The opportunism that takes place inside our internal culture is really pretty stunning, and it’s amazing it doesn’t end up in much more press attention, or indeed legal challenge.

Factions in the Labour Party will all tell you they are the torch bearers for fairness and democracy, as long as they aren’t in control. The past couple of days have seen the NEC imposing its own members as candidates, and all sorts of anti-democractic chicanery involving disciplinary processes, which we are told are meant to be independent and above board.

Here is the reminder what their mirror characters are like in the upper echelons of the Labour right: the same in a lot of ways, and if anything, far more happy to be brazen about it.

There were many critics of similar (but it has to be said, less blatant) behaviour from the elite of the traditional left under Corbyn. This was justified, but a blind spot now is not. I can forgive where there is willingness to learn, and many members who joined the party during the Corbyn years could have been forgiven that the Corbynites were the only dodgy faction, or the only one that mattered.

The truth is that the Labour left between Militant and the Corbyn years was a lot less like this. For one thing, even with control of the Labour Party, the left still supports democracy and transparency in the party as a matter of principle. As simple evidence of this, look how the least democratic bits of the Labour left ended up tying many of them in knots when they wanted to silence the membership on Brexit.

Part of the reflex towards authoritarianism and stitch-ups in those parts has its roots in Stalinism, but the reason that this kind of politics received any license in the first place was in reaction to the right’s flogging of the same methods during the New Labour years.

Instead of the party ever learning these lessons and a new position emerging from the seemingly endless dialectic of Labour’s intolerant edges, we simply repeat the same cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination, until it makes us unable to function, or represent a broad slice of the electorate from left to centre.

But the roots of this behaviour, in my opinion, rest with the faction who are usually in charge, and seem inherently much more comfortable with politics being decided by a backroom elite. Small and influential bits of the left are like this, but it sums up the bulk of Labour’s right.

We would all do well to remember this, and for those relatively new to the party, learn it.

This is not us.

The bulk of Labour’s membership is not like this.

Yes, it wants proper wrong’uns out and gaffes minimised. Along with his impressive leadership manifesto (!), that’s part of the reason Starmer is in office, and that his self-proclaimed allies run the NEC.

But our members are heavily motivated by their sense of fairness and justice. They want it done fairly and transparently, and this applies whoever is in charge.

Generally, our members do not believe in ‘ending’ people for minor transgressions, in purges of dissenters, or a vision of a narrow party where people can’t debate or disagree.

The same goes for the trade union movement, which often seems far politically broader than Labour, and is far stronger for it.

Labour seems to be heading for an election win. That’s great, but as someone on the centre left of the party spectrum, it should not leave me feeling so ambivalent and miserable about things.

Frankly, I am now very sick of posh people in suits conducting dick-waving contests and targetting their “opponents” as a means of governance, whilst the rest of us knock on doors and help our austerity-ravaged communities. It’s insulting.

Learning the wrong lessons

I’ve no doubt that MPs make mistakes that are worth an apology, and so forth. In some cases it goes far further (Chris Williamson!), and it’s indisputable by anybody with any understanding of human behaviour and emotions that this person should be expelled.

But the debate is now far bigger than this kind of stuff. When action is deliberately delayed and obfuscated over until members can be denied their choice at a selection meeting, that’s a systematic moral and democratic failing.

When NEC members are directly parachuted by their own colleagues and faction-mates into safe seats, that’s very much the same. When the way to get a seat is without a vote and because of working for the right person in politics, that’s also a problem, albeit a less serious one.

Basically, the political situation is bigger than individual cases.

Faced with a choice between a party that is narrow and brittle, versus one which is broad and pluralist, there is no contest. Faced with a choice between a party that hides behind locked doors, and one which honestly faces the people who pay its subs and deliver its leaflets, there is no contest.

Usually the faction in charge has been responsible for forcing these choices, and at the moment, that’s the Labour right. Their lesson from the Corbyn years has been that they need to be less tolerant of others and less tolerant of arguments for fair due process.

The underlying analysis is that there’s nothing wrong with stitch-ups or performative cruelty, and that adding these elements does not damage the areas of our disciplinary process that are actually proportionate and necessary. Everything is fine.

This is false, and dangerous.

But to the extent that anything ever went wrong (such as the election of Corbyn), everything is everyone else’s fault.

As well as being false and dangerous, this is also boring and shortsighted.

Still… thoughts need applying

Frankly speaking, arguments for intolerance should ring alarm bells about anyone who seeks power. Like the Corbynites before them, the Labour right’s “lessons learned” may well work for personal advantage, but they are exactly the wrong ones for the Labour Party, and in turn, the country.

The directive is “do what we want with our power and positions” and the cost, so long as they keep the media on side, is nil. As members, we need this to change.

So what do we do? In my view, alliances need to be formed against anyone who wants to run the Labour Party as a lawless back yard of their own. But first, there is a question to ask: does this describe you?

I was a teenage communist

The 100 year anniversary of the October revolution is a strange one for someone who developed their political opinions as a Communist. I remember learning about the revolution in school and, unlike almost all of my classmates, being totally inspired. Though I never joined any Communist party, by late teenage years I was fully signed up on the revolution and the great historical movement I felt it represented. Though I suppose at that age, and particularly as someone who was very much into the punk scene, I was never going to pledge my loyalty to someone else’s views. Which is funny – I routinely have to do this as a Labour Councillor. Which feels a lot safer.

At 32 now, I am just about old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse. But to someone ten years older than me, the idea that ‘any system which had to wall people in must be a bit fucked’ would have been a lot more obvious. Instead my only concentration was really on the failures of various types of conservative thinking. At 16 I was not formed, but I grew up in the North East, a proud but badly hit part of the world. With my family had I moved to Woking at a couple of years beforehand, and I had said goodbye to that part of the world.

As well as disliking aristocracy and hating Fascist-like-stuff, I disliked how unequally people had been treated between and within parts of my own country, and I was decidedly anti-capitalist.

I couldn’t get my head around how people in a single lifetime could accumulate thousands of times more stuff, thousands of times more power over others, or such a greater opportunity to do well in life than someone else. I also couldn’t get why it was ever right for those things to be inherited if it was about working for it. I couldn’t justify how ancient traditions or polite legalities justified any of it. Whether times were good or bad, it couldn’t be meritocratic and it didn’t give people a chance. It certainly hadn’t in 90s Newcastle, and that was pretty clear all round.

So I knew what I was against. The gaps filled quickly.

To me at 16, the October revolution represented the death of a system which literally starved millions in order to preserve class privilege – a system which had to be dragged kicking and screaming even to abandon serfdom, the practice of tying peasants to land as a form of indentured servitude.

It also represented the birth in the largest country in the world of a new social and economic class that most of us now simply recognise as ‘normal people’ – people who work for a living. For most of the revolutionary process, these people had been joined with middle-class liberal business owners and professionals in a struggle to overthrow a regime which hadn’t even allowed free speech or elections.

When the ‘progressive middle classes’ used this platform to continue to force starvation wages and conscription for a murderous and needless world war, it was clear that only a different type of democracy could triumph – these people too had become oppressors and defenders of something profoundly backwards.

But the new democracy never really came to be – again, the people who captured the state put their own protection first.

Realising this critique of the early soviet years and the direction it led to under Stalin gave me an interest in Trotskyism, but again the sects behind this line of thinking seemed even weirder and more out of touch than the official Communists, who themselves were totally out of touch with working class people’s lives and opinions – and modern history.

Despite the value in some of the left press’s reporting, you couldn’t even make arguments from the Morning Star in most pubs without getting the piss ripped out of you, let alone something from Socialist Appeal or Solidarity. Turns out loads of the publishing sects have covered up rape or sexual abuse too, which is obviously down to vile individuals, but facilitated by the secretive political cultures and power structures which would not have been alien to the Russian emigre exiles of the 1910s.

The revolution did lead to some clear historical victories, to the benefit of liberal democracies as well as for Communists. It is no coincidence that voters in liberal countries strongly favoured Communism over fascism before WWII, nor that this trend continues in modern Britain, even expressing itself among Tory voters.

It’s worth wondering, without the Bolsheviks, whether the revolution could have survived – would any of the other parties have managed to protect it against the well organised and financed White Russians, or their international allies including Britain, 14 of whom invaded the country?

Consequently, would Hitler would have been defeated with no USSR, no partisans? Would Fascism have taken over Europe before then with no Spanish volunteers? Would social democracy would have succeeded in the post-war West? Would China would have remained a feudal society, and would the imperial subjects of the world now be free from colonial rule? All of these look unlikely.

We can wonder whether we would have gone to space. Remembering in particular that long before Stalin banned homosexuality, it had been legalised under Lenin… that the Male pale and stale USSR financed anti-racist and anti-colonial projects around the world, and mandated workplace equality for women… we also have to wonder whether feminists, black activists and LGBT people would have had a tougher struggle without being able to point to these examples.


Most fundamentally of all, the USSR collapsed, and for good reasons, some of which took decades to play out. The truth became fiction in what passed for political debate. Famines, judicial murder and mass killings spent a couple of decades becoming normalised, before being buried by the secret state, backed up by waves of surveillance and censorship. The country along with its vassals and allies fell victim to the economic and cultural stagnation inherent to statist centralism. People overall felt they had no control over the system or stake in it. And on all levels, it eventually collapsed in.

In doing so, it destroyed Soviet countries societies and economies, and discredited the whole left internationally for at least 3 decades – something which had sold itself as the biggest step forward left us only with the biggest step back. A true believer will always blame the wolves of the West for post-Soviet hardship and the drubbing of the wider left – and then politely rub their hands when you point out it was their system which collapsed, or which mutated before, yes – collapsing.

This is something I’m glad to have recognised by the time I turn 20 – I know quite a few for whom this didn’t really register.

So many of the drawbacks and costs of the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik legacy were totally unnecessary, even in the conditions of its under-developed civil society and economy, and some powerful external threats. Basic civil rights, aspects of multi-party democracy, and some level of economic autonomy were all things which could have been afforded without placing the gains of the October revolution in danger. It was not external threats which brought down the Soviet Union, but its own internal contradictions and the fact that so few people ended up left with much to support about it continuing. After all, they had been shut out from governing or steering it for decades.

At the end of the day, it’s better when anyone in power has to have majority opinion on side, even if it means limits and compromises. For the left it is an essential.

By this time I realised this I’d also had a near miss in a workplace safety incident and I joined a union not long after. I started to think about politics in terms of mainstream beliefs and every day life. The Iraq war was now raging without much justification, and thousands of civilians were needlessly dying. Real world shit.

My increasing distance from Communism and ‘abstract academic politics’ generally was settled by my second year of uni, and unlike many who left over Iraq, the war meant that I felt a burning need to get into Labour and turn it around.

I see nothing wrong with political intellectuals, but ‘adult me’ only really sees a point in that when it is realistic and applied. People need reasons but ultimately what you do matters more than what you think or say. As the years went, I stopped even caring about foreign policy as much, compared to what I know I can affect closer to home.

But, 1917 swirls around us. There are those in politics who are unable to imagine a left not based in some kind of past experiences, especially in an era which has been a bit uncontested and boring, in which our opponents have dominated even our own movement. But unless checked with an ear for real lived experiences, this outlook can make it difficult to tell past failures failures from successes, or to engage with how political and economic forces have changed or re-aligned.

Ironically, this kind of ‘trad left’ disposition was part of what drove the latter years of Soviet failure. Whilst ‘horseshoe theory’ is bollocks (and an aid to both the alt-right and Holocaust revisionists), there is no need to base any modern political outlook on Soviet templates, nor to deny Soviet crimes, or try to find prestige in its widely discredited name. Outside of the far left, there isn’t any.

The democratic left allying with Communists has been important to past campaigns, from the Bevanites supporting the Spanish Republican war drive through to anti-Apartheid and the Poll Tax. But whilst it’s useful to strike together, there is only cost without benefit when it comes to sharing a marching banner. As memory of the Soviet Union fades with its shit cars, bans on rock music and its elderly male wardens, nostalgia or apologetics are no more useful, but they are asserted with growing confidence.

And sure, the soviet system had progressive achievements, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this (as I have above). But so did Victorian capitalism. Who cares? The point is that it is not a useful blueprint.

Some of the USSR’s problems and flaws were only fully apparent by the late 1960s or mid 70s, but all of them had common roots in 1917, which removed the need for participation or popular consent, both of which were actively suppressed by the mid-1920s. For socialists living in modern western-style democracies the long-burn lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse (and how some of us reacted) should seem obvious.

  • There’s no point in a left which isn’t about winning or majority support, or which depends on shutting down basic freedoms.
  • Mainstream class politics with wide backing trumps small sects and cults – rarely indeed do the two meet.
  • Debates within the left should be honest, open and transparent. Internal politics should be seriously contested.
  • The broad left itself is a coalition of different voices and class forces. Usually they can coexist, and when politically diverse parts of the left and centre-left have reason to throw their lot together with organised workers, the common project is stronger.
  • Not everything in politics is about the economic base even for many Marxists. We’ve evolved a complex and political culture as well as a very politically and economically diverse class system. People expect outreach and participation.
  • Groups are oppressed in capitalism for reasons not directly about class.
  • The right dominates culture, and we must challenge this to win any control.
  • We can’t run an economy without international trade or demand-led production, or people have no stake in economic success. It will rely on inflation, and then shut down as quick as a Cuban railway system. Nor can we capitulate to the right as many 90s centre-lefts did, outsourcing politics to market competition, when private interests also don’t give people a stake in success, especially when private productivity stalls, we lack national leadership and we have weak unions . This is really the key point behind the modern left’s existence, but tensions with the need for global trade define our challenges.
  • Public good trumps private good. But political systems need reasons to act accordingly. Public ownership needs to have tangible benefits for control and reward to workers and customers, as well as having a strategic role for the state. Without these, we might as well let someone else take financial risks, private or mutual, and mitigate resulting social risks. Likewise, one of the early successes of the USSR was the NEP. Makes sense. Centralist production in the USSR often failed to meet basic need and fell over completely when consumer goods were needed. Does anyone really need nationalised rationing of telephone handsets?
  • Art, science, journalism, politics. Let people express themselves.
  • Modernity and fluidity fights stagnation and has intrinsic value, not least in the era of global warming, ageing societies, and mass migration. Stagnant politics which resists change is bad news for humans. Ease up and don’t create brittle political systems. If they are popular enough to defend, and can also adapt, they will survive.
  • Our international alliances should encourage peace as a primary goal, but let’s demand policies of economic and social liberation from our allies instead of ‘uncritical support’ type ‘anti-imperialism’. The Cold War set low standards for everyone involved and meant that internationalism for the Svoiet state was not always about greater autonomy for working people. Why continue?
  • We need to organise ourselves, find allies, and be rooted in the present.

These opinions are as compatible with much of Marxism as they are with social democracy and the centre left. There is no reason not to share a basic platform, when it comes to learning from Soviet shortcomings. But admittedly, they have less to say to the developing world generally, and especially in formally Communist states. What people like me say cannot matter there.

100 years on, the legacy of 1917 is a long way from clear, particularly with the international rise of China and similar states such as Vietnam, as well as the stagnation and isolation of post-Soviet Russia. The revolution trickles down as finance in huge engineering projects, private investments in capitalist markets across the globe, and military geopolitics between great powers – a hilarious historical irony.

Despite the failure of the soviets and of western Communist Parties, parts of Marxism still inspire me. Marx took economics, relationships between ‘things’, and made clear that it is really about relationships between people. His work made clear that this can be expressed in formal politics, latent ideologies, or simply going to work. In doing so, he showed us the poverty of high-minded moral philosophy or epistemology when it ignores the importance everyday experience, overlooks power and society, and does not produce social change.

And it is not just about economics, because everyday life and political being is about culture too. Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm or Stuart Hall, both of the Gramscian tradition, are invaluable to helping leftists understand the realism of a world which jarrs with our outlooks, and also the advanced strategies of our well financed modern opponents in liberal democracies – the so called ‘war of position’. But despite the Leninist origins of their thought, it is precisely the steps which they take beyond Leninism which release their value.

The Russian revolution and the society it gave birth to fundamentally gives shape to the context of post-Soviet Marxism, but vastly more importantly shapes politics in every aspect of the modern world. As a result of its ignominious conclusion in Russia and the Eastern bloc, the workers movement which was rising before 1917 all over the world has long been in need of adaption and recovery.

The above bullet points should be clear enough to people on the left in Europe and the Americas. In the world as it is now, if we are to have a transformative left, it must be an open one.

Labour’s problems: some structural aspects

A million people have written a million things about the problems Labour faces, with some quite simplistic responses from several knackered looking leadership contests. The main surface aspects are simple. In polling, we lost certain groups of voters, notably at the older end.

In terms of political geography, we desperately need to win back a lot of Tory voters who used to vote Labour. But we’re also faced with the challenge of winning back a serious number of seats from a party which anyone serious can see has attacked us in the base, and from the left, in order to gain majorities by adding these voters to its previous vote – the SNP. This seems to have warranted far left discussion, in part because our media is right wing and attached to Labour’s own hard right, in in part because the media and what remains of the Labour Party are pretty anglocentric.

But the point is made repeatedly that this malaise is affecting us around Europe and goes deeper than individual elections. Which reminds us immediately of a second coming of Hobsbawm and Hall (as per this and this).

Ludicrously, Liz Kendall warns us against trying to become a Syriza or a Podemos because of the need for electoral success. But in these countries it is social democrats who face eradication for being weak, and too closely aligned to both national and international elites. Hilariously, both of the parties mentioned are great examples of snatching prominence, relevance, and mass support from the jaws of pointless left cultism.

This is not to say that Kendall is wrong in her conclusion – we have very different economies and politics to these countries, which have sharply diverged. But her conclusion is in ignorance of her premise, not based upon it. Continue reading

Tackling a shift


This graphic is from the Government’s newly announced CSR paper for this November.

We are now at a 2004 level of spending but with slightly lower income. We should be concentrating on raising that income, but the basic point is that our deficit has gone from being at ‘crash’ levels to ‘New Labour’ levels. We are unarguably now at a stage where the social sphere’s share of economic activity is below that of 2004 – indeed, in real terms we crossed that line some time ago – our population is growing.

Objectively speaking, the argument that we now can’t sustain policies like tax credits is of equal value to what the argument that we should abolish them made in 2004. The rest is public opinion. Depending on who you ask.

If public opinion is not prepared to defend those things now but was in 2004, yes we can adapt to that, or challenge it. But first we should be asking if such a political shift has occurred, why, and what we would want to come out of it.

I am disappointed that there is no Labour leadership candidate from the left flank of the party (or even its centre) who is interest in cutting edge analysis and in particular the science of public discourse and opinion.

In my view a materialist left needs to be real enough to engage in questions like this bravely. If we are witnessing this kind of shift, we are certainly seeing one wing of the Labour Party arguing to adapt to that trend and concede to what is essentially a second wave of rightward shifting after the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. The argument is that we may be defeated forever, but we should see any small adaptations we can make as validating that defeat to the point where we can tell ourselves it is victory. In short, a Dunkirk strategy. But one in which you keep on making the retreat whilst the enemy keeps chasing.

In Blairism, there is no looking beyond a permanent rightward shift. And in jettisoning all concern for the most basic amelioration (i.e. countering child poverty), they can no longer even argue that the most moderate sweetener is there to help the ‘deal’ go down.

In contrast, the left alternately argues that such a rightward shift does not exist, or that it should be countered. It cannot keep its line straight between these two antagonistic arguments, because it is not interested in doing the groundwork to actually find out in the first place. In this sense, there is little reason it should be taken credibly.

The third approach, and what is not being argued, is that the shift exists, should be acknowledged, and that we need to think of imaginative strategies and indeed tactics explicitly to halt or reverse it.

It is increasingly unclear if the ‘hard’ flanks of the party feel they have anything at all in common with each other. Both seem to take this as a badge of pride, which I feel is immature and makes us phenomenally weak against a party which represents all wings of the establishment and shares a common outlook and basis of consent at a very basic level.

Indeed, many on the left fear that such a shared ultimate objective as halting a rightward shift does not exist across the Labour Party (in the way that commitments to things like low taxes for well off people appeal across the whole spectrum of the Conservative Party).

Which is an obstacle for us all. In any event, I would argue that the challenge for the right of the Labour party is to commit to this objective, and to be trusted to do so. Fundamentally this is why Blairites are currently unable to appeal beyond their core. They need to revise.

The challenge for the party left is to commit to being honest with itself, doing some actual original and non-repetitive things in pursuance of changing public opinion, and working with others to make it happen. It needs a good revising too.

Innovation and radicalism in defence of core values (rather than led by George Osborne) is ground that everyone in Labour can stretch to stand on, and it is ground which can win support from both our left and right flanks – the only way to win any future election. It is probably also the only way to hold Labour together and secure any common currency as a movement, even if winning proves to be totally impossible.

Rather than seeing this happen, I suspect I’ll just sit and get pissed off with the TV instead. La lotta continua, and all that.

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

Why not be a capitalist?

Sensible socialists often have to compromise with or even harness capitalism. Yet unlike Chuka Umunna, I am not happy to call myself a capitalist.

I neither believe in nor benefit from supporting the class system. Which however much we bang on about ‘mobility’, remains what capitalism is. Some people can only aspire to become wealth creators. A smaller number of other people get to be their bosses. And so are born Two Nations.

I’m not even sure that’s what Chuka Umunna was agreeing with when he said we are all capitalists, which is part of what makes his throwaway comments highly questionable if you remove the context. So I think that’s what I’ll do. After all, it is funny how in British politics the slightly left-of-centre are often so happy to use ‘capitalism’ to mean ‘everything I like about capitalism’. But what does it really mean?

Capitalism is now an international system based on centralised control of wealth (capital) and political power by an economic class. Ugly stuff.

To sustain itself, it normally has some element of democratic management or involvement built into it as a pressure valve. If that hadn’t evolved, it would have been history by 1860.

In states where elite tolerance with a well supported and confident left has worn thin (think South America, civil war Spain, the Weimar Republic or South Africa) events have shown that this doesn’t always ring true. Capitalism and democracy are far from the same thing.

At a more fundamental level, the whole thing is built on the idea of people signing away or being forced out of the right to make their own decisions for 8-12 hours a day, and feeling vulnerable enough to do it.

And most people in the world don’t get much back for that. Capitalism is, like all social systems before it, an unjust system. It’s also not very stable or efficient. Again, like all social systems before it, no matter how permanent things seem or how little you see your own life changing, capitalism is also quite possibly a temporary system.

Things in our world change fast, and it often doesn’t take much time for what seems normal to seem weird – “all that is solid melts into air”.

It comes with convulsions, booms, busts, threats, wars and a tide of other horrors. Consider how people must have felt during feudalism, or mass slavery, and how ridiculous it would have been to them to imagine the world we live in now.

I would not argue that profit or competition are always wrong. What they are used for is important. But who is in charge of the economy and how it is influenced both control that.

The idea of a softly steered capitalism that is relatively democratic and delivers for those who work within it belongs in the Crosland era – the late 1950s and the 60s – a period which followed capitalism destroying all the wealth it had built up, along with millions of people, and a social revolution which followed. It was also exclusively western, and doesn’t reflect the experience of those in Africa, Asia and South America, for whom capitalism has actually usually meant war or long standing police states.

Liberal capitalism itself has a list of atrocities at least as long as its far more forthright Stalinist and Fascist cousins. Liberals and conservatives in Europe and the US love to pretend that Pinochet, who they politically and economically supported, is completely distant from them. But even as we speak, those people have plans to cream off money from thousands of Chinese sweatshop workers, and will defend this on the basis that we get the vote and the right to strike in MEDCs.

Workers in the west have also taken a beating to keep the white goods cheap. For a start the jobs they had are now in China. But that’s to do with the political defeat of their own parties and movements.

Yet I am an optimist. Even after globalisation, in my own view there is hope to be found of reforming capitalism back, and re-extending social power over greed and irresponsibility. It won’t be done by Parliaments acting without pressure from outside, and unlike the last time social democracy advanced, this time it won’t be done by single states acting on their own. But most people on the left understand this.

So if we would like capitalism to be more restricted by the public interest, I question how the left can reform back something that is regressive by declaring faith in it.

Whether your system is a ‘workers capitalism’ like Venezuela, welfarism like the 50s (or Sweden), or outright fascism, the same themes of concentrated wealth and power with those who own stakes in companies continues to perpetuate. And that part of any political settlement is never about working for the wider social good.

Yes, in the immediate term we need to make capitalism work better – to tame it, stabilise it, diffuse its proceeds, and diffuse power over it. In this sense, Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband et al are dead on. What is even more rare is that what they want is both better for short-term competition, and for people who have to work for a living. A win-win.

But it’s not so much that everyone is a capitalist now.

It’s more that we need to be honest about how much of a hold it has on our culture and our economy, how poorly organised the left is, and how difficult this can make it to flog people anything that looks marginal, impossible, or completely alien to their existing belief system.

Slamming capitalism is politically irrelevant at best. But pledging allegiance to it is self-defeating and naive about what the class power of the well monied actually means.

What we need to do is concentrate on is resisting the worst of it, on changing wider political culture, and organising the insecure majority of people against all that is wrong with capitalism – whatever they want to call themselves.

The economic crisis from 2008-2012 having become a crisis of both finance and working class living standards, we continue to be in a ‘war of position‘, as has been true in developed economies since the late 1970s.

I have developed a political tolerance for capitalism, because it’s better to build ourselves something constructive rather than getting pasted in newspapers every day without changing anyone’s minds. I feel OK about that.

All of this said, I’d rather just be honest. It’s ridiculous to have a moral belief in capitalism – not least as a self-described socialist.

Capitalism has no moral desires of its own to believe in.

When we support the morality of capitalism, there are only those fleeting ethics of the social group who organise its diary. In other words, those in charge of the businesses, and the political structures beneath them.

To believe in capitalism is to believe that a small number of highly advantaged people should be left alone to make the bulk of the decisions.

The labour movement might have to tolerate or employ this economic system to its own ends, but why should it actively promote it in its own ranks?

In the immediate future it’s good for Labour to concentrate on building a private sector which is more sustainable and enduring, and democratic enough to give away more of its proceeds. Nobody is opposing that.

But what about the principle? The big question?

It will almost certainly never happen in our lifetimes, but wouldn’t it be great to see capitalism superseded by a stage of history which is more democratic, international, and more focused on serving the bulk of people who aren’t already sorted?

We could call that democratic socialism, and we could call the bits on the way social democracy. We could even put it on the back of Labour membership cards.

Council cuts and Labour – some frank but friendly words

I have an interest in this as I’m running for Brent Council in Willesden Green. But that means the public have an interest in it too, so I’m dumping a quick thought here which outlines how I feel about cuts. Might as well clear my chest at this early stage.

Firstly, the bottom line stuff. I am committed to the Labour Party as once necessary vehicle for democratic socialism, and I will follow its rules as decided by conference, including by following collective group responsibility with any colleagues I am elected alongside at a local Government level. I wouldn’t feel the same about being elected to Parliament for a host of reasons, but they are long and irrelevant.

The flip side – though this gives me a duty to support group decisions, it also gives me an obligation to fight for my own values and for my local residents in campaigns, when candidates are selected within the party, and then within the Labour group if I am elected as a Councillor.

So there’s my caveat paragraphs. What are those values and beliefs?

While I am prepared to admit that some cuts are stupider than others, I am also fundamentally opposed to the economics of the cuts, which are the right’s ideological project and economic solution all wrapped up in one neat package. Firstly this package is unjust and misses why we have economics at all – improving quality of life. Secondly, it is also a package which has failed in its own terms repeatedly across Europe.

Ignored by campaigners: cuts are part of a right-wing political project

But despite all this context, many local anti-cuts campaigners are blaming their Councils for cuts which are centrally decided and then deliberately and carefully outsourced to Labour Councils to avoid accountability nationally. Local campaigners, understandably angry about their own local losses, repeatedly take the bait.

While I support anti-cuts and have marched many times with anti-cuts groups, I think there are several areas of strategic weakness, and despite the encouraging start of the (poorly named) People’s Assembly, the movement as a whole frustrates me.

Where the localised anti-cuts movement is going wrong

It is fragmented, has poor language, has abysmal understanding of the law & finance, and is content to abandon realism in its strategy in the hope that setting a deficit budget in tooting will begin a great global uprising against neoliberalism that is necessary to undo the cuts. While I applaud their defensive work and awareness raising, the sense of strategy is mind-numbingly parochial. It is also so distant from the scale and depth of the task ahead that it is content to sit around biting the local veins of one of the key organisations in overturning the consensus at a national level, the Labour Party.

Why? Well, as stated above, taking losses locally touches more than a nerve, and the Government have sorted the swaparoo in finance so that Councils have to be the public face of the cuts they never wanted.

But I also think as well as the good intentions, it can all go a bit conspiracy theory at times, and the underlying current is sometimes disingenuous – note, for example, how few local anti-cuts campaigners are prepared to put their own solutions before the electorate either as Labour candidates, or for other parties.

On the conspiracy point, hatred for Blairism understandably runs deep throughout the left, parliamentary and external. I know this – marching against Iraq and opposing various privatisations were some of my earliest political actions, and I stand by them. But it’s not always relevant or the way to decent strategy.

Some more radical parts of the left seem happy to abandon materialism in favour of emotionalising this hatred, and apply it more widely against Labour. They are waiting all the time for someone to step into the betrayal zone, which rests on the assumption that nobody from the Labour Party is in the same movement or moral universe as them. Actually, that’s completely untrue.

I repeatedly see people who I know have made quite left-wing decisions in private being heckled by people who barely know them at meetings for being right-wing, or involved in some plot that the accuser cant even put their finger on (but of course, if they have been elected to an Executive Committee, there must be dastardly plots – one example of where the paranoia creeps in, and people respond to it by shouting at someone innocent, whilst lacking the guts to stand for their position themselves).

One recent manifestation was someone from the left echoing the Tory line exactly by suggesting that Labour Councils were cutting harder to ‘teach people not to vote Tory’. This involves some level of self-deception, and can really only be based on an emotional refusal to give the matter any actual thought.

It’s this that bothers me, because it stops even the best within Labour and the wider left working well together.

Views on policy may or may not be legit, but the style and underlying assumptions are empty and sectarian.

Let’s be sensible?

Labour Councillors that have been elected all depend on Labour voters from last time round, not Tory ones. These people are also disproportionately hit by cuts. It would be bizarre even for a careerist to choose to hurt them in this way.

If you can’t see this and appreciate that it means that Labour Councils are not necessarily in bad faith, I don’t think there’s much point in me or anyone else trying to have a political conversation with you, because logic on the points under debate is clearly not what matters.

My local Council has been told it has to find tens of millions worth of spending to get rid of over the next year.

If it’s about showing anyone anything, it’s about Labour Councils trying to find ways to avoid this costing lives, and using it as an example. Tory Councils are not being cut, and won’t have to even bother trying.

Focus: a ‘pragmatic’ left approach to Labour locally

If I am elected as a Labour Councillor, I won’t be promising a Poplar rates rebellion (a legal relic), or to hand over my budget to DCLG (the legal present), which will hurt the vulnerable, but without remotely stoking up any kind of dissent on a national level.

Instead, I will be pushing for Labour’s economic policy nationally and internationally not to concede to the cuts agenda, and pushing within the Labour Party for the Council to find ways of innovating out of cuts (a similar strategy to that used by that pragmatist Ken Livingstone and the GLC, rather than that pushed at the time by John McDonnell and Ted Knight).

I will undoubtedly take part in political demonstrations and perhaps non-violent direct action.

I will push to build a national anti-cuts movement.

I will fight at a community level so concerns about priorities are born out and people are at least listened to, even if they don’t get what they are after.

And to make all of that a relevant possibility, I will be ignoring the poorly reasoned ‘Blairophobia’ and fighting for a Labour government.

That’s better than letting former coalition Minister Sarah Teather off the hook for voting for cuts to our Council budget, which is something that in my view our scattered anti-cuts campaigners in my Borough and others allow to happen far too easily.

Tony Blair is gone, and those of us to the left of him have new challenges altogether to deal with. Let’s stem the bleed locally, get this lot out nationally, and make sure we replace the whole lot with something more participative, more democratic, more egalitarian, and more sustainable.

If I want my Borough to look more like that, I need a new government as an absolute minimum, and I see the fight against the cuts in that context.

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.

Solidarity with the Bolivarian revolutions

This piece from Colin Burgon MP on LabourList is worth a read.

I’m not sure models such as Venezuela are applicable to the economies or body politics of Western Europe – but I do think Colin Burgon is basically right to stress the importance of international solidarity with democratic socialist revolutions in Latin America.

I do think solidarity should be critical, and not vulgar or unthinking. But I have lots of caveats about lots of things.

As an example, I’m quite happy to disagree with Chavez and say that Iran, a state with a special line in repression and bigotry, is no friend of working people.

But that does not mean that a Chavista government should not be supported, and even more importantly the movmement which put it there and partly holds it accountable, because what really matters is the enormous and largely positive social change taking place there.

It’s also important to note, as Burgon points out, that this continent-wide process includes ‘pink’ revolutions in countries such as Brazil as well as ‘red’ ones in Venezuela, Bolivia and the like. Red or pink, each of them is characterised by electoralist, openly mandated and openly debated politics – something which should make democratic socialists a lot more comfortable about them than, say, Cuba. Yes, Chavez isn’t nice to some parts of the private press – small ones, it has to be said – but perhaps they shouldn’t take part in military coups. I couldn’t see ITV getting its license renewed in the same circumstances, to be honest.

The stunning stats in terms of social improvements, their repeated continent-wide democratic backing, and comparative lack of repression, make supporting these revolutionary processes worthy of those who believe both in democracy and socialism.

It saddens me that many within the Labour Party are quite happy to drop bombs on people, but not willing to show a bit of solidarity with those who propose feeding them (and put their ballot box where their mouth is as they go about it).

This is no internationalism that I recognise. So Burgon is right, on his core point at least.

This isn’t just the sort of thing Labour should be thinking about. Our direct sister party in Venezuela was involved in a military and media coup against the elected President, and has been pushing for the country to direct itself rightwards. It is a party of an old and corrupt Trade Union establishment, carved into the culture of the country as part of a succession of stitch-up governments held in place by oil barons.

Many of the ‘pink tide’ parties are affiliated to the Socialist International, of which Labour is part, but PSUV and the PT are not.

Instead, we have a proxy relationship with them through the Sao Paulo forum, which has consultative status at the SI.

In many ways, the politics of this organisation are similar to the so called 2½/Vienna International, which included Labour’s ancestor and sibling the ILP.

While there would be obvious difficulties joining with an organisation that is happy to include ‘tankie’ Communist Parties, The Socialist International nevertheless needs to develop better ways of cooperating with some of these parties on a regular basis. It must stop backing despotic coup makers, as it also did in Africa before that got inconvenient. This is not just Labour’s issue, but one for the democratic left worldwide.

Solidarity with these processes can’t just be reduced down to cult of personality style worship of various Presidents. It needs to include closer institutional working, and is an opportunity to reform the as yet tainted politics of the Socialist International, which in places are as close to despots as to the democratic left.

It’s notable that left support for these contemptibles is seldom mentioned – but solidarity with a particular President who is broadly speaking left wing, and who wins loads of elections, and who accepts defeats in his referendums, is so often the target of ‘decent‘ liberal condescension.

Instead, how about solidarity with a generation who would previously have been denied the right to read?

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?