‘Burke for Labour’ vs ‘The World Transformed’

This year I went to my first World Transformed festival. It was packed with engaged and creative audiences. There was a sense of purpose and serious intent. Labour is a party and a movement that is preparing for government.

But there is a worry, ably expressed by Adam Ramsay, that, as Labour approaches power, it will default to the Burkean conception of public life that is still predominates among the party’s MPs and in the circuits of centre-left publicity. ‘Burke for Labour’ insists that everything depends on ‘the prudence and uprightness of Ministers’. Labour MPs work harder, and are morally superior to, the current crop of Tories. If they can just get their hands on office, all will be well. Austerity will end and the railways and utilities will be nationalised and suddenly everyone will burst out singing. For five or even ten years, until the Tories get in again.

‘Burke for Labour’ is heard at its most wounded when MPs complain that they are elected by thousands of voters, not handfuls of activists, and that mandatory reselection would be  an insult to the, fortuitously unwritten, constitution.  Popular mobilisation is welcome, as long as it makes itself available as fuel for the electoral ambitions of the people’s tribunes. They insist that if the membership, and the citizenry beyond, start to ask questions about the hierarchical nature of the Party and about the anti-democratic nature of the state itself, then that same mobilisation becomes mob rule.

And the centrists have a point. To the extent that we have a constitution it organizes itself around the idea that public initiative is best kept under the close supervision of a handful of people. The judgement of oligarchy, rather than the power of a fully realised democracy, keeps undesirable elements away from power. The few decide who the extremists are, and who has the qualities needed for high office. It is a form of the state that is becoming increasingly contradictory and crisis-prone, and paranoid projection is becoming the signature style of its partisans. But it survives.

While need to be alive to the danger that a Labour government will be a moment of respite from Toryism, there are grounds for optimism. Corbyn and his allies have already been able to articulate a politics far more radical than that of the post-war settlement.

McDonnell’s proposals last week for worker representation on boards, and for ‘Inclusive Ownership Funds’ that secure for workers an equity stake in large companies, are attempts to bring democracy into the economy, and increase the numbers of those who exercise power in the workplace. The plans for nationalisation being developed by McDonnell  and Rebecca Long Bailey are informed by a desire to move away from the Morrisonian public corporation to develop institutional forms that give citizens meaningful opportunities to participate in public business. This participation will serve as an education in power that has been denied the majority of us since the late seventies.

The desire to go beyond social democracy in one country is core to the political tradition to which Corbyn and McDonnell belong. Bennism was acutely aware of, and to a considerable extent defined itself against, the limitations of the post-war welfare state. Last week at the World Transformed McDonnell spoke about the need to be ‘in and against the state’, a phrase taken from the influential pamphlet and book of the same name published in 1979-80. By then, socialists understood that the administration of benefits was not sufficient, and that the state itself, as enabler and defender of capitalism, would have to be brought to the attention of the reforming imagination.

There are signs, too, that this democratising agenda is reaching beyond the economic sphere narrowly defined. Corbyn’s speech on media reform in Edinburgh in August was the first time that the leader of a major UK party had made a serious attempt to address the implications of the move away from a broad-and-print media regime to one in which digital platforms predominate. As Anthony Barnett notes, the BBC is part of the informal British constitution, and this is true of the wider communicative apparatus. The state is inseparable from the ways in which is generally understood and misunderstood. Meanwhile, Jon Trickett’s work on a constitutional convention shows that the leadership team understand the need to build out from the proposals for industrial democracy to a new conception of the state as a space for democratic deliberation and planning.

This brings us to a more gloomy reason for thinking that the next Labour administration won’t be able to make do with shifting the dial a little to the left for a few years. As Adam Ramsay himself has pointed out, the old state form that administered public services and presided over the economy between 1945 and 1979 has been all but gutted by successive waves of privatisation, marketisation and outsourcing. Modern mandarins move to and from the public sector every few years and are used to seeing large corporations as their partners and adjutants when they are not their employers. Rebuilding state capacity cannot be a matter of restoring Keynesian aristocrats of mind to their former eminence. The species is all but extinct. While the Labour left’s instincts mean that they want to democratise the state, the current reality leaves them few other options.

The completeness of Thatcher’s victory means that the state must be reformed quite profoundly so that an informed and confident public can push for, and defend, even a modest programme of social democratic amelioration. The creation of such a state is the necessary precondition for further advance, and a powerful defence against the revival of Toryism.

The leadership’s actions so far show that they mean it when they say they want to secure an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people.” They won’t succeed without deep reform of the state, and of the communicative apparatus it creates, and that in turn gives it form and substance.

It is time to push forward with a conversation about communications, the constitution, and the possibilities presented by new technology. Faced with climate change, endemic gangsterism, and manipulative elites, anything less than a politics of transformation is a dangerous distraction. We have known this for years, and the cramped horizons of the political mainstream left us feeling helpless.

The unlikely return of the Labour left gives us a chance to describe the future we want, and to create it together. They have few allies among the few. But if we grasp the opportunity they present, they will have us. And we are many.

[Adam’s essay on constitutional reform, Milking a Vulture, can be found free online here, along with a number of other important pieces edited by Laurie Macfarlane as part of the New Thinking for the British Economy series. If you would like to organise speaker meetings with the authors of those pieces, and order paper versions to sell to help cover costs, then come and find me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth Publishing website.]




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