A Preston Model for Organised Labour

During the Cameron government Preston’s Labour-run City Council responded to cuts to local authority budgets with an interlocking set of policies centred on public procurement. Led by Matthew Brown, the Council took contracts away from large national providers and shifted resources to smaller firms in the area. Where capacity was lacking they helped create it, especially in the cooperative sector. Other public ‘anchor institutions’, the University of Central Lancashire and others, were also encouraged to re-orient their supply chains to protect the local economy from the worst impacts of austerity. Over time the so-called Preston Model has developed into an integrated approach to building local, and widely shared, economic power.

The Preston Model has been much praised by the labour movement. Other Labour councils have adopted and adapted many of its approaches. But the institutions of organised labour themselves – the trade unions, the large cooperatives and the Labour Party – have so far failed to apply the lessons in a systematic and widely publicised way to their internal operations. It is almost as though the people running these organisations don’t want to establish in miniature the economy and society they say they want to see at scale.

These institutions have, by their nature as member-supported organisations, more freedom to spend their money as they choose than local authorities. And their millions of members don’t need permission to make them more thoroughly democratic. In other words, they are free to trial both economic and political democracy of a much more intense and thorough kind than we are used to. Best of all, if the people currently in charge don’t want to do this, they can be replaced.

Perhaps behind the scenes the bureaucracies of labour are straining every nerve to ensure that their budgets build strategic capacity and promote cooperative values – to use their considerable procurement powers as an instrument of political transformation. But it seems unlikely when one considers the media and communications sector. This is now moving away from a broadcast-plus-print regime to one dominated by online distribution. Modest investments can make a vast impact, as Momentum and the World Transformed have shown. But the TUC, which once owned 49% of the largest English-language newspaper in the world, now has fifteen hundred subscribers to its YouTube channel. Meanwhile, the consumer cooperatives were recently found to be giving some of their advertising budget to the Spectator magazine. Instead of acting strategically to create a media infrastructure that can challenge and out-compete a hostile mainstream, the institutions of labour seem paralysed. And this is not at all surprising. A number of senior trade unionists over the years have told me that ‘it’s not their job’ to invest in media operations.

It isn’t hard to see what a Preston-type approach would mean for the labour movement more broadly. The substantial budgets that are currently paid to external suppliers could be redirected to unionised worker and hybrid cooperatives. Instead of operating as a relatively small player in the capitalist economy, the labour movement would become a collection of anchor institutions that build cooperative capacity in key sectors. They would divert resources away from what bureaucrats reflexively do, towards the more effective promotion of their members’ interests and values. By favouring cooperation the labour movement would expand and strengthen its lifeworld – the sphere of lived experience in which solidarity and equality make material sense.

Many labour institutions own or rent large properties in central London and Manchester. It might make sense to reduce their footprint in these expensive cities and move closer to the communities they serve. The money saved on rents, or earned from the ownership of assets in London, would then becomes a steady source of start-up funding for new cooperative enterprises. These would provide well paid employment and raise living standards in communities that are increasingly losing faith with the labour movement.

By settling a significant number of well-paid professionals to a medium sized town or smaller city, a large union would make an immediate impact on the local economy. And through the self-conscious use of both budgets and purchasing power, they could turn impact into transformation. The economy surrounding organised labour, both geographically and sectorally, would then become much more substantially cooperative.

Similarly, the labour institutions control significant funds through their pension funds. Meanwhile, cooperatives have a strong record of business success but struggle to access bank lending. By acting as both start-up lenders and ‘anchors’ these institutions could join up and strengthen cooperative supply chains while creating safe long-term returns. Indeed, the pension funds could provide the funding for a network of cooperative investment banks – embedded in their communities, with an institutional design that improved decision-making and stripped out opportunities for corruption. If we are serious about economic democracy at the national and supra-national levels, then these are problems we have to solve, and solve now – not in the pressure cooker of government.

Through their procurement practices, the labour institutions would promote socialist development outside the state. Trade unions would help their members to create cooperatives when opportunities presented themselves in the private economy, and work with the wider cooperative movement to help them find markets. They would also work with to secure local authority contracts for cooperatives.

The teams created to support cooperative business formation would work with those businesses to become the functional equivalent of the liberal think tanks. But, rather than puzzling over marginal changes to the capitalist economy, these teams would extrapolate from their ‘day job’ to co-design the system of democratic economic planning that would be implemented in government. For too long organised labour has outsourced policy development to academics and groups like the Fabians. At best this has encouraged the idea that government is too complicated for ordinary people. At worst it has created a space in which elites can collude with impunity.

Communications budgets would no longer be spent in efforts to secure coverage in the mainstream media. Instead they would be used to encourage and publicise widespread participation by members in consequential decision-making. Over time the institutions would develop the expertise needed to make strategic investments in movement media. These media would have a compelling story to tell, as well as the means to tell it to a mass audience: we are building another world, and we want you to join us. This combination of action and communication is absolutely crucial to our project. Unless we can marginalise the existing mainstream in the minds of voters we will never be able to change the UK in the ways we say we want to.

In future those seeking an elected position in either the trade unions, the consumers cooperatives or the Labour Party need to be asked if they will commit to ‘prestonisation’ of the institution they want to run. This would mean a full audit of spending conducted by an assembly of members selected by lot, who would have a mandate to interview staff and issue recommendations that would be published and publicised. Each year the institution would publish a report on its progress and convene an assembly every four years to issue an independent assessment.

This isn’t something that will happen automatically. There are precious few Matthew Browns in this world. And there are plenty of people in positions of authority who would rather manage decline in conditions of professional comfort than risk any deviation from respectability. We have to insist that our leaders lead in this, that this is their job, and the basis on which they will be judged. If you are on good terms with an MP or councillor, with anyone who holds institutional power in this movement, share this article with them and ask they what they make of it. If they agree that prestonisation is a good idea, ask them what they are going to do to make it happen. If they disagree, but can’t explain why, then maybe it should happen, with or without them. And the rest of us will have to coordinate with those willing and able to lead, not for factional advantage, but for the purposes of a general transformation.

Jeremy Corbyn attracted enthusiastic support in the Labour Party and beyond because he represented the possibility of transformation at the level of the state. He made it possible to think that maybe the tightening of capitalist social relations after 1979 could be eased, that maybe we could escape the snare altogether. The defeat in 2019 was shattering and it is no wonder that we have been disoriented since. But we must now adapt. From ‘change is possible’ we must move to ‘change is happening, here and now, in the spaces we control.’


Another Media Regime is Possible

After the 2017 General Election it seemed that the Labour Party’s combination of a mass membership, a transformative policy platform, and an effective online strategy might be enough to counterbalance the right-wing bias of the print media and the establishment orientation of the BBC. But this turned out to be an illusion. In 2019 Corbyn’s Labour Party was compelled to fight an election on terrain it did not choose, and nothing it did could spring it from the three-word confines of ‘Get Brexit Done.’

Since then a great deal of energy on the left has gone into apportioning blame. But Labour’s defeat last December was part of a larger pattern. The destruction of Bernie Sanders’ US presidential campaign in the studios of MSNBC followed only a few months later. The simple truth is that, while the transatlantic left has been able to develop policies to address the crisis that began to coalesce in 2008 around economic stagnation and environmental collapse, we lack the means to convert them into a broadly accepted plan of action. Many of these policies are popular. But we cannot persuade sufficient numbers that they are popular. The problem is overwhelmingly one of communicative weakness. Meanwhile, the right broadly defined has almost unlimited power to reach mainstream liberal and conservative voters with their messaging – and to tell them that no one else supports policies like universal healthcare or de-privatisation.

The UK labour movement should be moving to address this communicative weakness. Their reluctance to do so is as baffling as it is infuriating. At the moment the co-op movement advertises in the Spectator and senior trade union officials are happy to insist that ‘it isn’t their job’ to fund left media. I suppose the idea is that all those pamphlets and newspapers, all those libraries, book clubs and public talks in which the early labour movement invested so much were a waste of time and money, and the 1945 election result was only a happy coincidence.

The Daily Herald, half-owned by the UK trade union movement, announces
a Labour landslide in 1945.

There’s not much we can do to wake up the sleeping institutions of organised labour, and it is pointless to fret about something beyond our control. But smaller groups of trade unionists and co-operators can start putting together a left media infrastructure capable of challenging the right’s dominance of the communicative space. If they are to succeed, this infrastructure must securely embed audiences in the governance of the institutions that they fund, and on which they rely. It is this principle, and this principle alone, that holds out the prospect of media regime that can out-compete and steadily marginalise the existing mainstream.

It isn’t enough to create content for the left understood as a niche demographic. Publishers organised on capitalist lines already do this, and they have enjoyed windfall profits in the years since 2008, as graduates denied access to the middle class look for explanations. The aim must be to create left media that reaches, and re-constitutes, mass audiences. This re-constitution is to be achieved through the provision of content, certainly. But just as important will be the creation of a constellation of institutions that amount to more than the sum of their parts; internal cooperation at the point of production echoed and amplified by cooperation at the point of distribution. Cooperation itself must become an obtrusive feature of media production, even as our media fosters cooperation in the broader economy.

If this is to happen we need a platform on which audiences and producers of content can come together on clearly defined cooperative lines. We can already see something like this, in outline at least. The publication Mutual Interest is an media cooperative that uses a payment processing system called Open Collective, managed by a ‘fiscal host’, the Platform 6 Co-op. Mutual Interest ends up paying 2% in transaction fees to Open Collective and Platform 6. This is less than a third of the amount Patreon charges (7%). And any surplus goes to supporting new co-ops.

Mutual Interest specialises in articles about the cooperative and mutual sector. The revenues received from members pay writers a fixed fee and members also allocate extra funds every month to their favourite articles. In this way members are encouraged to take an active interest in what’s published. Mutual Interest runs its governance on Loomio, another co-operatively developed resource. The result builds in a relationship between the writers of Mutual Interest and their supporter-subscribers, and the surplus feeds back into the cooperative sector. All the content goes ‘free to air’.

At the moment podcasters, video producers and writers who want to operate in the same way as Mutual Interest have to host their own content. This means that they have to be quite well established and quite technically sophisticated. Capitalist platforms like Patreon and Substack offer very small media operations a simple way to start collecting revenues, with very few questions asked. Matt Christman has described how he set up Chapo Trap House’s Patreon account in an afternoon, with no real clue how many people would sign up. From Chapo’s point of view, establishing the subscriber model was essentially risk free. But if Patreon charges Chapo 7% in fees it now make about £10,000 a month from that one business.

A cooperative platform would want to offer the same simplicity as Patreon. But it would also formalise a relationship between producers and supporter-subscribers that protects the interests of both. At the moment that a cooperative media operation is launched it would choose from a range of governance options that bring its subscribers into a meaningful partnership with its workers, and that make content available to larger audiences in ways that promote the cooperative sector. To repeat, it is these steps that offers cooperative media its structural advantage over capitalist rivals. Capitalists only invest in institutional forms that guarantee that their interests predominate. Why shouldn’t everyone else?

This platform would host audio-visual and text content, handle payments and provide paywalls as required. It would enable publishers to keep transparent records of their expenditure. It would provide an easy route into ebook, audiobook and print for publishers. And it would allow institutional aggregators to distribute funds to cooperative outlets in a way that reflects the wishes of their members. If, for example, Momentum creates a media fund to support left media, a platform like this would provide them with a simple, and cost effective, way to do so.

When trade unions and other left organisations finally starting putting resources into the media sector, a co-operative platform would make it easier for their members to organise the process ‘from the ground up’, and harder for senior managers to squander money on silly ideas that catch their eye. And when a radical reforming government is finally elected in the UK, or at the federal or state level in the US, this platform will provide a template for a system of public media provision that replaces outmoded notions of public service or market competition with robustly democratic governance. At the moment we struggle to imagine what democratic media looks like, and the media institutions that currently reach large audiences work hard to keep it that way.

Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Sanders campaign both showed that the energy and the imagination the left needs are not well represented in those institutions that currently control its cashflows. In the realm of political education, for example, the World Transformed in the UK has vastly out-performed the established organisations of the Labour movement on a tiny fraction of their budget. The more money that can be prised away from bureaucrats and put into the hands of members, the more scope for experimentation and innovation there will be – and if the money predominantly flows into cooperative organisations, the media sector can become an engine for cooperative formation and consolidation in other sectors. Strategies that focus on securing paid or earned coverage in mainstream outlets can be replaced by an approach to communications that itself tells a story – imagine if the Sanders campaign had used all the money it spent on television ads in 2020 providing start-up funding to a network of cooperative media outlets. Instead of painstakingly building electoral campaigns from scratch such a network would have been a permanent source of organisational and communicative power, controlled by its members.

At the moment Patreon, Substack, PayPal and a handful of other intermediaries hoover up enormous amounts of money from doing only some of what a fully realised media platform would do. A ‘turn-key’ cooperative alternative would allow start-ups – local news providers, investigative teams, policy shops, individual writers etc. – to establish themselves and begin piecing together a support base. Individuals and small teams of producers could come together on clearly defined terms – secure in the knowledge that their contributions will be valued, and that whatever they create won’t eventually be sold off. Such a platform would also allow social movements that want to extend their communicative reach to build their own editorial apparatus, in which the core audience are established as governors from the outset. Content from multiple sources could then be brought together and formatted to target particular demographics, to exploit particular opportunities, to develop particular political and social possibilities. The success of any particular approach will feed resources and attention to the co-operative media sector as a whole.

A non-capitalist platform would commit its users to baseline editorial standards. These would fall far short of ideological purity: it’s clear that the left is much more effective when one faction doesn’t pretend that it has all the answers. A cooperative platform would want to host plenty of content that was ‘apolitical’, anyway. Its radicalism would derive at least as much from its cooperative form as from its content. And besides, a platform that refuses to host fascist and fascist-adjacent content would immediately send a message about how much it differs from the UK’s capitalist and state media. Governance at the level of the platform would mirror the governance of individual outlets: members would be organised and resourced to ensure that pernicious content and bad faith producers is removed speedily.

This platform would protect the rights of workers on it and it would establish limits on wage inequality, so that no one is paid more than a set multiple of the UK median income. This would be another source of structural advantage: instead of creating a handful of extremely rich ‘winners’, a cooperative media platform would create a stronger cooperative sector as a whole – surpluses would flow into new employment and investment in a widening circle of enterprises. Media workers who are good at what they do would be encouraged to find cooperative means to improve their quality of life outside the workplace. At the moment we have nothing immediately at hand but the capitalist fantasy of escape to an offshore paradise – a cooperative platform could tip its workers towards making the places they find themselves into a paradise firmly onshore.

A left media system that reproduces the dynamics of success-through-competition of the capitalist media is doomed to remain a niche offering. To succeed it must describe and promote another kind of life altogether. It should be understood as providing much more than political coverage in the conventional sense. Its organisation as a cooperative endeavour is part of the message it is conveying. And, as cooperation becomes a source of economic advantage, rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ extra, the content can reach out into cultural and social terrains that are currently dominated by the implicit needs of the advertising industry. Indeed, the structure itself can become the equivalent of the capitalist advertising and public relations sectors. Everyone seeking a non-manipulative relationship with their audience would have access to a platform that rewards them for that.

The platform would impose or encourage certain kinds of cooperation between publications. For example, paywalled content could be made available to others in the network on defined terms. In this way, small operations could take advantage of a common pool of journalism, analysis, graphic design etc to help build an audience. Over time, as they become larger, they can feed material back to others. Indeed, by capping salaries, the platform will push successful operations to grow by channelling funds to new operations that complement their own. Cooperation of this kind might encourage a new articulation of journalism altogether, as insights and investigative findings from plural perspectives and locations feed into a different, better account of the social world. The national and transnational layers no longer come into being as products of detached, imperial speech. They are pieced together from, by, and for their constituent elements – which is to say, from, by and for us.

But we can’t stamp our feet and create a platform that serves and promotes cooperative values against those of the capitalist class and their allies in the state. It takes time and money to develop what we need. Fortunately, some of us have been able to save significant amounts during the pandemic. There are few options for savers. It would be reasonably simple to use something like Open Collective to raise the necessary funds in the form of loans that would pay interest, or be repaid, if and when the platform begins to generate a surplus. Small investors will then have a reason to promote the platform once it is launched – if it doesn’t start generating revenues, they don’t get their money back, never mind any interest. In this way we can develop a kind of solidarity investment to build cooperative infrastructures – starting with the media, but, again, extending outwards into other fields.

A project of this kind cannot, must not, have a capitalist structure. It must be cooperative in its bones. If we are to create a new media regime we have to create a new model of what it means to live well. Instead of the billionaire founder bestriding the world like a colossus, we will promote and create the cooperator who works, and spends money, to protect their interests – whether they work in media production, or rely on media production to make sense of their lives and the choices they face. Instead of a tiny number of endlessly celebrated winners, each of us wins by building collective capacity that we share. And this collective capacity feeds back into a more fully achieved individual flourishing, instead of the monstrous bloating of the self that now passes for success.

If we are serious about social transformation, then we have a responsibility to show people who are sceptical that what we want is practical, and that our chosen methods can be effective. A strong cooperative media sector that supports the creation of a cooperative commonwealth will be a powerful communicative asset in future political contests. But it will also serve as a worked example of the world we say we want, in which contributions to the common good are rewarded and attempts to shore up arbitrary power are challenged effectively.

Cooperative media outlets, articulated along these lines, will allow each of us to take an equal piece of the communicative power currently hoarded by the ruling class. They will make it possible for us to develop and share better, more robust, descriptions of the ourselves, each other and the world. They will allow us to dismantle the thought worlds created by the corporate media. They will be better for our mental and physical health. Above all, they will be be more interesting than the media that we must now drive to the margins of our shared life.

A Monstrous State

The so-called ‘populist’ far right does not express a specific xenophobic passion that emanates from the depths of the body of the people. Rather, it is a satellite that trades on state strategies and distinguished intellectuals’ campaigns, to its own advantage. Jacques Rancière

The political entrepreneurs of the far right have always viewed the exploitation of women and children as an issue on which to build popular support. Their approach tends to reproduce two themes. Firstly, a racialised ‘Other’ is singled out as the single cause of the problem. Secondly, public institutions are accused making that problem worse by failing to protect the vulnerable, because they have been undermined by an excess of liberalism. In this way a widespread social ill can be repackaged as the consequence of a coalition of alien minorities and a politically correct, morally relativist ‘enemy within’. Analogies with fascism are cheap, but this way of describing, and explaining away, social problems was very much a feature of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s.

After a series of scandals about child sexual exploitation (CSE) British mainstream political culture actively collaborated in a narrative that reproduced the structure of this Nazi propaganda. In 2014 the then Home Secretary and future Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that the disaster of child sexual abuse in Rotherham was a consequence of ‘institutionalised political correctness’. In 2017 the Labour MP Sarah Champion complained in an article for the Sun that ‘for too long we have ignored the race of these abusers’. By 2018 UKIP were emboldened to appoint Tommy Robinson as an adviser on ‘grooming gangs’. Throughout this period politicians were feeding, and feeding off, mainstream media accounts that blamed the supposed cultural backwardness of Muslim communities and political correctness for CSE.

Now the Home Office has finally published its report on ‘Group-based Child Sexual Exploitation.’ Its authors make clear that all the central tenets of media coverage in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere were incorrect. While the data is incomplete they conclude that ‘it is likely that no one community or culture is uniquely predisposed to offending.’ The main report makes no mention of ‘political correctness’. They do note that ‘some research suggests that some financially-motivated groups are involved in drug dealing and organised crime with CSE being seen an [sic] extra way to profit.’ While the current Home Secretary Priti Patel does find space to mention ‘political correctness’ in her preface, she ignores the fact that many of the offenders were gangsters.

There is no doubt that the abuse in Rotherham took place on the scale that it did, and for as long as it did, because the state failed to protect its citizens. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997-2013) led by Alexis Jay makes that absolutely clear. The inquiry report described a ‘grubby’, sexist and bullying culture at the Council. (13.65) It said that councillors were at best ‘naive’ and at worst they were ‘ignoring a politically inconvenient truth’ when they said that they thought the convictions for child sexual exploitation in 2010 were ‘a one-off, isolated case.’ (11.12)

But the key institution in Rotherham was not the Council or social services. It was South Yorkshire Police. Jay writes that ‘there were very many historic cases where the operational response of the Police fell far short of the what could be expected.’ But, and this is the crucial point, ‘the reasons for this are not entirely clear.’ (8.1) The report could not establish why the police failed to act.  The report quotes one witness who says that ‘the Police refused to intervene when young girls who were thought to be victims of CSE were being beaten up and abused by perpetrators. According to him, the attitude of the Police at the time seemed to be that they were all “undesirables” and the young women were not worthy of police protection.’ (8.2) In other words, to the extent that police inaction is explained at all, it is put down to a mixture of class contempt and misogyny, the very opposite of ‘political correctness’.

We might have discovered more about why the Police hailed to act had it not been for the untimely death of one PC Hassan Ali in February 2015. At the time of his death at least two people had complained about his ‘unwillingness to pursue complaints of exploitation’Ali was killed by a hit-and-run driver while he was under IPCC investigation for his alleged links to organized CSE. As it is, we can only repeat that many of those belatedly tried and convicted for CSE were members of criminal gangs, whose activities would not have been a complete mystery to local law enforcement.

The report did note that several council staff were nervous about raising the issue of ethnicity for fear of being called racist, and that others remembered being told by managers not to do so. (Executive Summary, p.2) Nevertheless, the inquiry team ‘were confident that ethnic issues did not influence professional decision-making in individual cases.’ (11.8)  The root of the problem resided, and resides, in the structure of the state. Again, Jay spelled it out:

Over the first twelve years covered by this Inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham. This came from those working in residential care and from youth workers who knew the young people well.

Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them. (Executive Summary, p.1)

Local government has been hollowed out in England. Its activities are inadequately covered by the media. In some councils this has led to a collapse of accountability. Meanwhile, some police officers have a contemptuous and dismissive attitude to those they should protect and the internal procedures that are intended to regulate their conduct are not working properly. In Rotherham the police permitted criminal impunity by gangs involved in drugs and firearms as well as CSE. When parents and carers pleaded with them to take action they were ignored.

The result was an uneven application of the law. Some people were treated as if they were disposable. They did not deserve the protections afforded to others. Some crimes, when committed by some people, were not treated as crimes. The real cause of this impunity remains mysterious. As ever, those who suffered most were those who were already most subject to contempt and spite – in this case women and girls, especially those in care and from working class backgrounds.

No doubt many local authorities and other public authorities do a good job in many ways. But the existing array of elected councils and public bodies, including the central state, has failed often enough to point to a systemic failure. Too often the state is unaccountable and its conduct is inadequate when it is not flagrantly sinister. The only sure remedy is constitutional reform that compels the state to conform with the wishes and interests of the citizen body as a whole.

In the context of local government we could do this by introducing a system of political juries. Each local authority area in England would be served by a group of people appointed by lot with specific powers to hear complaints, interview public officials, and secure access to publicity via the BBC. The juries would be sufficiently large to ensure that they were broadly representative of the populations from which they were drawn.

These juries would be available as a venue for people who feel that they have been failed by the police or by other public bodies. They would also act as a last resort for whistle-blowers within these bodies. They would meet regularly and receive modest payment for their service. They would serve for a year and during that time would be in contact with other juries. They would also be able to form a ‘grand jury’ with other juries to highlight shared concerns. During the year they would publish their proceedings and at the end of their period in office, they would produce a report and a television documentary, which the BBC would be required to broadcast. They would also have an opportunity to brief their successors.

These juries would have powers to advise public bodies of the need for action and to express misgivings about the conduct of public officials, even when there was insufficient evidence to launch criminal proceedings. Their official speech, when it consisted of the settled view of a majority or super-majority, would be legally privileged and so its members would not be vulnerable to libel actions. They would be given defined powers to begin impeachment proceedings, subject to a ratification by the relevant electorate.

In this way after a few years each local authority area would have a body of serving and former jurors who are familiar with the institutions of the state. People who currently have few opportunities to meet and confer in a civic capacity would come to form networks outside their own immediate social spheres. These networks would in turn contribute to a better informed public opinion, and to a citizen body better placed to invigilate, and where necessary direct, the institutions of a democracy.

The introduction of citizens in numbers sufficient to embody and reflect the populations they serve would make local government more responsive. It would do so by providing both individuals and organisations with a forum to raise concerns about failures of governance and grand corruption. This would change the incentives of elected officials and employees. Similar juries could be established act as a local check on the conduct of national institutions like the BBC, large charities, and other public and quasi-public bodies. Political juries would be an extremely important element of a reformed Bank of England, for example.

The criminals in Rotherham and elsewhere did what they did because the state did not stop them. If we have a right to the protection of the law then the means to enforce this right must be built into the state. At the moment many of us are considered expendable or unworthy of protection. The challenge for reformers is to describe the problem clearly and to devise a remedy adequate to it. If we do not do so, the political culture will talk about anything other than the real dynamics in play in order to protect the status quo. And narratives that protect the powerful can be refined all too easily into fantasies of racial and cultural purification.

The enemy of fascism is not the UK’s media-political mainstream. Its enemy is radical democracy.

(For more about the role random selection can play in supervising political elites, see Oliver Dowlen’s book, The Political Potential of Sortition.)

The Politics of Place

Last week in The Discourse, two articles, in different ways, explored ‘the politics of place.’ The first, Adam Ramsay’s ‘It’s Time to Break up Britain’ was informed by extensive travels around the UK as well as by his work as an investigative reporter and as the editor of openDemocracy’s UK politics strand. Ramsay explores the growing sense that Britain is starting to lose its coherence as a political project. In Northern Ireland, in Wales, and pre-eminently in Scotland, the supposed benefits of political union structured around the needs of London’s finance-intelligence complex are beginning to pall. Glimmers of this disenchantment with the Empire State can even be detected in England, especially in regions outside the metropolitan south east. Whatever one makes of his thesis, he writes with a breadth of understanding that very few London-based journalists can pretend to match. (Full disclosure, Adam has published me in the past.)

Meanwhile the London-based Spectator published ‘New Labour, New Keir: How Labour will change tack in 2021’. This was informed by conversations with ‘party sources’, who told its author, Isabel Hardman, that Starmer will focus on ‘the politics of place and people’. Hardman explains:

This will include a switch from Labour sounding relentlessly negative – as it has done for the past decade – about people’s lives and the places they live. From now on, Starmer will stop telling people how bad things are and try to strike a positive note about the opportunities for their towns as well as the problems.

One of Hardman’s ‘party sources’ elaborates: 

Even if someone looks at their town and think it’s nowhere near as good as it was, they still have that pride about it and we want to be optimistic about that place.

Some responses to the Hardman piece thought that Starmer is planning, or signalling, a ‘Blue Labour’ style appeal to provincial English voters, using the language of patriotism and social conservatism. We’ll have to see. The article is short, and even shorter on detail. The fact that her source is talking about wanting to be ‘optimistic’, rather than suggesting what Labour can do to improve living standards doesn’t inspire confidence.

While the two articles are wildly different, in scope and political orientation, they touch on something rarely discussed in the UK. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, all politics is, to a degree that is almost always decisive, a ‘politics of place.’ The only party that has broken the hold of the Labour-Conservative duopoly in Great Britain since 1945 has done so by developing a ‘politics of place.’ The Scottish National Party became the dominant political force in Scotland by tying the cause of national liberation to mild social democracy. Along the way it has decisively demoted the Labour Party. In the 2010 General Election Labour won 40 of the country’s 59 seats. In 2019 it held on to only one. The SNP, meanwhile, has gone from 6 seats in 2010 to 48 in 2019.

Labour’s own rise to a place in the UK-wide duopoly was itself a consequence, at least in part, of the ‘politics of place.’ The concentration of unionised labour in Britain’s coalfields and industrial cities made it possible for the Labour Party to secure Parliamentary representation long before it had become able to secure a convincing national majority. Had their electoral base been spread evenly throughout the United Kingdom they might never have been able to displace the Liberal Party. Today, as the Green Party and UKIP show, millions of votes can still translate into meagre electoral rewards when your supporters won’t gather in numbers sufficient to win individual constituencies.

Any UK-wide challenge to the duopoly would have to achieve an overwhelming depth of support to become anything other than a spoiler for either Labour or the Conservatives. But political movements that work with the grain of place-based identities can offer voters a vision of a transformative future that doesn’t depend on securing a majority in Westminster. Instead of sounding ‘optimistic’ about the kinds of places that Hardman’s sources almost certainly don’t live in, radical nationalists and secessionists can speak candidly and coherently about the need for a clean slate – the creation of an altogether new form of shared life. And this as true of the English regions as it is of Wales and Scotland.

Welsh and Scottish independence and secession in England are causes that open up a space to discuss the fundamentals of rule. The UK outside of London and the South East has been starved of investment since 1980, to the point where, as Ramsey points out, incomes in some places are closer to Poland’s than to Holland’s. What, then, does a modern developmental state look like? How is economic development to be achieved against a background of deepening environmental crisis? How can we hold our politicians to account? How can we secure the information we need for citizenship? What does economic management look like, once the Treasury-City-of-London-Bank-of-England system is out of the picture?

Far from being ‘relentlessly negative’, Corbyn’s Labour was willing to start answering these questions. In order to do so he happily adopted ideas from Scotland’s radical independence movement, like the proposal for a National Investment Bank. Labour’s defeat in 2019, and Starmer’s strategy since, mean that the party will struggle to inspire those who believe in the need for radical reform. Starmer himself will have the logic of the lesser evil on his side in those places where the UK-wide duopoly still functions; a vote for anyone other than Labour is a vote for the Conservatives. But independence and secessionist movements might make rapid gains if they can persuade voters that their future lies outside Westminster’s zone of control. Maybe not voting for Labour will help the Conservatives win this seat or that. But once the game is exit from a discredited central state, the calculations change. Eyes turn to a transformative horizon, and marginalising Labour becomes part of the point.

After Brexit it doesn’t seem that reckless for constituent elements of the UK to want to leave. Scotland might already be on the way out. As Ramsay points out, a united Ireland is no longer the stuff of Protestant nightmares. And if a united Ireland and an independent Scotland are within in the bounds of the possible, people in Wales might also look more favourably at independence. Labour is now almost completely confined to the south of that country. South Wales was one of the birthplaces of the Labour Party. Just like Central Scotland was.

And what then do the rest of us do? Cornish confederation with Wales and Scotland doesn’t seem wildly more unlikely than remaining in the UK. Northumbrian confederation along similar lines would make a lot of sense. Other English regions might start to appreciate the advantages of ending Westminster rule and one by one enter into a social union that borrows institutional forms but denies power to those in the unaccountable distance. We can imagine a future where the United Kingdom shrinks to a latter-day version of the Papal States, comprised of the Square Mile, Buckingham Palace, Chelsea and one or two of the leafier Home Counties suburbs. The rest of us can embrace our future as citizens of the Various Islands of the North Atlantic.

All this is to say that Starmer’s attempt to win back support in the North of England and the Midlands is not risk free for Labour. After decades of loyalty Scotland has gone and shows no signs of returning. If Labour does not articulate a vision for all of the UK that acknowledges the scale of the challenges facing most people, it risks being replaced by those willing to tell a different story altogether.

Forty years of neoliberal economic management, ten years of austerity and a pandemic have tested the viability of the UK to destruction. Wanting to sound optimistic won’t cut it.

What if there is a wonder drug?

On December 8th, Dr Pierre Kory gave evidence to the US Senate’s Homeland Security committee. There he pleaded with the federal government to review the evidence supporting the use of ivermectin to help people avoid COVID infection and to reduce the danger of serious illness in those who have contracted it. Ivermectin is very widely used as an anti-parasitic and has a good safety profile.

The coverage in the New York Times could not have been more dismissive. A piece published on December 7th, before the hearings carried the headline ‘Elevating Fringe Theories, Ron Johnson Questions Virus Science’. The authors wrote:

There is a prominent vaccine skeptic, an outspoken critic of masking and social distancing, and at least two doctors who have promoted the use of an anti-parasitic drug that government scientists have recommended against using to treat the coronavirus […] Two others promote the use of ivermectin, a drug often used to fight lice and pinworms, to treat coronavirus patients, despite the National Institutes of Health’s recommendation against its use outside clinical trials.

Dr Kory and the organisation he represents, the Front Line Covid-19 Clinical Care Alliance (FLCC) were not mentioned by name. Given that he was appearing to call for the National Institutes of Health to change its guidelines on ivermectin use, it is hardly surprising that he was promoting ivermectin ‘despite the National Institutes of Health’s recommendation against its use outside clinical trials.’ If the NIH was recommending its use in the pandemic, he wouldn’t have needed to make his case in the Senate.

On the day of the hearings the paper published ‘A Senate Hearing promoted unproven drugs and dubious claims about the coronavirus’. This was written by one its ‘fact-check’ reporters and this time ivermectin’s effectiveness was ‘mixed’:

Ivermectin is used to treat parasites in humans as well as to prevent heartworms in dogs; research on its effectiveness in treating the coronavirus has been mixed.

But once again neither Kory nor the organisation he represents were named. This is very strange because the FLCCC are not cranks or snake oil salesmen. They are a collection of doctors who are named authors on thousands of peer-reviewed papers. They aren’t the sort of people who usually attract the scorn of ‘fact-check’ journalists. And the FLCCC have been treating patients with COVID-19 since the Spring. Kory wasn’t advocating ivermectin use on a whim. He based his testimony on a number of trials, written up in peer-reviewed journals, that showed that the drug is remarkably effective. But he and his colleagues have also been using the drug as a treatment for their patients.

I am not a scientist, and am happy to defer to others, but one peer-reviewed paper in particular makes the dismissive attitude of the New York Times even more puzzling to me On November 17th the peer-reviewed Journal of Biomedical Research and Clinical Investigation published ‘Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Topical Ivermectin + Iota- Carrageenan in the Prophylaxis against COVID-19 in Health Personnel.’ The article set out the results of a trial in Argentina in which 788 healthcare workers were given topical ivermectin and iota-carrageenan, as well as standard PPE. Another 407 in a comparator group were given only standard PPE. The drugs were administered before exposure to the virus. After three months a total of 237 people had tested positive for COVID-19. Every single one of these people came from the comparator group. No one treated with ivermectin and iota-carrageenan had tested positive for the disease.

The authors of the paper concluded that ‘by using ivermectin in oral solution and carrageenan in nasal spray form, we are providing an inexpensive, safe and effective means to protect people from contagion and serious forms of the disease.’ This is not a call for further research. It is a clear declaration that the drugs administered work.

This was not a double-blind trial against placebo. But many drugs, including penicillin, have gone into general use long before they were tested against a placebo. If something very obviously works, there’s no need to control for the placebo effect. If a placebo could prevent 100% of those given it from getting sick with COVID-19, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Besides, the single trial that led to the widespread use of dexamethasone, ‘Dexamethasone in Hospitalized Patients with Covid-19 — Preliminary Report’ wasn’t a double blind trial against placebo either, and was hailed by the UK’s health minister as an ‘astounding breakthrough’. Dexamethasone went into immediate use throughout the NHS.

The Argentinian study is one of 15 peer-reviewed studies of ivermectin use, all of which support the view that the drug is effective, both when used prophylactically and when used as a treatment for people with the disease. So why isn’t it now being administered at scale? What more research is needed? Is it really sensible for the fact-checking reporters at the New York Times to dismiss claims about ivermectin as ‘fringe theories’ about an ‘unproven’ drug?

Ivermectin is a powerful drug, and I am sure that there are good reasons not to put it into the water supply. But, as the FLCCC and others have pointed out, it has been taken by many millions of people over many years. And it is already being used to treat COVID-19 patients, notably in Latin America. In Australia Professor Thomas Borodi, who famously pioneered a cure for peptic ulcers, is telling anyone who will listen that ivermectin is a useful therapy for people with COVID-19. Normally we pay attention to people with his kind of track record.

The New York Times published a correction to its December 9th article: ‘An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the drug ivermectin. It is used both to treat parasites in humans and to prevent heartworms in dogs.’ God knows what they’d written originally. At any rate, if I was a politician with any power whatsoever I would be inviting clinicians to meetings and referring ‘imprecisely’ to the need ‘to treat parasites in humans’ in care homes, hospitals, and, where appropriate, in the general population. If dosing people safely with ivermectin also reduces the number of cases of COVID-19, well that would be a bonus.

Republicanism in Europe

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Karl Marx

Lea Ypi of the LSE has written a interesting blogpost arguing that the electoral left’s accommodation with the capitalist state, the movement’s left’s evaporation into the global ether, and the communist left’s condensation around Cold War nostalgia have all contributed to the collapse of civic republicanism and the rise of ethnic nationalism. The national route to socialism has failed, and only the European one remains.

There’s much to agree with in the piece. Ypi is absolutely right that the left needs ‘to rejoin its critique of the capitalist economy with a critique of the neoliberal state.’ And this is one of the central themes in Labour’s broader programme in the UK. The party is trying to begin a wide-ranging conversation about the constitution of the national state in which it finds itself. For different reasons both labourism and communism have been disastrously incurious about this structure, too quick to dismiss it as a shadow cast by business that will vanish with the abolition of private property, or to seize on it as an instrument that can be used for socialist ends. And of course, the left needs to think at once internationally and constitutionally – to replace the existing global institutions with structures for cooperation that bring international relations under review by national and transnational publics. National democracy cannot survive in a global system characterised by domination.

But I am not sure who the piece is arguing with. The Labour Party is committed to respecting the EU referendum result because it is – rightly – fearful of the electoral consequences of not doing so. A small number of people made a left-wing case for Brexit in 2016. More have tried to make the best of a bad situation since then. But there is little appetite for leaving. It will make things much more complicated for a future socialist government in the immediate term. (It is much safer to break state aid rules within the EU than outside, after all.) Labour’s responsibility right now is to survive as a nationally viable civic republican and socialist project.

[Update: I am not at all sure that civic republicanism will succeed in Europe without support from national governments who are committed to it. And anyway, I am not sure that the EU is the appropriate scale for international coordination. Surely our ambitions ought to be global?]

A Local Economic Strategy for Thanet

thriving thanetOn Friday 23rd Neil McInroy will be giving a talk on ‘Building a Thriving Thanet’. Neil is the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, which has been at the forefront of an approach to economic planning called ‘community wealth building’.

‘Community wealth building’ sets out to use public and third sector cashflows to create positive feedback loops in local economies. Procurement policies favour local companies over large contractors, an activist council helps build capacity in the private sector where it is lacking, and promotes the co-operative sector where appropriate. There’s much more to be said about it, and Neil will be able to explain much better than I can the difference it has made.

Here I just want to make a few preliminary remarks about what a local economic strategy for Thanet might look like.

Local, Really Local

I am going to concentrate for now on Margate, because it is where I live and where I have thought most about the relevance of community wealth building. Getting Margate’s model right will have important spill-over effects for the rest of the district. But this is one piece of a puzzle that includes Ramsgate, Broadstairs and a mixed hinterland that includes high grade agricultural land and large scale retail at Westwood Cross.

It is important to remember that when we talk about Thanet we are talking about a built-up area and periphery that is home to more than 140,000 people, as large as many English cities. Given its distance, and difference from, Kent’s other main population centres, it is worth asking whether Thanet is best served by its current system of local government, or whether it would make more sense if it became a unitary authority.

The Curse of Beauty

Like many other seaside resort towns in England, Margate suffers from a particular variant on the ‘resource curse’. This was first proposed by economists who wondered why countries with massive oil and gas reserves were so often poor. The easy money from natural resources, the so-called resource rent, promotes economic inequality as revenues are captured by a relative handful of public and private elites. Behind a facade of respectability, rewards are distributed through corrupt patronage networks and their ability to move money offshore starves domestic sectors of investment and talent.

No one is suggesting that local government in Thanet is corrupt, of course. But in other respects Thanet is a bit like, say, Saudi Arabia. In its heyday as a resort, a small number of landlords captured the massive revenues generated by seasonal tourism and, rather than using the money to develop the rest of the economy in the region, they moved the money out of area. Their revenues were not dependent on the patient building of a productive base. People came for the sun, sea and sand. If the beer was expensive and the ice cream was made of pig fat, that was life. Or was until Benidorm beckoned.

As Margate’s fortunes as a resort recover, thanks in part to public investments via the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is important to grasp the extent to which the tourist sector is underpinned by the massive, unearned resource that is the town’s coastline and its capacity to generate heart-stopping skies. This should be understood as a public, commonly held asset, and the rents derived from it should be treated as source of public revenue, not as a windfall for private landlords. To put it another way, the value created by the location – the beauty resource – should be taxed and used for the purposes of general enrichment. (The value created by the ingenuity and effort of people is another matter.)

Sun, Sea, and the Socialisation of Resource Rents

The fortunes of the town depend on the distribution of revenues derived from its locational advantage. Both direct public ownership of land and taxation policy have a role to play in ensuring that the resource rent supports the local economy, instead of being lost ‘offshore’.

The public authority has an equally vital role to play in ensuring that resource rents are spent back into the local economy in ways that promote democratically agreed objectives.

Money kept in the area could be used to improve the town’s viability as a year-round resort, and to enhance the public realm. In sectors like public health it is possible to imagine a ‘sea-bathing spa’ approach to investment that both enhances its appeal as a destination and improves the quality of life of Thanet’s permanent residents. (The proximity of some of the best beaches in the South East to some of its most deprived communities is thought-provoking to say the least in this respect.) It could also be used as a source of start-up funding for local co-operatives, to strengthen local supply chains, and so on.

A spirited district council, backed by a public who understand what is at stake, could do some of this. To do more, it might be necessary to change both the structure of local government in Thanet in particular, and the tax-raising powers of coastal communities more generally. Coastal resorts are a particular kind of place and there is something to be said for an approach that takes this particularity seriously and develops a shared agenda from Margate and Great Yarmouth in the East to Blackpool and Weston-Super-Mare in the West.

Thanet, Jewel of the Thames Riviera

Margate ought to be a source of sustainable revenues for the rest of Thanet. Its needs as a visitor resort ought to be brought into harmony with the people who live in the area. Co-operative businesses created and sustained by the visitor economy ought to be able to expand and diversify from the visitor economy into other sectors as their collective capacities develop. But none of that will happen without a political fight, that will peel the small businesses away from rentiers and build a new coalition around a reformed and much more fully democratic public sector.

I’ll leave it there for now.



The Return of the Public Meeting & Pamphlet

08 Pettifor

A few weeks ago I arrived at The World Transformed festival with a hell of a lot of pamphlets – 14 boxes, each containing one of the titles that together form the New Thinking for the British Economy series. The series itself had been commissioned and edited by Laurie Macfarlane of openDemocracyUK over the summer, and the whole collection can be downloaded as a free ebook from the openDemocracy site here.

I knew that Laurie had put some inspiring writers to work on developing plans for a new way of doing economics in the UK . Each title stood alone, and together they formed a treasury of proposals for reforms to the UK political economy. So I found myself arguing some time in August, digital technology is all very well, but wouldn’t the pieces make more of an impact, have more of a presence, if they were also available in print? And  might people pay a little for such riches?

And so there I was, after some generous help from the Democracy Collaborative, with a carload of pamphlets, and a vague sense that people who go to speaker meetings might be willing to part with £1 to take away a pamphlet by the speaker, or another piece on a similar topic, or something else that looked interesting.

With help from Laurie Macfarlane himself, his colleague at openDemocracy, Adam Ramsay, and Sarah McKinley of the Democracy Collaborative, we sold the best part of a thousand pamphlets over the course of the festival. Given that we didn’t really get going until the Sunday, and we were all busy with other things, this was pretty good going.

When we were in place at the end of a talk with a pamphlet by the speaker, or speakers, we found that around 30-40% of the audience would buy a copy. Hardly anyone who wanted one was put off by the idea of paying a pound for it.

As Labour and The World Transformed ramps up their programme of political education, here is a tested way to help cover the costs of organizing a single public meeting, or of a festival. If you want to organize an event on the current shambles in banking and how to fix it, you can invite Christine Berry and Ann Pettifor to come and give a talk. At the end, you can leap out at the exiting crowds and sell them some pamphlets.

Or you can ask Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton to make a presentation on platform capitalism, and the possibilities for socialist intervention in the tech sector. How about Johnna Montgomerie and Laurie Macfarlane on the rising tide of household debt, and what to do about it? Or Adam Ramsay on the need for a new constitution? Susan Himmelweit on creating a new economy of care?

Organizers can buy the titles at a very steep discount, and sell them at informal events beforehand as well as after the talks. You can use them to start conversations in the workplace and the pub. You can leave the ones you don’t sell on public transport, or give them to your friends and neighbours.

There’s a hunger for new thinking out there, and the BBC and the newspapers aren’t that good at sharing it. And while social media can help, these are platforms we don’t control and can’t rely on.

Download the free ebook and have a read. If you think a particular topic would make a good event in your area, get in touch with me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth website. I will try my best to help make the event a success, put you in touch with authors, and make sure you have pamphlets to sell.

This is the full list of titles:

  1. Towards a People’s Banking System – Christine Berry
  2. Democratic Ownership – Andrew Cumbers and Thomas M. Hanna
  3. Building Digital Plenty – Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton
  4. Building a Wellbeing Economy – Katherine Trebeck
  5. Transforming Care – Susan Himmelweit
  6. Industrial Policy – Craig Berry
  7. A Progressive Vision for Trade – Ruth Bergan
  8. Financial Globalisation and Capital Mobility – Ann Pettifor
  9. Curbing the Debt Economy – Johnna Montgomery
  10. Work and Free Time – Will Stronge
  11. Media Democracy – Dan Hind and Tom Mills
  12. ‘Race’ and Racism in the UK – Maya Goodfellow
  13. Trying to Milk a Vulture: A New Vision for the UK Constitution – Adam Ramsay
  14. Beyond the Property Owning Democracy – Laurie Macfarlane


‘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.]



A Cooperative Commonwealth

Today the Democracy Collaborative publish my essay on constitutional reform, The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State. It sets out a model of the state as the shared property of its citizens that mirrors and corroborates the proposals for economic democracy that are gaining traction on the left.

At the moment we have a corporate state, in the sense that the corporation is the state’s favoured partner. A cooperative state will look to the cooperative as the default form of human organization and will legislate and administer accordingly. I try to describe what that means in concrete terms in the piece.

I hope it will make some contribution to the conversation we are starting to have, about the way we live now, and the kind of future we want to build together.