I was eating my breakfast one morning in late 2011 when I was approached by two luminaries in the Labour party. We were in a hotel in Brussels, on George Soros’s dime. Later that day I was going to tell a room full of stone-faced Eurocrats that the extremism that should worry them was the kind that bailed out banks and shifted the costs of said bail-out onto the rest of the population, rather than the imminent Islamicisation of Europe. It was one of my last appearances in the circuits of expenses paid chit chat.
These two had something else on their minds. They wanted to know if I was the author of a disobliging blog post about Miliband’s description of the Occupy protests as a ‘crisis of concern’, rather than a political event. Between mouthfuls of croissant I admitted I was. Well, one of them, the more senior one, said, with somewhat more venom than I think was called for, words to the effect that Miliband couldn’t give his support to the Occupy protests until they were happening in every constituency in the country, or were getting a lot more media coverage.
Sophisticated leaders wait until they can see where people are going and then they chase after them, the better to lead. It is simple-minded to think that leaders should, you know, lead. That seemed to be the gist of it.
Well, perhaps they were right and I was wrong. If Miliband had gone all out against austerity and bankocracy he would have created all kinds of problems in the Labour Party, for sure. Ed Balls would have resigned, maybe. But it now looks like Miliband could have gone back to the membership with a ‘red agenda’ and romped home.
Anyway, we do know that all the caution in the world didn’t bring Labour victory in the election. And now a politician is articulating a politics that overlaps in important ways with the Occupy movement, and seems to be connecting with people. Jeremy Corbyn is arguing for a response to the economic crisis that shifts the burden away from those on low and middle incomes and onto the wealthiest. Both higher taxes and tighter regulation of the offshore sector are in play. This is exactly the position of UK Uncut from 2010 onwards. Not everyone at Occupy was in agreement with UK Uncut by any means, but an awful lot of them were.
Corbyn is also arguing for thorough-going reform of the financial sector and some innovations in public financing side that would have warmed the hearts of many in the Occupy working groups. Those who struggled to get their heads around modern monetary theory outside Saint Paul’s can take some pride in the fact that their debates and discussions are now being echoed in the rhetoric of a plausible candidate for leader of the Labour Party.
It’s hardly surprising that the kinds of people who occupied public spaces and risked being kettled or arrested for tax justice are willing to chip in a few quid to help push a similar agenda.
But what if this occupation works and Corbyn actually wins? He will have to find a way to build on the momentum and take his policies to the country – the people joining the Labour party now won’t be enough to win a general election, after all.
He has two options. He can try to make peace with the Labour party or he can lead the current wave of enthusiasm for change forward to its natural conclusion – a refounding of the UK state through a reformed constitution. If he takes the first option and tries to lead in the normal way then, like Miliband, he will end up being hemmed in by the right of his party, isolated from those seeking progressive change, and then blamed for the subsequent defeat.
But Corbyn could make a deal with all the progressive groups for an electoral pact centred on a constitutional convention that leads to a new constitution in the next Parliament. He could then use the period between now and the next ballot to build a consensus for deep reform of the UK state along lines that would make Murdoch assisted bankocracy of the kind we currently enjoy impossible.
The second option is more interesting, in that it holds out the hope of a left-wing victory, perhaps before 2020, and a rejection of the politics of austerity. Even more importantly, it is inseparable from a reconfiguring of the British state, and a revolution in general understanding in matters concerning finance, the media and the organization of industry (credit, communication and the corporate form).
As Adam Ramsay has pointed out, the Labour party has historically been quite weak in much of England. It is this weakness, rather than the strength of Conservatism, that goes furthest in explaining the latter’s infuriating habit of winning elections. So, Labour could stand aside in some seats in favour of the Greens in Bristol, Norwich, that kind of place. It could also do so in some other places in England where independents stand a chance and Labour are trailing. Let Plaid have their seats unopposed next time round.
No deals with UKIP.
In Scotland Labour can stand aside in some seats in favour of the SNP and campaign hard elsewhere. They could also back a Green candidate somewhere, to show that they aren’t, in fact, narrow-minded sectarians. Scotland’s civic nationalism is a strand of opinion that Labour should not be seeking to wipe out. Of course the Welsh and Scottish nationalists would have to agree to a constitutional convention, but it would be hard to refuse since if either nation rejected the British constitution on offer, they would effectively be voting for independence. Among many other things a new constitution has to deal with the national question in a durable way.
It might be that the Scots decide for independence. But they might quite like being part of a reformed British polity. For example, monetary policy is currently set in London by a committee of the Bank of England where London’s financial sector predominates. A Bank of Britain, with regional and national representation, could ensure that the interests of the banks no longer trump the needs of the rest of the economy. (Each of the regions and nations could also run an investment bank under Bank of Britain supervision with a mandate to support infant industries and de-carbonise the economy. The Bank of England staff are very clever, it’s just that they are working for the wrong people.)
At any event, a Corbyn-led informal constitutional convention, which uses the resources of the Labour movement to organize widespread participation in a debate about the fundamentals of governance, will spread the political mobilisation we saw in the Scottish referendum debate to the rest of the United Kingdom. That would be a better use of time and money than trying to win over the media in London, most of whom hate the idea of deep reform or are required to pretend to by their employers. Besides, the structure of the media needs to be close to the centre of a convention’s concerns. Any progressive movement worth a damn should welcome the emnity of the Daily Mail and engage instead with its readers.
This doesn’t mean Labour has to make it arithmetically impossible to win an outright majority, nor does it mean that this is anything other than a one-time deal. The point is to go into the election next time on a shared programme of constitutional reform, which would include a proportional system of voting, among many other things.
A convention would make Corbyn seem like a Prime Minister in waiting, whatever his fellow MPs get up to in Parliament. And it would win over people who know in their hearts that there is something wrong with England in particular and would like to see it sorted out. The electoral pact and the convention reinforce one another. The combination allows Corbyn to stand above party and become a focus for the great energy for reform that now exists. From the perspective of the Labour movement it means that they have a chance to put workplace rights on a much sounder footing by incorporating them into a written constitution.
This approach might not come easily to the Labour left. There is no doubt a lingering hope that, with the right policies, a Labour majority in Parliament can be secured and social justice delivered without the bother of reforming the ancestral constitution. Although Corbyn has expressed support for a constitutional convention it does not feature in his ten-point plan. The emphasis on the economy is understandable, but the economic agenda he wants to promote will not be possible unless the majority of voters become engaged in a substantive debate about political economy that only a wide-ranging convention can deliver. His opponent, Yvette Cooper, has dismissed the idea of People’s QE on the grounds that it is not ‘credible’. At the moment she is right. Most people, including most MPs, don’t understand the monetary system and so cannot judge the idea on its merits. Come election time the Conservatives will make this general incomprehension the raw material of another Project Fear. And the problem runs deeper. The economic vibrancy Corbyn wants will only come from democratic reforms that tie individual energy and creativity to the production of public goods. If we want real prosperity we must, reluctantly or not, embrace democracy.
A surge in the number of registered supporters doesn’t make a Labour-led government inevitable, by any means. If Corbyn is to become the prime minister it will have to be the first stage in a process that develops and shares a progressive agenda and then inscribes egalitarian and participatory democracy into the constitutional structure of the British state. And since economies are the creations of states, in changing the state we have an opportunity to create a modern economy that replaces speculation and money laundering with commons-based production and a Green New Deal. Constitutions are about more than voting systems and tiers of government. They are also about who get to know what, and hence who gets what. They are about the deep structure of society, the mechanisms that create and direct coercive power and that generate consent. Those who think themselves more radical than the Greens might want to look to constitution-building rather than electoralism over the next few years.
A campaign for a convention Parliament, from which would emerge a reformed system of government and a society quickened by new bonds of solidarity, new channels of intelligence and enlightenment, new forms of collective endeavour, this is the kind of thing that would appeal to the best of us, and the best in the rest of us.
As for those two Labour types, I guess they are waiting for Corbyn to fail so that they can get down to business and find a plausible successor to Tony Blair. By 2030, say.