Monday 17 April 2017

Chuka and Dan: Jeremy Corbyn's Heirs?

Jeremy Corbyn has saved the Labour Party. A seemingly counter-intuitive claim considering the awful polling and depressing personal ratings he's attracted, but nevertheless it is true. The first and most obvious sign are the huge numbers that have joined up. After years of decline followed by years of stagnation, the activist pool has swelled and the party has a broader range to draw from when it comes to electing lay officials, choosing council candidates, and selecting future Labour MPs. As I've said many times already, there are future ministers and perhaps even a Prime Minister who joined our party because of Jeremy Corbyn. The second is the policy legacy that he's managed to bed down in just 18 months. Without even a year under his belt, Owen Smith (remember him?) felt moved to challenge him on a Corbynism-without-Corbyn platform. And now, despite the usual malcontents having a moan and getting their name in the papers, would-be leaders have moved onto this terrain as well. That's if the big pitches recently made in the New Statesman by Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis are anything to go by.

Readers will recall Chuka's aborted leadership campaign in 2015 before he went on to back Liz Kendall for the job. And Dan, well, no one properly knew where he stood until recently. Not that it mattered for some media and PLP folks who think Dan's "compelling backstory" would alone be enough to capture the party leadership and take Labour back into Number 10. Thankfully, there are good reasons to believe he's not succumbed to the hype others have trailed about his person.

Both essays aren't too dissimilar in terms of what a Chuka-led or Dan-led Labour Party might look. If you're someone who, like me, believes the route to Labour's long-term success involves it being self-ware of its place in society, that it is the condensation of a range of varied but broadly common interests flowing from that position, and the party should stand up for and prosecute those interests, then there are things to commend their pitches for.

The core of Chuka's essay is what he calls the 'foundational economy'. This is a fairly vague concept denoting "the services, production and social goods that sustain all our daily lives." This does not fall into the old dichotomies of public and private (or third sector, if you insist on bolting that on). What it does encompass is "transport, child care and adult care, health, education, utilities, broadband, social benefits, and the low productivity, low wage sectors of retail, hospitality, food processing and supermarkets". In other words, it's that part of the economy whose output is the reproduction of Britain's social infrastructure. For example, in my old pit village take the school, the post office, the local grocers' stores and newsagent, the pubs and Miners' Welfare, the bus routes connecting us to Derby and other local towns. This mix of small business and publicly owned services during the course of their day-to-day activity reproduced and were dependent upon the social relationships they drew together. From this you derive a sense of identity, of place and locality that helps you feel secure and rooted. This is basically shading into Anthony Giddens's conceptualisation of the routines that gird social life, of ontological security. During the 1980s, the destruction and selling off of nationalised industry as well as the collapse of manufacturing dealt this foundational economy a blow. Where full employment was replaced by mass unemployment, the social fabric suffered. Then New Labour came along and its vision of regenerating the economy was about rebuilding public infrastructure (albeit through the dread Private Finance Initiative) and trying to crowd in business investment in urban centres. This approach informs most regeneration strategies now, and one that, Chuka notes, excludes the peripheries of major cities - I would suggest these peripheries are your medium-sized cities, towns, suburbs, villages and rural areas in general. The consequence of this is Labour is seen as the party of the city, and might go a bit of the way to explain why it doesn't do so well everywhere else. Therefore, future industrial strategies have to be foundational and social. It must strengthen the reciprocity that makes for strong, cohesive societies and strengthens the sense of security people feel.

Dan's contribution is more focused on the problem of Brexit and the seemingly bumpy one Theresa May, at least rhetorically, is taking us toward. After making a number of standard Labourist criticisms of her reckless approach, Dan channels Will Hutton's celebrated The State We're In and makes the case for a proper joined up industrial strategy and one that, this time, won't shy away from tackling Britain's persistent problems. Here, there is an emphasis on what you might call the "good state", the idea that government has a duty to do industrial activism. This is key to his notion of 'civic capitalism', of subordinating the economy to the public interest. Of course, this might be as every bit as slippery as the national interest, but in the context of his essay it's clear - a social democratic one-nationism in that will provide industrial leadership to help generate the jobs of the future, drive innovation, meet the challenge of the coming wave of automation, strip out British capitalism's long-term weakness for short-termism, breaking up concentrations of and spreading asset ownership, and strengthening workers' rights, including reserved positions on company boards. While the language is more technocratic and checklist than Chuka's piece, Dan argues that civic capitalism must go beyond economics. It means taking education seriously and investing more, of reversing the tendency to centralisation and devolving power and responsibility downwards - this includes federalism and participatory budgeting. In short, a programme of national renewal. If this sounds familiar, you would be right. It's a beefed-up version of Ed Miliband's pitch prior to 2015, and what the Prime Minister "borrowed" just before she entered Downing Street.

What interests me is both agree on the main weaknesses of New Labour, that it didn't pay the interests of the people it was supposed to represent and stick up for much mind. For example, during the Blair/Brown period Dan writes that the government used "public procurement budgets to pump tens of billions of pounds into opaque PFI deals and outsourcing contracts, some of which have worked, but many of which have delivered dubious results and lower wages for workers". He goes onto argue that it too was trapped in short-termist, markets good/public bad thinking, and this is at the root of Labour's legacy problems. If anything, Chuka is less sparing:
Labour’s historic role is to be the party of the national labour interest. Our purpose is to represent working people and to redress the imbalance of power between capital and labour. And we provide protection for those who cannot work or support themselves. We have lost this role. Reciprocity was once at the heart of the relationship between the Labour Party and working people. In return for their support, our obligation was to use the power of government to protect and further their interests. This mutual sense of obligation has broken down.
This is the first time I have seen a mainstream Labour figure state what Labour is about in blunt terms. This is indeed a a million miles from the Liz Kendall pitch Chuka supported just under two years ago. The question is, do they mean it or are we looking at Owen Smith-style cynicism?

I usually believe someone until they give me cause not to believe them. There are two political realities that anyone with Labour leadership ambitions need to face up to. First, the reasons why the Labour membership went for Jeremy Corbyn have not gone away. The bulk of them wanted to see a return to "proper" Labourist politics. This wasn't old-style Bennism, though such nostalgia did have its pull among the coalition of support Jeremy mobilised, but a sense that Labour should be standing up against the Tories. It should not equivocate on matters of fundamental principle (and interest) and seek to appease the press and public opinion on cuts to social security, bashing immigrants, and the matter of the austerity agenda. It means recognising many members cling to Jeremy despite the polling not because they're cultists, but because they're worried that when he goes the same old crap critiqued by Chuka and Dan will come back. As there are plenty of former ministers around who did oversee policies and stirred rhetoric detrimental to the interests of our coalition of voters, such concern is entirely justified and especially so when they're arrayed against the present leadership. Therefore, from the point of view of winning a leadership campaign programmes like the ones offered here are a necessity. No one wants to be a four-and-a-half per center. The second reality is wider politics. The Tories are as sectional and awful as they ever were, but part of May's appeal is that she doesn't appear that way. Her One Nationism is a hostage to fortune as she could come unstuck on attacks on the disabled, the defunding of schools and the NHS, and the special favours the Tories will confer on big business if her "red, white, and blue" Brexit fails. The goodwill she has could quite easily evaporate if opposed by a programme and a party that means it. A renewed Blairism is therefore impossible. A Labour manifesto offering light touch regulation, more privatisation and marketisation (under the guise of "public sector reform"), and vague promises to manage thing better and fairer than the Tories is a non-starter. What's happened to the Socialists in France and Labour in the Netherlands, and the centre left elsewhere, should serve as salutary warnings. Do they mean it? They have to mean it or they won't go anywhere.

Imagine, a Labour government that comes to power conscious that it represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of people and is prepared to see them through. This is Jeremy Corbyn's legacy. If, as the polls indicate that's not going to happen under his leadership, it's increasingly likely his successor will implement it. They have no choice.


johnny conspiranoid said...

As a labour voter I have lost faith in the present generation of PLP politicians represented by these two.

Jeremy Corbyn (Parody) said...

Chuka and Dan do have "compelling backstories". Tory-lite backstories. Long ones. Let's kick the miserable Blairite careerists, their New Labour pals, their shared sense of entitlement, and their self-serving machine politics out.

Anonymous said...

Its just possible that Theresa May might have done more to save Labour than Jeremy Corbyn.

We'll get stuffed in June, but we were going to get stuffed in 2020 as long as Corbyn hung around.

We have a lot of rebuilding to do and its good to see some of our MP's giving serious thought to how we move forward. A heavy defeat now with a new, younger leadership and a modernising, forward looking party that understands principle can - indeed must - go hand in hand with competence might lead to brighter prospects down the line.


Alex Ross said...

I had a couple of really interesting conversations with close friends recently – both working class Liverpudlians and heavily dependent on the NHS (one is wheelchair bound and the other has severe mental health problems).

Having a Labour government in power really, really matters to them. We all know what happens to vital public services when the Tories are in power.

However they both see Corbyn as an indulgent Islington poser, who prefers remaining in his play-pen with toytown revolutionaries, rather than building the pluralistic consensus that puts left wing governments into power.

This is mainly a pragmatic argument but also often a moral argument (e.g. why the hell did he appoint a creepy Stalinist as head of strategy!!! Wtf!!!).

I’m pretty sure they’ll end up voting for him on the 8th of June when push comes to shove. But many, many more will stay away or vote Green or Lib Dem.

A democratic left-wing successor would be a good thing. But the left can’t just *assume* it has the best interests of the majority at heart (as if liberal democracy is ultimately superfluous). That sort of left-wing arrogance is a big part of the problem.

Humility, careful argument and creative policies that can evidentially be shown to benefit the most vulnerable in society – and everyone else (fairly) are what is needed.

SpiritSkill said...

I've yet to hear of Dan Jarvis saying anything of interest. In common with a lot of Labour Chuka needs to remember that there are three factors of production: labour, capital and land. If he and Labour differentiated capital from land they would come up with a set of radical policies.

Blissex said...

«heavily dependent on the NHS (one is wheelchair bound and the other has severe mental health problems). [ ... ] building the pluralistic consensus that puts left wing governments into power»

The problem is that «pluralistic consensus» is code for “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose” and they will never vote to put any «left wing» policies into action.
The most left wing policy Blair and Brown, and here I mean Brown, put in place was tax credits, which in the longer term became as expected to be in large part an enabler for lower wages rather than a boost the living standards of the working poor.

Those two people dependent on the NHS perhaps don't realize that the southern property rentiers who shop at Waitrose consider them as scroungers and want a government that stops "wasting" money on the "useless", a government that uses PFI to asset strip the NHS and mass immigration to cut NHS wages and thus keep taxes low on the Waitrose shopping rentiers.

There is still the very big political problem that Labour is the party of renters, and of building a majority coalition that includes renters and the marginal property owners, one that is not focused on the interests of bigger property owners. This problem was described by T Blair in 1987, by G Radice in 1992, and no solution has been found yet.

Blissex said...

«The consequence of this is Labour is seen as the party of the city»

I think that what worried T Benn in 1986 is still quite applicable:

T Benn, 1986-03-24:

The Party's Campaign Strategy committee, where four men and a woman from something called the Shadow Agency made a presentation.
They flashed onto a screen quotes which were supposed to be typical of Labour voters, for example: “IT'S NICE TO HAVE A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE BUT IT'S YOUR FAMILY THAT COUNTS.”
What we were being told, quite frankly, was what you can read every day in the Sun, the Mail, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph. It was an absolute waste of money.

Labour was associated with the poor, the unemployed, the old, the sick, the disabled, pacifists, immigrants, minorities and the unions, and this was deeply worrying.

The Tories were seen to have the interests of everyone at heart including the rich. Labour was seen as yesterday's party.
I came out feeling physically sick.