Sunday 16 August 2015

Gordon Brown and Power

Has Gordon Brown reached down from heaven and, like the vengeful Presbyterian God, smited Jeremy Corbyn with his great clunking fist? Well, no. The much-trailed Power with a Purpose speech wasn't the knock out some were hoping for, as if a talk could derail the Jeremy juggernaut anyway. Instead we had a thoughtful, nuanced and lengthy tour of the policy and ethics of the Labour Party. He asked the questions about what Labour is, its purpose, its direction of travel. In a way, it was less an attack on Corbyn - though one can easily be found in the historical vistas Gordon directs us to. In fact, the nearest he comes to explicitly doing so is in the following:

In the spirit of I've read it so you don't have to, these concluding lines sum it up:
First our principles demand of us that we seek power to help people in need.

Second we have to always listen to and learn from the public, always look outwards talking to them and never looking inwards just talking to ourselves, and that the Labour party is at its best when it speaks for the whole country.

Third we don’t win if we just work out our anger against the global change happening around us. It is not enough to be anti-globalisation: we have to show how global forces can be controlled in the interests of working families, work out our answers and the alternatives and, as John Prescott once said so powerfully, apply modern values in a new setting.

Fourth the Labour Party must give people realistic hope – that it can form a government to bring about the change. I repeat: making what we want – the desirable – possible means making the desirable popular and electable.
A couple of points. The first has Gordon at his most philosophical. He doesn't come close to elaborating a theory of social power. Here, it's understood conventionally in the Westminster sense. You have it when you're in office, and you don't when you don't. More on this in a moment. What Gordon is doing here - or at least nodding toward - is acknowledging the Labour Party as the political component of a movement, and that movements are articulations and condensations of interests related to occupational groups, types of property ownership, and so on. As I've argued many times before, the labour movement and Labour Party is a particularly messy aggregation of interests because as an organisation founded to represent all workers (by hand or by brain, by wage or by salary) that traverses, on paper, an immense proportion of the population. This encompasses all variations in income, types of work, industry, levels of autonomy and power, and divisions outside of work that takes in status as well as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability. The organisations of workers tend to point in certain directions around shared interests, and these work against differences becoming divisions, but they also take in the prejudices and antipathies present. Hence when the Labour Party, for example, takes awful positions on immigration and social security, it isn't just because the leaders are opportunists and/or don't wish to take received wisdom on. As an organisation that represents a class of people as a whole progressive positions mix with those that are anything but.

In a mode far removed from the unspun language of class and class interests, what Gordon is evoking is Labour's economistic side, that part of our politics that deals with wage bargaining, the working day, health and safety at work, security, how far wages can stretch, and housing and rent. These are the bread and butter issues around which our forebears combined and formed nascent trade unions to tackle. He's right to mention this because economistic matters have been treated as a private matter for the unions to take up with various employers, and only feature in party programmes haphazardly. Ed Miliband had his cost of living crisis, he championed the living wage, but was much weaker when it came to matters related to social security. Under Tony and Gordon child and pensioner poverty rates came down, while employers took an axe to future pensioners by butchering their schemes - sometimes with government connivance. This unevenness cannot be resolved by using power to be nicer to more (poorer) people, which Gordon implies, but actually understanding that playing off one section of our constituency against another because of perceived political expedience harms our party as well as those who lose out. Those not in the Jeremy camp would be rise to note he became Stormin' Corbyn only after Harriet Harman's welfare debacle. Therefore, while Gordon's panglossian language about power is indicative of where our movement's sympathies lie, leaving it at this level presents a barrier to understanding how power can be deployed in the best interests of the constituency we represent.

The second point comes down to Gordon's (implied) understanding of power. As Ed Miliband once put it, opposition is "crap" because you can't do too much with it. Though, to his credit, in terms of setting the political weather the supposedly useless Ed proved effective as an opposition leader. Well, as good one can be without winning an election. But power is something you wield, something that is enacted, something that can change things. Of course, the operation of power throughout the social body is much more complex, but that is how it can appear if you're in the business of competing for elected office. Hence you can understand why the power vs protest, or power vs principle distinctions - replicated in Gordon's speech - have had a great deal of traction since Jeremy's emergence as the front runner. The problem is it's not a question of either/or. If principle and power must go together, the party also has to stop being shy about the huge but power potentials outside of Parliament. Yvette Cooper has often noted her participation on the March for Jobs/Right to Work demonstrations of the 1980s, but highlights them to emphasise how protest is ineffective. She is right, but only to a point. The huge anti-Iraq war demonstration didn't dissuade Tony Blair - or her - from taking the wrong course. But 13 years earlier the huge anti-Poll Tax mass non-payment campaign did. From 1997 to today, the rights of lesbians and gays have advanced uninterruptedly, but this was only possible because of collective action taken in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. As a protest movement, the various anti-cuts campaigns haven't chalked up many successes, but were it not for the networks forged in the heat of battle Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't have an impressive machine behind him.

In reality, at least where Labour is concerned, power and protest can be complementary. Being in opposition is frustrating, but a strong labour movement need not be powerless. Parliament may well be sovereign, but our traditions, our organisation, and our party wouldn't be here if the early movement had not used its own power to establish itself in the face of official, sovereign authority. This is more than building up redoubts in local governments and devolved administrations, a point recognised by the bulk of active party members involved in a number of causes and campaigns. If, to use Tony Blair's words, Labour is serious about using "the power of the community to advance the cause of the individual", a sentiment Gordon also endorses, we should start thinking about power in terms of empowerment - of empowering community groups, cooperatives, groups of workers, of knitting together the political fabric of civil society into something that can help us form governments and enable our constituents to better defend themselves from Tory attacks. Gaining power is important and you can't change the world without it. But you also need to effectively recognise and use the not inconsiderable power we already have too.


Speedy said...

Power through the organs is all very well, but it is worth observing that Gramsci wrote it while languishing in a Fascist prison, where he met his end. Indeed, had Mussolini not made the tactical error of joining forces with Hitler, Fascist Italy would have likely lasted from 1922 to the 1970s, or beyond, like Spain. The point is, smart though it may be, it is a losers philosophy.

Although, as you say, it can have its victories (equal ops, for example) these also came about through wider social trends (the permissive society, the advent of the pill, etc) and were mirrored throughout the Western world. As for the poll tax (and I was actually there in Trafalgar Square with the Anti Poll Tax Fed) that was one battle in a war we lost. Ask the miners.

I can well imagine that many are looking forward to a repeat of the Eighties, but New Labour was born from the rubble that Thatcher left behind. Point being that social democracy was crushed into the dirt while Labour dithered. 1979 to 1997. I remember the year she came to power, I remember the year she left it. If anything, these Tories are worse - at least Thatcher thought she was doing good for ordinary people, these ones are interested only in dismantling anything left of the social democratic state, from the NHS to the BBC. You might comfort yourself with talk of a revolution through the organs, but when they have finished there will be no organs left.

Sean said...

The current Tories seem worse than Thatcher because there's been 35 years of neo-liberalism that's allowing the current lot to do what they like.

Anonymous said...

Gordon brown? Isn't he the guy that helped bring the world economy to its knees and gave Fred Goodwin a knighthood and was generally seen as a huge electoral liability?

Yes, a legacy to be proud of!