Labour’s future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed - RSA

Labour’s future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Blog 2 Comments

  • Localism
  • Leadership

There weren’t many responses to my tweet last Friday asking whether anyone could recall a time when the three established UK-wide political parties had been in such a collective state of disrepair, but those I did get suggested the late 1920s and the 1930s. It took World War for the parties – and particularly Labour - to regroup, reunite and refocus.

Despairing Labour moderates can comfort themselves with the thought that it isn’t much better right now being a Conservative moderniser or an ambitious Liberal Democrat. The fundamental failings of national political parties – not just structures and processes but ingrained cultures – mean that, behind the electoral cycles and occasional burst of enthusiasm for a new leader, the trend of decay continues. Westminster political parties are withering hands squeezing the breath out of our ailing democracy.

But perhaps last Thursday’s ambiguous results offer Labour a road, albeit a long and winding one, to a national party fit for the 21st century. The best news for Labour was in the cities. Solid results in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Southampton and Exeter, outstanding ones in London and Bristol. While MPs (like Tristram Hunt in this morning's FT) ponder Labour’s big vision, Sadiq Kahn in London and Marvin Rees in Bristol offer a beguiling combination of personal achievement against the odds, idealism and optimism about the future, and an impressive commitment to political inclusivity. Add in the possibility that Andy Burnham might set a trend for serious Labour figures abandoning unreal Whitehall ambitions in favour of real town hall prospects and a radical realignment is in the offing.

This is, after all, the way the world is shifting. Although Treasury policy often seems to be made up on the hoof, further devolution to city and county regions is backed by all the major UK parties. Government at all levels can be good or bad, but the modern world favours localism. Complexity, the pace of change the demands and expectations of modern citizens all put a premium on decision making closer to the people. Most national policy fails (in evidence, dear jury, I offer decades of welfare reform, health reform, education reform, prison reform…….), but some local policy succeeds. Around the world mayors are more popular and effective than Presidents and Prime Ministers. The most benign scenario for the nation state is as a platform for greater international collaboration and local initiative.

It’s about heart as well as head. While attempts to define Britishness and Englishness have got us nowhere fast, the weekend’s rejoicing of the diverse population of Leicester was infectious; we can all imagine feeling that way about out city or town. Local identities – although often underdeveloped – can be dynamic and inclusive in ways national ones seemingly cannot.

Put it together: the future is in the cities and Labour’s dynamism is in the cities. This makes the structure of the national Party seem all the more outdated. There are six times as many trade union representatives on Labour’s National Executive Committee as local government reps. Ambitious Labour MPs fawn over middle ranking union officers while often treating their local council leader with an odd mixture of envy and disdain.

A hundred years ago the Parliamentary Labour Party was created not as the ruling tier of the labour movement (which is how they have behaved ever since) but to be its representatives in Parliament. Had the cooperative movement been as instrumental in establishing the PLP as the trade unions Labour might subsequently have better balanced its workerism with a commitment to enterprise and consumerism.

Humility may be the path to redemption. The future for the Labour Party in Westminster - and could any future be worse than the present - may be to rediscover its origins as the Parliamentary wing of a broader movement, a movement whose potential future in now manifest in cities and their best leaders.

Labour’s modernisers are clearly failing to answer the question ‘how should we lead’, they should instead ask ‘how can we serve?’ 

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Matthew,  You entirely correct, of course, that when examined against its founding reason and principles the Parliamentary Labour Party has completely lost its way and no longer sees itself as the tail of dog that it is a subsidiary part of.  The tail really is trying to wag the dog, but firmly believes itself to be the head and not the tail.  Labour exists as a vehicle of the political expression of its members... that is the rank-and-file.  They in turn see themselves as representative of the views of their workmates anof the working people in their communities.   New Labour effectively hijacked that principle. An unintended consequence perhaps, but an inevitable one in which the Parliamentary Labour Party, the tail, was suddenly staffed by people from the same strata of society as were the Conservative opponents.   They brought with them, inevitably, as individuals the same social, cultural and institutional norms and values as were the mainspring of the world-view of their opponents.  In social psychological terms... they each had an Umwelt which aligned much more comfortably with their political opponents across the corridors of power than with the rank and file Labour Party members and even less so with those communities that those members came from.

    When the classical economic paradigm was so totally debunked by the Brundtland Commission Report of the UN in 1987 they had failed to see it as a validation of the concerns of 'their' party, but rather as a threat to all the values which their social background stood for and upon which their privileges were largely based.  They were not at all concerned by the move of economists into the realms of the pragmatic monetarism of neoclassical economics and away from theoretical and logical justification for their policy recommendations.  It was what they, and the conservatives wanted to hear.  Gordon B was quite unabashed to declare that he had brought an end to the economics of boom and bust.  He wanted to believe it, and after Brundtland that was all that was left... belief in the dogma of the 'expert' and 'authoritive' voices.  The MP's of all three main parties were happy to worship at the later of the god they wanted to hear.  Only a few were not so convinced.  The heretics... Corbyn and others.  The Inquisition proved that you do not have to be in possession of a demonstrable counter 'truth' to be branded as such.  Just ask for logical and rational justification for the actions of the dominant group and you are guaranteed to be labelled that way.

    That group of people are still dominant in the Parliamentary Labour Party and several of its most influential organs and institutions.  Groups who have always been the moral guardians of the socialist movement and the rights and interests of the masses of people who work for others.  The General Secretary of the Fabians, Andrew Harper, as the 'head' of Labour's chief think tank writes in Fabian publications in the last few months and puts forward the view that Corbynists are deviants within the Labour movement... despite the fact that they are the democratically elected leaders!  The Fabian Think Tank is fighting against the very leadership and body politic, i.e. the Labour membership, that it gave birth to a century ago long after it itself formed to champion the downtrodden.  I ask 'Who is the heretic?'.

    The Fabians, from 1987, should have seen the opportunity to re-examine the failings of classical economics and to fight and resist its step-child, neoclassical economics, and to apply its mind and focus those of its membership to re-imagine, from the greater knowledge of ourselves that we had by that time developed, a new model of the economic behaviour of people in society.  One which bore greater similarity to reality.  One which did not rewire a suspension of one's critical faculties to accept.  A theory that made sense, instead of one that required one to render oneself senseless.

    I started my work just before 1984, while still working for IBM to put bread on the table.  Since October last year, I have begun testing, in debate and discussion amongst academics asking related or pertinent questions on the ResearchGate forum, some of the philosophy, the concepts and the mechanisms which are suggested by my studies as being likely candidates for pointing the way to a credible approach to advancing our present and establishing our future... 'our' referring not just to the parochial concerns of the UK but those of all humanity, globally, and as a species that would appear to relish the idea of surviving more than a another few centuries.   What I say appears to be well received, surprising to me and yet comforting at another level, and disquieting at another.

    The disquiet arises from the realisation that very few academics actually consider the axiomatic issues in the field of socio-economics, well-being and human purpose.  Disquieting because the most credible explanation for this lack of academic integrity would seem very likely to be the lack of post-graduate funding for any work that does not advance the pragmatism of monetarism and the dogma of GDP maximisation.  It confirms why I kept my head below the parapet and out of the line of fire all these years.  I spent those years in South Africa... a place where one could well appreciate just how viciously commercial interests are prepared to defend their turf from the people who they rely upon to make that turf as valuable as it is, but with whom they are loath to share any but the absolute necessary minimum with.... which is in turn a function of the relative power they have access to over what those people may say, what they may do and what opportunities for redress they may aspire to.

    You have asked 'Can Citizen's be Economists?'.   That is a loaded question... if you have the analytical will to get down to the definitional ambiguities it contains.  I am both, by training if not by the affirmation of my contemporaries here in the UK.  Peter Hain was once a bit like me.  May his soul rest comfortably in its new home.

    I joined the RSA last year.  I joined the Fabians this year.  Why?  Mostly to give me the opportunity of coming to a clear opinion on the power of the arguments, the rationality and the analytical logic that these most eminent of citizen-led democratic institutions of creativity and thought are engaged in.  So that I might understand how I may, or may not effectively contribute.  It has been a sad and disillusioning journey.

    The RSA membership is hostage to a small Westminster staff who spend a great deal of time and emotional effort in satisfying the commissions of the incumbent government rather than definign and following their own path.  They seem to be co-respondents down the path of the pragmatism demanded by the conceptual vacuum left by the events of the 1980's, Brundtland and the Berlin Wall.  So convinced of their won mental abilities that ona recent visit into the countryside, Birmingham to be exact, the HO representative admitted to his astonishment at the depth and quality of the debate that his subject elicited amongst the gathered 'unwashed'.  A depth that it was quite clear left him floundering on occasion.

    And the Fabians?  Acton University hosted an evening meeting of the Fabians in April, which I attended. I also attended their Summer Conference at TUC Conference Centre on May 21st. 

    Acton was a report back by some of the West Midlands Combined Authority negotiating team. An MP, an MEP , a Councillor and a negotiation advisor were on the platform.  The consensus of the panel seemed to be that it should be embraced, even if it is being forced down the throats of an unconvinced electorate, an the grounds that it represents a great expansion in their career opportunities as professional politicians.  The audience of academics seemed to be decidedly unimpressed and said little.  And were given virtually no time at all to engage in questions in any case.  As represnetatives of the calibre of people one might find pervading our governing institutions it was a frightening introduction. Creativity and imagination of any substance regarding the real issues was excruciatingly visible... by its absence.

    The Fabians clearly still see themselves as torch bearers for a centre-left Labour party and not the objective guardians of thought, analysis and synthesis of those economic and social ideas and rationales which will advance the well-being of the mass of people.  Ideas which might eventually assure a sustained and effective influence of those people Labour claims to represent over their own individual destinies and by extension of each person across the globe whose labours are exploited in an asynchronous and lopsided relationship of power and control by those that care little and insist on understanding less.

    May I ask how the RSA expects to select those qualified to be nominated to their 'Council of 50 Citizens'?  The citizens, if sampled as a statistically random representative group, would no doubt reflect a massive belief in the current religion... it is what they have been brought up on, and no alternative has been allowed to be developed while the slender tracks moving together to form that path are denied serious consideration and funding by the toll collector's on the crumbling highway it will have to replace.  Will that lead to anything useful?  Will it be in the spirit of the RSA... or just another reflection of the dominance of a failed and defensive intellectual hegemony.

    Thank you for listening...

    Rob Jarvis, South Shropshire

  • If Labour are so strong in the cities as you suggest then why haven't they addressed the 'localism' issue before? They had a great opportunity under thirteen years of Blair/Brown but failed to take any meaningful action in England in this respect. Looking at the Labour Party today, as someone with no political affiliation, I think that they consider modernisation started and ended with New labour. The left (especially Corbyn) didn't like what that looked like and they have regressed in policy terms and have nothing to say on the subject.

Related articles