Labour axioms, Labour commitments, Labour values

19 May

In the conclusion to his essay, Labour as a radical tradition (PDF, pp.14ff.), Maurice Glasman (see previous post) sets out a number of “axioms” of Labour’s “radical tradition” (bullet points and bold highlighting added):

  • Capitalism is based on the maximisation of returns on investment, which creates great pressure to commodify land and labour markets. Human beings and nature, however, are not created as commodities and should not be treated as such.
  • Human beings, in contrast, are dependent rational beings capable of trust and responsibility, who need each other to lead a good life. People are meaning-seeking beings who rely on an inheritance to make sense of their world, on liberty to pursue their own truth, and on strong social institutions which promote public goods and virtue.
  • Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money. In that sense, Labour holds to a theory of relational power as a counterweight to the power of money.
  • The building of relational power is called organising and this is a necessary aspect of the tradition.
  • As a theory of the Common Good, Labour holds to a balance of power within the Constitution, and in all public institutions, including the economy.

Labour recognises “the innovation, energy and prosperity that markets bring”. However, it also retains “an awareness, absent in liberalism, of the concentrations of power, the disruption and the dispossession that are its accompaniment”. Labour’s response to this is

not the abolition of capital nor the elimination of markets, but their democratic entanglement in regional, civic and vocational relationships.

Glasman then suggests a number of forms which this “democratic entanglement” can take:

  1. A commitment to local, relational or mutual banking.
  2. A commitment to skilled labour, with “real traditions of skill and knowledge” in a “vocational economy”.
  3. A commitment to the balance of power within the firm, so that “managers are held accountable” and “strategy is not based on the interests of one group alone”.
  4. A commitment to forms of mutual and co-operative ownership.

For those whose heads hit the table in despair when they hear phrases like “Blue Labour” or (saints preserve us) “Purple Labour”, and who cry out “Why can’t we just be Labour?”, I suggest that what Glasman is describing in these “axioms” and “commitments” is precisely that: Labour values. Indeed, I think Glasman’s entire thesis is that Labour has distinctive values arising from its unique origins, rather than just being a classic, post-Enlightenment “social democratic” (let alone “liberal”) party.

While I don’t think Glasman’s list is exhaustive – in particular, I do think basic Labour values include a commitment to greater equality, and that this has deep roots in the English radical tradition – I do think it forms a basis for thinking about how Labour can once again present a vision of the common good that can inspire people, and maybe even win power again.

“Radical traditionalism” and the common good

18 May

I wonder whether Maurice Glasman ever regrets coining the phrase “Blue Labour”? The name has certainly attracted him plenty of attention, but equally it’s probably led a lot of Labour people to reject Glasman’s ideas out of hand (and, in many cases, unread): “What, you mean it’s like New Labour, but even more right wing???” being, I suspect, the reaction of many.

Which is probably why the new eBook edited by Glasman (among others), The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox (PDF), largely steers clear of the term. Glasman, in his own contribution, prefers to talk about “radical traditionalism”. And if we set aside our aversion to the many blossoming forms of “[your colour here] Labour” and consider Glasman’s argument, there is a lot of good material in there.

Glasman begins by considering the paradoxical nature of Labour politics:

Labour is a paradoxical tradition, far richer than its present form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism. The Labour tradition is not best understood as the living embodiment of the liberal/communitarian debate, or as a variant of the European Marxist/Social Democratic tension. Labour is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional, and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.

He argues that Labour’s values are not abstractions such as “freedom” or “equality”. Rather, they are “rooted in relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life” – reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity – within a philosophical framework that combines an “Aristotelian” emphasis on the Good Life and the Common Good with an English radicalism that goes back before Enlightenment liberalism to the ancient belief in the “rights of freeborn Englishmen”.

These ethical and radical beliefs led Labour to make three basic assumptions concerning capitalism:

  1. That “capitalism was an exploitative and inefficient system of economic organisation, prone to speculative bubbles and recession. A Labour political economy would be different and superior.”
  2. That there was “an ethical problem with unreformed capitalism, in that it exerted pressure to turn human beings and their natural environment into commodities”, and that as a consequence “only organised people could resist the domination of money”. Hence “for Labour, democratic association was a fundamental commitment”.
  3. That “scientific knowledge and managerial expertise” could be used “to exercise a progressive control of capitalism so that its excesses could be tamed and its general direction allied to more progressive human ends”.

From the 1960s on, however, Labour lost faith in the first two assumptions, and retreated into the managerialism of its third assumption. Labour lost its vision of the “Good Life”, and not least in the “extending [of] democracy in the social life of the nation”. As a result:

…social democracy has become neither social nor democratic. This is the land that Labour has vacated and is now being filled by the Conservative’s ‘Big Society’. The Conservative tradition does have a conception of the social, Burke is an important thinker, but it was lost under Thatcherism and has been robustly reclaimed by Cameron.

Personally, I’m not sure that the vacuity of the “Big Society” could “fill” anything, let alone represent a true reclaiming of a Burkean “conception of the social”, but I agree with Glasman that:

Labour needs to develop the idea of a Good Society as its rival, and such a society would be built on relationships built on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, all the way up and all the way down, in politics and within the economy.

As part of this, Labour needs to remember some truths that it has forgotten:

What was forgotten politically was that the welfare state was not a right fulfilled, but an achievement won through sustained organisation and political action, and that was the only way it could be sustained. What was forgotten economically was that capitalism is a volatile system, based upon the exploitation of human beings and nature, and left to itself, will eat itself and the world around it. There are ethical reasons for generating democratic association as an alternative source of power that can entangle it within institutions that promote a Common Good.

I think there are some serious weaknesses with Glasman’s essay. Some of these are stylistic (his bizarre “Mum and Dad” analogy, some too-clever-by-half turns of phrase), some are more substantive: David Miliband, in his response, points out that Glasman underestimates the extent to which inequality makes “relationships of reciprocity and mutuality” impossible.

But where I agree entirely with him is that Labour needs to recover a vision of “the Good”, and that to do so means mining seams of “radical conservatism”, invoking “ancient as well as modern values”. To take just one example: the defence of the NHS is surely, at its heart, a defence of the values of community and solidarity on which the NHS was founded, against the radicalising and revolutionary forces of capital that seek to tear it apart. And the NHS can only be successfully defended, in both the short and the long term, on that basis – not by seeking to defend one particular form of centralised state control, or by appeals to technocratic efficiency (which system produces the shortest waiting lists, and so on).

No “skin in the game”, no vote?

6 May

Ian Cowie of the Daily Telegraph wrote a post yesterday arguing for “a tax-based alternative to the Alternative Vote”.

Basically, this would involve limiting the franchise to those who pay at least £100 of income tax each year, while excluding those “large numbers of people who have no ‘skin in the game’ and who may even comprise the majority of voters in some metropolitan areas today”. Pensioners and mothers (even single mothers, Mr Cowie?) would retain the vote, however, which is nice of him.

Now I’m not remotely interested in discussing the merits of this worthless idea. Maybe Mr Cowie will claim that those objecting to him are “humourless lefties” who “can’t take a joke” – but the final couple of sentences suggest that he is deadly serious. Even if accepted as satirical, it’s a satire that rests on some unpleasantly dismissive attitudes: “no skin in the game” (says the comfortably well-off journalist of those who end up bearing the brunt of job losses and cuts), “everyone who gets out of bed in the morning to go to work”, and so on.

Mr Cowie’s proposal will, of course, never get anywhere near being adopted. But as Anna Hedge pointed out on Twitter, this is yet another example of how some on the political right are feeling emboldened to say things they would never have dared utter in the past 15 or 20 years.

And while there is no prospect of an income tax-based franchise becoming reality, such nakedly “class-war” proposals contribute to an atmosphere in which significant democratic reform becomes even less thinkable (let’s see how that “elected House of Lords” looks once the proposals are finally unveiled, eh?), public services are easily removed from democratic control to control by those with some “skin in the game” (see: free schools, GP commissioning), and the political concerns and expression of those “who may even comprise the majority of voters in some metropolitan areas today” are systematically delegitimised.

We’re all in the Roller together

25 Mar

The royal family seemed keen earlier this week to emphasise that the car in which Kate Middleton will travel to her wedding is the same Rolls Royce that was attacked in student protests.

No doubt this was intended as a heartwarming “good news” story, but something about it left me feeling uneasy, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what at the time:

Thinking about it further today, I think it’s the “Britain Can Take It!” tone of the coverage. We’re invited to think “Isn’t it great that those ghastly students haven’t succeeded in spoiling Kate’s special day?” At the very least, it’s hard not to see this as the royal family in some small way taking sides in a political issue.

(Not that I’m defending the students who attacked Charles and Camilla’s car. It was worse than a crime – it was a blunder, because it gave the media another excuse to focus on “violent students” rather than “violent police officers”.)

This particular story is only a straw in the wind, and I’ll cheerfully admit that I may be “over-reading” it. However, we do seem to be moving back towards a rhetoric of “the enemy within”: students, public sector workers (a.k.a. “enemies or enterprise”), lead-swinging benefit cheats, and so on.

In the light of that, it’ll be interesting to see how the phrase “we’re all in this together” develops over the next year or two. As coined by George Osborne, its avowed intent is to express how we are all one country, rich and poor, united against the common enemies of financial, economic and fiscal crisis, sharing its burdens fairly.

However, it won’t take much for it to become a slogan, not of a country united against external enemies, but of the middle and upper classes – “decent, respectable people” – united against internal enemies.

Which would at least have the benefit being more honest and accurate, given how this government has been acting to date.

Economic democracy: one shareholder, one vote?

26 Feb

I’ve recently finished reading Wilf Wilde’s book Crossing the River of Fire: Mark’s Gospel and Global Capitalism, a book which – as the subtitle suggests – combines Christian theology with socialist politics/economics.

For a very brief summary of the theological perspective, see this post on my Tumblr. What I wanted to look at in this post is Wilde’s one practical proposal (in this book, at least) for reforming capitalism in Britain: changing the voting structures of existing capitalist corporations to a “one person, one vote” system, similar to that for parliamentary elections. (Though the more precise description that Wilde uses is “one beneficial owner, one vote”.)

As Wilde writes:

The proposal on capital may not sound much of a reform but it is designed to attack and subvert the legitimacy of capital and capitalist thinking. To fully implement it would destroy the concepts lying behind capital’s power over us.

He argues that, until the 1880s, the concept of using one person, one vote to elect MPs “appeared silly”:

Surely those with more property – with a greater stake in society – should have more say. …

Most of the working class and all women were still disenfranchised in Britain until 1918. So, what appears an obvious principle to us now was revolutionary until 1918…

By contrast, capitalist corporations are still run on principles pre-dating the 1832 Reform Act: the more you own, the more of a say you have.

Under Wilde’s proposals, investors in companies would still be able to buy greater or smaller stakes in companies, and thus enjoy greater or smaller gains or losses in their investments. What they would not be able to buy is greater power over those companies: any individual could buy a single share in that company and get the same voting power in it.

The only reasons for buying more than one share would be financial: to get a greater return. So pension funds (who invest primarily for a financial return rather than for control) would be affected less than someone like Rupert Murdoch.

In effect, this would turn every corporation into a mutual. We would still have a market economy (which has a number of beneficial features), but control of the surplus accumulation within that economy would no longer be concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations – or, for that matter, of “a board with a lord”, as happened under nationalisation. Rather:

the mutual corporation would … re-create a new social and democratic control form within civil society.

It’s hard to see how this could be implemented – as Wilde admits, it would go beyond “the limits of existing politics” – but the real question I’d like to pose to those reading this post is how workable it would be. What do you see as the potential pitfalls and problems with this as a concept?

A couple of thoughts I’ve had. First, there would clearly need to be similar safeguards for shareholder voting as apply to voting in parliamentary and local elections – to avoid institutional shareholders simply hoovering up individual’s votes as a block.

Second, Wilde’s proposal seems focused on the largest corporations (FTSE 100 level) where shares are more likely to be owned as an investment than as a means of direct control. But in smaller companies, the control afforded by different sizes of shareholding is often at least as important as the financial value of those shares. Smaller companies could find it hard to secure investment if investors were no longer assured of using their voting power as shareholders to protect their investment.

That said, however, this is still an intriguing proposal for economic democracy – and perhaps Wilde is right in saying that it only seems alien and dangerous to us in the same way (and for the same reasons) that political democracy seemed alien and dangerous in the days of male-landowner suffrage.

So, what do other people think of this?

Monbiot vs Marx

15 Feb

George Monbiot’s last two Guardian columns have been on a similar theme, as summarised in today’s piece:

[T]he government is not managing the economy for the people of this nation. It is managing it for a tiny transnational elite, a kind of global gated community. … The politicians who get to the top in these circumstances don’t just present no threat to the gated community; they actively do its bidding.

Or as he put it last week, concerning changes in corporation taxes to benefit transnational corporations:

I’ve realised that injustice of the kind described in this column is not a perversion of the system; it is the system. … Our ministers are not public servants. They work for the people who fund their parties, run the banks and own the newspapers, insulating them from democratic challenge.

I think Monbiot is right to shift the focus from “abuses” or “failures” of the economic system (language which implies that the system itself is fundamentally just and sound, or would be if properly regulated) to the inherent injustices of the system itself.  However, his rhetoric has some significant dangers in it, because it personalises what are really matters of social relations, impersonal economic forces.

Monbiot presents capitalism as a system in which a wicked “transnational elite” deliberately and maliciously sets out to oppress the rest of us. That’s an analysis which can lead as easily to fascism as to the liberal/democratic/socialist agenda which Monbiot would presumably support. “Transnational elite” is uncomfortably close to “international financiers” – and we all know what that was code for back in the last century. (Hint: try googling “transnational elite” and “zionist”. And then wash your hands.)

Blaming the individual beneficiaries of the economic system – indeed, encouraging us to hate them, the exploitative, gated-community-dwelling, political-system-perverting, Tory-party-financing bastards – is a dangerous path. As a great philosopher put it:

Beware the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will…

What’s needed is not populist rhetoric about the “global gated community”, but a greater awareness of how economic power operates, regardless of the personalities who operate it or benefit from it. Perhaps someone could suggest Monbiot adds some Marx to his reading list?

Lumping, packing and rigging: AV and boundary changes

18 Jan

As the House of Lords filibuster on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill continues, Sky News’s Glen O’Glaza asks:

Here, briefly, is my take on that question.

The Lib Dems want a referendum on AV, because that’s the nearest they think they can get to PR in the near future. The Tories want a reduction in seats in the Commons, because (a) they think it will weaken Labour, and (b) it will weaken the House of Commons and strengthen the executive’s grip on Parliament. Frankly, I suspect (b) is the more important reason.

(As for the professed desire to “make the system cheaper”: this is hard to reconcile, to put it politely, with packing the Lords at the same time. Not to mention being a deeply unworthy reason for such a significant constitutional change – as if the composition of the House of Commons were merely a matter of budgeting and administration. The “cost-cutting” argument is just an expedient to secure public support at a time when the Commons’ reputation is at its lowest ebb for centuries.)

So why are AV and seat reductions lumped together? Because the Tories know the referendum on AV is going to fail, but that will not affect the reduction in seats (which is not subject to a referendum). At the same time, linking the two reduces attention on the reduction in MPs’ numbers and allows the government to paint Labour as hypocritical blockers of electoral reform when they oppose the Bill.

Does that sound cynical? Maybe it is, but not as cynical as this exercise in lumping (together), packing (the Lords) and rigging (Parliament) in the first place.


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