A world transformed?
Hot’s Sean O’ Shea updates readers on the outcome of the enquiry he sent to the recent Labour Leadership Election candidates regarding their policies and vision. He also reports on the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool and concludes that there are still gaps to be filled in Corbyn’s vision of socialism for the twenty first century.
Unfortunately I got no response from the Labour Leadership election candidates to the specific questions I sent to them following my consultation with some local Labour Party members, who were also HOT readers. (See my previous article: Labour Party Leadership Election 2016.)
When following up on this enquiry I spent a lot of time listening to automated messages. However I did eventually manage some brief human interaction with the candidates’ very busy press officers. They advised me to refer to the contenders’ websites for information on their policy positions. I took care to explain that the questions I was raising were not actually addressed therein, but I guess that Smith and Corbyn were also ‘too busy’ to respond personally to questions from a small provincial online magazine.
There are ten policy pledges listed on the website, Jeremy For Labour, which were re-iterated by Corbyn in his conference speech. They include the following commitments: full employment and an economy that works for all, a home’s guarantee, security at work, securing the NHS and social care, a national education service open to all, action to protect the environment, putting the public back into the economy and services, cutting income and wealth inequality, action to ensure an equal society and making peace and justice the heart of foreign policy.
It was alleged that a consensus had broken out between the candidates and across the Labour Party on these pledges and that there was much more that united the party than divided it. There was also general agreement that in his end of conference speech, Corbyn had acquitted himself much better than last year, (although this was qualified by pointing out that the bar was set pretty low).
However in spite of efforts at conference to present a unified image, it soon became clear that not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet. For example, in his speech, Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson sang the praises of capitalism with as much sincerity as Corbyn emphasised how fed up people were with the ‘so called free market system’ and its excesses. At times one was left wondering what these two politicians were doing sharing the same platform. On the issues of immigration and defence, conflicting messages were similarly in evidence. Brexit didn’t feature conspicuously in many of the speeches, but differences of opinion also emerged here with some Labour MPs still seeming reluctant to acknowledge that the people had actually voted to leave.
Socialism for the twenty first century
In his speech to conference, Corbyn said that it was no good harking back to the tired old economic and political fixes of the past because they won’t work anymore. The old model was broken. He spoke of his commitment to investment in infrastructure, new co-operative enterprises and a publicly-owned National Investment Bank, all of which were warmly welcomed. As he described his vision of socialism for the twenty first century, one might reasonably expect his conception to be outlined with some reference to relevant contemporary thinking and debate on the subject; this was not forthcoming.
Although Corbyn didn’t describe it in such terms, the model he was presenting appeared to be a cautiously truncated variant of market socialism. This is a type of economic system which involves the public or social ownership of the means of production, or significant parts thereof, in the framework of a market economy. It is hardly novel but it may just about serve to differentiate the Labour Party from the remodeled ‘Tory Workers’ Party’ led by the elegant Theresa May who, it is rumoured, has just ordered herself a new pair of red leopard-print heels from the House of Keynes.
At the same time it’s likely to disappoint revolutionary socialists, who are sceptical about the possibility of enjoying the benefits of capitalism without having to suffer its negative and exploitative side effects. Nonetheless, and depending on the scope of its implementation, exponents of market socialism argue that it has the potential for empowering workers, minimising exploitation and reducing the gross inequalities engendered by neo-liberalism. In this respect it may appeal to ‘ordinary voters’ who are presumed to be resistant to radical change but feel dissatisfied with the economic status quo.
Significant omissions from the new socialism were items such as a universal basic income – and the question of how to address increasing automation and the prospect of a world without work. Nor was there any mention made of the possibility of distributing available work more equitably. This could enable everybody to work less and provide citizens with the time, means and leisure required for their personal development through full participation in the civic life of their communities, including politics, arts and culture as well as access to free, self-determined life-long learning opportunities. (See: Post Capitalism – A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason, 2015 and Inventing the Future – Postcapitalism and a World without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, 2015)
To fill the blank spaces in Labour’s vision of ‘socialism for the twenty first century’ a little bit more information on Labour Party websites on the political/economic paradigm being espoused would not go amiss and might even help stimulate further debate in constituency parties, now that the ban on local meetings has been lifted. Party members, as well as members of the public, are grown up, intelligent and well capable of coping with a little contemporary alternative economic theory and some illustrative examples – as well as a degree of complexity.
Democracy: some outstanding questions
If democracy is to be deepened, in what ways specifically is this to be achieved? If in the future it is decided that there will be elections to shadow cabinet positions, will party members, as Corbyn has intimated, be allowed a say? Will Clause Four* be revisited and will citizens be allowed the right to participate in the administration and control of the kinds of industries and services which shape their daily lives?
I may have missed something but I noticed no mention in Jeremy For Labour of a commitment to electoral reform or willingness to form a progressive alliance with other parties sympathetic to Labour’s aims. Neither Corbyn himself nor Momentum’s co-founder, Jon Lansman, seem particularly keen on proportional representation or ‘progressive alliances’. Electoral change might give small parties too much influence and affect Labour’s chances of acquiring power on its own – or so the argument goes. In this respect Corbyn and Lansman seem out of sync with some MP’s and with the mood of many party members.
From my observations there is a sizable section of the party which is realistically sceptical of Labour’s chances of winning an election on its own. This group tends to be non-tribalistic, committed to ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and, as a consequence, are more open to working closely with other parties such as the Greens in the interests of forming a broad based united opposition.
In Corbyn’s pledges, extra funds for education and the health service are promised, but is this to be accompanied by systemic change or will it be a matter of new wine into old bottles? The rail service will be brought back under public control but is this modest step to be the limits of public ownership, or are other sectors likely to be nationalised and if so, which sectors and how might this be achieved?
To summarise, nice words about the expansion of democratic participation, putting the public back into the economy and giving people a ‘real say in their local communities’ do need to be fleshed out with much more detail in policy and resourcing terms.
The real party of the week in Liverpool was reportedly the Momentum run World Transformed festival of politics, art and culture. This was by all accounts an enjoyable and well attended jamboree which featured many exciting political debates designed to maximise participation and included discussion of some of the important issues (previously highlighted) that were absent from Corbyn’s speech.
However the event was somewhat tarnished by the inclusion of ‘We still hate Thatcher’ and ‘Tories are vermin’ mugs and T shirts for sale in amongst the available merchandise. One Momentum official, on being quizzed by Andrew Neil, denied any knowledge of these items.
Demonising the ‘other’ on the basis of their political beliefs, race, gender or any other criteria is contrary to Momentum’s code of conduct and surely can have no place in ‘the new politics’. The members to whom I’ve spoken roundly condemn the use of such toxic language. So someone needs to exercise prompt quality control in relation to this offensive trading and deal firmly with the people involved.
Communication seems to remain a difficult issue for Labour and the unwarranted banning of constituency party meetings prior to the Leadership election – ostensibly to protect members from intimidation by their own comrades – justifiably enraged many supporters. It brought into question the party’s practical commitment to democracy and it has had enduringly negative repercussions. For example, the somewhat draconian precautionary steps taken in South Tyneside to deal with potential unruly conduct amongst members, reportedly included a letter to comrades directing them to refrain from the following kinds of behaviour:
- Comments under the breath, or to other members during meetings
- Dismissive body language including eye-rolling, tutting or head- shaking while someone else is speaking
- Comments that make reference to personal characteristics such as age, experience, gender or individual personal politics
- Any action which may be interpreted as aggressive…
I’m not convinced that these kinds of externally imposed rules are likely to produce safer more respectful climates in which to debate and conduct business. On the contrary, they are more likely to generate cadres of self-appointed ‘thought police’ who may take a perverse delight in obsessively monitoring the behaviour and verbal emissions of their comrades and as a consequence stifle all debate. In my experience the best group rules are those which are discussed, negotiated and agreed amongst group participants themselves, and even then, they are best kept to a minimum.
Yes there are signs within the Labour Party of a wish to move beyond the traditional centralised, paternalistic, one-way styles of communication with which we are familiar and Momentum in particular seems to embody this aspiration. But this implies a significant change to the prevailing culture, and over the past months, the party has amply demonstrated that it has much more work to do locally and nationally in terms of fostering a welcoming, respectful, tolerant, participatory, more relationship-focused ethos.
Corbyn did not win the love of many of his fellow Labour MP’s who remain opposed to some of his left wing views and sympathies, as well as lacking confidence in his leadership abilities. While he was emphatically re-endorsed by other sections of the party, the ‘We love Jeremy’ talking clock is ticking, and he is old enough to realise that even the most passionate love affairs can be short-lived. How this collective drama of love, hate and ideological differences unfolds may determine the future of the Labour Party and of the new socialism.
*For text of original Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution, see my article, What next for Labour?.
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