How do progressives not just change society but transform it? As the 40-year reign of neo-liberalism stumbles but doesn’t yet tumble, where does hope come from? There are two schools of thought: monopolism and pluralism.
A glimpse into the thinking of the monopolists could be seen in Owen Jones’ call for the Greens to shut up shop and join Labour, in the belief that one single party can command and control a better future. This monopoly socialism is odd when the very same socialists bemoan monopolies and competition in the marketplace. We know that all monopolies corrupt and corrode. They are brittle and they ossify precisely because there is no challenge, accountability or alternative viewpoints.
To find out about the pluralists let me take you on a trip to North London and introduce you to Siân Berry, a local councillor playing a key role on issues such as the Community Investment Programme, new council housing and community facilities. Siân introduced the idea of ‘citizen science’ projects to the borough to get local communities monitoring their own deadly air pollution. Now every council in London and beyond is looking at air quality seriously.
But Sian isn’t a Labour Councillor, she’s a Green, and it is precisely because she’s different from Labour that she adds real value to progressive politics. Another ‘me too’ payroll Labour councillor wouldn’t have the motivation to question or innovate like Sian. But come May, the Labour Juggernaut will look to crush Sian and her slender 75-vote majority and replace her with one of its own – just as they will for all other progressives. This monopolistic approach to politics and governance will be Labour’s undoing – it must change not just its policies, but its culture.
Even just on electoral terms, challenging this monopoly socialism is important in order to gain a progressive parliamentary majority. Jeremy Corbyn might now be Prime Minister if Labour had given even an inch to the possibility of a Progressive Alliance last June. In over 60 seats the progressive vote was bigger than the regressive vote. But Labour preferred purity to a share of power. While Labour cleaves to a one more heave approach, the reality is that such an alliance could be needed again in the future.
But the real challenge is not electoral but cultural; not how to amass enough votes to control the machinery of the state, but how to make big progressive change happen in a 21st century defined by the cooperative and complex spirit of platforms, not the elitism of oldstyle top-down control. This demands a new attitude to power. Labour must embrace Mary Parker Follett’s distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power with’. Power over is power as domination – the control of others. Power with is the power to transform precisely because it’s collaborative and plural. At every point the future is negotiated by all of us, rather than imposed by any one of us. And with the dispersal of knowledge comes the innovation and flexibility to meet the complexity and scale of the challenges we now face. This doesn’t mean soggy centrist conformity, but a new radical majoritarian consent that can meet and match the furious reactionary opposition any radical government will face. It is a huge fallacy of some on the left to believe the British state can simply be inhabited and used for radical purposes. It can’t. It has to be democratised, pluralised and localised if it is to be a vehicle for transformation.
The idea that any one party, or any one faction within it, led in turn by a very small group of mostly men can somehow master global finance, the bond markets, climate change, post carbon energy supply, artificial intelligence, the rise of identity politics and much else, is quaint to say to the least. As yet unwilling to face this complex reality, Labour falls back to recreating the ‘1945 moment’ – but in so doing misreads history. Yes, it was Labour that won the seats and pulled the then functioning levers of the state to make the post-war social democratic settlement, but the moment was built by Liberals, Methodists, Marxists and even Conservatives too. It is worth recalling the words of Attlee here: “if you begin to consider yourself solely responsible to a political party, you’re halfway to a dictatorship.” And then this: “the foundation of democratic liberty is a willingness to believe that other people may perhaps be wiser than oneself.” 1945 was also preceded by years of National Government, involving collaboration and compromise, which arguably led Attlee to understand both the value of negotiation and consensual politics, but also what was possible when governments were seen as acting in the nation’s interest, rather than trying to beat their political opponents.
Today party allegiances are weaker than ever: what we now see is a politics of surges or swarms, as people shift from one party, idea or movement to the next in wide and fast-moving blocs. Since 2010 we have seen such surges to the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens and now Labour. History will not stop here. Moreover, in terms of the rise of smaller parties, 2017 can be seen as the recent exception, rather than the rule: in both 2010 and 2015 there was a swing towards smaller parties, signalling a break with the era of two-party politics. Indeed the 2017 outcome, with a large number of voters on the move, unpredictability and tactical voting, means we should not presume the two-party dominance has returned.
The cultural change needed is best symbolised through support for proportional representation. From John McDonnell to Chuka Umunna, there is a rising tide of electoral reformers in Labour’s ranks. Beyond accepting the moral case for PR, they must also understand that under a more proportional system, collaborative politics would be forced upon them. But much hope rests with Momentum, the Praetorian Guard of Corbyn’s leadership. The organisation seems to hold two cultures at the same time – old school command and control, and pluralism. A generational divide represents this schism, with younger members lacking the tribal loyalty to Labour as older comrades.
There is a rich irony to the Corbyn wave, born of movements like UK Uncut, Occupy, Climate Camp and Stop the War. It borrowed people, inspiration and ideas from the Scottish independence campaigns, from the Greens and even young Liberal Democrats. In one crucial respect Corbyn’s whole leadership was founded on the pluralism and generosity of MPs who disagreed with him but nominated him because they valued a wider debate in the first leadership contest. So Jeremy Corbyn must now make good his call for a “kinder, gentler politics”.
With many people feeling a desperate material and moral need for change, the thought of a Labour government by any means possible, especially a more left-wing one, is understandably compelling. But it isn’t just different policies our country needs, but a very different form of politics, based not on competition and control but cooperation and collaboration. Otherwise the benefits of any change in government will be slim and short-lived.
Change is coming – it’s already all around us in our communities and workplaces. For Labour, like all of us, it’s only when you let go and trust other people that meaningful and lasting change can happen. Maybe Labour could start by trusting the likes of Siân Berry?