Falkirk: the end of the fix?

The Falkirk affair matters because it is a symptom of a much deeper political malaise – for Labour obviously but for a very old and tired looking party politics in general. Because what is true for Labour is certainly true for the Tories and Liberal Democrats as none of the traditional, mainstream political parties are thriving today.

Labour is in the firing line at the moment but the underlying problem is that an essentially Edwardian institution, the party, is falling apart at the seams. We still need political parties to coordinate and consolidate a programme in and out of government but they need to be radically reinvented whilst they continue to play this role. Real reform will be tough but can’t and mustn’t be impossible. Falkirk displays all the symptoms of what’s going wrong but the causes are structural and deeply cultural.

Political parties have hollowed out in part because there is less they can achieve in a world where power, in the form of corporations and finance, went global and they stayed avowedly national. As their external influence waned they looked to make up the loss through tighter internal control. The economic convergence of parties, who more or less all signed up to a neo-liberal agenda, meant they had to drill their members to accept this new and narrow world and to demonstrate their fitness to govern through their internal discipline. The Green Party and the Party of Wales may be more radical and democratic exceptions but have failed, at least yet, to make an electoral impact that helps break this suffocating mold.

Power for all the mainstream parties has increasingly been located around the leader and their office. The parties have become more and more a machine for the election of an elite to deliver from the top down – a story as true for Labour as the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. In place of the former mass membership parties, politics became an activity for a select, professional elite. And since what mattered was control of the party and therefore the state machine, this became the age of the political fix. Ends justified means. Democracy was just a route to power, never an end in itself.

This command and control model is increasingly out of kilter with the modern world. The end of deference and the rise of new technology that enables instant exchange of information cannot be contained within the arid structures and cultures of parties that have no room and no need for anyone’s voice. The parties impose an identity and expect rigid conformity. Outside in the real world people are busy voting with their feet on the high streets and joining myriad campaigns online. Bottom up political successes like the Living Wage and UK Uncut speak to a politics that is empowering, impactful and often fun.

Labour promises more inquiries and other parties hope the spotlight won’t fall on them but inquiries simply suggest this is all just another technical fault to be fixed by yet more bureaucrats. Whilst an inquiry may tell us if anyone broke the rules it cannot tell us whether a whole political culture is now redundant.

The complexity of the problem demands carefully thought through answers. In future the political parties we need to represent and push for a good society will be light years from the clunky antiquated model we now have. They must be homes for or have strong links to every social class, especially the poorest, while promoting and reflecting gender and race equality. It is going to take time and exploration in order to harness strong values in organisations that are open to new thinking and yes, other parties.

The new culture has to be more open, tolerant, respectful and pluralistic. No single party or organisation has all the answers. Influence and power will come to people and parties who want to reach out, create unlikely alliances and to find answers through negotiation and not imposition.

For all political parties this process is going to demand radical internal democratisation combined with openness to the outside world. State funding would help as, beyond doubt, would voting reform. The days of big strong single party government are over. Our first past the post electoral system failed to deliver single party government in 2010 and will go on failing to do so. After the next election voting reform will move quickly back onto the political agenda. Even the party whipping system must now be scrutinized as a method of control that extinguishes freedom of thought and action.

The nature of political leadership must also be transformed. The idea that a single person can in effect control a party, let alone a nation must now be quietly dropped. There’s an emerging federal system of government emerging in the UK and Westminster needs to catch up with the devolved assemblies and parliaments, in which proportional representation has forced parties to explore a different way of doing politics. Strength today comes from knowing when it is appropriate to lead and when it is necessary to ‘let go,’ trusting others and empowering them to take control of their lives, communities and workplaces. As Aneurin Bevan said ‘The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.’

Compass has been working its way through these issues, seen most notably through the move to open its membership out to anyone who shares our good society values of much greater equality, democracy and sustainability. Recently we have championed the notion of the ‘open tribe’ – in recognition that people may root themselves in a party or a single issue but to be successful they now have to learn to work beyond their tribe with others.

Compass always said a transformed Labour Party was a necessary but insufficient vehicle for a good society. Other countervailing forces beyond a UK parliamentary majority, like the trade unions, grassroots movements and the capacity to work with other parties would also be needed. But the transformation of Labour cannot now come soon enough. Labour has to show in opposition how it would govern in office. It must help show that democracy is not a means to an end but is an end in itself. It must show that democracy is not just something to fight for but fight with. As other people sharpen this fight for democracy in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt – where are Labour’s squares of protest and how can the party transform itself, to help transform the political culture of a nation?

25 thoughts on “Falkirk: the end of the fix?

  1. Very good so far. But the article says nothing about what should be done about Falkirk and the relationship between unions and the party.
    This now needs more debate.

  2. Acute diagnosis, vague and routine prescription. Why would the globalisation that hollows-out national democracy not have the same effect on party democracy?

  3. Representation of the people, by the people; just as the Labour movement, and Labour Party, developed from the Co-operative and Trades Union movements so must the people reclaim the political system. Representation should be from local representatives, progressed through Parish/Community Councils, to District and County representation. No more dropping-in of a political elite more concerned with self-preservation and the party game than representation of those who elected them.

  4. Useful statement, thanks.
    In terms of the remarks here about state funding etc, can I recommend y’all to read the recent report by myself and John Hare of GREEN HOUSE, about this question? I think you will find our proposals amenable…

  5. It would seem from this post that Compass has lost its way. Labour “falling apart at the seams”? What total nonsense. I agree with Angela Pinter in that we need more debate on the relationship between unions and the labour party.

  6. Speaking personally James I think out of those proposals the only one I would question is 3. If Labour would be willing to cap TU donations (and let’s be honest they are different to donations from wealthy individuals but they could use this as a bargaining chip) I think they should only do so in exchange for a proper state system of party funding.

    Also, whilst Labour’s relationship with the unions could be improved (possibly) I think there are much bigger threats to the functioning of our democracy than the waning influences of trade unions.

  7. “… the underlying problem is that an essentially Edwardian institution, the party …”

    I have no idea what is meant by claiming that the party as such is “essentially Edwardian”. There is nothing in the idea of a group of people creating an organisation to realise political aims that can be said to have had a sell-buy date marked at the end of the Edwardian era.

    And then we are told

    “We still need political parties to coordinate and consolidate a programme in and out of government …”

    So, not essentially Edwardian after all.

    Next it is said that “they need to be radically reinvented”. Fair enough but that could have been said without the pseudo-historical flim flam.

    What is added to our understanding by asserting that the Falkirk problems are “deeply cultural”.

    I agree that the failure to practice politics on an international scale is a major problem but is that not symptom rather more than it is cause? Because as the statement goes on political parties, including Labour, have become electoral machines controlled by a professional elite. Even many (most) of Labour’s most active members regard its apparently democratic policy procedures as a farce. This narrow view of democracy was perfectly expressed, and recommended, by Tony Blair in a recent Observer article (07/07/13):

    “Democracy is a way of deciding the decision-makers, but it is not a substitute for making the decision.”

    I am unclear as to why it is proposed that parties of the future must “have strong links to every social class”. This seems to suggest the old Labour (which can also be read as Old Labour) class collaborationist politics as a starting point. Are not some of our class divisions clearly based on different interests and should this not be openly recognised?

    I strongly about the importance of the values of openess, tolerance and pluralism but, as others have pointed out, the statement, at this point trails off into vague generalisation although it becomes increasingly clear that what the writer has in mind is the transformation of existing parties. Is that possible? Are they not terminal cases? I don’t know but many people clearly have come to that view as we see in current attempts to form a new party of the left. If the transformation of existing parties e.g. the Labour Party is to be a realistic project then we need to talk about its specifics and this piece is just far to general.

    I really dislike the idea of any tribalism in politics ‘open’ or not. Tribes demand loyalty of the my tribe right or wrong sort. When a tribe no longer wants that it ceases to be a tribe. I wish that we could drop the word altogether as inappropriate to democratic politics.

    I agree with all the final remarks about democracy very strongly but they lead only to the problem with which the article starts and do not suggest a solution.

  8. Of course Labour and the unions (union members anyway) need each other. But fiddling with the internal structure of a closed tribe whilst the globe, economies and societies burn isn’t going to be enough to achieve the changes needed to stop us trashing the globe, and to enable us to fight inequality and increase wellbeing. If it is to have real effects Labour has to work with progressive others, to be part of an open tribe. Crucially, it has to show that it is about more than cushioning the effects of austerity and neoliberal dominance. That it is about challenging the power of global corporate and economic elites. Power that denies and mocks democracy.

  9. The Labour Party must start shooting the Lib Dem/Con government down, the Unions are important to the Labour Party-them would be no party if not for them. Mr Milliband must start standing up to Cameron & fight to stop these cuts to the benefit system, local government & especially the NHS.

  10. So goodbye Compass as a pressure group with the Labour Party now that it wants to be a home for or have strong links to every social class, especially the poorest, while promoting and reflecting gender and race equality. It is going to take time to explore in order to harness strong values in an organisation that is open to new thinking and indeed other parties”

    I have made it clearer.

    It’s like the magazines of the left like the New Statesman and Prospect which have now become drifting rightwards presumably because they think that is were the readership is.

    Well I don’t have to be counted in.

  11. It is true that the two main parties have become ever more similar.
    The Tory party began as a party to retain the status quo of the landowners and titled people whereas the Labour party was introduced by newly formed Union movement. For the first time in history the working man had a voice in parliament. This brought about major social changes, including education for all, a health service for all and pulling down of the slum dwellings to provide decent housing for working class people. Today the majority of workers belong to a union, including professions such as GPs, Teachers etc.
    Today the world is different and more global. Commercialism and corporate financial institutions are more relevant. Both the main parties have to adapt to these changes. It is how they adapt that is relevant to their future.

  12. Yes, the struggle is against corporation’s being too powerful such that national action is so constrained. For example the UK is not an important piece at the level of trans-global corporation’s operations.

    We are faced with surrender or engaging in an immense struggle not only with “western capiatlism” but the Chinese People’s Republic version as well.

    Frankly I doubt the UK’s population has the stomach for it as they are of the belief that we can pull a few levers and “put things right”. What else accounts for the appeal of UKIP?

    I do understand that Labour Party rules forbid involvement with “foreign” political parties. That would need to change I suspect.

  13. ‘In future the political parties must be homes for or have strong links to every social class.’ Why? Surely it depends on the issue? The Sustainable Communities Act had cross-party and wide grass-roots support, yet this important reform is never mentioned; despite many of our larger councils signing-up to the Act. However, the big issue is that there is a massive class struggle going on across the world. The Arab Spring, demos in Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Portugal are all about austerity and the impoverishment of the mass of the people. Here in Britain the issues are the same and the trade unions have a central role to play That is why the government and their sycophantic media are using ‘Falkirk’ to turn people against the trade unions and their link with the Labour Party.And the ‘Blairites’ crawl out of the woodpile to add their little drops of poison. Ask yourself; who benefits? Compass should shake itself and get behind the struggles occuring now and in the future. You are either Left or left behind.

  14. Gerald Harniman has expressed some of my views completely.
    The Labour party, started by Kier Hardie and others as the Independant Labour party got nowhere until it linked with the emerging trade unions, then it took off in some style.
    For the last 15 years the Labour party has ceased to be a broad church party, where all views were considered to a party where only one view, a right leaning one that mimics best Tory policy, holds sway.
    That comes from a rigid control of those who would be MP’s by the hierarchy, where all candidates now mirror those already in control, ergo standstill.
    Milliband now, rather than attack the rabid coalition and it’s crazy ideas, attacks those within, doing Camerons bidding.
    From a lifelong socialist and Labour party member and ex county councillor, it hurts like hell to say, “Sorry but you’ve just lost my vote”.
    Where to now?

  15. The speech to be given today by the Dear Leader will effectively end the union link but not necessarily the funding.
    I propose a ‘conditional time-limited opt in’.
    Union members should opt in if they have mechanism which will ensure their interest are promoted within the party. TO be overseen by an independent scrutiny process.
    If the interests are not being promoted then the opt in should lapse .
    Then of course Labour would be faced by a financial crisis. But that would be no problem . All they would have to do is pick up a phone.
    Why not bring this agony to an end?

  16. The comment was especially interesting to me as I am in a constituency (Bradford West) which lost its Labout seat to George Galloway. The local Labour Party seemed to be so out of touch with local constituents that it was a surprise to so many people when the Labour candidate (Who is currently Deputy Leader of Bardford Council) lost the by-election. I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1976 and in the last 7 years since changing my address in this constituency I have never felt so marginalised from the local party organisation. Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in 2003 was certainly no help and the strong feeling that local government now has virtually no teeth are encouraging the destruction of local party organisation. I now play a far more active role in lobbying and campaigning organisations on world poverty and environmental issues, which seem more relevant that a political party.

  17. This assumption that anyone belonging to a Union is a Labour supporter - let alone member - disgusts many and does the Union Movement, Labour Party and politics in general a disservice. My wife is a member ofUnite but a Lib Dem councillor and Party member says:

    This assumption that anyone belonging to a Union is a Labour supporter – let alone member – disgusts many and does the Union Movement, Labour Party and politics in general a disservice. My wife is a member of Unite but a Lib Dem councillor and Party member of 25 years. When she tried to have her political levy taken off the Labour Party, her request was ignored by the Union and follow-up letter also ignored. Until this is changed, Labour will lack any credibility as a Party of Government for all the people.

  18. An excellent summary of the decline of the political party and the attendant descent of politics into a miasma of choking convergent managerialism.

    As bad as the decline in the national political culture is its even worse in the town halls where the old political structures are fast becoming redundant.

  19. So there’s a little local difficulty in Falkirk. To use this as a symptom on which to preface an academic essay on what it sees as our political malaise shows Compass to have no experience of and to be out of touch with how politics, in particular local politics, works. More Compass coming apart at the seams than Labour. But there is common ground : like Labour as yet, the article proposes no solutions and policies that could transform lives. Back to the Attlee years for inspiration I’m afraid. Also, sadly the prose is impenetrable and meaningless to the people you claim to speak for (I’ve tried it on a few). Ed’s tinkering with the internal structure will make it look a bit cleaner but we know that the politics/dirty business cliche will carry on whether Tory donors vetting young Tory hopefuls, lobbying, etc where influence equals power whether following the rules or not. Falkirk and other such stories will come and go. Whoever gets the gig in Falkirk, that will be the easy bit: persuading people what Labour stands for in the absence of policies and solutions for housing, the environment, jobs, corporate greed and the rest, will be much tougher. And this vapid Compass article won’t help them either.

  20. Politics has never been at such a low level in Britain. UKIP & BNP are losing support whilst The TORIES ride high in the polls.! Populism & lies are working for them in their victimisation of the poorest & most vulnerable in society just as “refugees throwing their babies into the sea” got Mr.Howard reelected in Australia. The same technique is paving the way for another Tory victory. Public sector workers are being bruised, bullied.& made redundant. Our public services are being sold to the highest bidder.. Faced with this catastrophe for the country & its workers Labour lacks strength, convictiion & leadership & merely promises more of the same…

  21. “The complexity of the problem demands carefully thought through answers” but when you pick your way through the clichés here you will not find any. Why is there so little on the web that has anything significant to say about the gulf opening up between Labour and the unions?

  22. The gulf between Labour and the Unions has now well and truly opened up. Falkirk however, is anything but the end of ‘the fix’. Changing Labour’s rules to require trade union members to make a positive choice to affiliate as members will do nothing to make the Party more ‘open’. The number of affiliated members will drop like a stone. Labour and the unions will have to bargain about what unions can expect in return for donations from political funds, and much of that will take place behind closed doors. The result of Miliband’s clumsy intervention will be the opposite of what he apparently wanted to achieve.

    The problem was never one of structures but trade union political disappointment with Labour. ‘Choosing membership’ will not change that either because the new trade union affiliates will find they have no more democratic rights within the Party than existing members. Just consider how Miliband’s announcement was made without reference to Labour’s NEC much less its membership.

    Miliband’s proposal is now unstoppable of course. How could the unions resist. The key question, more important than ever before, is internal democratisation. No new policy announcements that have not been democratically endorsed, no policy forum, or policy commission proposal that hasn’t been subject to amendment in detail and a democratic decision.

    You are for ‘radical internal democratization’ but would accountability suit an ‘open tribe’? The Open Tribe sounds like the perfect formula for a continuation of the politics of a select, professional elite. Radical internal democratisation might call some of the pluralistic adventurers to order.

  23. Seems to me that the main issue is not Union control but the appalling ‘policies’ being formulated by the parliamentary Labour leadership: accepting that the public has to pay for the crisis by continuing austerity, continuing the privatisations started by Thatcher and continued by ‘New Labour’, PFI: it’s all appalling anti-socialist rubbish and needs throwing out. We need to rediscover ‘The Spirit of ’45’! I’m still in the Labour Party and will support my Labour candidate at the next general election if he doesn’t cave in to the Right; but in or out of power, if Labour is incapable of rediscovering its roots and fighting for decent socialist policies, then I for one will be out and looking for a Left alternative.

    By the way, my maternal grandparents were founder members of the party from the LRC and our family have all been Labour Party socialists for more than a century since. After the appalling Blair dumped Clause 4 and then later lied to start the war in Iraq, my parents resigned in disgust.

    With all this rubbish about Labour being under the control of the Unions, people need reminding who started the party in the first place – and who finances it now.

    I’m approaching 70 and pretty sick of the Labour Party. If it doesn’t rediscover its roots and regenerate itself as a socialist party by the time of the next election, I’ll be out. Which will no doubt please the middle-class reactionaries who now dominate it.

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