Wednesday 25 March 2009

Why we can't

Luke Akehurst is keen to stop all of this 'change we need' nonsense before we loved up Obamanauts get so carried away after Monday night's excellent launch (liveblog) that we end up infecting the lonely life of the Labour activist with what Hillary Clinton once called 'false hope'.

Akehurst's alternative vision of Labour's future would be comedically miserabilist if he wasn't foretelling a tragedy of progressive politics. Here are some highlights.

First, a week ago Luke wanted to warn against the dangerous fantasy of encouraging newbie campaigners rather than relying on our "knackered tens of activists" to win the General Election in each key seat:

To suggest there is any potential for creating a structure to harness mass volunteer enthusiasm a la Obama for Labour as incumbents in the coming General Election is a dangerous fantasy and a potential waste of time and resource. We need to work out how to deploy and get the maximum effect from our knackered tens of activists per seat, not dream about thousands of youthful fanatics who don't exist in our current political reality or if they did would probably be actively hostile to Labour. In any case as an organiser I know I'd rather have ten experienced activists prepared to canvass for ten hours each than 100 newbies only prepared to do an hour each - the output is the same but the organisational effort involved in training and co-ordination isn't worth it. Most dangerous of all are the hints at undermining Labour's structures ...

Secondly, yesterday, the call to embrace the bloody pain of the factional in-fighting to come.

There may well be a period before that when being a Labour activist means entering into a world of pain and political trench warfare, and we shouldn't kid recruits it will all be nice social events and a happy-clappy unified crusade ... we will be in trouble if we lose the next election, and meetings probably will be like that. When that's the choice, those of us who are what Brandzel calls "professional politicos" will have to get eight people of good will into the room to out vote the "seven loud and angry people". Unless you win those fights then the chances of ever getting "thousands of people" involved are nil as the people who actually want Labour to win elections will not control the structures of the party.

That doesn't sound like the change we need for me. It is a useful challenge, to flesh out the argument against a political reality check. And this is a common mindset about volunteer management and which contributions are valuable, articulating precisely what the pamphlet suggests needs to be challenged. (If we were to discourage people who want to make smaller contributions, where would our future activists to come from?)

The Change We Need calls for a fundamental break with the organisational structure and culture of New Labour. (Of course, New Labour was often schooled by Trots when it came to organisational methods, though not content). And it presents challenges to our activist cadre and culture too. Akehurst's response reflects that it is those who are both New Labour to their bootstraps and deeply tribal to boot to whom most change is suggested.

Luke agrees with the speaker from the floor who called for a "Trot infestation strategy". (This went down pretty badly at the launch: both on the substance, and because the language and tone was straight out of Life on Mars, exemplified by the contributor patronising Catherine Meyer by calling her "sweetheart"). But it was also that the audience felt Ben Brandzel had a convincing answer: it is worth quoting in full the relevant passage from his pamphlet for exorcising the nightmares which keep Luke awake at night. (The full chapter is available too).

I know the Labour Party in particular has been scarred before by outside invasion – I can’t go a day without hearing some horror story about the ’Bennites’ or the ‘Trots’ – but this is a different world.

In fact, by keeping the Party apparatus closed and small, you ensure your own vulnerability. Decisions made in cramped backrooms can always be overwhelmed by a few persistent malcontents who speak louder and longer than everyone else – or powerful special interests who can buy or coerce their way to the top. Mass movements open to anyone who can log on or get together when they have a spare moment will always be pulled towards the common sense centre. It’s why Wikipedia can self-police for accuracy, why Obama’s open forums never seriously embarrassed the candidate and why the London Citizens’ agenda called for things like ensuring the Olympic Village creates public housing – not erecting statues to Che.

What’s more, if the parties did open up, I truly believe the British system is naturally better positioned to foster movement-based change than the American one. Despite three decades where British elections have become increasingly
’presidentalised’, you still vote for a party and its platform, and not for an individual whose personal life must embody all your hopes and dreams. Movements form around values, issues, ways of seeing the world and longing for a better way of life. Individuals can certainly lead them, but for movements to be strong, single individuals cannot truly embody them. Your parliamentary democracy gives each party the chance to be about so much more than its spokespeople or officials. And your electorate is used to voting for parties whose values they believe in. Structurally, it’s a system ripe for movement politics – if only the institutions dominating that system would stop getting in the way.

If we tried to transform the Labour party's structures and cultures and failed, then entryism might be a threat. Any engagement that succeeds would see the threat disappears. How many "Trots" are there out there? If we are being serious - and talking about those (like Militant) who might join Labour with destructive intent, without sharing our values - it is several hundred; a couple of thousand at the most. (Luke may have a more expansive definition of Trot. I am with Bevan on an independent nuclear deterrent in the 1950s. But is it possible for some of us - like Charles Clarke - to take a different view in the post-cold war world without being caught in Luke's Trot-spotting crosshairs? But Luke can't mean that he wants to protect the party from everyone who disagrees with him on policy. And part of the challenge is to become more comfortable with the healthy internal pluralism of any successful political movement).

And Luke suggests he would be on for this, if only it were possible: "we can get to a position where mass participation means we can just out vote the crazies, as in 1994-1997, then great". But he fears it is a dangerous fantasy. For Luke, Labour is embattled, entrenched and knackered. If there is new energy out there, they probably hate us. Let's round up the usual suspects. Once more unto the breach. This is the psychology of defeat.

And Luke is wrong. It is possible. Here. Now. It is not an empty wish. We have a good evidence base. The Fabian Society's Facing Out research and YouGov polling (summarised here) showed that there is an enormous pool of people who are already politically active, who do identify their own politics as Labour (not the LibDems, Greens, etc), who already want to engage more but who are not being offered opportunities which could channel that energy for our cause.

On a restrictive definition - counting only those actively engaged in a dozen NGOs - this is a pool of 2.5 million politically and civically active Labour people who we have not worked out how to engage. 9% of the group of politically engaged never-members were attracted by the idea of party membership, yet 64% were interested in becoming involved in local campaigns, 59% in national campaigns and 51% in campaigning against Conservative policy.

Labour is not hated by progressive activists in the way that Luke fears. Even within the next year, many more tens of less knackered people could be engaged. So let us drop the assumption of the inevitability of decline. (Among many small examples of successful engagement when we make politics engaging, Fabian membership has last month reached an all-time high in our 125 year history, and is 20% up on 1997. A good part of that is the largest and most active Young Fabian group we have ever had. Others will have similar stories of engagement and growth).

Most importantly, Akehurst thinks entryism is already a significant threat with our current structures: the case for no change must be correspondingly weaker, and the urgency greater. To defend failing structures quite as capturable as he describes would be madness indeed. Why should British progressive politics and the great Labour party and movement make itself quite as vulnerable to seven members of the bonkers brigade as he thinks it already is? Akehurst thinks there is no alternative to a hand-to-hand faction fight, ward by ward, constituency by constituency. We are in deep trouble if he is right, but this is a failure of political imagination.

This challenge from the hard-headed right of the party also shows that anybody who thinks this will be a predictable left versus right argument is quite wrong. Tribune have some similar fears about change to Luke, from the other side of the party. This will not be left/right. It is partly about open/closed, and it is definitely pluralist/tribal, though tribal loyalists need to work out where the party's future lies too.

It may well prove to be mainly a generational shift. It is surely now time to call time on the party reform argument which dominated the last half century. There can not be much that Luke does not know, like many of us, about Gaitskell/Bevan, Healey/Benn or NewLabour/SavetheLabourParty. But that doesn't mean he has to offer to put up the purse for the World Bald Men Championship Comb, round 111. Knowing and learning from the history does not demand we remain trapped in it. (That was once part of the point of New Labour which was, in 1995, a more historically informed 'project' than anybody now remembers. But revisionists revise. It might be the shibboleths of New Labour which could trap us now).

So many of those arguments since the 1950s have come down to the question of whether the leadership or the membership should control a monolithic party. They might be top-down versus bottom-up, but the principle has been 'all power to ... somebody': the leader, or the PLP, or the activists, or the members. Perhaps the biggest point of all about a party able to be part of a progressive movement politics is that the party structure will itself be less monolithic, more open and more plural. There will be top-down, and bottom-up, constitutionally defined procedures and activity beyond it on a let a thousand flowers bloom principle. Working out how that fits together is a necessary challenge. I can hear the Rulebook Tendency (Left and Right) fretting. But the cultural change matters so much more (and there is no question of major rule changes in the next 18 months).

This is a debate Labour would need to have anyway. I don't buy Akehurst's "cultural cringe" argument either. This will need to be a home-grown movement politics, which can draw on lessons translated from the US, Europe and elsewhere. New thinking about movement politics here did not begin with the US campaign of 2008. The Fabian Facing Out research - published in mid-2007, referencing the emerging Obama campaign in passing - set out how the party could connect to a progressive movement politics - finding more examples to emulate from the US and UK right than the left. That was influential with party opinion formers, but we didn't find a way to take it across the party. Obama's success has shifted enormously the possibilities of that emerging agenda. Of course, we should seize that and look in depth at the lessons it offers.

Everybody knows the stories of constituency parties who used to tell those enquiring about membership that the branch was "full up". I am told they are not apocraphyl. "No, we can't" is not the answer we need today either.

But challenging that requires more than chanting 'Yes We Can' at Luke as if we've been captured by the cult of Obama. It is now for Nick Anstead, Will Straw and others to clarify and test the arguments, and above all to turn it into a concrete agenda for organisational change which can be actively pursued. Those who advocate this approach and are trying to make it happen at constituency level - including ppcs such as Stella Creasy and Rushanara Ali, organisers and activists - will also need to take seriously Luke's call for a reality check, so that we take this agenda out of think-tank towers and across the party.

If this is the change we need, can Luke be persuaded to call the calling off off?


DavidBrede said...

As a party we always need to widen out our appeal, particularly to fellow travellers and to engage with people in new ways.

The risk to me is that change challenges those who are comfortable with the existing arrangements so how do you do it in a way that keeps everyone on board?

In party guidance there are references to gaining support from non party figures, however when you do this you risk the wrath of rule book waving apparatchiks who remember when such a person opposed them in the past?

We have to remember what we do this for, the many people who need a Labour MEP, MP or Councillor to represent them and who will suffer if we let them down at election time.

Zio Bastone said...

The party in power today, whatever you wish to call it though I shall call it New Labour since Labour itself has long since crawled off and died, leaving behind just its shell, is characterised by two things.

Firstly its ‘higher ethic’ is managerialism: any attempt at some epistemological break (Let’s change what we call all these bits that make up ‘ourselves’), each attempt at self diagnosis (Why aren’t we winning as things stand?), every attempt at creating or implementing a policy (What’s a really good ‘business’ solution, preferably involving targets of some kind? What’s a technocratic way of implementing that solution?) proceed under that umbrella.

Secondly, it’s addicted to the gloss, to affective language, in clear preference to the public airing of ideas which should be part of any properly functioning democracy. In managerial jargon the government in particular acts as a set of ‘customer facing departments’, sounding out focus groups (market research), presenting new policies to consumers (marketing, PR) and acting as customer advocates, as Cardinal Blair used to do and as poor little Harriet Harman did just recently.

Additionally, in an important twist on what Lamont said of Major, those most visibly in office present themselves as powerless whenever the going gets rough (Sorry… can’t help it… wish we could… hands are tied… terrorists… US bankers… parents… world economic downturn…) whereas those wielding power are no longer visibly in office or are parachuted in from outside. There are no dodgy miners any more, but we do now have Lord Myners, bless his heart.

There is something in all of this of Ernst Fraenkel’s ‘dual state’, in which the ‘normative’ and the ‘prerogative’ operate disjunctively, as well as of Agamben’s ‘means without ends’. Both would repay some (re)reading. The implications are grim.

Luke Akehurst, some of whose ideas you address, speaks ridiculously, childishly, of ‘insurgency’, just as Brown spoke ludicrously of ‘insurrection’ in Washington. His reference is to the 1997 General Election when New Labour won the support of just 30.8% of those eligible to vote, against 32.5% won by Major in 1992. Turnout had actually risen by 8% between 1979 and 1992. Under New Labour, by contrast, turnover has now fallen by a further 8.6% since 1997, presumably reflecting the voting public’s mounting sense of disenfranchisement.

But now compare these figures with the US. Although 2005 was the lowest UK turnout since 2001, which was in turn the lowest UK turnout since the war, it was still 61.4%. Obama’s supposedly massive turnout was virtually the same, at 61.6% and his supposedly massive support came from just 32.6% of those who could have turned out and weren’t in prison or otherwise written off.

The US figures are hardly marvels to behold. So why exactly all the fuss, apart from what Akehurst calls antipodeanly a kind of cultural cringe? And what’s in all this talk of cliques, of entryism and movementism (your own version of what I called above ‘affective language’), of closed versus open and so forth except so much hot air? The model (business! technology! tall or flat management structures!) is wrong, the aspiration (fake populism: ‘volunteer management’! as you term it) is wrong, and the facts of government and on the ground both here and in the US (which may well include a sea change, but not of the kind being admired) are simply not being observed or taken account of.