Three pieces on Future Labour

Crack

I continue to struggle in the aftermath of Brexit.

Not, necessarily, just because of the result – it was a long time coming, and perhaps has woken the individualised and consumerised winners of the last 30 years from their torpor.

But also because of where it leaves Labour – stuck, somewhere, fighting the battles of the 20th century.

I’m not sufficiently informed, connected or clever enough to know where the Labour party should go and to offer a view on where the destination is and how to get there. There’s also little I feel I can personally do to help steer or jump on board with where Labour should go. I do know, though, that (1) I have been a Labour party member since 1998; (2) even now, I’m not sure if there is another “party” I would want to belong to; and (3) the current party cannot be or do what it should.

I therefore continue to look for the best diagnoses of Labour’s current situation in order to understand it as well as I can, and for glimpses of what the future could be and how Labour might plot a course to get there.

Three pieces I’ve found particularly useful of late are from John Harris, Neal Lawson and Anthony Painter. Here they are on where we are:

1. John Harris in the Guardian:

As with the centre-left parties across Europe in the same predicament, Labour is a 20th-century party adrift in a new reality. Its social foundations – the unions, heavy industry, the nonconformist church, a deference to the big state that has long evaporated – are either in deep retreat or have vanished completely.

2. Neal Lawson on Open Democracy

Everything that once made Labour strong and the 1945 settlement possible; a unified working class, a bureaucratic system of governance (Fordism), memories of the war and the depression and the existence of the Soviet Union as a global counter to capitalism had gone. They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation. Labour, I argued, was a ‘Kodak party in a world of instagram’.

3. Anthony Painter:

The point is that the working class – Labour’s alleged base – is irrevocably split. Moreover, there is no going back now. The schism is permanent.

And here they are on where to go.

John Harris:

The left’s future will involve many Labour people, but also some in the Greens, Liberal Democrats – even one-nation Tories – and thousands of people with no affiliation at all. However it is organised, it will have to start with an understanding of the fact this is a crisis of democracy, and support a change to the electoral system and a move towards multi-party politics.

Neal Lawson:

[We] must recognize that no single party or movement has all the answers. The future will not be imposed but negotiated. Most immediately it needs to be negotiated by all the progressive parties in a Progressive Alliance to try and counter the massive shift to the right we are experiencing.

Anthony Painter:

Instead of expending energy on saving Labour, something entirely new is needed. Labour was a movement before it was a party and so should whatever replaces it from within or without be.

This movement would seek to build from the cities out. It would embrace pluralist progressives – from the remain labour working classes to social liberals. It would be a movement that sought to build the right networks and platforms for social justice.

A movement of citizens that would over time seek elected office, it would espouse democratic, economic and social reform…

This movement would demand a new social contract; the current state fails to support the reality of modern economic life and leaves families and whole communities locked in insecurity and poverty. These would be new platforms for economic security such as Basic Income and social mobility. Security and mobility would be seen as dependent upon one another- holding no one back, leaving no one behind.

What politics isn’t

In recent posts we’ve noted what politics currently isn’t: neither civil nor balanced.

Chris Dillow also notes here what politics isn’t, through the eyes of people who are interested in what passes for politics:

Most of those who claim to take an interest in it are not really interested in how to govern the public sphere: if they were there’d much more interest in the social sciences. Instead, they’re mere spectators in a wrestling match who are booing baddies and cheering goodies.

I cheered – well, sighed – reading this.

This begs the question: what is politics?

We’ll need to go back to Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke to get started on this. At least, though, we’re asking the right question.

 

Thymos: the desire for recognition

Plato Chariot

The division of the soul between desire and reason was familiar to me. What wasn’t familiar is the tripartite division of the soul, between desire, reason and what is called thymos: the desire for recognition.

The implications of thymos are considerable. In fact, Hegel argued it is the desire and so struggle for recognition which is the driving force of history.

We can see this in at least three ways.

The first is to understand thymos as our sense of justice. By believing we have a certain worth then we create the possibility for a sense of injustice if that worth isn’t recognised by others. In situations of injustice we can sometimes become angry or indignant – the latter’s etymology explicitly linking our reaction to its impact on our dignity.

The second is to see that, in a world of comfort and where most material needs are met, it is the thymotic part of the soul that is capable of driving action. If we were truly satisfied – the drives of our desires and our reason are met – then we would have no requirement to struggle. But when we feel our own worth or that of others not being recognised we seek out further struggle.

The final one is to recognise that the political process, our democracy, isn’t just about the process of using evidence, making decisions and balancing the competing interests of groups for the greater good. Democracy is also a platform through which people seek recognition for themselves and their views – it is driven by thymos.

Our conception of thymos isn’t singular. One person’s desire for recognition could be the desire to recognised as superior to other people (known as megalothymia; think Donald Trump). But the force of isothymia – the desire to be recognised as equal to other people (think of every rights-based movement) – is one that appeals.

Let us recognise, then, that people seek not just to satisfy their desires or act with reason to maximise benefits to them; they also act through thymos: the desire to be recognised.

Scooby Doo and the human reasons reform doesn’t happen

scooby_doo

Image via Variety.com

Francis Fukuyuma noted 4 reasons why political reform happens:

  1. Reform is a profoundly political process, not a technical one
  2. The political coalition favouring reform has to be based on groups that do not have a strong stake in the existing system
  3. While government reform reflects the material interests of the parties involved, ideas are critical in shaping how individuals see their interests
  4. Reform takes a great deal of time.

Humans are a significant (actually, the only) reason these reforms don’t happen – we can see this in, for example, the lack of speed with which any public service reform happens.

Why are we like this? Fukuyama notes:

Human nature has provided us with a suite of emotions that encourage rule or norm following that is independent of the norm’s rationality. Sometimes… we follow rules simply because they are old and traditional. We are instinctively conformist and look around at our fellows for guidelines to our own behaviour.

Instead of reason, human behaviour is grounded in emotion and resulting biases (pace Kahnemann) like pride or shame.

Such human behaviour aggregates to institutions, and there are two main reasons institutions don’t adapt either.

The first is because they’re made up of humans, who follow rules for reasons that aren’t rational – see above!

The second is that institutions contain groups who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are:

Political institutions develop as new social groups emerge and challenge the existing equilibrium. If successful institutional development occurs, the rules of the system change and the former outsiders become insiders.

This is encouraging for those who seek and are successful in change.

As the institutions update themselves, though, so we have to be wary about the new elites within them:

But then the insiders acquire a stake in the new system and henceforth act to defend the new status quo. Because they are insiders, they can use their superior access to information and resources to manipulate the rules in their favour.

As each baddie in Scooby Doo notes they’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids, so we’d achieve every public policy aim we could ever wish for if it weren’t for those pesky humans.

Two pieces on Labour, and the “voter vacuum”

Two substantial pieces on the Labour party and its leader.

The first is from Spencer Livermore in the New Statesman.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers and people behind the 2015 general election campaign, Livermore is honest about the mistakes make in the underlying assumptions of Labour’s campaign. He then outlines four assumptions the current Labour party (and Corbyn) are making which he thinks are wrong, including:

First, [Corbyn supporters] claim Labour lost the last election because we were insufficiently left wing, or “austerity lite”. But where is the logic in a position that says voters, frustrated that Labour was insufficiently left wing, chose instead to back an increasingly right wing Conservative party?

Second, Corbyn’s team believe that by mobilising non-voters behind Labour they will reduce the need to attract support from those who previously voted Conservative. But again, this ignores clear evidence that those who didn’t vote in 2015 were even more concerned that Labour might overspend than those who supported the Conservatives. These non-voters are unlikely to be attracted back to the polling station by a hardline anti-austerity position.

(I’m not including Livermore’s proposed third and fourth assumptions, because I personally feel they’re secondary and less relevant than the first two.)

The second article is from James Stafford, writing in Dissent Magazine. The piece – analysing (a) the particular moment of summer 2015 in which Corbyn became leader and (b) Corbyn’s true position relative to the historical Labour party – is worth reading in full. Here, though, are two passages that stand out:

Participation in the British Labour party may have grown in intensity, but it is further than ever from broader developments in society and the economy.

and the summary:

the danger for Labour does not really lie in his being too left wing. Rather, the problem is his inability to offer reassurance to the unaligned, or to respond convincingly to unfolding events… Corbyn’s confused response to the security concerns raised by the Paris attacks, alongside his apparent disinterest in defusing a party row over Syrian military intervention, pushed Labour’s polling numbers to near all-time lows.

It would be nice to think that out of crisis will come a turn to the radical left, but that hasn’t really happened so far. Instead, Britain feels ever more shrunken, mean, cold, and peripheral. The Conservatives are generally far better than Labour at speaking to—and perpetuating—this perception. Overcoming it will be a phenomenal labor of political skill, flexibility, and dedication, which will likely require the party to completely reimagine itself.

There appear to me to be two consistent points in both of these essays.

The first is that Labour currently exists in a “voter vacuum”. It isn’t allaying the concerns of or promoting a vision to the “unaligned” or to those who don’t vote. Nor does current Labour think it matters to spend time thinking about people who voted Conservative in 2015 or 2010 and why they did so.

The second is that – irrespective of who leads the party – Labour needs to reinvent itself for the world as it is now and in the future, and not for the world as it was. This, though, doesn’t seem to square with the idea of supporting a leader who many explicitly state (or wish) harks back (supposedly) to Labour’s authentic social democratic roots.

(For those who wonder where I am on this: I personally feel short-term gains (or at least not-as-bad-as-we-thought performances) in small by-elections and local elections, caused by a general interest and intrigue with Corbyn and exacerbated by continued trivial mainstream media coverage, will mask a philosophical, strategic and tactical decline in the Labour party over the next 3-4 years that will result in a substantial beating at the 2020 general election.)

The current state of politics: insipid, not inspiring

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (Source: Wikimedia)

One film and two essays have come together in my mind recently that have caused me to reflect on the current state of politics.

The film was Best of Enemies, detailing how Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley came to blows throughout the US Convention season in 1968:

It’s noted throughout the film how the Vidal-Buckley debates introduced a new era of public discourse and punditry in politics, the consequences of which – essentially “news” that lacks any explanatory power – we live with today.

This linked in my mind to a case made by Public Policy and the Past that I personally find very persuasive:

Britain’s politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year.

To watch BBC Question Time or the Andrew Marr show – both derivatives of what Vidal and Buckley started – you would never draw this conclusion about the state of politics. But yet this appears to be exactly where we are, as Public Policy and the Past sets out in some detail, concluding:

[W]e declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.

The irony is that this sterility is one part of a paradox, though, for:

We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence – facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.

The second essay is a 2012 piece by Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest, titled “The Once and Future Liberalism“.  It is a, long, wonderful, historical view of the 4 flavours of Liberalism there have been since 1688. It’s simply not possible to do it justice through summary, and I commend the whole piece to you. But it’s opening gives a glimpse of the depths it serves:

The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

This is the same point as Public Policy and the Past’s, but writ large so that it isn’t just about politics but about the state and its institutions. Mead concludes:

The success of our institutions and ideas has so changed the world that they don’t work any more. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we try. [Our] job is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past. We need to do for our times and circumstances what other[s] have done before us: Recast classic liberal thought… in ways that address the challenges before us…

This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of [a new] liberalism. [We are] ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the [us] to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

This couldn’t be more true, and yet we’re stuck: whilst there’s seemingly more and more for us to disagree about, exacerbated by a politics-as-entertainment media, the political environment is remarkably and ineffectively stable, whilst the world around us is actually undergoing fundamental shifts.

The current state of politics is insipid, when what we need it to be is inspiring.

Right now, is left wrong and right right?

Matthew Taylor on the left:

The nature of power is shifting yet social democratic organisations continue too often to exemplify a model of hierarchical bureaucracy, tending to see power as a zero-sum quantity won or lost internally in factional battles and externally in elections.

But power is dynamic, fluid and positive sum (the same team of people can be powerless or powerful depending on how they work together). It can be generated – in whatever circumstances – through creativity, collaboration, integrity and generosity. The phrase  ‘in’ or ‘out of power’ may refer to control of the Government but it also speaks to a more fundamental problem with how the leadership cadre of social democratic parties think about change.

David Brooks on the right:

The most surprising event of this political era is what hasn’t happened. The world has not turned left. Given the financial crisis, widening inequality, the unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration, you would have thought that progressive parties would be cruising from win to win.

But, instead, right-leaning parties are doing well [because]… they have loudly (and sometimes offensively) championed national identity[,] they have been basically sensible on fiscal policy… [and their] leaders did not overread their mandate.