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 They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation.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.

Why we need a new Disability Rights Taskforce

Neil has called for a new Disability Rights Taskforce after the next general election[1].

He is right to do so.

Neil’s and many other people’s reflections on the narrowness[2] of Labour’s thinking when it comes to “policy proposals” affecting disabled people’s lives shows a clear need for such a Taskforce in purely political terms.

But I think there are at least two other bases on which the need for a new Disability Rights Taskforce rest: from the point of view of policy and legislation, and from the perspective of institutions.

Policy and legislation

The last fundamental, overarching and meaningful piece of disability policy is made up of the Life Chances of Disabled People report, published in 2005, and from which there is a direct line to the Independent Living Strategy[3] in 2008.

Other elements of disability policy have of course been published since then – most notably Fulfilling Potential (a discussion paper was published in 2012, “next steps” in 2012 and “the discussions so far” in 2014), the Disability and Employment Strategy at the end of 2013, and the Special Education Needs and Disability parts of the Children & Families Act. There has also been broader policy that has disproportionately affected disabled people, namely welfare reform and reforms to the health and social care system. We have also seen the UK adopt (with some opt-outs) the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) [sic] in 2009.

But none of these have really and meaningfully either looked across all aspects of disabled people’s lives (with the exception of UNCRPD) or led to co-ordinated and concerted effort (at least, in a positive direction).

And, thanks to Jenny Morris, we have a good, independent picture[4]  of what progress has actually been made towards the vision set out in Life Chances and the Independent Living Strategy. You probably don’t need me to tell you how it’s gone, though “pretty crap” would cover it nicely.

Institutions

It’s more than “just” policy and legislation that’s the problem here, though: there are institutional factors that are having a significant impact on the drive to equal life chances for disabled people.

If it’s possible, let’s put to one side the financial crash of 2008 and the austerity that’s been justified because of it. Even without the money situation, there has been a significant shift in what people expect from public services and how those public services are delivered. The post-war settlement is very unsettled, and what this means for disabled people is as valid a question as it is for other groups.

And specific institutions that supported the disability equality agenda have disappeared or effectively become defunct: the Disability Rights Commission closed in 2007 and is one constituent part of the struggling Equality & Human Rights Commission. The Office for Disability Issues appears to exist only in name at the moment, and the role of Minister for Disabled People continues to be a junior ministerial role with other responsibilities (including child maintenance or health and safety) that is often a stepping stone to other things[5]. If any current institutions “own” the disability equality agenda, it’s two we probably wouldn’t want anywhere near it: the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health!

What next?

If the political, policy and legislative, and institutional bases of the disability equality agenda are all effectively missing, what do we do? To my mind, the suggestion of a new Disability Rights Taskforce in 2015 is a way to answer this question in the broadest possible sense.

Notes:

[1] – If you haven’t already it is well worth reading the final report of the 1999 Disability Rights Taskforce (pdf)

[2] – Call me old-fashioned, but the 12 pillars of Independent Living covered what disabled people want pretty well, didn’t it? For a more modern take, Neil Crowther’s “Refreshing the Disability Rights Agenda: a future imagined” is tremendous

[3] – It’s telling, to me at least, that it isn’t easily possible to find a copy of the Independent Living Strategy anywhere online

[4] – It’s also telling, to me at least, that this sort of progress review had to be done independently rather than, say, by government. There used to be an Independent Living Scrutiny Group, but that was, of course, disbanded in 2013

[5] – Since 2005 I reckon there have been 7 Ministers for Disabled People, including 4 since 2010.

The long 20th century is ending

We believed that the adaption of the masses’ conception of the world to changed circumstances was a simple process, which one could measure in years; whereas, according to all historical experience, it would have been more suitable to measure it by centuries. The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine – Arthur Koeslter, Darkness at Noon

I first came across the concept of the “long century” in 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis[1]. It is the idea that instead of measuring historical centuries in neat 100-year intervals it is far more preferable to define “centuries” according to the events that shape and define them. So, for example, the long 19th century ran from 1789 (the French Revolution) to1914 (the start of the First World War). Similarly, the long 21st century probably started in 1989 with the fall of Communism.

In the context of public services, the long 20th century of public services almost definitely began with the post-war settlement[2]. But when can we say the long 20th century ended?

To answer this we need to know the essence of public services the 20th century represents. I would start with the following characteristics:

  • Regular increases in public spending
  • Regular and continued economic growth
  • The idea that the state can and does play a very large part in both policy development and implementation
  • People are passive recipients of public services
  • There is a relatively stable party system.

The post-war settlement, though, is looking very unsettled. If we look 100 years hence, my suspicion is that we’ll see the long 20th century of public services ended now; the exact date can be argued over, but I think 2015 (perhaps because of the general election) is as good a candidate as any.

Notes:

[1] – Coincidentally, Flipchart Rick mentioned Hobsbawm’s “short 20th century” in his post on the first world war, which reminded me I’d drafted this post!

[2] – Apropos of Hobsbawm it probably makes more sense to talk of a short 20th century in public services (i.e. from 1945 to 2015). For clarity and consistency, though, I’ve stuck with the idea of a “long century”.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

For anyone with more than a passing interest in how political institutions are created, maintained and changed (not Russell Brand, then), there is a great roll call of names and their works to be read: Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Maine, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Huntington and so on.

What I’ve always found fascinating is that, apart, essentially, from details, the fundamental components of what forms a successful political institution have been known for a (relatively) considerable period of time. It is seemingly more a case of implementation now.

Francis Fukuyama* notes this point as made by Alexandre Kojeve, who said that history had ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Fukuyama summarises Kojeve’s point as being:

Everything that had happened since 1806, including the sturm und drang of the twentieth century with its great wars and revolutions, was simply a matter of backfilling. That is the basic principles of modern government had been established by the time of the Battle of Jena; the task thereafter was not to find new principles and a higher political order but rather to implement them through larger and larger parts of the world.

What’s more, Fukuyama basically agrees with Kojeve’s assertion:

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the stat’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the endof the eighteenth century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.

The remarkable thing about Fukuyama’s book is that, by the time you reach this section (page 420 of 483), he has detailed exactly how these three components have developed and when, where, how. Furthermore, his starting point is the descent of man from primates and their exit out of Africa.

The disciplines that The Origins of Political Order brings together means it is a quite incredible book. The stuff you learn (or, at least, I learnt) about whole swathes of history and countries is remarkable. It’s a book I recommend without hesitation to anyone who has an interest in the foundations of how we’ve come to be where we currently are.

*If I may, I suggest you ignore any association between Fukuyama and the neo-cons that might linger in your mind.

Useful advice on duties of a King

Some useful advice from Chāṇakya in his Arthashastra (Book 1, Chapter 19):

First 1½ hrs. after sunset Interview with secret agents
Second 1½ hrs. after sunset Personal: bath, meals, study
Third & Fourth 1½ hrs. after sunset and First 1½ hrs. after midnight Retire to the bed chamber to the sound of music, sleep
Second 1½ hrs. after midnight After waking to the sound of music, meditate on political matters and on work to be done

Developed in the period around 300BC when the Maurya Empire was active, and Chāṇakya was advisor to its first emperor, Chandragupta.