Gordon Brown’s recent intervention into the leadership debate was an interesting and engaging argument for the need for the Labour party to gain power. Although he argued for more or less the same thing as Blair, he did so respectfully and with authority. He also tied in the argument with interesting Labour Party history. He did not mention a single candidate’s name, although the way it has been cited in the papers would suggest otherwise. I really recommend watching it. The transcript is here and I’ve put the video below. Oh, and for the record, I quite liked the pacing.
Despite Brown’s hidden premise that voting for Corbyn is voting against power, I don’t believe anyone would really vote for him unless they thought he could help Labour gain power. Admittedly, the Corbyn campaign’s transition from “We know we’re not going to win, but lets have a broad debate” to “We can and should win” was a little clunky. But, to say that Corbyn and his supporters want to resign themselves to opposition is absurd.
I’m not sure what evidence Brown was referring to when he said, ‘The grouping in the party that Labour electors want to give the most votes to is the grouping they themselves say is least likely to be able to take Labour into power’, but I find it quite hard to believe. I can imagine Corbyn supporters believing that he has the biggest uphill struggle in the media to present himself as credible, but if they didn’t believe he could take power, or at least lay down the conditions for Labour victory, they would not arriving in their thousands to give him standing ovations, and they would not be excited.
It also seems to be a slightly dated observation, given that recent polling renders the idea that Corbyn is unelectable at least questionable if not flatly false. Further, Tories are starting to express concern both about Corbyn and their colleagues’ complacency, particularly Zac Goldsmith and Ken Clarke. For sure, two concerned Tories does not a Labour majority make. But, it is worth noting that, despite Kendall’s dubious claim that she is the candidate the Tories fear, they do not seem bothered about Burnham, Cooper and Kendall.
If we immediately bracket the idea that this is all an elaborate conspiracy on the part of the neo-liberal media and Conservative party to lull the left into a sense of false security, it does make sense that they’d be worried. New Labour in power was a formidable enemy for the Conservatives, having them against the ropes for longest time their history. Indeed, they still have not fully recovered. New Labour in opposition, however, has not been nearly so successful. However, a Labour opposition that offers a starker contrast to the government, will at least require them work a bit harder to look like what they are doing is beyond criticism. Further, to quote Clarke’s specific concern, the left are not the only opponents of neo-liberalism.
The fact is that neo-liberal economics has ruled the roost, regardless of which party’s been in power since about 1979 and who really thinks that’s worked in the interests of ordinary people? It’s strange that anyone who questions the economic consensus that has failed ordinary people is viewed as being slightly not sensible.
A great deal of effort has gone into ensuring that this “economic consensus” is spoken about and thought about as though it is scientific fact, and that any opposition to it is radical or idealistic. Thatcher famous claim that New Labour was her greatest achievement (‘we have forced our opponents to change their minds’) was far from being an endorsement of its policies. Instead, she was pointing out her success in changing the parameters of debate in such a way that would inevitably favour neo-liberal Conservative rule. I’ve said already that there is no longer room for Labour within this consensus. When on a New Labour platform, they are now forced to argue against the essence of their neo-liberal convictions. We can see this in Brown’s speech.
[…] we can persuade them of our values – and it is about persuasion – that it is not anti-wealth to say that the wealthy must do more to help those who are not wealthy; it is not anti-enterprise to say that the enterprising must do more to meet the aspirations of those who have never had the chance to show that they too are enterprising; and it is not anti-market to say that markets need morals to underpin their success. And it is not antipatriotic to say that when the Tory party are deliberately dividing our country – setting English nationalism against Scottish nationalism north against south London versus the regions, and too often middle income Britain set against the poor – this country desperately needs a Labour Party that can call for unity.
I wish that I found this convincing. I really do. It would make our political prospects so much brighter. But, it is anti-wealth to say that the wealthy should give more, it is anti-market to say that markets need morals. These claims are anti-, not the contradictory sense, but the regressive sense; they fight against the historical force of the policies they seek to implement. Market politics wants to enact markets and markets want to be markets. Arguing that they need to be reigned in by morals—a concept with little force after the Death of God—is never going to be effective in the long term. Once market principles are accepted as the norm, their full realisation is inevitable, and New Labour politics will be interpreted as the home for neo-Liberals with cold feet, those too afraid to bring about the deregulated and unequal future they believe to be necessary.
Put another way, the electorate have become convinced that neo-Liberalism is a good idea. So, telling them that having slightly less or slightly slower neo-Liberalism is never going to work. Their response will inevitably be that if it works, it should be done as authentically and as fast as possible. The Third Way cannot win this argument. Labour have to outright deny, like Ken Clarke, that neo-liberalism works to stand any chance of changing people’s minds.
While the main thrust of the argument in Brown’s speech was that Labour needs to become popular to get votes to get power to fight for social justice, he was nearer the mark when, earlier in the speech, he put this sequence in a slightly different order.
For us politics has to be more than the art of the possible. It is making the desirable possible. But to make the desirable possible, the people of our country have to be persuaded that what they see as “desirable” is popular and it is electable. No short cuts for progressive left, no easy ways out, no quick fixes, no glib formulas but hard work in a democracy to make the desirable popular and electable.
Corbyn could easily have said these words. I fully agree that the desirable needs to become popular. Simply adapting the Labour manifesto to suit what is popular (something Brown himself criticises in his speech) isn’t going to work. As hard as it is to change public opinion out of office, this must be done before Labour can be re-elected unless it is to happen by accident or as a result of the inevitable crisis that Tory policy will cause, by which time it will be too late to do much.
Oddly, I agreed with most of what Brown said, but took it all as a reason to vote Corbyn. Not because I see him as a messianic figure, but because he is the only one of the candidates who seems to take seriously how much has to be done for Labour to win. He is certainly the only one talking about it in an analytical way. Corbyn’s emphasis on social movements is not the attempt to turn Labour into a party of protest or a return to ideological purity. It is a strategy. Recognising that the Tories have the high ground, he advises us to move the battle. We can see in his contribution to the Fabians’ collection of essays from the candidates, Leading Labour.
We lose our way when we don’t listen to our people, our communities and instead listen to the counsel of the Westminster commentariat. This is the politics of the bubble – news from the court of the great leader, filtered by whether the (press) barons are restless. Unsurprisingly, these papers owned by tax dodging billionaires don’t always have an interest in helping us. Our best media is our movement: the people who organise in their workplace or who are active in their communities – they are our best advocates. And if we listen to those people, we can produce a shared vision that can take the country with us
So, the plan is to build a social movement in order to bypass the “Westminister Commentariat” (great name) and the tricks of the media that contain debate. This isn’t an easy solution, but, as we just heard Brown say, ‘No shortcuts for the progressive left, no quick fixes, no glib formulas but hard work in a democracy to make the desirable popular and electable.’
I do not believe, as it has been suggested to me by a few people, that Corbyn is saying that all people are basically left wing and ready to start a revolution if you give them a chance. He just recognises that our only chance is, to use Tony Benn’s expression, to “take politics out of the television studios”. Indeed, “building a political movement” is the only tried and true method of grounding a labour party. Our only chance is to change voter opinion, not follow it. Corbyn goes on to critique “machine politics”, which is equivalent to Brown’s ‘glib formulas’.
Machine politics sees elections as a game to win – and recreates the world in its image. It constructs the electorate as ‘Terraced Melting Pot’ or ‘New Homemakers’ or ‘Suburban Mindsets’. These are genuine categories used for consumer targeting that have been embraced by political parties, including ours. We need to remember that people are individuals, not faceless categories. These reductive social constructs are then targeted with tailored policies in a mechanistic consumer transaction.
In short, Brown is right that Labour need to take power, but I don’t believe anyone is seriously suggesting otherwise. If anyone out there is voting Corbyn to turn the Labour party into some sort of protest party that will never gain power, then they should tear up their ballot and join the SWP. We’d be better off with Kendall as leader than that sort of idiot door-knocking for the party. But, as much as it does not fit with what we expect of a hard-left socialist, as much as it does not fit the way the debate has been framed in terms of heart vs head, Corbyn wants Labour to be in power and has a plan to get us there permanently. Will it work? I have no idea, but it has to work better than the consumer model, given that Labour can no longer produce a product that liberals want. To end with Corbyn’s words on this point,
We are not trying to sell people on trying a new brand of washing powder. Using transactional consumer marketing strategies to target voters professionalises politics for a profession that isn’t politics – and it excludes and demoralises our activists and supporters who hold the real insight into their neighbours.