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A little cheese and a little whine

Ten Ways to Give the Voiceless a Voice

Please support Jon in his bid for membership of the Labour National Policy Forum. For the sake of clarity, the views expressed in this post are mine, and not Jon’s.

The estimable Jon Wilson points us at this very timely interview with John Cruddas, and says there’s lots of work still to do figuring out how to move forward. I would like (with all due respect) to offer the following suggestions:

Reinvigorate the Voice of the Party

The Labour Party must be the change it wants to see in the world. This means continuing its internal democratization, building on the work of recent years to create an environment in which members contribute to policy in a meaningful way. The party must continue to energise debate at branch level by engaging party members in the policy making process and by helping members learn about the history and philosophy of the labour movement to place policy questions in context and to help members advocate progressive choices outside the party.  At the same time, it should engage those in the progressive movement involved in direct activism, to find room for their energy, commitment and talents, and to give voice to the most pressing and immediate concerns of the movement at a local and national level.

Reinvigorate the Voice of the Unions

The party should support the unions in undertaking a similar process, increasing the role played by union members in shaping party policy and stimulating informed debate within the union membership. Unions should re-examine the social nature of their operations, so as to help build bonds between their members so that the unions recapture their essence as popular movements. In addition to job-related training, unions should provide a wide range of educational opportunities to their members including politics, history and economics to raise the level of debate internally and nationally and to help members make the progressive case in the public sphere.

Widen the Movement Nationally

It was once the case that the term “labour” applied to the majority of those exploited by capitalist property relationships. But no more; and there are millions of people who have a legitimate interest in “taking on the markets” who would never class themselves as “labour” in the generic sense. A team leader in a call centre is as exploited and alienated as a worker on a production line. The party has, in the last twenty years, tried to gain the support of these people by ignoring its roots in the problematisation of capitalism; it needs to return to these roots, but bring these people along too. It is in almost everyone’s interests to establish a fairer relationship between the creation and distribution of wealth: what is needed is a new language which makes it clear where the battle lines now lie. (My own preference is to speak of “wealthmakers”, rather than “labour” but that’s just a detail.)

Support the Movement Internationally

The threat of capital flight is underwritten by the tolerance of poor working conditions in developing economies. For this if no other reason, strengthening the labour movement in those economies must be a priority for the labour movement in the developed world. The party should strengthen its ties with those movements, assisting them with expertise, experience and material resources, but should also pressure government to use our position on the international stage to better protect the rights of workers everywhere. At the same time, the party should use its associations across Europe to press for greater transparency in the labour conditions involved in the production of imported products to enable and encourage worker-friendly consumer decisions in the Eurozone.

Reinvigorate the Public Sphere

Rather than belittling the “chattering classes” Labour must recognise the importance of the public sphere in citizenship, and encourage debate, activism and participation in the democratic process. This will require a re-examination of the nature of power in our society and in particular a critical assessment of the role played by the press and the major parties in monopolising power. This will involve better regulation of the ownership of mass media, adoption of new media channels for policy promotion and consultation, greater freedom for MPs to vote in the interests of their constituents rather than their parties, and greater involvement (perhaps through elected positions or referenda) of citizens in all branches of the executive.

Make it Clear: You Can’t Say “You Can’t Play”

When our economy contracts we don’t all become equally poorer: rather, a small number of people are excluded from the process of wealth creation and exchange so that everyone else can have a larger share of a smaller pot. The result of this process of exclusion is disasterous economically, socially and psychologically.People don’t become unemployed because there is no work to be done: we’re simply not allowing them to join in any more.

Unemployment must be a priority for the party, but the hands-off approach to this aspect of economic management is clearly insufficient: markets don’t create jobs under the conditions in which jobs are most needed. We need to reinvigorate the socialist tradition of job creation, perhaps learning lessons from the past, but making it clear that this is not a problem which will solve itself.

At the same time, we have to recognise that there will always be those who, due to infirmity or age or any number of factors, will consume more than they produce, and that, in a civilised society, this is no excuse for them to live in poverty. We have a duty to look after one another, and it’s time for our leaders to be clear that we have to step up to that duty whether it helps us pay off the mortgage or not. The rhetoric of willingness to work and means testing, rhetoric which constructs the discriminating idea of the “deserving poor”, must be abandoned.

Distinguish Citizens from Consumers

The party must recognise that the very basis of the relationship between citizen and state is radically different to that between consumer and provider. We do not purchase democratic services by paying our tax bill. Shaping transactions between state and citizen in the style of consumption, particularly in an environment where consumer rights are constantly assailed, undermines government and citizen alike, cheapening the relationship and thereby fragmenting the bonds between citizens themselves. To say one is a British citizen (or a French citizen, or a Spanish citizen) should mean more than wearing Nike. If our ambition is to tackle the injustices of free market capitalism, the first step must be to create a social space which is distinctly and distinctively not a marketplace.

Understand that “Rise of the Meritocracy” was Actually a Dystopia

While promoting social mobility the party must also work to maintain strong, diverse communities built on social bonds transcending differences in education, profession and income to encourage aspiration and prevent the creation of underclass whose natural advocates feel no connection to it. This may be an uncomfortable exercise, as it may require the invocation of nationalist, local geographical, or old-fashioned socialist modes of identification (“help your fellow Briton”; “do what’s best for Yorkshire”; “stand up for the working man”). Social mobility is the wrong target: economic mobility is the good, and it needs to be offset with incentives for social and geographic stability so that communities are uplifted, and not abandoned, by their most talented members.

Find a New Language to Express our Values

Our current conception of property rights combines neoliberal ideals (mainly applied to the rich) with the traditions of monarchy where anything may be taxed (mainly applied to the poor). A better conception, which recognises the interplay between personal property in possessions and social property in the means of production, and the ways in which property is transformed by labour, is required.

Specifically, we need a new language of property which makes it clear that private property claims can be trumped by considerations of the good of society as a whole; that people who create wealth have first claim on the wealth they create; and that modest personal property claims are of a different moral order and significance than the monopolisation of the means of production by a relatively few parties.

Dare to Know

The ideals of markets have come to dominate political thinking because it is ideology dressed as theory. The politicisation of economics as a discipline has stunted it intellectually, so that economic policy, and government policy more generally, is driven more by faulty conceptual models than evidence or truth. There is no other discipline which could boast so much political influence and so little predictive success.

The call to stop economics is an old one, but it remains unanswered. The party must sponsor radical and far-thinking research into economic principles to arrive at an understanding of this vital part of government which is built on real evidence, the best psychological and sociological models and historical fact and not the limited, crippled and highly politicised concepts currently in play.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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