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March 21, 2018

Rethink the nature of power

Compass is an organisation that describes itself as a pressure group and a gathering point for those who want to build a good society. The chair of Compass is Neal Lawson and he has long argued that the way our current system of politics operates is hopelessly outmoded and incapable of responding to the challenges of contemporary society. His latest thinkpiece – Beyond Monopoly Socialism – challenges our political parties to shift in their one-dimensional approach to power and consider how instead power could be used to build progressive relationships with others.


Neal Lawson

How do social democrats change things? The traditional method has been to win elections, inhabit the state, pull the levers of the state and hey presto – social democracy. Here in the UK this approach is magnified because of our awful first past the post voting system, but most social democrats would rather not share power and rarely look beyond their own tribe for inspiration. Social democrats see winning electoral competitions as key in the pursuit of as much as possible, if not total, power over the state. Social democracy is something that is done to the people, they in turn are grateful for it and they vote for you again.

But this is a tired model of change more suited to the big Fordist institutions of the last century – which allowed a large degree of command and control. It’s not well suited to the increasingly networked culture of the 21st century. In a new publication for Compass called Beyond Monopoly Socialism I set out a different governing philosophy for social democrats – that of pluralism.

The idea of monopoly socialism is odd when we as social democrats bemoan monopolies and unfair competition/dominance in the marketplace. We know that all monopolies corrupt and corrode. They are brittle and they ossify precisely because there is no challenge, accountability or alternative viewpoints.

In the publication I take the reader on a trip to North London and introduce them to Siân Berry, a local councillor playing a key role on issues such as the Community Investment Programme, new council housing and community facilities.  Siân introduced the idea of ‘citizen science’ projects to the borough to get local communities monitoring their own deadly air pollution. Now every council in London and beyond is looking at air quality seriously.

But Sian isn’t a Labour Councillor, she’s a Green, and it is precisely because she’s different from Labour that she adds real value to progressive politics.  Another ‘me too’ payroll Labour councillor wouldn’t have the motivation to question or innovate like Sian. But come May, the Labour juggernaut will look to crush Sian and her slender 75-vote majority and replace her with one of its own – just as they will for all other progressives. This monopolistic approach to politics and governance will be Labour’s undoing – it must change not just its policies, but its culture. This is a UK example but the same principle applies elsewhere – we need diversity to answer the complex challenges we face.

Power With Others

Here in the UK, even just on electoral terms, challenging this monopoly socialism is important in order to gain a progressive parliamentary majority. Jeremy Corbyn might now be Prime Minister if Labour had given even an inch to the possibility of a Progressive Alliance last June. In over 60 seats the progressive vote was bigger than the regressive vote. But Labour preferred purity to a share of power.  While Labour cleaves to a one more heave approach, the reality is that such an alliance could be needed again in the future.

But the real challenge is not electoral but cultural and it matters to social democrats everywhere; not how to amass enough votes to control the machinery of the state, but how to make big progressive change happen in a 21st century defined by the cooperative and complex spirit of platforms, not the elitism of old style top-down control. This demands a new attitude to power. Social democrats must embrace Mary Parker Follett’s distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power with’. Power over is power as domination – the control of others. Power with is the power to transform precisely because it’s collaborative and plural. At every point the future is negotiated by all of us, rather than imposed by any one of us. And with the dispersal of knowledge comes the innovation and flexibility to meet the complexity and scale of the challenges we now face. This doesn’t mean soggy centrist conformity, but a new radical majoritarian consent that can meet and match the furious reactionary opposition any radical government will face. It is a huge fallacy of some on the left to believe the British state can simply be inhabited and used for radical purposes. It can’t. It has to be democratised, pluralised and localised if it is to be a vehicle for transformation.

The idea that any one party, or any one faction within it, led in turn by a very small group of mostly men can somehow master global finance, the bond markets, climate change, post-carbon energy supply, artificial intelligence, the rise of identity politics and much else, is quaint to say to the least. As yet unwilling to face this complex reality, social democrats fall back on recreating the post-war political settlement. In the UK it’s the ‘1945 moment’ – but that misreads history. Yes, it was Labour that won the seats and pulled the then functioning levers of the state to make the post-war social democratic settlement, but the moment was built by Liberals, Methodists, Marxists and even Conservatives too. It is worth recalling the words of Attlee here: “if you begin to consider yourself solely responsible to a political party, you’re halfway to a dictatorship.” And then this: “the foundation of democratic liberty is a willingness to believe that other people may perhaps be wiser than oneself.” 1945 was also preceded by years of National Government, involving collaboration and compromise, which arguably led Attlee to understand both the value of negotiation and consensual politics, but also what was possible when governments were seen as acting in the nation’s interest, rather than trying to beat their political opponents.

Today party allegiances are weaker than ever: what we now see is a politics of surges or swarms, as people shift from one party, idea or movement to the next in wide and fast-moving blocs. Populism breathes in much of the available the oxygen and social democrats, doing the same thing, expect a different outcome.

A Kinder Politics

In the UK much hope rests with Momentum, the Praetorian Guard of Corbyn’s leadership. The organisation seems to hold two cultures at the same time – old school command and control, and pluralism. A generational divide represents this schism, with younger members lacking the tribal loyalty to Labour as older comrades.

There is a rich irony to the Corbyn wave, born of movements like UK Uncut, Occupy, Climate Camp and Stop the War. It borrowed people, inspiration and ideas from the Scottish independence campaigns, from the Greens and even young Liberal Democrats. In one crucial respect Corbyn’s whole leadership was founded on the pluralism and generosity of MPs who disagreed with him but nominated him because they valued a wider debate in the first leadership contest. So, Jeremy Corbyn must now make good his call for a “kinder, gentler politics”.

This collaborative approach will be essential if Labour gets into office. In Greece Syriza didn’t let go of power anywhere near enough and failed to build the broad alliances necessary to withstand global forces. And if we cast our minds back to Mitterrand in the early 1980s – we see how a go-it-alone politics ends up.

In her new book A New Politics from the Left (Feb 2018, Polity), Hilary Wainwright, an astute outrider for the Corbyn project, says: “The development of a new politics, rooted in a new economics, will often be independent of any one political party, and expressed in municipal alliances and in different left and green parties at different levels”. Or as Raymond Williams, the Welsh cultural theorist, once said: “It seems to me that the break towards socialism can only be to an unimaginably greater complexity”.

Change is coming – it’s already all around us in our communities and workplaces. For social democrats, like all of us, it’s only when you let go and trust other people that meaningful and lasting change can happen. Do we trust the people?