Labour needs to obsess less about winning elections – we need a renewed Labour movement, not just a Labour government

July 20, 2010 10:24 am

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Labour RoseBy Jon Wilson

Labour needs to return to core values and reconnect with its core supporters. To do that, it needs to develop a stronger attack on the unfettered powers of the free market. Against the acquisitive individualism of the market economy, Labour needs to stand up for those things in life that we do collectively, as a community.

But it is a mistake to think that the state is the only way the community can limit capitalism rampant.

Labour’s defeat is partly a consequence of overly statist attitude to social change. Labour didn’t only lose touch because it listened to bankers more than its own voters. It adopted the mindset of the bureaucrat and the technocrat as well, believing social change was the result of technical interventions and government regulation on its own. Overly complex ways of redistributing income like child tax credits were preferred to policies that would have built a strong movement behind them, like free universal childcare. But as the historian Pat Thane argues, the lesson of the twentieth century is that action by Labour governments has been most effective when based on mass movements. What’s most important is that those movements are led by activists who have experienced inequality themselves.

Here, we need to be clear about what went wrong. It is a mistake to think that New Labour simply swapped its commitment to state power for a love affair with the free market. Since 1997, Labour has two-timed the state and the market, using the tax revenue it generated from a deregulated financial sector and property market to expand the scope of government intervention. It was the Labour movement that was jilted. Compared with the sharp suits of the bureaucrat and the businessman, a relationship with that complex and messy network of organisations from trade unions to the Co-op. In those old connections, there seemed to be much history and baggage. Labour politicians treated trade unions as voting fodder, and ignored the rest.

The five leadership candidates recognise that Labour’s return power depends on its ability to develop a culture of local community organising. Campaigns such as Labour Values and the Christian Socialist Movement’s Labour Neighbours show that energy and enthusiasm within the party is getting behind a more locally-rooted approach to campaigning. Party members are becoming local activists, interested in improving life in their neighbourhood whoever is in government – whether that means helping clean up a local park, campaigning to save a local playground or fighting for a local Living Wage.

Community campaigning like this offers the chance of renewing the Labour movement. It will do so by enabling Labour to lead local alliances of citizens and activists campaigning for a less market-driven society street-by-street, workplace-by-workplace. Those campaigns must involve Labour’s existing affiliates, who are crucially important allies in neighbourhoods as well as nationally. Local trade union branches can develop joint campaigns with Labour Party branches to fight for higher local pay, in the private as well as public sector. Labour and the Co-op can work together in the struggle for fair trade.

But Labour can also renew its movement through new relationships with organisations that share our values, London Citizens for example, or local environmental groups. Perhaps more importantly, it also needs to organise new groups of people who share our view of the common good – SureStart parents, or perhaps just a group of neighbours whose local park is under threat. Some of those organisations groups will formally join the Labour family and become affiliated members of the Labour movement; others won’t, and be connected in more short-term tactical alliances.

But whatever it is, one thing is certain: Labour’s new movement, its politics of community organising will be argumentative and messy. Like any family, Labour’s allies will disagree. But when it matters, they can be united. Above all, a renewed Labour movement will get things done. By building local relationships and developing a shared local sense of how we can live together, it offers a powerful, practical limit to the individualising force of the capitalist free market.

Labour-led campaigns in the community can limit the market in two ways. Firstly, they show that people are not fundamentally the individualist, acquisitive beings capitalism suggest they are. Most of us will practically cooperate with one another – to clean our streets, to share childcare – if we can. For the most part, it’s just that our society tells us we can’t. Labour activism can teach that there is an alternative.

Secondly, campaigns can win important victories against the forces of the market. A good example is the Living Wage, where workers and activists negotiated with employers to convince them that a ‘market’ wage is unfair. In doing so, ordinary people develop a sense of themselves, and not just the government, as an agent of change.

The Labour movement was founded on the principle of ‘voluntarism’. Until the 1970s, many trade unions defended the idea that the organisation of citizens outside the state was capable of protecting living standards against the market. The tragedy since is that, as a result of Thatcher’s attack on all kind of collective organising in the 1980s, Labour came to believe that getting into government was the only way of achieving a more just society. The flourishing of new forms of community activism in the 1990s and 2000s, all concerned to limit the free market, passed Labour by. Campaigns like the Living Wage were left to organisations like London Citizens when they could have played a central part in Labour connecting to the lives of its supporters.

My point here is that Labour needs to rediscover an idea of change based in the power of mass mobilisation. It has to understand that the point of mobilising is not just to get into government. Of course, Labour can achieve the greatest good if it does win elections and govern, nationally and locally. But the last thirteen years have shown that getting elected to government doesn’t guarantee that the kinds of change we support will happen.

Labour’s biggest danger now is that it becomes nothing but a party of big government, believing in the power of the state for its own sake. That would mean it could be easily portrayed by the Tories as defending bureaucrats against citizens at the next election. Labour can stop that happening by returning to movement politics, by developing it’s own big society that – unlike the Tory version – has a critique of the market economy at its core.

A new Labour movement composed of unions, co-ops, societies, churches and community organisations led by a mass membership Labour Party, mobilising to protective our collective common life against the powers of the free market can achieve tangible change – despite the current coalition government.

As importantly, it provides the best path for Labour to get back into power. Labour will be better at winning elections if local Labour parties are known for getting things done, whoever is in government. The paradox is that Labour will achieve office again if activists show they want to put Labour values into action, not just gain power.

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