Can Labour Break Away from Centralism?

By Lawson, Neal | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Can Labour Break Away from Centralism?


Lawson, Neal, Soundings


Jon Wilson, Letting Go: How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust the people, Fabian Society 2012

The British labour movement has been running on thin air for longer than it cares to recognise: in some respects New Labour could be seen as a valiant attempt to breathe life into it - but it turned out to be a case of go-faster stripes rather than a fundamental overhaul. What the much needed and essential transformation could look like is brilliantly covered by Jon Wilson in this short tract from, of all places, the Fabian Society. Well done to them for publishing it.

Labourism is based on a deal that goes something like this: you elect us (the Labour Party) and we will do socialism for you and to you; the people will be passive and grateful recipients of Labour's magnificence. The deal is encapsulated in many aspects of Labour's words and actions, but perhaps the best example was when Gordon Brown and Ed Balls went round telling anyone who would listen that they had lifted x million children out of poverty. You could almost feel their muscles ripple as they took on this historic, worthy and personal task. And of course in some ways they did accomplish something. They concocted a system of smoke and mirrors that managed for a while to give people living in poverty a bit more money. But it could never last. It was delivered through a giant redistributive Ponzi scheme that was too clever by half - one that took by stealth and gave by stealth. But it wasn't political action, it was technical device. And with no attempt to establish a moral public basis for redistribution the system had no chance of survival in the long term - and it has now gone the same way as neo-endogenous growth theory.

The Labourism deal is also summed up in the phrase 'our people', used by many Labour politicians when talking about the people who vote for them. The people, it would seem, belong to Labour. And this deal is entrenched in the 1945 moment - that now almost mythical time when a specific conjuncture of class, war and technology created the conditions for a top-down and centre-out version of socialism.

Labour tries to recreate that moment again and again: elect enough of the right Labour politicians to control the state and they will make socialism happen. There can't be anything wrong with the strategy - it worked once in 1945 and so it can and must work again.

But if there is one feature, above all, which manifests itself in our current public and economic lives, it is the shift from 'them to us' - the shift from a way of being (for both organisations and individuals) that is centralised and hierarchical to a world that is decentralised and horizontal. And the implications of this are profound.

We are currently witnessing the breaking up of the old tectonic plates. The ongoing crisis at the BBC - an archetypal ancient centralised institution - is evidence of the cumbersome and ineffectual nature of this type of antiquated structure. But all our big old institutions are in crisis. The media in general, banking, the police and the political establishment - all are finding themselves unable to cope, react or adjust to new pressures and demands. Old systems that are closed, rigid, hard and hierarchical are finding it increasingly tough when dealing with new systems that are open, malleable, soft and horizontal.

The process of change and adaptation will not be easy or simple. Paradigm shifts are always a slow and messy burn. And what is happening cannot be thought about in terms of a pendulum swing between right and left. There is no natural political winner from the 'them to us' switch. The new devolved and decentralised forms can be privatised and individualised as much as they can be 'publicised' and socialised. Much of this new 'us' world is built around technology, the morality of which is strictly neutral. It can end up with Amazon or Avaaz.

The switch gives progressives an opening, but only if we can tear ourselves away from the essentially Leninist/Fordist model that says 'socialism is what a Labour government does'. …

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