DANIEL JOHNSON argues that the centre-left has a generational opportunity to reframe politics, but it must act to do so.
Being a member of a political party is not always easy. For every moment of triumph there are moments of disappointment, for every feeling of vindication another of upset. And so it seems that for the last few years being a Labour party member, if not part of the wider European left, has been something of a vortex of negativity. Yet I find I am more excited by political possibility than at any time since I joined the Labour party at the age 17 in 1995.
This is not a hubristic and over optimistic response to the local government results or to Francois Hollande being returned as the first socialist president of France in seventeen years. While encouraging, it is clear that the left must do much much more before it starts winning. No, this is an exciting time because the tide of ideas is changing and I believe it is the Left has the potential to provide the answers.From the banking crisis to the Arab spring it seems that fundamental assumptions about the way we
organise, deliver and communicate are tumbling. So much of our thinking both on the left and right has been based on the rationality of markets that market failure on the scale we have seen it has dealt a critical blow to this mode of thought. As this has happened, technology is providing new means of expression and organisation. The combination of these factors is what is exciting – for the first time in my political life the fundamental assumptions guiding public policy seem to be up for grabs with new possibilities for how we deliver services, what the state should be doing and how we involve people. But if we want to effect the changes we want, we are going to have to work for them.
Who do our Companies work for?
It is clearly an obvious response to the banking crisis that regulation of banking and finance needs thorough reworking. However, there is now a much wider clamour to change how public companies are run and in whose interest. Andrew Moss’s resignation from Aviva acts as a barometer as to how wide this dissatisfaction with public companies has become. Suddenly suggesting worker representation on company boards does not seem to be a wild-eyed or radical. The traction the living wage now has and the focus on the scale of executive to average pay in companies all serve to demonstrate the growing and widespread desire for change and to reengineer our big companies and make them more accountable.
Should the State be an economic activist?
The other consequence of the collapse of the banking industry has been to demonstrate, perhaps most materially in the form of lost tax receipts, the economic dependence we have had on banking. The need to rebalance the economy increasingly carries the implication that government must engage in some form of economic activism. This is most apparent in Labour’s soundings about a British investment bank with the implication that we would have state-backed investment in industry. The appetite for more muscular protection of UK firms from foreign takeover and the desire to revive manufacturing is becoming palpable, and passive faith in the private sector seems to be exhausted.
Are State and Private Sector our only options?
Perhaps the biggest signal that major changes of thinking are happening is that we have a Tory government looking increasingly interested in using workers cooperatives to deliver public services. Many on the left may conclude that this is a cynical ruse to carve up the public sector and shrink its influence. However it is at the very least an admission that the Thatcherite desire to deliver using the private sector wherever possible is dead. From the left’s perspective we should use this opening up of the discourse to argue for richer more innovative models of public sector delivery based on solidarity and usual interest.
Can technology involve more people in how they are governed?
The final observation is one that links Murdoch to Assad. I would not trivialise the murderous actions in Syria by glib comparisons – but there are parallels in how the public have drawn these figures to crisis. Both of these powerful men are facing crises borne of an increasing intolerance of privilege and power of information unleashed by technology.
While it is easy to dwell on the disruptive tendency of the new technology driven f communication media, there is also a positive side. Much of what has been achieved in the Middle East is testament to the ability of social media to facilitate rapid organisation of otherwise disparate people. These effects are also felt closer to home. The very significant gains made by the Greens and Respect in the recent elections is thanks largely to their use of blogs to disseminate information and the coordination of people through Facebook and twitter. Technology enables groups to assemble and coordinate people in a way that previously required big and expensive organisations
A Call to Ideas
It strikes me that there two important shifts which should be exciting to the left. On the one hand many of the neo-liberal assumptions forged by Thatcher and Reagan are fracturing. Second: new possibilities for political discourse and organisation are opening to us. The combination provides, I think, a golden opportunity for the left to connect to people and to form a new set of ideas and assumptions to shape the political discourse.
The once unthinkable is thinkable again and new technologies offer up new solutions to old problems.
Not that this will happen of its own accord. In effect these forces are unleashing a new battle for ideas and this not gone unnoticed by our traditional foes on the right, and they are working feverishly to mould these fashion these new trends to their own ends. Philip Blonde and the left of the Tory party should worry us, as should the Scottish Nationalist’s attempts to cast constitutional change as the only solution.
If we are to win this new battle of ideas, we need to get working. The centre-left in general and the Labour party in particular needs to get talking, writing and publishing. Some of the solutions lie in the websites which have already grown-up. But we must go further: we need to renew our policy making capacity using new methods and techniques to capture the ideas and aspirations of ordinary people. This is a very exciting time but we need to work!
Daniel Johnson is a member of the Scottish Fabian Steering Committee. The “Scotland:What’s Left” conference takes place this Saturday, 12th May, in Edinburgh. To find out more please visit www.fabians.org.uk/Scottish-Fabians