Labour's New Economics Conference: Part Six, Plenary Session

by Tom Gann

This is the sixth part of our write-up and analysis of Labour's New Economics Conference on alternative models of ownership. The "Alternative Models of Ownership" report is available here, and our analysis of the report here. This part focuses on the plenary session. You can find our recap of the introductory session here, the digital breakout session here the housing session here, the Co-op session here and the local democratic economic strategies session here

Anna Coote, New Economics Foundation

Anna Coote’s talk largely concerned the case for Universal Basic Services and “what to do about the welfare state?” For Coote, principles of solidarity, social justice and shared ownership and control, which are preconditions for building something much more radical and general are already embodied in parts of the welfare state, most notably the NHS. Coote urged us to conceptualise existing features of the welfare state as part of the social wage, and as a component of our livelihood with Universal Basic Services, arguing that UBS, “a bigger and better social wage”, is more efficient and solidarity-building than UBI because satisfaction of basic needs is not mediated through market mechanisms. Coote continued, arguing that UBS does not mean identical means of provisioning and criteria for access and this suggests an ambiguity, on the one hand it is correct to argue that different forms of organisation, supply and control may be appropriate for different areas of life, some may be more open to radical decentralisation than others. However, especially when the role of the state is conceptualised as ensuring access, quality of service and funding, this diversity of provision could very easily be compatible with forms that allow in market logics, especially on the level of how services are managed. As Sahil Dutta and Paul Gilbert have argued for New Socialist, and they include the Alternative Models of Ownership report in their criticism, the left is increasingly offering persuasive critiques of private ownership but we have failed to develop “new left approaches to management” against the deep inscription of neoliberalism in contemporary management techniques. The NHS, for example, whilst funded by government and free at the point of use (though it is important to note the restrictions on migrant access to healthcare) is very and increasingly subject to forms of privatisation and impositions of market logic, and a UBS drawn like Coote did does not necessarily challenge these tendencies.

Sprios Sgouras, Vio. Me Greece

Sgouras gave a powerful and exceptionally useful talk on the issues confronting workers running a self-managed factory. More information about the workers' struggle and a solidarity statement can be found here. Linking up with discussions elsewhere at the conference, Sgouras stressed the role of a genuinely democratic and radical union as central to the self-management of the factory. Here is perhaps one of the major challenges of the whole alternative models of ownership agenda- what sort of popular power must we build and how should it be institutionalised to be able to carry out such programmes? Sgouras noted that to have a self-managed factory does not abolish contradictions, quite the opposite, there are major discussions about money, wages and conditions but democratically with open accounting books. There is, an extremely valuable discussion around these questions in an interview in Politics and Letters with Raymond Williams, in which he critiques the utopian tendency towards imagining socialist democracy and society based on self-management, care, ecological values, creative work, community living and anti-imperialism, as simpler than existing society, as “relaxed happiness in plenty, governed by controlling general moral impulses”. In contrast to this Williams insists on the complexity of socialist democracy, both in terms of the questions that have to be addressed and as a kind of aesthetic pleasure, we must realise “how marvellously active, complex and mobile a socialist democracy could now quite realistically become”.[1]

Sgouras then discussed the struggles against and within a legal process that functions to destroy the productive base of society, particularly in struggles over who is held responsible for the debts accrued by the company who used to run the factory. For Sgouras, of course, and rightly, responsibility should lie with shareholders, whilst the remaining assets, those that allow for continued production should belong to the workers and society as a whole (again paralleling other claims made in the conference this is both an ethical claim- it’s not right to saddle workers with debt- and a practical one- the capitalist legal system actively harms the possibilities of useful production).

Finally, Sgouras discussed the place of the self-managed factory within the wider set of social relations and the wider economy. Here parts of the discussion paralleled, though on a more militant plane, aspects of the session on co-operatives. Significant issues, for example, remain with how the factory can attract necessary funding and investment. Perhaps most inspiringly, Sgouras then discussed the necessity of building the productive base in a total fashion, moving beyond isolated islands and developing relations of self-managed production and distribution not mediated through commodity exchange. Re-establishing a productive base to meet needs within a system of socialist, ecological and anti-militarist values cannot be achieved in beleaguered islands within a still existing capitalist totality.

Hilary Wainwright, Red Pepper

Hilary Wainwright began with a quote from Norman Tebbit, on the Greater London Council: “this is modern socialism, we will kill it”. However, Wainwright insisted that although there are lessons to be learnt from the GLC, it won’t do to be nostalgic (given the GLC’s rigorous emphasis on constructing a socialism appropriate to its modern conditions, indeed, as precisely suggested by the “modern” in the Tebbit quote, simple nostalgia would represent an absolute betrayal). Wainwright paid tribute to Robin Murray, who amongst things was absolutely instrumental in the GLC’s 1985 Industrial Strategy as a “people’s civil servant”, at certain points projects of mobilising the knowledge of ordinary people do require conventional technical expertise. With, as discussed by McDonnell, John Trickett undertaking important work on building up civil service procurement capacities, the question of what a “people’s civil servant” would be today and how we produce them, is a crucial one. Indeed, there has, rightly been some interest in the question of how far civil servants (as they did with the Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy) could disrupt our plans, so far though, there has been less in whether they would be capable of implementing them.

For Wainwright, there is a sense that not only do we have a Labour government in the making, but that this government is potentially genuinely participatory and is posing crucial questions about how to prefigure things including in how we develop policy now. Again, it’s useful to return to Williams and how part of the shift from an optimistic conception of the labour movement in Culture and Society to the more pessimistic, moral crisis version in The Long Revolution involves an incapacity to prefigure, with the labour movement providing the insitutionalised ethical-cultural basis for the future organisation of society in the analysis in Culture and Society. However, in the analysis of The Long Revolution there is a splitting-off of component parts into forms of narrow electoralism and managerialism and corporatist economism in the moral crisis involving the move from

The steady offering and discovery of ways of living that could be extended to the whole of society, which could quite reasonably be organised on the basis of collective democratic institutions and the substitution of co-operative equality for competition as the principle of social and economic policy [to the situation where] the co-operatives should be simply trading organisations, the trade unions simply industrial organizations with no other interests, each union committing to its own sphere, and the Labour Party simply an alternative government in the present system—the country needs an effective opposition”.[2]

Here, what Wainwright is identifying in Corbyn and McDonnell, represents a significant break with labourism, albeit one that has always had a presence in the movement, if not, until now, at the level of the leadership. The original Clause IV, as Wainwright pointed out, did include a commitment to “popular administration and control” but this was never developed in practice, and the rejection of tendencies towards greater workers’ control has been as much (if not more so) a facet of the Trade Union as the Party leadership, with the industrial leadership almost always corporatist and top-down. The top-down character of both the industrial and political leadership also determines the Party-Union relation which always was mediated through leaderships rather than, outside, at least on a national level, of Benn’s development of the Alternative Economic Strategy, bringing workers directly into sites of political power. Wainwright contrasted this labourist tendency with “the workers are the real experts” and “wisdom lies in the streets”, with the belief in people and the centrality of popular knowledge absolutely central to Corbyn and the “quirky” McDonnell’s politics. The question becomes then, especially when privatisation proceeded first by appropriating then undermining the knowledge of workers, how and what would be required to mobilise this knowledge today. One example of mobilising knowledge, which Wainwright compared to the Vio.Me factory workers’, centring of ecology and the meeting of social need, along with its anti-militarist values, was the Lucas Plan. Wainwright noted the Lucas Plant worker’s insistence on the non-redundancy of their skills, experience and knowledge, whether explicit or tacit and embodied in practice.

The Lucas Plan emerged at a time of both the development of militant workers power in unions—often a power beyond the existing corporatist bureaucracy—and in and though social movements of struggles for alternative values. A key question then, as posed in Wainwright’s conclusion, is what would a transformative union or party look like today? How do we go beyond beleaguered, defensive isolation?

(Wainwright has an excellent piece, which covers some of the same ground as her plenary discussion, as an introduction to McDonnell's speech at openDemocracy)

Olivier Petitjean, L'Observatoire des multinationales

Petitjean discussed how there have been over 800 cases of deprivatisation or remunicipalisation, and the role of workers, unions, civil society more widely and even in some cases managers with a strong public ethos in these victories. The significant obstacles to remunicipalisation were noted, though in response to a question it was argued that while EU law certainly does not help and may hinder to a degree it is not decisive in preventing remunicipalisation of services. Some trade deals like TTIP, by contrast, would severely limit prospects. Moreover, once remunicipalisation is achieved, the battle is not over; a constantly mobilised public is necessary both for the organisation and management of the service whose democratic accountability will wither without this and to be prepared to resist reprivatisation. Finally, the case of Paris’s remunicipalisation of water was discussed, especially the importance of environmental concerns and, overlapping with the discussion of the Preston Model, its crucial role in ensuring the relocalisation of resources in cities against their leakage out through and for the power of international capital.

  1. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, (London: Verso, 2015), p. 431, 435. ↩︎

  2. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, (Harmondsworth, Pelican: 1965), pp. 328-9. ↩︎

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