by Tom Gann
The Manifesto after the Election Result
The General Election result not only settles the question of the Labour leadership but also of the broad contours of the programme, at least in terms of social and economic policy, for the next election. This election could, of course, be only months away, and given the current situation, it is not just a question of a programme to go into an election with but, very likely, a programme to be enacted in government (or, importantly, a programme that a left-led Labour government will try to implement). However, whilst a broad direction of travel is clear, there remains considerable space for struggle to build on the manifesto and the campaign, many of whose themes were potentially more radical than the manifesto and clearer expressions of a creative break with socially dominant values. The struggle then is to push things further, to achieve greater coherence and a fuller expression of new, socialist values, because it would be more in tune with and responsive to popular demands, needs and experiences (and, as I suggest later, there is a strong case for “popular” here rather than “working class”, although the manifesto is a class politics). There is a risk, that without vigilance, pressure and bravery, of a slide back into positions which, while radical and productive compared to Labour’s over the last 25 years, would impose significant limits on our programme, both in terms of particular policies and the wider social forces necessary to implement and develop a left programme. This is because they involve more compromises with reaction and are more timid about challenging the limitations of existing social patterns, and would amount to a betrayal and a failure to think and act deeply enough on the problems facing the UK today.
The Generation of New Values against Labourism
In order fully to grasp the manifesto, it is necessary to take a theoretical and historical diversion through the question of values. The best foundation for understanding the manifesto as a deeply practical project, as well as finding ways to build on it, to implement it, to extend it, can be found in Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution. In The Long Revolution, Williams describes the “the very visible moral decline of the labour movement” (embracing the Labour Party, Trade Unions and Co-operatives). For Williams these bodies had institutionalised, offered and discovered “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”. However, for Williams, whilst these bodies still paid lip service to socialism, in practice, “some sections of the labour movement have gone over, almost completely, to ways of thinking which they still formally oppose”. For Williams this going over, whilst representing a moral decline, was also strongly grounded in tendencies internal to the labour movement as much as the pressure from the dominant organisation of society. He describes three central tendencies that enabled the incorporation of the labour movement in a position of qualified subordination; firstly, the pressures against the universalising of values rooted in the organisations of the labour movement also existing for sectional defence and sectional self-interest;, secondly, pressure for these bodies to occupy their given place in society, with, for example, the Labour Party becoming “simply an alternative government in the present system- the country needs a strong opposition” (and of course it is striking how much this claim was used, even in the election campaign itself by Labour MPs against Corbyn and against a conception of a Party that exceeds its allocated place by contact with popular demands and pressures); thirdly, through the advancing of sectional interest and acceptance of the allocated social place, that the acceptance of “limitation of aims may lead to important short-run gains” means that “the men within these institutions who accept the limitation often make more immediate sense” (my emphasis) .
These set of conceptions, a development and modification of the more optimistic evaluation in Culture and Society, were a crucial foundation for Williams’s analysis of two forms of social democracy in The May Day Manifesto (while a collaborative document, Williams was the main editor and the analysis and concerns here are entirely of a piece with his thought) and two forms of reformism in “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945” . They also parallel, and in some cases influenced, a set of arguments, although with crucial differences of emphasis, which further help grasp the manifesto, in George Padmore, Perry Anderson, E. P. Thompson and Hilary Wainwright.
What is crucial in Padmore’s 1944 essay, “Imperialism: The Basis of Labour Party Crisis”, is that he already identifies the crisis of Labour as that between incorporation and the development of socialist values. For Padmore, the essential contradiction is determined by imperialism and is between the Trade Union leadership, and the majority of Labour MPs, who essentially represent Trade Union consciousness in Parliament and a smaller group of socialist MPs and intellectuals. Trade Union consciousness is essentially partial, sectional and, ultimately, concerned mostly with a fight over the spoils of imperialism,
Since the reforms desired by the Labour leaders for the working-class in the metropolis derives from the spoils of Empire, these Trade Union leaders have, willy-nilly, been forced into the role of junior partners in the imperialist concern. They conclude that without the tribute from the Empire they will be unable to obtain those concessions, except they are prepared to challenge openly the whole fundamental basis of British Capitalist-Imperialism.
Subordination then, though qualified by meaningful but minor victories over the distribution of imperialism’s spoils, is again part of having no autonomous values. This is in contrast with the socialist wing of the Party who aim at both international solidarity and transforming the Party into the “instrument for bringing about a fundamental transformation of the existing social order”, and for Padmore the two are necessarily linked, in accordance with a different system of values. Two more points from Padmore are crucial to understanding Labour’s current situation; firstly, that labourist consciousness involves a substitution of the interests of a privileged section of the working class, the labour aristocracy or bourgeois proletariat, for the interests of the working class as a whole; secondly, that the contradictions of capitalism, imperialism and the state are not only, or even mainly, between the Labour Party and working class, anti-imperialist and popular forces but become internal to the Party itself.
The question of the inability to generate values is posed slightly differently by Perry Anderson in his 1964 essay, “Origins of the Present Crisis”. Anderson’s formulation of the difference between corporate and hegemonic consciousness is also useful to the analysis of the manifesto, but needs to be corrected following E. P. Thompson’s critique of Anderson in “Peculiarities of the English”. For Anderson, the English working class since at least the 19th century has been characterised by a stolid and immovable corporate rather than hegemonic class consciousness and this explains the immobile reformism of the Labour Party. For Anderson,
If a hegemonic class can be defined as one which imposes its own ends and its own vision on society as a whole, a corporate class is conversely one which pursues its own ends within a social totality whose global determination lies outside it. A hegemonic class seeks to transform society in its own image, inventing afresh its economic system, its political institutions, its cultural values, its whole ‘mode of insertion’ into the world. A corporate class seeks to defend and improve its own position within a social order accepted as given.
E. P. Thompson, in his polemic against Anderson in “The Peculiarities of the English”, suggests that Anderson’s argument is both contemptuous of real historical specifics and represents, at best, a vulgarisation of Gramsci, at worse, a mere pretentious translation of the mechanical and moralistic opposition between reformist and revolutionary socialism into Gramcian terms. Following Thompson, but also making use of Anderson, it may be useful to refine Anderson’s argument to use “corporate” to describe the particular form of class consciousness that sustains labourism, but to maintain that labourism is not exhaustive of the organised, institutionalised working class in Britain. This would allow the location of a possibility of a hegemonic project with a long horizon at the very edge of reformism (this would also amount to a more productive use of Gramsci), as suggested by Thompson’s slogan “reformist tactics within a revolutionary strategy” (Thompson was also one of the editors of The May Day Manifesto and this also overlaps with the analysis of social democracy).
The critique of the opposition between reformism and revolution, which opens up a potentially productive space on the boundary between the two, is also made by Hilary Wainwright, who argues for the need of a strategy beyond one which “simply oscillate[s] between rhetorical repetition of the need to smash the bourgeois state and a policy of piecemeal demands for bits of social welfare, the proverbial crumbs from the rich man’s table” in Beyond the Fragments. In A Tale of Two Parties, Wainwright further develops a critique of labourism rooted both in the theoretical works discussed above and in socialist feminist experience, which argues that labourism is a subordinate ideology. As such, it is unable to generate new values and patterns of its own, “lacking its own positive perspective for reorganising the economy and transforming the state” . Labourism is essentially economistic, ignoring everyday life, and acceps the sharp split between the economy as a field for sectional activity of the Trade Unions, and politics as a sphere for bureacratic-Fabian style management with both only being concerned with the distribution of wealth .
Wainwright opposes labourism to what she calls an economics of need, which represents “a whole politics of production”, which goes beyond concerns over distribution and the split between politics and the economy and the exclusion of the community and everyday life. The economics of need, unlike labourism which, as the political expression of the privileged section of the working class, tended to accept a racist and sexist stratification, the economics of need is also deeply concerned with “the division of labour, its sexual and racial roots as well as its basis in class power”. Wainwright’s critique of labourism also includes a critique of the incorporation of the working class into the state not only through sectionalism, the managing of contradictions internal to the working class and the winning of limited victories over distribution of wealth, but also through a lack of democracy within the Labour Party, which further incorporates the working class and other popular forces in a subordinate way . Wainwright’s title, A Tale of Two Parties, further suggests that social contradictions are internalised within Labour.
New Values or Mildness (or both)
Labour’s manifesto, For the Many not the Few, is both an extremely radical break with consensus, expressing and putting forward new values, and rather a mild document- rooted in common sense. There is no contradiction here, or, rather, the contradiction expresses the current condition. A useful, because entirely typical, example of stressing only the mild, common-sensical character of the manifesto, came from Owen Jones, for Jones, “Labour’s manifesto...is a moderate common sense set of antidotes to big problems holding back one of the wealthiest countries on earth.” Jones, although he couldn’t bring himself to mention Corbyn by name, at least praised the manifesto, unlike many “soft left” MPs who could not bring themselves to do so, or still worse, other MPs on the right of the Party who happily attacked it. It is worth remembering that at the time the manifesto was released the vast majority of the PLP were unenthusiastic and, despite there being significant compromises with the right on immigration and defence, wanted Corbyn and the left to “own” the manifesto, presuming that a heavy defeat would see the left crushed.
The political agenda of those who did praise the manifesto but stressed only its moderation, on an immediate level should be clear. It was , by denying the struggle for new values, to marginalise Corbyn and the Left, who made such a manifesto possible, and instead suggest, through its rootedness in common sense, that anyone could have made it happen. With Jones and a particular type of media leftism, there is also an intersection of the personal and the political, in the last instance, Jones does not want to seem odd, and the expression of radical, new values against the grain can be odd. This in many ways is the basis for Jones’s political-journalistic practice - this is not to say he’s a hypocrite, the integration is sincere. To insist that the manifesto is common-sensical is not wholly a bad thing, “it’s sensible, anyone can understand it. It’s easy”. However, the anyone is not literally anyone, but a member of the struggling oppressed classes, the people, “You’re not an exploiter so you can grasp it. It’s a good thing for you to find out more about it.” The anyone is quite precisely not the soft left section of the PLP.
It does have to be understood that the manifesto is rooted in existing common sense, but that being rooted in it while asserting radical values works on commmon sense, helping push it towards something like Gramsci’s “good sense”. As Gramsci argues, “common sense is an ambiguous, contradictory and multiform concept...to refer to it as a confirmation of truth is a nonsense”. The manifesto expresses a radical break in values towards those of solidarity, co-operation and the efficient, democratically controlled satisfaction of human needs. Without grasping the creative break in values- and it is a creative break, not only “an antidote to [existing] big problems” but a basis for transformation, socialism becomes either technocratic or slips into a passive cult of spontaneity . This means that it aims less at the reorganisation of society based on the alternative values and patterns of social organisation rooted in the struggles and experiences of the oppressed, and more at a better distribution of resources to certain sections of the working class either through technocracy or limited forms of pressure by powerful and privileged sections of the working class. Without an insistence on the creative power of the people, there is a risk of reincorporation, of merely reproducing what is imagined as an immediate working class position, derived from opinion polling. This overlaps again with certain labourist tendencies and can be seen particularly in some of Paul Mason’s unhelpful interventions on security, foreign policy and immigration. This further overlaps with a labourist tendency in its technocratic presumption of the benignity of the state.
Two Forms of Social Democracy or Two Forms of Reformism.
The contradiction between the manifesto (and campaign) as an expression of new values, of a creative break with consensus, and the manifesto as a mild document, can further be understood by a return to Williams, in this case his conception of two forms of social democracy in The May Day Manifesto and two forms of reformism in “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”. It is fairly clear that the manifesto is some sort of social democratic and reformist document, for good or bad, but this only gets us so far. The question is what sort of social democratic and reformist document the manifesto is and what implications that has for building on it. It is also important to note, that, as Tony Benn argues, at least on the level of the institutions of the state in the widest possible sense (which is the sense that is necessary), “the argument about revolution versus reform is almost irrelevant in that we haven't even had reform in Britain.”
In The May Day Manifesto (pp. 165-70), the distinction is made between two types of social democracy. One type of social democracy is summarised as, “the gradual assimilation of socialism to the forms of the society which it began by opposing”. This clearly parallels the idea of integration and the consequent inability to generate and institutionalise alternative values in the moral crisis of the labour movement described in The Long Revolution. A further development of The Long Revolution argument in The May Day Manifesto, is around the awareness of the forms of limitation and fragmentation involved in the Labour Party, as an expression of this meaning of democracy, slotting into its allocated social place and, consequently, limiting its ties with those social forces and the locations that would enable the generation of alternative values. Under this meaning of social democracy, Parliament is centred as the only place of genuine politics, and “parliamentary democracy” insisted on as an abstract commitment (again it is striking to note how much criticism of a broadly Burkean sort there has been of Corbyn, Momentum and particularly demands for MPs to be accountable to the Party grassroots) leading to the Party becoming a purely electoral machine in which members are integrated as volunteers with no democratic control.
A further result of parliamentarianism in this version of social democracy is a closing down of relations with the radical, extra-parliamentary left with the result that slowly a “social democratic party can reach the point where associations to the right seem natural; associations to the left impossible. As in Britain, it can seem much more shocking, to a good Labour man, to be found talking or working with a Communist than with a Tory; and this, at least, is no longer an abstract preference; it has the regularity of practice.” The fragmentation theme is further developed elsewhere in The May Day Manifesto around the question of social movements and Wilsonian modernising technocracy, with the argument that Labour’s integration into an inhuman system also involved the ability of a modernising, technocratic rhetoric to co-opt humane hopes and alternative purposes generated outside Labour (pp. 39-41). In the background here is an argument taken up in a slightly different way in Beyond the Fragments that social movement practice is often grounded in a form of fragmentation rooted in the division of labour that renders it difficult to generalise the struggles of social movements (to go beyond the fragments). In the May Day Manifeso this is extended to the argument that there is a hidden affinity with technocracy in social movements in that technocracy also, rooted in the division of labour, avoids a totalising perspective that locates the common enemy of all human hopes and treats problems as discreetly solvable. This explains, to a large extent, for Williams, Hall and Thompson how Wilsonian modernisation could make use of both the members and rhetoric of the peace movement while neutralising their charge.
The other meaning of social democracy, which offers substantially more of an opening, is largely articulated negatively by contrast with the integration into existing patterns in a subordinate role and exclusive parliamentarianism of the first meaning. The explanation is also, significantly, for how Williams describes the two forms of reformism, presented through an analysis of its situation. Williams describes this form of social democracy as, “that form of socialist struggle which is available as a serious option in societies which have relatively open democratic institutions and the necessary freedoms to use them.” These open democratic institutions include Parliament, open in the sense of free elections, but not usable on its own for serious social transformation and perhaps barely usable at all in its current form. A central theme of The May Day Manifesto is an attempt to challenge “the politics of the new capitalism”. When it comes to Parliament, the new capitalism involves a limitation, in various ways, of its power as a popular and representative institution and the integration of the Labour Party and its members through the Pary’s anti-democratic structure, and even the working-class, in some ways, as a whole.
Drawing on The May Day Manifesto, therefore, a number of points are key to pushing the stronger meaning of social democracy; firstly, the democratic reform of Labour, so it no longer confronts its members as an inhuman apparatus; secondly, the development and nurturing of alternative sources of social power to challenge what could be called the extra-parliamentary power of the ruling class; thirdly, the winning of power in Parliament, this does matter, but by itself it is clearly insufficient, Even winning a large majority for a socialist programme in elections would be, by itself, not enough, and would further contribute to integration into existing social organisations, whether through the achievement of limited victories or through the defeat of such a programme through capital’s extra-parliamentary power.
This brings us to a crucial point concerning Labour’s manifesto; in many ways the struggle for the stronger form of social democracy, which in existing society, whether of the late 1960s or today, is the plausible form of struggle, is not about programmes, but between developing plausible institutionalised forces. As the chapter concludes,
It is not simply a question of programmes and ideologies: these can be argued about, endlessly, in the party press and at party conferences...It is primarily a question of institutions, for what is needed by the system is an intermittently available and in that sense efficient electoral machine, which by traditional inertia is still called a party but which must by no means become a serious political party in the sense of posing an alternative organization and campaign. If the party becomes real, as a campaigning democratic institution, it is at once a focus of genuinely alternative power. On the other hand, if it is to be a still mainly voluntary electoral machine, to what extent can it be emptied of a real political programme, which its members take seriously and expect, after their work, to be carried through?
Williams’s discussion of two forms of reformism in many ways maps on this disctinction but with crucial and necessary refinements for today because of his more explicit consideration of the place of analysis of situations, the need to build up and sharpen popular demands and organisation and the theme of integration, no longer through meaningful if non-revolutionary victories, but through defeat. For Williams, using the crucial insight that wider social contradictions are internalised within Labour, and particularly the Labour Left, there are two forms of reformism,
We can come to see the contradiction, within the Labour Left and allies, between reform as response, which is necessarily a process of new popular mobilization and organization and reform as representation, in which the political formation in alliance and coalition with others, pursues its percentage within the system.
Fabianism in Williams’s account is the main type of representative reformism on the state level, and there are parallels with Padmore’s argument before and Wainwright’s after of the slotting into an appropriate and subordinate place within the existing structure, and therefore becoming part of the reproduction of that structure, in order to struggle for better distribution. Writing in 1976, Williams also notes a change in the basis for the integration: in The Long Revolution, the integration, and with it the moral decay of the labour movement, was to a large extent achieved through winning meaningful if non-radical victories. By the mid 1970s, by contrast, “the price of full incorporation (the capitalist version of reformism) is increasingly too high for the system to pay, and where any new incorporation must include the substance of actual defeat of major sections of the working class.” 
The second form of reformism, reformism as response, has more productive possibilities and, essentially, drives beyond itself, refusing incorporation and politics’s limited allocated social place. Central to a reformism as response is a centring of popular needs and demands that, through various processes, including the way these transform existing organisations and necessitate new ones, become total so that “one struggle connects with and implies another, and there is then a process of putting the central system under strains which can lead to transformation.”  A further significant point both that needs to be considered about reformism as response, and which Williams makes against dogmatic, moralising “revolutionary” positions, is that they tend to lead to “internal exile”. A plausible left politics needs, to a certain extent, to be able to deliver immediate victories, even if those entail compromises, whether with institutions, processes or common sense, which are intolerable from a purely revolutionary point of view. It also needs to begin with popular and working class institutions as they exist, “to adopt a theoretical position from which, for example, the trade unions are seen as merely reformist, and the perceived political Left is dismissed as incurably reformist, is to go into a very dangerous kind of internal exile.” However, unlike the limited forms of reformism, beginning with the situation as it is and the current balance of forces,which crush the possibility of satisfying human needs and enjoying human capabilities, reformism as response entails going beyond them, “I can agree with those who say that all these formations have no choice but to change their deeply learnt consensual perspectives or accept comprehensive defeat.”  Reformism as response or the more positive meaning of social democracy, therefore, are always at the point of, and the expression of a dangerous tension between being pulled back into the existing power structure on the one hand, and outrunning the current situation too fast in theory, and becoming irrelevant.
A Populism of Need
I want to suggest one further theoretical framework to understand what is at stake in the manifesto, which has affinities with the better meaning of social democracy and with reformism as response; and that is the possibility of a populism of need. The notion of a populism of need is derived to a large extent from Wainwright’s “economics of need” and the way in which need operates in Williams’s analysis of reformism. It is worth remembering that Corbyn’s so-called populist relaunch took place in early January 2017, but it took until the election campaign for a convincing left populism for Britain in 2017 to be articulated to any degree. This, I want to argue, could be described as a populism of need, and involves a very significant break with certain other mooted left populisms, indeed perhaps such a break that we are not talking about a populism anymore. However, Labour’s campaign and manifesto cannot be described purely as a “populism of need”, there were also other, less useful populist tendencies.
As Laclau and Mouffe argue, any radical politics requires “the definition of an adversary. That is to say it requires the acceptance of ineradicability of antagonism”. Within both the emerging populism of need and the less useful left populisms, “the establishment” has come to be named as the enemy. However, it is clear that “the establishment” functions in radically different ways between the populism of need and other left populisms. Within the less useful populisms, “the
establishment” functions mostly as a direct translation of Podemos’s la casta. This translation involves, however, a whole set of problems. Firstly, the idea of translation rests on a certain formalism, that la casta can be wrenched out of the Spanish social, economic, cultural and political context and unproblematically inserted into a British context. Secondly, related to this, is the very limited notion of the discursive (a more limited notion of Laclau and Mouffe’s “the social conceived as a discursive space"). This led to a number of arguments against the language of the kinder, gentler politics in favour of “heads on sticks” language, often underpinned by an odd fetishism of Bernie Sanders, whose political platform, “was decisively to the right of Corbyn, but using rhetoric which sounded, if anything, more left wing. Sanders confronted his audiences with unabashed class politics, hammering the economic elites.” Here, language becomes radically separated from its context, it becomes a trick merely for winning office, with no consideration either of the content it refers to or consideration of how having tricked our way into office, we could exercise power. As The May Day Manifesto argues, a significant Parliamentary majority for a socialist programme is probably necessary but it is by no means sufficient. Moreover, by rendering (electoral) politics autonomous (a further basis of the possibility of translation whether of Sanders or Podemos into the British context) there is no consideration not only of building the popular power necessary to govern usefully on a left programme, but also to be useful if we are not in office. The formalism, the tendency to be beyond left and right, in an anti-establishment populism, also, in allowing Corbynism to be linked to Trump and Brexit, opens up space for opportunism and moral (and ultimately political) failings around immigration and the state more generally, policing, security, imperialism with reactionary positions on these held to somehow represent the popular will against a “liberal” establishment.
What unites a bad left (even a bad beyond left or right) populism is, ultimately, that the people remain passive, to be represented broadly within the existing system. Underneath this is the failure to ever articulate the people positively; in their passivity the people have no positive or active existence, they are merely the ‘not establishment’. Allied to this is an implicit link between a limited notion of politics identified with the discursive that renders politics, and a “rigged politics”, as the point where the establishment operates, tending to abstract it from the wider social, economic and cultural context.
A populism of need, which is largely, but not exclusively as there have been slips back, what the leadership and movement began to articulate during the election campaign, and which the manifesto was a significant part, is a major break with these tendencies. Most significantly, it begins not with the naming of the enemy, but with the people in their needs, demands and capabilities. It is the non satisfaction of these needs that allows the grasp of the totality on a systematic level,the common enemy of all human hopes. It is only then that the establishment is grasped as those forces and interests which benefit from this system and seek to maintain it. This notion of the establishment is more systematic and goes beyond a merely autonomous politics to grasp its operation at all points of society.
The antagonism constituted by the inability of the system to satisfy popular needs is the basis for the proper articulation of the crucial but much maligned “kinder, gentler politics”. Kindness here also serves to denaturalise, to make what was taken for granted appear strange and wrong, for Brecht,
The more there are suffering, then, the more natural their sufferings appear. Who wants to prevent the fishes in the sea from getting wet?
And the suffering themselves share this callousness towards themselves and are lacking in kindess towards themselves. It is terrible that human beings so easily put up with existing conditions, not only with the sufferings of strangers but also with their own.
All those who have thought about the bad state of things refuse to appeal to the compassion of one group of people for another. But the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable.
It is the world’s one hope.
Here the kinder, gentler politics, and the refusal of meekness (#WeDemand) throughout the campaign, both of which are rooted in grasping the non-satisfaction of needs, come together. In this contradiction between the satisfaction of human needs and a system along with the forces and interests that uphold it, what is considered political and able to be challenged is expanded to cut right across society, including across the Labour Party, and entails not forms of passivity but of activity and participation in the transformation of society. Moreover, as in reformism as response, the struggle over needs is not a struggle for discreet things that can be met through current institutions, it rapidly pushes beyond itself and becomes total.
Labour, reconstituted as the institutionalisation of the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed, not as an essentially top-down body to which the oppressed appeal for help, is able to grasp and challenge in theory and in practice the totality of social relations. This is the basis for the aggressive side of populism, which is also required, but without this radical kindness, however, the naming of the enemy becomes abstract, macho and boring in a deep structural way, where anger covers the triviality of separating politics from everyday life.
What may seem a long, theoretical diversion now gives us the necessary basis to grasp the manifesto and how to make use of it. The first point to grasp is that, in the last instance, the manifesto must be grasped as a totality, even as a totality against some of the policies contained within it, and a totality that embodies a radical break with the dominant system of values. Part of grasping the radicalism of the manifesto, which many in the PLP now wish to hide, is to remember how few could bring themselves to praise it, and how critical many were. One criticism, however, which expresses, inadvertently, a starting point, is the claim by an anonymous coward in the PLP that the manifesto was, like “a ten year old’s letter to Santa Claus”. The manifesto very significantly does compile a set of demands made by various activist groups, here it represents a significant break from a top-down labourism that doesn’t listen - John McDonnell’s closeness to DPAC is exemplary here. The point, however, is that these demands exist within the wider frameworks around popular needs that gives a total character, and challenges Labour’s integration into an austerity framework which is the basis to treat demands as unrealistic. A related point, emphasising the need to relate different forms of struggle is made Wainwright in Beyond the Fragments,
Without incessant argument for an alternative which meets the needs of all oppressed and exploited groups, trade unionists in the private sector will see our demands for more social expenditure as a threat to their jobs; council house tenants will see our demands as competition for scarce resources, and so on.
The manifesto, therefore, is not a fragmented list of demands, they cohere around a general challenge to the organisation of society, This also means that an attempt to recuperate parts of the manifesto, whether through a flailing Tory government and/or the Labour right must be resisted. For the manifesto’s radicalism it is necessary to remember that the majority of the PLP could not bring themselves to praise it when it came out, it is also significant that a large number of those who did praise it, did not praise it as a whole but only praised individual policies without addressing the wider context of values. This deliberate fragmentation is a basis for attempts to rearticulate the manifesto into existing patterns while leaving them broadly unchanged, what it aims to efface is the link, as discussed in different ways by Williams, Wainwright and Laclau and Mouffe between new values and antagonism. In Wainwright, for example, the new socialist politics of production, when it comes to class conflict goes beyond “Labourism’s assumption of a clash between sectional interests. It embodies a clash of principles for organising the economy: the principle of accumulation for private or at any rate unaccountable profit, versus the belief in production for democratically decided need”. For Laclau and Mouffe, the dominance of neoliberalism has led to the left broadly accepting a position which implies, “politics is no longer structured around social divisions and that political problems have become merely technical”. This maintenance of this incorporation of Labour without the risk of new values rooted in antagonism, which Corbynism has significantly challenged, is what is entailed by this position on the manifesto. One example of a manifesto commitment that makes this tension clear is the pledge to regulate Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (p. 88; within the manifesto as a whole this functions as a sensible, softly anti-capitalist policy that gains strength from its relation to other themes, and the totality of the manifesto. However, equally, it could be disarticulated and integrated within a Blue Labour type framework of a politics of the “respectable” working class that is at best old-fashioned and nostalgic, and worst actively oppressive.
A commonplace that is not entirely untrue, but needs significant clarification, is the claim that people don’t vote based on manifestos. Whilst it is certainly true that very few voters read the whole document, as a number of our pieces which discuss campaigning in this election show, the manifesto had a significant impact, especially in contrast to the Tory manifesto. Indeed, if anything whilst there may have been some headline policies that caught the public attention, it was much more a question of a general impression of the spirit of the manifesto, rooted in the values expressed, its refusal of meekness and its populism rooted in kindness, which suggests staying loyal to the manifesto and its electoral impact requires a stronger, more coherent articulation of those values in future policies and actions.
After the election, the manifesto poses its own questions within what could be described as a hegemonic crisis, with the perceived legitimacy of the values of the dominant consensus breaking down along with the integration of political parties into it. To a large extent this can be seen in the collapse of a particular articulation of Red Toryism, which at first appeared deeply threatening to Labour’s prospects. The purchase of this articulation broke down rapidly under scrutiny, partially because of how little this configuration is able to offer the working class, partially by contrast with Labour’s bold addressing of material needs. Claims by Greening, Hunt and Green around the relaxing of austerity or reconsidering tuition fees can be read within a similar framework, of aiming (though it is probably too late for the Tories now) to fragment the Labour programme and support base by integrating certain of its features into a right-wing programme.
This hegemonic crisis, further reworks the contradictions within Labour, because just as, on the one hand, certain themes could be disarticulated from their radical totality; on the other hand, it is also possible that significant sections of the Labour Right, now the electoral plausbility of such a programme has been demonstrated to them, could be swung behind a genuinely left programme, particularly with their union and party grassroots base. Indeed, ironically, now, after the left, whether in the leadership or at the base, generated and defended new values (with labourism structurally unable to do so) while facing considerable hostility and ridicule; the manifesto is in many ways more a document of the more imaginative part of the Labour Right than the Left. This is suggested by the fact that many on the Labour Right are now keen to accept redistribution and large-scale. investment to address the glaring spatial contradictions of the UK, as well as their views chiming with the manifesto’s conservative stance on immigration (largely), the police and defence. That the manifesto is now, though not before the election, more a document of the Old Labour Right than the Left suggests two things; both how quickly, at least in a hegemonic crisis, radical positions can gain purchase; secondly, that there are points that need to be pushed further and this requires, both in policy and party structure, facing down demands to compromise.
Yesterday's intervention by Tom Watson is significant here, though how far Watson is intentionally attempting to hobble left advance, how far an apparatus rooted in over 150 years of British class politics, going back beyond even Labour’s foundation, is working its sorry way through him, is unclear. Watson praises the performance in the election and the programme, including the way it widening politicisation and discussion of issues. However, he demands, rooted in the construction of a particular “traditional working class voter” (a construction of class that as both Marie and Geraghty have shown is lacking) “greater reassurance” over “policing” and security”. What is striking here is both the denial (a denial rooted in how these parts of the manifesto violated its spirit) of how much the leadership compromised on policing and security and the link between addressing the interests of a particular class faction (which stands in for the working class as a whole) and fixing the programme in a subordinate position. This fixing of the programme in subordination is further emphasised by the continuing trope of electability and Watson’s hypocritical give me party democracy but not yet.
Evaluating the Manifesto
Whilst the manifesto needs to be understood in its relation to its total conception, it is also useful to break down certain policies in reference to the strength of their expression of necessary values. Rather schematically, but hopefully productively, I would suggest that it is possible to break the manifesto down into five categories; firstly, policies which are unambiguously good; secondly, policies which represent a significant and positive break with the current state of things but which need extending, radicalising or developing; thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, policies which are, at present, underdeveloped and ambiguous and could either be developed in a radical or in a technocratic direction; fourthly, policies which are ambiguous, but largely reconciled badly; and fifthly, policies which must be opposed unconditionally. A second set of questions, still being articulated largely on the level of the programme, is how do policies relate to each other and the existing balance of social forces, and if they entail acquiescence in certain areas, does that limit the possibility of enacting policies in other areas.
1. Abolition of Tuition Fees and The Work Capability Assesment
A large number of manifesto policies are entirely good, in many ways there is the least to say about these. These policies include, for example, the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment (p. 57) (an important instance of listening to popular demands) or of tuition fees (p. 43). In many ways these policies demand the least strategic analysis, mostly the question is to defend them. However, to think about needs and pushing beyond mere representative reform, questions can be posed; firstly, about how universalism takes proper account of needs, for example with the Winter Fuel Payment, it is reasonable to argue that even the richest pensioner has an additional need for heating that should be socially met. The question of whether universalism is regressive or progressive is largely determined by the way it is funded, which introduces the question of Labour’s taxation policy (see below). Secondly, there is a question whether policy victories in these areas can provide the basis for further radicalism, for example, how far does the egalitarian, needs based ethos of abolishing tuition fees open up wider questions of the function of universities and the possibility of their disintegration from capitalist purposes more generally.
2. Economic and Investment Policies
The second category is policies that are positive, and represent a significant break with the dominant social organisation, but which need to be further radicalised; many of the manifesto’s economic policies are in this category. Taxation policy (p. 9) is one example here, conceptually the break from fetishising income and corporation tax rates and, consequently, increasing more regressive taxes like VAT and National Insurance, is entirely positive and some of the specific taxes like using VAT on private school fees (p. 38) or health insurance to pay for free school meals or free hospital car parking ensure that the needs met through universal policies were to be met in progressive ways. The question here is whether there could be a more radical reworking of the tax system and also demands an investigation into how much redistribution through tax and spending policies is possible. The other significant area, which we at New Socialist have began to address, is in the nationalisation and investment proposals and around what would be “Full Corbynism” in economic policy. This, perhaps more than any other area, requires significant further work, including, as Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna’s essay begins to address, considering the possibilities of politically implementing such a set of policies, as they argue,
Without wishing to be alarmist, it’s increasingly evident that a high price will be exacted from any left government with the temerity to pursue serious departures from the status quo. ‘The roof will fall in’, warns Ray McAnally as radical Labour Prime Minister Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup. Capital flight, investment strikes, foreign exchange crises, trade retaliation – all are possible, whether as market reactions or deliberately administered punishment beatings.
3. Values against Technocratic Modernisation in Childcare and Constitutional Reform
Within this system of evaluation, the most interesting policy are those which are underdeveloped and, thus, still open to struggle. If the political context were different, it would perhaps be possible to put the nationalisation programmes into this section, especially as Williams, in his distinction between reformism as response and reformism as representation, centres nationalisation
Where the Fabian procedure of the public board has been at best “representative” reform...The workers’ control movement...has been the most significant response within both the social democratic and Marxist traditions, to what is otherwise a clearly barren (because from the beginning partial and subordinate) reformism.
However, in the current situation, even if it must be gone beyond, even a Fabian style nationalisation would represent a significant break with existing values. The question largely with these policies is whether they are the basis for reforms through efficiency and modernisation, within the organisation of society as it is now, with perhaps significant but limited extensions of entitlements, or whether they can be worked through on the basis of alternative values going beyond a fragmented integration that slots into its socially prescribed place and cannot interlock with other struggles.
There are a number of policy areas in the manifesto where this openness exists, two of the most interesting are childcare and constitutional reform. Childcare will be handled relatively briefly here as much of what is at stake was discussed in our Alternative Models of Ownership report. One possible reading of the childcare section of the manifesto (p. 35) is that what is on offer is essentially better resourced childcare with extensions of entitlements. This clearly would represent a significant, if not qualitative, improvement on the current situation. However, this notion of childcare would still be operating within a particular form of integration of parents, particularly mothers, and their children into the purposes of the state and capitalism, with both parents and childcare workers lacking control over the provision. What, following Wainwright’s critique of labourist economics, and drawing on Robin Murray, remains is still essentially a black box model, where there is little interest in the content and control of the childcare, this is instead determined by the needs of the state and capital around maternal employment and beginning the socialisation of children for work. Whilst this version of Labour’s proposals would represent an improvement, we should not be limiting our vision to this. An alternative as suggested in New Socialist’s essay, to push for forms that are democratically controlled and initiated and, instead of being determined by the needs of the state and capital, determined by the needs and plans of those who rely on childcare. The integration of these forms of childcare would be with the daily lives of parents, particularly mothers, and involve a transformed content suggestive of different social patterns and relations of production and reproduction.
A second crucial area where again the question is of the pressure for new values and a radically altered content, in this case against a liberal formalism, is around constitutional reform. The manifesto promises,
A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on its form and terms of reference and invite recommendations on extending democracy. This is about where power and sovereignty lies – in politics, the economy, the justice system, and in our communities. The Convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country.(p. 102)
On a political level, a serious set of proposals on constitutional reform have considerable potential in pulling away sections of Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and SNP support whilst also making the possibility of a non-cynical, useful offer of a Parliamentary alliance with those parties more possible.
The manifesto proposals on constitutional reform as they stand could be read on liberal modernising terms, where Britain’s constitutional arrangements are understood fairly narrowly and compared with an imagined ideal form in which direction it is demanded that they are changed. This is boring. It is boring because it is separated from any content and any rooting in social relations or everyday life, it is one of the reasons there has been no serious popular pressure for constitutional reform in decades. Equally, this modernising approach misses that the British bourgeoisie, such as it is, is no force for constitutional reform, the current “pre-modern” form serves it very well. Anderson’s line of argument in “Origins of the Present Crisis” is useful here, especially the function of imperialism in “setting” British society, and his argument around constitutional arrangements being grounded in how,
Faced with the rise of the bourgeoisie and then of the proletariat, the hegemonic class had either to break with its whole tradition and try to maintain itself in exclusive power by military or bureaucratic coercion; or it had to yield entry into the political system to these new social forces, and neutralize their efficacy within it by powerful extra-parliamentary means, which were consonant with the whole strategic style of its past. Faced with the rise of the middle-class, it chose the latter, redoubling the specifically cultural and ideological dimension of hegemony (mystique of aristocracy, etc) and progressively dissolving its immediate opponent by selective co-optation to its own ranks. The new unified bloc then turned to contain the proletariat. There was no possibility of dissolving this as a class, but the incorporation of the industrial bourgeoisie into the dominant bloc supplied a substitute second weapon: the sheer strength of massed capital.
The second possible thinking of constitutional reform, by contrast, is not a formalism, large parts are suggested by Benn’s “Who Dares Wins”. Firstly, Benn is critical of the lack of attention paid by the Labour movement to the functioning of the state,
One of the greatest failures of the British labour movement, which is one of the strongest and best in the world, is that throughout its history and even in its periods of parliamentary power, it has done practically nothing whatsoever to change power relationships in the state.
Benn’s analysis in contrast to the formalism and limited sense of the constitution of typical reformers is rooted in an analysis of power and the usability of institutions for left purposes. It involves an expanded notion of what needs to be challenged to extend democracy, rooted in social antagonisms that would involve a huge extension of people’s control over all aspects of their lives. Politics is not autonomous and formal in Benn. Thus for Benn, the crucial point is that the institutions and practices of the British state are not our institutions and not usable by us,
If I have learned one lesson from a lifetime in politics, and a lot of it in what you would call the top of politics, it is that we cannot use the institutions and cultures devised by another class, in another period, for another purpose, to meet our needs in our age for our purposes and we have got to be more fundamental in our approach.
Benn itemises a whole set of practices and institutions. These begin with unaccountable executive power grounded in royal prerogative, operations of secrecy and, significantly, how these both shape and are sustained by Labour’s lack of internal democracy, both in terms of official procedures and culture with largely autonomous executive functions privileged and a general dislike of accountability. Next Benn discusses the role of the police, security services, the media, the unaccountable power of senior civil servants, and the judiciary, all of whom have become “naked instruments of class power”. Furthermore, Benn considers the education system as a further set of institutions of class power that are non-usable for socialist transformation ,and here Benn’s analysis overlaps with Anderson’s considerations of public schools and Oxbridge and how they meld a common ruling class hegemonic culture, as well as The May Day Manifesto’s interests in the function of comprehensive schooling integrated into capital and the state’s purposes to stratify and produce a technocratic class (p. 26-8). Benn concludes his denunciation of the institutions of the British state by discussing “an economic system that excludes any democratic control whatever from those who work in private industry” and “institutionalised sexism and racism throughout society and an artificially induced nationalism built upon a fear and distrust that is deliberately stimulated to inhibit - for political purposes - any action that might correct it.”
Benn’s set of analyses is of its time, substantially impacted by the role of the police, press and judiciary in the miners’ strike, and, reworked today, may have slightly, but only slightly, different emphases. I would suggest today what is required is a stronger sense of the UK’s spatial contradictions (whether around economic, political or cultural power) and a greater emphasis, although Benn does mention it, of the racist character of certain state institutions, particularly and not exclusively the police, and practices. What is key however in Benn is his non-formalism; institutions and practices are evaluated in terms of the social power they are rooted in and reproduce, the correct challenge to which is a collective power to control our own lives. It’s perhaps worth noting too the centrality of radical constitutional reform in the name of exercising popular power to Mélenchon’s Presidential campaign.
This non-formalism bears particularly on questions of devolution. Within the liberal frame (but also sometimes within a revanchist, “English Parliament” frame) the question is essentially posed in the abstract, with no reference to effective popular powers, it is, as a result, boring. The question of the UK’s spatial contradictions requires a political devolution of power, but of a particular sort to mean that effective powers can be exercised locally. This requires, for example, a devolution agenda to intersect with a serious programme of democratically controlled regional investment. It is worth noting, too, how far these spatial contradictions are a product of imperialism. Anderson, again, is useful on this, the external spatial contradictions of imperialism produce internal spatial contradictions within the UK.
This is rather a theoretical frame for understanding what a left constitutional reform would look like, but it should be clear that such a reformism could not be formalist and has the capacity, precisely because rooted in social contradictions around class, race and geography, to bring in a larger section of people concerned with exercising democratic control over all aspects of their lives than the conventional interest in constitutional reform. It would also, in expanding the notion of what is the subject of constitutional reform, entail a radical change of emphasis, it is, for example, quite clear that, for a genuinely left constitutional reformism, the question of democratic, community control and accountability of the police is at least, probably more, important than electoral reform.
4. Compromises with reaction on immigration and borders
The next section of policies to consider is those that combine good and bad aspects, but, largely, are reconciled in bad, or at least limiting and limited, ways. Sometimes these policies are internally contradictory, but more often the contradiction is between what interests and voices are listened to and what emphasis they are given within a reconciliation that is largely technocratic. The clearest example of such a set of policies in the manifesto is on immigration. The general framing, whilst not perfect, suggests a broadly humane set of values, which is a radical break from the consensus around how immigration is discussed, especially in a promise not to “denigrate” migrant workers, the absolute refusal of scapegoating migrants and the rejection of “bogus immigration targets.” (p. 28) There are other breaks with the current system that suggest migrant groups have been listened to such as an end to indefinite detentions, and a critique of the emerging system of “everyday borders”, that has been highlighted and organised against by groups such as Schools ABC and Docs not Cops. In the manifesto, the Conservatives are criticised for “want[ing] to turn private sector landlords, teachers, medical staff and other public sector workers into unpaid immigration officers, forcing them to provide information to the authorities.” (p. 78)
If this where all the manifesto had on immigration and borders it would represent a limited but also, given the context, radical, break with dominant values and policies. The promises would remain inadequate as they stood, but also would be steps towards a more humane immigration and border system. However, this is just one side of the manifesto, other parts represent a compromise with, and even a capitulation to, reactionary forces in and outside the Party, this partially causes the limitedness of what is positive in the immigration section. Even more tellingly, however, it is expressed in the border control section, which is very much framed, despite the critique of everyday borders, through Tory failures to take “control of our borders or strengthened our national security” (p. 78) and the manifesto promises to recruit 500 more border guards. This is a point where the voices being listened to are contradictory, on the one hand migrant campaigners, on the other those “cold racists” who believe that a tough stance on security and borders is necessary to maintain or attract “working class” support. The reconciliation through a rationalising, efficiency focused state-based policy- more border guards, the border guard role of teachers, doctors, landlords removed- is entirely coherent. In this move, as suggested by the analysis in The May Day Manifesto, it offers a technocratic resolution that is able to encompass social movement demands, but in a subordinate role, in a synthesis where values are spirited away (and consequently ruling class values taken for granted) in the name of efficiency.
A critique of the manifesto on immigration, an area where there are a clear set of compromises at the very least, if not capitulations to the Labour right, needs to involve a moral critique and a moral sense of solidarity from those not immediately effected. However, it also needs to grasp, at a certain point, that anti-immigrant feeling and policies represent a barrier, as suggested by Benn, to socialist advance in general. This is less a question of conceptualising through “scapegoating”, which risks still foregrounding the non-migrant and non-racialised section of the working class, presenting them as being “distracted” from their true purpose by racist feeling and minimising the short-term benefits accrued to some members of the working class through an internal hierarchisation rooted in race. “Scapegoating” is, essentially, a vulgar understanding of ideology as an autonomous means of duping the true subject of history, the (white, imperial) working class as to its “real” interests.
To give a wider historical sense of this, Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialized Other is essential, five brief points are helpful. Firstly, a tendency, which first appeared with the defeat of Chartism, is the relation between racism and working class defeat: racism both disorganises and weakens the working class . The second point is that racism is a key part of the integration of a section of the working class into the British state and capitalism. After the defeat of Chartism and the waning of the “heroic age of the proletariat” (Anderson),
Racism was consolidated among an ever-expanding constituency of workers. Facilitated by the rise of Britain as the hegemon of the modern world system, the elite learnt to rule in a more consensual manner at home. Through the granting of political reforms and the guarantee of relative economic security between the 1850s and 1940s, the British elites ideologically incorporated ever larger components of the working class into the imagined nation as active citizens of the polity...what accompanied this elite process of reform was that slowly but surely those workers to whom such elite privileges were granted began to imbibe an idea of the British nation underpinned by its notion of a singular people united by race and religion .
The relationship here between integration through the, increasingly consensual, rule of the ruling class on the one hand and elite reformism, and the integration through moderate reformism of (parts of) the working class is mutually sustaining. A third point, relevant to immigration and racism, that offers a greater cause for optimism, and also supports a demand for a more radical, internationalist and socialist position on immigration from Labour, is that Virdee notes working class racism can break down at times of crisis, which strengthens the working class movement. If we are in a situation of interlinked crises, including a hegemonic one, there is an opening for a rapid, major break. Although, equally, the risk exists of an intensification of racist feeling, especially given a situation where, as discussed by both Williams and Benn, the ruling class is increasingly less able to guarantee relative economic security.
This also underpins the perspective of damming the manifesto as a list to Santa Claus; the presumption here is of scarce resources to be fought over within the working class, pitting sectional interests against each other. The Corbynite break with austerity is a break with this that integrates partial demands into a total programme. As Virdee writes,
Systematic change occurs only when those long-established co-ordinates of hegemonic domination, which lock in place key fractions of the working class through a combination of coercion and consent, begin to unravel amid sustained conflict and crisis. It is in the course of re-negotiating the settlement that workers become more amenable to alternative narratives or frames through which to understand their social position and the crisis more generally. That is, they begin to peel away from the political consensus that has held firm and shift to the political right and left. That is why such moments of crisis represent a key moment of potential systematic change, although the outcome can never be predicted in advance but is determined by the relations of force .
5. Integration into Imperialism and its Limits on domestic Radicalism
Two further arguments which ground Virdee’s analysis bear on the worst section of policies in the manifesto, those around defence- supporting Trident renewal, commitment to NATO and spending more than 2% of GDP on defence and supporting the “world-leading” British defence industry, which essentially commits to the continued integration of the UK into a US-led imperial system (p. 120). This integration which both affords considerable benefits to the UK but sets its social and geographical organisation and limits the possibilities for socialist advance. Virdee notes, firstly, the imaginative limitations of restricting arguments and struggles for socialism solely on the terrain of the nation and the constraining political impacts of this. As Virdee argues, this tendency not only limited international solidarity but, intersecting with the inclusion of a greater part of the working class in the nation, saw “further racialization of nationalism that prevented another, more recently arrived social group from being included”.
As Virdee argues, whilst this has been the dominant tendency in the labour movement in Britain, it does not exhaust it, with currents of proletarian internationalism always being sustained largely, but not exclusively, by socialists from racialized minorities. For Thompson (against Anderson and Nairn), these internationalist anti-imperialist tendencies, whilst usually minority ones, are key to understanding how the “temporary triumph of CND at Labour’s Annual Conference in 1960 appears not (as Nairn has it) as a “miracle” but as the authentic expression of a tradition, deeply rooted, not only in an intelligentsia but in the trade unions and constituency parties.” Corbyn, of course, is part of this tradition, and it is a tradition which often, in its closeness to Labour, while being outside labourism, has been one of the ways in which alternative values have been generated and impacted on Labour- the peace movement is probably the first really significant social movement to have this impact on Labour.
This porosity between the international and the domestic, is the final key point of Virdee’s account, expressed in his methodological conceptions, Virdee describes Racism, Class and the Racialized Other as a “study of the world in England” because “the same web of social and economic networks that bound the colonies to England, and then Britain in an unequal relationship, and ensured that everyday foodstuffs such as tea, coffee and sugar would come to form a staple part of our everyday diet, also brought men and women from all corners of the world to England” .
There are, therefore, significant parallels between Virdee and Padmore, the external contradictions of imperialism become internal, both to Britain itself and to the Labour Party. The positions on defence in the manifesto are not just a moral failing, continuing the labour movement’s presumption morality stops outside Britain, but has a domestic impact (and this impact goes far beyond a “Jobs not Bombs” type criticism). However, precisely because of its domestic impact, there is a solid basis, one that will be aided by Trump’s Presidency, and the particularly grim ways in which a Tory Brexit will integrate the British economy with the US’s, for building a wider bloc for socialism against imperialism. Whether intentionally or not, the Labour Right’s enthusiasm (and the presence of these policies in the manifesto) for non-socialist internationalist positions on borders and defence fixes the working class in a fragmented and subordinate, corporate position of passive reformism and limits the unfolding of a socialist programme. It is worth noting that this is not exclusively a position of those identified with the Old Labour Right; Paul Mason, would be an example of a figure identified with the left with these commitments. The working class becoming hegemonic requires a process of breaking with imperialism and the fixing of class relations (both internal to the working class and between the working and ruling class). It is unclear, however, precisely at what point, today, this would limit the development and implementation of a left programme; but what should be clear, against MPs like Neil Coyle, is that, pushed far enough, Trident is not an esoteric, moralising issue but a class one.
Historically, the most significant example of the limitation of possibilities through integration into imperialism was the Wilson government. With Wilson the ambiguity between genuine socialist transformation and tinkering efforts to modernise the UK's moribund capitalism was resolved very much in favour of the latter, indeed resolved to such an extent that very little of the modernisation could happen. One major reason for the ambiguities in Wilson's domestic programme being resolved rightwards was the limitations imposed by accepting the international context. Raymond Williams writes of
A very rapid transit of most CND people I knew back into the CLPs- into the 'new model' Labour Party as they spoke of it, curiously, even after the strength of the Labour machine had been demonstrated by the reversal of nuclear policy. In my view the biggest mistake made was not the overestimate of the possibilities of an alternative moment from '58 to '61, but the resigned re-acceptance of conventional politics which followed from '62 to '64- with the illusions about the Labour Party which went along with it…what was generally forgotten was the lesson, not only of the CND experience but also of the left-right controversy in the Labour Party in the early fifties: that there was a necessary interlock between the Anglo-American military-political alliance in NATO and the pattern of possible social-economic priorities at home. Now when many socialists went back into the Labour Party in 1963 they started talking very persuasively about all the reforms the Labour government was going to accomplish in the social sphere and even the chance they might tackle some of the cultural issues, but there was an absolutely fatal evasion about foreign policy in a broader sense.
This, worryingly, is at least one possible future for Corbynism; a failure to democratise the Party and challenge the reactionary strength of the Party machine, left compromises and defeats, especially regarding foreign policy, meaning contradictions in the programme and social movement pressures being resolved rightwards, especially through the theme of modernisation spiriting away values. A further factor, overlapping with what a left constitutional reformism would involve, is the very serious limitations on democracy involved in NATO membership- acceptance of a subordinate role within a US-led military form, and nuclear weapons- the grotesque aspect of TV debate audiences demanding Corbyn annihilate millions in a decision that, imagined as taking place without deliberation, without any form of accountability, is an affront, and a corrosive affront to democracy.
However, and here the debate between Williams and Thompson over “exterminism” in 1980 is useful, this porosity of the domestic and international and the constraints imposed on a social-economic programme by integration on an international level, also allow for a broader, stronger bloc to challenge imperialism. Whilst Thompson's essay “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilisation” was profoundly influential, the first thing to note about it is that it is, frankly, some of his worst work. In the contrast between great moral rectitude and passion on the one hand, and very clear theoretical and strategic weakness, Thompson's essay has a great deal in common with much reflection on nuclear weapons. The key to the weakness of Thompson's analysis is his claim that the question of nuclear disarmament transcended class distinctions, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation not a class issue but a human one. By contrast, for Williams, in his “The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament”, this position, and the linked desire for a broad, autonomous and specifically unilateralist campaign, led to fatal equivocations and a limited strategic sense. For Williams, the end point of this tendency in both Thompson and the peace movement was unclarity and rhetorical evasions, which dissolve everything into merely “simple restatement of the horrors of nuclear war, which are indeed the beginning but cannot function as the conclusion of any of the arguments.”
Williams's substantially more useful essay begins with the far more modest question of “what is or should be the specifically socialist and explicitly anti-imperialist contribution to activity against the nuclear arms race”, rather than Thompson's efforts to designate a particular (potentially final) stage of civilisation. Williams, moreover, opposes Thompson’s technological determinism in “Exterminism”, with its tendency to detach the development of nuclear weapons from human struggles, leading to a moral, even religious, stance of protest and prophesy, rather than genuinely political action. For Williams, by contrast, possibilities of political action and successful resistance, rather than helplessness beneath the crushing machine, are rooted in human actions, interests and intentions, and a grasping of them in concrete situations. In Thompson, only an appeal to morality is available (this is too pessimistic) but this appeal could work (this is too optimistic). Williams, therefore, is particularly scathing about the politics this kind of position (and Thompson's essay is a theoretical condensation of the positions of a large section of the early 1980s peace movement). For Williams,
Unilateralism of a non-pacifist kind, in the 1980s, has either to be coherently political, with all its consequences followed through, or to resign itself to rhetorical evasiveness. It is clear that the loose assembly of diverse political forces around unilateralism, which for a time held but then failed to hold in the late 1950s and early 1960s, cannot now for long be reconstituted on the old terms. What has always been insufficient in its arguments, but now much less forgiveably, is any realistic facing of the full significance of such an act by a state like Britain. It is significantly often at this point, when in any political campaign aiming for majority support the most stringent realism is an absolute requirement, that there is a rhetorical loop back to the undoubted evils and dangers of nuclear war and to the abstraction of ‘the Bomb’. What then must we really face? The central fact is that Britain at every level—military, political, economic and cultural— has been locked into ‘the alliance’, which is at once a life-or-death military system and a powerful organization of the most developed capitalist states and economies. To take Britain out of that alliance would be a major shift in the balance of forces, and therefore at once a confrontation of the most serious kind. Every kind of counterforce, certainly economic and political, would be at once deployed against it, and there could be no restriction of the resulting struggle to the theoretically separable issue of nuclear weapons. Thus a theoretically restricted campaign, based on an eventual popular refusal of the dangers of nuclear war, would arrive, in reality, at a stage of general struggle for which it would be quite unprepared.
Williams, therefore, gets us to a crucial impasse, one to be solved in practice; any serious socialist programme requires a break with imperialism more widely (it is not, ultimately, tenable to oppose nuclear weapons but wish to remain in NATO), but the political forces to enable such a break with imperialism are barely developed. However, what can be built with longer, harder and more varied work, that would stand at least some chance of success, would be an alliance of all those opposed to the current order of things. As Williams argues, the UK's possession of nuclear weapons implicates huge swathes of military, economic, political and cultural life, these areas, broadly understood, are the sites of both struggle for and resistance to disarmament. This, then, is to argue for the necessity for a substantial break by the UK from the global system, from its place within it and from its implications in determining national politics. The argument runs both ways, on the one hand, to eliminate the UK's nuclear weapons requires considerable and widespread mobilisation and argument throughout society linking nuclear weapons and NATO to a host of other struggles, on the other, not eliminating nuclear weapons, as well as being a great moral evil and threat to humanity, entails the continued integration into this whole global system with serious implications for what is possible nationally.
This sort of widespread mobilisation against the totality of things and the functioning of nuclear weapons within that totality is probably a precondition for a left-led Labour Party adopting a unilateral position, it is even more likely the precondition of the adoption of that position not being electorally disastrous and, even if the incredibly unlikely were to happen and Labour won an election on a unilateralist platform, it is the precondition of such a government being able to carry through such a programme. At the same time, failing to disarm would be a moral and political disaster. The reason for NATO and military opposition is that getting rid of them would affect the UK's integration into it and the balance of forces in the UK, it would limit the control over subjects that is one result and motivation of interstate hegemony. There are various points where other struggles come together with anti-nuclear ones including, but not limited to: feminist struggles, particularly over the domination of a particular system of values stressing violence, abuse and coercion, anti-imperialist struggles; and struggles against racism (the racialised (dis)organisation of the working-class as a product of the specific form of working-class integration into imperialism through integration into a particular UK state).
The acceptance by the leadership of compromises with reactionary forces over immigration, and capitulation to them over defence policy, is a moral failing. It is also an acceptance of a serious limitation of the scope of the values of the project, both in terms of imposing a limitation on who is included within those values, and limiting their capacity to be fully realised. Defending the spirit of the manifesto requires a major break with its positions in these areas.
What is to be Done?
How far the leadership are to blame for their compromises and capitulations, and how far these represent a sensible assessment of the balance of forces in the Party and the state of public opinion is, now, in terms of guiding the actions of the grassroots left, almost entirely academic. The point is to work for a situation where these compromises will not be made in future, which requires a grasp of how capitalism and imperialism create contradictions that are internal to Labour. One vital area is to push for far massive democratisation of the Party, including the democratisation of policy making, which would seriously alter the balance of forces in our favour, as we have argued in New Socialist. As suggested by Williams’s and Wainwright’s stress on the lack of Party democracy being a central part of the integration of the working class and social movement struggles into capitalism, imperialism and the state. Secondly, there is a need to develop and/or engage with social movement struggles outside the Party, both to sharpen and strengthen demands and to help create a radical extra-parliamentary power to make the implementation of a left programme in government more likely. Thirdly, there are a wide set of necessary political education and cultural projects to try to transform common sense around these issues. All three of these areas suggest a continued and dynamic campaigning and organising ethos, but one that is not identical to being on a constant election footing.
Implementing the Manifesto Out of Office
The standard, tedious anti-Corbyn refrain, demanding compromise with the right (as if Corbyn hadn’t done so very substantially) was that a left programme was unelectable and that the best policies meant nothing out of office. The election result should have done for this line of “argument”, it has not. Three points can be made against this Parliamentary/Ministerialist/Electoralist fixation; firstly, at in local councils, Mayoralties and the Welsh Assembly, Labour is in office; secondly, a party with the extent and enthusiasm of support we have now could accomplish considerable things without the mediation of the state; thirdly, the implied premise of this position is that when in office policies can be implemented smoothly, this may be true for an unthreatening Labour programme, it is certainly true for a Conservative one with a workable majority, it is substantially untrue for a left Labour one. As Anderson argues,
Parliament, he formal site of political power, is two quite different ‘places’ according to which Party is in power. Its role in the power system is analytically distinct in each case. When a Conservative government is in power, it is an integral part of a continuous landscape which extends in a smooth, unbroken space around it. When a Labour government is in power, it is an isolated, spot-lit enclave, surrounded on almost every side by hostile territory, unceasingly shelled by industry, press and orchestrated ‘public opinion’. Each time it has in the end been over-run.
It should be added too, that there are also fifth columnists within the Labour Party.
Institutionalising values, therefore, has never only been a question of using Parliamentary power, it can be about using municipal power and the power of a movement to deliver consequences. Electoralism should be understood here not as a general tendency of the Labour Party in contradiction with (external) developments of autonomous forces, but of a tendency towards the closure of criticism through demands for unity and an exclusive focus on the short-term temporalities of the media, opinion polls and elections rather than the very different temporalities and forms of openness and accountability of movement building, that also exist, though usually in a marginalised way within the Party.Therefore, a radical transformation of the Party into both an electoral force and an instrument for direct social transformation is necessary. These two will always be in contradiction, and, going back to the argument of The Long Revolution, have always been in tension, but there are ways in which this contradiction can be made productive rather than either destructive or stablising through the marginalisation of non-electoralist tendencies. There are various ways in which, in some cases, policies in the manifesto, or at least themes, may be implemented with Labour out of national office. In other cases, it is more a question of institutionalising and using the Party as an instrument of the manifesto’s values, sometimes against its compromises. Some of these considerations overlap with Tom Blackburn’s fine “Corbynism from Below” essay, and it is necessary to remember that, while a great deal can be accomplished outside of office, and, “despite the real potential they hold,” as Blackburn argues, “grassroots organising and campaigning can do no more than partly ameliorate the damage being done by continuing austerity.” These efforts at institutionalisation can also be read as part of a populism of need, which is not restricted to a narrow notion of the political, but which grasps the extent by which kindness, solidarity and organisation can challenge suffering that is taken for natural.
Firstly, it is possible that, with a certain amount of wit, parts of the democratically led investment agenda may be carried out a local level within the existing limitations imposed by national government. The trailblazer here, which New Socialist has discussed, is Preston. There is necessary work here to disseminate lessons from Preston, to analyse how they could be deployed in different places in response to local needs and capacities. The spread of the Preston model would also require organisational pressure on councillors, and, if necessary, the clearing out of those who would be a barrier to it.
Other areas where parts of the manifesto and its values may be implemented concern the possibility of its direct implementation without the mediation of national or local government, as well as putting pressure on the state. In many of these areas there already exist groups doing significant work as well as a bedrock of community solidarities, what Labour should be able to add is very significant numbers of people and a presence across the country. The easy argument here would be to say Labour should become a party of social movements. However, this understates not only the institutional, cultural and political changes this would require in parts of the country with a powerful social movement presence but also the weakness of autonomous social movements in large parts of Britain, Labour could have a considerable role, albeit a difficult and contradictory one, in launching and nurturing movements around social reproduction.
Substantial organisational pressure and removal of councillors is also required when it comes to housing, which is the area where the failure of the movement to address the actions of Labour councillors, within a broad acceptance of “unity” and that local government is administration not politics, has been most damaging. The manifesto correctly attacks the Tory failure on housing over the last seven years. However, the “Tory housing crisis” (p. 60) is just one part of the current conjunctural intensification of the crisis, there is, even on the conjunctural level a Labour housing crisis caused by many Labour councils (for the difference between conjunctural and structural aspects of the housing crisis my review of The Rent Trap and Engel's The Housing Question). Housing is also a significant case where, beginning to address and even meet needs, whether through national policy, the transformation of council policy or direct challenges to councils, begins to bring in a whole set of interlocked struggles and move from the conjunctural to begin to address the structural. The first task, one which necessarily falls on Labour members, is to challenge and remove councillors responsible for inhumane housing policies. As I’ve argued before, the Left, possibly organised in Momentum, possibly in other ways, should be able to serve as a means of transmitting the popular needs, experiences and demands that are organised in grassroots struggles which often have an extra-parliamentary ethos, in such a way that local Labour councillors are further challenged for their failures. It would also entail being a voice for these movements in the development of council manifestos, or if at all possible, the opening up of these processes to those most affected by the housing crisis even if they are not Labour members.
This transmission role requires a porosity to existing radical struggles around housing, but also an openness to demands from groups who may (and given the actions of local councils, justifiably) be hostile to Labour. Here there is a further contradiction around “internal exile” and the meeting of needs, on the one hand, a certain broadly anarchist critique of reformism condemns itself to this sort of internal exile on the level of changing national policies, on the other hand, at a local level, it is anarchist-inclined groups who are struggling to meet popular needs and make what remians of the social democratic state actual against Labour councils, who thereby alienate themselves from the people. In areas without these organisations, the Left has the capacity to establish them to challenge Labour councils directly, from a place inside, by trying to impact on policy and the composition of representatives, and outside the Party, by organising to meet housing needs, against the council directly, whether by offering advice, buddying, or more antagonistically challenging the council. There will be difficult contradictions to negotiate here, especially in ensuring the autonomous character of housing movements under electoralist pressure not to criticise Labour councils. However, in large parts of the country it is likely that only Labour has the capacity to launch and sustain such organisations. The building up of these sort of organisations and the development of Labour’s porosity to them would also help to build up some of the necessary social power to aid the implementation of a left programme and challenge backsliding from the leadership.
There is further work that could be done, again perhaps through contact or at least openness to existing extra-parliamentary struggles around immigration and borders. This would have a further, crucial advantage of helping to build an anti-racist movement in contact with Labour that was useful and not a tool for laundering the reputation of the SWP. For example, working with, and promoting the positions of organisations opposed to everyday borders, not only through campaigning work but through challenging their operation directly, would both, through the numbers Labour should be able to bring to help these struggles, and the strengthening of these voices in policy making.
A further area of struggle, corresponding with the manifestos focus on universal needs with the free school meals policy, could be around provision of food, which again becomes relatively simple with a substantial membership. Breakfast clubs may be the most plausible option here, and would help support community resilience, bring a wider range of experiences and struggles into contact, at the very least, with the Party, and demonstrate, practically, the usefulness of solidarity in directly meeting community needs. Breakfast clubs could also become the basis for community hubs or social centres offering political and cultural education and possibly legal advice or advice on benefits and housing rights. This would make use of the knowledge and expertise of party members, and partially directly addressing the manifesto’s criticisms of how “justice today has become the preserve of the rich. Budget cuts mean that thousands are deprived of fair resolutions. Justice is eroded by the poor decisions of privatised assessments, by the withdrawal of legal aid.” (p. 80) More generally, and ambitiously, the size of Labour’s membership also offers, as New Socialist argued in our report on Alternative Models of Ownership, the possibility of developing a variety of co-operative forms,
The role for the institutions of the world of labour also points to a task for local government even if we are not in power nationally, and even for grassroots Labour members it may be possible for us to launch co-operative means of satisfying human needs, which would demonstrate the practicality of our values and create new associational political forms.
This is only a brief sketch of possible ways in which the values and some of the policies expressed in the manifesto could be institutionalised with Labour outside of government. Many of these forms would also both strengthen Labour electorally and, as Blackburn argues,
This work and the building of new labour movement institutions must not be an end in itself. Rather, it should aim to lay the foundations for a mass movement which can empower a future Labour government not just to occupy office, but to wield power with the goal of delivering wide-ranging social transformation.
Understanding the centrality of the struggle over values - not in an idealist sense, but of values as experientially rooted and emerging from struggle and as serious, practical forces - is the basis for understanding both what a break with the established order the manifesto is, but also the pressures to reabsorb it into that order. The Party as it stands, both in its composition at senior levels, and its structures, is not equal to this break in values, and, without both substantial democratisation internally and the opening up of the party to wider social forces, the programme is likely to slip back into a fragmented, subordinate reformism that would also be diluted in its implementation. The alternative, to build a reformism both on the level of programme and social forces that, in its ability to push beyond itself, to interlock struggles and attack the common enemy of all human hopes, is beginning to be articulated and struggled for; but it is a long process, requiring, but also producing, confidence, courage, humour, cunning and steadfastness in this struggle.
Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Penguin Books: London, 1961, p. 328. ↩︎
Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 328. ↩︎
Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 329. ↩︎
Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 329. ↩︎
Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Penguin Books, London, 1958, p. 312. ↩︎
Raymond Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945” in Culture and Materialism, London, Verso, 2005. ↩︎
Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, London, Merlin Press, 1979, p. 17. ↩︎
Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 294-5. ↩︎
Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 256. ↩︎
Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 257. ↩︎
Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, pp. 17-53. ↩︎
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence and Wishart, p. 423. ↩︎
Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, pp. 196-200. ↩︎
Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, pp. 247-8. ↩︎
Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, p. 249. ↩︎
Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, p. 248. ↩︎
Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, p. 247, 249. ↩︎
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London, Verso, 2001, p. xvii. ↩︎
Laclau and Mouffe, *Hegemony and Socialist Strategy”, p. x. ↩︎
Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-56, London, Methuen, 1987, p. 328. ↩︎
Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments,p. 5. ↩︎
Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 256. ↩︎
Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. xv. ↩︎
Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, p. 248. ↩︎
Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p.257. ↩︎
Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, p. 5. ↩︎
Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, p. 5. ↩︎
Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, p. 7. ↩︎
Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, p. 5. ↩︎
Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, p. 3. ↩︎
Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, p. 2. ↩︎
Raymond Williams, *Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, London, Verso, 2015. ↩︎
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