Corbyn, Labour, and the British Left: prospects for realignment after GE2017

Lecturer in Politics, Danny Rye considers Labour’s future after 8 June, if the party does lose the election and the continuing prospects of a re-alignment of the wider British left under the Labour Party’s tent.

Until recently, the received wisdom had been that in order to win a general election, Labour had to appeal to a moderate ‘centre ground’. In 2015, Ed Miliband had gambled that the centre of political gravity had shifted to the left. His failure to return Labour to government after one term in opposition was taken as a signal that this was not the case and the party needed to tack back to the right. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the party’s electorate disagreed with that analysis. The shifts in the polls in recent weeks, seems to suggest that quite a lot of the UK electorate might too.

As I wrote at the time, Corbyn’s election opened up an opportunity to realign politics on the left. A re-engagement of the Labour mainstream with the broader left would help to reinvigorate and refresh the party’s policies and approach – developing not only new appeals in terms of policy but also new ways of organising, building a stronger presence in communities and reinventing the party for the future. This is arguably dependent on Corbyn being able to do two things: pull off a more leftist version of ‘big tent’ politics, drawing together the left, the centre-left, and the left-behind into a coherent alternative to austerity; and reform the Labour Party structures in such a way as to secure the left’s continued ascendancy.

Corbyn has certainly been successful in drawing the wider left into his tent. However, at present at least, much of this appears to be entirely based on his leadership rather than reflecting any general inclination to support the Labour Party. Were he to step down, it is difficult to see how that broad alliance would hold together. It seems also that some see the survival of Corbyn himself as vital to the whole project of the left in the UK – hence the qualified support he has from groups like the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party. The failure of the Corbyn project would thus be a setback for the left more widely.

Corbyn has also undeniably been successful in galvanising new support and reawakening old support that had drifted away from Labour in the 2000s. Despite some suggestion that many of these newer members may be less keen to do the hard graft of party activism, there are reports around the country of greatly expanded participation in meetings and the day-to-day grind that is essential to the functioning of an organised political party. Whilst it is true that a good number of those are thought to be older, returning members, many of them are new and relatively young. This may be an important base from which to build for the future. The key again is how much these newer members are specifically wedded to the Corbyn project rather than the Labour Party itself. If he fails, or falls, will they stay on and engage in the debate about how to go forward?

Where Corbyn has been notably less successful is in persuading the bulk of his parliamentary party of his merits. It was clear from the outset that the vast majority of MPs did not support him. Despite a level of acquiescence by some in the wake of his initial victory, there has been more or less consistent hostility, which broke out most spectacularly in the failed so-called ‘coup’ of 2016. Thus, instead of a debate, what we have had is a long period of stand-off, infighting and distrust, followed then by what can best be described as an uneasy  peace, or a kind of sullen hostility. Whilst things have gone remarkably quiet during the General Election campaign, this seems likely to break out into the open again on June 9th. This underlines the division, too, between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership, particularly those who have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. But the membership itself is also divided. In the 2016 leadership contest, Corbyn got a slightly higher per centage of the vote than he did in 2015, but those who were members before May 2015 cast most of their votes for Owen Smith, whilst those who had joined since the general election voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn.

However, there are more serious divisions which animate many of Corbyn’s critics in the PLP: that between the more cosmopolitan, urban Corbyn supporters and ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated. Many Labour MPs fear that these ‘left-behind’ voters simply will not vote for the party whilst Corbyn remains leader. But there is at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.

For many in the PLP, a trigger for last year’s vote of no confidence and failed leadership challenge (although by no means the only one) was Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign, whilst most voters in key Labour areas overwhelmingly supported Leave. This double whammy of hostility both to Corbyn and Remain-supporting MPs underlines the fear that the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis in areas where support had previously been solid.

In this light, Corbyn’s unwillingness to make an issue of Brexit might be a wise move, but Labour’s electoral challenges do not stop there. On top of this, Labour is making no headway in Scotland, and is already virtually non-existent in most of the South of England. This crisis is not new by any means, but it underlines a conflict about the party’s future, what kind of party it is, and where it should be building its support.

A key aim for the left of the party, and precisely what Corbyn’s opponents would like to prevent, is changes to party rules to their advantage. Much, as ever, will depend on events, specifically the election result and what happens in its immediate aftermath. If he does badly in the election, Corbyn will be under pressure to step down. But, although a bad defeat might on one level make it harder for Corbyn to justify staying in position, it may also ironically make him more secure than before. Analysis by Policy Network found that Labour’s most vulnerable seats tend to be held by Corbyn’s opponents. This means that pro-Coryn MPs will make up a larger proportion of a smaller PLP in the event of a Conservative landslide. In any case, the PLP are unlikely to risk another challenge unless Corbyn voluntarily stands down, since it seems likely that were it to be put to the vote, he would win again.

But if Corbyn does well – and the polls are suggesting he might do much better than anticipated – the converse is true. The snap election meant that there was no time to go through full candidate selection processes and most existing ones were simply readopted. Attempts to install Corbyn supporters were unsuccessful except in the odd case like Walton. So, if Corbyn does as well as the polls now suggest he might, he is likely to face a still largely hostile parliamentary party. A key problem therefore will be what to do about his MPs. Yet, many of the objections that MPs hold come down to a concern about electoral prospects, so perhaps a good result will quieten them for now. At the same time, it will give party moderates a stronger hand within the parliamentary party (if not in the party as a whole), which will be crucial when the time comes to replace Corbyn.

The risk for moderates is that this would give the party’s left room to focus on reshaping the party internally in its own image and gradually change the internal dynamics of the party, and the make up of the PLP. However, despite their numerical support, the key problem for the party’s left up to now has been an organisational weakness which means that the leadership has found itself frequently unable to get its way. Moderate groups like Labour First have been very effective at organising within the party and winning key organisational positions such as the Conference Arrangements Committee which makes key decisions about what gets discussed at party conferences. Thus, even if he stays in position, there is no guarantee that the left will get their desired rule changes and the party will be locked into an ongoing internal war of attrition.

The stalemate seems likely to continue for the time-being. The only chance of change in the moderates’ direction is if enough members change their minds. But, in a lot of local parties there is still enthusiasm for the Corbyn project and, if the party can hold onto its vote or improve it, then it seems likely that members will want to stick with him. A relatively successful campaign may well win over previous sceptics, too. Whether this is enough to secure genuine organisational change and sustain a longer term realignment on the left depends ultimately on the capacity to win over the support (or at least the acquiescence) of the parliamentary party and other internal doubters, at least in the short-term. A measure of electoral success may go some way to achieving that.

This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Reflections on the 2016 Labour Party Conference

It may not have been a hot summer, but it has certainly been a long one in Labour Party politics.  The fallout following Brexit, the resignation of almost all of Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and his crushing defeat in a vote of no confidence amongst MPs was matched by his expected and emphatic victory in the leadership contest that ensued. The culmination of this on Saturday, many would hope, might settle the matter. But Labour is still a party divided.  The trails of sometimes bitter in-fighting are strewn around social media for all to see, the wounds that have opened up in constituency parties around the country, not least in seats like Liverpool Riverside and Wallasey are unlikely to heal immediately. Some of the evidence of the party’s division could be seen on the conference floor and indeed on the podium.  Tom Watson’s combative speech, for instance, railed against what he saw as the ‘trashing’ of Labour’s brand – by downplaying the record of the Brown and Blair governments, Labour’s current leaders were undoing its prospects. Len McCluskey, in a challenge to rebel MPs, quoted from Henry V, calling on those with no stomach for the fight ahead to “depart the battlefields”, a perhaps not so heavily coded reference to deselection. In the hall, both were cheered and applauded enthusiastically.

There is no doubt, then, Labour is still divided. The evidence is there for all to see.  Moreover, it is difficult to see how it will be otherwise for the foreseeable future.  Although it would be too simplistic by far to say that it is about the electability of New Labour versus Momentum movement politics, there is a definite tension between those who see power in parliament as the final destination and those who see it as a staging post along the way to something much more fundamental. Corbyn himself, in a speech which was significantly more assured and confident than last year, sought to argue that Labour could be both of these things: it could be about protest and campaigning and about winning elections. What is undoubted is that the party is now bucking the trend in terms of membership, and looks likely to grow further now that Corbyn has for now consolidated his grip on the leadership.  If that increased membership translates into campaigners on the streets at election time, then that will be of significant benefit to Labour at election time.  Nonetheless, the evidence available suggests that Corbyn’s appeal as a potential prime minister remains very limited.  Despite enthusiastic support from a growing army of activists, in the wider country his ratings are very low as a range of polls have shown and Labour as a party is performing poorly.

Some have asked whether this means that Labour is somehow dying as a party of government.  Of course, no party has the right to exist, and in the short term at least the party’s prospects do not look particularly strong. However, as anyone attending conference would have seen, there is much life left in the party on all sides. On the fringe, debate is lively, ideas are coming from the left, the right and the centre of the party, grappling with practical issues of governing and policy, particularly in local and municipal government.  The forthcoming elections for metro-mayors in Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands also open up opportunities for Labour to prove itself in government and victories in London and Bristol earlier in the year are also high profile platforms for Labour in power.  Corbyn appears to be growing into the role of leader, and is demonstrating a level of relaxed confidence and authority that he perhaps lacked in the recent past.  Policy ideas are beginning to emerge and both his and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speeches showcased some practical and radical ideas.  So the party faces a huge challenge. It has a mountain to climb to get an appealing message across to the wider public, particularly those who have voted Conservative in the past or not voted at all. Next year, hopefully a year without an energy-sapping leadership contest, perhaps we will have a clearer idea of how close they are to meeting that challenge.

Also featured on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment page.

Vote Remain, Take Back Control: A Personal View on the EU Referendum

By Danny Rye

Many of you have already made up your mind: some of you like me are, instinctively, ‘Remainers’, others of you ‘Leavers’. Some of you may genuinely have been persuaded by the arguments of one side or the other. Some of you perhaps have still not made up your minds which way to go. Nearly all of you, I imagine, can’t wait for this to be over.  I have already voted Remain by post, but I have spent much of the time since attempting to formulate why I am doing so. I realise that as I have tried to do so, many of my feelings are contradictory, muddled and inconsistent. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Part of the problem is that the EU, rather like the constitution, is something that our attention has always been deflected from: we have been told ‘people are more concerned about jobs, public services, the NHS’ than issues like Europe or the voting system.  We are told that we should not worry our poor little heads about it, but this ignores the importance of our political institutions, the technicalities of our democracy to the way decisions are made, who makes them and influences them and therefore what the decisions actually turn out to be. In other words, the problem is one of power.

The opportunity of this referendum was that it might open up the possibility to finally address some of such questions, or at least begin talking about them. If this debate is about anything it is surely should be about how we are governed, about our democracy (or lack of it) and our future relationship in and with the rest of Europe, as a European nation (which we will remain, even if we leave). Instead it has descended into a confection of knee-jerk nationalism and cynical utilitarianism, with wild predictions of economic disaster if we leave and virtual invasion if we remain. Thus it still feels as though that debate has not really been had.

The arguments that have dominated the campaign have been profoundly depressing. The arguments of the Remain campaign are centred around an appeal to narrow material self-interest. It is not that these outcomes are not important: our economic prosperity and security should be a vital component of any such decision. It may be that this narrow economistic appeal to the wallet may work in the end, but the suggestion that we should stay in merely because we might be materially better off displays an underlying cynicism and, indeed, ambivalence about European cooperation. Sadly, the Labour Party has failed, despite the clear opportunity, to set out a distinctive, democratic argument, largely riffing on the protection of workers’ rights and similar issues.  This, again, is important but underlying it is a message of despair: that we should stay in the EU, not because there is a compellingly positive reason to do so, but because without it we lack the strength and the will to ensure such protection ourselves.

Similarly, the Leave campaign poses legitimate questions about the EU and democracy with its slogan ‘take back control’.  However, if we leave the EU who will have that control?  And how will they be held to account? In what respect will this renew our democracy? Rather than answer these questions (to which the obvious answer is they will take back control, not us), it has reduced the argument to one of control of borders, implying – without explicitly promising – that there will be a reduction in the number of foreigners coming to live and work in the UK. This focus on immigration has given vent to some very unpleasant sentiments, releasing a genie of xenophobia and hostility within and between communities that will be very difficult to put back in the bottle afterwards.

I am voting Remain because I believe that cooperation with our fellow Europeans within a permanent framework is desirable on principle and because I reject the narrow, nationalism on offer from Leave. But where is this argument? Where is a positive vision of a European future?  A stable, cooperative continent of nations, working to agreed rules and within an established framework is without doubt the best, most constructive way of resolving our differences and we have to be engaged in it. It is vital to peace, security and prosperity in the future. However, the EU has also developed a disdain for national electorates that, if it is to survive, it must seriously address. In the words of the new DiEM25 movement, it has to democratise before it disintegrates. Some might say that it is beyond reform, especially since the Lisbon Treaty which goes further than any treaty before in its integrationist ambition.  But we have to try, and since the EU is the existing framework we have for cooperation, it is the platform from which we can begin to change it. Departing from it or destroying it will not help this process.

One thing for sure (to borrow from the Leave campaign) is that the status quo is not an option. If Remain wins, as I hope it does, the debate about our future as a European democracy must not end here. Both the critique of the EU – along with the language of democracy and self-determination – and pro EU arguments have been too easily conceded to right-wing, elitist narratives that display very little interest in actually extending democracy very much. For Remain, staying in means following the same corporatist, undemocratic path; for Leave ‘taking back control’ means giving that control to our Westminster elites, not the people.

Whatever happens on Thursday, this ground has to be reclaimed. Democrats need to contest the lexical terrain on which the right has planted itself and begin to articulate a response that addresses the concerns of ordinary people – not just by appealing to their wallets or by blaming foreigners – but by addressing the very real problem of power. This problem is not just a national one, but one that concerns all the people of Europe and it thus means fighting both for a more democratic EU and a more democratic UK.

In other words, let’s vote remain and perhaps then we can start to take back control.

George Osborne’s Clever Politics

Dr Danny Rye, Liverpool Hope University @dannyrye

If there were ever any doubts about George Osborne’s credentials as a political operator (and I confess to being one who has questioned this wisdom in the past), following his recent Summer budget they should be dispelled. There is no question that the budget was regressive in its effect, hitting the budgets of low income households more than others, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out and that it cemented the Conservative agenda to reduce the responsibility of the state for welfare and what used to be called social security and shift it to individuals. Whilst reducing welfare payments to working-age families by £12 billion, tax thresholds would be raised, relieving the tax burden of many lower and medium income people and families, and taking many of the lowest paid out of taxation altogether. Businesses would have to play their role in this too by paying a so-called ‘national living wage’ (in fact a rebranded and increased minimum wage). In addition, banks would have to pay a ‘super tax’ on profits, and ‘non-doms’ would no longer have the same rights to maintain and pass on their status.

Whilst some of these measures were clearly in line with Osborne’s declared vision for a ‘high wage, low tax, lower welfare’ economy, and contained a distinctly Thatcherite tinge (abolishing maintenance grants for poorer students for instance, limiting benefits to only two children), some could easily have been measures being delivered in an alternative universe by a Labour Chancellor (and in fact, according to the same IFS report the budget raised far more in taxes than it gave away). The result of all this is that Osborne has made it difficult to respond and laid a trap for the opposition. The trap for Labour is that in attacking a government for reducing working age benefits which has at the same time introduced a ‘living wage’ and increased tax thresholds makes it very difficult for it to be seen as anything other than the ‘party of welfare’. This is a position which, given the almost endless talk of ‘aspiration’ in the leadership contest, an incoming Labour leader will not relish. The first task of the new leadership come September will be to formulate a coherent strategy in response and attempt to outmanoeuvre Osborne. I cannot say I envy them.

This post was written for the Liverpool Hope University Expert Comment webpage

e-mail: ryed at hope dot co dot uk

Why Carswell and Brand are both wrong about British politics

British politics is in a fragile state.  Levels of trust in politicians are low, traditional measures of political engagement indicate an increasing dislocation between a distant ‘political class’ and the electorate. People are less inclined to vote at all (as turnout figures for recent elections indicate) and those that are seem in increasing numbers to be more attracted to ‘insurgent’ parties and charismatic individuals from George Galloway to Nigel Farage who appear to offer simple answers to often complex questions. Underlying this is a sense of powerlessness, anger and disappointment that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the political system itself, and which mainstream politicians seem powerless to address without making worse.

In the midst of this storm, two curious characters have emerged on the political scene who, whilst representing very different approaches to and understandings of politics, tap into this same vein of discontent.

Continue Reading (links to full article at opendemocracy.net)

Why Study the Concept of Power?

A proper theoretical and applicable understanding of power can help in identifying new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities.

My key academic research interest at the present time is oriented towards questions about the concept of power, specifically in a political context:  how should it be defined, how can it be analysed and, crucially, how can we make use of it?  The problem with the concept of power, however, is that it is, as Steven Lukes has argued, an ‘essentially contested’ concept on which there is much disagreement as to its nature and character.[1]  Is it a capacity possessed by an individual, as behaviouralists would argue?  Is it rather a collective attribute of societies and groups as theorists like Hannah Arendt and Talcott Parsons have contended?  Is power only a product of conscious agency or can it be attributed to impersonal structures and organisations too?

Controversy and debate about power rages on in a small corner of the academic world, but why bother with such an esoteric pursuit?  Why is it important to spend so much time engaged in such theoretical controversies?  The answer is simply because power is (perhaps self-evidently) an important and fundamental aspect of the analysis of politics:  all politics is in some sense a manifestation of power struggles and as Max Weber long ago argued in Politics as a Vocation the importance of politics is that it strives to share power or influence its distribution within and between states.[2]

There are many reasons, but, here, I want to focus on two reasons for engaging in debates about power.  Firstly, it can provide an important perspective on human society and the political institutions which form a part of it. Seeking to understand them in terms of power brings a particular perspective on social relations, human behaviour and organisation, especially the question of what it is that makes people conform to certain behaviours, what makes them obey consciously or unconsciously certain social conventions and practices, what is it that predisposes some to accept the authority of others and obey them?  And what is that makes others seek to resist these?  Secondly, and perhaps the most important reason for undertaking an analysis of power, is that the empowerment of human beings as effective political actors and citizens is dependent on a clear understanding of power relations and power’s structure, dimensions and modalities in different settings (such as a particular institution or organisation).

If this latter purpose is to be realised, it follows that a key distinction needs to be made between what it is that empowers people and what it is that disempowers them. We need to be able to identify who is empowered and disempowered as a result of these relations and structures.  This requires us to separate analytically two key types of power:  firstly, power over something or someone, sometimes referred to as ‘domination’ and power to do or achieve something or other, or ‘empowerment’.  Thus, power is not just a term that signifies the ability of one person or a group of people to control or command others (although it is part of it), but also one which signifies the capacities individuals or groups have to realise their full potential as human beings.  Having some means of evaluating how, in different ways, groups or individuals are empowered or dominated (and hence disempowered) in certain settings (such as political parties or interest groups), we can identify ways in which their situation can be improved in the direction of greater empowerment and liberty.  In other words, in order to understand how people can best be fulfilled, to be able to reach their full potential as human beings, we have to understand both what it is that prevents them from doing so and what might enable them to do so.

As an example of this, power is often experienced by those subject to it as a form of constraint, but not all ‘constraints’ should be seen as negative or disempowering.  For example, training and education can be understood as constraints on the one hand, but on the other, they might be understood as ways of investing people (through instruction) with the capacities and resources to act effectively in political contexts.  Organisations too, governed by rules, structures and hierarchies, might be understood from one point of view as restraints on the ability of individuals to act freely, but from a different perspective could be seen as providing avenues for using diverse skills and abilities effectively and means of making actors more effective through collective action.

Too often, these kinds of things are seen in black and white terms.  Almost a century ago Robert Michels, in his analysis of the German Social Democratic Party, argued that oligarchy was an inevitable outcome of organisation despite its necessity as a tool of empowering ordinary people.  The organisation therefore subverts its original purpose to liberate by becoming a tool of domination by elites.  This gloomy prognosis has become part of the canon of the study of political parties, but though important it is incomplete because of a failure to take a properly multi-faceted view of power which not only looks at its operation on different levels, but understands it in terms of empowerment as well as disempowerment.  Rather than simply accepting the notion that ‘who says organisation says oligarchy’[3] we need to ask what kind of organisation do we need to ensure that democracy – in terms of empowerment of ordinary members – flourishes and oligarchy or domination by elites is as far as possible resisted.  Rather than giving up on political organisations as Robert Michels did (eventually despairing of democratic politics altogether) we need to identify new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities to make their own decisions, take power over their lives where it really matters and keep in check the ability of elites to reform and capture that space.

Political analysts need tools to help in the task of evaluating and making judgements about this.  What is needed, in other words, is a means by which a) organisations with political and social goals can be evaluated in terms of how they empower and disempower those whom they are intended to serve and b) judgements made as to what appropriate changes might need to be made to ensure maximum empowerment.  To support this, a series of questions with which to interrogate these issues need to be developed which are fully applicable to organisations with social and political goals.  This is my task going forward and I hope to report back on my progress via this blog in the near future.


[1] Steven Lukes (1974) Power: A Radical View

[2] In H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1948), 78.

[3] Robert Michels (1968 [1915]) Political Parties (New York: Free Press), 365

Reforming the Labour Party: is Miliband Redistributing Power?

The true test of Ed Miliband’s proposals for reform of the Labour Party’s relationship with trade unions and candidate selection will be the extent to which they empower or disempower ordinary members and supporters.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck College

It may have been an immediate crisis that forced Ed Miliband’s hand but the consensus appears to be that, in his speech on 9 July setting out his response to the news that the trade union Unite had been manipulating the candidate selection process in Falkirk, the Labour Leader has been bold in proclaiming an end to the ‘politics of the machine’ that was, in his words, rightly ‘hated’.  His proposals to reform the Labour Party’s link with the Trade Unions and the means by which candidates for office are selected are potentially far-reaching.  Henceforth, members of affiliated trade unions will have to directly opt-in if they want to support the Labour Party (currently they are automatically enrolled unless they opt-out) and Labour will begin using primaries, in which all registered supporters can participate, as a means of selecting candidates, beginning with the selection for the London mayoral candidate in 2016.  There will be strict spending limits and a code of conduct for candidates to go with this.

If the point of Miliband’s proposed reforms, as he has suggested, is to ‘open up our politics’ then the test has to be the extent to which it empowers voters, ordinary members and activists.  On the face of it, requiring individuals to directly choose  to affiliate to the Labour Party as individuals would seem to be a blow in favour of empowering ordinary union members as political activists and against the dominance of elites (in the form of union leaders) making decisions on their behalf.  Furthermore, the proposal to select candidates by means of primaries (initially in London) in which registered supporters can participate, along with ‘strict’ spending limits and a code of conduct, would appear to spread power (in this case the power to select candidates) more widely than before. 

However, in order to make a proper judgement about this, we need a means by which proposals like this can be assessed for whether they are likely to be empowering or disempowering (and for whom). By lucky coincidence, this is precisely what I have been thinking about recently.  The following is an initial sketch of how this might be done. 

This kind of assessment can be made by thinking more carefully about organisations with political or social goals in the context of theories about and approaches to power.  In order to do this, it is important initially to make a distinction between two basic kinds of power:  a ‘negative’, constraining form – sometimes called ‘domination’ but which I will refer to henceforth as ‘disempowerment’ – and a positive, enabling form of power which can be understood as ‘empowerment’.  Whilst the first of these indicates means by which groups or individuals have had their power diminished in different ways (because they are prevented from acting, lack capacities to or are denied opportunities to do so), the latter is concerned with who have had their power enhanced and by what means.

These two key kinds of power can be examined in five different dimensions which in my assessment relate to the key dimensions of power operating in organisations with social or political goals. 

Each of these different dimensions of power directs attention towards different aspects of an organisation and serves as a means of identifying questions designed to illuminate how power operates within it.  Using these questions, analysts and students of organisations will be able to make their own judgements about the extent to which organisations of different kinds empower or disempower those who are participants in it, including their members, supporters, leaders, administrators and so on. 

The first dimension, which I call Individualistic Power, focuses on how people use the resources they have (money, information, connections and so on) to realise goals, aims and preferences they might have.  An individual has power to the extent that they are equipped to achieve these goals. The question is which (if any) individuals will be more likely than before to achieve their goals – such as becoming a candidate, or ensuring the selection of another –  as a result of these reforms, for example because they are provided with resources that help them garner the appropriate support or that others are denied the ability to ‘out-resource’ them.  Thus, it would be possible to argue that strict spending limits for candidates seeking a nomination and for the organisations supporting them could potentially open up the field of possible candidates and make it more likely that a candidate not supported by a big pressure group or union could break through.  In other words, it makes certain kinds of ‘machine politics’ less viable and thereby empowers individuals at the expense of organised internal interests.

Of course, the capacity for those individuals to achieve selection assumes that they have access to the appropriate arenas in the first place.  This is a point that the second dimension, Strategic Power, focuses on.  Someone may have a wealth of talent and experience to become a candidate and yet fail because they are denied access to the process in the first place.  Conversely, knowledge of the rules and the capacity to manipulate them in one’s favour confers on some the ability to circumvent barriers in one’s own favour and block opponents, in other words to exercise Strategic Power.  The question, therefore, is whether reform proposals will make it easier or harder for (positionally powerful) individuals to block or frustrate others from accessing the process (or further change).  It would appear that these proposed reforms make it less likely that well-organised interests like trade unions within the Labour Party can manipulate the selection process.  On the other hand, it does not necessarily diminish the capacity of the party’s leadership and executive to interfere with, manipulate or take control of selection processes.  This will really depend on how the new rules are designed.  It is one of the benefits of this approach that it provides relatively simple tools with which such potential outcomes can be identified.

Shifting focus from individuals, the third dimension of power, Bureaucratic Control, is one in which organisation itself can be understood as powerful:  potential candidates can be disempowered by bureaucratic routine and organisational imperative (like having to complete lots of paperwork or the requirement for certain qualifications or experience) or hierarchies may deny those lower down the freedom to act as independent political agents (by for example controlling the selection process from the centre).  More positively, organisation empowers individuals to act politically and act in concert because it generates capacities and provides organisational back-up that makes them more effective than they would be alone.  The questions that arise here are, firstly, whether reform will therefore free activists or members from organisational constraints and allow them to express and realise their political goals, and secondly, the extent to which reforms remove power from the hierarchy and redistribute it amongst ordinary members, activists and supporters.  Once again, this will depend a great deal on how the reforms are designed and implemented.  Certainly it appears that allowing trade union members a direct relationship with the party and bringing potentially more people into selection processes, both as electors and, through primaries, as potential candidates could achieve both these things.  Once again, however, the knock-on effects are currently unknown. 

One of the key sources of power in political organisations is the ability to make and influence policy.  This was emphatically not the subject of Miliband’s speech on 9 July and is unlikely to be so for the time being.  Some years ago Robert Katz and Peter Mair argued that party hierarchies and members were involved in a trade off in which the latter would be given more power over candidate selection in return for relinquishing their say in policy to the centre.  This arguably has already happened with the restructuring of the party’s decision-making structures during the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, but what Miliband’s new proposals may also mean is a devolution of that power of selection away from members to a category of ‘registered supporters’.  Thus members have lost one power to the centre and another to the political periphery.  It is a version of what the leader’s brother, David, once described as ‘double devolution’.

With the fourth of these dimensions of power I move away from the formal party structures, rules and processes and towards aspects of party life that might often be overlooked in an analysis of power.  Constitutive Power is concerned with the culture of party life, and the everyday practices that go with it.  The everyday behaviour and customs that are usually taken for granted – like the conventions of language and speech that people follow – are important in shaping and producing the ‘practical consciousness’ of agents which are the basis of their everyday instinctive behaviour.  This kind of power, embedded in day-to-day practices, has a deep effect on the capacity of individuals to be effective political agents and is the means by which existing structures of domination are reproduced and accepted by those subject to it.  At the same time, however, actors can become conscious of these everyday practices through critical reflection, which means structures of domination can be challenged and recast in ways that invest in them capacities for their realisation as political agents.  The key question here, therefore, is to what extent will reforms affect party culture so as to facilitate the capacity for political (self) realisation i.e. does it invest members with useful political capacities?  The extent to which this question can be answered at this stage is moot.  However, a test for the success of these reforms will doubtless be the extent to which not just the rules change, but the culture and practices of the party’s internal politics which Falkirk has exposed.

Fifth, and finally, Disciplinary Control is focused on the minutely detailed techniques of control that are applied in areas of party life that are frequently overlooked in these contexts.  Often mundane, these are aspects of party life that nonetheless have an important role in how political agents are shaped and produced.  This, for example, includes the organisation of individuals into tasks and roles during election campaigns where the activity of individual canvassers and candidates is often carefully circumscribed, even down to the words used, at what time and in what place as well as the means by which activity is recorded, measured and assessed.  Discipline is also internalised through the imperatives of marketing and public relations which are so important to modern party politics. The appearance, gestures, words and looks of individual politicians and candidates in particular are carefully monitored, adjusted and corrected in line with expected norms.  But as well as being a clear source of domination this can also be understood as empowering and productive in the sense that it produces agents with the capacities to be effective actors in the current political milieu.  In modern politics, candidates will generally fail to advance or be elected if they are not in some sense ‘media friendly’ and conform to clearly accepted norms and expectations (such as certain kinds of clothes and hairstyles).  In other words it produces individuals with the right capacities – right down to gestures and voices – to succeed in politics.  To translate this into practical questions means having to ask two things about potential reforms: to what extent do they advance or set back mechanisms of control?  Does it mean more or less detailed organisation  and does it means more or less external scrutiny of individuals and, in particular, their bodies.  In this case, since primaries – even so-called ‘closed’ primaries – are likely to be more open to scrutiny, perhaps more likely to be covered in newspapers, blogs, social media and websites, it can only further expose candidates to the kind of surveillance and discipline to which professional politicians are already subject.  In this respect, it will perhaps be good training.  It is more than possible, however, that this will have an effect on the kinds of individuals that get selected in the first place and perhaps have the additional effect, therefore, of disempowering further those activists and members who are not appropriately attuned, whilst strengthening the influence of media, commentators and professionals.

In summary, therefore, as ‘brave’ and ‘radical’ as Ed Miliband’s reforms have been claimed to be across the political spectrum, the real test of whether they are truly empowering (and for whom) will depend on how the reforms are designed and implemented and how they work in practice.  It is vital to a meaningful assessment of these reforms that analysts are able to employ the right kinds of tools with which to examine them.  What I have set out here is my contribution to the development of such tools.

 

This post was originally published on 12 July 2013 by Birkbeck College’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life (www.csbppl.com).