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).

Analysing intra-ideological disputes in the intermediate public sphere reveals why the British left has failed to develop coherent solutions to the economic crisis.

Based on a reading of Alan Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational Change and Left Political Economy after New Labour’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations 15:1, 70-88.

by Danny Rye

In a recent article for the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Alan Finlayson argues that the failure of the British left to develop a coherent response to the ongoing economic crisis is, in part at least, the result of a dispute between state-oriented Keynesians and Polanyians[1] concerned with grass-roots issue of equality, which is encouraged by the competitive nature of the market in which the advocates of these differing views operate.

The ideas, solutions and frameworks that underpin major policy transitions, he says, are embedded in existing ideological communities which provide resources for debates to draw on and an anchor point from which to engage with outside ideas.  New policy paradigms emerge from a process of mediating between specific proposals and general philosophical commitments.  Thus, monetarism emerged as a specific solution to the economic problems of the 1970s on the political right because it was consistent with ideological frameworks on the right.  However, the British left has singularly failed to produce a coherent response to the current economic crisis: why?

With the decline of traditional forms of participation in political parties, an increasingly important context for the emergence of new narratives is the ‘intermediate public sphere’ located between the realm of policy professionals and the public.  On the left, it encompasses the Labour Party, associated factions and parties, trade unions, pressure groups, think-tanks, journalists and commentators, bloggers and more.  It represents therefore a relatively diverse sphere of intra-ideological debate situated in various institutional locations. It provides a structure for debate and facilitates the development of solutions congruent with ideological traditions.  Crucially, moreover, this is the basis on which supporters can be persuaded to communicate and promote those solutions in the wider public sphere.  In short, the intermediate sphere provides a link to the general public essential for the dissemination of policy ideas.

Exploration of this sphere suggests that the left’s failure is not for want of something to say but because it has in a sense too much to say.  The British left is embroiled in an intermediate level dispute at the core of which is a disagreement over the conceptualisation of ‘the state’ and ‘equality’.  This is not a traditional ‘left-right’ cleavage as such but one between those advocating a ‘Polanyian’ ethical socialism, with a core philosophical commitment to grass-roots democratisation and anti-commodification (famously associated with ‘Blue Labour’), and those of a more ‘Keynesian’ persuasion who see promoting equality and economic stability via state intervention as being the key purpose of social democracy.

Keynesians see the interventionist state and equality as going hand-in-glove and regard Polanyians as uninterested in equality for ordinary people.  Polanyians are more ambivalent about the state’s role, being committed to a pluralistic conception of participatory democracy rather than centralised state activity.  To them, Keynesians are elitists, hostile to the political participation of those same ordinary people.

This seems to indicate that all the ideational elements for responding to the crisis are present in the debate on the British left.  All that needs to be resolved is their precise configuration.  So why the failure to develop a narrative?

A key to resolving these arguments is the development of innovative solutions to which elements of both can consent but, ideational differences aside, a crucial barrier to this is the politics of the sphere itself.  The competitive policy market between advocates of different views, their need to maintain brand images and supporters and the pressures of the short-term political cycle militates against the forging of a common front and prevents the emergence of new patterns of ideological thinking which can break through into the mainstream.

Before the left can put forward coherent proposals for solutions to our economic woes, then, it appears that rather than competing with each other for ‘market share’, they need to start talking to each other about how their ideas might be creatively and usefully synthesised so as to be applicable to the very real problems we face.


[1] after Hungarian social theorist and economist Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation

The Party’s (Not Quite) Over: A New Framework for Analysing Power in Political Organisation

Paper delivered to the 2013 Political Studies Association Conference in Cardiff.  A copy of the written version can be found on the Conference Website

By Danny Rye

Despite rumours of their decline, political parties are still central to political analysis. In particular, they are excellent sites for the analysis of political power because as well as vehicles for its pursuit, the party is itself a locus of power struggles and relations. It therefore provides a means of advancing theoretical claims about how power operates in the modern world.

My approach challenges the assumptions and modalities underlying the study of political organisations which too often lacks explicit or systematic theorisation of power and has failed to keep up with developments in theory about power and power relations.

I propose a new approach to the analysis power by means of an innovative theoretical framework. Power is understood as a rich, multi-layered concept, combining key strands from diverse intellectual traditions: behaviouralist, Weberian, structural and Foucauldian accounts. I draw on these approaches to construct an account of parties as social and cultural organisations, disciplinary structures and complex networks of people and practices.

This paper consists of a summary of my theoretical framework which was delivered to the Political Studies Association annual conference held at Cardiff City Hall on 27 March 2013.  In my forthcoming book Political Parties and the Concept of Power to be published by Palgrave later in 2013, this framework is combined with original field research, adding up to an original, challenging approach to researching power that accounts for individuals, rules, organisation and structure, party culture as well as the everyday mundane details and routines of party life.

A full copy of the paper can be found here.

Why Parties Need to Change But Not Too Much.

Parties need to adapt to the changing ways in which people engage in politics, but they must also challenge  individualised consumerist politics and provide a platform for collective decision-making and accountability.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a recent article for Labour Uncut, Peter Watt – a former General Secretary of the Labour Party – argued that traditional political parties are under threat.  Parties need to wake up to how the ways in which people engage (or not) with politics have changed.  In particular, parties need to use social media platforms to engage with members of the public beyond the narrow confines of a community of politicians or activists.  They need to seek invitations into and meet people in their worlds rather than making ‘clumsy attempts’ to entice them into traditional political settings.

This would require no less than a revolution, not just in the way that political parties engage with the outside world, but also how they are organised: for example becoming ‘flatter’, more ‘networked’, a new kind of ‘cyber party’ using web-based technologies to build relationships directly with voters.  This perhaps means departing from out-dated notions of ‘membership’ which suited the age of the mass class-based party, but is out of step with political engagement in the contemporary world (indeed, the Labour Party may have taken an important step towards this already with the launch last year of the Labour Supporters Network).

On the face of it, this is a sensible thing for parties to do.  Since the heyday of two party politics, we have undergone a social revolution.  People do not feel they need to be committed traditional political parties anymore: the social role they used to play has long been lost to the market (which is a problem all social institutions like churches, clubs and societies have faced) and allegiances based on class have dissolved, being replaced by a more fragmented identity politics, or by brands and consumer-oriented niche interests.  Similarly, political activity and commitments have shifted into the increasingly crowded market-place of single issue causes (like conservation or aid) and specialised interests, or relatively spontaneous ‘grass-roots’ campaigns such as those organised by 38 Degrees or Occupy.  In short, no one has to submit to the disciplines of party life because one can pick and choose which causes to support with no need for messy compromise or accommodation.

Underlying all this is a consumerist ideology, in which ‘free’ individuals make rational decisions based on our interests and desires.  The modern consumer-citizen can expect to get what she wants when she wants it, with little concern for ‘collective’ or ‘class’ interest, which belong to the drab paternalistic world of the past.   And if people do not need political parties to meet their interests, then all they are is a means by which the powerful and those that wish to join them seek to dominate others.  Why, then, should anyone else want to participate in them?  Indeed, why should parties as we know them even exist in a world where everyone potentially has their own platform?

I would argue that parties must have a future if representative democracy is to remain healthy.  Yes, they must change and adapt to the world as it is, but they must also provide a challenge to the individualistic and atomised politics, which ultimately lead to politics being dominated by remote elites.  Thus, any attempt to meet and engage people in ‘their worlds’ must not be to the detriment of three crucial roles that parties have to different degrees played in representative democracies.

Firstly, parties provide a structure for collective political activity and expression which individualised media and fragmented causes cannot.  In particular, the party provides an arena for debate and a system for making and influencing policy.  It provides clear rules and procedures and a context of shared values that gives focus and meaning to the process and its outcomes, even if that outcome is not the one desired by all participants.  Party members and activists I have interviewed as part of my own research have talked about how much they have valued being able to contribute to debates, even when they knew they would probably not get their way.  In attempting to attract more support, parties must not lose sight of this.  It is something that the fragmented politics of single issues and social media cannot offer.

Meeting the demands of all the fragmented competitive interests in society is impossible and  dividing people up into specific causes and atomised voices undermines the ability of people to act collectively.  If we cannot act collectively we run the risk of becoming dominated by those that can, or who do not need to: that is, ever more remote political elites and the powerful interest groups lobbying for a small slice of the policy pie. This leads the individual even less able to influence the context and content of politics, despite the opportunities they have to express their opinions and pursue their desires.  Parties can play an important role in educating people to understand this and providing them with a platform that is effective because it is collective.

Secondly, parties can and should provide some kind of ‘linkage’ between those that seek to govern and the generality of voters.  This, many would argue, is precisely the reason they must change.  However, the quality of this linkage is crucial too:  it is vital that action designed to make parties more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ avoids the danger of hollowing them out even further.  Providing a more direct transmission belt between party representatives and the public could be an important act of ‘democratisation’ but the danger is that it bypasses the organised, collective power of a membership and replaces it with an uneven relationship between an elite with all the advantages and resources and a series of fragmented voices with no collective authority or power.  A democratic party organisation can supply that collective authority to speak to and challenge elites which a ‘network’ cannot.

Vibrant political parties that engage with supporters and give them real power can be vital to ensuring that the needs of real communities are reflected in the policy process, in other words to ensure that parties remain rooted in the places in which people live.  Of course, that means branching out into online communities too.  But however parties respond to the challenges of modern life, they must attempt to engage people not only by meeting them in their worlds on their terms, but also by challenging the atomisation of consumerist politics and drawing people into a greater sense of collective life.  Social media is part of this and must be used to help bring it about, but the medium must not become the message and it must not end up driving politics in a direction which is even more atomised and unequal.

This brings me to the third reason why so-called ‘traditional’ parties remain important:  stable, healthy party organisations with meaningful accountability mechanisms are a crucial check on overmighty leaders.  In our political system, parties are the means by which leaders are selected and their support sustained.  Whereas in some systems, parties are vehicles for leaders and can be discarded when they are no longer of use, here leaders are arguably vehicles for parties.  Thus they can be removed if they become detached, remote, or a threat to the political or electoral health of the party.  ‘Network’ parties in which political leaders communicate directly with the voters may allow leaders to circumvent the need for an active and powerful membership base whilst at the same time appearing to be more ‘democratic’.  This may make them more politically nimble and even more responsive to the public in some sense, but without proper structures of accountability and powers of recall, parties may be little more than empty brands, engaged with individuals on a superficial level: surfing the mood of the mass whilst providing no means to check the power of leaders and replace them from time to time.

Thus, in summary, whilst I agree with Peter Watt that parties must adapt to new realities, this must not be a pretext for abandoning the democratic role that old-fashioned organisations can play.  I do not suggest that parties as they are now perform these roles perfectly and at times there have been worrying indications that parties are responding to problems like membership decline by attempting to undermine the basis for it.

Parties are collective organisations trying to survive in an individualised age.  They are hierarchical broadcasters in an era of networks and interactive social media.  But whilst they must adapt to these changing modes of communication and engagement, they need to do so in such a way that provides a challenge to the individualism and atomisation that poses very real dangers to democracy.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 22 MARCH 2013 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London

Halting Progress?

Rather than tackling political enemies head-on over clear ideological dividing lines, sometimes it can be more effective to tackle them indirectly through the application of ‘bureaucratic’ procedures.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a speech to the GMB union conference recently, leader Paul Kenny threatened to ‘outlaw’ Labour Party pressure group Progress, accusing it of acting as ‘a party within a party, funded by external interests’.  In a motion to the same conference Progress is compared directly with the Militant Tendency, accused of briefing against the party’s leader and undermining the its London mayoral campaign.

Progress, a self-proclaimed ‘New Labour’ pressure group funded largely by Lord (David) Sainsbury, is not a natural ally of left-wing union leaders but does that justify such talk from Kenny?  Pressure groups are hardly unusual in political parties and Labour has traditionally been home to many groups peddling differing brands of left-wing and liberal politics (although the Blair years were unusually quiet on the faction front).  The direct comparison with Militant presents Progress, however, as something more sinister than a mere pressure group: a clandestine alien presence, a foreign body seeking to subvert the Labour Party to its own ends.

This comparison is overstated.  Quite apart from the vast ideological chasm between the two, there are obvious differences between Progress and Militant:  firstly, Progress (unlike Militant) does not deny being an organisation and is relatively open about its aims and membership; secondly, Progress though not directly affiliated to the Labour Party works within it openly whereas Militant was an ‘entryist’ group dedicated to covert colonisation from within.

We should take this seriously because it is symptomatic of a power struggle between two competing sets of interests in the party looking to influence the party’s future direction.  Indeed, this is clear from the wording of the GMB motion which points out disapprovingly that ‘Progress advances the strategy of accepting Tory arguments for public spending cuts’.  This may be politically reprehensible from a left-wing point-of-view but hardly an offence deserving of expulsion.  Perhaps more seriously, it accuses the group of conducting ‘factional campaigns to undermine Labour candidates’, most notably in relation to the London Mayoral election.  However, given that the evidence presented is an issue of Progress in November 2011 ‘casting doubt’ on Ken Livingstone’s suitability as a candidate, it hardly amounts to a systematic campaign to undermine left-wing candidates.

Nonetheless, if Union leaders like Kenny really wanted to draw lessons from the Militant episode they should take note of how the party eventually dealt with them successfully after years of neglect and failure.  The key, it turns out, is to be less political and more bureaucratic.

Political scientists are interested in struggles like this because of what they say about power and one of the lessons of the party’s struggle with Militant in the 1980s is that sometimes the most effective exercise power is the less obvious one.  Rather than meet political enemies head-on over clear ideological dividing lines it might be more effective to tackle them indirectly through the application of the right kinds of bureaucratic procedures.  Attempts to confront Militant in the Labour Party of the early-1980s, simply entangled the party in protracted procedural and legal wrangling, often with no discernable outcome except public embarrassment and bad publicity for the party, leaving it looking both divided and weak.

The eventual solution was one both more indirect and effective.  Responsibility for discipline of members was removed from the party’s main political body and transferred to a new independent committee bound by clear rules and procedures that were legally water-tight.   The process of party discipline was thereby effectively depoliticised, becoming more bureaucratic and rule-based.  Contrary to popular opinion about bureaucracy, this immediately made discipline more effective and efficient.

This new regime was not (ostensibly at least) concerned with individual actions, ideas or beliefs but, as Larry Whitty the party’s General Secretary put it at the time ‘a sustained period of conduct’ such as standing against an official party candidate[1] and ‘bringing the party into disrepute’ which specifically included membership of organisations deemed ‘incompatible’ because of the way they or their activities were structured.

The result of this legalistic, rule-based approach was to actually achieve the political objectives the party leadership sought and had expressed in Neil Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech.  However, it was precisely successful because members of Militant could now be explicitly and clearly pursued for breaking party rules rather than than for their political beliefs.  It also made the expulsions more acceptable to those on the emerging ‘soft-left’, such as Clare Short, who had previously harboured doubts about so-called ‘witch-hunts’ of left-wingers but was soon at the forefront of their prosecution.  In the years immediately following the rule change 119 members were charged with Militant membership, of which 112 were expelled.

Greater clarity of organisational (as opposed to ideological) rules and the establishment of clear procedure enabled the party to purge itself of organised groups hostile to the leadership (including the Militant Tendency) much more efficiently. Furthermore, it meant that now there was a permanent process in which cases such as these could be heard and resolved relatively quickly and efficiently.

The lesson therefore is that the investigation and punishment of those who break rules is made simpler by a) the establishment and enforcement of new and existing rules and b) clear procedures for investigation and the application of sanctions.   Discipline in other words becomes depersonalised, procedural and concerns the efficacy of the party’s ability to effectively pursue broadly electoral goals rather than specific political or ideological ones.

By ‘letting go’ of the process of discipline and passing it over to a new bureaucratic, rule-based committee, party leaders actually got more of what they wanted.  Discipline became a process by which certain kinds of organised voices were excluded and ruled out of the political arena.  It remains that such rule changes may initially require an explicit power-struggle.  However, once implemented, these rules and processes take on a life of their own.  Thus, this case illuminates how power can be more effective when it works more subtly through the routine procedures and functioning of party organisation to discipline members.  Punishments and exclusions for specifically ideological reasons look too much like the ‘witch-hunts’ of the 1950s in reverse, and it was an understanding of this, rather than sabre-rattling, that was crucial to the successful expulsion of Militant in the 1980s.

Perhaps it is a recognistion of this that lays behind ASLEF’s recent submission to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).   The train driver’s union is reported to have submitted major rule changes with the apparent aim of keeping groups like Progress under control.  The proposals would require all non-affiliated organisations engaging in internal activity to notify the national party of all legally reportable donations received and to transfer 50% of all donations received beyond the first £25,000 per annum to the Labour Party nationally.  Furthermore, it would also require incorporated organisations that engage in internal activity to provide all legal and financial documentation to the NEC on request in order to ensure that organisations ‘meet acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency’.  Progress have responded by promising to institute greater transparency, including greater disclosure of donors and sponsors and a more democratic governance structure.  As well they might.  Should ASLEF’s proposed changes become incorporated into party rules, Kenny and his supporters may get their way with or without a formal ban.  Progress may simply find itself crushed under the wheels of the party’s bureaucratic rules, rendering any moves to ‘outlaw’ it unnecessary.

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9 JULY 2012 by the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck College University of London


[1] Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1986