Labour Divided: Corbyn versus the Parliamentary Labour Party

by Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

It has almost become a cliché to say that we have entered unchartered waters following the decision to leave the European Union. Leadership and direction is sorely lacking. The Prime Minister has resigned and the Conservative Party is about to become fixated on who succeeds him. At the same time, many of the main players on the Leave side of the argument appear to have absented themselves from the scene, or else are busy explaining how those who supported them are unlikely to get much of what they want, whilst millions have signed a petition demanding a second referendum. The country is in a state of shock after the result, even – it seems – the winners. Prime opportunity, you might think, for the Opposition to step into the breach, provide the leadership the country sorely needs and start to articulate a way out of this mess, a golden opportunity perhaps to shape the agenda and set a way forward.  Instead, we have – at the time of writing – approaching sixty resignations from the front bench and an emphatic vote of no confidence in the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected only nine months ago by a large majority of members. Why – many have reasonably asked – do this now?

At the heart of this are a series of divides that run through the party and that may prove very hard to reconcile.  First, it exposes a huge divide between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership, especially those that have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. Much was made of the £3 Registered Supporters and the role they played in getting him elected, but Corbyn also won the vote amongst longer-standing members and it seems likely that, if put to the vote, he would win again unless those who oppose him can get new members and registered supporters in to vote for an alternative candidate.  There is a caveat to this, however, since many of his supporters, younger ones especially, were also Remain supporters, if there is evidence that he somehow scuppered the Remain campaign, as has been suggested, then enough of them might turn against him. Secondly, it exposes a key divide which concerns many of those in the PLP, that between core, ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the formal industrial parts of the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated, and many of the more cosmopolitan, urban and left-wing ‘new’ membership who support Corbyn. The fear that many Labour MPs have is that those voters simply will not vote for the party whilst someone like Corbyn is the leader, thus damaging the party’s capacity to achieve anything on their behalf. However, and thirdly, it exposes at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.  One of the triggers – but by no means the only one – for many in the PLP has been Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign.  And yet those key Labour areas voted overwhelmingly for Leave.  Regardless of the current struggle, the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis, in danger of haemorrhaging support to UKIP in the North of England, making no headway in Scotland, and 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.

Some have tried to characterise this as some kind of ‘Blairite’ ‘coup’, perhaps with an eye on the forthcoming Chilcot report, but this is patent nonsense. None (perhaps bar one) of the Shadow cabinet members who resigned could reasonably described as ‘Blairites’ – they represent a broad spectrum of political opinion in the party – and very few of them were even around when the decisions under investigation by Chilcot were made.  Even though Corbyn won his leadership election with very little support from the PLP, many were prepared to go along with it for what they saw as the good of the party, and perhaps even in the hope that Corbyn might be able to reverse their decline in some of these areas. That MPs are doing this now is a sign that they do not believe this to be the case and, with the possibility of an election later this year, it was a case of move now or face electoral annihilation. It is also worth remembering that most MPs are in regular touch with their constituents, and if they thought that Corbyn was winning support, they would back him. It is evident that they do not believe this to be the case and, indeed, so much so that they are prepared to take such a risk at such a time. There is no doubt that it is an act of desperation on the part of MPs, and it is difficult to see how this will end well for the party.  If Corbyn stands again (and party rules are ambiguous over whether he has the automatic right to do so) and wins, then it is difficult to see how the party can hold together afterwards.  Indeed, even if he does not win, it is still difficult to see how this can end well. Labour, it seems, is more emphatically than ever, (at least) two parties. As one insider suggested yesterday, unless Corbyn gives way, a split between them is almost inevitable and it looks as if it might simply come down to a fight over which side keeps the party name and brand.

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Election Reflections: Who Should Be Most Satisfied?

By Dr Danny Rye

On May 5th 2016, UK political parties were subjected to the biggest electoral test since the general election last year.  Local council elections in England, devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales as well as Mayoral elections in London have provided an opportunity to assess the state of the parties and their prospects. What did we learn?  Some have suggested that there is something for everyone.  All parties can point to good news and highlight bad news for others, but overall, it should probably be the Conservative Party who are most satisfied with the results.

The Labour Party did not make the gains that an opposition arguably needs to make at this stage of the so-called ‘electoral cycle’ but neither was it subject to the level of meltdown that many were (gleefully in some cases) predicting.  They lost a net of 11 seats in total, held on to key councils including important bellweathers like Crawley and Nuneaton (the symbolic scene of Labour’s failure to reach into the middle ground in 2015) as well as winning back the mayoralty of London by a significant margin and in Bristol for the first time (where they also took control over the council). However, at a time when the Conservatives appear to be having yet another collective breakdown over Europe, and major policy intiatives are being dropped by the government under pressure from its own backbenchers, it has been widely suggested – not least by the Labour leader himself – that this is not good enough.

Labour failed to significantly eat into the Conservative vote – who made a net loss of one council and 49 seats – and were able to keep things relatively steady despite the distractions of Europe and significant tensions in the party over key policies, including a row over George Osborne’s flagship policy on academies announced only a few weeks ago (uncermoniously dropped the day after the polls closed). At best, then, the two main parties are electorally marking time in England, which is better news for the Conservatives than Labour.

Despite the continuing hegemony of the Scottish National Party (SNP), standing still is certainly not the order of the day in Scotland, where Labour have not only slipped behind the Conservatives, a position they have not been in since the 1950s, but in doing so found themselves in third place , which has not been the case since 1910 (before universal adult suffrage). The Scottish Conservatives, under their undoubtedly charismatic and appealing leader Ruth Davidson, have carved out a clear identity for themselves, in opposition to the SNP’s brand of moderately leftist nationalism they are becoming the clear go-to party for middle class voters who retain a unionist outlook. In doing so, they have made a chink in the hitherto impenetrable armour of the SNP, perhaps pointing to further interesting shifts in the political landscape north of the border. It may be that the Conservative ‘brand’ is finally being detoxified. Devolution has provided the party with the opportunity to shape a more specifically Scottish unionist identity which they have finally been able to take advantage of. This spells great danger for Scottish Labour who at times give the impression of being unable to decide which side of the fence they are on. Doubtless this rise in Conservative fortunes has much to do with their leader, an exceptionally talented politician by any standards,  something that the Scottish Conservatives (and Scottish Labour) may have lacked up to now, but it is ekeing out political space and contributing to shaping a political landscape that Labour may find itself squeezed out of.

In Wales, Labour continues to dominate despite losing Rhondda to Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru.  It is a significant breakthrough for Plaid, although Leanne Wood’s claim that it represents ‘a new dawn’ may be stretching it a bit.  For the time being Labour in Wales remain one of the most successful and formidable election machines in the country. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats in Wales have slide further into insignificance, retaining only one seat, whilst UKIP has replaced them as the fourth party in the assembly, coming from nowhere to gain seven list seats, which will provide them with a significant voice in the assembly. The Liberal Democrats in general will hope that their fortunes are bottoming out.  Elsewhere, they made a few modest gains in England (around 30 councillors), where they also successfully defended three councils and even gained one and held their seats in Scotland, where they slipped into fifth place behind the Green Party. They have only one remaining London assembly member and came a distant fourth in the mayoral election there.

So whilst Labour can argue, as its leadership has been doing so quite forcefully, that this represents a solid basis on which to make progress, and the leadership must be somewhat relieved that they have not been significantly pounded in England, there is little – as most analysts have argued – to suggest that Labour is ‘on course’ to win in 2020. Arguably, it has stabilised Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader for now, but further obstacles no doubt lay ahead and there are plenty of people waiting for him to stumble.  London remains a bright spot, but it is a place that seems increasingly out of tune with the rest of the United Kingdom (as the General Election results demonstrated).  Moreover, the party should be very concerned that its diminishing electoral relevance in Scotland makes the imperative to improve performance in England even greater. It is the Conservatives who are probably most relieved and have most cause to be satisfied.  Despite the government’s significant problems, even disarray at times, they have not been significantly damaged. They also will be celebrating the return of the party as a significant force in Scotland. Whilst this may not translate into seats at the next general election thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post, it lays a foundation on which they can build and, significantly, gives them a more legitimate voice in Scottish affairs as the official opposition. This can only benefit the party.

There is one major blot on their copy-book, however.  That they were so resoundingly defeated in London is put down in part to Zac Goldsmith’s (or rather Lynton Crosby’s) somewhat racially tinged campaign, attempting to link the Labour candidate (and eventual winner) Sadiq Khan, a liberal Muslim, with ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists’ and other unsavoury elements . It has attracted severe criticism amongst senior figures in the party and may more seriously have damaged the party’s standing amongst minority communities both in London and the rest of the country for some considerable time to come.  Given the importance the party has placed in recent years on attracting minority votes and attempting (often successfully) to overcome their Powellite legacy, this is a major failure and perhaps the one piece of bad news on an otherwise relatively good day for the Conservatives.

This post was originally published on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment Page

Labour’s Registered Supporters Scheme Should be Seen as a Success

by Dr Danny Rye

Since the 2015 election defeat the Labour Party has attracted many thousands of new members  and supporters, largely it seems as a result of the enthusiasm generated by the current leadership contest. What initially promised to be a very dull contest of triangulating centrists was electrified by the unexpected explosion in support for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result around half a million people or more will be eligible to participate in the contest to lead the party. On the face of it, this seems to buck a trend to which nearly all political parties in the Western World have been subject, that of disengagement and declining participation and membership. House of Commons Library figures suggest that in 2013 all significant parties in the UK – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens, UKIP and the SNP – had collectively less members than those now taking part in the Labour leadership contest.

What has made this possible, of course, is a key reform to the party’s internal election process put in place under Ed Miliband which were a response to bad publicity over the Falkirk selection process (involving Unite apparently recruiting members en masse in order to ensure the adoption of their favoured candidate). The outcome of the ensuing Collins Review was the abolition of the party’s electoral college and its replacement with a system of one member one vote, including individual trade unionists who signed up as ‘Affiliated Supporters’ and enhanced with the enfranchisement of a new category of Registered Supporters, allowing individuals who registered by signing a declaration of support and paid a small fee to participate in the ballot for leader. This, the report said, meant ‘the final realisation of the … process that was begun by John Smith thirty years ago’ towards One Member One Vote in leadership contests.

One might think that the fact that the effect this scheme has had on participation levels would be something for those concerned with the state of participatory democracy to celebrate. However, there has been a growing strand of commentary in the British press and media (now thankfully being countered by some such as Tom Baldwin) which suggests that somehow the groundswell of supporters and members that have signed up to Labour since the election defeat in May should be seen as a disaster and that they are ‘killing the party’. Whilst the scheme is not perfect, this kind of response strikes me as overdramatic. Political parties have been struggling for decades to identify ways in which they can attract new supporters and members, largely without significant or sustained success. Although some ‘insurgent’ political parties have in recent months had some impact in terms of membership – UKIP claim well over 40,000 members, the Greens over 60,000, whilst the SNP claims over 100,000 – these (with the exception of the SNP in its specific national context) represent small numbers compared with the large memberships the main parties claimed in the past (3 to 4 million between them by some estimates), which have been in inexorable decline. Political parties seem to have been at a loss of what do about it. The Conservative Party, seemingly giving up on the idea of membership altogether, have even experimented with open primaries, allowing anyone to participate in selecting candidates for Parliament  which involve making no commitment to the party at all (although the resulting selection in Totnes of an independent-minded MP in Sarah Wollaston may have given them cause to think again).

Labour’s experiment with the registered supporters scheme in conjunction with a high profile leadership contest has been in many respects, therefore, a potential breakthrough. There has been much hype and hysteria about so-called infiltrators or ‘entryists’ from either the hard left or the right, including a Tory MP, and clearly the party might need to think about how it polices its borders, but a certain amount of ambiguity is going to be inevitable if parties are to be genuinely more open and engaged with the public beyond the usual, and dwindling, band of activists. In its favour, the scheme provides a simple and easy way in which people can indicate their support for a political party and their willingness to get involved on some level. It is thus a pool of potential new members, activists and donors. The fact that they have to sign up and pay a small fee to join up gives the party the opportunity, by widening support, to then deepen it.  Certainly not all of these supporters will make the leap into membership, perhaps even a majority will not, but the most important question for Labour is whether – whoever actually wins the leadership election – the party can hold on to enough of these new members and supporters and convert them into activists and participants.

It would be a mistake therefore to unravel the scheme completely, although some adjustment, for example to guard against systematic infiltration by hostile groups or individuals, may be necessary.  However, handled correctly, it could be a positive boon for the future of the Labour Party, firstly by bringing a wider range of voices into debates about the party’s direction and, secondly, by harnessing greater potential for electoral mobilisation and the growth of more committed members and activists, which was the point of the Registered Supporters scheme in the first place.  It might even be a model that other parties would consider emulating in order to arrest the decline in participation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, for the Labour Party in particular, the opportunity is to finally have a proper debate about what its response to so-called ‘austerity’ should be and to engage a wider movement of participants in that process can only be a positive thing.  A wider range of voices and participants in this debate, then, is surely welcome. Together, and with the involvement of many thousands of new supporters, members and activists, they might be able to produce a coherent, genuine and realistic response to austerity with popular appeal that is rooted in centre-left ideas and has the backing of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters across the Labour family. If so, this will be in no small part due to the life that the Registered Supporters scheme has injected into the party. That should be celebrated on every wing of the party and perhaps be watched closely by officials and analysts of political parties in general.

This post was originally published on the Political Studies Association website here

A victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race could bring about a realignment of British politics

Jeremy Corbyn looks set to win the Labour leadership election, despite initially being pegged as a no-hope also-ran. The conservative right are cheering him on, seeing the Islington North MP as ushering in a period of Conservative Party hegemony. But is he being underestimated? Danny Rye argues that a Corbyn-led party could see a realignment of not just the Labour Party, but British politics, in a way which brings the traditional left back into the mainstream. 

The unexpected ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign has clearly been a boon for the press, the commentariat and academics. What was looking like a dull and predictable contest has been electrified, and many column inches have been filled with speculation on what it all means for the left, the Labour Party and British politics. With some notable exceptions, much of what has been written suggests bad news for the party: stories about ‘entryism’, warnings of internal strife and electoral catastrophe echo the travails of the 1980s. However, I may be a hopeless optimist, but this is not the 1980s and it is possible to take a more positive view without buying wholesale into the Corbyn phenomenon.

Whether he wins or loses, an opportunity exists to revitalise and reinvigorate the centre-left, by reconnecting the Labour Party with the left more broadly and challenging it to refresh its ideas. There are three aspects to this: the effect of this development on the broader democratic left, the effect on the Labour Party in particular and its impact on the key lines of debate in British politics.

Firstly, it could mean a revitalised left wing voice in mainstream British politics. The Corbyn campaign has clearly galvanised activists both inside and outside the party, and has the potential to reconnect the broader democratic left to the political mainstream. This appears to be made up of two elements: those on the left in the Labour Party and those on the broader democratic left outside it. The former – many of whom are the most active, engaged and loyal members who regularly attend meetings and are out on the doorstep making the party’s case – have become revivified and are less willing to moderate their views in the electoral interests of the party, as they had been during the New Labour era.

This may explain why Corbyn has done so well in terms of constituency nominations. In those nomination meetings, the sound of yearning for a Labour Party more true to itself and its members has been heard quite clearly. The latter, including former members and activists who had given up hope that it would ever provide a home for them again, are increasingly enthused that they might actually have some kind of voice in political debate and have thus rejoined, or signed up as Affiliated or Registered Supporters in order to vote for Corbyn. Added to that are, it appears, some who may never have voted Labour before (perhaps supporting other left-wing parties at previous elections, or who have not voted at all), but who would be willing to engage in a party they felt to be more clearly distinguished from the Conservatives and more robust in its opposition to austerity.

Secondly, the consequences for the Labour Party might be that it finally has the debate that it badly needs to have. During its dark days of electoral failure and internal conflict in the 1980s, Keith Waterhouse pointed out that, however bad things looked, there was too much life left in the party for its decline to be terminal. Indeed, the conflict between left and right, between power and principle has been part of what seems to give the party energy as much as disables it. The catastrophic rift with MacDonald in the 1930s, the battles with Bevanites in the 1950s, and those with Bennites in the 1980s were all desperately damaging to the party and yet presaged significant electoral and political successes. However, in recent years, it appeared that with New Labour, the right’s ascendancy within the party was so complete that there was no longer any serious debate left to be had. Ed Miliband’s defeat only strengthened the argument that any move towards the left, however small, would be electoral suicide.

But the problem for the right was that their very ascendancy has arguably made them complacent and devoid of new ideas. Thus, despite much talk about the party needing to have a ‘debate’, the mainstream candidates singularly failed to engage in one. Rather than addressing the question of what actually had gone wrong for Labour Party in any meaningful way or addressing the question of what the Labour Party is actually for, the response appeared to be simply that the party’s platform was not ‘right wing’ or ‘centrist’ enough, a response at least as simplistic as one which says it was not ‘left wing’ enough. Some MPs lent Corbyn their nominations despite not supporting him in order to promote ‘debate’ and they have perhaps got more than they bargained for. Nevertheless, the party badly needs to have it and, for good or ill, perhaps that debate might finally begin. It is heartening that there does still appear to be life in the party and that there are enough people who still care on both sides of the debate to get involved. Thus, what was consequently looking like a routine and very dull exercise in choosing who might be the least offensive candidate to Conservative swing-voters, now looks like something much more important, or at least more interesting.

If this debate is to be productive, however, it needs to be inclusive of both the left and right of the party. Name calling and making personalised accusations will not produce anything other than bitterness. The left, revitalised by the campaign, can no longer be ignored in the party, whatever the result. But it will need to draw in new ideas, energy and expertise if it is to produce a more broadly appealing vision and maintain momentum beyond its most enthusiastic supporters. Although some of the more closed-minded elements of the left might not welcome it, something that will help this process is the somewhat belated recognition by party centrists of their own failures. Hence, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna’s recent call for the right and the ‘soft left’ in the party to cooperate on ‘Labour for the Common Good’, with the aim of articulating a coherent political vision for a moderate, electorally oriented Labour Party.

Suddenly the future of social democracy and the centre left is up for grabs and there is an opportunity to both produce new ideas and galvanise enthusiasm and engagement amongst activists of all stripes in the Labour movement. The danger is that this energy will be wasted on bitter infighting. The opportunity is that the creative energy this generates could be galvanised and turned into something that can respond in innovative ways to the Conservatives and their ideologically driven ‘austerity’ agenda.

The great risk is that a prolonged period of internal debate means that the Labour Party will be out of power for an extended period of time. The consequences of this could be a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s in which Labour was locked out of government and a long Conservative hegemony ensured that any version of the left’s agenda would not be implemented. This, indeed, is the fear of many mainstream Labour members and leaders. From this point of view, the ascendancy of Corbyn could be seen as a boost for the Conservative Party and its political strategy. However, and this is my third point, the opportunity is that, rather than simply attempting to navigate a landscape fashioned by its political enemies, the Labour Party can seek to reshape the terms of debate. Out of the clash of ideas, perhaps a fresh, distinctive response to austerity can be fashioned, backed up by a new generation of activists which reconnect it with the broader democratic left in British Politics. This might have the additional positive effect of helping to stem at least some of the decline in political engagement and participation.

Thus, an optimistic view might be to see this as an opportunity for all strands of thought in the Labour Party – left, right and centre – to respond to the austerity agenda, not by chasing the tail of Conservative political strategy but by actually developing a coherent critique and appealing alternatives of its own. In other words, challenging orthodoxy rather than simply moderating it, producing distinctive ideas, rooted in centre-left thinking and traditions, rather than moderating right wing thinking with the odd left-ish idea.

It is possible, therefore, that this could represent an important moment for the left in Britain – a realignment of sorts which brings the broader left back into the political and Parliamentary mainstream by providing it with a legitimate voice within a mainstream political party. One which forces the Labour Party to reassess what and who it is for and stimulates ‘moderate’ voices on the left into more imaginative responses that engage with a broader spectrum of left-wing ideas and traditions whilst maintaining the potential for a broad appeal.

Or it may be that I am just a hopeless optimist.

This post originally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog here

In Defence of the Party

Reflections on ‘After the Party’ seminar held on 24 April 2014 at Birkbeck University of London , Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life.

Political parties are still our best hope for articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities, but they need renewal.

By Dr Danny Rye

Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck University of London

It is almost a truism to say that political parties are in decline. Their memberships have dwindled away to historically low numbers, and although they are still effective vehicles for recruiting candidates and political elites and organising government and opposition, their capacity to fulfil their democratic roles of articulating and aggregating interests, mobilising and integrating populations, facilitating popular choice and control are seriously in doubt. Thus, if this is the case and the party is dead or dying, what comes after the party?

There were two broad strands of opinion on the panel. The first, represented by Neal Lawson of Compass and Liam Barrington-Bush (from More Like People), was that parties as we know them are all but finished as bridges between the electorate and the state and urgently need to be replaced by something more relevant and effective.

Lawson argued that social media facilitates a flattening process which reduces the cost of organisation and makes a more egalitarian, cooperative politics possible, or at least easier. This, he says, can support the development of a kind of politics where we solve problems ourselves rather than ‘waiting for heroes’ to do so for us. The future of political organisation needs to be more like an ‘open tribe’, pluralistic, adaptive and relational. For Barrington-Bush self-organisation is the key. Institutions like parties are based on a lack of trust in people and empowers an enlightened elite over ordinary people. People are far better at self-organising than they are given credit for and we don’t need top down strategies or elites to tell us what to do. What is needed is more autonomy: the kinds of networks that have emerged out of the Occupy movement, which have provided practical solutions to problems of everything from housing and finance to participative decision-making show us what can be done when people are free to organise themselves.

The second broad line of argument, represented by Nick Anstead of the LSE and James Dennis – a research student at Royal Holloway – was that parties are by no means dead but need to adapt to survive.

Anstead argued that parties have become distant and elitist, vacating the social arenas and become subsumed into an elitist, state-centred vehicle for winning power. Part of this has been motivated by the desire of political leaders to wrest control of their parties from a dwindling band of ideological activists who alienated the mainstream electorate (New Labour springs to mind). In doing so, however, political elites have themselves alienated the public by eroding the ‘bridge’ between them. The possibility that technology offers is material with which to rebuild that bridge, creating space for participation, dialogue and pluralism. Dennis pointed out that organisations like 38 Degrees are increasingly acting as that bridge. Most famous for mobilising large-scale single issue campaigns via the web and social media, they are increasingly focusing energy on building capacity, providing people and communities with the tools they need to organise their own campaigns through the use of web tools and templates. Crucial to this model is not by-passing political parties, but communicating and working with them as articulators of public interest.

The common theme that emerges from these arguments is that mainstream political parties have a problem in that they simply haven’t adapted to the changing social and political landscape. Their structures and organisation are products of a bygone age when they were not only political machines but the centre of social life in many communities (Conservative Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs for example), and – especially in Labour’s case –working lives too. As this social role has diminished so has the articulation of distinctive class interests, and thus their ability to mobilise. The world has changed and so has the way people relate to each other, socialise and organise. People are less inclined to join and submit to the disciplines of ‘traditional’ party life. They are less deferent, more articulate about their rights and opinions and, with the help of social media, more able to organise and express themselves. If they are to survive – and I would argue that it is important that they do – parties need to recognise and embrace this.

All of this points towards possibilities for the renewal of political participation facilitated in part by the possibilities that social media provides. This is not an idea which is exclusive to the left either nor one that mainstream parties have ignored: from the right, Douglas Carswell amongst others, are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the web offers for refreshing political participation and activism. Peter Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister has argued that their respective parties’ fortunes can be revived by redefining the relationship between supporters, members and party elites, an idea which is being taken very seriously within the Labour Party. Indeed, the signs are that parties are increasingly seeking to blur the distinction between ‘formal’ members and less formal supporters in the hope of reviving participation. The way in which the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 harnessed activism through technology has been held up as something of a model to learn from.

However, these kinds of approaches are still somewhat elite driven and although perhaps it goes some way to addressing problems of participation, it does not go far enough. Too often the problem of political engagement, why aren’t people joining, campaigning and voting for them is framed as a problem that political parties need to solve by making a better product, or by marketing it better. This misses the point and indeed perhaps says something about what theproblem is in the first place. It is not a case so much of parties ‘listening’ or ‘responding’ to potential voters, so much as to open up and let other voices in. To survive, in other words, parties need to let go.

Nonetheless, we cannot reject parties out of hand. Parties also provide a continuity of organisation and an access to political power at a national level that flatter, more transient forms of self-organisation cannot so easily do. As Barbara Zollner of Birkbeck pointed out, although social media and spontaneous forms of grass-roots organisation have played crucial roles in recent revolutions in the Middle East in particular, the failure of more traditional forms of organisation like parties, has perhaps gone some way to undoing them in places like Egypt especially. The powerful elites in society (like the Egyptian army) are well-organised and disciplined and therefore those that seek to challenge them must be also.

Thus parties may have isolated and distanced themselves in recent years, but they are still our best hope of providing a channel through which the electorate’s voice can be heard in the halls of government, articulating public desires and demands and providing for the representation of communities. These roles are vital to democratic health and to provide them, parties need to re-imagine themselves. They need to understand themselves as part of wider movements and thus be much more open, much more willing to allow a plurality of voices to find articulation, much less concerned with command and control. This is vital to the renewed relevance and flourishing of organisations which at their best can provide some form of linkage, however filtered or indirect, between the political elite and the ordinary voter.

But the rest of us too must recognise that although politics can be understood as many things – the pursuit of the ‘good-life’ or the good society, the pursuit of power –it is also in part the art of compromise. The way in which we organise ourselves can enhance the autonomy of individuals and communities and maximise political empowerment, but that does not mean that we can always get what we want. It does, however, mean that we might have more chance of getting heard.

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).