After elitism

James Purnell heralds a return to movement politics

James Purnell's article in today's Guardian is interesting on a number of counts. As Sunder Katwala has pointed out, few, if any, New Labour figures have been so unequivocal in rejecting Thatcherism as "wicked". But Purnell is no less interesting in what he says about the politics of the future as the politics of the past.

First, he takes a distinctive step forward in endorsing the proposal, developed by London Citizens, to use 1 per cent of the payback of the bank bailout to finance to a new system of locally based banks. The funds would be managed, as I understand it, by bodies on which major groups from civil society -- trade unions, community groups -- would sit. Funds would have to be invested in the local economy. This is a measure that, at once, addresses inequality of wealth (rather than just income) and offers a way of increasing democratic control over investment -- without centralising investment in the hands of the state. Although New Labour has taken positive steps to introduce "asset-based welfare" (such as in the form of the Child Trust Fund), this proposal takes the struggle against wealth and power inequality into new and, for neoliberals, more disquieting territory.

Second, related to this proposal, Purnell resituates Labour politics in the context of a wider, pluralistic social movement. Rather than just bemoaning the decline of Labour Party activism, he acknowledges the enormous contribution to progressive politics of new, citizen-organising initiatives such as London Citizens. Certainly, London Citizens is quite separate from Labour, as its distinctively radical policy agenda indicates. But Purnell grasps that the spirit of dissenting civic radicalism that built Labour is very much alive and well in groups of this kind. "I imagine," he writes, "that being at a London Citizens meeting would feel quite familiar to Keir Hardie and the trade unionists and churchgoers who founded the Labour movement."

The point is not, of course, to absorb London Citizens into Labour politics -- a forlorn hope, were Purnell foolish enough to entertain it (which he isn't). Rather, the point is to think of Labour politics as one force on a wider terrain of progressive forces, including such organisations.

This way of looking at progressive politics marks a clear break from the elitism of New Labour. The New Labour model of progressive politics, which has some affinity with that of the earlier revisionist, Croslandite wing of the Labour Party, consists in getting well-intentioned social democratic politicians elected to high office. They then pull the levers of a centralised state machine to deliver better (more socially just) outcomes. Popular activism -- except within limits clearly and narrowly defined from the centre (aka "new localism"?) -- is viewed as unnecessary, if not positively dangerous.

The problem is that, without the support -- and constraints -- provided by wider citizen engagement and campaigning, even the most well-intentioned social-democratic elites will lack the capacity and willpower to face down powerful social interests that stand in the way of necessary reform. Purnell realises that an empowered social democracy must be rooted in a politics of movement, and not just a politics of good intentions.

Purnell's endorsement of London Citizens also marks a welcome acceptance of pluralism. All too often, Labour has aspired to monopolise the field of progressive politics. The article suggests a picture of progressive politics in which multiple agencies push and pull, and in which the Labour Party has to earn whatever leadership role it has -- and can never take it for granted.

This is all good, and necessary, stuff. But how might we take this call for renewed "vitality and vision" further?

One possibility is to broaden out our conception of just where the new citizen activism lies and the forms it can take. Purnell is absolutely right to endorse, and to celebrate, the achievements of London Citizens. But what about, say, Climate Camp? London Citizens is one important model of progressive activism, but arguably there are others, some related to vitally important issues such as climate change, that have thus far not featured much in the London Citizens agenda. (This is not a criticism of London Citizens; there is a place for division of labour.)

Moreover, if Labour is to reorient its politics to link with new forms of citizen activism, this will require a thorough reassessment of policy in certain areas, not least in relation to civil liberties.

In the past decade or so, the Labour government has been at least complicit in a lamentable erosion of civil liberties, including freedoms to demonstrate and protest. In many ways, this authoritarianism runs with the grain of New Labour's elitism and its managerialist, technocratic conception of politics as something that well-intentioned elites do to and for the people. But if the party is to break fully with this restricted and restricting vision, as Purnell seems to want, then Labour must stop trying to deny citizens the tools and spaces they need to confront power with conscience.

In what is perhaps the most enigmatic statement of the article, Purnell comments that while Labour has "strong roots in the liberal tradition . . . we are not a liberal party". In this respect at least, however, it is high time for Labour to rediscover its liberalism.

Stuart White is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a member of Demos's advisory council

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.