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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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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