The left must abandon the idea of change from above

The rusted levers of the central state simply cannot cope with the complexity of the new world.

If there is one feature, above all, which manifests itself in our public and economic lives it is this: the shift from ‘them to us’.  It is the shift from a way of being for both organisations and individuals that is centralised and hierarchical to a world that is decentralised and horizontal. The implications are profound.

What we are witnessing is the breaking up of old tectonic plates born of the centralising forces of the early and mid decades of the last century. The on-going crisis at the BBC, the archetype of this organisational form, this week labelled "incapable and chaotic" over the Savile affair, is witness to the cumbersome and ineffectual nature of this type of antiquated structure. 

But all our big old institutions are in crisis; the media more generally, banking, the police and the political establishment are all finding themselves unable to cope, react or adjust to new pressures and demands. Under pressure, they react the only way they can – through different shades of managerial and technocratic responses that simply make matters worse by showing how out of touch and tune they are. Old systems that are closed, rigid, hard and hierarchical are finding it increasingly tough dealing with new systems that are open, malleable, soft and horizontal.

This process cannot be clear-cut. Paradigm shifts are always a slow and messy burn. And what is happening is more than the pendulum swing between right and left. There is no natural political winner from the ‘them to us’ switch. The new devolved and decentralised forms can be a privatised and individualised as much as they can be ‘publicised’ and socialised.  Much of this new ‘us’ world is built around technology, the morality of which is strictly neutral. It can end up with Amazon or Avaaz.

The switch gives progressives an opening but only if we can tear ourselves away from the essentially Leninist/Fordist model that says "socialism is what a Labour government does". This outsourcing of socialism to an elite is typical of the old world. The rusted levers of the central state simply cannot cope with the complexity of the dispersed systems of the new world. People want to do things for themselves and where they don’t, things will go wrong. You cannot outsource socialism or the socialisation of your children to the market or the state – you have to co-produce it by getting involved and investing part of yourself in it. It’s the only way things really work.

The idea of the democratisation of our common life, more than anything else, must be the motif that runs through the radical politics of the future. In economic development the emphasis should be on local democratic ownership and the same vision should be applied to comprehensive schooling and health. Other essentially public assets like railways and trains should be taken back into public ownership but not to resurrect the monoliths of the past – but to create new regional and local enterprises that are accountable to the people and institutions they serve.

"The old is dying and the new cannot be born," said Antonio Gramsci, the celebrated Italian Marxist. But the contours of the new can be seen all around us; from peer-to peer design, production and servicing. From on-line banks like Zopa where people lend to each other and cut out the old banks, to Wikipedia, our first port of call on any research project, from political campaigning vehicles like 38 Degrees in which over one million decide the issue and then make the campaign happen, to on the ground change through organisations like Locality.

Zygmunt Bauman, the still prolific octogenarian sociologist, describes this world as "liquid modern". The old edifices still exist but the security they offered has long gone.  It is a world in which we are both blessed and cursed with freedom without security, which, as we are finding, is a frustratingly hollow form of being free.  The thin ice on which we skate in our daily lives, the effort to keep up and the fear and anxiety of what lies around the corner, the insecurity that overshadows the liberation of the mobile and iPad, can only be traversed by skating faster.

The challenge to the exhaustion and pointlessness of so much of modern life is to find ways of being secure while still being free – not from the top down, not by relying on someone else to make us secure. No one can. Only we can. The fight and struggle of the future will be about how we knit together a social and economic fabric that enables us to be creative and innovative the best way we can – with others. It is a future that will be negotiated, with alliances formed and reformed around different issues and the thread that runs through it all won't be a single party but a belief in the capacity of people collectively to shape their world.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.