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, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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