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11 January 2010

After elitism

James Purnell heralds a return to movement politics

By Stuart White

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.

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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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