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Gordon Brown and power

Has Gordon Brown reGordon Brown and patriotic Labourached down from heaven and, like the vengeful Presbyterian God, smited Jeremy Corbyn with his great clunking fist? Well, no. The much-trailed Power with a Purpose speech wasn’t the knock out some were hoping for, as if a talk could derail the Jeremy juggernaut anyway. Instead we had a thoughtful, nuanced and lengthy tour of the policy and ethics of the Labour Party. He asked the questions about what Labour is, its purpose, its direction of travel. In a way, it was less an attack on Corbyn – though one can easily be found in the historical vistas Gordon directs us to. In fact, the nearest he comes to explicitly doing so is in the following:

In the spirit of ‘I’ve read it so you don’t have to‘, these concluding lines sum it up:

First our principles demand of us that we seek power to help people in need.

Second we have to always listen to and learn from the public, always look outwards talking to them and never looking inwards just talking to ourselves, and that the Labour party is at its best when it speaks for the whole country.

Third we don’t win if we just work out our anger against the global change happening around us. It is not enough to be anti-globalisation: we have to show how global forces can be controlled in the interests of working families, work out our answers and the alternatives and, as John Prescott once said so powerfully, apply modern values in a new setting.

Fourth the Labour Party must give people realistic hope – that it can form a government to bring about the change. I repeat: making what we want – the desirable – possible means making the desirable popular and electable.

A couple of points. The first has Gordon at his most philosophical. He doesn’t come close to elaborating a theory of social power. Here, it’s understood conventionally in the Westminster sense. You have it when you’re in office, and you don’t when you don’t. More on this in a moment. What Gordon is doing here – or at least nodding toward – is acknowledging the Labour Party as the political component of a movement, and that movements are articulations and condensations of interests related to occupational groups, types of property ownership, and so on.

As I’ve argued many times before, the labour movement and Labour Party is a particularly messy aggregation of interests as an organisation founded to represent all workers (by hand or by brain, by wage or by salary) that traverses, on paper, an immense proportion of the population. This encompasses all variations in income, types of work, industry, levels of autonomy and power, and divisions outside of work that takes in status as well as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability.

The organisations of workers tend to point in certain directions around shared interests, and these work against differences becoming divisions, but they also take in the prejudices and antipathies present. Hence when the Labour Party, for example, takes awful positions on immigration and social security, it isn’t just because the leaders are opportunists and/or don’t wish to take received wisdom on. As an organisation that represents a class of people as a whole progressive positions mix with those that are anything but.

In a mode far removed from the unspun language of class and class interests, what Gordon is evoking is Labour’s economistic side, that part of our politics that deals with wage bargaining, the working day, health and safety at work, security, how far wages can stretch, and housing and rent. These are the bread and butter issues around which our forebears combined and formed nascent trade unions to tackle. He’s right to mention this because economistic matters have been treated as a private matter for the unions to take up with various employers, and only feature in party programmes haphazardly.

Ed Miliband had his cost of living crisis, he championed the living wage, but was much weaker when it came to matters related to social security. Under Tony and Gordon child and pensioner poverty rates came down, while employers took an axe to future pensioners by butchering their schemes – sometimes with government connivance. This unevenness cannot be resolved by using power to be nicer to more (poorer) people, which Gordon implies, but actually understanding that playing off one section of our constituency against another because of perceived political expedience harms our party as well as those who lose out.

Those not in the Jeremy camp would be rise to note he became Stormin’ Corbyn only after Harriet Harman’s welfare debacle. Therefore, while Gordon’s panglossian language about power is indicative of where our movement’s sympathies lie, leaving it at this level presents a barrier to understanding how power can be deployed in the best interests of the constituency we represent.

The second point comes down to Gordon’s (implied) understanding of power. As Ed Miliband once put it, opposition is “crap” because you can’t do too much with it. Though, to his credit, in terms of setting the political weather the supposedly useless Ed proved effective as an opposition leader. Well, as good one can be without winning an election. But power is something you wield, something that is enacted, something that can change things.

Of course, the operation of power throughout the social body is much more complex, but that is how it can appear if you’re in the business of competing for elected office. Hence you can understand why the power vs protest, or power vs principle distinctions – replicated in Gordon’s speech – have had a great deal of traction since Jeremy’s emergence as the front runner. The problem is it’s not a question of either/or. If principle and power must go together, the party also has to stop being shy about the huge but power potentials outside of Parliament.

Yvette Cooper has often noted her participation on the March for Jobs/Right to Work demonstrations of the 1980s, but highlights them to emphasise how protest is ineffective. She is right, but only to a point. The huge anti-Iraq war demonstration didn’t dissuade Tony Blair – or her – from taking the wrong course. But 13 years earlier the huge anti-Poll Tax mass non-payment campaign did. From 1997 to today, the rights of lesbians and gays have advanced uninterruptedly, but this was only possible because of collective action taken in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. As a protest movement, the various anti-cuts campaigns haven’t chalked up many successes, but were it not for the networks forged in the heat of battle Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t have an impressive machine behind him.

In reality, at least where Labour is concerned, power and protest can be complementary. Being in opposition is frustrating, but a strong labour movement need not be powerless. Parliament may well be sovereign, but our traditions, our organisation, and our party wouldn’t be here if the early movement had not used its own power to establish itself in the face of official, sovereign authority.

This is more than building up redoubts in local governments and devolved administrations, a point recognised by the bulk of active party members involved in a number of causes and campaigns. If, to use Tony Blair’s words, Labour is serious about using “the power of the community to advance the cause of the individual“, a sentiment Gordon also endorses, we should start thinking about power in terms of empowerment – of empowering community groups, cooperatives, groups of workers, of knitting together the political fabric of civil society into something that can help us form governments and enable our constituents to better defend themselves from Tory attacks. Gaining power is important and you can’t change the world without it. But you also need to effectively recognise and use the not inconsiderable power we already have too.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

12 Comments

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    all the blair babies have decried jc even tb gb but then this party went so far right you couldnt tell it apart from its bigger brother yet the people now see in jc a chance to change this little tory back to whot the electorate wants yet blair babies cannot change even andy b has said jc got a job with him laughabe nah they just dont get it the people want a proper labour mp not tory closet ones jeff3

  2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Well, “we have to always listen to and learn from the public, always look outwards talking to them and never looking inwards just talking to ourselves, and that the Labour party is at its best when it speaks for the whole country,” certainly sounds wonderful; you can almost hear bluebirds bursting into song as the sun creeps coyly from behind the clouds.

    But sadly the reality is anything but that. Am I the only person reading this that can remember, (and only too vividly,) exactly what happened the last time that Gordon Brown had a conversation with an actual real person and voter, (he described her as a “bigoted woman,”) which, (whether true or not,) certainly gave the game away to the rest of us, about just how deep is the contempt that we are held in by Brown and his ilk and magnitude of their arrogance.

  3. Doug says:

    It seems strange that Brown and co. don’t listen when for years polls have suggested overwhelming support for, say, renationalising the railways. Deafness in the left ear, never the right.

  4. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    And while we’re at it; I don’t know which is more ridiculous from a man who was a leading figure in the morally bankrupt Blair administration, (that dragged this country into 2 bloody, pointless and wholly illegal wars on the basis of nothing but a complete pack of lies and the price of which will be still being paid for decades in needless human suffering and misery,) and during which, what most people have since come to regard as straightforward graft and thievery became more or less a way of life for most MPs, him speaking about, “our principles,” or the completely risible suggestion that Ed Milliband was an effective opposition leader, he really wasn’t, (the labor party still seem to be in complete denial about just how completely crap he actually was; as they are about so much else as well.)

    All things considered it might have been better if he’d kept his trap shut and not reminded us all of the all reasons that he and his Blair period colleagues are still so universally despised.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Change this back to what the electorate wants Jeffrey Davies, where on earth do you get the idea the electorate want to see the country swing to the left, when they’ve rejected. It ,in the last 9 general elections.

  6. John P Reid says:

    Doug, polls may want to say the public are left wing, I recall Livingstone Carrie out a poll in 87 that Thatcher would lose her seat, and that Bernie grant would have a swung to him, yet the opposite happened massively

    JCraig Weston, Ed miliband was in,y innate tusk in that he didn’t win,it wasn’t him personally, but he swung the party too the lefty a stupid manifesto, mansion tax, I mean really and we lost because Milband was pursuing policies of the sort Corbyn admired and we’ll lose massively if Corbyn wins,

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      What exactly do you mean by, “we’ll lose massively of Corbyn wins?”

      Remind me once again who actually won the last general election if you’d be so kind?

      It certainly wasn’t post Blair faux Labour; led, (don’t laugh,) by the multi millionaire millionaire property speculator, (“I’m speaking to now from the servants quarters in my £2.4 million London mansion and I’d just like say that I share your pain,”) and all his sticky fingered mates etc….

      You already have lost and Corbyn is merely a symptom of that fact, get over it and do try to keep up.

      As I said above, “denial.”

      1. John P Reid says:

        It was the Tories who won last time, the first time they’ve won in 23 years, after we denounced new labour and swung to the left,if we have already lost, then we’ll lose the next 4 elections

        1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

          I really can’t make head nor tail of any of that ?

          Frankly nu Labor became have become so completely indistinguishable from the Tories in every single important respect that they as well be Tories, in fact baffles me completely why they and their apologists such yourself don’t do the honest thing and join them.

          As Blair, for all that I dislike the man, put it with typical perspicacity, the Tories only won as it were by default; in the complete absence of any serious of credible opposition from Labor with the lowest turn out of any general election in decades.

  7. Paul Harman says:

    I believe too many correspondents have assumed that the old ways will continue after the Leadership Election, namely that all discussion will cease and the Leader – heavily ‘advised’ by a chosen elite – will dictate the manifesto in 2020. If that happens again, Labour will deserve to lose. The article makes clear that in a coalition, which Labour is, the quality of negotiation is key to a good outcome for all.

  8. Brown’s speech suggests there was a causal link from Hardie, to Maxton, to Bevan and then to 1997, with the torch and the wisdom being passed on in an unbroken chain to…..
    But if there is a deterministic pattern that runs through Labour from its creation, there has to some explanation for what went wrong in 2010 when he was PM? Was this inevitable too? Or was that when history ended? The implication is that Labour needs to return to 1997 (and, presumably, avoid 2003 on the way back to 2010, when it would have all come good).
    This contrasts with the Blair narrative which seems to suggest that Labour was wrong until 1997 (and, presumably, went wrong again in 2007, not in 2003). Whatever the merits of the competing narratives, both are narcissistic, depicting Brown and Blair as agents of history and virtue.
    The Corbyn equivalent, which is also flawed, is that it was all going well until 1983….

  9. swatantra says:

    Bacon was right: Some achieve Power through manipulation and scheming; others like JC have Power and Greatness thrust upon them.

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