Sunday, February 19, 2012

Inequality in wealth and political representation

There's a good post over on LabourList by Owen ('Chavs') Jones about the need for a new, two-pronged, class politics in Britain - one in which the yawning material gap in incomes isn't disentangled from the crisis of representation.

I say that it's a good post because it raises essentially the right questions, and that these fundamental concerns don't seem to be on the table almost anywhere on the left with as much clarity.

Where I substantially disagree with him is that I think he underestimates the capacity, suitability or willingness of trades unions to act as the agents for the change he's calling for. I think the following points are worth making:

1. The problem of managerialism is roundly ignored by the left
I'd characterise a lot of the problems that Jones identifies very differently. In the 19th Century, Bagehot painted an 'English Constitution' in which the dignified elements of the state enabled the efficient bits to do their work. It's slightly worrying, reading Bagehot, that his view appears to be somewhat rosy today after a century-and-a-half of democratic reform. At least most of the executive power was actually in the hands of the people who were supposed to exercise it when Bagehot was writing.

Today, even our governing Oxbridge caste of career-politicians appear to be more dignified than efficient. The real business is being done by managers, mostly in the private sector. It used to be the case that managers were the servants of private shareholders or ministers, depending upon which sector you were looking at. That fact that there aren't working class voices in Parliament isn't actually the biggest problem.

Today, society is largely ordered to facilitate government by - and for - managers. Public policy is entirely shaped by the consultariat who have replaced the semi-accountable Whitehall mandarins. PLCs are, similarly, no longer shoveling value at shareholders but at their managers.

It is managers who gauge the value of talent, who aim to replace what professions did with their systems, and who set the wages at all levels of society. The need to replace politicians and professionals with managers drove the privatisation-lite of the New Labour years and has continued uninterrupted into the direction of The Coalition.

I've rarely met anyone on the left who isn't persuaded by this explanation for what Chris Dillow calls The End of Politics, once it is put to them. But I've also very rarely met anyone on the left who is even aware of this diagnosis.

2. We need to be clearer on why the link between wealth inequality and unequal representation exists
Crosslandite social democrats were always 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they pay their taxes.' Peter Mandelson was only putting provocative parentheses around Crossland's view that managed capitalist growth would reduce inequality. And - as far as it goes - this could be a respectable argument if the people making it were not also intensely relaxed about the way that some individuals exercise a great deal more power than others at the ballot box.

If you can buy your way into the political process in order to exempt yourself from the process of redistribution, then all of this intense relaxation becomes toxic. If you can do so to change the direction of redistribution - corporate welfare - then it is even more poisonous. And this is often what happened with new Labour in power, culminating in the banker's bailouts - an unparalleled act of larceny.

3. The democratic problem is more straightforward than most people say it is
There's a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes around discussions of democracy. It's a point so obvious to make that no-one does so for fear of being rude. Let's put this crudely. My vote should be no weaker or greater than anyone else's.

If you fund political parties in a way that doesn't involve safeguards, this ceases to be the case. If you use your media ownership to bully regulators and politicians in a way that serves your material interests, again, this isn't the case.

If the private sector is at all of the top-table seats (and the public interest is largely unrepresented) in a parliamentary process about something as central to our politics as healthcare, then you have an unprecedented crisis in British democracy. (Update: Here's the background to the 'Reform' think-tank - it's funding and it's role in health service policymaking)

If, in a more participative and direct democracy (and we're definitely heading in that direction), you have convening power or the capacity to shape the marketplace of ideas, then our votes are going to become even less equal.

4. Unions should help - but probably won't
Jones is right; Trades Unionism should be the key to addressing the diversity of representation in the way that it did in helping to found the Labour Representation Committee back in the day. Remember, this was really the only uniting principle that brought Labour into being. We weren't socialists, mutualists, syndicalists, feminists, fabianists, rationalists or communists. We were primarily concerned with addressing the crisis of representation - where universal male suffrage had failed to result in working class MPs.

Labour was really just a jump-together club of all of those '-isms' - they all thought that their cause would be strengthened by more working men being in parliament.

I'd suggest that Jones massively underestimates the degree to which Unions need to change to facilitate this though. The smaller unions still promote a lot of the civil society ethos that writers like John Dewey saw as being essential to democracy (the 'holding elections does not a democracy make' argument), but the larger unions only seem to grow by acquisition and have very little by way of democratic legitimacy in the way that they conduct their business any more.

The arguments about managerialism that I outlined earlier in this post are ones that should have a massive appeal to a Trades Union movement that is still thinking. It's an argument that I've never heard raised when the brothers meet.

Owen Jones is right: This crisis of representation should be a much greater cause for alarm than it is. I'd suggest that it also needs to be understood more - and that the obvious agents for change (the Unions) need to travel a good deal further than I think they are prepared to go.

5. Let's not underestimate how important The Labour Party is either
I won't bore on about this last point too much - It's such a regular staple here. But in summary, lefties need to drop the idea that they first need to capture the Labour Party, then win an election and then implement Project Utopia. Right wingers have never made this mistake about the Conservative Party.

Alex Hilton has an understandable whine about Ed Miliband's Labour Party (though I can't see why his complaints didn't equally apply to pervious iterations of the party). Hopi Sen answers him and it looks like two bald men fighting over a comb.

Labour should be a boring party that chases votes around the centre ground. The job of the left is to drag that centre-ground leftwards. The big unions that finance Labour waste so much money paying for office space when they could be running campaigns that no politician can ignore.

1 comment:

Steve Platt said...

"For the last few years my favourite phrase has been 'I don't know'. I've reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don't know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world."

I came across this in the Guardian's obituary for Wislawa Szymborska, Poland's 'Mozart of poetry', who died last month.

I've not read much of her poetry but one poem that stuck was 'I prefer', in which she writes:

I prefer not claiming that
the intellect should be blamed for everything.
I pefer exceptions.
I prefer leaving before.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.