Corporate power has captured the centralised state – but Labour’s commitment to a Constitutional Convention offers root and branch reform, writes Jon Trickett.
Cross-posted from Open Democracy
Throughout the 2017 General Election, Labour’s slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ took on a life of its own. In the space of just a few weeks we announced a series of policies that if enacted would initiate a dramatic shift in wealth and power from corporate elites to working people, and breathe new life into the public sphere.
The policies signalled Labour’s willingness to break with the austerity consensus that has dominated Westminster for almost a decade, and it opened up the possibility of the creation of a new paradigm as dramatic as that of 1945 or 1979. The prospect of real change is now once more in the air.
While much of the focus was then and is now on Labour’s economic policy, our programme goes beyond this. We are committed to a root and branch transformation of the archaic political structures and cultures of this country.
Labour will deliver a constitutional convention. This will bring together individuals and organisations from across civil society and it will act as the driving force behind our democratic agenda. We will renew democracy from top to bottom, from London to the regions, and across the home nations.
This is an urgent task.
Trust in politics has broken down, and without political reform our ambitions to transform the economy and society will face potentially insurmountable obstacles.
We must confront an over-centralised state
We must confront an over-centralised state, weighed down by tradition and captured by lobbyists, consultancy firms and other representatives of big business. For decades these interests have steered policy in a direction that has contributed to the state of inequality we now find ourselves in.
Because what we now have as democracy is clearly not working.
The best way to illustrate this is through the financial crash and the massive transfer of wealth and power that followed.
Although the fault of an out-of-control banking sector, the financial crisis was blamed on government and the public sector. The banks were bailed out for over £1 trillion. This provided cover for austerity, as the Coalition and then the Conservatives attacked the social wage in the name of achieving financial stability. We were sold austerity as a national sacrifice shared by all. We were ‘are all in it together’.
“From 2009-18 the richest 1000 increased their wealth by £466 billion, while 33 million lost a similar amount”.
Yet between 2009 and 2018, the richest 1000 increased their wealth by £466 billion, while in the same period the 33 million working people of this country lost a similar amount in income. According to the National Audit Office, the cost of the bailout has almost been recouped, through the withdrawal of guarantees and the sale of government shares in banks.
Austerity had little to do with this, yet the damage it has caused runs deep.
This has been a giant con-trick. A small political elite, detached from the majority of people, has accelerated a massive transfer of wealth and power from the bottom to the top, which has been underway over the last forty years.
They have been assisted in this by corporate power, which through a medley of institutions and pressure points – donations, think-tanks, lobbying and supposedly impartial accountancy firms – has captured almost every level of policy making, ensuring its voice is heard above all others and opposition is drowned out.
They have been assisted in this by an oligarchic media that has strangled informed public debate and pedalled without criticism the belief that ‘there is no alternative’.
In short, our forums of discussion and decision-making – the foundations of our democracy – are simply not fit for purpose. This is true of democracies across Europe and also in the United States. This has led to outbreaks of political dissatisfaction, as the traditional left parties of government have collapsed as a result of their acceptance of the status quo. Meanwhile, insurgent parties and candidates have prospered by attacking it, even if they do not offer a fundamental break. There is no better example of this than Trump.
A change of guard simply will not be enough
Labour has shown that a political party offering a real break with politics as usual and with austerity can win support. But a change of guard simply will not be enough. After all, many people voted for the parties of austerity, and politics in this country will continue to violently fluctuate unless the underlying structures and cultures are transformed.
Because these structures breed disengagement, anger and sometimes ignorance – all of which combine to produce among people a deep sense of powerlessness, which finds expression in a variety of ways, often counterproductive. We see it everywhere.
Which level of government currently best represents our interests? None of them
A recent poll of 2000 UK adults by Deltapoll found that 40% of people had no trust at all in the House of Commons; that the most popular answer, when asked which level of government acts most in Britons’ interest, is “none of them”; and when mapped against postcodes, 0% of respondents were able to correctly identify all of the layers of government that applied to them.
The Labour Party’s ambition must be to confront this head on and transform politics root and branch. We can no longer continue with top-down government and a marginalised civil society.
Our aim is to create a system and culture where people see themselves as engaged and informed citizens, not just as voters every half-decade. Such a citizenry would surely not acquiesce to the massive transfer of wealth and power we have seen in these last four decades, especially since 2008.
This is Labour’s ambition, and our Constitutional Convention will look to set in motion this goal, even if its realisation will take time. And it will be the conversations had here and across the country that determine the shape it takes and the outcomes it produces. It is not my place to dictate from on high what these will look like. After all, the zeitgeist is cellular rather than hierarchical. The leadership of the Labour Party has to learn from and be guided by the public. Politicians cannot be relied on to fix a mess partly of their own making.
What I will say, though, is that if you agree with me, and with the Labour Party’s desire to transform politics in this country, then you must fight for it. Fight for it because the powers that have benefited from our rigged democracy will resist tooth and nail to any changes that will undermine their power. Fight for it because reforming our economy has to come hand in hand with democratising our politics.
Let’s make the case for this in our movement and in our communities. ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ spoke to many people’s dissatisfaction with the way politics has been done in this country, let’s show them that change is not only necessary, but is possible.