Parties and Movements as Managers and Changers

Monday, 21st June 2010 at 7:00 UTC 5 comments

I’ve been pondering this relationship for some time, looking to understand why I might feel at ease in supporting a political party during an election campaign, despite knowing full well I shall be approaching politics from the opposition no matter what happens. Some pretty big issues were thrown up, and I seem to have settled on the following model for understanding my attitude towards parliamentary and electoral democracy.

For anyone who needs the background, I decided to throw my support, and quite a number of campaigning hours, behind the Labour party at the last General Election. I wasn’t prepared to see the kind of outcome we eventually got without at least feeling I’d done my bit. It was, in part, a reminder that the last 13 years of Labour Government hadn’t only resulted in war and climate crime, it had also resulted in a few decent pieces of domestic policy. But it also caused a few people to think I’d betrayed either my principles or even my friends. I did find the whole thing a little confusing, though stuck my head down and went door-knocking whenever I could fit it in.

I think I eventually concluded that there was some significance in all this to one of my very few ‘favourite’ Marx quotes: “We make history, but not in conditions of our choosing” – elections are one of the few times where we can pick the underlying political situation into which we, those who care about the state of the world enough to tear ourselves away from the more common endeavour of expansion and accumulation, can make some adjustment to the conditions.

Campaigning and activism under a Tory government is very different to what it is under a Labour government: Labour never even thought to introduce something as iniquitous as the Poll Tax, for starters, and left Britain’s poorest £1,700 a year better off in real terms, whilst the Tories will likely reverse that in the name of profit, whilst destroying our education system. The Health Service, whilst perilously close to losing its Public Sector Identity under Labour, is far more likely to cross that threshold under the Tories, who see no reason why the richest should subsidise the health of the poorest.

But it is certainly true that very little actual change comes from Government, especially once those changes in the law that are responses to the general public’s changing attitudes are taken into account. For the most part, the government’s role is one of management, of dealing with the mundane issues that continue whether the big news is parliament or football or an abducted child.

That isn’t to say that huge change happens through Parliament, but it is to say that we should not expect, nor even seek, a government that will dramatically change the world; after all, do we not want a deepening of democracy, a following of the will of the people – in academic terms, do we not want to restore the agency of the people?

I chose Labour because I felt they were best placed to manage our economy. I suspect that the decisions of the Lib Dem leadership to betray any notion of progress for a economically hard-right coalition with the Conservatives might in some way go towards vindicating me. If people want a government to redistribute wealth, they should first elect one that might be vaguely amenable, and then attack it until it succeeds.

The alternatives are two-fold. First, electing a government that will pursue a different vision of management, one that emphasises profit rather than well being, and takes daily decisions that push the marginalised further towards the brink. Second, electing a government that might carry out such a policy, and then utterly failing to pursue our own goals in the hopes that somehow they will act in isolation.

Even the Labour government understood this, or certainly those responsible for the Department for International Development, with their appeal for a campaign to pressure government for that which they already wanted. There are flaws in this logic, and it can only go so far, but failing to apply it risks taking humanity backwards. The problem has been NGO’s, scared of losing funding if they slip up, that have failed to push hard enough.

At the end of the day, the government is like the board of a company; we should not miss opportunities to elect to power those we think will be most responsive to our pressure, but we must never rely on them to do more than simply tick things over, perpetuating the same injustice for years to come. Instead, we must take to the streets to show up the injustices the government is legitimising through their inaction. It is a two pronged approach that involves intelligent positioning from month to month and year to year.


Entry filed under: Activism, Community, Economics, Labour Party, Participation, Party Politics, Politics.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey James Soper  |  Monday, 21st June 2010 at 9:24 UTC

    Personally, I don’t much prefer the Carrot Party to the Stick Party – but I understand people I care about will benefit even if real change is so distant.

    To illustrate how similar the two parties are; the Tories intend to cut 40% of Civil Service jobs (although our local Tory bint lied about doing this at a College hustings). A leaked memo from the Labour party prior to the election indicated that they would cut a mere 35%.

    This can be used to denigrate the democratic system -pointing out the alternative is no alternative at all, that despite public opinion the ruling class and its organs have decided thnese cuts will go ahead.

    However, I feel it would be a justification for voting Labour as then 5% more people would have a job in six months – and the Civil Service would be ‘5%’ more capable.

    I think people’s objections come from the actual campaigning – what did you tell people on the doorstep Graham? Was it ‘Yeah, Hi, I’m Graham, Anarchist who wants to abolish capitalism. The Labour party wont abolish capitalism and are a wing of the ruling class – they have broken more strikes than the Tories overall and have eroded our freedoms hugely, declared several imperialist wars at great cost in life and money (although not for the people they truly represent) and will generally abandon any principles they pretend to have around election time. However, the Tories are worse and at least you get higher benefits – lower than most of Europe, mind.”

    Or did you just list Labour’s reforms like a gushing schoolgirl?
    This support seems far from tactical and requires misleading people – trying to sell Labour’s anti-immigrant policies to the ex-Labour psuedo-BNP Daily Mail crowd is not a way of assauging their pretty prejudices and will not lead to them re-evaluating the society we live in.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 21st June 2010 at 13:23 UTC

      Immigration barely arose, and the couple of times it did, it was easy to do the right thing – tell people the truth about immigration and move discussion round to the real issue: we have a housing crisis whether people immigrate or not.

      I’d be interested to know about Labour breaking more strikes; is this local or national strike breaking? Does it take into account size of strike (number of workers withdrawing labour)? It really isn’t a statistic I’ve heard before, and generally I think of 1984 and all that when it comes to government strike breaking.

  • 3. Greg  |  Monday, 21st June 2010 at 14:18 UTC

    Graham, the election’s over so you could at least give us a break from Labour party evangelism. You don’t need to snap into line anymore, or parrot soundbites about how Labour are better than sliced bread and the Tories will no doubt be evil. Relax!

    I’m afraid that for once I agree with Corey: “gushing schoolgirl” is a good summary of the way you suddenly rekindled your tribal loyalty and turned into a propaganda machine for a party that had betrayed you.

    One last thing, the right don’t become “hard right” because you say so. I think your use of that phrase speaks volumes about your sense of perspective.

  • 4. Steve th  |  Monday, 21st June 2010 at 16:11 UTC

    i’ll leave it to someone else to defend school girls from the abuse levelled at them in the comments. This seems far more balanced than what i was hearing during the election. G ‘s logic to me justifies a labour vote and an honest statement to anyone who will listen as to your logic. It doesn’t to me justify joining the labour party for full on campaigning.
    If this were type of post we saw during the election don’t think g would have had much agro.

  • 5. Lois  |  Thursday, 24th June 2010 at 13:03 UTC

    I still think you’re a little cynical about politicians, Graham, although I don’t criticise your choice at the election. Better, in my opinion, to choose the least worst (in your opinion) than to say that they’re all equally bad and disenfranchise yourself.

    Just a point in vauge defence of the Lib Dems- whatever you accuse them of betraying, I’d rather they were in coalition than that the Tories were in government by themselves. We may never know exactly what Clegg, Cable, Alexander etc have done to soften Tory policies, and they’re almost certainly going to loose some votes for going into coalition next election, but I still reckon things could have been worse.


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