Labour’s Forerunners The Secession of the People.
In early, half-legendary, Roman history at around 495 BCE the conflict between the Patrician Senate and the Plebeians reached such a point that the common people seceded. After time three miles away on Mons Sacer, they sat, the story goes, on Collis Esquilinus and Collis Aventinus, within the City walls. There they remained, it is proverbially (in a simplified version of the story) in splendid isolation, until their demands for debt relief were met.
The tale came to symbolise how political minorities can defiantly proclaim their independence. We might say that the Labour Party is in danger not only of tearing itself apart, but of ending up, however large its membership may swell , separate from the rest of the country. Opinion polls indicate that it remains very far from commanding the votes needed for an electoral majority. It risks far greater isolation than the Roman plebs.
In La social-démocratie européenne dans l’impasse, Le Monde yesterday covered the crises affecting the European left. Of those politicians heading potential governing parties, it noted that Jeremy Corbyn, Robert Fico (Slovakia), and Pedro Sanchez (head of the Spanish socialists, the PSOE) confronted the same dilemma: how to win power and to keep their parties going.
The article cites the startling case of the Slovakians: Fico formed a ‘red-brown’ coalition with nationalist-far-right parties between 2006 and 2010. Again allied with the extreme-right his populism extends to virulent anti-migrant rhetoric. At the bottom of the page is another striking case. France’s ruling Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, PS) has declined to between 60,000 and 80,000 members (some put the figure still lower). The PS, and other left candidates, less or more radical, look unlikely to make it to the second round of next year’s Presidential election.
Spain’s PSOE – still, at 22,06 % of the vote, the largest electoral force on the Spanish left – looks about to accept another right-wing government; the ‘populist’ Podemos’s vote declined in the June elections, creating its own internal difficulties. The German SPD is withering on the vine, its leader, Sigmar Gabriel, barely registering internationally. Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Rizni, nominally on the centre-left, faces a challenge in a referendum about reforming the country’s’ Senate. Only in Portugal, with a coalition led by Socialist Antonio Costa and supported by the Communists and the radical Bloco de Esquerda remains clearly on the left.
Are the fortunes of the rest of the European left important for the British Labour Party? With no participation in the Euro, and now Brexit it would appear that .the country is free from the prospect of a Continental federation ruled by free-market bureaucrats. The ‘democratic deficit’ ended, the House of Commons can return to making its own laws. What happens elsewhere, happens elsewhere.
The ideology that animated the pro-Brexit left is sovereigntism. This is the idea that popular sovereignty is the goal of the “people” against the elites, Brussels, globalisation, finance capital. The ‘general will’ can be expressed in extra-Parliamentary forms, from the Spanish Indignados, the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the more recent Nuit Debout protests in France. The view is growing that the Labour Party can, as a ‘social movement’ take on a similar role: a direct link between the will of the grass roots and politics. With the end of ties to the EU what is to stop this force, a battering ram, from conquering power and exercising the sovereignty of the people? Or, as the British left tends to dub it, will the ‘the working class’ be able to “take power”?
Yanis Varoufakis observes, by contrast, that the sovereignty that British political forces want to preserve, of ”their cherished House of Commons”, “is put under pressure by its most powerful social groups: trader, manufacturers, and of course the City of London, for whom Brexit is fraught with dangers”. The “tug of war between sovereignty and financialised capital” has not evaporated after Brexit. (Page 123. And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Yanis Varoufakis 2016) Popular sovereignty, a General Will whose supporters regularly (as in the radical protest movements cited above) contrast with the compromises, not to say corruption, of Parliamentary democracy, is an intangible force faced with the class realities of power. The social movement talked about in recent months, whether largely apparent only in public meetings, or with deeper roots, is unlikely to stand much of a chance faced with these structural constraints.
The Conservative government is negotiating trading and other agreements, including new versions of TIPP. Continued access to the single market will come at a price. The TUC’s has little power behind its efforts to secure “jobs and right at work.” (Working people must not pay the price for the vote to Leave. TUC June 2016) The results will not vanish if a Labour government comes to power. Prime Minister Teresa May is on record as hostile to trade unions and the rights embodied in EU law. International trade agreements will doubtless favour the rights of what Varoufakis calls “financialised capital”.
How can this be changed? Labour governments have been charged with merely exercising power, rather than conquering it, that is, winning a serious battle in the state and society as a whole and not just in the ballot box. Governing may involve making many important choices, but the intense life of Cabinets tends to downplay the wider social basis of change that socialists wish to introduce.
Many people are impressed by illustrations from very recent history. The Blair-Brown years could be seen as winning elections, with a careful strategy to assemble different constituencies (middle class, aspirational working class, left labour voters with ‘nowhere else to go’). Until the banking-financial crisis of 2007 -8 this was a period of expanded social spending. But these Labour governments operated within institutions of the privatising state created by Margaret Thatcher. Following John Major they extended this to privatising public services, including, for example, back-to-work schemes for several million of the unemployed. As the well-paid private appointments of many former New Labour Ministers and their supporters indicate, the state was not just unconquered; the privatisers conquered New Labour.
With this perspective in view, the acceleration of Conservative free-market ‘reforms’ to the economy, the development of the private company hold on the state, we should not be inward looking. We should embrace both democratic socialist calls for public ownership, and the social democratic impulse for equality. In place of rhetoric about ‘sovereignty’ the powerful Labour tradition of practical reforms should be our concern. A revival of the Fabian tradition of public service and detailed social policy, melded with Marxist scepticism about the class nature of the state and the critique of capitalism, might – I am being, to say the least, optimistic – bring us together. Matched with concern for universal human rights, this could be part of what one of the greatest leaders of European socialism Jean Jaurès (1859 – 1914) called the “synthesis” between left-wing traditions.
In early Rome the Avernis episode ended, it is said, in compromise. The Plebeians won on the issue of debt and, eventually, some political representation. But they did not overturn Patrician rule. Whatever the causes, which we can discuss for days, the last thing Labour needs is infighting, standing alone, laughed at by the Governing Right, cheered on by sectarian forces who wish to split the Party, and standing alone, on a modern political Collis Avernis. If this continues we look unlikely to get even the measure of satisfaction our commoner forerunners obtained. We are not separate from the crisis of European social democracy described in Le Monde: we are part of it.