Three steps towards a Labour win

To avert No Deal catastrophe and then move towards a General Election win [1], Labour needs to take three new steps in the very near future.

The first is about doing the right thing by millions of EU27 citizens whose residence and livelihoods are now threatened by the Johnson regime, while also developing a new reputation for innovation and courage.

The second is about building on that new reputation for party-wide courage, through a specific democratic innovation, which outflanks the LibDems attempts, successful so far, to portray itself as the only party prepared truly to “act in the national interest”.

The third is to embed these two areas of innovation and bravery in a new message about what kind of Labour government will replace the Johnson regime: a message which moves away from the ‘agonistic’ left populism to which it has been drawn since 2017 — reflected in its authoritarian ‘For the Many. Not the Few’ slogan — towards one which better respects the rights of people to control their own lives on their own terms.

Step 1: innovative defence of EU27 citizens

The new regime, in a moment of hubris exceptional even by its own early standards, has announced that it will end free movement on October 31st.

The stupidity of such a statement, both in terms of how it cuts right across the current Home Office timetable and how there is simply not the information needed to enforce it, has been covered elsewhere. The important point for Labout’s purposes is that it represents a ramping up of the ‘hostile environment’ for millions of settled EU citizens, and needs to be challenged.

The way to challenge it is for Labour to encourage council leaders in the local authorities it controls to submit a large number of individual but co-ordinated proposals [2] under the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007/2010, demanding the power from central government to make its own decisions on the settlement status of EU27 citizens living within their boundaries, using the electoral register and administrative data that it has, and the power to order the Home Office to issue immediate confirmation of same [3].

Under the Act it is the legal duty of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to accept or reject these proposals. The principle that the Secretary of State should and will respond on a matter pertinent to Brexit has already been successfully tested by Plymouth City Council. A refusal to do so in a timely manner should lead to court action to hold him that duty.

If the Secretary of State rejects the proposals in line with his legal duty, local authorities should be prepared to purse the process set out in the 2012 regulations further, by appealing to the “selector”, in this case the Local Government Association. If the LGA supports the appeal, then the Minister is duty bound to

consult and try to reach agreement with the selector before making a decision as to whether or not to implement the submitted proposal, in whole or in part” (regulation 6a)

Clearly, the government is going to seek to dismiss the innovative use of these regulations as a publicity stunt, or further evidence of opposition treachery, but that is really the whole point.

While from a narrow legal perspective, the question may arise of whether the government can press ahead with No Deal (and thus end of free movement) while the legal process set out at 6a, the greater political wins for Labour, via its capacity to act quickly outside of parliament, are that it gets on the front foot ins its attack on the sheer stupidity and callousness of the ‘hostile environment’ regime, and that it stands up very clearly what is right in respect of citizens and local communities.

There may indeed be no technical link between these actions and actions (see step 2) to stop No Deal, but the ‘mood music’ of a party committed to combating the Johnson Regime over Brexit overall will be orchestrated.

Step 2: deliberation innovation

Step 1 takes Labour beyond the confines of parliamentary procedure in its response to the Johnson regime, using its power as a national party with mass membership. Step 2 builds on this idea that Brexit can be challenged creatively.

When the parliamentary parties/party fragments who are opposed to No Deal meet next week, at Corbyn’s invitation, and therefore presumably accepting an agenda sent round by Corbyn, he needs to steer clear of a fruitless discussion about whether or not he is entitled, as leader of the opposition, to lead a caretaker government toward an EU extension and General Election.

Right may well be on Corbyn’s side, but right is not going to break the logjam, and the LibDems still do the post-meeting upper-hand, in their inevitable narrative about Corbyn as stubborn and unwilling to do the right thing for the country because, deep down, he is a Brexiteer who wants No Deal as a route to some perceived post-crash and burn socialist utopia.

Instead, Corbyn needs to outflank the LibDems by promising to be bound, if others around the table agree to be bound, by the recommendations of a special deliberative convention on the form, leadership, remit and time-limit for a caretaker government. The substance of the party leader meeting should then not be about who does or does not get to lead the caretaker government, but on how that deliberative convention can be formed and chaired (e.g. by a respected overseas democatic theorist in the liberal tradition such as Robert Putman).

I am agnostic about what precise form such a convention might take or indeed whether it should be called a Convention, and an Assembly or whatever), but Labour needs to be quite generous about make-up, confident in its own assessment that properly conducted deliberation is likely to come down on the side of a caretaker government which takes its legitimacy in being ‘led’ (whatever that means in these circumstances) by the official Leader of the Opposition.

As with Step 1, a key outcome for Labour is not just the direct effect of creating a route to the possible bringing down of the Johnson regime (not least because for other parties not to support the innovation will risk their being seen as hypocritical about their desire to halt No Deal via an extra-parlialmentary deliberative process, given that they seek the ultimate such process — a referendum). What Labour also gets is potential for a mood shift amnogst the public, away from a general and heavy feeling about Corbyn as part of the problem, towards Corbyn as the person prepared to think outside the box.

Step 3: changing the slogan

The first two steps will create the initial conditions for a Labour General Election win, by telling a story that Labour is now doing things differently from the way it did and the way other parties do and — it hardly needs saying —by creating a route to a Vote of No Confidence in the Johnson regime and a post-extension General Election.

But it is unlikely to get Labour the whole way there; the grim truth is that the extended length of time spent on ‘creative ambiguity’ has been exploited by rival parties to portray Corbyn’s Labour as a cable of scheming Stalinists, and this will be hard to shake off.

But it is possible. The key to shaking it off is not, as currently, to focus on highlighting Labour’s programme for government, though that is vital work to be done in the background. It is to shift this public view about Corbynism as latent heavy authoritarianism, in which if you are not a rabid paid-up Corbynista, you are somehow against the people.

Space does not permit a full exploration of how Labour came to be open to this kind of false representation, but the problem is crystalized in its favourite slogan “For the many, Not the few.”

The slogan is a classic rendering of the kind of left populism espoused by the neo-Gramscians that dominate the party’s strategy (though they may not fully recognize their intellectual influences), in which all politics is a battle for hegemony, in which their is a requirement that there always be an identified enemy, and in which people beyond the ranks of the Labour elite become, over time, conceptualized as the soulless “we, the people” that is needed to counter the “we, the people” being constructed so much more effectively by the populist right.

Left populism does not work well as a counter to right populism, and nor should we want it to, because it leads to places where individual lifeworlds become less important than the political project of hegemony, where Chantal Mouffe’s discursive ‘chains of equivalence’ become chains of bondage to a project, to a ‘people’, that (as both Jon Lawrence and D Hunter set out in their different ways) actual individuals have exercised a modern(ist) right not to be chained to. It all looks and feels like a step back to before a post-war liberty.

What Labour needs instead is a new vision, developed around a new slogan along the lines of “Your power. Your choice”, which encapsulates a government which fosters, not least through financial and educational security, civic and political engagement at the highest level that people choose, but respects their right to choose to do something else with their lives [4].

And actually, this message of “engage of you choose” — moving away from the lost battle over the ‘take back control’ narrative by recapturing for the left the notion of ‘public choice’ is not just a hegemonic move of itself. It also fits with the recasting of Corbyn himself as the gentler, allotment-based soul of 2015–2017, looking out for his fellow citizens, not down on them.

Notes

[1] A outright majority for Labour is unlikely, of course, but the first two actions set out here will also help to develop the working conditions for a stable coalition.

[2] Proposals can be quickly put together and can be as little as a two page letter, setting out local needs e.g. maintenance of local services, local cohesion in context of rising racism towards EU27 workes and their children that the new powers demanded will meet. As noted, though, the government is highly unlikely to actually accept the proposals, however well they stand up to scrutiny as a sensible course of action (and if they do this does not detract from the broader attempts to stop No Deal, but create momentum for it). They are a political statement of Labour’s extra-parliamentary courage and solidarity.

[3] Unfortunately the Act applies only in England. This is a limitation in terms of developing a working relationship with the SNP.

[4] This area — the fusion of Habermasian thought and the work of the English pluralist — is the main bit of the forthcoming book, and can’t really be squeeezed into one paragraph….

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Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.