I’m supporting Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership. But still, Tony Blair is right. He says:
“We should be discussing how technology should revolutionise public services; how young people are not just in well-paid, decent jobs but also have the chance to start businesses that benefit their communities; how Britain stays united and in Europe; what reform of welfare and social care can work in an era of radical demographic change.”
Well, shouldn’t we?
Much of Corbyn’s ten-point plan sounds like a left-Keynesian agenda dating from some time roughly 1964-1984. A lot of it is probably still relevant and would work well today. But can a programme for radical government which makes almost no mention at all of the massive cultural and technological changes of the past 30 years really be fully credible?
Corbyn’s comments in his moving tribute to Tony Benn, published in March of this year, do suggest that he thinks there was nothing at all wrong with the 1983 Labour manifesto (which planned to remove Britain from the EU, nationalise a lot of companies, and basically try to implement a UK version of Socialism In One Country), and that it would still work if implemented today.
Corbyn was specifically questioned about part of this on NovaraTV a couple of weeks ago. Aaron Bastani pointed out to him the salient historical fact: French president Francois Mitterrand tried to implement a programme very like the 1983 Labour manifesto, and very like Corbyn’s current proposals, in 1981-2 – and it was a total disaster because of the level of capital flight which even over 30 years ago the French government simply couldn’t control. That’s globalisation for you. So why would it be any different now?
Corbyn’s answer was simply to assert that by 2020 there will hopefully be enough of an anti-austerity movement across Europe to build support for his programme amongst other European governments, which is why it will be different this time. Wasn’t that Syriza’s plan? How’s that working out for them?
This doesn’t mean much of the programme wouldn’t work. It doesn’t mean things couldn’t be different politically in Europe by 2020. It doesn’t mean we have to believe the neoliberal story about how we can’t have a welfare state or unions any more because of, like, globalisation and that. But it does suggest that there are some holes in Corbyn’s programme where a robust understanding of the present and a really imaginative expression of its possible futures ought to be.
The Left needs to be careful that we don’t simply concede the very idea of modernity to our enemies. This is the core argument made by myself and Mark Fisher in our pamphlet ‘Reclaim Modernity’. Just going back to 1983 and having another go, as if the internet never happened, isn’t going to work. That doesn’t mean we have to concede any ground at all to the Blairites. But it does mean that if we don’t sound like we live in the present, then they will be the only ones who do.
If you want an example of really radical, democratic, forward-thinking policy-making in practice, just look at what Common Weal have achieved in Scotland. We need that spirit across Britain if any kind of radical project, Corbynist or not, is going to succeed.
So in that spirit, here, just as examples, are ten policy proposals that could be bolted on to Corbyn’s skeleton list, to really make a programme that looks like it belongs to the present and the future, and which can imagine a socialism that does too:
1. Introduce democratic governance into all public services.
We don’t need to revive the paternalist, bureaucratic welfare state. Radicals, feminists, the New Left, etc. were asking for more democratically run public services from the early 60s onwards. This should be a central radical demand today. See, for example Neal Lawson’s ‘Dare More Democracy’, his more recent pamphlet coauthored with Indra Adnan on the nature of our ‘new times’, or Hilary Wainwright’s Reclaim the State.
2. Bring forward plans to convert all schools to become democratic community schools.
…along the lines proposed by reformers calling for Citizen Schools and Common Schools. Abolish league tables – they don’t work (they’re supposed to give parents reliable information about likely educational outcomes for their kids – they don’t).
3. Implement a massive programme of distributed renewable energy generation.
…through the reinstatement and extension of feed-in tariffs and investment in localised energy production. In fact, look, just implement the full Green Party energy policy . Do you really think you can come up with a better one than they can?
4. Set up a Ministry for Mutuality.
…to encourage launch of co-operatives and mutuals and transition of existing private firms to mutual status wherever possible. Appoint Robin Murray to run it.
5. Create 50k new housing co-op places every year for five years.
We don’t just need more social housing on the old models or more private housing. We need to give people without capital the chance to run their own communities and their own built environments, together.
6. Democratise the BBC.
Implement direct elections to the position of Director General. It’s a no-brainer, really.
7. Reclaim the media.
Give the proposed National Investment Bank a specific remit to encourage the development of independent media, including social media platforms.
Introduce a bill to force all media providers over a certain size to become self-governing trusts within three years. Yes that’s right, force the Sun and the Mail to be run by basically the same governance structure as the Guardian. Murdoch will hate it, but we’d be offering his journalists and editors the same kind of license to indulge their personal middle-class prejudices in perpetuity for life – free from proprietorial interference – that is currently enjoyed by their colleagues at Kings Place (both the revolutionary heroes of Corbynism and the snivelling running-dogs of Toynbeeism); so how’s he going to stop even them from publicly supporting it?
8. The proposed Constitutional Convention should include suggestions for participatory budgeting and participatory democracy in local government.
…and experimentation with nationwide deliberative mechanisms using web technology, etc.
Yes of course it should also include discussion of which form of proportional representation should be introduced for the House of Commons (retaining first-past-the-post should be off the agenda), abolition of the Lords, a written constitution, maximum possible devolution to nations, regions, cities and other localities. But all of that would add up to possibly bringing the UK constitution roughly in line with European norms of the 1960s. We shouldn’t be looking to Germany in the 1960s as our democratic model. We should be looking to Venezuela, Barcelona, Bolivia, and our own future. The convention should also be as pluralistic as possible, as suggested by Dan Hind.
9. Bring forward plans for Universal Basic Income.
But don’t just do it. Set up a nationwide process of extensive democratic deliberation reaching into all local communities in order to discuss this and other possible futures for welfare and incomes policies in a democratic and informed fashion. Until we can find a way to counter the deeply-held, demonstrably-wrong, carefully-cultivated (especially by the right wing press) set of misperceptions which inform public opinion on these issues, we can never hope to win support for enlightened policy.
10. Empower and mandate the proposed Ministry of Labour to explore all possible uses of new technology.
…to facilitate organisation of workers and encourage union membership across the workforce, especially in sectors in which unionisation is currently low. This must include exploring the possibilities of new forms of organisation, online unions for precarious workers in industries which rarely congregate physically, etc. Aim to increase union membership by 100k per year for five years.
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