How We Win: The State

If we aren’t preparing to use power, we are preparing to have it used against us. The left needs a state strategy, starting with municipal socialism to lay the groundwork for a national programme. The fourth of the six-part series How We Win.

by James Schneider

17 March 2021

A red box sitting on a green table in front of a Union Jack flag
Bronte Dow / Novara Media

Socialists will never achieve fundamental social change if we ignore the question of state power. The state is not a neutral institution, but nor is it just the executive committee of the ruling class. It is a force that shapes so many areas of our lives through laws and taxes, punishments and rewards.

Socialists not only need a political plan for seizing the reins of the state, but a strategy for transforming it.  This is a messy business. It entails both involving ourselves with party politics, and situating ourselves within state institutions often set up against the interests of the many.

Although several of the leading lights of Corbynism followed directly in the footsteps of people like Tony Benn, Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch in their “in and against the state” approach, the party’s preparations for government were flawed. Plans for legislation were drawn up with the shadow teams, but tended to treat the party programme as something that could be implemented through existing state machinery, without mass mobilisations and with little establishment backlash. After meetings with senior civil servants about Labour’s 2019 policy programme, one senior member of Corbyn’s team remarked that the civil service was “genuinely excited” about enacting Labour’s legislation. Such hopes would have melted on contact with reality.

If we wish to realise our long-term aspiration of winning office to transform state power, we cannot allow this shortcoming to persist.

Some may feel that such a focus on the state post-Corbyn is quixotic: Starmer has excluded socialists from his team and is an establishment, not a movement, politician. But we must use this time to develop our capacities to act in and against the state so we are ready for the next surge.

This state-focused orientation is not a parliamentary one – far from it. We must move beyond the parliamentary Leninism that implicitly governed much of the Corbyn project’s strategic direction. Parliament is not where the socialist movement is strongest, most dynamic, or most advanced.

To succeed in enacting far-reaching reforms, we must achieve: a high level of organisation among progressive forces, as I argued on Monday; a higher level of proficiency in navigating and resisting the many obstacles placed in their way; and an ability to mobilise mass support for our policies. An “in and against the state” strategy requires all three elements to work in tandem.

The aim of this strategy is to achieve a radical shift in the balance of power, income and wealth. A basic and necessary step is winning elections within the current system and balance of forces, so as to be able to make major changes that noticeably improve the lives of the overwhelming majority. But with power, we will have to go further, building people’s self-confidence and capacities for collective self-government by making more fundamental, structural and institutional changes to democratise the state, the economy and society.

From this analysis, it follows that any socialist government must pass three types of policy in its first term. The first is a swathe of immediate measures, using the state’s existing policy levers, such as tax and spending, to improve people’s lives.

The second are measures that will shift hegemony. They must be radical and attract opposition – not like Brown’s tax credits, which have been undone, but like the minimum wage, which can’t be.

The third are non-reformist reforms: those which push at the boundaries of the possible. Examples include the creation of the NHS in the 1940s; a universal basic dividend today.

The number of this third kind of policy that can be passed will depend more on the balance of forces in society and within the movement itself than on the technical capacity within the administration. If implemented effectively to overcome elite opposition, this package could have a ratchet effect, creating a dynamic momentum in a progressive direction.

Such an ambitious approach to delivering real gains for people now, overcoming ruling class attacks and fundamentally shifting the balance of forces with non-reformist reforms will require high levels of capacity and skill across our movement. We must prepare now.

Beyond building movements and developing the party’s capacities and collective will for real change, there are two things we can do immediately to prepare ourselves.

First, we need to educate our movement about the challenges of state power to ensure it is taken seriously as a site of struggle. Political education efforts, like The World Transformed, the Political Education Project and trade union political education programmes should develop a course in state theory and practice.

Such a course should be made available to shop stewards, community organisers, socialist MPs, their staff, councillors and future candidates as well as grassroots activists. In addition to providing a detailed assessment of the contemporary British state’s workings, it would combine the work of theorists like Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, André Gorz and Leo Panitch with the practical experiences of leftists operating within the state, either historically in the UK, or abroad.

But education is more than studying. So, in addition, socialists should seek practical experience in using the state for progressive ends through local government.

Councils have a bad reputation. Their powers have been stripped down with the aim of reducing them to little more than bodies responsible for the implementation of austerity. Some are corrupt; others are ineffective. While there are many brilliant Labour councillors, many view the job as a stepping stone to something better, or a reward for knocking doors and stuffing envelopes.

But local government can provide an opportunity for socialists not only to experience public administration and to operate within the state, but also to stimulate movements and do some good for their communities.

Despite the increased representation of socialists in local government over the past few years, mainly through a natural churn in selections, no coherent programme for municipal socialism was developed under Corbyn. There are too few success stories and those that exist, like Preston or Salford, are insufficiently well-known.

Yet developing examples of municipal socialism is a vital part of a socialist strategy. The concentration of Labour’s membership, including its left membership, in metropolitan areas is often viewed as a negative, especially following the loss of so many seats in small and medium-sized towns in the 2019 general election. Efforts to strengthen the membership and its socialist orientation in the so-called “red wall” – such as Jon Trickett, Ian Lavery and Laura Smith’s No Holding Back initiative – deserve our support. But the density of urban membership also provides opportunities.

Corbynism was by no means just a phenomenon in cities, but it did have the greatest purchase among the emerging “new working class” of renters, precarious workers the over-indebted that is concentrated there. There is a substantial constituency of support for more radical politics from council and city governments. Municipal socialism could cater to this constituency.

This opportunity for socialists could be realised through the Labour party, which has relatively democratic rules around the selection of council candidates. Socialists should make a concerted effort, with the support of Momentum and left-led trade unions, to replace anti-socialist, status quo Labour councillors with socialist, movement-connected councillors.

These changes have already been taking place organically, with Momentum developing a socialist councillors network, but a more public and active effort could win left majorities on the Local Campaign Forums that vet candidates and manage the procedures for local selections.

To do so effectively, the active minority on the local Labour left must do more to encourage the inactive majority. A public plan to build a programme for municipal socialism around the country, winning positive change for people and providing socialists with hands-on government experience could help to galvanise the support needed from the more passive members. The formal alliance between the SCG, Momentum and the left unions could bring national attention to a campaign to win changes in town halls across the country, but a popular and deliverable policy programme must be developed, alongside training for would-be councillors, to ensure it could be delivered.

More socialist-led councils could provide a huge boost to the movements I discussed on Monday. The Greater London Council, for example, stimulated and supported movements in the capital in the 1980s by opening up County Hall and giving grants to local groups.

Socialist councils could aid today’s movements in a similar way. By bringing services back in-house, councils could establish a floor under pay and conditions and create decent, unionised jobs in their area. Councils could further support union drives in major local employers, using council communications to champion trade unions and only commissioning services from unionised companies.

Socialist councils could return life to high streets and sad parades by turning over empty shops to a variety of social uses. Spaces could be created for community organisations, support groups, labour, tenants and unemployed movement organising; or they could be used as incubators for new coops and social enterprises, and mutual aid groups. In this way, socialists councils could help to deepen the progressive organising and community support already taking place in their areas.

Such a strategy would not only support movements but also begin to lay the basis of a programme for a socialist-led Labour government, just as the London County Council (LCC) did for the 1945 government. In his book Red Metropolis, Owen Hatherley outlines the successes of the LCC in the 1930s in providing free healthcare, public transport, and council housing as well as administering public utilities.

Today’s municipal socialism could demonstrate on a local level what is achievable nationally, participatory budgeting, mass council housing, public data ownership, even a Green New Deal.

Leo Panitch summarised the changes on the left of recent years as a turn “from protest to politics”. For the first time in many years, we took seriously the possibility of winning office. That we failed this time shouldn’t cloud our focus on the state: if we aren’t preparing to use power, we are preparing to have it used against us. Not only can we achieve some good immediately by seeking entry into local government, we can use this power to strengthen both our movement forces and our activists’ capacities to take the reins of central government when the next surge comes.

But while we mine local government for experience to ready our advance at the national level, we can’t believe that we can build socialism in one country. Capitalism is a global system, with value chains stretching from the mines of Chile to the factories of China to the tax-dodgers of the Cayman Islands. To build an alternative that confronts the crises we face – the Covid-19 pandemic, climate breakdown and corporate power – socialists must also expand our horizons internationally, as we’ll do tomorrow.

James Schneider is the communications director of Progressive International, co-founder of Momentum, and a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn.


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