Is there only power or the wilderness? On Labour selecting a leader

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Instead of obsessing about taking power in five years, Labour should support projects of social transformation today. This is the kind of leadership Labour needs.

In power or in the wilderness, the British Labour Party it would seem has two settings. Or, at least that’s what they tell us. The present struggle over leadership of the Party has brought these two settings to the fore… and while three candidates seem to think they can offer power, one candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, they tell us can only offer the wilderness.

Across media and internet, commentators argue over this depiction of Corbyn. Critics point to polls showing low general electoral support, the inability of left-wing Labour leaders to get elected… think Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock (yes, I know…  being on the left is relative), and Corbyn’s lack of governmental experience (his only relevant executive office being, it would seem, Chair of Haringey council’s planning department some decades ago). Supporters point to Corbyn’s local popularity – his impressive rising arc of constituency votes, and how thousands have been galvanized to join the party or become £3 affiliates simply to vote for him come August.

I hope Corbyn will win the leadership contest, and I would be delighted to see him as the next PM.

But the success of the Labour Party and of its leader can’t be reduced to holding national office.

Labour out of national office isn’t in the wilderness, or if this is the wilderness, we need a more positive conception of it.

Political power is not held by central government exclusively, and the development of progressive institutional innovations are spread throughout the political system. This is widely accepted. What it means is that there are other ways of governing than taking national office – ways that are more conducive to experimenting with and developing left-wing policy ideas.

I don’t want to suggest forming a national government is unimportant, far from it. However, past Labour governments have often innovated by taking up ideas developed in the “sand-box” of local institutions in previous years – years of Conservative rule.

There is much talk on the left currently about leadership contenders lacking vision; apart from Jeremy Corbyn, they are described as fighting to occupy a ground not many miles from that of the Tories, begging the question why bother unless it’s simply a matter of team sports and you want your team, because they are your team, to win.

Three weeks ago, I was phoned up by a canvasser for one of these three. Our conversation covered a lot of ground. I explained to the canvasser that I thought we needed an economic policy that made economics work for people rather than the other way around, where jobs were stimulating, satisfying, in good safe conditions, and workers involved in workplace decisions. The contender, I was told, wanted to introduce new coding jobs; did I think this was a good idea? I suggested education was important as a process of creative intellectual development that people should be able to access at different stages of their life in different ways. The contender, I was told, wanted more technical colleges. Did I think I would be able to canvass for her?

Certainly, Labour needs more transformative visions. The trouble is that developing ideas on paper (as academics know only too well) can only do so much. New initiatives develop through being trialled – through confronting their flaws, problems, challenges, and failures as much as their successes. And this is (or certainly was) much easier to do at the smaller, more intimate scale of local politics where policy-making and implementation combine.

Take the equality agenda of the Blair government. Much of this was trialled locally in the 1980s, where the task of dealing with institutional non-compliance, resistance, hierarchies of oppression, and the bureaucratisation of politics were all faced. Environmental policies, animal rights (including hunting bans), progressive economics were all attempted locally through the 80s in different parts of the country. And while these policies were seen as radical, even “loony” (especially when it came to gay equality) by this century such policy initiatives had become unremarkably mainstream.

It’s then frustrating to see Labour leadership contenders rubbishing the 1980s, or treating Jeremy Corbyn as out of date. In the repeated mantra, “we must not return to…” the innovative work that takes place when Labour is out of national office becomes obscured.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election in five years, particularly faced with a nasty right-wing press, remains to be seen.

But more urgent now is a leadership that supports innovation and critique – not only within the party but in alliance with other grass-roots innovative politics (among anarchists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-imperialists and those developing cooperative, sharing, new socialist economic alternatives to capitalism) – a leadership that welcomes vibrant, radical experiments in governing and what governing can do – particularly when it comes to countering global forms of private corporate economic power.

It may be, unfortunately, a more moderate Labour leader who ends up winning the general election for Labour (a general election which may not be the next general election). And, as critics on the left rightly note, the political legacy of such leaderships is nearly always equivocal – privatising public services, cutting benefits, pleasing corporations and going to war.

But to the extent Labour leaderships hold out progressive promise, it depends on harvesting ideas more radical sections of the party alongside others on the left have practiced and developed.

Otherwise, without, in a sense, learning from the wildness and exuberance of the wilderness, mainstream Labour is likely to remain in a very arid world.

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