Jeremy Gilbert is a political analyst and activist based at the University of East London. His research draws on critical theory to explore the past, present and future of radical democracy, and he currently runs the series ‘Culture, Power and Politics’ which is open to all members of the public. In this interview, Gilbert reflects on the future of the Labour party and how it can build a movement to deliver social change.
Pancho Lewis (interviewer): In a recent article, you argue that the Labour party under Corbyn should quit any pretension of being successful in the short-term. Instead, you suggest that the Left should focus on building a coalition across society to win in the medium to long-term. That’s a very different approach to the position advocated by most political commentators, who say that party leaders should be judged on how successful they are in imminent elections. Can you elaborate on that point?
Jeremy Gilbert: Firstly, it’s not that I don’t think that winning elections is important. My view is that at the moment there is no foreseeable way the Labour party could win the next General Election – to do that, we’d need to address the electoral system and the fact that it clearly doesn’t work, but I’ll come back to that later.
To answer your question directly, I think that the most important thing to understand is that the results of elections are actually pretty incidental to actual political outcomes. Elections are important, but they’re not usually as important as people think they are. Broadly speaking governments in Britain from 1940 – when the war cabinet was formed – through to the 70s pursued a pretty consistent agenda and set of policies. That began to fall apart in the mid-1970s when the Callaghan government started to cut back on the public sector, weaken the unions, and so on. And since then – since the 1970s – that agenda has remained in place pretty consistently up until the present. On the basis of these examples you can say that what happens in elections is a symptom of underlying social forces, rather than being the absolute and determining factor in terms of outcomes. Elections determine who gets to be in government, but they don’t determine what those in power actually do.
I would say that actual political outcomes are, to use a Gramscian phrase, an expression of the balance of forces – they are an effect of the relative strength of different groups in society to influence outcomes and shape the agenda. Generally speaking, from the 40s to the 70s, the two strongest social constituents were manufacturers and the trade unions. Between them they more or less shaped most of the direction of social and economic policy. Since the 80s, the most powerful force in Britain and globally has been financial capital. So unless you can build up some social coalition which means you can organise things differently, then things aren’t going to fundamentally change, regardless of the results of the election. You’ve got to think about how the balance of forces can be shifted.
PL: It’s an interesting perspective – the kind of thinking you hear in academia but is absent in the media. Even in relatively critical newspapers, like The Guardian for example, very little discussion seems to have that deeper historical and sociological understanding.
On that point – of seeing politics as something which is an expression of underlying forces – do you think that Corbyn and his team have that awareness?
JG: It’s an interesting question. I think no one really knows the answer to it. I think if you sat down with members of Corbyn’s team individually and had this conversation with them,
they’d agree with you and say that it’s true. I think that his team have a degree of intellectual equipment to grasp this way of thinking that mainstream journalists don’t. Whether Corbyn’s team can enact a realisation of that truth in any sort of meaningful way is not clear though. I wouldn’t want to generalise too much – there are differences internally within his team. People like Jon Trickett clearly do get this, and John McDonnell probably does too. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be in line with the Bennite tradition, and the Bennites were always confused on this issue.
One thing I would say – and this is quite tendentious – is that I think all of them are probably, in a very general way, committed to a Marxian analysis of social relations and historical change. Within that very broad tradition of Marxian analysis, there’s a marked difference between Leninist and Gramscian approaches. Leninists tend to the think that if you’re a radical socialist the only thing you can do is work towards and wait for an incipient crisis of capitalist society, to open up the prospect of revolutionary change. I think it’s possible that some in the party, who are influenced by certain hard-left currents such as Socialist Action, have a sense that it was by accident that they won the leadership and that they’re not going to be able to do anything with it unless there’s some sort of massive economic crisis. On the other hand, there is the Gramscian approach which would say you’ve got to try and win what reforms you can in the short to medium term, and that you’ve got to strategise and improve your position with regards to the balance of forces.
It’s probably dangerous to impute a coherent position on any of these people or even their critics on the Right of the party. My sense is that no-one really knows what happened – the election of Jeremy Corbyn was so unexpected that pretty much everyone is feeling their way. Most people are still paralysed by the unexpectedness of the event.
PL: I’m interested in exploring how successful someone like Corbyn can really be. I work in the world of communications and campaigns, and in my line of work there is a widespread view that Corbyn is doomed to fail because his political discourse fails to connect with most people. The view is that his discourse connects very strongly with some groups – but most people either find it distant or alienating.
You can think about this, for example, from the perspective of ‘Values Modes’ (VM). VM is basically a framework for understanding human behaviour – it posits that at the core of people’s actions are deep-rooted values which shape how and why we do things3. This includes mundane things like the type of clothes we buy at shops, and extends to more consequential things like how we vote.
Without meaning to go into too much to detail, according to VM there are three main groups. First there are people who are socially conservative and averse to change, and who tend to be anti-immigration (known as ‘Settlers’). They tend to be older and are often more concentrated among working-class groups. Then there are people who are status-oriented, and tend to be more individualistic and materialistic (the ‘Prospectors’) – typically, people you might find in finance and working for large corporations are ‘Prospectors’. And, finally, there are people who are ‘inner-directed’ and more prone to thinking about the good of the collective (the ‘Pioneers’) – often they are the more Lefty types. According to Values Modes, there’s roughly a third ‘Settlers’, a third ‘Prospectors’, and a third ‘Pioneers’ in British society.
From this view, it’s quite easy to see that Corbyn’s political discourse only speaks to Pioneers, and one can see he’s not likely to reach the other two-thirds. What are your thoughts on this?
JG: I’m familiar with this typology and I think it’s quite useful. What I would say is that, from a Gramscian perspective, if you represent the Pioneers you’ve got to figure out how to create an alliance with the other groups. There are going to be points of connection and overlap that can be found. The Blue Labour project was a considered project that said we needed a coalition between the Pioneers and the Settlers. It said that by criticising capitalism and its social consequences we could build an alliance between these two groups. My own view is that this was never going to work because those groups are too distant from each other in their orientation.
I think that if you represent the Pioneers – as Corbyn does – the task is to find a way of talking to the Prospectors. To do that you have to find a way of disaggregating the ‘Prospectors’ as a coherent bloc and find fractures within them to find connections. The thing about ‘Prospectors’ is that historically the Left has been very bad at making an appeal to those people. The Left has tended to rely on a language of social justice and morality; the discourse has been that the reason we want to build a more just and equal society is because it’s a good thing to do – because it’s an expression of our belief in fairness and justice. And Corbyn very much exemplifies this approach. It’s problematic because you can actually make a much more coherent argument to people if you avoid the language of morality and just talk to them about their material interests. You can make the argument that people actually get a much better deal if they just pay a bit more tax; that things like transport and education for example are much more cost-efficient if you pay for them collectively.
One way of looking at things is that the ‘Prospectors’ are mainly the commercial middle classes, whose income mainly derives from activity in the private sector. It’s the group that Marx used to call the petite bourgeoisie. There’s been a pretty interesting shift in the culture of that group. Just two generations ago they were still thought of almost universally as socially conservative, fanatically anti-socialist, and very snobbish. One reason the neo-liberal project has been so successful is that it’s the only political project that’s really tried to speak to those people, as their culture has shifted towards one which is much more libertarian, much more focussed on consumer pleasure and private gratification, much more open to certain kinds of cultural and technological change. It spoke to them to some extent through Thatcherism, and much more directly through Blairism and New Labour; it addressed them directly and said that the world they lived in – a world of aspiration of consumerism – was valuable and should in fact supply the values which the rest of us are obliged to live by.
Nobody from the Left in recent years has tried to make the case for a socialism which speaks to those people and their experiences, for example explaining how a strong public sector can free up some of their time and money for the things they want to spend them on. The Blairites appealed directly to them, but they did so only by promising to try to force public services to be run like commercial enterprises, rather than by making a case that a public sector run according to quite different values than the commercial sector and not run for profit could actually complement other aspects of their lives, and complement the activities of the commercial sector, in beneficial ways. In Marxian terms, most of those people are not capitalists. They are not people whose income mainly derives from very high levels of capital accumulation. They are people whose incomes derive from commercial activities and the market economy. I think that what 21st century Leftism has to do is differentiate between the market and commerce on the one hand, and actual capitalism on the other. By ‘actual capitalism’ I mean the fanatical, insane, endless accumulation of capital by massive institutions, and the insistence that society should be organised with the exclusive aim of facilitating that process. Most people working in the private sector, who run businesses and employ people, are not really motivated by that. They are motivated by the desire for a decent income, a nice life, a sense of autonomy. We need to make a better case to them that supporting a Left project is not against but can enhance their interests. If I’m
honest, I can’t imagine Corbyn reaching out to people in this way. I think he is on a moral crusade. On the other hand, I can imagine McDonnell doing something like this – I can picture him convincing middle-class home-owners in small towns that he might hate the banks but he doesn’t hate them.
PL: And how do you think that someone like Sadiq Khan fits in all of this? He’s someone who’s come from an interesting position in the party. He appealed to the Left in his campaign to become the Labour candidate for Mayor of London, but moved towards a much more centrist platform during the actual mayoral campaign.
JG: My main line on Sadiq is that people are trying to read too much into his election. In a sense, it’s part of a process of normalisation, because in my view London has always been a Labour city. It was Boris Johnson who was the exceptional figure – he represented this harmless gesture of resistance to the political class, and by doing so he managed to get all these votes from people in outer London who were basically anti-political. I think that having Sadiq elected was entirely to be expected – Goldsmith’s racist campaign was a desperate gesture; his campaign team never thought Goldsmith had much chance of winning.
In terms of Sadiq, to put it very crudely, I think the strategy we need on the Left for the 21st century is that we need to be pro-business, but we don’t need to be pro big-business. We don’t have to be pro-the City. At some point, we’ve got to stop and say: a lot of the problems that are happening in society are not happening by accident, they are happening because we allow this little square mile in the centre of London to dictate what happens to the rest of the country – and to some extent the planet – to a completely ridiculous degree. It really concerns me that Khan isn’t prepared to say that, and that he talks his language of being ‘pro-business’ in this very generalised way.
PL: He’s also said that he is proud that London is home to dozens of billionaires. When I heard him say that I didn’t know how to react to it – the ideological bit in me was horrified, but the pragmatic side in me thought it was justified because he had to differentiate himself from Corbyn and get elected. My instinct has always been that Khan is very strategic.
JG: There are different views on Sadiq. Some think he’s a great strategist. Personally I just think he’s an opportunist. I think that the extent of his very personal attack on Corbyn the day after he got elected wasn’t very smart; it pissed a lot of people off. I wish him all the best, and like everyone else I’m proud that we have the first Muslim mayor of London. But with the way he’s going about things he’s going to alienate people very, very quickly – he’s already got a reputation for saying whatever the room wants to hear, which is not a good reputation to have this early on in a top profile job. But we’ll have to wait and see.
In the end, apart from anything else, to me this isn’t just an ideological point of view, it’s also strategic. When you look at something like the British Social Attitudes Survey and other polls, the idea that the City of London is too powerful and out of control is not a radical, left-wing view. It’s completely normal. 80 per cent of Britain would probably agree with that statement, and there are plenty of people in the Tory party who would privately agree with that statement. I don’t think it’s very strategic to take a position which is basically to the Right of 80 per cent of public opinion; it’s a habit inherited by the generation of Blairite politicians from the 90s.
PL: Moving on to a final question, I’d be interested in probing your view on Spanish political party Podemos. To me they seem like a party that takes a hard-headed, strategic Gramscian approach. It’s amazing the gains they’ve made: they came from nowhere to getting 20 percent of the vote at the General Elections. I wonder if you think the Labour party can learn from them.
JG: I think that they can. To my mind there are two aspects to Podemos. One of them is that strategic and Gramscian coalition-building response. The other is its radical democratic aspect. They based their initial appeal on a very strong critique on the insubstantiality and inefficiency of Spanish parliamentary democracy, and the proposition that you need a different kind of democratic institution to generate the social change that most people would want. It’s really important for us to learn from them on this latter point. The British Left has always been really weak on the question of institutional democratic reform.
The most obvious and the best known policy issue from this perspective is Proportional Representation (PR). To me, there isn’t any debate about this – we desperately need PR. Think back over the last century. If you’d told people when women were given full suffrage at the end of the 1920s, that we’d basically have the same constitutional system as we had back then, and that the way we make decisions and allocate power was going to remain more or less unchanged for almost a century, I don’t think they would have believed it. If you’d said: “we’re going to live through these massive technological changes in terms of how we communicate with each other and how we organise things, but we’re still basically going to have the same system, with elections happening through first-past-the-post elections and politicians at Westminster being able to do more or less what they want”, people would have thought it was crazy. In a society as complex and global as ours, we do really need to take seriously the proposition that the whole institutional model of representative democracy doesn’t work.
I don’t have a blue-print for a solution to this. What I would say that the experiment in participatory and electronic democracy which has been going on in places like Ecuador and Bolivia is probably the kind of thing that much bigger countries like Britain need to be looking at. My main point would be that democracy can never be good enough: you can never say “we’ve now got a system which works fine”. There should always be different parts of our institutional arrangements that we should be revising and experimenting with to try and improve. That’s one of the most powerful elements of the Podemos proposition – their assertion that the existing system of representative democracy can’t deliver the changes that people want.
My own view is that the existing system of parliamentary democracy probably can’t even deliver the moderate social democratic reforms that people who think of themselves as being on the centre-left would like to see. We need a much more extensive programme of participatory democracy and various kinds of community democracy; this needs to include thinking about democratising public services, so that people feel they have a real say and a real stake over the way that schools and hospitals are run. That’s the only thing that can defend public institutions from global institutions that are salivating over the prospect of making money from them and taking them apart.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say this isn’t happening or that it’s not being thought about. The Labour party’s constitutional convention represents a big step forward. I know personally that Jon Tricket, who’s been put in charge of the convention, takes all of these issues really seriously. And it’s quite significant that the party has allowed him to have as wide a remit as possible, so he can address the question of wider democratic institutions from top to bottom. It’s also massively important that we’ve had John McDonnell, the second most senior figure in the party, come out in support of PR recently, which is the first time that’s ever happened. I think that I’m fairly optimistic that Labour is at a turning point in taking those issues seriously.
What is worrying is that many amongst the commentariat and the established Left in the labour movement think that those issues are too complicated and too exotic to talk to the general public about. I don’t think that’s true at all. My own personal experience is that you can make a very compelling narrative about the electoral system. If you want to explain to young people who aren’t particularly interested in politics why our political system seems so
distant from them and so unable to deliver on its promises, it makes total system to them when you explain that we have an electoral system in which only 50,000 people’s votes in the country actually matter. They get interested because you’re giving them a convincing account of why none of this works.
This is what I would say about all of this stuff that I’ve been telling you today – that this isn’t actually about taking an idealistic stance, or taking a moral stance, or an ideologically pure stance. Instead it’s about giving an account which is clear with people about the extent to which the social problems they experience are the result of the excessive power of capital and the in-built imbalances in the electoral system. All that stuff is compelling to people because it’s true. The reason why the tactical approach of someone like Sadiq Khan is problematic and risks being very ineffective in the medium to long term is because you can’t give people a convincing account or frame within which to make sense of what’s gone wrong, as well as what the alternatives might be.
PL: To summarise much of what you said, then, it’s about effectiveness – it’s about looking at what strategy we can come up with to deliver real social change. And to do that, we’d have to challenge the narrative which tells us we have to make a choice between pragmatism and ideology, or that it’s about finding a compromise between the two. It really seems to me that this dichotomy – which posits ‘pragmatism’ at one end of the spectrum, and ‘ideology’ on the other – pervades a lot debate on the Left.
JG: I think that’s absolutely right. There’s something quite basic here about the meaning of the word ‘democracy’. Democracy means people going to the polling booth, or participating in the decision-making process in other ways, expressing support for a particular programme, and getting something that looks like that programme. The fact is that people haven’t been getting that for the past forty years. Tories have mostly thought they were voting to roll back social and cultural change – defending the ‘traditional’ family, rolling back immigration, etc. Labour voters have thought they were voting for social democracy. Instead of either of these options, what they’ve got is neoliberalism, financialisation and more neoliberalism. And they are told that any other option, and anything which challenges the power of the financial elite, is outside the scope of pragmatism. This is deeply problematic. We desperately need to change things and address this fundamental imbalance of power.
Pancho Lewis is a consultant at The Campaign Company