The future of the left since 1884

What kind of power do we want?

What does being ‘in power' mean? Labour is divided as never before. On the left, Corbyn and his followers are seeking to build a new kind of mass movement for the 21st century. On the right, their opponents insist that such...


What does being ‘in power’ mean?

Labour is divided as never before. On the left, Corbyn and his followers are seeking to build a new kind of mass movement for the 21st century. On the right, their opponents insist that such a movement can only ever be a vehicle for protest, whereas the Labour party’s mission is to seek ‘power’.

Here is the problem with the view from the Right. They claim to want power, but they have no idea what power is or how to achieve it. They think that being in power is the same thing as being in office. They could not be more disastrously mistaken.

The history of Labour governments since the 1930s makes one thing very clear. If you want to achieve major social reforms, reforms which actually tilt the balance of power and advantage in society away from the rich and towards the poor, then you cannot achieve this merely by winning elections. Winning elections is crucial. But if you win them primarily by convincing Rupert Murdoch to stop campaigning against you, but without ever building up a social force capable of challenging a Murdoch, or the corporate elite whose interests he represents, then you are never going to be able to do anything of which that corporate elite might disapprove. Which is pretty much the story of New Labour in a nutshell.

Alternatively, if you win elections by patiently building a large-scale social coalition, with active representatives in every community, backed by a strong Labour movement and a convincing set of answer to contemporary social problems, then you can achieve major reforms which actually leave the country more equal and more democratic than when you came into government. That, in another nutshell, is the story of the 1945 government.

It is worth reflecting here that the kind of democratic reforms which the Fabian Society has been campaigning for this year have never been won simply by persuading wise and benign governments to enact them. They have only ever been won by mass campaigns which have succeeded in counteracting the entrenched power of anti-democratic forces, winning elections under circumstances which they had helped to change.

The Corbynite Hypothesis

Right now, the Corbynite wing of the party is attempting to build on this observation under novel historical conditions. We hope that by building a mass membership party, deploying the technology of the 21st century, we can shift the balance of forces in British society and the balance of opinion within the British electorate sufficiently to make the election of a genuinely progressive government possible.

Nobody imagines that this is simply achievable through the clever use of social media. We know that we will need people knocking on doors in Nuneaton. But recruiting and organising those people, keeping in touch with them, bringing them together and giving them the materials they need to campaign with, could all now be achieved at a fraction of the cost and much more quickly than would have been possible 20 years ago.

Nobody thinks that this could happen overnight. But our hypothesis is that given time, such a mobilised membership could become an effective counterweight to the power of the right-wing press to shape the attitudes and assumptions of key groups of voters especially in marginal constituencies. Given the weight of historical evidence in its favour, and given the paucity of viable alternatives on offer (does anyone actually believe that Owen Smith would have won a general election?), it seems fair that this hypothesis, supported so heavily by the membership, should at least be given the chance to be tested. But Corbyn’s enemies, especially most of the parliamentary Labour party, seem determined not to allow this.

The Corporate Social Responsibility department of the British ruling class

Perhaps their hostility is unsurprising. The Left wants to build a movement which will confront the entrenched power of finance capital in contemporary British society, requiring MPs to take an active role in a battle with vested interests. But this is simply not the job that most of them signed up for. In most cases, the role they sought when they became Labour MPs was not as opponents of the governing elite, but as specialised members of that elite, who happened to be charged with looking after the interests of some of the more vulnerable members of society. They don’t want to be front-line fighters in a battle between finance capital and the people. They want to be the Corporate Social Responsibility department of the British ruling class. This is fair enough.

Unfortunately, the economic conditions which made such an aspiration plausible have disappeared, and they are not coming back any time soon. During the boom years of 1997-2008, it was possible to continue to serve the interests of the financial elite while also dispensing largesse, on strictly defined terms, to the poor and the public sector. Under current economic circumstances, this is simply not a role which is actually available to anyone.

How this dilemma is to be resolved is the key question facing Labour today, and I cannot pretend to have an easy answer to it. It may be, as so many of us hope, that the MPs and their backers can come to terms with their changed historical situation and unite with the membership in the project to build a democratic Britain. If not, then perhaps they should heed the recent advice of Len McCluskey (quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V): ‘if you have no stomach for this fight, depart the battlefields’.


Jeremy Gilbert

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London.


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