How do we rethink the relationship between labour and Labour?

The Labour Party leadership contest, in addition to enabling debate on different policies, provided a valuable opportunity for members to reflect on the party's ideological core. The radically different visions offered by each candidate paid tribute to the many different readings afforded by Labour’s ‘democratic socialism’. Now is an apt time to re-evaluate an important but oft-overlooked interpretation – one which stresses the ‘democratic’ in democratic socialism’s – which can offer much use if applied within the context of the workplace. If taken to its ideational conclusion, its adoption would herald a profoundly positive shift in the relationship between labour and Labour.

At its ideological centre, the reading of democratic socialism which places utmost importance on its ‘democratic’ component, sits the principle of autonomy. In addition to other socialist principles such as community and equality, this interpretation emphasises the supremacy of one’s freedom to control one’s own life. So as well as justifying institutions such as the welfare state or the NHS on the basis of their equality-enabling qualities, this reading places emphasis on their capacity to increase the autonomy of ordinary people. This is ideationally cognate with the ‘do-it-yourself’ roots of the Labour Party, a democratic movement founded by labour in a world dominated by capital to further its own needs. Within the recent leadership contest, this renewed reverence for self-determination was best expressed by calls for policymaking to be increasingly devolved from the centre back down to the grassroots.

A re-emphasis on the principle of autonomy offers an exciting opportunity for Labour to rethink its relationship with labour. Previous Labour governments, concerned chiefly with combating inequality, engaged in expanding the welfare state, nationalisation and then later on, creating anti-discriminatory laws and instituting a minimum wage. Though these policies have merits in their own right, the Party should rediscover and embrace the principle of autonomy inherent in its ideological core, forging a relationship with workers which is far less top-down. In essence, it would mean aiming to create policies which would increase workers' autonomy. Specifically with workers in the public sector, it would entail going beyond data-driven targets and the injection of market mechanisms. Rather a programme of workplace reform which emphasises the centrality of autonomy would include, but not be limited to, encouraging the establishment of co-operatives, and gradually increasing the levels of workers’ control in larger organisations, whether through delegating or electing executive members.

In his Fabian pamphlet, ‘Letting Go’ (2012), Wilson offers a compelling argument on why Labour to should engage with stakeholders within the public sector – including workers – in a two-sided rather than top-down way. Though his reasoning is fine, his conclusion of creating a 'conversation' between labour and a Labour government could a lot bolder and more imaginative. If it wants to be taken seriously, Labour should be confident and commit to a programme which would lead to the radical decentralisation and dissipation of power within the workplace. In another earlier Fabian pamphlet, 'The New Politics', Benn (1970) suggested that devolving power to workers would mean harnessing their positive rather than negative powers which already exist in the form of industrial action. I would add to that, and suggest that even the most moderate proposals could add substantial value to the economic credibility and radicalism of our next programme.

With its stress on the autonomous decision-making powers of ordinary members, the recent leadership contest has injected a defeated Labour with a new dose of political dynamism. If the party is imaginative enough to consider placing the principle of autonomy into the heart of any new piece of workplace-related legislation, then it would make for a compelling offer come the next General Election.

Jun Bo (Jumbo) Chan is a Young Fabians member 

This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations

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