Michael Meacher: Diffusing Power (1992)


Michael Meacher was MP for Oldham for 45 years from 1970 until his death in 2015. Before becoming an MP he was an academic, teaching social administration at Essex and York universities. He was a junior minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments. A member of Labour’s shadow cabinet between 1983 and 1997, Meacher was an ally of Tony Benn and in 1983 stood unsuccessfully against Roy Hattersley for the Deputy leadership. However, Blair did not offer Meacher a cabinet position after winning the 1997 election and he instead became a junior minister at the Environment department before being sacked in 2003. Meacher then became a prominent critic of the Labour government, notably in relation to the Iraq war. Meacher was also a prominent campaigner on environmental issues. In 2007, Meacher considered standing against Gordon Brown for the party leadership, but stood down in favour of John McDonnell to avoid splitting the left vote. McDonnell however failed to obtain sufficient nominations to challenge Brown, who was therefore unopposed. In the 2015 leadership election, Meacher supported Jeremy Corbyn.

In 1982, Meacher published Socialism with a Human Face, subtitled ‘Political Economy of Britain in the 1980s.’ Diffusing Power, subtitled ‘The Key to Socialist Revival’, was published ten years later. His last book was The State We Need.

“The imagery of the 1940’s welfare state is now very dated. It oozes with the aura of paternalism, bureaucracy, dependency and a world of claimants. It emphasises the availability of rights and benefits, often perceived pejoratively as ‘handouts’, while neglecting the reciprocity of responsibilities, duties and obligations. However valuable are the basic principles of a welfare society, an appeal to them can no longer by itself inspire victory at a general election, as Labour’s experience in both 1987 and 1992 revealed.

“If the left’s ideology is to regain resonance and force, it must recapture the power to inspire. It must be, and be seen to be, a vision that releases new forces in society, unlocks individual and group energies now pent up, and releases hidden talents. Socialism is not merely, or even primarily, about protecting the weak. It is much more about extending widely the can-do mentality which under Thatcherite capitalism was the exclusive preserve of an entrepreneurial elite.

“Not least the new socialist ideology must generate excitement. Traditional socialism, while enormously worthy and full of good works, was also rather dull and stifling. A left vision which can sweep the country needs to develop a raw cutting edge. A genuine human politics cannot thrive purely on the cultivation of high ideals, let alone the suffocating demands of respectability; it must also exercise a crusading passion.

“Putting real power into the hands of the powerless and making that new power a foundation for an enhanced contribution to one’s country offers a dynamic infinitely more resilient and meaningful than the Thatcherite consumerism of share handouts and capital discounts unconnected to the actual levers of power. Such a vision, as it was steadily implemented, would proliferate new cadres for socialism with the same ardour that Thatcher spawned her shock troops on the ground, the purveyors of private capital in every niche and cranny of the economy.

“It involves a project on a scale of mobilisation never previously attempted by any socialist movement anywhere…. It represents a reversal of traditional top-down social democratic planning. It would progressively unleash bursts of undreamt-of activity where decentralisation of power would force government to adjust from the use of hierarchical controls to increasing acceptance of self-reliance and self-discipline. But as an agenda for the left, as a foundation for the drive to wrest political and ideological dominance from the renascent radical right in Britain and throughout Europe, the scope is awesome.”

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