When the centre cannot hold

The centrist consensus is breaking up, accelerated by Brexit. Don Flynn says Labour too needs to be ready to ‘move quickly and smash things’

The old Chinese proverb about the fish rotting from the head seems especially appropriate in any consideration of the mess politics in general is in today and which seems to have particularly hit the Left hardest of all.

The head of the fish in this instance is the UK Parliament. Over the course of centuries this institution has evolved with the purpose of anchoring the politics of the country’s ruling elites firmly to the centre ground. The system has been generous enough to allow some space for viewpoints outside this centrist consensus, on the understanding that its strength would be so overwhelming as to ensure that all forces other than the safe middle remained marginal in terms of influence.

The grounds for believing that this cosy relationship is breaking down have been around for some time. Social discontent can be checked for long periods of time, but the constant pressure that comes from a population of frustrated citizens will make itself felt in some form sooner to later. A public sector destabilised by right wing ideology and austerity with dramatic changes to the labour market seeing the loss of the ‘decent’ jobs once associated with Fordist manufacturing, plus housing policy that doesn’t deliver housing, is going to take its toll at moments when despair about what the future might hold become overwhelming.

The sense that government wasn’t listening to ordinary people – surely a common enough complaint throughout history – could in principle be ameliorated by the role civil society or a more responsive local democracy might play in representing the people’s interests. But the record here seems just as dismal as that of Parliament and central government itself. Over the same period that discontent with central authority has grown, the trade union movement has been reduced by more than half its size and local government has been deprived of its once substantial role in the provision of health, housing and education outcomes. It has become all about the expanding role of the market.

In the schematic terms of (dogmatic?) Marxism, the erosion of the material underpinnings which sustained the old centrism (stable jobs market, broad consensus in the key areas of social policy) has now bled into a radical destabilisation of the political superstructure. But these have been long-term developments: across the last forty years the sense that politics has been losing its grip has come at an almost serenely gradual pace.

The steady accumulation of dissatisfaction has resulted in our present times when everything about the relationship between government and the people has become extremely fragile. The Brexit crisis has shown just how brittle a thing the structures of UK Parliamentary democracy have become over the years when it has been stripped of responsibility for administering the welfare state which propped up capitalism in the years after WW2. By insisting that they should not be judged on the quality of jobs being created in the UK economy or the state of a large segment of public services on the grounds that this was now all the responsibility of market forces, a generation of politicians has put itself in a position where they are easy targets of denunciation for being nothing more than an elite talking shop utterly remote from the real concerns of the people. Is it any surprise that this has resulted in the doors being flung open wide for a series of new, radical populisms to sweep onto the scene?

No way out

The fact that this has not happened earlier can be attributed to that part of the British constitution that was there to maintain rule from the ‘reasonable’ centre. First-past-the-post voting facilitated a party system which, in its ideal form, was intended to produce a government of the day and an opposition aspiring to have nothing more than its turn to be the government of the day. Radicalisms of both leftist and far right hues were allocated their places within this set-up – safely on the outer fringes where they were allowed to grumble on with their respective critiques on the understanding that this would be all they were ever going to do.

All is now changed. The vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum has thrown Parliament into disarray precisely because there are no safe centre-ground ways of resolving the dilemmas the ruling elites have now found themselves in. People on the left can shout out their favoured solutions to the crisis (from a new referendum to reverse Brexit through to the vagaries of the possibility of a ‘Lexit’), but plumping for one or the other is less of a means to bring about resolution and more moving on to a new, almost certainly higher level of crisis.

Getting out of this predicament will require more than insistence on a socialist comfort zone where people are diverted away from the insurmountable problems being thrown up by the UK’s exit and encouraged instead to talk more about the things that affect their material conditions of life. Voters seem to be well aware of the significance of all the things that have been taken away from them, but the problem is they still want to talk about leaving the EU. Their sense is that this entity is involved in taking away from them the opportunity they feel they once had to take government by the scruff of the neck and take their needs into account. Until we can do better in persuading them what is really driving the crisis of democracy, and that it principally involves home-grown factors rather than malign foreign power, the left is unlikely to mobilise the energy needed for radical change.

Crisis of democracy

Democracy (which, let’s face it, has never been the strongest part of the British way of governing) is today in a state of crisis and it is time we delved into those moments in time when socialists have captured the mood of the masses and have spoken to this issue of how and by whom we are governed. It is worth recalling how the original Chartist movement laid the foundations of the first labour movement by demanding the reform of the parliamentary system of its day.

We ought to be well beyond appealing to the certainties that come from using generations-old governance procedures to get out of this mess. A change to a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would almost certainly prove short-lived if it only had the effect of welding capitalist interests to far right populist politicians (whether they be Farage or Johnson) in order to crush a challenge from the left. In its quest for a popular mandate Labour should make it clear that the way it governs will be transformative – not only in terms of its rhetoric (‘for the many, not the few’, etc) but also in throwing up obstacles to the dictatorship of capital – from day one in office.

In its most radical version this would involve further devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (including the right to enter into treaty arrangements with other blocs as well as acceding to the claim to full sovereignty or, in the case of Northern Ireland, reunification with the Republic of Ireland). A Labour government would immediately begin the devolution of power to the English regions and also lay the grounds for a Parliament for England. It would abolish the House of Lords and create a second House of the Regions, with elected members charged with responsibility for protecting the interests of whatever a united Britain might look like in the future.

We should also grasp the nettle of reform of the electoral system, favouring a version that allows for the representation of class interests in the Commons, and not just geography. This could be achieved by having larger multi-member constituencies on the Irish model which ensure that most citizens will have an MP representing their area from one of the parties they voted for.

It is ironic that one of the slogans which adherents of the global neoliberal right constantly intone to each other when government power is within their reach is ‘move quickly and smash things’. We should be ready to acknowledge the spirit which animates this drive to radical change and come up with our own version. ‘Clear the wreckage of a smashed version of Parliament out the way. Replace it with an authentic people’s democracy which reaches out into every part of the country.’

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network