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Labour in government must redistribute power – not just wealth

What should the next Labour government make its top priority? It will need to push through key reforms rather than present a “shopping list” if it wants to get past predictable resistance. There are good arguments for Labour to quickly redistribute a lot of money, but I think it is more important that it starts redistributing power. 

Austerity, the long years of Tory rule and pro-corporate elements of New Labour governments before them mean there is much badly needed change. 

But a long “shopping list” won’t work: a truly reforming Labour will be fiercely opposed by the rich people and companies that have done so well from previous administrations. The media will be vicious.  

Some elements of the civil service may be obstructive. Even “moderate” Labour governments face resistance: Blair faced concerted campaigns by the Conservative-supporting media and lawsuits from corporations to try stop his limited reforms. 

Half-hearted Labour MPs may well try undermining Corbyn: in opposition they mutinied on bizarre and craven “points of principle” including the need to bomb Syria and invite low-pay anti-union employer McDonald’s to Labour’s conference. A rebellion by right-wing Labour MPs spurred by a phoney crisis generated by newspapers and the City is pretty likely.

So a Corbyn government needs to concentrate on what are the most important reforms to get through first.

There is a strong case for an immediate redistribution of resources, to mend the tears caused by austerity: people are using foodbanks, sleeping on the street. Schools, hospitals and other public services are worn and tattered. Seventy-two people died in a fire in our capital city’s richest borough because of cheapskate building methods.

But I think Labour should see that distributing power, not resources, is the priority.

A reforming Labour government will meet resistance from narrow groups at the top of society: “High Net Worth Individuals.” Corporate boards. Newspaper executives. They must appeal to, and mobilise, greater numbers at the base of society to beat them back.

The key strategy for any ruling class resisting change is trying to spread confusion and demoralisation. A reforming government needs to maintain popular enthusiasm, belief that change is possible and has real, tangible results. You need to try redistributing power to get the people at the base of society (this means us) involved.

The New Labour governments give a negative example. They did redistribute money and resources: they increased welfare benefits, money to rebuild schools and hospitals worn away by the Thatcher years, more public-sector staff. But they did this by redistributing power away from the base to the corporations: the very social spending they increased flowed through new private providers. PFI and privatisation meant government spending built up G4S, Serco, A4e, Carillion and the banks behind them, instead of building public institutions. 

New Labour did not strengthen the two bedrocks of Labour influence – local councils and trade unions. Instead it increased the power of the corporations and the City investors behind it.  

New Labour failed to build a long-term base for Labour. It left less and weaker popular institutions to resist corporate calls for austerity after the crash.

FD Roosevelt’s “New Deal” offers a positive example. The Democrats had a programme of investment and reform to break the grip of the Great Depression. 

But Roosevelt also gave trade unions new legal rights. A huge wave of organising, recruiting and striking flooded into this space. These unions then created a new base of critical support that kept the Democrats in power and the Republicans at bay, as well as transforming workplace conditions. Roosevelt’s New Deal also built new institutions which helped make reform last longer.

Labour needs to build new institutions that will transfer power to society and strengthen existing democratic and grassroots organisations, in order to resist any fightback from the top.

This means that giving more power to local authorities. Central government can’t trust local government will always make the narrowly “right” decisions – but it can have faith it will take democratic decisions. 

Councils must regain the power to build council houses for rent. They also have to regain power over local schools – the academy programme needs to be unwound. The fact that local councils have so little power to effect change depoliticises the country.

Council elections are the bedrock of most political parties. If councils are reduced to bargaining with developers and deciding which corporation to give commissions, as at present, rather than supplying houses, schools and jobs, then politics becomes empty.

It means giving power to trade unions to recruit members, get legally enforceable recognition from employers and go on strike. Wage stagnation is driving many social problems.

Wages go up when unions can recruit members and, if necessary, go on strike. 

Not all unions will grab new opportunities with both hands. Many have been beaten back, or fallen into contentment with servicing their existing membership. So there needs to be change at the bottom. It doesn’t just come from laws at the top. But the chance to increase union membership – driving it into new areas like retail, distribution, warehousing, care and reforming the whole “gig economy” – will come from new laws.

It also means building new, popular institutions that have some democratic control, rather than just being top-down. One small example. In a moment of stupid spite New Labour abolished Community Health Councils (CHCs): these were local, publicly supported watchdog groups representing  patient interests in the NHS. They were designed to stop a national industry – the health service – being unresponsive. CHCs – rightly – criticised New Labour PFIs. So New Labour shut them down. 

This has meant a vital voice that could have spoken out on the NHS as it faced further privatisation and cuts was gone for good. A Labour government needs to create more popular democratic institutions like the CHCs.

The need to redistribute cash to alleviate suffering and mend society is strong. But the need to redistribute power, to change society for the longer term, is stronger.

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