Needed: Our own Garibaldi to Trump Trumpism

 

(photocredit – author)

Inauguration Night saw a demonstration of several hundred in St Peter’s Square Manchester, where I happened to be. One of very many, and very understandable:  His election statements were incendiary, explicitly and xenophobic. And yet….

And yet, of course, he won.  “Down with Trump”. Is that what we are saying?  Down with the outcome of an election we lost. Down with the will of the people? Down with democracy?

We are in potentially dangerous territory here. If we are democrats, then we can’t just accept the results we like.

But of course, “we” may not all be democrats.  That shouldn’t be shocking. Didactic politics are not only the preserve of the (extreme) right.  So, fair enough, if you do not believe in democracy, there’s no problem rejecting its unpalatable outcomes.

But that’s not going to account for very many people.  So the rest of us are facing a wrestling match with our principles.

Well, refuge can be sought in a number of places: The election was fixed – most likely by Russian smears and internet interferences.  The electoral system is unfair – Hilary won the popular vote.  Votes were miscounted in key states.

All these positions would lead us to challenge the election – to call for a rerun.  That is a different tack to excoriating the victor.

Even if you accept – as most do – that Trump has torn up just about every precedent and norm in the political playbook and we are in truly exceptional circumstances, do we abandon democracy? States of Emergency and other similar suspensions of the people’s mandate are usually the work of governments under pressure and are either short-lived or a staging post to autocracy. So are we the people really saying democracy no longer applies?

But look again at the poster.  “Oppose Trump and his racism” the emphasis is added but important.  This is not about the man, nor his position as president – it is about the racism that was undeniably evident during his campaign. Other placards and posters proclaim that in the “US, Britain Everywhere, Stand Up to Racism.” That  “Black Lives Matter”. The objection here is to racism. It’s easy at present to see Trump and only Trump on the flip side of the racist coin, and understandable  how the demarcation line  between objecting to his racism and respect for a democratic process, can be blurred.

Roll forward twenty-four hours and across the UK there is a huge response by women motivated by Trump’s unambiguous sexism.

And there, in the space of those 24 hours, we see the ability of race and gender to act as a prism. To provide the common platform on which to hold the powerful to account.  What is missing from that troika is something that unites and motivates people on the basis of our shared economic experience or views about society in general.

You might call it a class-based view of the world, but whatever the label the absence of it is the crucial element in the context of our own politics.

Because with no shared set of experiences or shared view, where is the basis for a wide-ranging inclusive, community based approach?  Where is the basis of a Labour Party revival?

That’s why the NHS is so important – it remains the exemplar of a shared set of views and experiences.  It’s why in London, public transport is such a key concern and touchstone.

And we have a major, almost existential problem here.  Because the UK landscape is so impoverished,   commoditised,  ghettoised, and atomised it is  hard to  identify and sustain  the very shared experiences and  values that are  necessary  for  progressive populism.

Instead, what we have is internet-driven individualism with increasing xenophobia used to explain short-comings and hardships.

Progressives recognise the challenge and necessity of recapturing populist values from the right. But thinking on how this can be achieved is still developing – or is muddled. For example, hostility to “liberal elites”, so visible in Trump’s rhetoric is seeping from the right-wing into the mainstream,  requiring contributions  from  surprising  quarters to  remind us that the left needs to expose reactionary nonsense,  not  ape it.

As talk of a “progressive alliance” gains ground, especially in the run-up to the two Parliamentary by-elections on 23 February, does this provide a hopeful way forward? I am irresistibly drawn to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland as a loose comparator.  Would it be possible for the centre and left in Britain – or even in England – to set aside deeply established tribalism to the extent necessary to capture power?  Despite the energy and intellectual fire-power of groups like Compass, I am not hopeful.

So step forward Momentum.  Let’s be quite clear – more than half a million people joining or supporting the: Labour party is a big deal.  They didn’t split off to form a UK version of Podemos or Syriza.  There has been a clear reconfiguration of the Labour Party, whether that is to your taste or not. So now comes the crunch time, where the stated aims of this group need to be implemented and hopefully validated.  It will be big ask, even without the current internal “policy debates.”  550,000 party members, sure, but only 20,000 in Momentum (with another 200,000 registered supporters).

What is the answer? Where is our salvation? An under-explored area is the devolution debate. This is seen by some as a last refuge/fertile opportunity to build bespoke, local alliances that engage with voters and can achieve electoral success.  The down side is that devolution, certainly in England, is becoming a case of responsibility being decentralised, without the accompanying power. But I like the idea of the left in Britain almost being reinvented and rejuvenated by this city-statism (but, oh,  who will be our Garibaldi?)

But one thing is undeniable: Those few hundred in Manchester and the several tens, hundreds of thousands in London and elsewhere. These are all expressions of hope.

So let me take you back to St Peter’s Square.  The crowd is bigger now – respectable for a cold-ish Friday night and growing. Someone’s brought a big drum. A smattering of incessant whistles, and a throaty growl of appreciation for each speaker. A harbinger for the even bigger demonstrations to follow.

We the people are entitled to say to elected representatives – especially those who exert influence over our lives – racism, sexism, hatefulness, should be no part of what they say or do.

Bang that drum a bit louder, sister. So everyone can hear and join in.

 

Why May Must Say Yes to Worker Directors

Industrial democracy has made a welcome return to the political front line. With positive news for workers and the economy in general hard to come by, this could be a glimmer of good news in a fairly bleak winter.

I’m talking of course about the idea of Worker Directors. Theresa May has been tying herself in knots on this – showing rather less poise than Ed on Strictly – having first pinched the idea from Ed Miliband, going big on it on her  way to Downing Street, pulled the plug on it in front of the CBI and finally rekindled interest in response to a question from Gloria del Piero at the fag-end of last week’s PMQs on Wednesday.

But the idea of worker directors is not new – the modern era opened with the Bullock Report into industrial democracy in 1977. As debates at the time illustrate, then, as now, this was seen as something of a magic bullet for solving deficiencies in employee engagement and boardroom arrogance.

Bullock directly lead to six worker directors being appointed to the board of the then-state run forerunner to BT.  The experiment ran from 1978 to 1980, all concerned felt it was successful, but it was allowed to lapse by the in-coming Thatcher government who perhaps already had privatisation in mind.

The value of the worker director concept works on two levels. On the plus side, they have important symbolism. A witness in the boardroom. A civilizing influence to curb corporate excess. An advocate of realism to speak truth unto power.

But a more inclusive approach can also lead to real change, especially as part of a wider democratization of workplaces. The TUC’s 2014 report on workplace democracy set out clearly and convincingly how and why more inclusive employers would also be more effective and efficient.

Both the symbolism and practical effects of Worker Directors speak to issues regarded by employees and workers as being important. UKCES survey work paints a picture of  “a climate of fear [as] employees face greater stress and job insecurity while working harder.”

But nor should the potential of worker directors be over-stated : They can only ever be one part of effective employee relations. And they can actually be very damaging to industry if mistakenly seen as a panacea.

You can immediately see the limitations: What are the terms of reference? What is off-limits? What information has to be disclosed – and when? Is there enough time and detail to form the basis for a proper discussion?  The fundamental constraint is that worker directors are always, always “playing away” – the agenda is set, predetermined. They cannot on their own bridge the gap between boardroom and shop floor. They do not replace effective communications within a company and they are too restricted in number and scope to be a truly effective tool for employee engagement.

And the very real risk is that this then becomes a tick-box exercise. “We’ve got a worker on the board, what more do we need to do?” The answer is likely to be “nothing”.

So worker directors need to sit alongside effective collective bargaining arrangements. They can certainly add value and encourage dialogue at a strategic level.  But we need to be aware of the capacity for worker director arrangements to act as black holes – sucking everything in, generating no light or understanding, leaving nothing outside.

Quite apart from the PM’s acrobatics, the high level of interest in the latest Government consultation on corporate governance shows it remains a live issue. But  if employers try to  weaken  consultative strictures in favour  of more limited and regulated dialogue  with worker directors,  they should not be surprised to find poorer  outcomes as a result.

And we may not even get as far as this debate on practicalities. As the TUC’s  Janet Williamson  observes,  “appointing a non-executive director to speak on behalf of the workforce or setting up a stakeholder advisory body are not the same as putting workers on company boards. Don’t think that working people won’t notice the difference.”

In this era of post-truth left-behind politics, worker directors would seem to be a straightforward win-win issue. The PM has a choice to make here; I hope she makes the right one.

Is the National Trust at War with its Tenants?

crossroads

 At a crossroads? The NT is at loggerheads with its tenants’ organization.

Photo credit: Emma Durnford, Getty Images

 

Trouble is brewing at one of Britain’s best loved institutions. Papers released last week show that the stage is set for a showdown between the Board of the 4 million-strong National Trust and the only organization exclusively representing the Trust’s tenants, at the former’s AGM next month.

In 2014 the Board decided to end 14 years of funding of the Tenants’ Association of the National Trust (TANT), saying that it was no longer appropriate to treat it differently to other tenants’ groups, and pointing towards fee-paying subscribers as the way forward.

Surely fair and reasonable? Not everyone thinks so and you can see why. TANT’s case is based on value-add. It’s great but challenging being a NT tenant they argue. Beautiful buildings but also frequently run-down and high maintenance. Also many properties are “working buildings”, being key parts of the Trust’s operational – and income generating – estate. TANT says they make sure concerns are raised and acted upon before they brew up into costly legal, regulatory or reputational problems. All for £15k a year (or around  0.0003% of the 2015 NT’s rental income.)

Oh this is crazy, you may be thinking. Even if this is imperfect, why try and fix something that is clearly not broken.

But there are other arguments. The Board’s position is that they are not providers of social housing, that there are other stakeholders, that TANT would speak with more authority if they did so on behalf of a paying membership.

Whilst you can see from the maths that each tenant would need to fork out only £3 a year to match the central soon-to-be-withdrawn funding, that is not the issue. Becoming a member-based organisation dependant on subscription income may be desirable in pure democracy terms but it is not cost or challenge free. Crucially, the overheads inevitably increase and the focus of the organisation as a service provider (delivering value for tenants and the Trust) is diluted by the distraction of having to organise to recruit and retain members.

The Trust have been quite cute here, offering assistance on an “in-kind” basis that could easily add up to more than the current annual grant. But the net result is the likelihood that the ability of tenants to raise issues and seek a non-fuss resolution will be reduced.

TANT claims a degree of bad faith here in being blocked out of the all-member Trust magazine, not being given any advice on independent fund-raising, and denying access to the addresses of tenanted properties. The Trust has issued a lengthy statement in support of their position

This fear is perhaps confirmed by the Board’s decision on who to support in the annual elections to the NT Council, which in turn appoints the governing body – setting aside the unfortunate all male, all white recommendations (hardly reflective or encouraging of diversity in the organisation!). One of those not supported for re-election is a senior officer of TANT (who happens to be a woman).

The Trust seems to me to be in a difficult position, vulnerable to the suggestion it seeks to be less accountable, inclusive and representative rather than more. This would be a shame because modern Britain needs the National Trust and the many things it does uniquely well more than ever.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in my 15 or so years as a Trust member: Vote at the AGM. After all there’s no point complaining that democracy doesn’t work or that change is impossible unless you use it to try to make a difference.

Details of the National Trust AGM are at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/agm-2016-booklet-.pdf

A version of this article also appears in the Independent

Trade Unions and Constitutional Change – Issues we can’t duck

Discussions initiated by campaign groups such as the Electoral Reform Society [1] and Involve [2] about identifying and then remedying the problem of low engagement by, especially, younger people in the political process have a direct relevance and importance for the trade union movement.

First of all, the abstentionism of a majority of young people absolutely affected the outcome of the 2010 and 2015 General Election. There is a clear advantage and indeed necessity in raising the level of engagement in the political process by young people and, of course, that includes young trade unionists.

The second connection is that low levels of engagement do not just appear in connection with political activity – they are also a feature of the democratic process within trade unions themselves. Therefore if we can find strategies that will deal with low levels of engagement in one sphere we should be able to map them across into another.

Even though trade union interest in this area is anything but well-established, there is a very wide range of academic interest in the question of participatory democracy. Plans for two “constitutional convention” pilot exercises (to test the theory and practice of how such conventions could operate) will be run by ERS in Southampton and Sheffield have now been finalised – and there will be some trade union input/participation.

 

IMPORTANT

This work is important not just because of the central relevance of voter/member engagement to trade unions.

It is also important because it seeks to address some dominant political issues that cannot be avoided given the preferences of the current government.

One of these issues is the “English votes for English laws” nationalism enthusiastically advocated by the Prime Minister, especially in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum last year [3]. This means that the issue of devolution within the UK is not just limited to Scotland and there will be a wider debate. The government has already published its view about the vehicle that should be used to carry forward that debate which it is feared will be a very select form of constitutional convention, both in terms of its composition and in terms of its remit.

It was this particularly that prompted the Electoral Reform Society to call for a genuine people’s constitutional convention to make sure all views in society were accommodated and which seeks to make sure that the way in which the convention works is open, democratic, responsive and meaningful.[4]

The second way in which this issue is unavoidable is that part of the overall devolution debate is the “Devo-Manc” policy that will see first Manchester and then presumably other major centres given devolved responsibility for a greater range of services than has ever previously been the case in modern Britain. [5] This means that there will need to be new models of democratic accountability to provide oversight for those devolved services. If there are new devolved models of accountability that means that all sorts of issues about how they are selected, how they work, what their remit is, come onto the table.

It is clearly important for progressive organisations to recognise this as an opportunity for engagement in order to participate in debate and influence outcomes.

Indeed, with initiatives looming that will significantly change pan-UK politics, (such as Individual Electoral Registration and the consequent re-drawing of parliamentary boundaries), it is more important than ever to be aware of any and every opportunity that exists to make sure our voice is heard.[6]

COMPARATORS

It is not just within the context of UK politics that the potential importance and value of constitutional conventions can be seen. Two fairly contemporary recent examples also show why this can be an important issue.

First example is the Irish Referendum on Equal Marriage. This was preceded by constitutional convention which many would argue allowed the issue of equal marriage onto the political debate, socialised the issue through debate and then made a major contribution in generating a public momentum for change that the government of the day found irresistible.[7]

The second example is that of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, established in 1981 which brought together a very wide-range of Scottish society – in fact all of Scottish society apart from the Conservative Party and some fellow travelling unionists.

The convention is credited as providing the social and political network that lead to effective devolution in the late 1990s when 20 years previously it had seemed an impossibility.[8]

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

Most recently, the newly/appointed Labour’s leadership has entered this debate. Last week Shadow Secretary of State for local government, Jon Trickett, announced the Party’s plans for their own People’s Assemblies. These are described at http://labourlist.org/2015/09/labour-to-organises-citizens-assemblies-to-reinvent-politics/. However, it seemed to me that this was open to misinterpretation and therefore criticism and limited success. My response, written in a personal capacity, to Jon’s proposals appears http://labourlist.org/2015/09/the-question-of-peoples-assemblies-isnt-as-straight-forward-as-it-might-seem/

In the same week, the TUC had its first substantive debate on electoral reform in many years, and is now committed to an investigation into possible forms of alternative voting.[9] However, many unions have yet to debate the issue internally.

WHERE NEXT

The notions of electoral reform and constitutional reform, constitutional conventions and participative democracy have fresh momentum behind them and will be with us for the foreseeable future. It is therefore appropriate and necessary that the labour movement keeps this area under active review, seeking to influence both debate and the outcome.

[1]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

[2]        http://www.involve.org.uk/

[3]            https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/441848/English_votes_for_English_laws_explanatory_guide.pdf

[4]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/constitutional-convention

[5]        http://www.centreforcities.org/blog/will-devo-manc-mean-devo-max-for-cities/

[6]        http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06764/SN06764.pdf

[7]        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32858501

[8]        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Constitutional_Convention

[9]        http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2015/09/15/tuc-congress-unions-to-consider-change-of-voting-system-for-uk-elections/