Rebecca Long-Bailey & Jeremy Corbyn

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s call for a “democratic revolution” in the wake of Labour’s election debacle is welcome. In doing so, she raises crucial questions about where power is located, the nature of the state and removing the Tories sooner rather than later.

Clearly, Labour cannot simply rely on harvesting the votes of traditional supporters at the next general election, which could be almost another five years away. That approach failed disastrously last December when groups of former Labour voters lent the Tories their votes instead.

The decisiveness of the Tory appeal of “Getting Brexit Done” and “Taking Back Control” – despite all the illusions, pitfalls and downright lies contained therein – proved stronger than Labour’s jam-packed manifesto. The absence of a coherent vision of a fairer, caring and, importantly, a more democratic Britain didn’t help Labour’s cause nor did the confusing position over Brexit.

Leadership contender Long-Bailey says that after the 2016 Brexit referendum Labour should have held public meetings to “stir up a movement for real change – pledging to take on the political establishment and raise up the people’s demands beyond our institutional arrangements with the European Union”, adding:

“That way, our manifesto could have become a set of popular remedies to deal with the three linked crises our country faces: of democracy, the economy and the environment … For lasting, serious change to happen, people in this country must themselves take charge of politics through a democratic revolution.”

You can’t argue at all with that sentiment. In fact, you should support her call. But there are real issues, in my view, with Long-Bailey’s view of what constitutes a “democratic revolution”.

She explains how Labour under her leadership would connect with people, winning “mass support for policies that start a democratic revolution” leading to a government “for and by the people” that helps “people take charge in their workplaces, homes and communities”.

So far, so good. But what precisely would this revolution set out to achieve in terms of fundamentally changing the UK’s power structures that are embodied in the state system of rule? That’s the question of questions.

Although there’s not much detail, Long-Bailey does say: “We need a popular movement to turn the British state against the privatisers, big polluters and tax dodgers that have taken hold of our political system.” [My emphasis]. Then she adds that the state needs a “seismic shock” to “prise it open at all levels to the people”.

Herein lies the fatal weakness of her approach which is a mistaken yet common view of the UK state as a neutral body that can be retuned and redirected by progressive forces. This outlook is, to different degrees, shared by both the left and right of the Labour Party.

Both historical development and political experience shows that the present UK state –  far from being a neutral mechanism of power and political rule that ticks over like an idling engine while it waits for directions – has a distinctive class character and nature. 

This state is, of course, more than simply the government and Parliament. Its institutions include the departments of state, quangos, local government, the military, police, intelligence agencies, the legal system, the Bank of England and last, but not least, the monarchy.

Since its early beginnings in the 17th century, the modern state has assumed in various ways responsibility for the continuing development of capitalism through trade, colonial expansion, transport infrastructure, military power, property, employment and company laws. Operating as part of a division of labour with capital, the state upholds the profit system and backs it up by force where necessary.

This is not to say that the capitalist state is some kind of monolith which is in control of events. In practice, it is a contested space over and through which the long, ongoing fight for democracy takes place. Its institution are regularly at odds with each other and catastrophes like the financial crash take it by surprise.

During the 19th century, as it developed and to maintain an aura of authority, the UK state was compelled to introduce representation, though the battle for the vote took over 100 years to be completed. Education, health and other public services achieved through struggle helped to give the impression that the state can rule for the “common good”.

This illusion has been well and truly shattered by the neoliberal period of capitalism. The power of transnational corporations and global finance has wrecked the state’s capacity to maintain a compromise with its citizens through a nurturing of home-grown capitalism. Market-driven “solutions” have become the new normal.

As a consequence, inequality has gone through the roof, the standard of living of large sections of the population has plummeted, nearly a third of UK children live in poverty, social housing is a thing of the past, the NHS is falling apart, public services are lamentable and climate change out of control. Cue the vote for Brexit and the 33% abstention rate at the 2019 election.

Had Jeremy Corbyn won, the state-orchestrated attacks on Labour seen before and during the election would have appeared minor compared to what would have transpired. The forces of capital, taking their lead from the state, were ready to undermine a radical Labour government.

Like the 27,000-word Labour manifesto, Long-Bailey doesn’t mention “capitalism” or “neoliberalism”, preferring instead the loose, populist term “elites”. Yet we have to know who and what we are up against in more precise terms. The essential functions and role of the UK state have been socially formed in historical development. The state is part of a greater whole, society, which at present is driven by the capitalist economic mode of production and exchange. There’s no getting away from that.

Nevertheless, it’s really important that Long-Bailey – who is struggling to succeed Corbyn against the safe pair of hands that is Keir Starmer – has widened the discussion in the way she has. Engaging in an open debate about the character of the state is essential to defeat not just the Tories but the corporations and banks they champion. Waiting five years for another general election is simply not an option.

Hidden away deep in Labour’s manifesto was a pledge to hold a convention on the UK constitution led by citizens’ assemblies. Long-Bailey could do worse than take up the campaign for a convention now, encouraging the formation of assemblies in towns and cities as a starting point. As a major constitutional change looms with Brexit, a citizens-led convention on the constitution, democracy and power and the relations between the nations of the UK would be a big step towards the democratic revolution in the UK that she is calling for.