Tony Benn’s five questions to the powerful:
⁃ what power have you got?
⁃ where did you get it from?
⁃ in whose interest do you exercise it?
⁃ to who are you accountable?
⁃ how can we get rid of you?
Applying Benn’s test in wake of Trump, Brexit, Scottis Independence referendum amplifies how centralised power is in our society. Legitimised in the name of democracy, such power can seem distant, abstract to the disaffected and dispossessed.
Yet the many that exercised their electoral power to vote against the prevailing liberal elite view are dismissed mocked, scoffed and arrogantly labelled as stupid, racist, misogynist, homophobes. Case in point this weekend when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan came to Scottish Labour conference to announce that nationalism equates to racism. This, in a country in which almost half of the population voted for independence, in which one in ten citizens are members of the SNP, let alone supporters, is a spectacular face-palm example of the arrogance and ignorance of that liberal elite.
The world has changed, social democracy as we knew it has failed ordinary people. Their voting choices has been less “for” Trump or Brexit but rather rejection of the “establishment”. Ordinary people don’t want to be told what to do any longer by the “great and the good”, and they don’t feel represented by traditional politics.
So what the Labour Party, the US Democrats, even the popular SNP and other social democratic parties across the western world need to try to understand is why people continue to feel so rejected in the workplace and in communities and how they may be re-engaged as citizens.
Can Scottish independence, radical federalism or constitutional conventions alone rebuild workers power and citizen engagement? Or is the whole debate about constutional powers an exercise in which Bob Thomson of Jimmy Reid Foundation believes “events will pass us by”.
The disconnection between the people and processes of engagement is not just in political parties. Trade unions have been weakened substantially since the 1970s. This is a major contributor to the current crisis of social democracy and socialism.
Here is the hope. If the labour and trade union movement undergoes a healthy re-examination and self criticism, we can help to rebuild working class power and combat the austerity attack and ideological assault on progressive society and the dangerous Identity politics of this age.
To do so requires a sharp move away from the politics of advocacy and even mobilising. We require deeper organising and a whole worker approach. Polling staffing, focus group, self selected expert panels do not engage workers or citizens.
Take lessons from American trade union organiser and author Jane McAlevey who was in Glasgow last week, whose thesis is that often what we call organising means mobilising, and we only preach to the converted. She identifies in her Work, methodsfor getting uncomfortable job of winning over those who disagree, are seemingly hostile majority, or apathetic. And these show remarkable results.
Instead of the incessant talk at strategic levels about constitutional powers, our movement must urgently focus on building power in the workplace, through identifying and building organic leaders – those who get things done, whether they are union or not.
McAlevey’s “whole worker” approach means unions not leaving the politics of public services, housing, and discrimination to professional politicians, but by utilising the influence of ordinary people to win change.
I see the Electoral Reform Society’s Citizen Panels and Scottish Labour Deputy Leader Alex Rowley’s people’s constitutional convention as a possible step on this journey. However, the detail will require both Benn’s five tests and McAlevey’s power structure analysis before we can assess whether they are open to all and can engage ordinary workers in bringing about meaningful change.
My plea to those drawing up consultations on radical federalism and constitutional convention is don’t make the mistake of seeking to repeat the glorious past. The Constitutional Convention that designed the Scottish Parliament was an arena of the great and the good that sought consensus at a leadership level of key influencers. The laudable outcomes in the “Claim of Right” reflected back the views of the clever people involved, many of whom were good comrades and socialists.
We are in a different political age now. Any proposal on citizenship, democracy, and power needs to build in motivation for change, aspiration and hope and power, genuine power, and include those who both agree, disagree, are supportive of a model or hostile to it.
Returning to Tony Benn – he did not support Scottish independence and he argued for Britain to leave the Europe Union, yet his strong belief that power should always as be close to the people continues to inspire many on opposing sides of these debates in our movement. I agree with Tony on that – and tea.