A Labour Party of protest or government? Bringing politics back in

by | 24 Aug 2015

brick-lane-tie-dye-14-019A party of protest or a party of government – according to Gordon Brown these are the options, the choices at stake, suggesting they are very different things, polarities even. Those who protest don’t govern and those who govern don’t protest. But is this right? Social movement organisations, the back-bone of the protest movement, also govern – as generations of peace camps, such as Greenham, prove too well. Running sustainable protest camps involves organising, administering, and making political decisions – from how to allocate charitable donations, to dealing with refuse, cooking, police intrusions and arrests. Social movement organisations also govern by generating norms, sanctioning in multiple ways those who fail to conform.

Admittedly, this is governing at a small-scale and what I want to focus on here is the reverse relationship – of governments protesting. It would seem as if this Conservative government is a queen of protests – promising to protest about European migration policy, European economic arrangements and European human rights.

Of course, these declarations of protest target a level where the British government appears unable to easily act since decisions are made by groups of states or trans-European officials. And of course the dichotomy voiced by Gordon Brown is all about the capacity to act. Thus, when it comes to domestic decisions, a British government does not have to protest; it does things. A Party that protests is a Party out of power.

But power isn’t like a monopoly gas supply such that you can be “in” or “out” of it. One lesson privatisation should have taught British governments and mainstream parties is that political power is far more dispersed. There are huge limits on what governments can do. This is recognised by the Labour Party mainstream when they call Jeremy Corbyn unrealistic or unelectable (obscuring the question of whether his politics would be desirable if they were politically – and not just electorally – possible). Labour moderates recognise that political power is constrained by an ambivalent, in-need-of-wooing electorate, by a shortage of funds in the nation’s piggy bank, and by the volatile, prone to cold and itchy feet behaviour of global corporations. Yet, these constraints are set aside when it comes to Labour’s choice: take up power or spend a generation in the wilderness (see previous post). For the Labour Party, it would seem, there is only one route to Power and this route doesn’t wind through Protest (or the wilderness).

I don’t want to spend longer on the complexities of power. Whether understood as relatively stable forms of domination or as the means of generating effects, different kinds of power are exercised in different ways and from different places, something leadership contender Liz Kendall recognises in her Compass article on local democracy – even as her call for government to “give people power” assumes a central repository, able and available for the dispersal of political authority.

If, then, we understand government and protest as modes of interlaced activity that exercise power, what work is the repeatedly cited dichotomy of government and protest doing, with its implication that “real” power only attaches to the former, to a government that is and can only be “national”?

“Protest”, I think, functions here as a proxy for politics – understood not simply as disagreement over particular policies or positions but as a conflict of paradigms.  The French political theorist Ranciere, who has written extensively about politics as the expression of ways of thinking, seeing and hearing that challenge conventional forms of order, bringing into speech what previously appeared as noise, remarked in Dissensus, “Politics, before all else, is an intervention in the visible and sayable… re-figuring space, that is in what is to be done, to be seen and to be named…”

Many have commented on how Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign challenges the “business as usual” approach that has dominated Labour thinking. But the challenge is not just in the explicit aims and agendas his campaign expresses. It is also in the articulation of politics as something that has a place, a proper place, a political place, that should not be swept aside by a mantra which dismisses politics as the left’s infantile toys, objects of past desire that have somehow escaped the confines of the locked attic box in which they were so securely, it seemed, placed.

As Labour externalises politics, as they place it somewhere over there, somewhere distant that is cold, windy and over-excited, what gets ignored is the necessary emergence of politics wherever individual harms and the idiomatic fatalism of “that’s life” are re-framed as collective problems, sustained relations of power, and revocable ways of doing things.

Of course, mainstream Labour may reply, politics is important; we do politics when we govern (since on another reading, politics is all about governing and the minor disagreements of politicians); we do politics when we debate policies and laws. Once decisions are made, though, they must be introduced in a proper disciplined manner if Labour is to be, in contender Liz Kendall’s words, “a serious party of government”. Undisciplined politics, unruly politics, not only challenges the necessary logic of good housekeeping and national wealth-making which define good decisions, unruly politics also fails to abide by the Decision.

The question of obedience to the majority decision, which dominated Labour debate in the 1980s (from all directions, not just anti-leftist ones), has again resurfaced. On the one hand, Corbyn’s loyalty and capacity to lead are questioned since he has regularly defied the whip; on the other, what to do when a majority of voters in the leadership election seem to want a left-wing radical is questioned as well.

How and when we should follow our conscience rather than the dictat of others is a complex matter of politics, of ethical judgment when the decision of what to do isn’t clear-cut, that cannot and should not be swept away. Nor should it be converted into a formalist account where all acts of non-compliance with the collective “will” are necessarily equivalents (even apart from the pressing question of how non-compliance is done).

Thus, while worrying, it is not surprising that a competing political logic, the logic of the coup, rises murmur-like from newspapers, alluding to a Party counter-current that may need to act to deny an “unfavourable” Corbyn outcome. They will act in the name of the Party’s future, its survival, even in the name of democracy, acting in ways that may be unruly in order to protect the rule. But if they can, they will prevent the incursion of politics through legal and technical means, targeting as cheats those who seek to make government an activist one of the left (rather than the right) on the grounds they have failed to play “by the rules”, whether because they belong to more than one party or don’t support party values and principles, even as they have joined in order to vote for a candidate who clearly does belong to the Party.

Or is this what is in doubt?

The Labour Party has long been described as a “broad church” or, in its more secular idiom, a “big tent” – an appellation that invokes a culture of mutual respect and willingness to work together across different wings. What this episode has made plainly clear is that while the Labour mainstream wants left support when it comes to votes and money, the invitation to take part in the Party is a conditional one: You can be in our Party providing you remember that it’s “our” Party, that you are a guest, an affiliate, a supporter – nothing, it would seem from what is now being performed, more.

The unexpected event of Corbyn’s electoral popularity (far more than his mere standing, whch moderate Labour MPs enabled) demonstrates how narrow the conditions of welcome are. In so doing, it also begs the question, muttered from different quarters, of whether a single Labour Party can hold such a vast range of centrist, progressive and left-wing perspectives together in one organisation.

Some have suggested centrists and right may leave if Jeremy Corbyn wins, resettling a new version of the Social Democratic Party established by their forerunners when they too exited the Labour Party some decades back.

Or, depending on events, it may be the left who goes.

Perhaps, who leaves is not paramount. If the Labour Party splits, as catastrophic warnings by Yvette Cooper and other senior Labour party figures suggest, a party of the centre-left may find itself facing a new left-wing electoral force, a loose coalition of greens, feminists, and other radicals seeking to participate in parliament and government.

In this way, the current actions of the Labour mainstream, in their urgent disavowal of a prefigurative politics that seeks to voice political desire rather than busy itself fruitlessly with the task of political measurement, may bring tomorrow’s protest voices into “power”.

Dav­ina Cooper is Pro­fessor of Law and Polit­ical The­ory at Kent Law School, Uni­ver­sity of Kent.


1 Comment

  1. very interesting and gives a lot to think about.


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