Why Labour Lost

September 30, 2015

I’ve read a lot of commentary in the press, re: Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, along these lines (the quote is Pippa Crerar on Twitter, but it could be one of many UK journalists, the theme is widespread):

I do wonder how much Corbyn has reflected on Labour losing the election. Badly. And on what it means.

When media commentators write like this, they mean the following: Ed Miliband’s Labour lost the 2015 election because it moved too far left; Corbyn’s strategy of taking the party even further left is therefore absurd.

But although most of the UK commentariat and political class share this analysis of Labour’s 2015 defeat, it is not a good one. Here, imo, is a better one – which, as it happens, Corbyn seems to also hold. Of course, political reality is complex, and the following is crass – but to a first approximation, I think it’s useful to see Labour as losing in 2015 for two reasons.

1) Labour disregarded the base for years. The New Labour strategy was, essentially: take the base for granted, and appeal to the ‘floating voter’ in the centre ground. This works while it works – but it cannot work indefinitely. It relies on a reputation with the base established over the years in which the base was actively appealed to, and it eats into that reputation, gradually destroying it. Furthermore, as the party is remade in accordance with the new strategy, organisational ties with the traditional base diminish. All of that is bad, but not fatal, as long as voters have nowhere else to go. But the SNP provided Scottish voters with somewhere else to go. Labour’s mishandling of the referendum exemplified their disregard of their Scottish base, and so Labour lost 40 seats ‘overnight’, in one of their traditional ‘heartlands’.

2) Labour permitted the Conservatives to establish the following narrative on the economy: Blair-Brown era Labour spent too much on welfare, creating a huge budget deficit; the budget deficit (somehow?) caused the global financial crisis, and the recession that followed; getting out of that recession requires balancing the budget; which requires cutting welfare. Labour failed to effectively challenge any of the steps in this argument, even though (as I see it) they are all incorrect. Having permitted the Conservatives to portray them as fiscally irresponsible, and to blame for the great recession, they further accepted the Conservative line that ‘austerity’ is the only way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. On this framing, Labour are always going to appear weaker than the Conservatives, because if austerity = responsibility, even ‘austerity light’ policies are less fiscally responsible than ‘austerity heavy’ policies. So Labour lost the ‘floating voter’ because they seemed weak and irresponsible on economic policy.

That’s why Labour lost in 2015, in a nutshell – losing votes both in the centre ground and among their (former) base. And although the commentariat can’t seem to see it, Corbyn’s strategy aims to address both of these weaknesses.

1) Corbyn appeals to the base, with traditional labour policies denigrated by New Labour – this observation is uncontroversial. Unfortunately New Labour fucked up in Scotland so comprehensively that the party has a mountain to climb to regain ground there. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

2) Corbyn aims to ‘reframe’ the discourse on economic policy, by presenting ‘anti-austerity’ arguments on two fronts. First – progressive taxation-funded government investment expenditure can be a major driver of economic growth, increasing overall prosperity; second – redistributive policies can provide the traditional social safety net, increasing individual economic security. Conservative economic policies, by contrast, are recessionary, at the macro level, and remove the economic security associated with social safety net measures, at the individual level. Therefore Labour are the economically responsible ones, and the Conservatives are a source of economic insecurity, at least for low and middle income voters. Bolted on to this is the insistence that Labour will eliminate the deficit, because apparently everyone has to say that now.

Most of the commentariat and political class think these two strategies are silly. They think (1) is silly because they think the concerns and interests of the traditional Labour base are silly; this is a problem of class perspective, at root. They think (2) is silly because they’ve bought the austerity ideology – they think that a perfectly sound left Keynesian economic approach is absurd and unfeasible – and they can only hear voters’ ‘concerns about the economy’ as meaning ‘cut welfare’.

But Corbyn’s strategy isn’t silly. It might very well not work – politics is hard, the party is divided, and the media are hostile – but as I see it there’s no intrinsic reason why it couldn’t work. Despite the consensus among journalists and politicians, there is a strong case to be made that social-democratic, Keynesian economic policies increase the prosperity and economic security that voters care about, while austerity policies reduce them. If Corbyn’s Labour can persuasively make that case, it should in principle be possible for the party to make significant electoral gains.

By contrast, the ongoing ‘moderate’ Labour strategy of telling the base to go fuck itself, while agreeing fulsomely with the Conservatives about how poor Labour’s economic record has been, seems on its face to be a poor electoral strategy. Anything is possible in politics, of course, and I claim no great insight – but there is reason enough to see Corbyn’s strategy as sounder in important ways than the conventional ‘centrist’ approach, even in electoral terms alone.

I don’t have any great insights into the Corbyn phenomenon – but I do have something to say about the New Labour reaction. It is of course the aggrieved rage of an elite suddenly confronted by the agency of their supposedly passive inferiors. But the incomprehension in that rage comes not just from the isolation of the political class’s social echo-chamber, but also from a faulty theory of history adopted within that echo-chamber. The New Labour elite saw itself as progressivist in a literal sense: history has a direction, and the task of political leaders is to align with history’s movement. Just as much as any stagist Marxist, they saw a teleology in history, and saw themselves as the vanguard of the inevitable. As with all such theories of history, actual political events were taken both to validate their sense of progress, when they matched expectations, and to sometimes, sadly, depart from history’s truth, demanding remedial political action. This teleological view informed both New Labour’s domestic policy – where the structural transformation of the ’80s, and the shift in the political balance of power associated it, was seen as showing the direction that any future politics must take – and its foreign policy – where nations could be ranked on a progressive scale of development and civilisation, with US geopolitical power expressing high advancement on that scale, warranting civilising and humanitarian military interventions into the affairs of the brutes.

Because New Labour understood their historical task in this way, they saw radical politics of both the left and right as something that had been superseded, on the way to a more civilised ‘centrist’ consensus – rather than as the expression of social interests and social movements that were only contingently diminished or transformed. The postwar settlement, wherein radicalism was tamed through social-democratic compromise, was seen by New Labour as a waystation towards fuller achievement of elite political goals, rather than a concession made to diminish otherwise unmanageable dissent. For New Labour the masses are atavistic – and can be manipulated by appealing to this atavism, in the form of racist dogwhistling and law-and-order demagoguery – but they are, at base, on the wrong side of history, when they challenge elite policies and power. The New Labour horror at Corbyn’s ‘regression’ to ‘old Labour’ policies is therefore more than just a rejection of Corbyn’s politics; it is more than a conviction that this politics forfeits electorability; Corbyn’s politics are repulsive to New Labour because they are, from the New Labour perspective, quite literally unnatural; they prompt the horror and unease associated with those moments when the fantastical becomes real.

Occupy Liberalism

August 11, 2015

No new content here from me, but as a sort of follow-up to this post from last year, in which I discussed Charles Mills’ Stony Brook lecture on ‘liberalism and racial justice‘, I wanted to draw attention to a related essay by Mills, also from 2012, but which I missed until this week: ‘Occupy Liberalism! Or, Ten Reasons Why Liberalism Cannot Be Retrieved for Radicalism (And Why They’re All Wrong)‘.  You will of course be a better judge of how to spend your time than I am – but imo this is a great essay which deserves very broad readership in radical spaces, so I wanted to ‘signal boost’.

Some relevant quotes from early in the piece:

In this essay, I want to propose as a target for radical occupation the somewhat unusual candidate of liberalism itself.  But contrary to the conventional wisdom prevailing within radical circles, I am going to argue for the heretical thesis that liberalism should not be contemptuously rejected by radicals but retrieved for a radical agenda… My aim is to challenge the radical shibboleth that radical ideas/concepts/principles/values are incompatible with liberalism…

Once the breadth of the range of liberalisms is appreciated – dominant and subordinate, actual and potential – the obvious question then raised is: Even if actual dominant liberalisms have been conservative in various ways (corporate, patriarchal, racist) why does this rule out the development of emancipatory, radical liberalisms?

One kind of answer is the following (call this the internalist answer): Because there is an immanent conceptual/normative logic to liberalism as a political ideology that precludes any emancipatory development of it.

Another kind of answer is the following (call this the externalist answer): It doesn’t.  The historic domination of conservative exclusionary liberalisms is the result of group interests, group power, and successful group political projects.  Apparent internal conceptual/normative barriers to an emancipatory liberalism can be successfully negotiated by drawing on the conceptual/normative resources of liberalism itself, in conjunction with a revisionist socio-historical picture of modernity.

Most self-described radicals would endorse – indeed, reflexively, as an obvious truth – the first answer.  But as indicated from the beginning, I think the second answer is actually the correct one.  The obstacles to developing a ‘radical liberalism’ are, in my opinion, primarily externalist in nature: material group interests, and the way they have shaped hegemonic varieties of liberalism.  So I think we need to try to justify a radical agenda with the normative resources of liberalism rather than writing off liberalism.

The whole piece is here.

Elements of Liberalism

April 21, 2014

A quick post differentiating some of the different elements of liberalism. Worth doing because both critiques and defences of liberalism often blur quite a lot of different things together.

The following is an excellent starting point: Charles Mills’ 2012 Stony Brook lecture on ‘Liberalism and Racial Justice’.

Mills starts his talk by distinguishing five different things that people can mean by ‘liberalism’. These are:

a) a set of value commitments: moral equality; freedom; self-realisation of individual; etc.
b) a social ontology: atomic individualism
c) a conceptual cartography: the distinction between the private and the public realm
d) a theory of history: Whig progressivism
e) a particular schedule of rights, protections and freedoms.

These are all worthy of long discussion, but I’m going to basically focus on just (a) and (e). That is I’m interested in the political ideals of liberalism, rather than its contributions to our framework for analysing social reality, etc.

Ok – if we’re just interested in liberal political ideals: what are those ideals? Here are five different elements of those ideals:

In the first box – the ideal of liberty. The principal ideal of liberalism is to maximise, or at least give high priority to, the liberty of the individual.

But what does this mean? I think it’s worth distinguishing three different concepts of liberty:

1) Negative liberty, in the good old John Stuart Mill / Isaiah Berlin sense. That is to say – freedom from coercion. Liberalism aims to create a sphere of personal freedom for each individual within which the individual is free from the coercive actions of others. Obviously there’s a lot of different ways of understanding the scope of that sphere, and the scenarios in which this entitlement to freedom from coercion can be lost or withdrawn. Still.

This ideal gives us a role for legitimate force (probably wielded by the state): coercion is legitimate (only?) if it prevents people from infringing on others’ freedom.

Ok – that’s negative liberty. That’s a pretty slim-line concept of liberty.

2) Liberty in the sense of capacity. That is – the concept of liberty associated with, for example, Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Here the idea is that you are only free to do something if you have the capacity to do it – so poverty is a form of unfreedom, because it restricts one’s range of action; disability is a form of unfreedom without a social context that accommodates the disability, etc. Prejudice and informal social sanction generate unfreedom, because they restrict the range of action of their targets, etc. etc.

This is a much more capacious sense of freedom. Indeed, a lot of political goals that are often articulated under the banner of egalitarianism (where the ideal of equality is often treated as distinct from and even incompatible with the ideal of freedom) can be captured under this category. And I think that’s a good way to understand these goals: increasing the freedom-as-capability of people across society seems like a more concretely impactful and less arbitrarily relational political goal than equality in the abstract. (Not that these should be conflated.)

Next up:

3) Positive liberty, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. That is to say, more or less, grounding others’ power over us in our own choices, in some sense.

Putting it crassly: if negative liberty (1) is about the creation of a sphere of freedom from coercion; and capabilities liberty (2) is the creation of the ability to actually act as we might wish within that sphere; positive liberty (3) is about who gets to coerce us at the limits of that sphere, and the source of their ability to do so.

Obviously things can get a bit dicier here, as Berlin among many others points out: grounding the ability to coerce people in those people’s own purported self-determination is a reliable recipe for sophistical justifications for unjustified violence. Still, it doesn’t seem absurd to draw distinctions between more and less legitimate governance apparatuses, and to ground that legitimacy in the choices of the governed. How one goes about doing that will fork our concept of positive liberty in many different directions (different forms of democracy, different authoritarianisms grounded in different understandings of the will of the people), and that can’t be covered here. But this is clearly another important sense of liberty.

Ok – that’s three ideals of liberty we’ve got going. Now, moving away from the ideal of liberty, but staying with the governance apparatus:

4) Checks and balances on the exercise of power.

This isn’t really a political ideal – more an institution-building principle – but it’s another very important element of liberalism. The idea (obviously) is that whatever governance system you’ve got, it’s likely to be abused by those who wield its power – so checks and balances on power is essential to preserving whatever other forms of liberty you’ve got going on. You need to design your governance institutions in such a way that untrammeled power is difficult to exercise – a separate point from how you actually understand liberty.

Ok – then the final element:

5) The appropriate sphere of application of the concepts above.

That is to say, more or less: who gets to count as a political subject who can enjoy these ideals? Who are the citizens of the liberal political entity? And who falls outside it? To whom do these ideals not apply?

As Mills – and Losurdo, and many others – point out, liberalism has historically drawn that line between the citizen and the non-citizen – and, more broadly, the human and the not-quite-really-fully-human – in many different places. John Stuart Mill moves from outlining the ideals of liberty, in one paragraph, to explaining why they don’t apply to the brutes in the colonies he made his living administering, in the next. Liberalism, historically, has been built on a hierarchy of the human. At the top of that hierarchy are the full humans who deserve the full realisation of the ideals of liberalism; at the bottom are those animals or barely-more-than-animals who can and must be coerced – for whom violent coercion is the only possible route to any kind of freedom. And between these two extremes is a vast scale of greater and lesser humanity, that warrants the differential realisation of greater or fewer ideals of liberalism, as circumstances require.

Now throw all these elements of liberalism up in the air, and see where they come down: which among these one chooses to emphasise, and how one understands its application, will determine what kind of actually-existing-liberalism you get. Though, of course, in reality it is more often on-the-ground practice that determines which ideals get emphasised.

I think this is a useful way of breaking down liberalism, though I obviously don’t claim that these categories are anything close to exhaustive. Still – something to keep thinking about.

“[P]eople who are interested in political speech have found thinking about the concept not in terms of how it represents the world, but rather of the circumstances of appropriate application. For instance, if you’re interested in the concept of property, the inferentialist analysis says the notion of property is really a bundle of rights and responsibilities, and we should look at the circumstances under which we say that someone owns something and what the consequences of saying that they own it are. One of the advantages of that is that we see there may be other equally natural bundles of rights and responsibilities. We needn’t treat ownership of real property as coming with all the rights and responsibilities a piece of portable property would have. Maybe if the land that you own has wetlands on it, you don’t have as many rights with respect to it. With that notion of ownership, you would have to unbunble some of the rights and responsibilities that went before, whereas if you are just thinking in representational terms, you don’t get that insight. The meaning of property is a matter of inference from the circumstances to the consequences of application that’s curled up in it.” – Brandom, p. 385.

“A final reason for the failure to develop a theory adequate to handle the problem of harmful effects stems from a faulty concept of a factor of production. This is usually thought of as a physical entity which the businessman acquires and uses (an acre of land, a ton of fertiliser) instead of as a right to perform certain (physical) actions. We may speak of a person owning land and using it as a factor of production but what the land-owner in fact possesses is the right to carry out a circumscribed list of actions. The rights of a land-owner are not unlimited. It is not even always possible for him to remove the land to another place, for instance, by quarrying it. And although it may be possible for him to exclude some people from using “his” land, this may not be true of others. For example, some people may have the right to cross the land. Furthermore, it may or may not be possible to erect certain types of buildings or to grow certain crops or to use particular drainage systems on the land. This does not come about simply because of government regulation. It would be equally true under the common law. In fact it would be true under any system of law. A system in which the rights of individuals were unlimited would be one in which there were no rights to acquire.” Coase, p. 134.

“Institutional rules are prescriptive statements that forbid, require, or permit some action or outcome (E. Ostrom 1986a). One of the three deontic operators – forbid, require, permit – must be contained in a statement for it to be considered a rule. All three deontic operators are used in this definition of rules.

Some analysts limit their conception of rules to prescriptive statements containing only required or forbidden actions and outcomes. With that limited conception, some recurring situations are rule-governed, and others are not. By including all three deontic operators in a definition of a rule, it is always possible to identify the set of rules that constitute a situation: (1) Is this action or outcome (or its negation) required? (2) Is this action or outcome (or its negation) forbidden? Any action or outcome (or its negation) that is not required or forbidden is permitted. Consequently, the absence of a rule forbidding or requiring an action is logically equivalent to the presence of a rule that permits an action.” – Ostrom, p. 140.


Brandom, Robert & Williams, J. J. (2013). “Inferential Man: An Interview with Robert Brandom.” symploke. 21(1), pp. 367-391.

Coase, Ronald H. [1960] “The Problem of Social Cost.” in Chennat Gopalakrishnan (ed.) (2000) Classic Papers in Natural Resource Management. Palgrave, Macmillan. pp. 87-137

Ostrom, Elinor. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.

NewAPPS comment

December 10, 2013

The comment of mine pasted below doesn’t seem to have made it through moderation at this NewAPPS post. I trust it will, in time – but I thought I’d archive it here just in case:

UPDATE: The comment’s now visible at NewAPPS, retrieved from the spam folder.


This petition has been organised by the ‘Institute of Science in Society’ (ISIS) – see their page here.

In promoting it, you should probably also make your readers aware of ISIS’s advocacy of alternative therapies for AIDS, (“herbs, minerals, mushrooms, probiotics, exercise and even simply better nutrition”), based on “the truth of the many anecdotal stories about these compounds”; the organisation’s important research about ‘water memory’ and homeopathy; and the “remarkable theory of everything that claims to relate all forces of nature” discussed in the organisation’s director’s book ‘Living Rainbow H20’; as well as the various other ‘unconventional’ scientific breakthroughs published by the site, and likewise endorsed by lists of people with ‘PhD’ after their names.

This may allow readers of NewAPPS to make a more informed initial assessment of the types of reasoning likely to be behind this petition’s claims, as against those of the French High Council on Biotechnology.

That last link does have the benefit of basing its claims on legitimate scientific methodology.

I’ve just started reading Elinor Ostrom’s ‘Governing the Commons’ – the 1990 book summarising the research program for which she won a Nobel Prize in 2009. Ostrom’s work is interesting, empirically oriented, methodologically and theoretically eclectic, and I think provides a valuable set of resources for those trying to think about institution-building.

At the start of the book, Ostrom summarises three standard ways to understand the problem of commons governance, in the economics literature:

1) Garrett Hardin’s fable of the tragedy of the commons (written from a position of anti-population growth; Hardin is also a signatory on the notorious ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ letter to the Wall Street Journal – that is to say, an advocate of scientific racism); though Ostrom (like others) draws attention to earlier figures who had described the same dynamic, such as H. Scott Gordon:

“Wealth that is free for all is valued by no one because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another” (Gordon 1954, p. 124; quoted in Ostrom 1990, p.3)

2) The prisoner’s dilemma game. This is the famous game-theoretic scenario in which two participants have to choose one of two courses of action (cooperate or defect). The game scenario is set up such that if the other player defects, one is better off defecting; and if the other player cooperates, there is no disadvantage to defecting (though no advantage either). In this circumstance, it seems ‘irrational’ not to defect; but if both players defect, both players are worse off than if they had cooperated. In Wikipedia’s always-useful words:

“[The prisoner’s dilemma] was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma””

(I need to read all this work.)

3) The logic of collective action. In his 1965 book of this name, Mansur Olson writes:

“unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” (Olson 1965, p.2,; emphasis in the original; quoted in Ostrom 1990, p.6)

I haven’t read Olson and can’t summarise his arguments; I should look at all of that too.

Anyway – Ostrom has various criticisms of all this: notably that these various analyses of commons governance typical presuppose given, immutable rules that determine the choices available to actors in these scenarios; but in actual social life the social rules and institutional frameworks within which we must make our decisions and take our actions are themselves also determined by our collective actions. To put things crudely: if we’re faced with a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, why can’t we do something about the prison?

I wanted to briefly mention another issue with the prisoner’s dilemma, and related models, though. In Ostrom’s words:

“those attempting to use these models as the basis for policy prescription frequently have achieved little more than a metaphorical use of the models” (Ostrom 1990 p.7)

The use of such models as metaphor, though, can have a specific ideological function beyond the occlusion of the possibility of institutional change. The basis of a prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons scenario, is a situation in which economic actors engage on more or less equal terms, and where it is indeed the case that absent cooperation no economic actor will be better off. This is what makes the ‘tragedy of the commons’ a tragedy, rather than simply the defeat of some actors by others.

In some commons scenarios, however, it may be (indeed it sometimes is) the case that some specific actor or actors, in taking the ‘defect’ strategy, will be better off in absolute terms. If a specific actor can benefit sufficiently from the extraction of resources from the commons, it may not matter if the commons is exhausted or destroyed in the process – the actor who benefits most may still be on top, relative to even the best-case ‘cooperative’ scenario. All else being equal, the greater the power differentials between the different actors (and the greater the resources to be appropriated), the more likely this scenario is. If we consider that actors can (in fact) move between different ‘commons’ extracting resources from each, and so an actor’s considerations don’t have to be restricted to the specific game we’re currently imagining, this scenario seems quite a bit more likely. (And, of course, there are plenty of examples of actual real-world resource depletion or appropriation that seem to fit this model very well.)

That is to say – this framing of the problem of commons governance can de-emphasise one central way in which such governance can fail: not lack of coordination, but simple domination. A full reckoning with the challenges of institution-building needs to take account of both of these issues (and many others).

I’m sure there’s lots of work that’s been done on this and similar scenarios – but I don’t know this work. I’d like to explore these issues – and, in general, I’d like to look at how power differentials can be given a more central place in this kind of modelling of economic phenomena.


Works cited:

Gordon, H. Scott. “The economic theory of a common-property resource: the fishery.” The Journal of Political Economy 62, no. 2 (1954): 124-142.

Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons∗.” Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 1, no. 3 (2009) [1968]: 243-253.

Olson, Mancur. The logic of collective action: public goods and the theory of groups. Vol. 124. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press, 1990.

Wikipedia contributors, “Prisoner’s dilemma,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prisoner%27s_dilemma&oldid=574372985 (accessed October 2, 2013).