“Power to the people” is the unlikely new slogan of New Labour, of Gordon Brown and his supposed “Blairite” rivals alike.
Brown himself impressed the Guardian’s political editor, Patrick Wintour, with “the scale of [his] plans to shift power away from politicians” (Guardian, 25 September).
Specifically, Brown would set up a “NHS board to run the NHS day to day management”. “The Chancellor... argued that [such] reforms chimed with his historic decision to hand control of interest rate-setting to the Bank of England in 1997”.
For Brown the big picture is: “You give up power and you show that you are not anxious to hold on to powers that should be better administered or better dealt with by other people... you make this distinction — which governments, perhaps politicians, have been reluctant to do — between setting a general policy guideline and letting people who are better able to manage just get on with it.”
James Purnell, a younger New Labourite, wrote a couple of days earlier about “empowerment... redistribut[ing] power to individuals... trying to devolve power to the individual... to give the individual choice over what the government provides for them — over where their children go to school, what kind of medical treatment they get, what kind of support they receive if they are disabled or growing old” (Guardian, 23 September).
Alan Milburn, once spoken of as a possible “Blairite” challenger to Brown, spoke on similar lines a couple of weeks ago.
“Mr Milburn called for a bigger role for the private and voluntary sector in delivering public services, more choice for users of schools, hospitals and social services, tougher penalties for welfare claimants who refuse to look for work, a slimmed down Whitehall, faster deregulation and a radical devolution of power to local councils and communities, including the power to set local tax rates” (Independent, 15 September).
This Milburn summed up as “redistribution of power and responsibility, especially to the poor”.
It is impudent, hypocritical nonsense. Brown seriously thinks that handing over economic decision-making to unelected bankers — and moreover, doing it straight after winning an election in which you have said not one word about any plans to do that — is “power to the people”?
Milburn reckons that “tougher penalties for welfare claimants” and more privatisation of public services redistributes “power... to the poor”? Purnell, a pensions minister, believes that cutting public sector pensions and raising the state pension age “empowers” older people?
The nonsense is based on two ideological tricks: equating “power to the people”, on the one hand, with individual choice, and, on the other, with transferring decisions away from “politicians”.
The capitalist free market does give some individual choice. If you have money, you can buy what you like. As Marx put it: “The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket”.
An American economist wrote of “dollar votes”. The whole point about capitalist society is that some have a lot of dollar, or pound, or euro votes, and most people have very few; some have a lot of “social power” in their pockets, and others none or little. And all make “choices” only within a social frame set by the laws of profit and money-making, outside any conscious human control.
In Marx’s words: “Rob the thing [money] of this social power and you must give it to persons to exercise over persons”. Capitalist market choice is a step forward over the master-serf or master-slave relations of pre-capitalist societies. But it also creates the basis for a further step forward: “free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”.
Democratic social control of productive wealth, on the basis of the technology created by capitalism, allows for choice on the basis of general abundance — enough for everybody.
The argument about transferring decisions away from “politicians” is, paradoxically, given a shine of plausibility by the efforts of Brown, Milburn, and their friends to make themselves (“politicians”) immune to any accountability.
In fact, though, in today’s society, democratic control is possible only by having politicians — that is, elected representatives — take most key decisions.
Decision-making by direct vote of a mass populace (referendums) is feasible only rarely, and of doubtful democratic quality anyway (a lot depends on who sets the questions to be voted on, and how). Having decisions taken in unelected committees — whether at the Bank of England or in the Health Service — shuts them off from even the possibility of accountability to the populace through elections.
Elected representatives should decide. The question is, who decides and controls the elected representatives, and how? That depends on the frequency and method of elections, and, most relevantly for New Labour, on the democracy of the political parties.
The capitalist class can control elected representatives without democratic party organisation. It can control unelected officials the same way — by social connections, lobbying, or if it comes to it sheer structural power — so feels no great hurt at the seeping away of democracy towards decisions by unelected officials.
The working class, however, can control elected representatives only by having its own political party, in which working-class policies are worked out democratically and made binding on the party’s elected representatives.
That would be “power to the people” as something other than a mockery — a revival of labour-movement politics to recreate a mass party of the working class democratically accountable to the rank and file and thus able to fight for a workers’ government.