The real problem with the Labour Party: false politics

The real problem with the Labour Party is not its policy or the leadership, and it’s not its members. The real problem is was what the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as false politics. I will explain what this means, what it looks like in the Labour Party, why it is necessary to address it and what can be done.

Arendt’s conceptualisation of false politics is where there are public institutions which are seemingly political but their processes and mechanisms suppress vibrant political activity, discussion and debate. The focus of institutions engaged in false politics is maintaining the machinery and bureaucracy of politics, with a facade of political engagement, but without opportunity for real debate, deliberation or indeed real politics. There is a strong disciplining regime within these organisations, using symbolic violence to ensure that rules and practices of false politics are sustained.

In the first constituency Labour Party Annual General Meeting I attended, I witnessed a member being publicly admonished as he attempted to raise an issue. The meeting chair furiously suppressed the speaker in an authoritarian way, with breathtaking fluency in the party rules, drawing support from the floor he silenced the member. This is an example of false politics. As is the case of the suppression of constituency Labour Party meetings during the last leadership campaign on the unsubstantiated and spurious claim that there would be hostility and abuse if meetings went ahead. There a number of examples of false politics that I have witnessed in the Labour Party since I have been a member. Principally the objective has been to sustain rule and dogma at the expense of debate and engagement.

Initially I thought this was a power struggle between the left and right of the party: between pro and anti-Corbyn supporters. However, looking at as a manifestation of false politics reveals a more fundamental issue that goes beyond factional in-fighting but may also suggest how the party proceeds to become more effective.

I regularly listen to Aaron Bastani on Novaramedia. He has repeatedly observed the lack of innovation in the Labour Party in the last 18 months. There is a radical alternative in politics characterised by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a huge influx of members and a real enthusiasm for politics. However, he says, the Labour Party has not shifted a fraction of a per cent in terms of doing anything new or innovative. He goes on to say, it is the same expectation that members should just knock on doors or deliver leaflets. Where, he says, we should be thinking about how the Labour Party could be reaching out to 1000s. This is an example of false politics, where the mechanisms and subordination to dogma kill vibrant activity and political progress.

Arendt made her observations during the rise of fascism in Germany between the wars. She observed that institutions were powerless in the face of totalitarianism, the real antidote to authoritarianism was public politics. That is, people having the opportunity to think and discuss their politics, to build solidarity against fascism; not based on false politics, but based on the mobilisation and commitment of the masses.

The Labour Party, throughout its organisation needs to urgently address the domination of false politics. It needs to encourage broad activity, participation, political debate and education. It needs to improve on the functioning of its own democracy and transparency. Make meetings open, facilitate discussion and debate, have the courage to find out what new members can do and how they can contribute. This has got to be an open organisation to build a mass politicised movement.

I wish I were just saying this in order to make winning elections more likely. But with the ominous rise of the authoritarian right in the US, there is so much more at stake. We can only fight fascism by fighting the fascist within ourselves that is manifest in institutional false politics.


About Steven Watson

Education research, critical maths, education policy, economics and politics @steve.watson10
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7 Responses to The real problem with the Labour Party: false politics

  1. stephen pyle says:

    makes a lot of sense, thank you


  2. Faraz Khan says:

    aka ‘Fake Politics ‘
    (‘navel’ & ‘gazing’ – may in fact be helpful – ?- only joking )
    …. the conclusion :apparatchiks rule OK! (joke )
    a parallel observation :
    The fake democracy – the inverted totalitarian state – every limb of government is operated via corporations “The World As It Is ”


  3. Kevin Gray says:

    It’s what was described over 100 years go as the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” by Robert Michels in his book “Political Parties” . In my view it has always been one of those “truths” that is fairly self-evident within the very paternalistic Labour Party.


  4. Bernie Grant says:

    Very interesting piece, I find the writers frustration is almost palpable.
    Reading how he describes being a member with virtually no personal input, even being silenced at a constituency meeting. Anyone should feel the same, you are not going to feel those feelings you get, when people listen to you and start nodding in agreement, you feel so much more than just a follower, you get a high, you feel important and that you can make a difference. You are more likely to put more thought into your political views and how you might be able to influence the upper echelons of the Party, you feel energised and raring to go. I’m feeling it just writing these comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes – Steven Watson

  6. showeda says:

    Thanks so much for this clear and concise explanation…I think you are sooo right…Perhaps an investigation into what happened around the ‘digital democracy’ project that was launched straight after leadership election #1, would reveal the areas that need particular work in the party…If such an investigation could be done by the wider membership/ new members…What I find difficult to deal with tho, what keeps me up nights…Is the willingness for those who have concerns around JC to even try to embrace his version of politics…And in fact do soooo very much worse in the process of denigrating and demonising him…That and the microscopic gene pool of MP/Media commentariat/MS TV and comedy roasting light entertainment…I feel besieged…But I will not given…JC…FAIR…LOCALLY…GLOBALLY …My email is not working any more …But if anyone would like to comment please find me on facebook…Shoada Patrick


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