Rebecca Long Bailey’s leadership launch in Tribune includes this passage: “You are as likely to see me on a picket line as you are at the despatch box, and you can trust me to fight the establishment tooth and nail”. Elsewhere she says “we need to rebuild Labour as an insurgent force and offer a vision for a new democracy. We must go to war with the political establishment…” But what does she mean?
An important question for those of us who will be choosing a new Labour Leader is: how likely is the British electorate to opt for a war or insurgency against “the establishment”? After all, they have just put Bullingdon Club Boris and a large number of other establishment figures into power with a thumping majority, despite the Labour Party’s being the largest insurgent force in living memory.
So what is the establishment against which we should be declaring war or fighting tooth and nail (quite violent expressions, even as metaphor)? For many of us, the British establishment includes prominently the royal family and all the Lords Lieutenants, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, the House of Lords, the senior judiciary, the leaders of our armed forces, the senior civil service and Foreign Office, the Captains of Industry, the Vice Chancellors of our universities – just to name a few. I am sure Long Bailey does not mean we should go to war against all of these, but the phrase opens herself and her Party to damaging misunderstanding. It doesn’t necessarily sit well with progressive patriotism, which Long Bailey espoused in a recent Guardian article. Remember the damage done when Jeremy Corbyn once did not join in the national anthem – quite tame compared to waging all-out war?
I assume Long Bailey means “establishment” in a different sense, which is those people who supposedly have a stranglehold on power and wealth in our society. The problem is that this sort of analysis is vague and contestable. Are bankers and financiers a monolith, is Industry a monolith, are the media a monolith, conspiring together with those with inherited wealth and privilege to increase inequality and feather their own nests at the expense of the people? Are all elites to be condemned as neo liberal and self-seeking, and the enemy, or is there variety within them? If there is no monolithic conspiracy, who are we supposed to be warring against, and who might be spared?
Is it even possible some of the establishment might be a significant part of providing some of the solutions to our problems? Take Long Bailey’s Green New Deal, of which she is justly proud: are not many key figures within influential business and financial circles, the senior civil service and other parts of the establishment, going to be vital players in working for the new green world we need? Are not some of them already key figures, like those driving down the price of batteries and renewable technology, or civil service leaders trying to shape COP 20, or the likes of Nicholas Stern and Mark Carney: two very establishment figures, but also important green leaders? How inclusive is the progressive coalition needed to meet such huge challenges?
A different definition is also used by Long Bailey: “the political establishment”. This seems to be similar to what Trump describes as the Washington swamp. It may be confusing for electors who always thought that leaders of Her Majesty’s Opposition were very much part of the political establishment themselves. What indeed is the political establishment? In addition to Government and Opposition, it surely includes influential backbenchers such as Chairs of Select Committees that hold the executive to account. Are we to be at war with them? The Speaker? Surely not the House of Commons as a whole? Local Government Associations? I really don’t know who is in the political establishment and who isn’t. You can favour Long Bailey’s recommendation for much greater devolution of power away from Westminster (I do), or abolition of the House of Lords (not so sure), without signing up to a war against the entire (ill-defined) political establishment.
I suspect most British electors are peaceable people who are not specially attracted by warlike metaphors. If we are being asked to sign up to tooth and nail warfare against a group or groups of our fellow citizens, even very fortunate and privileged ones, please can we be told more clearly who they are?