Why Sadiq Khan's Speech At The Labour Party Conference Left Me Cold

30/09/2016 16:38
PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images

Sadiq Khan gave a speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool in which he emphasised the need for Labour to win 'power', in the form of elections, 38 times. Like many Labour Party members living in London, who gave up a lot of time to canvass for Sadiq Khan to become Mayor of London, I would say that I was pretty receptive to the argument that winning elections is important to do good things. Not only that, in spite of having numerous disagreements with some Sadiq Khan's statements and approach to politics, I know that Labour activists will not regret campaigning him in the slightest. I have no doubt that Sadiq Khan will be a good Mayor for London, implementing policies which, within the confines of the Mayor's power, will increase accessibility of transport and housing for many Londoners.

Despite that, I have to say that I was left cold by Khan's speech. Repeating over and over again that you want to win elections does not constitute a strategy, a vision, or a project. On the contrary, the primary objective is to make party members understand that they can only aspire to affect positive change on the world if they defer to the experts and professionalised political actors who make up the Parliamentary Labour Party and their assorted entourage. Under New Labour, this approach was used to routinely override democracy within the Labour Party as members' views were ignored and denigrated, removing checks and balances within the party and freeing the hands of the leadership to launch into mistaken and destructive policies such as the Private Finance Initiative and the war in Iraq. The second problem with speeches such as those by Sadiq Khan is that they send out a message that Labour can be trusted to do, or say, just about anything to win an election. This ultimately leads to political stances which are not even remotely strategic, and do little more than reinforce some of the most uncaring and misleading attitudes in British society, exemplified by Rachel Reeves's efforts to channel Enoch Powell by arguing that migration would lead the country to 'explode' into race riots.

One of the many ironies of the Labour Party is that the people who talk about power the most tend to have the narrowest understanding of what it actually is, and as a result implicitly justify the perpetuation of fundamentally unjust relations of power within British society. Winning elections is obviously the most obvious route to acquiring power legitimately and democratically, but to simply equate that to 'power' in its totality is simply misleading. As Corbyn supporters are increasingly discovering in the Labour Party, the power which is acquired automatically by winning democratic elections is heavily circumscribed, and easily undermined by actors who are insulated from democratic politics altogether. In reality, there are influential sections of the British establishment which are not easily reformable solely through a change of government, such as the civil service and financial elites. Key institutions such as the HMRC and the Treasury are heavily influenced by self-interested actors such as accountancy firms, for example via staff seconded to provide technical advice, thus limiting the capacity of the public sector to crack down on tax evasion and avoidance. 'Moderate' MPs like Sadiq Khan are quite right to be interested in power, but their understanding of it ends up sending out a coded signal that Labour will not take on such vested interests, thereby leaving the hierarchies of power which systematically disempower vast swathes of the population unchallenged.

This is a wholly inadequate approach to address the challenges Britain faces in the 21st Century. If we just take the challenge of climate change, for example, it is clear that achieving the decarbonisation necessary to ensure human existence for generations to come requires a fundamental transformation of energy systems, which in turn necessitates major changes in the wider economic structure. Doing that means mobilising genuine transformative power by organising large numbers of people to get involved in politics, taking on vested interests with a stake in the status quo, and boldly arguing for the public sector to take a leading role in influencing the future directions of innovation. By voting for Jeremy Corbyn in this year's leadership campaign, the 61.8 % of Labour Party members have shown that they understand this. Similarly, Momentum has consistently argued that Corbyn's overall vision for Britain is fundamentally the best chance our society has of responding to the key problems faced by the country, and will continue to encourage our members to come together and organise to get this message across to the public at large. This is not because we are uninterested in power, but because we appreciate what it is in its fullest sense.