CV-19 Impacts: Regime Change? The specifics of the UK regime: for example, the Labour Party.

I have said elsewhere in this series of online pieces that the moral collapse of the Labour Party during the leadership of Keir Starmer is a sign of the break-up of the UK regime.  What role has this party played in sustaining the power of the ruling elites?   What is the meaning and import of the splits and divisions in it?

The Labour Party can no longer be the instrument for the suppression of socialism for the UK political elites.  The historical tensions that held it together have torn it apart.  In the aftermath of the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s project, it has reverted to administrative procedures and inner-party machinations to deal with political difference. It has conformed to the role designated for it as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and in so doing it has succumbed to its function in the two party democracy that re-iterates the ‘trifunctional’ state, the kingship-based form that underlies the ‘monarch in parliament’ constitutional settlement that is the basis of the UK regime.  The popular movement for ecological and socialist change that will be the undoing of the regime must come from elsewhere, from other networks and alliances, dissociated from the institutions of the regime and not supplicant to them.

The early political development of sovereignty and constitutional adaptability that characterise the English and UK state have been both its enduring strength but will play a part in its undoing.  This state exhibits the most fulsome and coherent continuity between feudal and modern forms and also has succeeded in prolonging liberalism in a way that has given unique scope to the predatory and financialised forms of late capitalism

What are the specific contours of the UK state of which the Labour Party is a product? I have described some of the ecological determinants of the British Isles and the broad history of the political constitution of the nation state.   Has the geographical or bioregional situation of the islands of Ireland and of Britain, a relatively short distance from the landmass of the Eurasian continent on one side, and the Atlantic ocean on the other, shaped the social formations that have developed?  For example, from a meteorological point of view the British islands’ weather systems are subject to the alternate influences of the Eurasian continent and the Atlantic ocean. The additional and decisive impact of the Gulf Stream means that the islands are warmer than their northerly latitude would have dictated. These elements may have had an impact on the human populations predispositions, capabilities and temperament. I have described the political and economic impact of England’s position, and particularly that of London, being closer to Eurasian continent and the advantages afforded by the Thames estuary. How far are these physical circumstances determining for the formation of the political regime, of its centralisation and of its adaptability?

The societies that formed in the Western edge of the continent after the break-up of the Roman Empire tended to become nation-states earlier than those further east.  Germany and Italy became integral nation-states only in the later part of the 19th century.  England, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland all developed early and pursued that development through imperialism.  Ireland was dominated by England, as were the other nations, Wales and Scotland, that were the non-Roman-occupied regions of Britain.  

The British island provided immediate and clear borders advantageous to nation-state formation.  At an early stage the image of England became elided with Britain as the domain of the whole island. This laid the basis for its imperial ideology. Soon after the Norman invasion of 1066 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the hugely influential pseudo-history The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) that depicted the island’s pre-Roman British/Celtic unity and is a major source for Shakespeare.  The latter gives John of Gaunt the blithe paean that celebrates ‘this scepter’d isle’, referring  to it as ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’, in the play, Richard II (circa 1595). The issue of how kingship was related to the territorialisation of sovereignty was worked through in literature and philosophy with an urgency that was unique. Richard II also most clearly dramatises the ‘king’s two bodies’ described in an earlier piece in this series.  Performance of it was forbidden in the closing years of the 16th century as Elizabeth I’s rule was threatened by insurrectionary social movements because it depicts the dethroning and murder of a king. 

The origins of christianity on the islands were complex.  One mission associated with St Columba (521- 597) and the Celtic Church came from Ireland creating the monastery on the Island of Iona as staging post in an ongoing mission. This was the main source of the gospel in Scotland and northern England.  A major centre of this missionary movement was established at Lindisfarne where Bede (672 – 735) worked. He wrote an ecclesiastical history of England.  The other main christian mission was that of Augustine (died 604) who established the centre in Canterbury.  The Canterbury mission is generally credited with the foundation of the Christian Church in England. There still exist the traces of this division between the northern church and the southern church. An example of this is the power of the Archbishopric of York.  The murder (1170) of Thomas a Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury therefore the Pope’s main envoy in England, by agents of King Henry II, shows how contested these relationships could be.  The English Reformation (1527) may have been made doctrinally more acceptable by this division between the celtic-rooted church of the North and the Archbishopric of Canterbury. However there is no mistaking the unique and integrating centralising force of this break with the Roman Catholic Church and the unity of the monarchical sovereign power that could boast both Head of the Church and Commander in Chief. This was a remarkable political innovation.

The power and influence of the English monarch’s court was amalgamated and interfused with the early development of parliament, eventually creating the basis for the nobles (landowning feudal lords who also had military capabilities and responsibilities) and the clergy (Bishops and Archbishops) to have their powers in relation to the crown installed in the House of Lords.  The House of Commons restricted membership to those capable of being taxed (non feudal landowners and merchants, the gentry).  The relationship between the two ‘chambers’ offered the opportunity for power to be transferred from one (the Lords) to the other (the Commons) as the state needed to modernise and democratise itself.  This process accomplished itself in the early 20th century with the relegation of the House of Lords (1911) and the final arrival of universal suffrage (1928). However even before the settlement of 1688 when the current UK regime was established, this system was already a highly centralised, adaptable and effective structure for conducting sovereign power.

Understanding the structural tensions and divisions in the Labour Party involves taking account of how political parties formed out of the structures that I have just described.   The groupings of interest that formed the two political parties that dominated UK politics up to the 1920s were shaped by the English Revolution (1642-1660).  The Tories emerged as the party that supported the monarchy and showed a more favourable inclination towards Catholicism though they were supporters of the Church of England.  They supported the Jacobite claim to the throne and the succession of James II, brother of Charles II, who was son of Charles I, executed for treason in 1649.  James was a Catholic and was deposed in favour of the Protestant William of Orange and his Anglican wife, Mary.  The Whigs were the main force behind the constitutional settlement of 1688.  At the beginning of the following century they affirmed their dominant influence as the UK state inaugurated the Hanoverian line of succession onto the English throne. This was the subsequent attempt to find a monarchy that was guaranteed protestant. The Hanoverians were the immigrant German family from whom the current UK monarch is descended. They changed their name from Saxe Coberg Gotha to Windsor during the First World War to avoid confusion.

It was as if the relative powers of the monarch and of parliament in the constitutional settlement of 1688 were enacted in the contest between these two parties .  As the UK state project moved forward, different interests expressed themselves through, and within, these two vehicles of policy formation and execution, the Whigs and the Tories.  At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Tories were more clearly connected to landowning and colonial property interests, while the Whigs or Liberals were more connected to manufacturing and encompassed the reform agenda that arose with emergence of the working class.  This reached a decisive moment in the outcome of the struggle over the Corn Laws.  These laws protected the landowners interests, keeping prices high by imposing tariffs on imports.  The Whigs became the Liberals because of their support for free trade and the abolition of the Corn Laws.  The success of this struggle led to price of staple foods being reduced to the advantage of waged labourers on whom the ongoing manufacturing expansion depended.

It was the Liberals that were replaced by the Labour Party and as this change took place the Tory Party altered its political base to accommodate this. The Labour Party became an intrinsic part of the UK state institutional machinery, an apparent strength. The Liberals’ reforming agenda carried on through the first world war, creating the foundations of a national insurance scheme and the beginnings of a welfare state. it was a Liberal, William Beveridge who elaborated the idea for this welfare state during the second world war. The Labour Party in 1945 put it into operation.  The Labour Party was aptly named since it became the major instrument for the ruling elites’ control over the cost of labour.

I refer once again to the work of Thomas Piketty who, in his explanation of ideology addresses the question of why it is that electorates do not vote according to their direct economic and social interests.  He proposes that the shape of the modern state with its adversarial democratic ‘choice’ between two political parties replicates earlier forms of state power.  His description of how the rule of the monarch was operationalised through a pre-democratic ‘trifunctional’ order wherein the warrior nobles and the clerical nobles collaborated and participated in the work of ruling and government. The third estate was the common people.  I have suggested elsewhere that the ceremonial and ritual roles of these two ruling components enact and display the ‘double’ two-bodied nature of the king.

The warrior noble and clerical noble groups that surround the monarch in the earlier state form were in themselves powerful as owners and controllers of the life around them, but were enlisted as a crucial part of the spectacle of power. They had a symbolic function, especially at a time when public parades and rituals displaying the ruling order were a key way of communicating and affirming power. The display of democracy has a similar symbolic and representational function in an age of print, broadcast and electronic media.  

The Labour Party was a product of the aspirational forces that impelled its foundation.  Its formation was shaped by the constitution into which it had to become effective.  Its function in this respect was prescribed.  The splits and divisions within the Labour Party can only be understood fully by taking account of the binary system of power, coercion that must conceal itself behind consent. They were determined by the field of forces the Party was active in.

The modern state, the secularised state, the democratic state, the property state, that which came into being with the American and French Revolutions, and that which the UK state conformed to through a process different in character if not in function to the preceding ‘trifunctional state.  Consent had to be internalised as freedom.  Rule had no longer to be ritually displayed in order to compel obedience to a sanctified social order of privilege and property but the very production and consumption of property itself became that which was displayed. It enlisted participation; subjects became consumers.  The mall along which the processional fineries of the monarch attended by the lords temporal and spiritual paraded, became the mall along which customers processed gazing with wisdom and wonder through the crystal awnings at the objects their freedom allowed them to believe they might own.  This space was further privatised and individualised in the array offered electronically through the spectacle of endless plenty that could be enjoined by the flickering movement of ocular and digital muscles on the internet. 

The function prescribed for the Labour Party by the ongoing constitutional project of the UK state was above all to modernise.  It is difficult to clarify how this ‘reform’ project layers itself over the primordial movements of the kingship nation state that it was induced to renovate and conserve.  In theatre practice we are used to the idea of underlying action being a subtext for the staged utterances and movements of which the performance consists.  We are practiced at holding and garnering the tension between the visible and the invisible. The process of modernisation was one of secularisation. The original meaning of the word secular described the movement of sacred objects from a sanctified place into an un-sanctified place.  Thus the sacred is maintained through a suppression that resembles concealment. The priorities of the regime are guarded through this process, thus they are internalised into the Labour Party as a tension between its sacred allegiance and its secular modernity.

This may be the reason that repressed religious structures make themselves so agonisingly apparent in the virulence and hocus-pocus of the recent goings-on in the Labour Party.

The question remains: what roles do political parties play in the nation-state structures that derive from kingship or monarchy?  What are they enacting or playing out?  There was an article in the online magazine, ‘unherd’, about nationalism or patriotism ( I’m not interested here in the distinction) in relationship to the death of Captain Tom Moore.  The writer told us that the Captain perfectly embodied two different, if not contrary, aspects of patriotism.  One could be symbolised by the Spitfire (the plane that won The Battle of Britain in the early years of the Second World War in which Moore fought), the other by the rainbow that symbolised the communal appreciation of the National Health Service.  The writer pointed out that the former could be associated with the Tories whereas the latter could be associated with Labour.  If the governing structures can display and play out an oscillation between these two aspects of the nation state, security and care, they can successfully absorb and express the energies of the multitude who inhabit them.  They can keep them politically satisfied. I believe this ‘play’ is the same as the ‘play’ of the warrior nobles and the clerical nobles around the king, articulating, feeding and ritualising the basic assumption of the sovereignty of the monarch, enacting the King’s two bodies, the temporal human and the eternal divine.  Pacification is the aim, passivity is the outcome.

This representational show which is described by political commentators from Bagehot to Miliband has transitioned and developed in the modern era. It is now different from the ‘trifunctional’ state, described by Piketty, in so far as it has to contain the threat of socialism. Piketty describes the state formation that replaced the ‘trifunctional state’ as the ‘Property State’.  The keystone was freedom of the individual as expressed through private property. This move in the direction of equality and participation requires an extra ‘dialogue’ to accompany that between security and care as core functions of the modern state. This is the ‘dialogue’ between stability and change.  Constant appearance of change is that which ensures stability.  This was the peculiar function of the Labour Party. Of course the dialogue cannot be diametrical.  Elements of security, stability and ‘spitfire’ are mixed to different degrees with care, change and ‘NHS’ in both parties.

I can only give a schematic account of the genealogy and functioning of the Labour Party.  It was founded principally through a need for representation in Parliament, and thus for participation in legislation, by the Trades Union movement.  The Trades Union Congress was founded in 1868.  At first there was a collaboration with the Liberal Party, until, for reasons I can’t go into here, this ‘vehicle’ started to go into political decline.  The other major element in the Labour Party’s initial development were the socialist groups that espoused the ideas of Marx and other socialist thinkers of the time.  The tension between these elements gave energy and dynamism to the new party.  Like the trade union movement it recruited and founded itself on individual card-carrying membership and this made it quite unlike the Tories and the Liberals.  It nevertheless absorbed the social mission of the Liberal Party and this became the glue that held the new vehicle together.  Its model of representation was structured by the janus-like function of trades unions.  They engaged with the employers and owners as agents or spokespersons of the claims and interests of the employees, the workers.  The unity of the workers behind them was their power. Looking towards the working people the representatives would be saying:  ‘Leave it to us.  We will get a good deal.’ Looking towards the owning class they would be saying: ‘Unless you give way to our demands we will unleash the power of the workers’.  As their political representatives the Labour Party was effective only in so far as it could win influence on state policy to legalise and protect the rights of collective bargaining. However to maintain the collective unity of their adherents, their members, they had to give expression to the general interests of the working class. The consequent programmatic demands for public ownership and redistribution gave the reforming agenda of the Labour Party a critically important energy.  It could be the receptacle of the socialist aspirations of the working class at the same time as restraining their actualisation.  Its strength rested on its ability to promise an outcome at the same time as assuring the ruling elites that it would never effect it.  Thus it was granted official opposition status. Its historic role was to both deliver and suppress socialism.  Due to this contradiction, because the Labour Party must at least seem to embody the general aspiration for social change, and also due to a rule change that empowered individual members of the party to choose the party leader Jeremy Corbyn was thrust into the Labour leadership. The party became the expression of the massive opposition to austerity and a rebellion against the conditions imposed by the solution to the 2008 crash. The elections of 2017 and 2019 demonstrated that there was a danger that universal suffrage may unleash an irreversible change towards socialism.

On two critically important historic occasions the contradictory function of the Labour leadership reached maximum intensity. The first was the General Strike of 1926 when the Trades Unions Congress capitulated to the Tory government and abandoned the mineworkers around whom significant sections of the working population and their organisations had united.  The second was in the period from 1972 to 1974 when events climaxed in the Tory government under Edward Heath calling an election on the question of whether it was the government or the miners who ruled the country.  The strike by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1974 the resounding victory in the 1972 strike which climaxed in a confrontation at Saltley Gates near Birmingham. The coke depot there was finally closed by engineering workers marching in solidarity from the nearby metropolis. This had followed another climb down by the government when in the struggle around the Industrial Relations Act dockers’ leaders who were resisting containerisation of the London docks were imprisoned in Pentonville Prison. Mass pressure led to their release. The result of the February election of 1974 was indecisive. This led the Labour Party to making a pact with the Liberals.  Those that lived through the days after that election will remember that there were 5 or so days when there was no government. Everything was stalled before eventually a deal was stitched together.  Tanks appeared at Heathrow. A state of emergency descended on the nation.  Ultimately these social movements – the General Strike of 1926 and the threat to government power posed by the Mineworkers Union in 1972 and 1974 – were defeated by the collusion between the Labour leaders and the ruling elites.

As a trivial aside to my description of these events, in 1976 a play called THE NINE DAYS AND SALTLEY GATES, about the general strike of 1926 and the Miners Strike of 1972, co-written by John Hoyland and me and co-directed for FOCO NOVO by Roland Rees and me, made a national tour backed by the National Union of Mineworkers and the Arts Council of Great Britain (as was).  Alarm bells rang and questions were asked in the House of Commons about taxpayers money being misspent on socialist propaganda.  That’s how touchy our rulers were about such things in those days.

If the historic role of the Labour Party for the ruling elites was to guard the constitution by suppressing socialist revolution this was complemented by its role as a moderniser.  In this it reached its apotheosis in the ‘reign’ of Tony Blair who, through impulses and inclinations that await their explanation elsewhere, had to re-balance his ‘clerical’ reform agenda by assuming the role of a ‘warrior’ leader.  His rule brought the UK into even closer political alliance with the EU on the continent where the UK state had first founded and asserted its sovereign form.  Had he succeeded in his desire to get the UK to join the eurozone he may have been able to resist his martial urgings.  His conversion to Roman Catholicism after he left office struck a personal note that resonated back to the English Reformation of 1527.

During the leadership of Keir Starmer the Labour Party has been unable to deal with the legacy of the popular movement that Jeremy Corbyn found himself at the head of without replacing political argument with administrative action and procedures. Jeremy was ousted from the party for a while and has still been excluded from the Parliamentary Party. It is too dangerous for the current leadership to offer an alternative policy to those presented in the manifestos of 2017 and 2019 because it might remind people of what they were.  What is at stake is so problematic that ‘anti-semitism’ has had to be used as a code for those views and adherences which are found to be so egregious.  The danger for the ruling elites of not having an alternative party that can contain and restrain opposition to its rule is that an oppositional popular movement will transcend the available political forms of expression and create new ones that are less easily incorporated into the UK project.

Installed in the Labour Party are the binary tensions of the regime of which it is a creature.  The party is often characterised as a broad church.  It is this inclusiveness that enfolds the splitting that is at its heart. However the move in the direction of socialism under Corbyn’s leadership brought about such a hysterical panic that some larger existential danger was evoked.  Leading figures in the party were shunned and ostracised as if some dreadful contagion had been encountered.  Curses were hurled. Ordinary civility and solidarity was abandoned. Strange judicial confessional processes were entered upon.  Humiliating pubic apologies were sought.  People were slandered and misquoted.  Oddly skewed investigations were carried out, followed by demands for contrition.  It was as if some deep secret bond of loyalty had been transgressed.  The evidence is that the Labour Party under Corbyn presented a challenge to the foundations of the regime.  It is the role of the Labour Party to absorb and channel revolutionary energy rather than enact it. It felt as if the party was being taken away from its proper role of loyal opposition.  All the fundamental primordial defences were invoked, as if the issue was existential, life or death, involving a deep elemental struggle between good and evil.  This could explain why the coded test of anti-semitism (expressed in thought, action, utterance, implication or association) was adequate to the emotional extremities that needed to be deployed. Like an infant dragged from its mother, or like a subsidiary space craft losing contact with the mother ship, the Labour Party was cast into vertiginous dark space. Timorous in engaging with this revolutionary space, the Corbyn leadership were intent on maintaining the illusion of inhabiting a broad church. They agreed to their sworn enemies’ demand to include the policy of a second referendum on EU membership in their manifesto thus hobbling any chance it might have of being elected to government in 2019. The new leadership knows no such restraint. Its collapse is absolute. It is getting down to details, seeking out a new dress code and practicing postural correctness before the union flag, a reassertion of patriotic allegiance so antiseptic it is as if the Party had been infected by an alien creed. 

The Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Starmer is failing to hold together the tension between the elements that brought it into being and that have made it such a crucial instrument for conducting the power of the ruling class. 

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