So now we come to the point of this story, the lessons we should draw from From and Blair’s story. The lesson is an important one and it is this: if progressive Parties weaken the organised forces that push for the interests of working and middle class people, they should not be surprised to find themselves with a political system that does not listen to these people. The out sized political power of the super wealthy is the direct result of decisions to weaken the organisational power of groups representing middle and working class interests. As happened throughout western economies and society, the push for individualised methods of social organization, rather than the collective action that defined the post-war era, weakened the power of ordinary voters to influence the system.
Hacker and Pierson, in their unbelievably highly recommended book Winner Take All Politics explain why organised groups can influence government action where individual voters cannot:
“To influence the exercise of government authority in a modern democracy generally requires a range of formidable capabilities: the capacity to mobilise resources, coordinate actions with others, develop extensive expertise, focus sustained attention, and operate flexibly across multiple domains of activity. These are attributes of organisations, not discrete atomised voters.”
No matter how worthy the cause – it must have organised power behind it if our political system is to respond to it. It’s this fundamental truth, that ordinary people best exert power over their leaders when they organise and band together, that is the foundational assumption of the labour movement. It’s why we have unions and why we have progressive political parties. Sadly, the story of progressive parties for the last 25 years then has been a concerted effort to weaken the ability of working and middle class people to exert organised pressure on their leaders.
It is important to know that this move from effective organised participation to ineffective individualised participation is not the story of all forces in our political system. In fact there is one interest group who has moved in the opposite direction: corporations and the super wealthy. Since the 1970’s business groups have become ever more organised and effective at putting pressure on politicians to take their concerns seriously and to govern in their interests. One way to measure this is the exponential rise in the use of lobbyists by business groups (a rise it should be noted, that can also be seen in New Zealand). The extent of this new organised lobbying effort was dramatised by a recent report by Public Campaign, an American interest group who found that 30 of the US’s biggest corporations paid more in lobbying fees trying to influence public policy than they paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2011. So while corporations and the super wealthy were finding more and more organised and effective ways to push policy makers to bow to their concerns, progressive parties have spent the last 25 years removing their members ability to effectively organise in their own interests. In the battle over who Government listens to, one side has been unilaterally disarming while the other has been stocking up on ever more effective weapons.
The last few years have shown decisively that the current political-economic arrangement, where the super wealthy have vastly disproportionate power and bend the rules to suit their interests, isn’t working. It is widely accepted within Labour that our party has to change, has to allow more say for our members in everything from leadership to policy formation. The challenge we have is creating a party system in which our members not only have a voice, but the organisational might to make sure their voice is heard. We must remember that any reforms that lessens our members’ ability to organise, be it through a union or sector group or even just a voting bloc, lessons their ability to make the political system respond to their interests. We must make sure we build our new Labour Party on foundations of real, effective representation, rather than top down elite control in the name of “democracy”. Collective action and organisation are the tools by which members of the labour movement have built a better world and a fairer New Zealand for the last hundred years. They are the way through which we will create an economy that once again works for everyone. We must make sure we protect them.