Monday, 15 June 2015

Left at the Identity Checkpoint

2010 should have been a turning point.

That year, the aftershocks of the banking crisis hit Greece and led to a €45 billion EU-IMF bailout, triggering a rapid decline of share prices around the world while plutocrats sought to retrench their wealth advantages by backing austerity policies for the poor. At the same time, corporate irresponsibility was exposed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – one of the worst in history. The reckless pursuit of fossil fuels- related profits contrasted sharply with the timid and ineffectual outcomes of the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference. Later that year, WikiLeaks released documents that revealed US-led military action in the name of the ‘war on terror’ had killed a large number of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan and fuelled the increase in Taliban terrorist activities.

With that backdrop, one might have expected the political Left to rally the public in reining in those who used their excessive power to destablise and endanger the lives of ordinary people.

Alas, in the UK, 2010 saw the Conservatives securing enough support to lead a coalition government; and in 2015 they even won their own majority in Parliament to carry on their programme of redistribution from the poor to the rich. And in the US, the conservative Republicans have since 2011 obtained a majority in the House of Representatives; while in 2015, they took control of the Senate too.

Unless politicians on the Left recapture the legislature, the Right will go on imposing their law and disorder on society. One school of thought insists that this is above all a matter of ‘moving the Left to the Centre’ – in short, appealing to large corporations, avoiding confrontation with the media moguls, and winning the trust of ‘aspirational’ voters (code for those who are relatively better-off than those at the bottom and are more likely to vote).

This may be a coherent strategy – for those who want to take the New Democrats/New Labour project one step further to create ‘Moderate Republicans/Decent Tories’ as rivals to the dominant Right. In a sense they would still be on the ‘left’, since to the right of the established Right there are already the Tea Party Republicans/UKIP Tories.

But for those who identify with the values of the political Left because they are concerned with the wellbeing and security of all citizens, and not just the privileges and freedom of the powerful elite – the focus has to be on engaging with those who suffer from the policies of the Right but neglect to vote for a better alternative. Almost 50% of those eligible to vote don’t register to vote or turnout to vote. And there are many who vote on the misguided assumption that they and their families would have a more secure future under politicians who actually view their needs as subservient to those of big corporations.

The Right will always get more money for their campaigns because it will consistently prioritise the interests of those with the most money. But it is ideologically incapable of offering the majority of people a better and fairer deal when that conflicts with the selfish preferences of the wealthy elite.

So long as the Left understands that outreach is not about monotonously asking people to vote for its candidates every time an election approaches, but to listen, take on board suggestions, give feedback, and thus to build relationship, trust and cooperation, then it will find that there is a ready majority to back those who are truly on their side.

For examples of how to engage people sincerely and effectively to build relationships to improve public outcomes, see the resources compiled under our ‘Together We Can’ section.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Democracy at the Workplace

For centuries, progressives and reactionaries argued about the need to democratise the governance of society. Repression countered revolutions. Rhetoric battled with reason.

By the middle of the 20th century, with the comprehensive defeat of fascism in the Second World War, the dispute was settled. Even the most conservative-minded conceded that it was untenable to deny members of a society the right to shape how it was run. Opponents of democracy were henceforth on the defensive - but only at the societal level.

At the level of individual organisations, despite the mounting evidence from worker cooperatives, participatory partnerships (e.g. John Lewis Partnership), and employee-owned firms, that businesses which empower their workers to exercise control over them perform better on all key indicators, the case for democratisation has been very much kept to the margins.

One explanation for this is the authoritarian predilection amongst many owners and top executives who, like the petty princelings and egocentric emperors of old, hate the thought of having to share power with anyone else. But an equally important factor lies with a lack of understanding of what would constitute the effective democratisation of the workplace. Too many attempts have fallen down for being too superficial, poorly planned, or inadequately sustained.

Before a call goes out to develop a major research project to address this issue, it is worth checking back with the findings we already have. In this context, we all owe a great debt to Paul Bernstein who, in his book, Workplace Democratization, drew together what extensive research had found and distilled them into six key components:

[1] Meaningful participation opportunities for all in decision-making, either directly or by elected representatives. Profit-sharing without participation in decision-making is insufficient as when or how much is shared would still be decided by those with no accountability to the recipients.

[2] Frequent feedback of economic results to all workers, including the sharing out of surplus to be decided on terms agreed by everyone. Democratic decision-making cannot be stopped short at considering how the revenue generated by all is to be shared by all.

[3] Full sharing of management information with workers so there is a real shared understanding of what is going on. Workers need to know what is going well or not so well, and what changes are necessary if they are to develop informed views about what actions and decisions they are to propose and/or support.

[4] Guaranteed individual rights (akin to basic political rights) to speak out, organise, meet in groups, and question decisions. Without such rights being protected, workers may not participate for fear of being disciplined, demoted or even dismissed.

[5] An independent board of appeal in case of disputes (composed of peers as far as possible). Any kind of owners or management only set-up would breed distrust and deepen alienation.

[6] A sustained cultivation of democratic attitudes and values. This requires on-going, proactive activities to keep interest afloat in reviewing how the business in question is doing. Without imaginative engagement, workers’ attention may drift away and there is a risk of democratic atrophy setting in (just as it can happen in national politics).

For anyone interested in promoting workplace democratisation, focus on how to put these six components in place.

[For a detailed exposition of these principles, see: Bernstein, P., Workplace Democratization (1980), New Brunswick: Transaction Books]