Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.
I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.
It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.
Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.
But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.
Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.
But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.
£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.
Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.
To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.
They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.
If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.
After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.
I presented a petition of 781 signatures at a Brighton & Hove Council committee meeting this week. I was asking the council to carry out a public review of a road junction near my home where there have been 5 serious injury accidents in the last five years, most recently, the horrific crash that happened there this July.
If you like that sort of thing, you can see the webcast of the meeting on the council’s website – the link should go to the relevant bit of the meeting. But in any case, here’s the speech I made:
I won’t read out the wording of the petition – you have it in front of you – but I’d like to give you some more information about the people who’ve signed it and why.
Hundreds of the signatures were collected at local businesses, notably the chemist right on the junction. These are people who use the crossings regularly and know very well what the problems are.
I also spent time talking to passers by outside the doctor’s surgery and online, and I heard many interesting comments from people who took the time to sign.
- People who regularly cycle through the junction told me they take their lives in their hands every time. One man told me he has stopped cycling altogether because of this junction.
- People who have to cross with buggies told me it’s really slow and tricky to manoeuvre on the traffic island surrounded by fences.
- Friends who use wheelchairs told me they simply avoid that junction as much as possible
- People pointed out the terrible drainage, which causes massive puddles that soak people on the pavement when large vehicles go through them
- Drivers said it is scary to find cyclists on the left hand side of the stream of traffic, when you want to turn left – this is, of course, exactly where the current road design directs people to cycle
- But the comment which stuck most in my mind was from a cyclist who didn’t see the need for a redesign. He said “That junction is perfectly safe if you keep your wits about you. You just have to ride as though everyone is trying to kill you.”
Is this really the message we want our streets to give people if they choose to cycle? Everyone is trying to kill you?
The message that everyone is trying to kill you outweighs some croissants from the Mayor on Cycle to Work day.
The message that everyone is trying to kill you will take the shine off our invitation to visitors to hire a bike from our lovely new bike sharing scheme.
The message that everyone is trying to kill you is a louder one than the finding from last year’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment that increased physical activity could prevent 98 deaths per year in our city.
If our roads give the message that everyone is trying to kill you, then we are undermining the objective of the Local Transport Plan, to “Enable people to feel more safe and secure when travelling in the city, especially when using sustainable forms of transport”.
I know that you already understand this stuff. That’s why you agreed last year to support the Space for Cycling campaign.
Here’s an opportunity to turn that expression of support into practical action. Please make a decision today to listen to the views of local residents and to involve them in a proper rethink of this notorious junction.
If you’ve watched the video, you’ll have seen the response of the committee chair. It was sympathetic, but ultimately disappointing. She said:
Thank you for your petition.
An upgrade of the Elm Grove/Lewes Road junction is currently on the Local Transport Plan Programme that was agreed last Autumn and is due for completion in 2016/17.
The project is in its early stages but it is anticipated that the project will include an upgrade of the traffic signals to improve the efficiency of the junction as well as the introduction of cycle advance signals. As part of the process we will also conduct a safety review to ensure that safety is maximised for all users.
Due to timescale and budget constraints it will not be possible to conduct a full, wide-ranging public engagement on multiple options however we will liaise with all of the important stakeholders and immediate frontagers such as the ones you have suggested as appropriate. And if anyone would like to put forward suggestions then they are very welcome to do so by emailing Travel.Planning@brighton-hove.gov.uk.
I am disappointed in this response, for three main reasons:
- I don’t agree that improving the efficiency of the junction is the priority here. I think it’s more important to make the road safer for people on bikes and on foot. In the long run, making roads feel safer for people travelling by bike is the best way to improve the efficiency of the road system. But the changes necessary to do that can’t be made if they have to happen without altering the existing capacity of junctions and roads to accommodate motor traffic.
- My petition specifically mentioned a simultaneous green light phase for cyclists as one of a range of options I wanted the council to consider. But it seems that, even though the review is at an early stage, the council has already decided that they will install cycle advance signals. I think this will have a minimal impact on the problems there, and I think they could achieve much more for the same cost if they were open to more imaginative options.
- I am fearful that without a thorough and open-minded review, all we will get is an update of the existing traffic lights, and there will be no thought given to reconfiguring the layout of the road to protect pedestrians and bike riders from danger.
Nevertheless, suggestions are being specifically invited, so I emailed the Travel Planning team to ask about the timescale of this limited review, and how people who signed my petition can contribute. I received a response today from Stacey Amey, Principal Transport Planner, who is leading on the project. She said:
- At the moment we are in the process of scoping out what is possible at the junction and what the cost implications will be. We therefore would welcome any comments or suggestions at this stage.
- Key stakeholders will generally include local community groups and special interest groups, the Universities, frontages, emergency services, ward councillors and public transport providers however the level of engagement will depend on the nature of the project and the level of disruption anticipated at the construction phase.
- Please be aware that the budget and timescales are very tight on this project
- Any comments or suggestions should be sent to email@example.com
- It would be useful to receive feedback by 1st November
I intend to put together some suggestions and submit them to Stacey before 1st November. If you are familiar with the junction at the bottom of Elm Grove and have ideas for how it could be made safer, I would urge you to do the same.
Yesterday, I was proud to march in the parade with the contingent from Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton), alongside the Hummingbird Project, Brighton Migrant Solidarity and the English Disco Lovers. We gave out leaflets to the crowd lining the streets, about how the aggressive maintenance of European and British borders results in the brutal detention and deportation of queer people, and how LGBTQ rights are being weaponised as a tool of racism. If you are interested in getting involved in LGSMBrighton, please go along to their next meeting on August 17th, 7.30pm, at Knoyle Hall, Brighton.
I felt at home playing this slightly disruptive role on the parade, reclaiming the march as a political space, complete with placards and chants (“Refugees are here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May!”).
The first Pride was a riot
Afterwards, relaxing on the Level, we were discussing how Brighton Pride has changed over the decades since I was involved in getting it started. There’s been a massive transformation, not just of that event, of course, but of the whole attitude of society towards queer people. I picked up Brighton Solfed’s leaflet on the subject during the afternoon, and found it uncharacteristically clunky in its analysis, jumping straight from rioting New York drag queens in 1969 to Brighton Pride as commercial orgy, with nothing about the struggles in between.
Surely, that’s the most interesting bit – how did we travel from there to here, and what can we learn about how society gets transformed?
As if by magic
My first observation is that it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking. That may be literally true – I was quite preoccupied with parenting for at least a decade from 1997, by which time Section 28 was long gone from the statute books and civil partnerships were well established in law. However, I think that even if I had been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have been able to spot this change happening, because that is part of the nature of societal change.
Things as they are now (at any given moment) present the illusion of having always been so. But (paradoxically) the way things are when we first become aware of them is fixed in our minds as somehow more real, or true, than any previous or subsequent reality. The fact of Pride as a moneyspinner for the whole city is undeniable, but for those of us who met with town hall officials to challenge the stubbornly heterosexual presentation of Brighton as a family resort in the late 1980s, it still seems somehow unlikely.
Pushing back against the backlash
My (obviously partial) understanding of what happened is that there were a series of struggles. The one in which I was most directly involved was provoked by Section 28 – a really shocking piece of legislation designed to appease bigots within the Conservative Party by threatening teachers and local government workers who dared to voice views unacceptable to the Christian right. It was a law which truly created “thoughtcrime” and which was, of course, never tested in court. There was no need to prosecute anyone, as the law was designed to operate directly on the minds of local government managers, to prevent new initiatives, to stop people discussing homosexuality, to create an atmosphere of fear.
The enactment of this law was itself a backlash against the initial implementation of equality policies within a few left-wing Labour councils, mainly in London. The hysterical reaction to this from sections of the media was part of a terrifying atmosphere of hatred, focused particularly on gay men, who were blamed for the AIDS tragedy even as they watched their friends and lovers die.
Many of the equality officers who put forward anti-discrimination measures in London boroughs in the 1980s had been trained in the Greater London Council (GLC), where Ken Livingstone’s popular, left-wing administration was such a threat to the Thatcher government that the whole organisation found itself abolished in 1986.
In 1988, it seemed that the Labour left’s tactic of introducing anti-discrimination policies from above had backfired badly, with the GLC abolished and a pernicious law in place to stifle any further imaginative ideas. But it was this backlash which finally produced the grassroots rebellion that had been missing until then.
The campaign against Section 28 was chaotic, passionate, angry. It was driven by outrage, fear, and a feeling that we may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. If we were so hated as to be specifically legislated against, if we were blamed even for the disease that was killing us, why not fight back?
We had no real strategy to prevent the law coming into effect. The Tories had a large majority in Parliament and the campaign had hardly begun before it was ostensibly defeated. But we didn’t accept defeat. We carried on organising, demanding change, rebuilding a community. We made plenty of mistakes and had lots of rows.
The Section 28 campaign in Brighton was the crucible of Brighton Pride. It was also pioneering in terms of rebalancing relationships between the lesbian & gay community and the police, and initiated the shift towards promoting Brighton as a destination for LGBT tourism. By the time Section 28 was repealed in 2003 (2000 in Scotland), it had already been dead for a long time.
Many of the things we asked for at that time – in a spirit of demanding the impossible – have come about. So why do I feel so ambivalent about Brighton Pride?
Why does winning feel like losing?
Power struggles are rarely straightforwardly won or lost. I am certain that our campaigning changed attitudes, in a more thorough and lasting way than the policy prescriptions of Haringey council could have done alone. Just being visible, supporting each other and having the courage to demand reasonable treatment was revolutionary. We took the campaign into our lives as we grew older, not by continually protesting, but by refusing to be closeted and claiming our rightful place as equal citizens. Pride was, and is, part of that process.
But the structures of capitalism and patriarchy were more flexible than the Christian fundamentalists had hoped, less brittle than we perhaps expected. I think the decision of professional campaigners to focus on marriage as a key goal meant that the direction of organised lesbian & gay campaigning became explicitly towards becoming incorporated into existing structures and systems, rather than changing them. The development of donor insemination techniques and the opening up of adoption to lesbian & gay couples also meant that ‘traditional family life’ became a real option for many of us, opening up new life choices but removing our former ability to view these institutions from the outside with a critical eye.
Meanwhile, capitalism did what it does best, and seized every new opportunity to make a profit. From gay wedding fairs to rainbow-decked Tesco floats on yesterday’s parade, we have finally made it as a highly valued market segment – not really the outcome I was hoping for.
We changed the world, but we have to keep changing it
The process of change is more complicated than writing a policy, passing a law or organising a campaign. The interaction between all those things – and many others – is what has brought us from there to here.
Nobody in this story had a winning strategy, and nobody has definitively won. The forces of capitalism are powerful, but there isn’t a central conspiracy and things can be fundamentally shifted by ordinary people taking action.
One key lesson for me is about the danger of assuming you have won because you have become part of the establishment. Employing good people to implement equal opportunities policies in London was not enough to change the situation of lesbians and gay men in the 1980s. Electing a socialist as Leader of the Labour Party is not enough to change people’s views about the kind of society we need.
We need a grassroots movement to do that. People who can support each other to speak out and argue the case for solidarity, collectively owned public services, fair wages for those who do vital caring work, justice and equality for migrants and refugees, and a genuinely sustainable relationship between the economy and the planet.
We need to keep demanding the impossible, and never forget that everything we have was won by the struggles of those who came before us.
As I think I mentioned before, I’m not hugely persuaded that anyone knows what’s really going on. Everybody is getting only a partial view of things, from within their own particular bubble.
I’m very aware that the bubble I live in (lefty Brighton, pretty much) is perhaps especially peculiar. I’m trying not to generalise too much from that very particular experience.
I have rejoined the Labour Party because I think a defeat for Corbyn now would be demoralising for thousands of people who see Corbyn as the only politician with the integrity to represent their interests. A return to the slick, content-free, Westminster-focused, sharp-suited Labour Party we had become used to would send many of those thousands back to a place of disengaged despair, while others would likely turn to UKIP, or worse.
I think it’s important to defend Corbyn, but for several reasons, I think it’s unfortunate that the Labour Party is the location of this important debate.
The Labour Party is run by people who try to solve political problems by organisational methods
The NEC’s hysterical reaction to the election of pro-Corbyn officers at Brighton & Hove Labour Party’s entirely calm AGM last week is a pretty extreme example of this, but there are countless others.
Tragically, this description applies to plenty of people on the left as well as the right. It was pretty much unavoidable as a way of surviving in Labour’s culture over the last few decades. But it has led to an unhealthy focus on winning internal elections and votes of confidence among those who took it upon themselves to organise Corbyn supporters after the last leadership contest.
In the end, the political disagreement is still there. Neither side is about to give up and go home if some higher authority rules against them. So all this fixation on the letter of the law is a waste of everyone’s time. As the author of this interesting piece concludes:
“The complaint of socialists in the Labour Party for the last ten years has always been that the party is too geared towards parliamentarism and too tied up in constitutional coils. The desire of members to become politicians, the desire of Unite to have its own group of MPs, led to the PLP becoming unduly powerful. But now the socialists have seized power the cloak they have inherited from the old controllers has become an iron cage. … We all know the members have constitutional advantage. They need to turn that advantage into power and control, and to do that they need to stop talking about the constitutional legitimacy of Corbyn. They need to give other reasons as to why they should commandeer the party, why Corbyn should be the leader of the opposition, why they have any place in history at all.”
The new members are not just recruits in an existing faction fight
Because of the inward looking nature of the Labour Party, the influx of new members brought about by Corbyn’s election has been mistaken by the left for an army of reinforcements for the faction fight in which they were already engaged.
But this is not what happened at all. Instead, the Corbyn wave was an attempt by disenfranchised, disenchanted people to knock the party off course, to shake it out of its well-worn groove. There was no coherent plan or strategy, just a seizing of a one-off opportunity to bring socialist ideas back into the mainstream of British politics.
I think the Corbyn vote is part of a series of shocks delivered by an excluded public to an establishment they view as detached and out of touch. From the expenses scandal through to the shock of all shocks that was the vote to leave the EU, there have been a series of eruptions of a subterranean sense of outrage against the political and media consensus. Each one has been presented to us (by that same media) as an inexplicable and isolated surprise, but I think they are linked, not by organisation or even intention, but in the way described so beautifully in this piece by Rebecca Solnit:
“After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many come from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but it is the less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – that often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. To many, it seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”
I went to the Momentum rally in Brighton last Saturday. It was probably the biggest political meeting I’ve ever been to in the city. But I felt that there was an opportunity missed – Corbyn’s ideas had motivated 500 people to come together on a Saturday afternoon, but the ideas and issues themselves were hardly mentioned. More to the point, there was no discussion of the dire situations faced by thousands of our fellow citizens here in Brighton & Hove – insecure housing, precarious and exploitative work, food poverty, benefit sanctions and cuts, collapsing public services – nor the many local campaigns already being waged by exhausted activists.
There’s a reason why there’s no alternative left candidate
The ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party is not the culmination of a strong, self-confident left, building up mass support and winning the leadership of the democratic party of the working class. It’s a fluke, an accident, a slip-up by an out-of-touch political elite, which has resulted in this vertiginous catapulting of Corbyn from the party’s fringes to its very top.
As some old bloke with a beard once said, we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please (or something like that). When a chance presents itself, you need to take it. But we should be honest and realistic about our strengths and weaknesses.
This is not about one man, but currently, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is all we have. There is no alternative left candidate, because the left in the Labour Party was a small, isolated minority until five minutes ago. The structures of the party were designed specifically to keep power and control in the hands of those who already have it. If we want Corbyn’s leadership to mean something in the long term, then being a member of the Labour Party needs to mean something more than turning up to vote the right way at occasional meetings, or turning up to deliver leaflets when an election comes round.
Rather than the illusory democracy of a £3 supporters’ vote and an opaque National Policy Forum process – both of which have been snatched away at the first sniff of them being used by undesirables – the Labour Party needs to become a place for real democratic debate, about issues that matter to real people. It needs to be transformed into a party that represents working class people, by enabling them to speak for themselves.
The Labour Party is not yet a democratic party
Whether or not Corbyn retains the leadership, the profound political differences within the Labour Party are not going away and can’t be short-circuited. They need to be addressed in a political way, through democratic debate. Our anti-democratic electoral system (and its consequence of large, internally divided parties) is perhaps the biggest obstacle to that. I agree with Matt Bolton that fighting to change the electoral system is a top priority now, though I am not convinced by his conclusions overall.
People who have been under sustained attack for decades need space and support to develop a self-confident voice.
Brexit does change everything. It has finally shattered the illusion of consensus that was created under Blair, Brown, Clegg and Cameron. I was astonished to witness Tessa Jowell on Newsnight a few days ago, arguing that the Labour Party needs to return to the consensus, seemingly having failed to notice that there is no such thing.
The connecting thread between the expenses and phone hacking scandals, the Scottish referendum, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and even Brexit (with a much more frightening overtone of racism) is the call for democracy. Not the sterile democracy of a vote every five years but something deeper and stronger. The Labour Party could become the midwife of a more democratic politics, but only if it is willing to transform itself.
That means open community meetings, accessible language, acceptance of criticism, willingness to listen and engage with people, even if you don’t agree with them on everything. It means turning outwards to invite people to share their experiences and views, and offering them practical help with the difficult things they are facing. It means a complete change of culture. Can the Labour Party do this?
I have been out of active politics since January. I was overcommitted and exhausted. I needed some time to get my life back into balance and to figure out how to make a contribution without sacrificing my whole identity to a never-ending round of “crucial” but painfully unproductive meetings and actions.
It’s been a useful and educational process, and I’m glad I took a break. I’m sorry to anyone who felt let down by my abrupt departure from the campaigns I was involved in, but I was simply unable to carry on at that pitch.
After two and a half years of campaigning against austerity through the People’s Assembly, I also felt frustrated by our failure to reach beyond the usual suspects of left wing activism – people like me – and make real connections with people whose security and safety was most profoundly threatened by the onslaught of benefit cuts, rent rises, precarious employment and racist sentiment.
There was – is – something seriously wrong with our whole mode and model of activism. I think, looking back on it, that the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party was the thing that demonstrated this most clearly to me. Last September, I wrote:
“If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.”
Unfortunately, what happened next was (possibly) the absorption of Corbyn’s supporters into an internal faction fight in the Labour party, while the Tories mistook a battered and angry population for pawns in their own faction fight and delivered us all into the chaotic disaster we face today.
Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few days obsessively reading about the unfolding crisis caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. I was on holiday in Barcelona when the result was announced – we spent Friday in a daze – looking at beautiful art works in the Catalan National Art Museum and wondering what on earth would become of our country and our continent.
This referendum result feels like a gigantic act of self-harm, akin to burning down your own community centre or smashing all the windows in your own and your neighbours’ houses. I understand the urge to turn things upside down, to dig ones heels in and say no, you can’t take us for granted any more.
But the strongly anti-immigrant and racist nature of the Brexit campaign (and, for that matter, the Remain campaign and all mainstream political discourse for the last decade) is undeniable. I am very scared for the safety of everyone perceived as “foreign” in the coming months and years.
I am not in any position to say what “we” should do next. I think the proliferation of “what next for the left” articles is less than helpful, to be honest. I’m afraid I think that Paul Mason’s excellent proposal for Labour’s strategy is wishful thinking, given the current media feeding frenzy which seems likely to see Corbyn deposed in the next few days.
What I plan to do next is to get involved in grassroots volunteer support for people who are being done over by disaster capitalism. To listen to what they need, offer my skills and challenge racism when I can. To love my family and friends and try to find laughter and joy despite our fears. These are dark times. We need to stay strong for each other.
Labour Party conference is in town, and it’s fascinating in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Here are a few more words on how I see things developing. As I said before, now that we live in a world where six impossible things can happen before breakfast, I think it’s foolish to be too certain about anything – all my conclusions are tentative.
Let’s not mistake debate for division
I went to the Red Pepper fringe meeting last night, which was a really interesting discussion about the future of social movements, with Corbyn in the leadership of the Labour Party. There were excellent contributions from a range of thinkers and activists on the platform – most impressively, in my view, Neal Lawson of Compass and Ewa Jasiewicz, whose track record as an activist and organiser is phenomenal. She is involved in Fuel Poverty Action, Reclaim the Power and is now a Unite union organiser, working with hotel workers.
Ewa talked about the way Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been stalwart supporters of all the campaigns she’s worked on – they would turn up at the demos, put down Early Day Motions in Parliament, listen to and represent campaigners. To have people like that on the opposition front bench is a scenario none of us predicted, only a few months ago. Ewa clearly wants to offer them support in return, to defend them against the onslaught from the media and the right wing within Labour – but she is still undecided about whether joining the party is the best way to do that.
Neal Lawson told an oft-repeated story about Roosevelt, lobbied by union leaders soon after he became president, who concluded the meeting by saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Neal’s point was that progressive political change always happens because of popular pressure. Corbyn’s leadership relies on the massive wave of popular support he has attracted, and we have to keep that pressure up to keep him afloat.
Neal also spoke about the old ideas about vanguard leadership having been swept away. He said Facebook has replaced the factory as a location for communication and organising. Far from the masses needing to be mobilised and led by tactical thinkers, the wave now carries everyone and everything before it. A good social media campaign, such as the one that supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, is about making space for discussion, sharing resources and tools, and empowering people to take action, not about broadcasting the line.
If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.
It seems to me that there might be more than one right thing to do now. If Corbyn’s leadership has brought the Labour Party back to its rightful position as part of the wider labour and social justice movement, then that movement needs to remain vibrant, diverse, autonomous and challenging.
If the debate turns inwards, all is lost
Over 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected leader. Together with the thousands who joined during the leadership election campaign, these new members have a unique opportunity to give the party’s culture a much needed overhaul.
But cultures are resilient things, and there is a grave danger that instead, the new members will be “ground down with endless canvassing and procedures”, as Anthony Barnett warns in this excellent piece today.
Worse, they may find themselves sucked in and spat out, exhausted, by a vicious internal debate, as the new leadership’s policies bump up against the habits and preferences of unaltered local leaderships around the country.
I think the recent experience of socialists in the Green Party in Brighton is a timely warning. The party’s surprise success in the 2011 local elections turned its internal debates into damaging divisions. As I said in 2013, the ensuing focus of the Green left on winning arguments within the party left campaigners outside feeling abandoned and ignored. At a time when we hoped for real resistance to the assault on local government, with some of our people on the inside, our allies in the party switched their focus to an internal battle which they were unable to win.
As an alternative to this unappealing prospect, I was pleased to see this initative by Red Pepper, to build a network of anti-austerity activists committed to working together within and outside the Labour Party.
Can Brighton show the way?
In many ways, the success of Corbyn’s campaign was prefigured in Brighton. In 2010 we elected – against all odds – the first Green MP ever elected under First Past the Post. In 2011, Brighton & Hove voters surprised everyone by electing more Green councillors than representatives of any other party. In 2015, we bucked the trend again, returning one Labour and one Green MP to Parliament, amidst a sea of blue in the rest of the South East.
Caroline Lucas’s increased majority was built on her reputation for straight talking, honest politics, her commitment to clear principles and her untiring hard work as a constituency MP. She, like Jeremy Corbyn, has not forgotten her roots in the activist movement, and has been prepared to stand – and sit – with us on the streets as well as in Parliament.
The wave that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party began to swell in 2009 with the expenses scandal. It gained momentum in Brighton, with those unprecedented Green victories, and elsewhere took a more frightening form, with the growth of UKIP. It brought down the News of the World and is painfully unravelling the dark web of abuse at the heart of the political establishment. It forced the BBC to include the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 2015 general election televised debates – bringing anti-austerity arguments to more people than ever before.
Corbyn’s extraordinary success is built on all these extraordinary happenings, driven by the hunger of British people for justice.
The result of the 2015 general election was a blow to that sense of justice and the reaction has been powerful. In Brighton, hundreds more people have begun to take action on a whole range of issues, raising money for refugees, organising events on climate change, thinking about new forms of democracy, calling for an end to the housing crisis and challenging political parties to work together for the common good.
Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity is one strand in this fast-developing movement. Everyone is invited to the next People’s Assembly meeting on October 7th, to talk about how we can work together to have maximum impact locally. I hope members of all progressive parties – and none – will join the discussion.
Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.
I’m still having to repeat it to myself occasionally to remind myself that it’s true. And I think none of us yet knows what it really means.
For the whole of my adult life, I’ve been wishing for a Labour Party leadership that really stood up for the interests of working class people. I’ve been part of lots of campaigns and movements that have been hampered by the fact that we didn’t have that kind of representation and support in Parliament.
Over the last five years, its absence has been acutely galling – as disabled people, women, benefit claimants, immigrants, tenants, the NHS and public services have faced attacks that left thousands despairing, while the Labour Party meekly acquiesced.
So the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn is an incredible boost for everyone that has been campaigning against austerity. It gives us a much louder voice in Parliament and shatters the Westminster consensus, giving courage to many within the Labour Party whose natural inclination to speak out against the unjust austerity regime has been stifled by their wish to remain loyal to their party.
Of course, Corbyn has a fight on his hands in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He’s going to need the backing of the massive wave of supporters that swept him to the front bench.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t believe anybody does – we are in uncharted territory. Although it’s tempting to come up with a bunch of predictions and prescriptions, I think it’s too soon to say what’s likely or possible, or to advise anyone about what they ought to be doing now.
So my observations are tentative and incomplete, and possibly contradictory.
The Labour Party needs to be redesigned from the bottom up
It needs to turn away from a narrow focus on electoral campaigning and develop an open, outward-looking and democratic culture. Policies must be determined by members, not handed down from above.
If this doesn’t happen quickly, many of those new members will drift away. Here’s some good advice for Jeremy Corbyn, from Compass.
The Labour Party should be the political wing of the wider anti-austerity movement
That means we need to keep campaigning on the issues that are affecting people now, and welcome Labour Party members, old and new, to work alongside us.
Jeremy Corbyn has always believed in the power of protest to force political change. He was right.
Corbyn’s base is in the activist movements whose members have had to get used to working round the Labour Party, not through it. But the Labour Party and the activists can no longer afford to ignore each other. The adjustment will be tricky on both sides.
Rather than angrily standing outside the Town Hall while Labour councillors vote to make people on benefits pay 67% more council tax, for example, can we shift their position from within the Labour Party? I truly don’t know – we never succeeded in doing this in the 1980s and 90s, when the party’s structures were nominally much more democratic than they are now. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn was never leader of the Labour Party then, so who knows?
Climate change remains a global emergency
In the leadership election campaign, Corbyn said that as leader he “would establish an Energy Commission to draft a fundamental shift in UK energy thinking.” He should appoint Caroline Lucas to chair it.
In Brighton, Labour and Greens need to start working together
There have been some excellent steps towards this, initiated by Brighton & Hove Compass. I hope that Corbyn’s election, and Caroline Lucas’s positive response to it will give a boost to these initial ideas. For local party politics, this is the key problem that needs to be resolved.
As the cuts bite deeper, progressive voters (many of whom were part of the Corbyn wave) have less and less patience for turf wars and point scoring between Labour and Green councillors.
Labour will benefit from a big influx of members in Brighton, as elsewhere, in the wake of Corbyn’s election. But they will have to accept that many of these members will continue to vote, and even campaign, for Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. That is the nature of the new style of politics, and I think we all have a lot to gain by embracing it.