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.
So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.
A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.
As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.
I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.
It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.
Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.
In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.
But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.
Refugees and migrants
Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.
When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.
I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.
Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)
Charity and solidarity
The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.
Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.
As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.
The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.
And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.
I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.
I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.