Labour pains

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.

The eagerness of people on both sides of the party to take each other to court over the interpretation and application of the party’s own rules is deeply unedifying.

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?


4 Comments on “Labour pains”

  1. “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.”

    Yes, but the reason they chose the Labour Party is that in some way they still see it as their party and for them Corbyn personifies what they think that party should be. They didn’t go into the Socialist Alliance, Respect or Left Unity in big numbers, mostly they got involved in other things or drifted out of politics.

    The faction fight is inevitable and I think that until the leadership issue is settled that’s what people should be concentrating on. It’s the result of that fight which will determine if it’s a return to a Labour Party which is deeply relaxed about people getting immensely rich or one which puts insecure housing, precarious and exploitative work, food poverty, benefit sanctions and cuts, collapsing public services at the heart of what it’s doing.

    That’s something the right understand. In my area the channels of communication and the functioning of the party are controlled by people who understand the rule book. Many of the new members are unfamiliar with all that and it puts them at a disadvantage. For example, a different local leadership might have said “we think the meeting ban is anti-democratic and we don’t accept it”. Instead people who’ve only met once or twice are trying to organise semi-clandestinely.

    I don’t see any way around several weeks of highly inward looking squabbling over party rules. My local LP office is probably worth something near £1m. So as well as the politics, there’s the infrastructure and it would be daft to let Kinnock and Benn get all that.

  2. Debbie Epstein says:

    I really liked the blog Dani. I do agree totally about resort to legal means which is both unedifying and won’t make the issues that divide go away. And also with Liam that while it is an attempt by disenfranchised people to shake the party out of its groove, there are reasons why they turned to Labour rather than Left Unity etc.

  3. Dani says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that a romantic/historical attachment to the Labour Party is one reason why people have focused their energies there. But that attachment wasn’t sufficient to keep people fighting within the Labour Party through the 90s, and I think the distortions caused by First Past the Post are also highly significant in the story of why we haven’t seen the Pasokification of Labour in England, in the same way as we have in Greece and Spain, and Scotland, for that matter.

    I think faction fighting as a short term focus is sometimes necessary, but (for the reasons we’ve just been discussing) if the fight results in the destruction of the prize, then it probably wasn’t the best strategy. Also, if the fight goes on for months or years, rather than weeks, then people will begin to despair and drift away.

    Jeremy Corbyin keeps saying, correctly, that it’s not about him, it’s about us. If what we are fighting for is a better Labour Party, not just a name on the Leader’s office door, then creating that better party is also part of the battle.

  4. Charli says:

    I agree completely that Jeremy Corbyn being the leader is a complete fluke – the key point was when he got the 35th nomination; it could have been any one of a number of leftists that took the buggin’s turn to stand this time. And, given the circumstances maybe they would have won just as well. But I think we have been incredibly lucky that it is Jeremy – he has proved strong enough to take the pressures put on him; perhaps another wouldn’t have been so strong

    The comment about “making our own history, but not in circumstances of our choosing” is the most important one, I think. A situation arose and we managed to seize it. It wasn’t necessarily the best situation, but it would have been unthinkable to let it go by. So we are now going down a road where the only decision we have really made is to follow it to the end. Most of the decisions on that road have been forced on us by the LP opposition

    I am quite frustrated by the processes we have been through – legal opinions on NEC rules, and defending ourselves against trumped-up stories. But that’s not our choice; it was the only way to keep the show on the road. The reins of power in the LP are held by the apparatus, and the ideological fight is heavily biased against us because we don’t control the media. Basically we need to make the necessary organisational and bureaucratic defences that we are forced to

    But the big thing is outside the LP; the right wing tell us Jeremy is unelectable and to a certain extent they are right – we need to create an ideological change in society – equivalent to the change Thatcher created, but in the opposite direction. Greed isn’t good; there *is* a society that has responsibilities to its members. To me, that means we have to take the political fight into the outside world, into society, and convince people that – as someone put it – “a better world is possible”. That looks very difficult, but I take great heart from what happened two years ago in Scotland where groups of people believed they could get rid of a whole useless political layer of oppression – the Westminster parliament – and they planned how they would reorganise their society. We need to do the same, replacing the Westminster parliament by a completely changed one. We won’t succeed in that while we are restricting our fight to within the LP. I’m very pleased to see Momentum stalls appearing on high streets – what we now need are thought through policies to put forward from them to counter the “unelectable” claim

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