Labour, Brexit and the 2019 General Election

“Facts are chiels that winna ding” Robert Burns, 1786.

It is almost impossible to overstate the damage that backing a second referendum inflicted upon the Labour Party at the last general election. First of all, the U-turn guaranteed that Labour had absolutely no chance of winning back Leave-voting seats which (despite an increase in the Labour vote) were narrowly lost in 2017. For instance, Stoke-on-Trent South, which Labour lost to the Tories by just 663 votes, now has a Tory majority of over 11,000. Mansfield, which was lost by 1,000 votes in 2017, now has a Tory majority of 16,000. Similarly, Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, which was lost by 1,000 votes in 2017 now has a Tory majority of 11,500, and Walsall North, lost by 2,600 votes in 2017 now has a Tory majority of 12,000. North East Derbyshire, which the Tories won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2017, now has a Tory majority of over 12,000. Secondly, it also put an end to any chance of Labour winning in numerous Leave-voting constituencies which, in the aftermath of the 2017 gains, had become genuine target seats, such as Southampton Itchen, Hastings & Rye, Calder Valley, Thurrock, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Broxtowe, Bolton West and Norwich North.

Thirdly, it resulted in a whole host of Leave-voting Labour held marginals including Dudley North, Bishop Auckland, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Crewe & Nantwich, Barrow & Furness, Keighley, Ashfield, Peterborough, Ipswich, Stockton South, Bury North, Penistone & Stocksbridge, Lincoln, Wrexham, Derby North, Wolverhampton South West, High Peak, Stoke-on-Trent North, Vale of Clwyd, Blackpool South, Warrington South, Great Grimsby, Wakefield and Darlington all being lost to the Tories.

Worse still, the Tories even took relatively safe Leave-voting Labour seats such as Blyth Valley (Labour majority in 2017: 8,000), North West Durham (9k) Redcar (9k), Bolsover (5k), Sedgefield (6k), Rother Valley (4k), Stoke-on-Trent Central (4k), West Bromwich East (7.5k), Wolverhampton NE (4.5k), Leigh (10k), Gedling (4.7k), Bolton North East (3.8k), Birmingham Northfield (4.5k), Bassetlaw (4.8k), Burnley (6.4k), Bury South (6k), Delyn (4.2k), Don Valley (5k), Workington (4k), Hyndburn (5.8k), West Bromwich West (4.4k), Scunthorpe (3.5k), Heywood & Middleton (7.5k), and Dewsbury (3.4k). All in all, the Tories took a total of 54 seats from Labour, 52 of which had voted Leave in 2016. These defeats also weakened the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party, resulting in the loss of rising stars such as Laura Pidcock and Laura Smith as well as the veteran socialist MP Dennis Skinner.

And the results could quite easily have been even more devastating. Had the Brexit Party not stood candidates in Leave-voting North East seats such as Washington & Sunderland West, Houghton & Sunderland South, Wansbeck, and Hartlepool, the Tories would have undoubtedly gained those seats, given that the Labour vote fell dramatically.

Furthermore, it should be recognised that although they were retained, many previously secure Labour seats in Leave-voting areas have now been reduced to vulnerable marginals. These include: Dagenham & Rainham, Alyn & Deeside, Coventry South, Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford, Warrington North, Oldham East & Saddleworth, Stockton North, Hemsworth, Wolverhampton South East, Hull East, Newport West, Newport East, Chesterfield, Wansbeck, Wentworth & Dearne, Doncaster North, Doncaster Central, and Bradford South. All these seats saw a significant fall in the Labour vote in 2019 and now have majorities of under 2,400 votes.

Some have sought to lay the blame for the defeat at Jeremy Corbyn’s door or attribute the result to the party’s left-wing manifesto. Yet, in every single seat lost to the Tories in 2019, Labour’s vote increased under Corbyn’s leadership with a socialist policy platform in 2017. In many Leave-voting seats, the contrast in Labour’s performance between the two elections was astonishing. For example, in Scunthorpe, Labour increased its vote by 10.3% in 2017 only to suffer a 15.3% decrease in 2019. Redcar saw an 11.6% increase in 2017 followed by an 18% decrease in 2019. In Blyth Valley, Labour’s vote increased by 9% in 2017 and then fell by 15% in 2019. In Heywood & Middleton, a 10.2% increase was followed by an 11.6% decrease. Labour’s vote in Birmingham Northfield increased by 11.6% in 2017 and then fell by 10.7% in 2019. In Derby North, an 11.9% increase was followed by a fall of 8.7%. The only substantive change between these two elections was Labour supporting a second referendum on EU membership. Subsequent polling has underscored the centrality of Brexit in Labour’s defeat. YouGov polling found that Labour lost 33% of its 2017 Leave voters to the Tories and 6% to the Brexit Party, with Brexit cited as by far the most important issue for Tory switchers in a poll conducted in January 2020.

Some argue that this is easy to point out with the benefit of hindsight, but in truth, the warning signs plainly were there for anyone who wished to see them. We knew that 2/3rds of Labour-held seats were in Leave-voting constituencies, and it was clear that the vast majority of the Tories’ top target seats were in Leave-voting Labour areas. Not only that, but most Labour target seats in 2019 were in Leave-voting constituencies. In fact, in England and Wales, 78% of Labour’s target seats voted Leave. It was also abundantly clear that the impressive gains made by Labour in Leave-voting areas in 2017 – which meant that despite the collapse of UKIP, the Tories won just 6 seats from Labour – were predicated upon respecting the result of the referendum. This had allowed us to diffuse the issue to a large extent and move the discussion onto favourable ground like the NHS, renationalisation and a £10 an hour Living Wage. The claim that Labour gains in these seats in 2017 can be attributed to Remainers lending or switching votes is simply not credible. A thorough analysis of the Lib Dem vote in 2015 and 2017 shows that in most of these seats, not only was the vote often negligible, but what little vote share there was did not switch to Labour in significant numbers. For example, in Dewsbury in 2017 the Labour vote rose by 9.2% yet the Lib Dem vote fell only by 1.4%. In Wakefield, the Labour vote increased by 9.4% while the Lib Dem vote decreased by just 1.4%. In Blackpool South, Labour’s vote increased by 8.5%, while the Lib Dem vote fell by 0.5%. This was also true of Scunthorpe (10.3% Labour increase v 0.7% Lib Dem decrease) and Birmingham Northfield (11.6% Labour increase v 1% Lib Dem decrease). And the same phenomenon occurred elsewhere. Therefore, a far more plausible explanation is that Labour was actually continuing to win back some of those 5 million heartland voters lost between 1997-2010, including some ex-UKIP voters.

Indeed, for these reasons amongst others, when the second referendum commitment was first mooted, many people, at all levels of the party sounded the alarm. But unfortunately, those of us who tried to highlight the obvious dangers were dismissed and sometimes even maligned. Meanwhile, Labour MPs in Remain-voting seats with massive majorities such as Brighton Kemptown and Bristol North (which at the time enjoyed a 37,000 majority) were given national newspaper coverage to make the implausible claim that they would lose their seats if a second referendum policy was not adopted.

Perhaps the only sound argument in favour of the second referendum was that it was necessary to retain Remain-voting Labour seats in Scotland. Yet it failed to achieve even this, as Labour lost 6 out of 7 Scottish seats. While losses in Leave-voting constituencies piled up, Labour made just one Remain-voting gain in England: Putney.

Ominously, the new Labour leader Keir Starmer was a prominent advocate, if not the main architect of this calamitous second referendum policy. For Labour to stand any chance of reversing these losses and thus winning any future general election, Starmer and senior figures must acknowledge that Brexit was the decisive factor in the devastating election defeat and ensure that an error of this magnitude is never repeated.

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“Covert Human Intelligence” in Brixton, 20 October 1990.

Like thousands of socialists, I spent the 31st March 1990 marching through London in protest at the Poll Tax introduced by the Thatcher Government. It began with a carnival atmosphere and ended up with police horses charging through Trafalgar Square, seemingly oblivious to the bodies being trampled underneath. Me, I ran from the scene, with my then girlfriend, up towards the relative safety of Kings Cross, where I was staying at my sisters. But that’s not the story I want to tell.

That day, over three hundred activists and protesters were arrested on the day for their part in that so-called “riot”. Subsequent footage showed that in many cases, it was the police who attacked marchers, before any retaliatory violence from those gathered in Trafalgar Square. Many of those arrested were taken to Brixton Prison while awaiting trial.

In October of that year, over 20,000 protestors gathered in Brockwell Park and marched up Brixton Hill to the prison, loudly demanding the release of the Trafalgar Square prisoners, but with little hint of the trouble to come. I was part of the group that arrived first at HMP Brixton and I found myself right up against the police. What I saw then has stuck in my mind and informed my view of the policing of demonstrations and the role of covert operations. There’s something about seeing things for yourself, up close.

What I saw was a non-descript van pull up alongside the police and out of it poured 8-10 men, in normal clothes – denims and parka jackets, who then blended into the crowd. I saw with my own eyes that they were clearly carrying things – weapons, what looked like stones, bricks and bottles. The police seemingly did nothing to intercept this group and within seconds, they had started to throw these missiles into the crowd of 30 or so police who were gathered outside the prison. I was convinced at the time that these were provocateurs and nothing has convinced me otherwise since.

Scuffles broke out, the police charged and used their batons to hit protestors at random. After some push and pull, the existing police lines were joined by more police coming from vans stationed at the top of the hill. Once again, I found myself having to run. I sprinted down the hill, aiming for the tube. I was hit by a police baton – not hard, but enough to knock me off balance and into a street stall. I picked myself up and tried to apologise to the stall owner. I ran and ran until I was lost, but out of the area.

Later, I watched the news describing another Poll Tax demonstration ending in violence and another contextless series of images showing protestors fighting with the police. Even at that age – I was 18 – I knew this went on, that agent provocateurs peppered organisations, campaigns and demos, but it’s one thing knowing in theory, it’s another seeing it in practice. And of course, watching the final “product” for the news media is a salutary experience.

I was thinking of this incident while the debate was raging about the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill this week. I know this is small beer compared to the vast numbers of crimes, abuses and injustices that have been committed by the state, or with the collusion of state agencies, in the name of security over the last half decade, both on the British mainland and the island of Ireland, but the sheer mundanity of those men, piling out of that van to create a riot that may never have happened, is symbolic of something deeper, for me.

When you think of the murder of Pat Finucane and the many people waiting for justice in Norther Ireland, the carefully orchestrated attacks on miners at Orgreave, the cover-ups over Hillsborough and countless historical child abuses in detention centres such as Medomsley on my doorstep here in Durham, what is missing is two-fold: first, any morality. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is beyond bounds. Secondly, accountability – and by that I don’t mean self-policing, but genuine, open, democratic accountability, with human rights and justice at its heart. In my view, that should have been the subject of the debate this week, not optics.

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Without a reckoning of our mistakes, we’ll never move on.

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People keep saying, “Don’t leave, organise? But we were organised. And look what happened to us!”.

But just looking at the reaction of the socialist left in the Labour Party – scattering in a thousand different directions – tells a very different story. We weren’t organised, at least not enough to withstand the attacks. And we must ask why.

At the heart of defeat is always failure. That is hard for us to listen to, because so many of us put our heart and soul into the Corbyn movement, but actually that isn’t the way to look at it. Failure is part of life and is almost always a collective responsibility. To learn, we have to analyse our failures, no matter what campaign, union or party we are in.

Of course, it’s always easier to blame others: external factors are definitely part of defeat too. We know, for example, that without Brexit, the political landscape would have been very different. But here’s the thing. Those external factors are often things we cannot change – they are the facts of political life: as socialists, the press will always attack us; as socialists, the people who hanker after a New Labour renaissance will always exploit our weaknesses; as socialists, the establishment will close ranks to us and engineer victories for the centre and right, precisely because it preserves their privilege and power. Those are, for the moment, unmovable objects.

But unless we think that things are beyond our control; that history is not to be written by the likes of us; that we have no agency – in other words, unless we despair, we have to have a serious and analytical discussion, across the movement, of where we went wrong. This is absolutely not about navel gazing, it’s what any genuine political project has to do to learn & make sure that next time, we’re stronger. The things we can do something about, that are in our control, no matter how difficult the process is. Without that self-analysis, we’ll leap from failure to failure, without even understanding why.

What that discussion requires is honesty. Currently, I’m not seeing that from many quarters. What I’m seeing is deflection, the burying of mistakes and a rebranding exercise. That’s not good enough. We lost. Our supporters are scattered, demoralised and abandoning the fight, and the response from many on the left can be summarised as “covering our own backs”. We have to be more mature, politically speaking, than that. We have to talk about why we suffered these defeats and that discussion has to be genuinely reflective.

I know people don’t like doing this. Honest discussion is difficult, it causes rows, it’s against our natural protective instinct to bury bad news and for a brand new, shiny “unity”. But there are some real, hard facts here: we will not move on and we will not rebuild until we have a serious reckoning of the last five years. Warts and all.

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Londonderry Airbrushed

Recently, a photo of the statue of Charles William Stewart or Lord Londonderry (1778–1854), in Durham city’s marketplace was posted in a local Facebook group. Someone commented that he “owned many of the coal mines in County Durham and spent lots of money to make them run better.” Astonishingly, it transpired that this particular piece of misinformation was taken from a website produced by the university for use in local schools. Not wishing to allow this go unchallenged, I responded by making a few factual observations and suggestions.

First of all, Londonderry was brutal even by the standards of his time. On the Tory benches in the House of Lords, he led the opposition to the Mines Act 1842, which among other things, prevented boys under the age of 10 years old from working underground. Thankfully, he failed, although he did manage to get the legislation watered down. Therefore, the often-heard claim that we cannot condemn historical figures because “people didn’t know any better at the time” simply does not apply. It is no exaggeration to describe Londonderry as a tyrant. In 1844, when miners went on strike, he evicted them and their families from their homes. He also issued his infamous ‘Seaham Letter’ which warned that any local traders who provided strikers with credit would be driven out of business. A few years later, he strongly opposed the 1850 Coal Mines Inspection Act which ensured that mines were subject to government safety inspections.

Unsurprisingly, given this record, Londonderry was not well liked by many colliers and their families in County Durham. It was his family who paid to have his imposing statue put up in the market square in 1861. So, like many of our public monuments, it was not put there by popular demand.

We are often told that these monuments are vital in order for us to remember the past. But given that none of this factual information is included on the statue, how can it be considered educational? What is more, why are we still celebrating someone who enriched themselves on the back of exploiting men, women, and children in County Durham? When someone is literally put on a pedestal it is difficult to argue that this represents some kind of neutral act of remembrance.

It would be far better to have a monument to a miner or a miners’ union leader such as Thomas Hepburn, who tried to put a stop to such brutalities. At the very least, some of this information should be included on the statue’s plinth so that the public can make an informed decision as to whether this statue should still take pride of place. Londonderry’s presence in Durham city’s centre demonstrates that in most cases, monuments of the ‘great and the good’ are not about genuinely educating people about history but celebrating our ‘betters’ and whitewashing history in the process.

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‘Red Wall’ Tories

80243005_10157496066439279_6835406435443015680_oAlmost by chance, yesterday, my attention was drawn to a tweet by a local BBC reporter, Fergus Hewison, which described Richard Holden’s response to an interview by Keir Starmer, where he talked of the constituency he now represents, North West Durham, as being “left behind” under its previous Labour MPs. Holden is the guy who beat Laura Pidcock in the election in December. I was working for Laura throughout her time as MP there.

Even on the most obvious level, it’s a nonsense statement, of course – the sort that politicians make all the time. Most fundamentally, if we’re going to describe North West Durham as being “left behind, the most important event has to be the closure of the Consett Steel Works by the then Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1980. It’s both bizarre and economically illiterate to blame individual Labour MPs for the position that the constituency is in, whether that be Laura, or Pat Glass before her, or Hilary Armstrong before that.

The closure of the Steel Works, and the fact that there was no plan beyond the closure, the fact that associated industries closed along with the steel works, created a vicious spiral that made Consett and the surrounding areas an unemployment black spot for decades afterwards. When the jobs did come back, they were often unskilled and insecure, and often outside the immediate area. These aren’t controversial opinions; they are backed by the long-term analysis.

Most people in North West Durham understand this history. They’ve seen the real meaning of being “left behind”, as it has played out in their families, in their communities, in the high street. While unemployment levels have dipped over recent years, the constituency has a real issue with low pay, with some of the lowest average wages in the North East, as well as the country. Consett’s story is intimately bound up with the economic story of UK PLC: the decline of heavy industry, the abandonment of manufacturing and its replacement with low paid, service-led, insecure employment.

But there’s something else going on here. Holden’s statement isn’t simply a lazy mistake, it’s an attempt to embed a very different narrative and that requires some explanation. In December in County Durham, three so-called “Red Wall” seats fell to the Tories. Bishop Auckland, North West Durham and Sedgefield are very different types of constituencies, but all are long-standing Labour seats which swung dramatically from Labour to Conservative in December. This isn’t the place to discuss why, but those are the facts.

But despite sweeping to victory in those seats, the Tory MPs elected into those seats will know they are not secure. The underlying economic factors noted above, added to the fact that all three seats are ill-prepared to deal with another economic downturn caused by a combination of Brexit and COVID-19, make it quite likely that these new MPs (Richard Holden in North West Durham, Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland and Paul Howell in Sedgefield) are going to have a rocky ride between now and the next General Election.

The cold, hard truth is that these ‘Red Wall’ Tories, for all their bluster, are going to find it hard to represent their constituents in the traditional sense. This Government’s deregulatory, small state, free market agenda – a continuation of Thatcherism with some Steve Bannon-style populism thrown in – isn’t exactly designed for constituencies that desperately need support, whether that is investment, or a strong support networks via the social security system. So, what can they offer, instead?

Well, that’s where the this attempt to muddy the waters about the role of an MP comes in. To these Tories, if they bring a Metro line (doubtful), or a retail warehouse to the constituency through their contacts, that’s the job done. Actually, the reality is that any investment that comes into a constituency is complex and will have more to do with the economics of the region and sub-region, planning done at a county, national or even international level, than the actions of any MP. MPs are not Mayors, nor are they heads of local authorities. They can have an impact, but it will mostly be in a supporting role.

But, as has been illustrated over decades now, presentation is all in right-wing politics. And if they can’t deliver on those transport links or the big investments, they can at least make an awful a lot of noise about them. If these ‘Red Wall Tories’ can present an image of themselves in a business role – or as an ambassador for their brand, they may kid people that they are bringing economic regeneration, even when they are not. In essence, it’s a recasting the role of an MP as the CEO of a company, with the Tory PR machine behind them.

On a deeper level, however, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a Member of Parliament. As an MP, your primary role is to represent people. Of course, it’s incredibly complex in practice, but the number one function has to be a democratic one. That is what you are judged on at election time. Yes, of course, sometimes as an MP you can make an impact locally. You can support local growth, you can involve yourself in projects that develop communities and local economies, but central Government always holds the purse strings and will always have far more influence than any individual MP.

As an opposition MP, this is even more the case. Many Tory MPs are seriously rich, and even where they are not, they have connections to money, through the Tory Party, big business or the old private school network. Of course, that can bring benefits. It can deliver shiny things. For Labour MPs, especially those who’ve come through the trade union route, or low paid jobs without a lot of influence, the challenges are different, as is the role. In opposition, no Government is going to send investment your way (in fact, quite the opposite).

For an opposition MP like Laura Pidcock, the role was clear: (a) to help people with issues on an individual level the best you can; (b) to represent your constituents in Parliament – by both exposing the faults in the system and (c) by campaigning on their behalf to create a better society – which is what Labour’s transformational programme contained in the two manifestos of 2017 and 2019 was all about. But, at the heart of that role – until you go into power, is the knowledge that central Government ultimately hold the cards. That is a political reality, and that needs to be spelled out to those constituents.

I suspect that the representative, democratic role of an MP will increasingly become a nuisance and a distraction to these new ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs, because they know – as ideological right-wingers – they can’t deliver on that. Some of that is already coming out, for example, in Richard Holden’s declaration that his Facebook page is not a place for “political debate”. They can’t change the political direction of this Government; they can’t campaign against its decisions and they will find it very hard to make a case for regional investment based on the last 10 years.

So, the PR job then becomes an attempt to throw around myths about that democracy and representation is. Labour “let the North East down” plays nicely into broader grievances and the wider perception of MPs not doing enough for their constituencies (and too much shouting about them). It also taps into a popular scepticism about how politicians behave.

I’ve lost count of the time I’ve heard the phrase: “why can’t we knock some heads together and get you all to work together”, as if this was a dysfunctional corporation, not politics with different ideological views of society and our world. But that myth is strong – and Tory MPs play up to it equally strongly, while all the time forcing through a clear, free market ideological agenda on our country. It’s sleight of hand and fertile territory for the Tories. The Red Wall Tory MPs will get fluff pieces in the press proclaiming their local successes and, boy, will they milk them – as a means of distracting from the democratic deficit.  As a party, we must not stand by passively, normalising this spin. We have to challenge it, explain and educate, every step of the way.

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The dead cat of Dominic Cummings?

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From the left, the reaction to the Dominic Cummings story has been curious. Of course, there’s been anger. While not surprised, socialists (along with the general population) have expressed genuine outrage that the chief adviser to the Prime Minister could display such arrogance and disregard for public health. But mixed in with that, I sense that there is a real nervousness about letting Cummings become the story. I talked a little about that in a piece I wrote about Cummings’ politics last week. What many argue is that even this story, superficially damaging as it is for them, is a cover for the Tories to conceal far greater crimes.

We saw a similar nervousness throughout the Corbyn years: a sense that we must not allow these right-wing chess players, the likes of Steve Bannon, Lynton Crosby and now Dominic Cummings, to set the agenda and employ dead cat strategies to distract the public with stories that play to their agenda alone – so from the annual “Poppygate” to Cummings’ press conference last Monday, almost everything is seen through the prism of this game of mass distraction. I think an element of this is bound to be true, but we must be careful that by calling everything a dead cat, we don’t fall into the exact trap we’re trying to avoid.

Of course, people like Dominic Cummings employ game theory and such like. Throughout politics, there are people who work in the background, mapping out scenarios and attempting to pull the strings of the public. We’ve had our examples of people in our party whose job was to do the same, and some of that was very successful. Of course, it’s the opposite of movement building and is as old as history itself. Machiavelli wrote the book.

However, we have to be careful. We mustn’t get sucked into the idea that the likes of Cummings are omnipotent or be overtaken by conspiracy theories. These people aren’t all powerful, they are part of a struggle – and a political one at that. Their theory of the world: that human interaction is fundamentally governed by self-interest, is not uncontested terrain. Alternatives views are available. It is part of a battle for the future, which we are all agents.

A hugely important Italian Marxist theorist – Antonio Gramsci – had a different perspective, based on a different world view. He read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (a guide to courtiers in how to win power through manipulation and subterfuge in Renaissance Italy) and developed a new theory: that in modern society, it was the party (the collective, organised working class) that was the Modern Prince. In other words, in the struggle for power and leadership (what he called hegemony), there was power from the top (the old model), but always a countervailing power from the bottom up – and that’s where democratic, socialist politics has its source.

I think there is a real danger – especially in difficult times – that we accede too much power to those in formal positions of power and those who, like Cummings, seem to pull the strings of not just a hard-right government, but the right-wing press. In so doing, it often looks like the control over the people is total, that Cummings is directly pulling the strings of the general public. But it is more complicated than that – and there are always other forces bubbling up. There are always cracks, and it is our task, as socialists, to turn them into crevices.

Of course, the likes of Dominic Cummings, Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon do have real power and alongside the right-wing press and social media channels that they have developed, are often successful at creating hegemony (or leadership) amongst the public and of the state. But there is a real issue with going fully down a conspiracy rabbit hole, because it is utterly debilitating for us, as people who want to change the world. Because ascribing to any person, or a group of people, all-encompassing power makes our organising largely pointless. It overwhelms and demoralises people – and demoralised people don’t tend to organise, they tend to wait for better days, hide – or worse, give up all together.

Let’s take an example: some people on the left are saying that the situation over Dominic Cummings is designed to cause such anger, that it leads people to civil disobedience, as a precursor to authoritarian or martial law. Where is this argument going? Is it designed to stop the authoritarianism, the anger, or people speaking out? It’s not clear – and that is the point. Over the last 40 years, the real enemy of socialism has been demoralisation and apathy. At the heart of that is a sense of powerlessness. When we inflate the power of the dark forces controlling our lives, without any light, without any sense of how we fight back, we help them.

I think the best way to see Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and the whole gamut of ascendant right-wing forces, is part of a political struggle. Their biggest battle and biggest challenge is to win hearts and minds, in order to gain consent for their admittedly authoritarian project. Our job is also to win hearts and minds, but our battle cannot be won from above, with the support of the media or the apparatus of the state. Ours must be won by organising amongst the people, opening up the space for a different vision of society, based on our collective power. But we must challenge their narratives, whatever games they are playing and whatever their strategies – because you don’t lead by hiding or hoping for better days.

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The politics of Dominic Cummings.

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On the left, there is a tendency to dismiss the significance of right-wing political figures. That’s an understandable gut reaction and I would argue that the opposite tendency – to inflate their power – is a real danger too, but I do think we need to understand the politics of different strands on the right, as well as the motivations and underlying principles of the leading exponents of those politics.

Dominic Cummings is dismissed as a liar, a fraudster and a manipulator. All of those things may be true, but if that was all he was, we would not be talking about him now and Boris Johnson and the rest of his allies in the Cabinet and in the Tory Party would not be fighting so hard to keep him in position.

Should we ignore him then? I would say not, though clearly, we have to be careful not to play his game. But the reality is, he has achieved something extraordinary: forging a seemingly impossible unity between the hard right across the country, bringing together Tory free marketeers, old guard Thatcherites and the Brexit Party – the outward manifestations of which were the Leave vote in the 2016 Euro Referendum and the overwhelming Conservative victory in the 2019 General Election.

The formal victories are only one part of the story, however. The true significance of what Cummings (and a handful of trusted people around him) has achieved is to kick off a revolution in the Tory Party. In much the same way that the Corbyn leadership challenge did within the Labour Party, Cummings and his crew are turning the Conservative Party on its head.

Some say that there is no plan, that the plan is destruction and chaos. There may be something in this, but I think, whether by design or not, Cummings and the Leave campaign has tapped into some deep-rooted ideological battles within the Tory Party, which are being fought out on this terrain. Eurosceptics versus Europhiles; Neo-liberals versus One Nation Tories; radicals versus conservatives and ideologues versus pragmatists. Some of those battles stretch right back to Thatcher.

Dominic Cummings is a complex character who sits right in the middle of these battles. On the one hand there’s an outward arrogance, an air of invincibility. Here’s someone who doesn’t seem to think he should be answerable to anyone: a self-declared political genius who delivered victories and is busy extracting favours. You can see it in the power he’s been given to hire and fire, the privileged access he’s been given to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and in the way the Prime Minister’s office is mobilising to save him right now.

That isn’t a quirk. I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Cummings’ power lies in the fact that he “knows where the bodies are buried.” I think it is vastly more complex than that – it is the fact that he represents and symbolises those ideological cleavages. In some ways, he is also a conduit for them: so those whose vision is a remade, hard right, Tory Party know the significance of what Cummings and his friends have delivered.

On the other hand I’ve noticed, over several months, that he seems to be in a hurry, like he’s running from something, as if he’s about to be found out. He acts like a manipulative, naughty boy, testing the boundaries to see whether people will defend him. That shows a weakness, a shaky foundation to his power – that he’s still very much in the business of shoring it up and maybe even simply fighting a defensive battle to hang on.

I think what this shows is exactly the broader context of the battle for the soul of the party. If Cummings goes, it won’t be the end of a new, hard right Tory Party, but it will be seized on by those who desperately want to drag it back to what it was under David Cameron – a managerialist, free market version of One Nation Toryism. The party that Dominic and his allies have utter contempt for.

Rightly or wrongly, Dominic Cummings is felt to have his finger on the pulse of the British people – not just by himself, but by large parts of the Tory right. This is part of his strength and, conversely, his weakness: every part of Cummings’ political practice is based on the idea that the public can be manipulated and fairly easily. His argument is that he has managed to work his magic not once, but twice. And it mesmerises them. But what happens when that magic runs out? What has he got? Is there anything of any substance, or just a half-baked libertarianism? Is it all an act? Does he have anything beyond the dark arts and big data?

I’m not sure he does, at least not personally. If you read his blogs, they are desperately incoherent and rootless. There are a lot of words, but little in terms of substance. I think that the clock is ticking for Cummings, and he knows it. He has done a job, but he can’t necessarily finish it. In fact, I’m not convinced he really wants to.

In that sense, this drama that is playing out now, over his movements, controversies and attitudes – all the speculation and outrage – is a sideshow to something much more significant for our politics, which is the future of British Conservatism and the remaking of the right. Cummings has created a temporary, but deeply unstable alliance. That’s unlikely to hold. But he has put a torch under much bigger conflicts within the Tory Party that are about to catch fire.

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Organising the Labour left in Durham

This piece was written by me in Labour Briefing in November 2018. I’m republishing it here because I think Durham Labour Left offered a model, not just for the North East, but for the rest of the country. Things got in the way, mainly to do with defeats – not just the General Election, but a series of local defeats from that point onwards. And that clearly affected our unity as a group and our confidence. Six months after losing the General Election and eighteen months after this fantastic event, it’s time to recover both.

SOMETHING IS HAPPENING in Durham. For over two years, a group calling itself Durham Labour Left (DLL) has been beavering away behind the scenes, working to bring socialists within the party together in the county.

The aim has never been to replace any organisations that already exist, but to become an umbrella organising hub for people in Momentum, Red Labour, the LRC groups and other Labour Party socialists. The focus has been to support and co-ordinate each other’s activity and that effort is now starting to bear fruit. Durham, of course, has a rich labour movement tradition, as anyone who has attended the annual Miner’s Gala (the Big Meeting), which takes place in early July every year, will know.

It was therefore appropriate that the recent ‘Organising the Labour Left’ conference, organised by DLL, took place at Redhills, the home of the Durham miners. Held on 21st October, it followed a similar meeting held in Newcastle in February, when socialists in the party gathered to discuss the possibilities of working across different groups on the Labour left to achieve common objectives, such as positions on the regional board, internal party elections and selections.

The half day in Durham was notable for its comradely atmosphere. The event was attended by over 100 regional and national Labour Party members, activists and MPs. Every constituency in County Durham was represented in some form or another, many more came from all over the north east and some even travelled from Sheffield to exchange ideas and learn from the comrades gathered at the Miners’ Hall. Although MPs Grahame Morris and Laura Pidcock attended, they did so as ordinary members, and the whole ethos of the day was grassroots learning from each other.

After a plenary session, introduced by DLL founding members Angela Hankin, Chris Turner, Adrian Hedley and Brenda Stephenson, the day was broken down into breakout sessions, which included using social media to organise; report back from annual conference; standing as a candidate for CLP, council & region; how a CLP works and organising democratically in CLPs; and building street and workplace movements against racism, war and poverty.

Lynn Gibson, Leeann Clarkson and Paul Daly ran a session which encouraged us all to share our ideas on making new, and in fact all, members welcome in our party. They advocated creating a welcoming environment in branch and CLP meetings and, above all, respecting all members – from those who have been lifelong members to the very latest recruits. Lynn explained that she organises bi-monthly branch socials for new (and inactive) members to come along and meet with active members in a more social environment and offers a buddy system for new members to attend meetings.

Grahame Morris spoke about standing as a Labour candidate. He said there was a marvellous and unprecedented array of talent now available to the Labour Party at every level with the dramatic increase in membership and the radical manifesto for the many under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The challenge is to engage with our members, build on their existing skills and enthusiasm and help to develop people’s confidence, as many working class candidates still struggled with the idea that they had a place in the party’s representative structures.

Harry Cross and Ed Whitby talked about organising democratically within a CLP, opening local parties up to political education and engaging our vast membership in its processes. Ben Sellers held a workshop on how to use the tools of social media to organise locally and emphasised the need to link online campaigning with on-the-ground organising. Daniel Kebede ran a very interactive session on how to challenge racism and building anti-racist campaigning as a thread throughout the Labour Party and Sheila Williams reported on the rule changes and debates that had come from conference.

The conference ended back in the beautiful old chamber at Redhills, also known as the Pitman’s Parliament. A discussion was held where people made considered contributions. No one was grandstanding – it was a genuine exchange of ideas.

Of course, there’s some way to go. DLL hasn’t ‘cracked it’ in Durham and will only achieve what’s needed in the party locally if this sort of engagement carries on. But the whole conference was genuinely refreshing and, like the Durham Labour Left, offers one model of how we might go forward – avoiding the splits and sectarianism that have beset the Labour left in times gone by, and which hang over us to this day. We can, and must, do better than that.

Ben Sellers

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No common ground with Cummings

Just a couple of months ago, Dominic Cummings was pushing herd immunity. He’s Boris Johnson’s most powerful advisor. At the same time, the Prime Minister was dithering over lockdown and delaying action, when it was clear that radical measures were needed. That certainly cost lives. Let’s not forget that.

Also, let’s not forget what we discovered a few weeks ago: that Cummings and some of his closest political allies – people who developed strategy alongside him over years – were part of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings – at the very least, taking part in discussions about how advice would be relayed, but no doubt forming that advice too.

Let’s remember, too, who Cummings is and what he does: he’s someone who has been emboldened by quietly racking up the political victories; by skilfully creating opportunities out of chaos; by manipulating public opinion; by tapping into deep seated anxieties, emotions and prejudices and turning them into slogans and ideas.

And right now, what Cummings is doing (alongside Boris Johnson and the hard right friends he’s gathered around him in the Cabinet) is desperately trying to work out how they can benefit from this crisis. How, despite that catastrophically lethargic response, despite the fact that they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything approaching the right thing, they can turn this crisis round to the benefit of the Tory Party, and their political faction within it.

Let’s just take an example over the last few days. So, on Thursday, we had right-wing tabloid press carrying headlines like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons!” and “First Steps to Freedom From Monday!”, almost in unison. On Friday, VE Day, thousands of people had street parties, formed congas, many clearly in breach of social distancing rules. A coincidence? Not likely, but flag waving, national pride dressed up as rebellion – I couldn’t think of anything more Dominic Cummings if I tried.

That campaign to win the ideological battle will have many facets: they will work with, then manipulate the press; they will send mixed messages about the lockdown and play with people’s desperate desire to return to normality; they will orchestrate fears, stoke myths and displace blame. But their focus will be clear, because they are utter ideologues, convinced of their natural authority and destiny.

That group, with their big data, endless resources and their bear traps, are already planning ahead. They are about winning hearts and minds in this coronavirus crisis, just as they were with Brexit and the General Election. They know which buttons to press, how to individualise this crisis, so no light can be shone on the Government’s structural and deliberate failure to represent and safeguard its own people.

We can’t treat this group around Cummings as if we were dealing with an Edward Heath, or mainstream Conservatism. We can’t trust them, or expect them to listen to the science or do what is right for the majority of the population. They may play at being One Nation Tories for a press conference or two, but they are far from it.

The idea that there is common ground here is naive. When they talk about the trade unions, opposition politicians and local government administrations as being a “blob” holding them back, we better believe them. We are in their way and we better decide how we are going to stand our ground, rather than being steamrollered.

Caution is not the watchword, not when it comes to workers being sent into dangerous workplaces or life threatening scenarios. There’s so much simmering discontent, amongst those who have the most to lose from a premature “unlockdown” and from those who will go, unprotected, into an expanded frontline. On one level, our task, right now, is really quite simple. We must stick up for our people, with as much determination as they do theirs. Which is a hell of a lot.

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Actors in our own movement

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I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘confessional’ approach to politics. Collective experience is what really matters. Occasionally, however, there are political situations where you get this over-riding sense of history repeating itself, that we’ve been here before. Many of us will have that feeling at the moment, so – just for a few minutes – I’d like to share my experience, not as some sort of prescription, but as the kicking off point for an updated, revamped discussion of where we are.

30 years ago, I joined the Labour Party as an 18-year-old, but without any real enthusiasm. My activism at the time was channelled through the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. It gave young people like me, with energy to burn, the outlet to campaign, organise and – importantly – to win. At last, we’d found real leverage against the Thatcher Government and, boy, did it feel good.

Obviously, many of us involved in the poll tax campaign, ended up being organised and trained by the Militant (‘caderised’ is the official term, I believe). Although I soon realised that these strictures were not for me, I don’t regret that experience or what it taught me. People love to label anyone who was ever a member of that organisation, but the truth is that it was the Labour Party’s failure to enthuse at the time, it’s awful, stifling political culture, that led people to find other routes for their activist energies.

At its root, that internal culture was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party. The idea was, that, after a succession of defeats, the thing that would break the spell was to turn the party into a more respectable, managerial party – top down, besuited and efficient. It quickly felt like there wasn’t a place for people like me. I left the Labour Party with a parting shot, delivered via letter, to party leader Tony Blair, who had just scrapped Clause IV in a big gesture of symbolic intent aimed at the party’s left.

For the next few years, I went from party to party, looking for a political home and a way to express my socialism. This was a time when all the discussion on the left was about a ‘new workers party’. I ended up in the Socialist Alliance for a time, and then in the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party. It was a frustrating time, filled with disappointment – as I watched political projects come and go, flare up in great excitement as “the next big thing”, then crash and burn with people becoming increasingly sectarian. I felt again like a bystander, like politics was something that was being done to me.

At that time, I read a lot about the trade unions and organising. I found a home of sorts in the labour movement, where, suddenly, the things I did made an impact. And it made me realise that you could spend the rest of your life looking for that perfect organisation, but it wouldn’t mean anything if you failed to become an actor within it. It was that realisation that eventually brought me back to the Labour Party, even when I my disagreements with the leadership were strong and even though little had changed with that internal, top down, political culture.

But something had changed, far away from the party hierarchy. In my time as a trade union organiser, I constantly came across people who expressed socialist values, many of whom had held their tongues during the high point of New Labour, but as that project was disintegrating, were questioning it’s fundamental principles and finding their voices, collectively. I discovered a whole load of other activists who had kept their membership cards in their back pockets, but who were finally starting to talk to each other.

Via social media, some of us came together. A group of us began developing a project called Red Labour, aimed at challenging the dominance of Blairite thinking, now becoming stale even on its own terms. We also came together to rebut the lazy and insidious ideas behind an emerging current in the party – Blue Labour – which fancied itself as a successor to New Labour, based on a traditionalist reading of Labour history and values, many of them with racist underpinnings.

Suddenly, it took off. Facebook proved to be an ideal forum to organise ourselves. People’s confidence soared from discovering that there were thousands of other members of the Labour Party who not only thought like them, with socialist principles, but who wanted to campaign and organise – whether that was over the bedroom tax, public sector strikes or challenging the rise of the BNP. Managerialism was going out of fashion. There were still people arguing for a new party, as there have been throughout the history of the movement, but this time, I was sure where my strategic loyalty was at.

This was, of course, the seeds of the Corbyn project taking root, and the next few years saw an unprecedented organising effort on the left of the party, augmented by a mass influx of left-wing activists into the Labour ranks, enthused and inspired by the Labour leadership campaign. But one of the most important aspects of that summer of 2015 was the collective organising approach of the Corbyn campaign. It was as if we turned all the years of tightly controlled, micro-managed politics of the New Labour years and turned it on its head.

The Corbyn campaign, as brilliantly captured by Alex Nunns’ book, ‘The Candidate’, was grassroots, creative and inclusive. For a summer, we put aside our differences and organised, truly organised, as a movement. I have discussed the social media campaign here (more detailed and slightly more academic version here), and what I tried to convey was that it was not a centralised, highly managed operation, but one that sourced it’s ideas and creativity from a wider movement, and fed back to that movement in turn. In the true sense, it gave masses of people ownership over the political project.

I think, somewhere along the line, we lost some of that. This isn’t the place to discuss when, where or why that happened, but I think my own, personal history tells me that it isn’t lost forever – and what really counts in politics is people’s engagement, their decision to become participants rather than bystanders.

An old comrade of mine used to come in the People’s Bookshop towards the end of the bad, old days and say: “You know, Ben, the problem is that too many people have become consumers in politics, happy to be entertained or angered, rather than grab it by the scruff of the neck and change it.” I have never forgotten that. We must never go back, but even more important, we must work together, as actors in our own movement.

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