There’s been very little to cheer this week for socialists in the Labour Party. I sense some despair, which is maybe understandable. The battle within the Labour Party is hard enough. To shift ingrained political attitudes in the country, in the context of the political flux around Brexit feels like a mountain to climb, and I think many people are wondering if we can do it.
I think most people are capable of understanding that we need a better response than despair. We also probably need to move beyond a simplistic, personalised defence of Jeremy Corbyn (which he wouldn’t want) to a better understand of what we need to do as a movement and as a left in the party.
The first stage in that is to understand what just happened, in detail, and why we are losing. My view is that it was always going to be this difficult. We massively overachieved in 2015. We hadn’t built the foundations – and that was always going to be the difficult bit. Ironically, it seems to be harder than winning the leadership.
So what just happened? The situations in Stoke and Copeland were quite different, and that reflects two problems we have, both national and local. In Copeland, we managed to get a sympathetic NEC selection panel, which chose an all women shortlist, which had the Momentum / Leadership candidate on it (I wasn’t convinced of the process that led to her becoming the chosen candidate, but that’s by-the-by). So the membership had a choice, at least.
The problem then was that the left activists, gathered around Momentum but only loosely, couldn’t get enough people to the meeting to select her. That is to do with lack of organisation. There were enough new members in the CLP, in all likelihood, but a Momentum group was only set up a few weeks before the selection: not enough time. People tried hard, but there were no real left networks to pull on. That’s an issue 20 months in, even in somewhere like Copeland.
In Stoke, the situation was almost reversed. There was a strong left network there: the most active leftwingers were based around Red Labour rather than Momentum, but definitely people have been working together well for some time, building the party left locally. Maybe realising this, the right / centre on the NEC seem to have mobilised to block a left-winger being shortlisted.
For different reasons, at least one, if not two, of the outstanding local leftwing candidates didn’t even make the longlist. In my view, that was undoubtedly deliberate. It’s quite likely that members in Stoke would have voted for a socialist, Corbyn-supporting candidate, so the longlisting stage was the point at which to take them out. In the end, the shortlist had nothing resembling that on it, and people chose Gareth Snell, even though he comes from a Labour First background, as the person most likely to take on UKIP successfully. Which he did, to be fair.
But when we analyse the failures of these by-elections, we need to understand where it went wrong, what our weaknesses are and start from there. First and foremost, it has to do with a failure to combat the influence of the right in the party structures, nationally and regionally: how can we breathe when they have such a tight hold of the machine, and what are the processes for challenging that?
Second, how can we mobilise our members when the left’s organisational structures are in disarray, unfocused and geographically limited? Many new members don’t know the basics of how the party works, what the levers are. That is not their fault, and we need to stop blaming them. Instead, we need to educate and demonstrate that to them, and caucus everywhere. That’s what the right have been doing for years, very successfully through Progress and Labour First. We can’t simply copy their methods, because they are designed for cliques, not mass movements, but we can match them in terms of organisation, based on open, inclusive, grassroots mobilisation.