The way we do our politics

corbyn crowd

The way we do our politics is as important as that politics itself. Within the Labour Party, there are people who simply don’t get this. It’s not just a left-right divide: On the right, Progress, of course, are past masters at creating political power centred around small, self-serving cliques, but unfortunately there is self-defeating, top down strain within the Corbyn project too, which had absolutely nothing to do with the flowering of activism, creativity and organisation-building that happened during the summer of 2015.

It is a politics that trusts no one, which seeks to concentrate political power and control in fewer and fewer (mostly male) hands. It’s a methodology which has been employed in our unions too, and is totally counter to a real, genuine grassroots organising approach. Mainly, it’s borne out of fear: fear that if we spread power, it will result in chaos, uncontrollable outcomes. Real organising, real movement building is always risky, because it opens up debate – and at times conflict – but control freakery and undemocratic, apolitical careerism is always, always more damaging in the long term, because it will inevitably kill the movement. If you give people no stake in their structures, no means of challenging power, no voice, eventually they will walk away.

Other people will react and have reacted to this power grab: they will kick against it, at times in ways that do them no service. On occasions, it will be they who are behaving in an uncomradely way. They will defend themselves against the people taking away their voice, and in so doing show anger and intolerance of their own. To the untrained eye, it might seem like they are the villains of the piece. But there is no moral equivalence between reacting to an injustice, to being excluded – and the act itself.

If we want to stop this opportunity from slipping through our hands, we’re going to have to understand the big advantage we have. It’s not Jeremy Corbyn in Portcullis House, leading the party. It’s not policy advisors, left MPs, union general secretaries, political fixers, their mates or commentators. It’s the 400,000 plus supporters of this project, only a handful of which have truly been allowed to have a real stake in it. That’s what we need to fix.

Standard

Five things taught to me by Tony Benn

Benn 2

It’s been three years since Tony Benn left us. For many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, his departure still leaves a huge hole, despite everything that has happened since his death in March 2014. I think about Tony a lot, imagining what his reactions would be – to Brexit; to Trump’s election; to the shifts on the British left, and the schisms that have opened up.

Benn’s formal political career stretched from 1950 to 2001, but he continued as a huge presence after that decision to ‘leave Parliament to spend more time on politics’, especially in the Anti-War movement. In that huge span of 50 plus years, he transformed from the ‘bright young thing of the party’ (with few socialist credentials) to the ‘kindly, harmless, grandfather’ figure that used to annoy him so much. In between, his politics and his career made somersaults and contradictory turns: there were certain themes that stayed with him throughout (like democracy, internationalism and peace) but there isn’t one, consistent, static Tony Benn, no matter how much the media and the right of our Party would like to fuel the myth.

On top of that, nearly all politicians have contested histories and politics – more so those whose careers span decades rather than years. Even Keir Hardie was appropriated as a Blairite hero, at one very bizarre point of our recent history. Bevan’s quote about the language of priorities being the religion of socialism is paraded around to justify all manner of political compromise. Once they are gone, their words and taken out of context so easily, that it’s hard to retrace the steps to find the real person and the real politics. Partly because of the great volumes of diaries he produced, I suspect this will happen less to Tony Benn himself, than with the political legacy he left: Bennism. Because the concept has become so elastic that it accounts for any practice; from the fight for democracy in the Labour Party, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ factionalising, from socialist internationalism to ‘pulling up the drawbridge’; from ‘a kinder, gentler politics’ to the ice pick. But for me, Bennism does have a core, and it has very little to do with politics itself, but instead the way we do politics. That’s what I learned from Tony.

That is not to say that Tony Benn’s politics in his heyday weren’t important, soundly socialist and expertly communicated. They were – but they weren’t especially different from much of the left around at the time, for instance Jeremy Corbyn or Audrey Wise. They were sound, but not spectacular. Unlike the Ken Livingstone of the 80s, who sought to create a new route out of the crisis faced by the left under Thatcherism, Benn instead tried to take us back, to the roots of the movement for our hope and our inspiration. So, perhaps not fundamentally a revolutionary political thinker. But there are important things other than policies, economic models and strategies – and they are about the process of politics: how we conduct ourselves, build our movements and interact with each other. Some no doubt consider this to be fluffy, new left nonsense, but if you listen carefully to Benn, its integral to his philosophy.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what Bennism is about, at it’s core. Not the alternative economic strategy, not the Euroscepticism, not even the workers’ control, important though all of those aspects were. No, to me, Tony taught us how to do our politics, which is the most valuable and inspirational legacy of all. For me there were five key aspects:

  1. Benn was a huge advocate of democracy, both within the Labour Party and wider society. He saw democracy as the real danger to entrenched, capitalist power, but importantly, he also advocated being a democrat in the way you practice your politics. Debate – and comradely disagreement – wasn’t a danger that needed to be silenced, it was to be encouraged and nurtured as the source of ideas which often sprang from the ‘boat-rockers’ rather than those with ostensible ‘power’.
  2. Alongside that belief in democracy, came a trust in people; a faith that people will come to the right conclusions of their own accord. The narrative of the “sheeple’ which has become so lazily commonplace in the age of social media would have been an anathema to Tony. People, no matter what their experience and what their background, should be treated with respect, not condescension.
  3. His practice also showed that he understood human psychology deeply. Tony Benn was possible the greatest story teller the party has ever known, not because of any rhetorical flourish, but mostly because he could tell the essence of a political situation in the simplest stories about human experience. I think the greatest example of this is his speech, on the occasion of Thatcher’s resignation, about the “socialist train”. What he was teaching us, before Bernie Sanders, was that to tell stories, to connect with people emotionally, is as important if not more, than the hard politics of policy.
  4. Tony Benn also taught us the vital importance of history – in particular, it is there that we find stories that inspire us and give us strength. His constant return to the Levellers, to Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists wasn’t a coincidence: it was because they offered us simple, understandable emblems of solidarity. We have an enormous and catastrophic ability to overcomplicate what are very simple ideas on the left. Tony understood the currency and power of the simple narrative of “people power”, overcoming ‘David and Goliath’ odds and turning the world upside down.
  5. Finally, Tony Benn refused to be drawn into any sectarian battles. This isn’t to be confused with the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics we’ve heard so much of recently. Tony wasn’t above the odd faction fight, and he wasn’t naïve about the problems of the left. No doubt, like many of us, he became frustrated at the antics of smaller, factional groups – who often attacked him as vociferously as the likes of Kinnock and Blair. But he never allowed that battle to become a feature, he would always defend the right of people to organise freely and would defend them against witch hunts and purges. He didn’t do that out of a sense of charity, or goodwill, but because he recognised the existential damage that would be caused by going down this road.

For all these reasons, and many more, I miss Tony Benn hugely. To have a fully fit, sharp Tony Benn surveying the present political scene would be pretty bloody instructive. In my view, we have no one with that clear insight, that understanding of how the big picture works, how we relate to each other as socialist and activists – and that is desperately needed. But there’s little point in speculating about that for very long: he’s not here, that’s gone. But what we do have is a legacy, and a series of principles, left in YouTube clips of speeches, in his books, ‘Arguments for Socialism’ and ‘Arguments for Democracy’, and most of all, in the pages of his phenomenal diaries. If people could, on occasion, take a step back from the immediate chaos, intrigue and dirt of the political moment, and consider the legacy of Tony, of what Bennism at its best might look like, I reckon we’d be in a better place – and we might not miss him quite as much.

Standard

Say what you mean and never wrestle with chimney sweep

I love this saying that Tony Benn used to dig out regularly:

Say what you mean

‘My dad said to me, say what you mean, mean what you say, do it if you have a chance and don’t attack people personally. I’ve found that a brilliant guide.’

It’s not just about saying whatever spills out of your brain, nor is it about being ‘nice as pie’ all the time. No, it’s about having the confidence to challenge people on their ideas, in the realm of politics, honestly, rather than passively aggressively attacking people in the shadows, behind their back. Come out, have a pride in your thoughts and ideas, state them clearly, be ready to be challenged – and admit when you’re wrong.

Mind you, Tony Benn’s dad also used to say:

Chimneysweep

“Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.”

What he meant was: if somebody plays dirty with you, don’t play dirty with them or you’ll get dirty too.

There’s a massive temptation to go to war against people who drag everything down to the personal and manoeuvre against you like some sort of modern Machiavelli. I’m always amazed at how people have the time for this, when there’s so much urgent campaigning and organising to do. Do they stay up 24 hours a day? Perhaps. Maybe they have problems sleeping at night…

Standard

We are the union? 



It always worries me when I hear people talk about “the union” as if it was a separate entity from themselves as a union member. Sometimes this goes as far as an impression of the union as a brand almost, as if it was a company – or a service provider. I understand this feeling, because this is how
union hierarchies make us feel at the worst of times, but it’s entirely self-defeating in my view. Instead of empowering members to take control, it reinforces a dysfunctional relationship based on the servicing model of trade unionism. 

 
The servicing model is the idea that people only join a union for protection, be that legal or representative. The union provides services and “helps out” when paying members get into trouble. People only really have a relationship with “the union” (represented by full time staff, regional officials and local reps) when they have a problem. The real problem, however, is that it builds in a subservient relationship of members to officials: regionally, nationally and locally, the paid staff decide on campaigning priorities. And if they decide it’s too much of a problem, we don’t have any campaigning. 

 
Of course, every union member is going to want this individual support as part of their membership. But there is an alternative model, known as the “organising model”, which turns the subservient position of members under servicing on its head. In this model, workers and members declare “we are the union”. They take control, of branches, of campaigning, and crucially of organising branches, recruiting new members and getting the union out in the community. Thankfully, these ideas are getting stronger, month by month, and many unions – but not all – are twigging on that this is a much better relationship to have with your members. 

 
But if you are in a union, or a union region, which is still flogging the “servicing model”, nothing will change unless you take control over that relationship. That means getting involved, standing for positions and taking responsibility for your own union. Absenting yourself only benefits those who want to keep the status quo. The negativity of the top down view of unions is far more damaging for us than it is for them. It wasn’t so long ago that the vast majority of Labour Party socialists had that view of the party: as a brand, a faceless bureaucracy they could not change. It’s not true, and things can change – but they don’t change themselves.

Standard