The way we do our politics

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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.

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Five things taught to me by Tony Benn

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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.

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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:

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“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…

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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.

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Don’t panic: organise.

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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.

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Happy Families? Sorry – but let’s talk about New Labour

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‘Why do you denigrate New Labour?’; ‘Isn’t that divisive?’; ‘Why aren’t you honest enough to celebrate Blair’s successes and achievements?’; ‘What happened to the new politics?’. These are all questions that will have become familiar to those of us on the left of the Labour Party over the last 18 months. Strangely enough, they weren’t asked so much when we were out of power, when we were having our sideshow conferences in the margins of the party, but that is because back then, we could be ignored. Now we are seen to be running the party (not really accurate, but I’ll come to that lately), so the question is asked in an ever more accusatory manner. But it’s a fair set of questions which deserve a serious answer, so I’m going to try to do just that, as succinctly as I can. 

The first thing to say is that I’m not keen on the broad brush condemnation of Blairites and everything they stood for. I’m very suspicious of the outpouring of ‘Red Tory’ vitriol and not particularly interested in the personalisation of hatred towards Blair himself. One of the most important aspects of a good political strategy (which the left of the party has conspicuously lacked for far too long) is to know what you’re up against. New Labour wasn’t Tory in its political philosophy. Yes, it borrowed from Thatcherite ideas, but what was going on was a much more complex synthesis of right-wing social democracy and anti-statist liberalism. The success of the New Labour project was that they were able to combine those elements into a coherent political narrative, and sell it to the British public.

So, what about the concrete outcome of all this? Well, we’ve all seen these long lists of New Labour’s achievements that have been shared on social media, the general thrust of which is captured in this ‘Wordle’ below:

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Here’s an actual list. Discarding the more dubious ones (Democratic Socialism? Erm, really?), there are some real achievements amongst them. Even taking into account very different economic times, there’s no doubt that in comparison to the preceding Tory governments, there were real gains for working people and their families in many of the things that New Labour did. So why aren’t we celebrating them?

There are two answers to this, in my view. The first is that, for socialists, it’s more complex than that. Broadly speaking, New Labour’s record can be split into three categories. Firstly, Good Things. Secondly, Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better. And thirdly, Very, Very Bad Things. So we need to break that down, I’m afraid – because it matters. The second answer is that there were other factors, long term ones, which cast a shadow over any achievements and might be seen as the de facto legacy of Blair and New Labour. Most people will assume I’m talking about Iraq there. I am, but I’d argue that there are other legacies that really matter to us as democratic socialists.

So the first category – the Good – can mostly be populated with decent, old fashioned social democratic measures, based around investment in schools, child care, health services and the broader public sector. Sure Start is an obvious example. The only thing to argue about here would be the levels of investment, but overall these are good things. Of course, investment in public services is always easier when the economy is growing and financial markets are stable. There is no doubt that the early Blair government was aware of the importance of the public sector and invested in jobs. Another area where New Labour can be proud of its achievements is in equality legislation. Scrapping section 28, introducing civil partnerships and bringing in a raft of anti-discrimination legislation is not to be shoved under the carpet – these are hugely important, attitude-shifting changes.

The second category, the Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better, kind of overwhelms the first category, however – specially in the second and third Labour governments. I can’t cover the full range of initiatives and policies where successive New Labour governments stopped short of anything radically transformative, but it’s clear that this became the modus operandi. This was partly ideological: there were places Blair didn’t want to go – such as challenging ‘right to buy’ legislation, but it was also to do with New Labour’s obsession with Middle England opinion, focus groups and media approval, which allowed tax credits, but not genuine advances on increasing taxation on high incomes and extortionate wealth. Equally, while the minimum wage is rightly trumpeted, in fact the idea had been kicking around the trade unions for many years, and it took an enormous effort to persuade New Labour ministers that this wasn’t an “anti-business” measure. When it was introduced, the level was set low, which trapped many in poverty – and enforcement was hardly resourced at all. Another example: while New Labour politicians talked a lot about the pressures of migration on communities and in workplaces, they dragged their heels for years before introducing the Agency Workers Directive. This delay affected many migrants very directly, and set worker against worker, when the focus should have been on organising migrants towards a levelling up of pay and conditions. These are just a handful of examples, but it shows why New Labour’s record can’t simply be ‘celebrated’. Especially on issues that would have challenged power and wealth, Blair, Brown and New Labour were almost bound to buckle. The financial sector was left unregulated, the richest were left to keep on accumulating and hard decisions on industrial investment were kicked into the long grass. Ultimately, that meant that inequality wasn’t tackled effectively and the establishment, class structures and entrenched political power was left untouched.

Then to the third category, the Very, Very Bad Things: firstly, the obvious one – the Iraq War. As is well known, Blair took us into an illegal war on the basis of false intelligence and a promise to the US President. It was compounded by multiple cover-ups. Hundreds of thousands died because of that decision, many innocent civilians. A curtailing of civil rights at home and abroad soon followed, with the extension of detention without trial and rendition. But there were domestic disasters too: the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which will saddle our public institutions with billions of pounds worth of debt for decades to come; the promotion of an internal market in the NHS,  which was almost inevitably going to lead us down the road of full privatisation; this was not made any better by the almost constant restructuring of the NHS, leading to few gains but an overly complex management structure; similarly, the introduction of Academies may have produced a few gleaming schools, but ultimately paved the way for private companies to see them as cash cows – the seeds of privatisation and outsourcing had been sown. Overall, the mantra of public sector outsourcing has had massive consequences for our society, none of which would have been possible without New Labour’s dogma; then there was the refusal to tackle the anti-trade union laws, which left many workers without basic rights and opened up the labour market to appalling union busting and anti-worker practices – as well as dividing our own movement; the failure to regulate the banks and the financial services industries; the farce of the 10p tax rate policy and its withdrawal; the almost complete absence of a industrial strategy, leading to a rise in McJobs and the complete dominance of the service sector, leading to low paid, insecure jobs, especially in the de-industrialised Labour heartlands. There were also other policies which left a timebomb ticking for the party: the lack of real investment in social / council housing; the failure to tackle class divisions in education, and a bottling of real, strong, targeted environmental policies to tackle climate change are all legacies which have contributed to the particular crisis we now find ourselves in.

But there’s something else: something which also talks to the crisis we are facing, but the peculiar one in the Labour Party. To enable this to succeed, to implement these policies (good, good-so-far and very bad), Blair had to remake the Labour Party, and appeal above the heads of the party members. Neil Kinnock laid the ground work, with a shutting down of democracy far beyond the expulsion of Militant (which acted as a kind of smokescreen), but New Labour under Blair had to become a much narrower, less democratic and centralised operation if it was to succeed with its ‘revolution from above’. It couldn’t afford, and would brook no opposition, and steadily, from Blair’s election as leader onwards, dismantled the democratic structures of the party, distanced itself from the influence of the trade unions, evacuated local constituency parties, stripped conference of all powers, centralised control in the leaders office and amongst regional, handpicked bureaucracies. The small New Labour team then went on to reshape the whole party machine in their own image, securing every detail, every smallest power base for their project. Then they went to work on the selection of MPs, which became a lot easier once they had secured the party machine. This was heavily resourced through rich benefactors such as Lord Sainsbury and supported by a sympathetic liberal media, in thrall to a compliant, safe, top down party – the Labour Party of their dreams.

When people become exasperated at the conflicts which dog the the Labour Party now, these are its roots: they are deep ones, and none of us should be surprised that in 18 months, we’ve not been able to dig them up and start again. There is a deeply undemocratic, entitled culture at some many levels of the party, but most visible in the way that the party machinery (nationally and locally) and the Parliamentary Party operates: those two spaces are the power base for the New Labour project. They are not giving up their ball willingly. What we do about that, how we start to democratise the party again, how we organise and how we challenge that power, will define this leadership and our project. This isn’t Happy Families and burying our heads in the sand won’t do.

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Copeland: New Labour Caused A Crisis

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Just a few weeks ago, there was a real expectation that Labour would lose both Stoke and Copeland. It’s taken a lot of hard work by those on the ground, but in one of those by-elections, we’ve walked away with a decisive victory. People will say that Nuttall was a gift, and in many ways he was – but that open goal may not have been scored by a smaller, less grassroots oriented Labour Party (both online and offline). It seems that we are capable of seeing off UKIP, if we work collectively.

Copeland is an altogether different constituency with very specific issues. Nuclear jobs are a factor, but so is a political culture which has become insular, not recently but over many years. So, discussions about alternatives have been discouraged to the point where they are taboo. That culture has been fostered by the New Labour hierarchy and the previous MP, Jamie Reed. Perhaps more understandably, it’s been promoted by the major trade unions, who see their sole role as protecting jobs. To shift any of that debate in a few weeks was going to be an almost impossible task, but again, Labour members on the ground did at least manage to get people talking about the NHS, transport and the Tories’ decimation of our public services. I doubt if many cast their votes for the Tory Party with much enthusiasm.

So now, our opponents will focus on Copeland and try to nail Jeremy Corbyn for it. The media aren’t interested in context. Not when they scent blood. The right of the party aren’t interested in understanding the longer term causes of our decline, because for them, this has become a tabloid-like game to bury Jeremy Corbyn, and with him the project of the left in the party.

So, we’ll have to remind them where this started. Not with Corbyn, but with a New Labour project that was uninterested in working class communities outside of a south-east corner: look at Scotland, look at decreasing majorities across the north; look at the South West even. The fragility of Labour’s base began years ago, when a party lost touch with its own grassroots and the trade unions. New Labour caused a crisis, which we were never going to recover from quickly, because we’ve had a decade of abandoning our people, our heartlands and people don’t forget easily.

On top of that, there has been a targeted and systematic campaign by those Blairite MPs who still hold huge sway in Parliament, and whose only purpose has been to create chaos for the leadership. That has undoubtedly dented our support, because people see a divided party and a leadership unable to control and pacify the PLP. Not everyone understands the machinations or the underlying causes of the chaos, so often they will blame Corbyn. But the reality is, a large chunk of the blame lies with those who still won’t accept that the party has changed.

None of this is to say that we can’t improve, as a project: in terms of communication, organisation and leadership we’re on a massive learning curve. It’s frustrating that we’re not learning quick enough, because that is leaving us vulnerable. We need to be bolder, less frightened and more open to the enormous grassroots that brought us here. That’s difficult when everyone around you is telling you that it’s failing, declining, in crisis. But they – the majority of the media, the right of the party and the political establishment – were always going to say that.

Previously published on the LRC website: http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/copeland-New-Labour-Caused-Crisis/

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