Losing North West Durham: one year on.

In general, I find writing cathartic. Having said that, it’s taken me a year to write this, partly because of the emotions involved. Many people have written detailed analyses of Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat and the campaign and they are enormously useful, but I wanted to do something different: to try to explore the political and emotional impact of that loss and how we might recover.

This time a year ago, members of the Labour Party were waking up to defeat. By the time polling day came, many had seen the writing on the wall: for weeks, the polls had predicted a sizeable Tory majority, but even as polls closed, there were signs that the gap might be closing. For those who invested so much of their time and energy into the socialist project within the Labour Party, the exit polls confirmed our worst fears and it came like a hammer blow. As the night turned into morning, the nightmare intensified.

The realisation of that defeat and what it meant was a strange thing. Much like grief, it came in waves. The first stage was numbness, which I realised later was a kind of denial. I remember driving home from the Louisa Centre, in Stanley, where the count for Laura Pidcock’s North West Durham seat had taken place. Counts are a special kind of torture, especially when you know that you have lost: the endless checking, speculation and estimation, and finally, the sinking feeling when you realise that it has slipped away.

Through the heavy mist that enveloped Stanley and Consett, I wound my way home. Even though the journey back to Durham City was one that I’d done hundreds of times, I felt lost. It seemed to take an age, desperate as I was to get home to a comforting hug from my wife and kids. When I got in, it was past 5 o’ clock in the morning. Everyone was asleep. I sat down and tried to take it in, but just felt numb.

I had been working for Laura since July 2017, starting not long after an election campaign that had a very different feel, when I’d been working for Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition. I’d known Laura for a long time and working with her so closely for two and half years had confirmed to me that she not only has incredible political instincts, but was also a genuinely good person, so the realisation that the working relationship had come to an end was also a massive thing to absorb.

A few hours earlier, in the enormous gym hall of the Louisa Centre, much of it had been about staying in control. In truth, even when the exit poll came in, my feeling was that we’d have done enough in North West Durham to buck the national trend. As a team, and as a wider group of activists in the CLP, huge efforts had been put into campaigning, both during the election period and in the years leading up to it.

After scanning the piles of neatly bundled votes already counted, I stepped outside into the cold and spoke to Laura on the phone and relayed the news that it was looking very tight. She was remarkably calm, as if this was the news that she had been expecting. She said that she’d come through to Stanley as soon as she could. Whilst the rest of the team watched the remaining votes spill out across tables and became increasingly fidgety – and understandably upset – Laura remained composed throughout.

It’s strange working for an MP, because there is one thing that you can never share with them, especially one that is as high profile as Laura Pidcock – and that is what it is like to be watched constantly, to be in the glare of the spotlight. Staff members might get a glimpse occasionally, when someone has a pop on Twitter – normally over something that you cannot, under the terms of your contract, answer. But really, that is small beer to what someone like Laura has had to put up with over the last four years, and so, those MPs who are under intense scrutiny almost have to train themselves to not show emotion, in public or online. Remember, in her short time as MP, Laura lost her dad, who was not only her rock and mentor, but also – as she said in her brilliant Miners’ Gala speech – her best friend. And, while being subject to almost constant bile from the right-wing tabloids, she also had a baby. These are no small things for anyone to cope with, but being in the public eye, it is an enormous pressure.

Clearly, for Laura as well as all of us packed into that gym hall – the office staff, the activists, the Labour members – and those watching at home on TV – losing North West Durham was a devastating defeat. Politically, because of the representative role that would now be in the hands of a free-marketeer, former Conservative Party Deputy Head of Press in a land decimated by Thatcherite policies. On a personal level, considering the commitment that Laura put into that role (right from the starting pistol of her Maiden Speech, which so signalled her intent), she must have felt that very intensely. Nobody expects hearts to bleed for MPs, Laura as much as anyone else, but having witnessed at first-hand what she went through between 2017 and 2019, the sense of personal loss and emptiness has to have been considerable.

People often think that people involved in politics – whether MPs or their staff – are machines. I can understand that and a lot of it is the responsibility of politicians themselves, at least those who trot out pre-prepared lines, or cloak themselves in the language of managerialism. But what that has engendered is a real lack of empathy from much of the public and genuine hostility to anyone who might show emotion, anger at injustice or – God forbid – make the occasional mistake. We say we don’t want robots, but when our representatives stray from the script, we nail them.  

Clearly, we all make mistakes in the course of our lives, and it is no different for people in politics. I’ve noticed a tendency amongst people, especially on social media, to treat politicians as if they are there simply to defend their records, as if it were impossible for them to learn, to reflect on their own mistakes and analyse defeats. People are still hammering Laura for losing a “safe” Labour seat, with no concept of how complex that question is – it is certainly not something that can be answered in 140 characters.

For the Labour Party to bounce back in the North, just as for Laura Pidcock or any of the brilliant candidates who lost their seats or didn’t quite make it, the key is to make an honest assessment of where things went wrong and to rebuild ourselves on the basis of those lessons. We need to dig down into the way we run our elections, at national, regional and local level, but also what we do out of election time, as a party, in our communities.

We have to understand what it means to be a campaigning organisation, why our roots may be shallow in the very local communities we need to win. It is not just a case of re-branding our local operation as “community organising”, it means re-evaluating how we do the basics: how we get to talk to people, how we engage with those who are already fighting for their communities and how we mobilise those who aren’t.

The lessons to learn from North West Durham are manifold. I can just touch on a few things here, but in all the constituencies we lost, we must have an honest, root-and-branch evaluation of why. Of course, Brexit was a major factor – both in the sense that we were on the wrong side of the argument for many working-class communities, but also because of the lack of clarity for many others. In North West Durham, I’m convinced that many people who could have been encouraged to vote Labour based on the other policies in our manifesto, turned away from us based on what they were reading in the papers – that Labour were, at heart, a Remain party that would overturn the referendum result.

At various public meetings held during the election campaign and in the months preceding it, people would have a go at Laura for that position. Once they had listened to her explain a much more nuanced position on Brexit, their stance softened considerably. Despite the mix of politics represented in those meeting, many used Bennite arguments about the lack of accountability of the EU and were surprised to hear a Labour MP agree with them on that. But you can’t, in an election period, convince people one at a time, in the face of a media which is painting a different picture (with the help of some within the party).

In this scenario, the Tory candidate – who had virtually no profile, either online or offline – was able to sit back, rely on the national media and newspapers do his work for him, and let the damage be done to his Labour opponent. I heard a rumour that Richard Holden spent quite a bit of polling day in his car, sat in a layby outside Wolsingham, basically keeping out of the way. I don’t know if that is true, but it would make sense, because the campaigning he had to do was minimal. Our battle was to cut through the media messages and talk about the issues that mattered to Laura’s constituents, not with a fairly anonymous Tory candidate.

In addition, there are incredible pressures on someone who is promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, like Laura was. This has an effect on what someone can say as an MP, especially on the controversial issues that tend to dominate an election. Again, I don’t say this to elicit sympathy, but these constraints are tough for the MP and their team. If you are an MP, there’s always an element of collective responsibility. You are, after all, selected by members of that party and act as a member of that party in Parliament, even as a backbencher. As a Shadow Cabinet member, that pressure increases hugely – and not just in the lines that you have to accept, but in the events you are expected to attend, taking you out of your constituency, and the endless round of media appearances.

Of course, there is an argument that socialists like Laura should forego Shadow Cabinet positions and focus on their constituency. Being a backbencher gives you a good deal more autonomy. But that discounts the fact that Laura and those MPs who did those frontbench jobs were committed to the socialist project represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. It gave her and us as a team the chance to work with outstanding people like John Hendy and Keith Ewing to develop transformational workers’ rights policies that would have real impact in the community Laura was representing.

I think it’s a balancing act and it could well be that we got the balance wrong: certainly, there was an impression of Laura being a ‘high flyer’ and out of the constituency, pursuing her career – a false impression, as it happens, because she spent more time in her constituency and did more surgeries than most MPs. I have to say, too, that the talk of Laura as a ‘future leader’ of the party was possibly damaging locally. Two years in, people expected the focus to be on the constituency. It was (we had a rule in the office that anything we did had to be of benefit to the constituents, the movement or both). I was witness to Laura inviting some of her strongest local critics, those loudest voices on social media, into our constituency office, listening to them and trying to win them over – and often succeeding. Laura has never been a self-publicist, quite the opposite. She has strong views but is very grounded – anyone who knows her well will tell you that. Again, though, we were battling against a media perception, fuelled by social media outrage.  

With all of these things stacked against us, how could we have responded? I’ve never advocated a defeatist attitude to politics; I simply don’t believe that Brexit made it a done deal. Nor do I think that it is impossible to get your messages to people directly, manoeuvring around the media narrative. I do think, however, that it takes an enormous amount of planned, disciplined and hard work. Some of that work can be done by a good social media presence, but increasingly, I’m realising that we can’t rely on that: we have to go deep into communities and do the hard yards.

A lot of people will say that we did that. And of course, the amount of work that local activists have done over the last five years is exceptional, both during election time and the weekly campaigns that are run by volunteers who just want to change things in their communities. However (and this has been recognised by local activists in Broxtowe, for instance) there is a real issue with the way that we do this campaigning. My view – and I accept that this is part of a huge debate, so it is not fixed – is that it is time to reconsider some of the fundamentals: the door knocking; the reliance on leaflet drops; the standalone petitions on the high street and the way we do street stalls altogether.

One of my impressions of the campaign in North West Durham was that it was hard to get to talk to people, especially those who had seemingly made up their mind due to Brexit. Getting through to those exact people was key to winning or losing that seat. The Tories, as I’ve already noted, didn’t need to speak to them: the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ had already done its work. But we needed to talk to them, and it needed to be meaningful – not a snatched word on the high street, not ‘will you be voting for us?’ on a doorstep, but a genuine conversation, starting with asking and listening. Richard Holden, the Conservative candidate won by just over 1,100 votes. Winning some of those voters in this kind of political environment, plus encouraging other to get out to vote, wouldn’t have been easy, but neither was it impossible. But it would have required more, in depth conversations.

Where could those conversations be had? It’s hard, maybe even unlikely, to be able to do this in the confines of a short General Election campaign. Firstly, people will assume that the conversations on the doorstep are not genuine, because the canvassers are “just trying to win votes”. There’s some truth to this. Secondly, by knocking on people’s doors, or stopping them while they are doing their shopping, we are immediately intruding on their private space. Immediately, the relationship is skewed. They want to get away, you want to engage them in conversation. Unless you are the best communicator in the world (and some Labour Party members are brilliant at this, no doubt), you are going to struggle to get anything meaningful out of that situation. We need to rethink this.

The answer lies in community organising: not a superficial, branded version of it, but a real, long-term commitment to working together with communities in all their diversity, to build relationships based on trust and respect. It should also foreground winning victories – small at first, but with the aim of increasing people’s confidence. Because, at the moment, many people don’t feel like they can win – and if we’re serious about community organising, we have to understand why and how we can change that, not by imposing ourselves on communities or individuals, but by being part of their struggles.

The community meetings Laura called around the North West Durham constituency were important, and we didn’t have the time to do enough of that. These public meetings didn’t have an agenda or a theme. The idea was that people could raise whatever they wanted, and Laura would answer. They were tough sessions, and tense at times because clearly people were angry. But also, they were some of the most genuine conversations that we had (outside of the surgery meetings), where Laura could listen and respond and there could be dialogue. It didn’t take too much for some common ground to be found. Of course, there are other ways to do this: we could try to revive Labour clubs, like they have in Wakefield; or we can get involved in small, community campaigns and initiatives which opens the door to talk to people in a less adversarial space.

Either way, I think it’s important to discuss this seriously, because it’s not just about the way we run our election campaigns better, it’s the way we rebuild the party and the left within it. We can’t do that until we make genuine inroads into working class communities. Ask yourself where the gaps are? Often, or at least in many constituencies, it is the working-class areas. That coincides with those people being attracted to some easy solutions offered in the form of slogans on behalf of the Brexit Party and the Tories. When it comes down to it, that’s not about people being inherently xenophobic or racist (though that does clearly exist) but being alienated by a political class that has not listened to them for a long time.

We have to reverse that alienation, and that means being brave. It also means questioning what we’ve always done. We cannot rely on raising our banners, writing our manifestos, delivering our leaflets and having our meetings and hoping for the best. Fundamentally, this is about getting stuck in – into the messy world of conflictual, but real, politics. Until we do that, with honesty and self-reflection, I think we will struggle to win back Red Wall seats like North West Durham in any meaningful way. Because it’s not just about winning elections, it’s about winning hearts and minds in the communities that have the most to gain from the redistributive, socialist policies that we all advocate for.

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Tony Benn encouraged me

Labour Grassroots event on Zoom, 9th December 2020. Time was short, and so many people wanted to talk about Tony, which meant that it wasn’t possible to give my full contribution, but here are my notes for the event:

I can remember reading Tony’s ‘Arguments for Socialism’ when I was very young, probably about 16 or 17, and going on marches and rallies where he was speaking, and of course, at the big Chesterfield conferences, but the first time I met Tony Benn was when he came to speak at Leeds University Labour Club around 1991-92. I was chair of the club, so I got to take him for a cup of tea in the refectory at the end. I was sitting there, very spaced out because I was sitting having a cuppa with the great Tony Benn and I can remember, all he wanted to talk about was Dennis Skinner and how fantastic he was. Then he suddenly remembered he had a train to catch in a hurry, so I ended up giving him a lift down to Leeds train station in my little old Panda. The only thing was, I hadn’t even passed my test. Tony said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll be your instructor’. I somehow managed to get him onto his train on time, God knows how.

The second time I met him properly was probably about 20 years later, when I’d just opened the People’s Bookshop in Durham. He was coming to the Gala Theatre in Durham to do a talk and I’d invited to come to the bookshop, but realised he wouldn’t have made it up the stairs. But he sent a message via his editor, Ruth Winstone, to say that he’d like to meet me before the event. When I got there, my heart sank as I could see he was surrounded by local dignitaries, one with a chain on and so on. But whether he guessed it was me or Ruth nudged him, he immediately stopped the conversation, and said: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got to speak to this young man, who owns a radical bookshop. By the way, do you know Ben’s bookshop?’ And then he found a spot where we had a lovely 15 minute chat. He was so kind, and thoughtful, like that – and I think a lot of us have those sorts of memories.

I just want to say one thing about Tony’s socialism, though. I think it’s really important and valuable to watch his speeches. He always claimed he didn’t read much – I’m not sure about that, but I do think his legacy owes much to the oral tradition. He was at his best when he was telling a story, and he does this in many of his speeches. They really are beautifully crafted.

The one that everyone should watch, at least once a day, or whenever you feel a bit down, is on YouTube under the title The Issue is Thatcher. It was given in 1990, on the day that Thatcher announced her resignation. And especially the section when he’s talking about the socialist train, that’s a perfect example of how to inject hope and talk about socialism in clear, accessible ways – it being deeply ingrained in people in the way they related to each other, rather than the selfish, individualism of Thatcherism. Socialism as a moral philosophy. And it’s brilliantly done.

I was thinking about this the other day when my good friend Laura Pidcock did a series of posts about Socialism – Socialism is Love; Socialism is Security and so on. And quite a few people answered by saying, no it is not: socialism is the social ownership of the means of production. And of course, that is right, but it’s not the whole story. Socialism is more than an economic code, it’s a moral philosophy and a way of life, and more than anyone, Tony was able to articulate that, to tell that story.

Marxist economics has its place, of course, but if you’re trying to convince someone, that shouldn’t be your opening gambit. Tony understood that. And if you ask me, that’s the lasting legacy, it’s that he showed us how to do that. We may not all be able to win hearts and minds with the same charm and humour as Tony, but I think that is a key lesson: that we must tell stories and make socialism absolutely relatable.

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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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‘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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