Political culture of the left: what we have & what we need.

Apart from losing the chance of a transformative Labour government (one actually equipped to deal with the multiple crises we’re facing), one of the tragic consequences of the fracturing of the left project since 2017 has been the degeneration of our political culture. We did a lot of good things during the heady days of Corbynism, around policy, grassroots democracy, debates, conversations. There’s lots to celebrate and be proud of. But I think one thing we haven’t really confronted was the importance of creating and maintaining the space to speak, debate and argue. I think there are good reasons for that, which I will come to.

Argument, debate, and discussion are the lifeblood of the grassroots socialist movement and socialism itself. That constant dialogue is the foundations on which the labour movement has been built. It’s where we learn ourselves and understand how to convince other people. To the centre and right, with their top-down politics, debate is a nuisance, something that gets in the way of the message, and opens them up to challenge. If you understand this, you can properly understand the authoritarian streak in much of Labour right politics.

A party, organisation or a movement without argument and discussion is a stifling place to be. But that is the Labour right’s ‘comfort zone.’ In fact, it is the only political culture that the establishment is comfortable with, including Labour’s self-styled hierarchy, precisely because it preserves their power.

I believe we must always kick against this stifling political culture, as socialists. To flourish, we must be able to breathe, to think, to develop ideas and make mistakes. But I get the feeling that many of us are unwittingly falling into the trap of that closed style of politics. And I think you can trace back to where it began to take hold.

Once the centre and right passed through their grief and denial stages following the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and moved towards acceptance, they pretty soon realised that they were going to have to fight to topple him. Politics weren’t going to return to normal without a fight. 2015 and 2016 saw a spontaneous flowering of ideas and discussion that was a huge threat to the party right and the bureaucratic party machine that supported it.

The Labour right also realised that truth is a very devalued currency in British politics. To the cynical hardcore of the political establishment, this has long been the case. You can instinctively feel this if you spend just a small time in Westminster. But Corbyn’s opponents needed to take this devaluation of truth and evidence further, through the media, and in this they were knocking at an open door. So, gradually, they started their war of attrition against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, with the backing of the majority of the media and political establishment.

In some senses, the more outrageous the lies the better. What was important wasn’t evidence, but the stink that was left behind. So, the Parliamentarian with the most consistent anti-racist record became a racist. And the left, who led the anti-racist movement for decades prior to 2015, somehow became racist too.

What they relied on was that most people hadn’t paid attention to grassroots anti-racist activity before 2015 and so didn’t know the difference. They didn’t know that Jeremy Corbyn was at the forefront of community campaigns confronting prejudice, xenophobia, and racism, while the Labour right were aping the BNP. We didn’t confidently tell that story.

And that points to another weakness that the right and centre were able to exploit: the defensiveness and silence of much of the left. Partly because of an understandable awareness of the sensitivities involved, partly because of an equally understandable denting of confidence under constant attack, there was little fight. As fear grew over disciplinary action, less and less people spoke out and asked questions. But that became an enormous problem. The first problem was that people believed the lies, because we didn’t correct them strongly enough. But more important, in my view, is that it shifted our political culture. And this may have more of a long-term impact than the defeat of the Corbyn project itself.

What the successful attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters showed was how to do anti-politics in the social media age. Whereas the Corbyn campaigns of 2015/16 and the General Election showed how people could be mobilised by a positive political agenda, the counter-attack by the Labour right showed how dishonesty and negativism could be embedded, via social media. And fundamentally, the message was this: don’t worry about facts, just focus on the stink; don’t argue, silence; don’t engage, smear. And it worked.

Our job as socialists, should have been to stand up to this anti-politics. But some of us, perhaps understandably, and maybe subconsciously, absorbed these lessons and methods and started using them too. And for this, there were rewards. It was easier too – arguments and debates, winning people over to your principled position is tough and demanding, especially in a political environment which leans towards a dreary liberalism conformism and further right.

But that had an effect. And now we are faced with a political culture that feels like a prison – that avoids argument and discussion in favour of nailing people. Of course, there are plenty of spaces outside of this and I think that’s where a lot of the left are heading but the fracturing is severe. I think if left people caught in this prison look back and reflect, they will realise that where we picked up these methods was somewhere quite dark and oppressive. And that our political culture should be the opposite: confident, open, discursive, rather than dominated by fear and hatred.

I think part of the problem is the speed at which things happened under Corbyn’s leadership. We didn’t have the time to establish the informal rules about how we related to each other, how we dealt with sharp disagreement and different ideologies.

I know there are good reasons to block people, both personal and political (mental health considerations have to come into those decisions). That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of toxicity in social media and in our politics and no one should feel like abuse / harassment is the price you pay for political involvement. But we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. We don’t have to become like the centre and right. We can learn to respect each other for the views we have and our different versions of socialism etc. Dissent and argument are ok and without it we won’t build, not healthily in any case.

The problem with not confronting this political culture is that, eventually, we will shrink the space we operate in. It might feel good to have a tight-knit group, and that is a tendency on social media where everything is so immediate, but if it’s slowly turning in on itself – what eventually happens is that no one is listening out there. That is a dead end for the left – because we have so much to do, so many hearts and minds to win.

Just as we don’t borrow the policies, politics, and attitudes of the right and centre, so we shouldn’t borrow their methods. Our socialist politics thrive when they’re dynamic, argumentative, and collective – and maybe even a bit messy. That’s the space we’ve occupied historically and it’s where we belong.

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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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‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’

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‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ they say, and mostly it goes without challenge, because none of us socialists want to be accused of the greatest sin of all: not wanting power – the power to change people’s lives and especially those suffering.

This was the same mantra used by Neil Kinnock and co, preparing the ground for the New Labour era. And while it’s an understandable reaction to multiple election defeats and particularly those as devastating as the ones we suffered in both 1983 and 2019, we need to drill down to get to the root of this. Because it’s based on a false idea of what power is.

The idea that you can only change things in government is demonstrated as false every day: for an example, trade unions change things every time they win a dispute; community activists when they stop something that would damage their communities; anti-racists change things when they stop fascists from marching unopposed; educators change lives when they open people’s eyes to their racist assumptions; lawyers win victories and set precedents, welfare rights workers too. I could go on.

If power was only about what happened in government, most of the significant change that has happened in this country over centuries would never have happened. The suffragettes, the Match Girls Strike, the anti-racist mobilisations of the 70s are examples of when extraordinary, lasting change has begun with a handful of activists, but gone on to shift the perceptions of society and power in our workplaces and communities.

Power is about leverage, and all those struggles created leverage, whether that was through direct action, capturing headlines or organising hundreds of thousands to pressurise the establishment and their privilege. But one thing is sure: immense, historic change has happened in this country without a Labour or progressive government being in Westminster. Only the most superficial analysis would deny that.

The Labour Party has, at various moments of it’s history, either been at the heart of those sorts of struggles, or stood apart. The history of the party has been the history of the relationship to those movements and campaigns and that positioning has often depended on which wing of the party, left or right, has been dominant. But, throughout it’s history, ordinary Labour activists have always been involved in extra-parliamentary campaigns and struggles (again, dependant on the forces in party, in small groups or mass movements).

This is where it gets tricky, of course. That relationship, that split between government and a broader concept of ‘power’ is deeply political. When Labour has had legislative power, it has often used it in a ‘top down’ way. Even the reforming 1945, which did such radical things for the country, had a pretty paternalistic bent. Labour’s job was to ‘do things’ for the voting public, who would reciprocate at the ballot box.

So, not only is ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ a false dichotomy based on a superficial understanding of power, it also seems to be code for something else: for a politics that does things to people, for the voting public, rather than alongside them. Whilst this is always going to be a balancing act – and no one can deny the importance of what that 1945 Labour Government achieved (or even, to a lesser degree, the achievements of New Labour), it was based on a different idea of power, one that may not be suited to our situation in 2020, where deference to the state and to politicians is all but gone and where the crisis we’re in demands more community-based solutions.

Being generous, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is a frustrated reaction to the inability of us, all of us, to translate those extra-parliamentary struggles and the values that go with it, into legislation. It’s undoubtedly a tragedy that many of our radical ideas and plans, that would have helped millions very practically, will now stay on the shelf, while the Tories wreck our economy, communities and people’s lives.

There may also be a frustration about our inability to communicate that radicalism into a language and a programme that connects with people, when they are assaulted by the propaganda of the press and media. Communication matters. This is a serious issue, but it is also something that we need to fix before we can get another chance at a socialist government. There isn’t a shortcut to government in ignoring the dominance of the media in shaping people’s politics, hoping that we’ll somehow slip into power unnoticed.

Being cynical however, you could say that ‘You can’t change anything unless you’re in Government’ is code for something else too: a pitch to water down our socialism and to chase public opinion, purely in order to get into ‘power’ – meaning Government. This was certainly Kinnock’s pitch, carried out by Blair. And to a certain extent it was successful: Sure Start, the minimum wage, investment in the NHS and schools, all changed people’s lives. But what it didn’t do is to harness the power of a whole movement to radically transform the country. It didn’t fundamentally win hearts and minds, or reverse much of the Thatcherite consensus, because that’s not what it was set up to do.

Post-2008, with a climate emergency on our doorstep; the far right on the march (both in government and in ‘power’ across the globe); with a crumbling NHS and education service, at threat from privatising vultures; with a welfare state that is broken, we don’t have the luxury of just ‘getting into Government’ on the basis of bending our socialist principles and following the crowd. To do so would be disastrous and it simply wouldn’t work in this political environment. We need to lead.

Leading means not being satisfied with glib phrases about ‘getting into Government’, with little substance. It’s not about rejecting the notion of legislative power, as we are often caricatured as doing on the left, but instead it means understanding how to build real power, away from the centre and the establishment, in communities, alongside our unions, in order to take it back in there. Thats a strategy more appropriate for our times, than harking back to an era which is gone.

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Three years ago, everything changed: 12th September 2015

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This time, three years ago, on September 12th, 2015, I was preparing to walk into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall just down the road from Westminster, for the announcement of the Labour Party’s next leader, after the most extraordinary summer. I had been part of a team which had taken Jeremy Corbyn from 200-1 no-hoper to odds-on favourite in the space of three months. We had worked so hard, with hardly a break, and now it had all come to this. The day itself was surreal. Of course, we knew we had won, but we didn’t know by how much, or what the reaction would be. And it still felt a little unreal, as we watched the likes of Tristram Hunt slope past and into the building, knowing there was nothing they could do to stop the juggernaut.

Labour Party leadership announcements tend to be very structured, formal events. There is normally a clamour to be seated near the front, amongst the great and good, and of course, in front of the cameras. This time was a little different. Those who had passes to get in to the conference hall, the party staff, the MPs and assorted apparatchiks seemed a little less interested than normal, and were milling around in the lobby, gossiping and looking a little subdued. They knew the reality as much as we did. And although they’d spent much of the campaign hoping that we’d break, and ‘normal service’ would resume, by now they had accepted the inevitable. As the doors opened, there was no rush to get in the room, with just a trickle of people heading for the seats.

We took our chance: as regional organisers, campaigners and social media co-ordinators, we marched up to the front and sat in the first two rows without reserved signs on, and just in front of John Prescott, who’d already been seated for some time, and who gave us a smile and joked about being placed in amongst the troublemakers. There we sat, excitedly chattering, in two big rows, as the important people came trundling in. The look on the faces of the MPs was a picture, as they muttered under their breath. A few of them started to object, and there was much pointing and gesticulating, but you could see them weigh up the risks of asking us to leave and making a fuss.

What it meant was that, when the announcement was made, there was an explosion of noise and joy from the third row back: people shouting, jumping up and beaming as the reality of the margin of victory dawned on our organisers and supporters. Beforehand, we’d actually discussed as a group how we should react – and all agreed that we would be calm and collected, applauding politely. Well, that went out of the window as soon as the words “And, therefore, Jeremy Corbyn is duly elected leader of the Labour Party”. And it didn’t stop. We were staring at each other, hugging and cheering. It was a massive release of emotion after the sheer grind of the last three months, now rewarded with a proud socialist at the head of the Labour Party. Everything had changed in that moment.

Meanwhile, the two rows in front sat quietly stunned, as they too took in the scale of the defeat. It was a big symbolic moment, which the press cameras picked up, but what it symbolised was not just about the people in that room, but the whole of the wider movement which had grafted so hard during that summer, making this victory possible: the volunteers at the TSSA offices on Euston Road, the thousands who’d phone-banked up and down the country, the huge numbers who’d organised online, under the organising direction of the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Leader’ campaign, Red Labour and the many hundreds of DIY Corbynite groups who mobilised tens of thousands. It had come down to this moment.

I was just about the only one still seated: I had a job to do. As I tweeted the good news through our Jeremy for Leader campaign account, I thought of all those people who shared equally in this stunning victory – how people had just dropped everything, without any thought about reward or benefit, just because they were deep down good people, who wanted a different sort of politics and a new kind of society. I knew that, all around the country, there were people screaming, hugging and whooping as they took a share in this victory. We had done it. We had changed the Labour Party for ever, and while I sat there, my emotions took hold of me and I struggled to hold it together.

As we look back at that day, it’s important to remember that sense of positivity and togetherness, not because of some sense of nostalgia, but because we’re going to need a lot more of it in the weeks, months and years to come. Changing a party, never mind our society, is never easy. It rarely happens quickly, or smoothly. It is hard, hard work and it feels like there is little reward at times. As Tony Benn famously said:

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”

But when we work together, in solidarity, we are learning all the time. We’re educating ourselves how to work collectively. When the victories come, we know how hard they will have been won, and that it’s due to the whole, not individuals. This has to be biggest lesson of the 12th of September 2015. The biggest reward we can ever ask for is that unity and sense of comradeship that comes from fighting together and winning together. Here’s to the next three years! And then the three after…

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No one gets to call me a racist.

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My first best friend was a Jewish kid with Egyptian heritage. He lived next door to me and, being a year older than me, was my absolute hero. I used to follow him around and although not really understanding it, I was aware of his Jewishness. Later, after we had moved away, we came back to go to his bar mitzvah and I can always remember finding the five pound note (hidden behind the piano music) and being very proud. Not long afterwards, I went on a school trip to Lightwater Valley, and there were some Hasidic Jewish children in the queue. I heard one of our class call them ‘yids’. It instantly sent a shiver down my spine and I was upset and angry when I got home, though again not understanding fully.

Growing up, our house was full of people from all over the world. My mum was a TEFL teacher and we had a constant stream of people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iran and China. It seemed almost every weekend, there would be some party with incredible food from different parts of the globe, and chatter about politics. Many of them were asylum seekers and refugees, and I would strike up conversations with them, and learn about their world. I remember clearly one time when two guys from Southern Africa (I think it may have been Mozambique) found out that I was a Bob Marley fan, and the next week one of them had gone out to buy an LP – ‘Survival’ – for me, incredible for someone who would have had very little money at the time. Even at that age, I knew what that meant, though. It was an act of solidarity and anti-racism. I learnt so much from those early experiences.

As a teenager, and as someone who’d been surrounded by people from so many nationalities, I was immensely affected by images I saw on the news, in films and in the papers from Apartheid South Africa. Even learning about Sharpeville, the Soweto Uprising and the Rivonia trials felt like living history, because I knew it was still happening, I was reading about it and absorbing that anger at racism and injustice into my very soul. I’d become an anti-racist, long before I was ever a socialist.

Around the age of 13/14, I decided that I needed to do something. I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, going to meetings in Northumberland and Durham and joining marches as they wound their way through the North East on the way to London. One weekend, I cajoled my little sister to make a big banner out of a bedsheet. It’s said: ‘Hey, Botha. Don’t mess with my Tutu!’. We took it down, on a coach by ourselves, to a big demonstration in Hyde Park where Desmond Tutu was speaking, and to this day I’m convinced that he acknowledged it as we struggled to raise it between ourselves, in amongst the crowds.

In the following years I read Biko, Malcolm X and even tried some Frantz Fanon. This stuff really interested me and excited me, but it lead me to socialism and Marxism, not the other way round. By the time I got to University, I knew I was a socialist, and started hanging around with the paper sellers, eventually joining Militant (they seemed more interested in life beyond the student union). One of the things that disturbed me, though, was that (maybe subconsciously), issues of race were often subsumed under a catch-all call to  ‘unite the working class’. That seemed to me to be ignoring the needs of black and ethnic minority communities to address their own specific oppression. I felt uncomfortable with all that, and partly as a result, I didn’t stick around too long.

At Leeds University, and after, I threw myself into anti-racist campaigning. Confronting the far right, en masse, seemed an important and powerful expression of solidarity. In these years, I found it difficult to find a political home. I joined, and left the Labour Party, joined and left the Socialist Alliance, even had a spell in Arthur Scargill’s SLP and ended up back in Labour again, only to leave over the Iraq War and rejoin after Blair. Throughout that time, however, my anti-racism was a constant. I organised, small and big, I discussed how we could build anti-racism in the Labour Party, in unions and communities, so it wasn’t an add on, but something integral to what we are.

At times over that period , within the Labour movement, it was a bit of a lonely place to be. As New Labour took hold, fewer and fewer Labour MPs wanted to do the demos, develop the broad left alliances and the active work in communities. Only the Socialist Campaign Group Of Labour MPs would regularly come out to support us, and out of that group, Jeremy Corbyn would almost always be the first and most constant supporter. Amongst the party (and union) hierarchy, on the other hand, there became a stigma attached to big anti-racist mobilisations and I recall hearing Labour councillors say that a physical presence should be avoided, as it was just “picking at a wound”.

I became a trade union organiser myself, and specialised in supporting migrant workers to achieve their rights by joining trade unions. As Gordon Brown was talking about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, I was organising with Polish immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I made myself unpopular with some in the union hierarchy by arguing that sectarianism and factionalism should be left at the door when campaigning against the ever-increasing threat of the BNP. In truth, though it was probably for the best, my union career was ended by the stance that I took.

While I started a PhD on trade unions and migrant workers, which covered the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester by Ugandan Asian women in the 70s, I also threw myself back into grassroots anti-racist organising. I helped set up the County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition with a couple of friends. The group later went on to organise one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Durham against the visit of the far right under the banner ‘Bishop Auckland Against Islam’. 300 filled Millenium Square. Set against the safe, and inconsequential ‘box ticking’ anti-racism which has become commonplace in our movement – e.g a pop up stand in the corner of County Hall – this was where I felt at home.

Racism made me angry as a kid, long before I understood socialism and the economic chains that bind all of us. This is a story common to many of us on the left, and especially those who have come into the Labour Party since 2015 – and who frankly will have seen the party’s efforts as inadequate pre-Corbyn and perhaps understandably so (David Blunkett’s punitive and uncaring approach to immigration, Phil Woolas’ behaviour, and those bloody immigration mugs being a handful of recent examples).

I make mistakes. Like everyone in this movement, I get things wrong. When I do, I kind of expect to be called out on it. If it’s justified, I will try to reflect on it. That is fair and right. This is politics – debate is part of the lifeblood of the party and the movement, and if you can’t take criticism, it may not be for you. However, that is a very different thing from throwing around the word ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’ as a way of scoring political points, when even the accuser knows in their heart of hearts it’s unfair and wrong. So, call me what you like, criticise my decisions and pull me up for my mistakes. Rip into my politics and question my outlook. But don’t ever call me a racist.

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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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We can work it out, if we reject the comfort blanket

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Forgetting the branding war for a minute, there are a number of serious discussions we need to have on the Labour (and broader) left. It starts with an acknowledgement of where Corbyn’s victory came from: it didn’t come as the result of years of patient building on the Labour left in the lead up to 2015. If it had, we may have had more of a foothold in the Labour Party as a whole. It came about as a result of a ‘perfect storm’: a disillusion with establishment politics, both within and without the party; the ineptitude of alternatives on the right of the party; a union movement battered by austerity and looking for a fightback and a fantastic campaign which had learnt the lessons of the activism of the post-2008 era, including social media, digital campaigning, phone banking and volunteer activism on the ground.

Simply put, we overreached in that summer of 2015. We had ourselves a leader, a shadow chancellor and a handful of Parliamentary supporters, but little else structurally. This was a massive failure of the Labour left: for years, a tiny minority within organisations like the LRC and CLPD had been urging them to look outwards, beyond Parliament, to build regionally and locally, online as well as in communities. It mostly fell on deaf ears. There were reasons for that, of course, but nevertheless it was a fact that the Labour left was not in a good place at the beginning of 2015.

But in politics, you don’t get to choose the cards that you are dealt: through a frantic summer, we built on these circumstances, turning the disadvantages into advantages – and quickly adapting to that ‘perfect storm’. The biggest advantage of all was the huge numbers of previously unaligned supporters and activists who came into the campaign through the social media route. At the end of that summer, the incredible success of the campaign fooled some into thinking that the job had been done. Others saw it as a time of consolidation, a time to end the ‘guerrilla war’, as one prominent member of Corbyn’s team said to me. I disagreed. If anything, outside of that office, we needed to ramp things up, because this was a huge game of catch up.

On that day in September 2015, as Corbyn was cheered in the Sanctuary pub by a small band who had been at the very heart of the operation, two tasks lay ahead of us; two things we needed to do with the leverage we’d built via the Corbyn campaign.

Firstly, we needed to change the Labour Party, nationally, regionally and locally. This wasn’t just about a changing of the guard: it was about changing the whole culture of the party: in terms of it’s attitude to campaigning; its groundedness in local communities; its structures and its openness to new members. The Labour Party (nationally, regionally and locally) needed to become democratic and grassroots – a huge task seeing as the whole trajectory of the party in the last two decades has been in exactly the opposite direction, with only a slight move forwards under Ed Miliband.

Secondly, if we were going to enable a situation where an explicitly socialist Labour Party could command a majority, we needed to shift the political debate in this country by a huge extent – not just in the media, or using alternative, social media platforms, but in practical ways that would transform the debate right from the national stage down to the micro level of local communities. This was the big one: it was going to be like turning around a tanker. You don’t go from the margins of the political debate on Labour’s backbenches to dictating the “common sense” in the country at large without an enormous, ambitious and radical political project. In effect, we needed to create a movement capable of changing our society, step by step, year on year. There was no guarantee that this would produce electoral rewards in the short term, but if we were serious about this project, there was little alternative in the long run.

Both these aspects were boosted by Corbyn’s victory, but the transformation of the Labour Party already had a base (LRC, Red Labour, CLPD) which needed to be expanded and improved. The expertise was there, in the most part, but with the help of a new activist base (developed by the Red Labour project and expanded during the leadership campaign), it was possible to create a more dynamic version post-September 2015. That needed less fanfare, and more patient work behind the scenes, as our friends in Progress had demonstrated over the Blair years. The second, more ambitious task of building a movement, based loosely on Corbyn’s politics and the radical potential that had been released by his victory, had been given a jump start by the huge numbers that had surged towards the Labour Party during the campaign, but also a secondary group who might not interested in joining the Labour Party, but who were listening to Jeremy and prepared to pull in the same direction. The key was to harness this support, which was coalescing around social media, in community campaigns and in the unions, and to give it coherence as a movement.

These two strands should have been the central organising focus for the Corbyn movement in the immediate aftermath of the leadership win. Instead we had this confusion, this muddle. It was unnecessary and strategically inept to think that both parts of the project needed to be branded under one name. That wasn’t recognising the complexity of the Corbyn movement or the drivers behind his election win. The chaos that we are now faced with is a natural consequence of that poor decision: now the horizons are considerably narrowed again – at precisely the time when the clock is ticking on both halves of the project. The battle for control over the Corbyn movement was entirely predictable, but ultimately, it’s self-defeating. But the answer isn’t to go into a shell, to run for our bunkers. It’s that clutching for the comfort blanket that we need to fight, because actually, that’s a total failure of ambition. Somehow, we’re going to have to work it out.

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That’s one hell of an “echo chamber”: why I disagree with Owen Jones on social media

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I have the greatest of respect for Owen Jones. Quite honestly, I think he’s made a huge contribution to turning the tide in favour of the sort of ideas that are now being debated all of the country as a consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership: public ownership of the railways; a £10 living wage; putting an end to tax loopholes; stopping the demonization of welfare recipients and investing in decent public services. While these ideas have been around forever, it is through Owen’s columns, speeches and incessant activity that many of them had a foothold already. Not only that, I consider Owen a mate. I’ve known him for nearly 10 years now, as a genuine, thinking activist of the left. Very recently, though, I’m not nodding along as much I have in the past. It’s like buses. You spend five years agreeing with just about everything Owen Jones has said or written, and then you find yourself disagreeing with him three times in a matter of months.

The first time was over Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature. As someone who was involved in the nomination campaign from day one as the social media co-ordinator (I was convinced enough to part with a £5 free bet at 100-1 and that’s all the proof I need!), Owen was one of the voices who poured cold water on the idea that any anti-austerity candidate might be conjured up from the Parliamentary Labour Party, never mind Jeremy Corbyn. Fair enough, Owen was hardly the only one and has recently held his hands up as being a fairly late convert to Corbynmania. Secondly, I disagree with Owen’s idea that we need to “love bomb” UKIP supporters. I’m with Jeremy’s instincts on this one. We will not win over Kippers by bending to their agenda, but by challenging xenophobia – directly, bravely and honestly. I absolutely agree with the idea that it’s about how we do this: sending them to the ideological Gulag isn’t the way – but we have to show that there is a principled, strong and positive alternative to the politics of fear and hate, and that involves engagement and challenge, not love bombing. Thirdly –and it is this which I really want to deal with in this piece – I think Owen is absolutely wrong in his assessment of social media as an “echo chamber” of the left.

I’m slightly confused by Owen’s downbeat assessment of social media as a campaigning instrument. His own social media presence has been a tremendous catalyst for a number of left projects on the ground – as well as his own career as a media commentator. Both have been hugely important in countering Tory ideology. As someone who has been centrally involved in two very successful social media operations – Red Labour and the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, it’s my opinion that the left would be nowhere without social media. Again, it’s about the “how” rather than the “what”: it’s about how we use social media. Do we use it to put out information, essentially as a website does, or do we use it to genuinely engage with people? Do we use it as a publicity tool or an organising one? If it’s the former, social media has obvious limitations. And that’s the point. Owen talks as if we’ve reached the summit and now it is time to “get real”, when in fact we’ve only scratched the surface. As he says:

“Let’s be honest, though: if social media were as politically invaluable as the left would like, Labour would now be in office with a majority of 150.”

But actually, the Tories won the social media battle in the last election, particularly on Facebook, where their reach was considerably larger than Labour’s. Ok, they might have paid for it, but it’s not true to say that the left has dominated the medium. To be honest, though, I’m less worried about those kind of contests, which are fundamentally about advertising rather than democratic, political engagement – and that’s where I think Owen is really missing the point.

Globally, there are 968 million daily active users of Facebook alone, with around 31 million of them in the UK. Twitter has around 10 million daily users. It is no longer, as it once was, a preserve for the young, or the metropolitan, or the middle class. Social media has been likened to a very large pub, with everyone talking at once – tens of thousands of conversations at once. That’s not a bad analogy. The key to making sense of it, of how to create some movement out of all those disparate voices, is about how it’s organised. That’s always been the issue for the left and our biggest failing. So it’s not about online vs offline, it’s not about packed out meeting halls vs Facebook events, it’s about whether we can rise to the challenge of genuinely harnessing the many weapons at our disposal in a democratic and meaningful way.

Owen says: “We can’t just want retweets and packed halls, after all, but to change the world”, but change starts with getting people in the room first, doesn’t it? The real world packed halls are impressive enough – anything up to 3,000 people came out in all weathers, in all parts of the country and at short notice. But even they are dwarved by the numbers of social media. Our regular weekly ‘reach’ (those who saw the page) during the campaign hovered between 1.5 million and 2 million for three months. Since Corbyn has been elected, those numbers have reached up to 6 million. Those who, on a weekly basis, engaged in the page actively averaged around 200,000, but again rocketed as the election result was announced, to 700,000. On Twitter, there were 250,000 mentions of the campaign during the summer, with reach hovering again at the 2 million mark. These are phenomenal figures – and yet still it’s not the real point. The real power of social media compared to the mainstream media is as an organising tool. To build, we need to value and develop activism on the ground – and the traditional, liberal media just does not have that relationship with the grassroots. It’s always been its function to be somewhat distant, making judgements on these movements, rather than being immersed in them.

So what of the “echo chamber”? Owen says:

“The left, and supporters of Corbyn in particular, are often accused of retreating into a echo chamber. That is an obvious danger for any individual or movement that operates almost exclusively via social media: tweet something sticking it to the Tories, start watching the retweets piling up, and it can seem as though society is cheering you on.”

Except, that 6 million people is a pretty big echo chamber – and even that 700,000 who are actively engaging is considerably bigger than even wildly optimistic assessments of the left previous to the campaign. Also, it isn’t what we have been doing. Anyone who has been paying attention to the official Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader operation will know that almost everything we have put out in over three months of campaigning has been a provocation to debate – outward facing, trying to get people to share and to engage the uninitiated in argument. Because of our experience of other social media campaigns, including Red Labour, we’ve realised that trotting out a line, whether sticking it to the Blues or cheering on the Reds, is unlikely to get much traction. It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and ideally their action. It has been about building people’s confidence by showing them that they are not alone. It has been about showing them examples of other activity around the country, and encouraging them to take action locally.

This has spread far beyond the ‘official’ output. What we have seen is a massive flowering of people’s creativity, of people showing solidarity for each other – and reinforcing each other’s determination and strength in very trying circumstances. In turn, by the simple act of sharing, those examples of togetherness and the ideas that go with them have spread to a much wider audience, even to those UKIP voters who Owen talks of. That’s how you build Facebook and Twitter as an organising tool. The principle is the same as in the outside world. You can have as many star-studded, platform-heavy meetings as you want, but if you don’t do the groundwork of listening, engaging and nurturing the activists on the ground, you’ll still be doing the same thing in five, ten years and wondering why nothing solid has been built. So there’s no magic to it.

There’s a top down way to do social media (releasing news to your followers) and a grassroots way to do social media (using it is a forum for an activist-led movement). Used openly and with strategic sense, social media isn’t an echo chamber at all, but the most enormous consultation exercise the Labour Party and the movement around it has ever seen. It’s instant feedback on our ideas, our strategies and the way we do politics. Social media is about creating an alternative source of news and information which cuts out the vested interests of the established media, but it’s also, potentially, so much more than this. When Jeremy talked about the “enormous democratic exercise”, he wasn’t just talking about the act of voting in the leadership ballot, but the whole piece. Are we perfect? Of course not, but does anyone believe that we would have had a selectorate of 550,000 without the influence of social media? Far from being the end of the story, this is just the beginning, because social media offers us the most enormous opportunity to engage people we’d never have had a chance with even 5 years ago – people who have never voted before, those who walked away or have rejected the party for a variety of reasons as well as those who have voted differently, right across the spectrum. Even Kippers. Can’t happen? It already has.

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Stay and fight: Why socialists should stick with Labour

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When I read Michael Chessum’s piece in the New Statesman, I felt the immediate need to respond. Not because I was outraged, but because I think he has hit on a crucial debate about where the Labour left have been and where we go next. I’m sure that virtually every socialist in the party has wondered whether it’s worth sticking with the party in recent years. Who cannot have thought about what might lie on the other side as Labour MPs failed to oppose something as basic as the Workfare Bill? Looking further back, even more made the leap after Iraq, and while some have made the return journey since, party membership is ‘on notice’ for many of these returnees. As socialists, our loyalty to the Labour Party isn’t down to a kind of misplaced tribalism, as many of our critics would have it, but is contingent – based on our experience and a carefully considered strategic judgement of where we are of most use. It has to be up for debate, though, and as Michael rightly points out, the idea that socialists are best positioned in the Labour Party has been challenged again by the 2015 election – with a dramatic implosion of Labour’s support in Scotland and a steady chipping away of Labour’s traditional support in the former heartlands of the North East, North West and Wales. Alongside the Collins Review, which has sown the seeds for a potential break in the organic link between the trade unions and the party, we are clearly a further step down the line to a free-floating, Democratic-style party, despite the brief and fairly superficial optimism of Ed Miliband’s tenure and the accompanying (cautious) leftward shift on policy. So Michael is right to urge another review of our position and it is up to us, on the left of the party, to make the argument for staying.

Firstly, I think we have to be honest and analytical about how we have arrived in this position. Many analyses of the Labour left’s position treat it as an innocent victim of circumstances. That is understandable. Since New Labour’s inception, we have been faced with a seemingly unconquerable ‘machine’ – well-resourced, organised and ruthlessly efficient. However, New Labour’s conquering of the party apparatus, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership didn’t happen by magic. It was preceded by a period of deep disillusionment and flight by the left, who immediately prior to the Kinnock-Blair purging of party democracy, were in their strongest position for many decades. What happened? This isn’t really the place to go into the detail of the Bennite movement in the party, but there seems to have been a fragility about it which we maybe haven’t explored enough. In any case, what is clear is that from that point in the late 1980s, the Labour left appeared like a rabbit caught in the headlights. While some continued to plug away at internal party battles and the democratisation of the party via CLPD and the Socialist Campaign Group, the majority despaired, and previously active Labour Party socialists became members in name only. Many others left at this point to join the Socialist Alliance, myself included – which hardly helped (I’m exercising self-criticism here). The point is, that at no point was there a united, collective, strategic opposition to Blairism in the party – and the New Labourites, never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, consolidated their power by dominating moribund CLP’s and winning selection and selection at a canter. It was like taking sweets from a baby.

So much for the history of it. What about now? Why have we got to this crisis? Well, twenty years on from that pivotal point between ‘Old Labour’ and ‘New Labour’, we still haven’t learnt our lesson. There are still socialists in the party – of that there is no doubt. We don’t know enough about why, but it is clear that many are still members in name only, clinging on to their party cards in the “hope” that something will change. They still get angry at the leadership, exasperated at the lack of democracy and now have more opportunity to voice that discontent via social media. But our numbers are smaller and the numbers of active socialists in the party are smaller still. Despair, once again, has set in – if it ever went away. The familiar story goes like this: we’ve been stitched up; those Blairites, they can’t be beaten; look at our leadership – how can we stick around and endorse that. What is missing is any sense that the left has contributed to this. Of course, it’s an attractive idea, to say that we’ve given it a good go and now it’s time to move on to other projects. Who can’t be seduced by a fresh start and greener grass – but that is based on the assumption that we have tried and failed. Have we? Really? Maybe a tiny activist core – but once again, there has been no sustained, strategic approach to coalition building within the party, to challenging the Blairites over selections and to shaking things up in our CLPs. Where that has happened, it has been sporadic and normally led by the unions – but many ordinary party members, socialists included, have sat back and let this happen around us. This is not to individualise blame – and neither is it about berating good people for “not doing enough”. Of course, it’s a natural reaction to withdraw when faced by such seemingly overwhelming odds, but we do need to take collective responsibility if we are going to turn this situation round.

But should we even bother? The ground is changing, isn’t it? Maybe we’re just clinging onto the wreckage. This is what Michael seems to be arguing. It is true that socialists tend to stick to tried and tested means and only realise far too late that the world has moved on. To me, there are three main arguments against leaving the Labour Party and starting again:

Firstly, Michael puts an awful lot of store by the prospects of a Unite split from the Labour Party. Agreed, that would change the landscape considerably, but there’s ample evidence that it won’t happen like that – and there’s an argument that a right-wing shift in the leadership of the party might nudge Unite and others in the direction of serious alliances with the party left at grassroots level. Our society appears to be in turmoil, with the old certainties disappearing quickly. That leads us to think that institutional change can and will come quickly too, but trade unions are by their nature not risk-takers, and the main unions will stick to Labour while there is a chance that they can influence the leadership and the policy of the party. If a Progressite were to win the leadership, that again might shift the situation considerably, but (a) I don’t think that will happen and (b) it won’t inevitably lead to a split – after all, the big unions stayed in during the Blair years and were in some cases the biggest cheerleaders. Even where the leadership has changed, and talks more of a left game, the organisation is fundamentally the same.

Secondly, he talks about the left turning outwards towards grassroots campaigning, and how that might reinvigorate those campaigns and the Labour left itself. Of course that is important. Only during the Bedroom Tax protests did we see large numbers of Labour Party members out on the streets. But that will only take us so far. We have to take the campaigning inside CLPs, not just to mobilise a sleeping membership, but to challenge the depoliticisation and anti-democratic nature of many local parties. This is some challenge, but it is something which has almost disappeared from the armoury of the Labour left during the last two decades. Where we have seen a tentative resurgence in campaigning CLPs, they have quite often managed to secure the selection of solid, left-wing candidates (witness the anti-austerity letter signed by 10 new Labour MPs). Again, I absolutely agree – without that ‘revolution from below’ in the party, we are just treading water, but with a well thought out and executed organising strategy within the party, “fading” away is not an inevitability. But we can’t expect to change the Labour Party without taking part in the Labour Party.

Thirdly, the elephant in the room. I’m talking about our good friend, the dysfunctional ‘outside’ left. I very much don’t mean that in a name-calling, derogatory way. I’ve been honest about the Labour left’s deficiencies, but I think it’s equally important to point out that the British left outside of the Labour Party has not offered a coherent, credible alternative to the Labour Party at any point in the last thirty years. From the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Labour Party, Respect right through to TUSC – not a single initiative has taken off in what have been incredibly favourable conditions for the building of an alternative workers party. Having tried my hand outside the party, I’m now almost convinced that they are not capable of building that alternative. That is what marks us out from Greece or Spain – we have, for historical reasons, been landed with a left that works in silos, which is often sectarian and obsessed with the minutiae of past battles and ideological purity. Not every part of it, of course, but enough of it to wreck every attempt to build ‘left unity’ (small case). I don’t say this with any joy, but I think it’s a reality that we are faced with. So despite our massive challenges in building a Labour left, they are dwarfed by the enormous task of pulling together a Syriza-like left in the UK. The phrase herding cats springs to mind. If all this history and experience can be broken, and something solid can be built and gain some purchase amongst the working class, again we are in different territory. Maybe, as Michael Chessum suggests, the prospect of the unions pitching into a new party could be the way in which the game changes. Again, I think that is misunderstanding the motivations of the larger unions. You can’t simply graft a social democratic union politics onto one of the various political projects that have started their lives as either the possessions of a Trotskyist political party or a chaotic bringing together of various shades of anarchism, communism, green and socialists. The unions aren’t going to go for that. What they would want is a party with parliamentary credibility, with basic social democratic credentials, with a working class base, with the potential to make policy which would create jobs, house people, protect the welfare state and workers’ rights. In other words, the Labour Party we are fighting for – not as an end in itself, but as a huge step on the road to a more socialistic society.

Of course Michael and others are right to raise this debate. It’s essential to the way we view our tasks ahead. But what is often missing is a sober analysis of where we’ve gone wrong as a left. If we’re honest, collectively we’ve done what we always criticise as futile: we’ve shouted at the telly a lot, but we haven’t organised – not seriously and strategically. It’s as if we’ve excluded the Party itself from our sound analysis that in society, power cedes nothing without a demand. We can no longer sit back. We have to get together and build a serious, organised, engaged and thinking Labour left, one that leaves behind some of the false walls that have divided us. That is what Red Labour (now 20,000 strong on Facebook and with 40 plus local groups) is all about.  I think it would be a disaster to leave the Labour Party, but not as much of a disaster as waiting for something to change, like the proverbial boiling frog, slowly being cooked to death.

Previous published at Left Futures

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See you, Jimmy: what the SLab collapse means for all of us.

jim-murphyLet’s face it. The overwhelming backdrop to the 2015 election wasn’t hope. It wasn’t even predominantly fear in the end, though that played a part. It was anger. And it was directed towards our party as much as towards a Coalition Government which had slashed and burnt its way through public services, privatised everything it could lay its hands on and showed a callous disregard for the vulnerable in our society. They were seen as the bad guys by many – probably a majority – but we definitely weren’t seen as the good guys, and by many of our former supporters, we were seen very much as part of the problem.

Now we can deflect blame for this. We can blame the naivety and selfishness of voters in large swathes of the South and Midlands in the betrayal of SNP switchers who have been suckered into supporting nationalism dressed up as social democracy. We can retreat to the comfort blanket of saying that we are fighting a losing battle against the twin forces of nationalism and individualism. Or we can quit this blame fest and try to understand our own failures. Why has this calamity (and let’s face it, we are in a crisis) happened? Why have we been overwhelmed in an explosion of anger towards the party we are members of?

Firstly, the anger towards the Labour Party is blowback from two decades of New Labourite politics. Particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party was used as an incubator for the careers of many a Blairite politician. In so doing, the party machine also wrecked the internal life of the party north of the border, closing down democracy and evacuating the party of real, decent socialist and trade union activists. Scotland has blown first because it was the most extreme example, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this process hasn’t happened all over the UK. The election of Jim Murphy was the final straw, illustrating that the party hadn’t learnt the lessons of Better Together, and the scene was set for Thursday’s cataclysm.

Secondly, the anger is about Labour’s failure to challenge the austerity consensus. This obviously has a historic dimension to it. Blair’s governments entrenched the idea that redistribution and progressive taxation, aimed at the rich, was off the agenda. On this score, “One Nation Labour” continued in the same vein. For all the talk of tax avoidance and “everyone paying their fair share”, Ed Balls’ tightening noose around Labour’s economic policy and the disastrous decision to stick to Tory spending plans cemented the idea that they were all in the same club. It forced Labour into a cul-de-sac when it should have been shouting from the rooftops about the economic vandalism being perpetrated in the name of deficit reduction. It hasn’t just been the SNP who have benefitted from Labour’s cowardice on the economy, but the Greens – and even, in a bizarre, complex way, UKIP. Ed Miliband said that he was making a definite break from New Labour. In style, he did – but on questions of substance he really failed to. Where was the commitment to rail renationalisation, kicking the private sector out of the NHS altogether, or bringing schools back into local authority control? Until Labour rediscover this kind of radicalism, they will be vulnerable to a Scottish style implosion in the rest of the UK too.

Thirdly, what about us? Us socialists in the party? Surely it’s not our fault that our party was overtaken by careerist cuckoos and set the time bomb ticking? What could we have done? We tried our best, right? But look what they did to us we? We were powerless. Or so the story goes. Often, people ask why on earth we carry on in a party which is so wedded to neoliberalism? Wouldn’t two decades or more of failure to change the party indicate that it is a lost cause. Well, let’s go back to Scotland for a second. What on earth was going on while the Blairites were tearing down local democracy and imposing yes men and women? Where was the organisation, where was the united front with the unions to challenge the selection of those New Labour zealots in local parties? The answer is that too many people, good socialists went into hiding, too disillusioned to fight back or too divided to come together. A small band of hard core socialists were left to fight the good fight. It wasn’t enough – and we can see similar pattern all over the UK. If there’s any hope to be gleaned in these fairly dark days, is that the Labour left will learn those lessons, and come out of hiding to start the long task of rebuilding a party we can all be proud of. If that doesn’t happen, we can almost certainly say good bye to the Labour Party in its present form.

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