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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Repeat after me: “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me”

dunningI write this, not as a response to Jack Monroe, who announced that she’d left the Labour Party to join the Greens this week, but as a response to the many hundreds of good, socialists activists who have left the Labour Party over the years. It’s not meant as a rebuke, but merely to ask some important questions about their reasoning and our strategy as socialists. Whilst it’s understandable that people who consider themselves socialists have constant battles with their conscience about leaving the Labour Party, we must be careful of the mantra:

“I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me”

In the social media age, where most people know little about each other or their histories, it sounds good. It’s a nice soundbite that will no doubt have lots of other Facebookers nodding at their screens. But what does it say about us as actors, as activists in the Party which we chose to join? Nothing says “look what they did to us” more than that statement. It’s a victim mentality – one which has been the comfort blanket for the (dis)organised left in the party for too long. We’ve gone along with the myth, created by Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and co, that the Labour Party is a brand which we have no control over, but to which we pay a monthly fee as an act of weak solidarity. So that’s our allotted role, as socialists – to complain from the margins and when it gets too tough, to bail out. That’s boxed off then.

Let’s think about this for a second, though. What a gift that is for the right-wing of the party and their enforcers in the party machine. It implies a spectator’s view of the Party. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the relationship that the Blairites want and expect the membership to have with the party. Get out, leaflet, cheer, hold up placards, wave flags in a uniform fashion, but don’t expect to play a democratic part in the party of Labour.

Now, we’re socialists. We have a deeper sense of what history tells us and what the Labour Party means, so why do so many of us simply accept what the party apparatchiks tell us? In every aspect of our lives, we challenge the powerful and organise, so why is the Labour Party an exception? Did we think they’d roll over and give us power? Or, just like in wider society, does our activism and understanding mean that, for every knockback, we have to organise better, make new alliances and work together to build our alternative?

So to those who have left, those who are leaving, or those who are thinking of leaving, we just need you to answer this question very truthfully. Have you done everything you can to join with other socialists in the party, to seek them out and to plan together, to get organised within CLPs and as a counterweight to all the Blairite rubbish that comes from on high? If you’ve done all that and still feel the same, fair enough. If, being honest, you haven’t, then come join us. Use Red Labour as a base and a starting point for the building of a party which we can all be proud of and where no one can legitimately say that it “left” them.

This is not so much about the Labour Party. I’m no tribalist – and I’ve been in and out of the Labour Party myself over nearly 30 years of activism. But I do think it’s about our relationship as activists to the parties we join. If we’re interested in achieving real power (which can change society at a practical level) at some point we will all need to mobilise, build and organise. If we stand still, and expect power to be given to us, just because we selected that party (or that brand) over the other, we will continue to end up in the same, frustrating place. If it’s too hard to challenge elites in the Labour Party, the chances are that it will be in any other party too – and it’s a certainty that it will be too hard to challenge the power of organised money and capitalist structures in wider society. So, although it’s easy enough to repeat the myths, we should also look at ourselves and learn the lessons from three decades of wasted chances for the left. If we want to change anything, we’re going to have to do a lot more than raise our banners and wait for the flocking masses. Don’t mourn, organise.

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Remembering Tony Benn – a year on

10007410_10203287173237568_1625975512_nIt was a year ago today that we heard the news that Tony Benn had died. I don’t do heroes as a rule. I’m of the opinion that movements change the world, not individuals. But Tony was obviously very special. A great communicator of simple, socialist common sense. Some people wanted more than that, and I can understand that – but to me, that is the thing that is most needed at our end of the political spectrum.

He was also a deep-down kind and generous human being. A few years ago, when this photo was taken, I had written to Ruth Winstone, asking if Tony wanted to visit the People’s Bookshop. She explained that Tony was too frail to get up the stairs, but would love to meet me before his gig at the Gala Theatre in Durham. When I got there, my heart sank. He was surrounded by dignitaries and Labour councillors (quite a few of them nasty, austerity-happy old rightwingers). Someone was wearing a silly chain around their neck.

Ruth spotted me, and had a word with Tony. Like a flash, he extricated himself and found a spot for me and him to have a lovely chat. I know I wasn’t special in this kind of treatment, it’s just that he had an enormous respect and understanding for activists, people who campaigned and got things done. And he had no time for those people who wrapped themselves in the Red Flag, but fundamentally sought the trappings of power and fought for no one but themselves.

That evening, I gave him a People’s Bookshop mug, knowing that it would be too small for him to use – he used to drink his tea out of pint mugs. However, a year or so later, a friend of mine went to see Tony at his house and was brought his cuppa in a People’s Bookshop mug. I got a little buzz out of that.

But more than the personal stories, Tony Benn leaves us with a moral. And that is partly to do with the fact that, despite all his oratory, all his wisdom and foresight, Bennism was a cry in the wilderness. Why? Because we thought Tony Benn could do it all for us – we were his audience – and we forgot to keep building a vibrant, political movement on the ground. Tony realised this himself, and he was keen to quote Lao Tzu whenever he could on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Leaders may have their role in encouraging others, but at the end, it’s down to us to get together (in whichever ways and in whichever forums we choose). We have to get ourselves organised and build from the grassroots. Everything else is just for show.

Tony Benn, 3rd April 1925 – 14th March 2014.

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Our representatives or managers of decline?

simon henig

Simon Henig is the leader of the Labour group on Durham County Council. He’s a pretty slick operator. After yesterday’s People’s Assembly protest at County Hall, where campaigners asked councillors to think again before voting through cuts that would further devastate communities and local services, he was quick with a prepared statement:

“The Government sets the general direction on spending and has been very clear since 2010 that they would make large public sector funding cuts. They set the level of funding that we receive and we have to operate within our budget. If we didn’t, it would not be a legal budget and decision-making would be taken away from local people and their elected representatives. The majority of savings we are making this year are coming from back office functions and we continue to try to safeguard frontline services as much as possible.”

Henig is fairly typical of a new breed of council leader, adept at deflecting blame. In a similar way to Nick Forbes at Newcastle, he comes across as a national politician playing a local game. You can imagine that if, for some inexplicable reason, he hadn’t made it to the top of the local tree, he would have given up a long time ago and become a very good business man or manager in a large corporation.

This is the post-Blair generation of local leader. It’s hard to fathom what their politics are. They say an awful lot about the Coalition Government. They seem to despise the Lib Dems for their “treachery”, but it’s not immediately apparent that this enmity has a political basis; rather it is the almost apolitical, akin to the tribal dislike of upstarts Manchester City by a “long standing” Manchester United fan. When you look at the modus operandi of Forbes, Henig and the like, they are actually very close to the Liberal Democrats, dutifully carrying out Tory cuts, telling everyone, whether they’re interested or not, that there is no alternative and engaging in the kind of doublespeak that says that you are safeguarding communities by cutting services.

Maybe we shouldn’t blame them. They are products of their society. They were brought up in the bosom of New Labour. Between 1997 and 2010, this was the way you behaved to get on in the party. Critics within the party were virtually non-existent and those on the outside could be dismissed easily as Trots or anarchists – certainly nothing to do with respectable, moderate Labour Party politics.  Nobody ever got on in New Labour by making a spectacle of themselves at a demonstration or hovering too close to a trade union banner. Activism was a probably always a bit of dirty word at this level of local politics. Apart from a few trade union activists, most councillors probably chose to stand, not as an extension of their political activism, but as responsible and respected members of their community.

At some point in this period, however, there emerged what you might call a more “aspirational councillor”. The aspiration was often transparently personal. Perhaps it was about laying a foundation for a political career, as an MP or a Special Advisor (SpAd). Maybe it was a strategically astute move for anyone who wanted to build a career for themselves in the myriad of quangos and organisations launched by the New Labour establishment. What it absolutely wasn’t about, however, was political conviction. That much is clear. These aspirational councillors were perfectly suited to the managerialism that dominated the local state from the early 1990s onwards. Politics would only intrude. Once they’d elevated themselves to a certain position within the council (via committee work, informal contacts and generally keeping their noses clean) the job then became about working closely with the paid and unelected officers – in particular the chief executives, who could offer advice and guidance on what would not be possible and what would be financially prudent.

However, the final piece of the jigsaw only came with the willing acceptance of their minor role by ordinary councillors, who deferred to the high flyers such as Forbes and Henig. It reminds me of that bit in ‘In the Loop’ where Simon realises that he was just “Meat in the Room”. So, essentially, the whole operation of the council (and our local democracy) becomes about what three or four powerful people think it should be. And as those people (to arrive in positions of power) have long given up an idea of political principles, what it becomes about is managing a corporation. In a time of austerity, it becomes about managing decline. If money is tight, you look at your margins, your labour costs, what is profitable and what is not (or “value for money” to use the public sector management jargon) and trim accordingly. These are what are commonly known as “tough choices”. Like some sort of sadomasochistic adrenalin junky, aspirational councillors feed off “tough choices”. It is how they earned their spurs in the corridors of power in the Civic Centre, County Hall or the Town Hall. More importantly, it is how they earned the respect of the chief executive.

To maintain power, the manager of decline must continue to persuade the ordinary councillor that these are the only choices. There aren’t any other “tough choices”, like setting an illegal budget, like increasing council tax above the threshold set by the government, like building community support for an alternative budget – all of these choices have to be kept beyond the remit of discussion, because they are not seen as real choices. They are helped in this by the fact that other councillors, though not aspirational in the same way, have still learnt their trade in an era marked by defeats – for the labour movement and for local democracy, helped by the dominance of New Labour. There are certainly a minority that have kept their links to local community groups, campaigns and trade unions, but they are overwhelmed by those councillors who see their roles in local, almost anti-political ways. In either case, almost all defer to the Cabinet and the leader.

Is the kind of local democracy we want? Can it, in fact, be called any kind of democracy at all? We vote, as local residents, for candidates who we expect to represent our communities first and foremost. Surely, to vote for cuts that take away a council-run leisure centre, a library or a public service for the vulnerable in that very community is a betrayal of that bargain – or at least merits an explanation better than the bland prescriptions given by Henig. They tell us that we are targeting the wrong people. Well, yes, as the People’s Assembly points out continuously, the ultimate blame lies fairly and squarely with the Coalition Government. We not only know this, but we are the ones out on the streets campaigning against that government almost every weekend – against the Bedroom Tax, tax avoidance by multinationals, workfare, zero hours contracts, the decimation of the NHS and the targeting of disabled people via ATOS. Rarely do we have a local councillor standing by our sides.

It is my view that the aspirational councillor – those “New Labour” councillors who have created a whole political class at a local level – all powerful, yet absolutely divorced from communities, have outlived their usefulness. They seemed all modern, in their shiny suits in the nineties and early noughties, but since the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession, they’re neither use nor ornament. They seem strangely antiquated in the changed circumstances we now live in, framed by austerity and the continuous fight to save our welfare state, our jobs and our communities. We need to reinvent what being a councillor means. Maybe we can reinvent an “activist councillor” to take the place of the aspirational councillor. Like the previous incarnation, perhaps the new breed of activist councillors could drag a few of the old guard (the swing voters if you like) along with them and turn them into half decent representatives of their community too. An activist councillor would be in amongst their community every day. They would fight tooth and nail for it. They would be on the side of the protestors rather than sneering at them as they passed them. They would organise protests, maybe even occupy stuff, but certainly be at the heart of community alliances and radical activity – in between the boring council business of course.  The activist councillor would be independent minded, would take their representative role seriously and be held accountable for every single decision they made. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But is it? If we want to save local democracy, to make people believe in it again, shouldn’t we be trying to change the culture which has created the Nick Forbes’ and Simon Henig’s of this world?

The alternative? Actually, it’s even more ridiculous – but it’s becoming a reality as we speak, right in front of our eyes. It’s effectively to give over the running of our local state to unelected officials – managers who will outsource its functions to private companies giving “value for money” until, well…there’s nothing left.

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