#JezWeDid: from Red Labour to Jeremy Corbyn – a tale from social media

jez-we-can

Ancient History

Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Well, not quite at the beginning. I should just explain that I’m not seeking to give some sort of rounded, academic history of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. That will have to wait for another day, when the actual work has been done and we’re surveying from the top of a hill marked ‘Socialism in Our Lifetime’. For the moment, I can only offer a partial glimpse of how the campaign was constructed – and at that, only one aspect of it – the social media campaign. Of course there are a thousand other strands. I don’t deny that, but this is the strand which I have been almost totally immersed for the last four 14 weeks and, as it has been almost totally ignored by most of the mainstream media, I think it’s an important tale to tell. Of course, one of the reasons why social media is ignored by the mainstream is that there is often no single person to hang the story around. Social media campaigning is mostly a collective, anonymous enterprise – and where’s the story in that?

The story has characters, though. It begins in 2011 with a simple Facebook page, Red Labour, set up by Alex Craven – a Brighton-based socialist in the Labour Party. Alex is someone who recognised, at a very early stage, the power of Facebook to counter the continued Blairite dominance in the Party. The Red Labour page was initially set up in opposition to two colours of Labour which had come to dominate the Parliamentary Party – as well as the think tanks and party bureaucracy which buttressed the right of centre bloc at Westminster. The first, and dominant faction was Purple Labour, or ‘Progress’ as they tended to sell themselves. They were the bearers of the New Labour flame, a well-oiled machine with almost insurmountable power amongst the elected elite of the party and able to win parliamentary selections at a canter all over the country.

More recently, a new bloc had emerged, with nothing but a collection of ‘intellectuals’, a load of media connections and the odd MP. Blue Labour were closer to the old right of the party, but had rebranded with some anti-immigrant rhetoric and strange intellectualisations of the traditions of the party and the plight of the white working class. The key to Blue Labour’s influence was their connections to the leader’s office under Ed Miliband, rather than any pretence of building a movement, either within or without the party. If they had, I doubt they would have given themselves the toxic name Blue Labour.

Red Labour was originally set up as a ‘rapid rebuttal’ to New Labour / One Nation Labour spin which was a feature of both Purple and Blue Labour and the way they exercised their power. It chose the best contributions from Labour left social media activists, publicised critiques of the status quo and a displayed a hugely irreverent attitude to the grandees of the party. It was funny, sharp and relentless in its pursuit of hypocrisy within the upper echelons of the party. With it its use of graphics and snappy, shareable content, it soon took off. At a time when people were just discovering the possibilities of ‘mini blogs’ on Facebook, the Red Labour page gained 10,000 followers in short time. Suddenly, the unashamed socialist left of the party had an audience.

At that point, in 2011, the situation of the traditional left of the party couldn’t have been more different. Absolutely without influence, centred around the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – the ‘red’ part of the party had been marginalised by the concentration of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of MPs still organised with the grassroots left of the party, but they tended to be the equally marginalised Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There was a further problem. The LRC was failing to gain any real traction in the party itself. The grassroots movement which we all knew needed to be built, wasn’t developing in the way we all knew it needed to if we were to challenge. With the heavily resourced Progress still trouncing the left in selections and Blue Labour whispering in Ed’s ear, the LRC, for all their commitment, didn’t look like breaking this vicious cycle.

A few younger LRC activists, including myself and Max Shanly felt that we needed to take radical steps and joined Alex in pursuing the Red Labour project. A bit laughably, some of the more excitable sections of the left positioned around the LRC called it a ‘split’ when it was nothing of the sort. It was just that, like Alex, we believed there was a huge opportunity to connect to a whole group that were beyond the reach of those traditional approaches to socialist politics. Though, like many others, we had criticisms of the LRC, it wasn’t fundamentally about that (I still have my LRC membership card) but we decided to target our efforts at building Red Labour. With more of us contributing, the page grew at a rapid pace. It became more creative, more diverse and more focused on changing the party. Red Labour, on Facebook at least, first became one of the liveliest spaces for the Labour left, and soon, at 20,000, the largest (with the exception of the official Labour Party page).

Inevitably, people soon started to talk about taking it offline. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to help people set up regional groups and the wider, more ambitious Red Labour project was starting to take shape, based not on a membership-style organisation, but a looser supporter network. This brought in a whole new group of activists into the Red Labour operation. In about the space of a year (from 2012 to 2013) it had turned into a serious group within the party. We continued with our staples – we had a particular penchant for Nye Bevan memes, for instance – but now people were meeting offline and organising locally and regionally. That made us stronger, but with more of a sense of responsibility.

The point is about Red Labour is that it was always seen a serious intervention into the party, but we weren’t prepared to play by the rules which seemed to have been set out by those on the left and right of us. It wasn’t quite so earnest as either – it was explicitly populist and accessible. As the 2015 election approached, for example, we presented a series of radical policy proposals, but in badge form. We sought out debate, sometimes controversy – and we tested things out, knowing we’d make mistakes occasionally. This was so radically different from the official output from the party, that it continued to attract a following, both on Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally, we’d post things that the whole team wouldn’t necessary agree with. The Scottish Referendum was a case in point. We didn’t have unanimity within the group, so we decided to post both Yes and No articles on an equal basis.

At other times we’d pull posts as dissent became obvious within the organisers group we’d assembled. Our attitude from day one was never to duck an issue. Let’s argue it out – on the page, through the threads. The philosophy was that, on everything from migration to welfare, we needed to win hearts and minds, even if that meant engaging in late night (and sometimes tedious) battles on the Red Labour page. Gradually, we found that regular visitors to the page would take on each other, normally in a fairly comradely way, but our approach was always an interventionist one. This made it fraught at times, but through all that, we stuck together, determined that we could work together and build this project together – and aware that there weren’t many chances left.

Pre History

When Ed Miliband resigned in the immediate aftermath of that calamitous General Election, our Red Labour group was generally sceptical about the idea of running a candidate from the left. During the election campaign, we’d done some analysis of the strength of the left of the party in Parliament (and as candidates) and even with a small group of union-backed new candidates being elected, the prospects weren’t good. We estimated 48/49 MPs who could be seen as either rebels or on the left of the party. Even this was stretching the meaning of both words to breaking point. We were fully aware that, as a result of the Collins Review, the bar for PLP nominations had been set even higher. The veto that the Parliamentary Party had was formidable. When Andy Burnham declared early and his team swooped on at least 20 of that list without so much as a blink of the eye, the prospects looked even bleaker. However, within the Red Labour group, the debate began – and we ran over the possibilities again and again. We wrote letters to some of the most likely suspects, even if it was just to put up a candidate so we could have a debate about the veto that the Parliamentary Party had over the choice of a leader.

At this point (in this no-mans-land between Ed resigning and the Labour left finding themselves a candidate) two important things happened which have been buried amongst all the other factors that have been cited. James Doran, a Red Labour organiser in Darlington set up a Facebook page, ‘We want John McDonnell as Labour Leader’. As we had contacted John already, we knew that he wasn’t likely to stand again, but James decided to go ahead with the page, because if nothing else the group would serve as a pole of attraction for those wanted a left candidate. That’s exactly what happened – with an enormous amount of early interest. It was obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Around the 20th of May, two activists, Chelley Ryan and Beck Barnes contacted us at the Red Labour page, saying that they were planning to write an open letter entitled ‘We want an anti-austerity leader’. They asked if we’d look at it and Naomi Fearon, a member of our organising group, suggested a 38 Degrees petition. She worked on it with me and we collectively decided on the right wording. When Chelley and Beck launched it, the petition got an incredible response. It was shared via Red Labour, but Chelley and Beck- along with Naomi’s help – also did an incredible job attracting interest through a wide range of networks. Within a few days, 5,000 people had signed the petition and then, just as it was about to be sent off to John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, we heard the amazing news that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand. We weren’t sure how this had happened, but later we heard that it was, ironically, John McDonnell who had played the biggest part in persuading Jeremy to stand.

The ‘little win’: the noms campaign

We raised a few virtual glasses to toast Jeremy Corbyn that evening. When the news filtered through (I believe it was Diane Abbott who broke the news first – through Twitter, of course), at first there was a sense of incredulity. For several weeks, we’d been desperately worried that the left would have no voice within the three month race. We’d even looked into the possibility of organising, at Owen Jones’ suggestion, ‘not the leadership’ rallies which discussed the alternatives to the ‘austerity lite’ narrative likely to be the theme of the leadership circus over the summer. When the news of Jeremy’s candidature came through, then, it felt like our first victory. Even if nothing came of it, we had contributed to laying down a marker – that the socialist left in the party hadn’t completely been routed, silenced.

The next morning I got a call from John McDonnell asking if I could co-ordinate the social media campaign to get Jeremy the nominations. Of course I agreed straight away – this was an incredible chance to play a small part in history. I discussed this with by fellow Durham Red Labourite Paul Simpson and we set up a little campaign headquarters in the People’s Bookshop in Durham and set to work on digging out articles, quotes and images of Jeremy. Both of us had cut our teeth with Red Labour and felt we understood the impact of really good, interactive and provocative social media content. Others across the country started helping out – MarshaJane Thompson and Max Shanly down in London, Adam White in Manchester and a host of others. We used the Red Labour page and our own contacts to kick start it, but the main thing was timing.  The Facebook page and Twitter account went live within 12 hours of the announcement – and that was crucial. That enabled us to take maximum advantage of the coverage of Corbyn’s surprise announcement and capitalise on the immediate surge in interest. Within 24 hours, we had a couple of thousand people on the page and had gained hundreds of followers on Twitter.

Once the initial building of the page and Twitter had been done, we determined to get to work on the MP nominations, one by one. Red Labour was a virtual campaign HQ. In amongst this burst of activity, we received a private message from a Labour councillor, which said simply #JezWeCan. He contacted us not long after asking us to not credit him with what we saw as a good pun at the time, and in the delay, another Red Labourite, Hazel Nolan, had tweeted the hashtag (apparently the very first to do so). We thought it was a good joke – a tongue in cheek reference to the Obama campaign slogan – but not for a second did we think it would become the political phrase of the summer. No matter, we posted a meme up on Red Labour with the #JezWeCan hashtag and a picture of Jeremy. That meme would later be turned into a t-shirt by MarshaJane and a load of grassroots Unison activists at Scottish Unison Conference. It was an electrifying buzz to find the left suddenly alive with creativity.

But there was less sexy work to get on with too. The Red Labour collective got to work preparing spreadsheets, we published email addresses and Twitter accounts, drew up lists and crossed names off the lists a matter of hours later. All the time, the possibilities were becoming narrower and narrower. Nevertheless, we carried on regardless – organising Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter writing campaigns. Of course, we didn’t realise how hard it would be, but a strange thing happened: the more resistant MPs seem to be, the more people seemed to want to get involved. People came out of nowhere and took responsibility for huge chunks of the campaign. At first, there was some apprehension – should we be taking a more centralised approach? But after deliberating for all of a few minutes, it became obvious that events had overtaken our plans – it was no longer ‘our’ campaign – it belonged to those who wanted to contribute. And this nominations campaign had become an issue of democracy.

The sum total of the online activity was just incredible – and relentless. This now was reaching far beyond our Red Labour group. Here came the Corbynistas! Some people gave over whole evenings to emailing everyone on the list. Others engaged their own MPs in lengthy debates over twitter. It was a genuinely spontaneous and collective moment. It was an intense week of activity. While we were organising the mass emailing and tweeting of MPs, a thousand activist flowers were blooming. One of the most significant was Stuart Wheeler’s change.com petition:  ‘We call on Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn’, which gained over 7,500 signatures – which again was extensively shared on social media and featured in the press. Stuart, from St Blazeys in the South West, was known to us in Red Labour, but again, his petition was a perfect example of someone just getting off their backside and deciding that he was going to give the campaign his all. We weren’t going to bow down to the PLP and their accepted ways of doing things – the “common sense” which said that they knew best who should be on the ballot paper and how the debate should be framed. There was a real sense in which we were determined to have our voice heard, at last. And we did. That’s why, when the mainstream press decided that those nominations were ‘gifted’, it stuck in the craw. And it wasn’t true.

On that Monday lunchtime, on the 15th of June, we live tweeted the final hours of the nominations process. Sitting there, waiting for news from John McDonnell, refreshing the twitter account manically, was agony. I was personally quite confident that we’d done it – but I now realise that was partly wishful thinking: surely all that effort, everyone efforts couldn’t have been in vain? Well, they could quite easily have been. There was some cat and mouse games being played, and as John later revealed, a couple of MPs were waiting outside the lobby, not wanting to be the 35th MP to nominate, until they were virtually dragged in by John. When he quickly announced on his Facebook page that the threshold had been passed, we revealed the incredible news to the social media world instantly. If it had been a football stadium, the place would have erupted, such was the reaction. I sat there and stared at my computer screen and I’m not ashamed to say that I seriously welled up as the enormity of what we had done hit home. The PLP nominations were a massive hurdle – it had been their veto on real, party democracy and we’d beaten it.

The ‘big win’: the leadership election

So here we were. If getting a candidate was part one, and getting the nominations was part two, part three was the big one: how to get a 200-1 shot elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. This time, I took the initiative. I immediately contacted John and asked if I could carry on with the social media campaign role. It didn’t take long to wrap up. I contacted my PhD supervisors who were incredibly helpful – and I was granted a period of interruption in my studies to work on the campaign full-time. The decision to give me licence to develop an independent social media campaign alongside a Jeremy’s personal social media accounts proved to be one of the best decisions of the campaign. I enlisted the help of MarshaJane Thompson, who I knew mainly through the LRC and we quickly assembled a small group of volunteers. Right from the off, this group gave the campaign a massive shot in the arm – and it was constantly vibrant, creative, enthusiastic and absolutely relentless.

I’d argue too, that it was the driver for much of the most positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, it was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for our supporters (in a recent YouGov survey, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population)

I became more of a co-ordinator proper, asking the team to come up with memes, fishing out articles and quotes. In contrast to some of the other leadership campaigns, our social media campaign was completely organic and grassroots. We had assembled a team of activists around the left of the party: people who could design those memes, who understood Jeremy’s politics and who were in touch with the wider movement. There was deliberately no thematic line. It was creative and at times ad hoc, but it connected with people much better than the slick offerings of the other candidates. We had a constant supply of fantastic contributions from Andrew Fisher and the central policy team, and, gradually – a load of good news stories – not from the mainstream press, but from the website team; from those out with Jeremy at hustings all over the country; the enormous rallies that followed; the amazing volunteer operation run by Kat Fletcher and the massively professional phone bank operation co-ordinated by Alex Halligan.

This all fed into the next stage of the election campaign: the CLP nominations. This was being co-ordinated centrally via the ‘ground operations team’, but we used social media to not only raise awareness of the process, but also, crucially, to celebrate the successes. So when a CLP nominated Jeremy, they would get a little ‘thank you’ meme quickly produced by our design team. The response, especially on Twitter, was phenomenal. Throughout, the newly installed regional organisers, 12 strong, were running around, putting in the most incredible shifts to make sure we capitalised on this momentum and secured as many CLP nominations as possible – updating the regional Facebook pages when they could take time to draw breath. When the results started coming through, it was like an earthquake. This was so significant because we had expected to struggle amongst established party members. As those CLP nominations racked up, we realised that we’d underestimated our fellow party members. This was a genuine grassroots revival in the party. Of course, we could all claim we’d seen it coming and via Red Labour we’d always said it was possible, but nevertheless, this was incredible.

Organising ourselves around the phrase that would become emblematic of not just the social media campaign, but the campaign as a whole: #JezWeCan, the social media team – which was split over four cities from London to Durham – worked together in absolute, collective unity, mostly via a single Facebook thread. MarshaJane Thompson, my fellow co-ordinator,  was a fantastic ally throughout – totally reliable, she also managed the online shop which produced the #JezWeCan t-shirts, raised a ton of cash for the campaign and organised the huge Union Chapel fundraiser night in London. She carried the Twitter operation for much of the time, ably helped by James Doran in Darlington. I did most of my work from Durham, and when Marsha became officially part of the media strategy team down in London, the whole thing started really clicking. James did much of the Twitter grind of following accounts (even some which later proved not to be quite what they seemed at first sight). Paul Simpson, my colleague at the People’s Bookshop was one of the constants throughout, who built the presence of the Facebook campaign at the crucial stage before nominations and was relentless in publicising Jeremy’s proud history as an M.P.

Unison’s Andrew Berry was our eyes and ears for stories on the ground. The incredibly talented Leonora Partington gave us the most fantastic, fearless graphics – some of which were shared to millions. At times we were firing this stuff out at a rate of knots, so the help of Ruth Berry and Charley Allan was crucial in rebutting the nasty and cynical attacks from the traditional media. Jason Harris was the campaign’s brilliant photographer and captured both Jeremy and our events superbly, which helped so much when it came to producing the shareable graphics. Yannis Mendez’s videos were just brilliant – they really captured the diverse grassroots authenticity of the campaign and rightly received rapturous feedback. Finally, Jack Bond was the link between the social media team and the central campaign – a real team player who at one point drove through the night from London to deliver Durham Miners Gala leaflets, arriving at 3am. We worked so well together – with genuine respect, creativity and comradeship. Nobody even got upset over my pedantry about commas and colons.

The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. Sure, we had the raw material too. Jeremy was a dream candidate for the social media age: everything he said was clear, accessible and without jargon. Jeremy’s record could speak for itself, but he’d never had such a platform. Our Facebook page gained nearly 70,000 likes in three months, with our top post reaching 750,000 people. On a weekly basis, between 1.5 and 2 million people were seeing our Facebook posts (immediately following the election win, it topped 6 million). In terms of engagement (likes, shares and comments), the average weekly engagement was around the 200k mark, with a peak of 600k in late July, with another peak just after the result of 800,00. 18,000 people signed up to go to our virtual Facebook event ‘I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election’. Our output averaged about 10 posts a day, which over the three months will be close to 1000 posts. On Twitter, we gained 64,000 followers, nearly 250,000 mentions were made of the campaign on Twitter and our top tweet was retweeted 1,800 times. We posted a total of 4,100 tweets (including retweets).  Our most successful Twitter storm saw the campaign mentioned 22,500 times in just two hours, but other Twitter ‘events’ saw our campaign trending at various times throughout the summer. At the last televised hustings in Gateshead, our campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. Our top embedded video was Owen Jones’ speech at the Glasgow rally, with 97.1k views and a reach of 291,000. We have also experimented with Instagram, which has a much younger demographic and is focused on sharing images, gaining 1430 followers in a quick time, more than ten times any other candidate.

That’s the campaign in numbers, but it’s about so much more than the numbers – it’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.

This is a massive and significant sea change in the way we do our politics. When the over whelming 59.5% vote came through on that historic Saturday at the QE II Conference Centre, we knew that hundreds of thousands were poised to celebrate on Facebook and Twitter. When the first round results were announced, a few audible gasps were heard in the hall, but not from the social media team. We released the #JezWeDid meme – and it was shared to half a million within the hour.

For me, social media now needs to be seen as an integral part of what happens next. Although we rightly have scepticism about the Obama administration, there’s no doubt that as a social media campaign, they are still the model (though we also have a new model now being created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign). What the Obama campaign did was quite radical. They allocated equal resources to their social media operation as they did to their traditional press operation. I think we need to embrace this new, democratic medium and do the same. It’s important to have articles in the Guardian, the Independent, to have positive news coverage wherever possible, but it won’t be enough. If we are serious about winning in 2020, we need to engage in a mass education campaign, making our policy messages accessible and popular. We need to launch the biggest ever social media counter narrative to the storm that is coming our way. We have learnt important lessons over the last three months and we’ve run a great social media campaign, but we’ve only scratched the surface. The social media campaign has been an incredible experience, not just for those involved officially, but for everyone who has made a contribution – small and big. But all of us know that it can be so much better, so much bigger and so much more effective – if we are bold enough to take up the challenge.

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Stay and fight: Why socialists should stick with Labour

clive

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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Who are you calling a Red Tory?

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There’s a glorious and comforting myth doing the rounds on the left. It’s like warm milk and honey to those who like their politics black and white, with little or no space for any grey. It goes a bit like this: the Labour left offered no opposition to Blairism North and South of the Border. In fact, those laughable people who dare call themselves socialists in the Labour Party have simply been apologists for the anti-working class politics of New Labour and its continuation as “austerity lite” under Ed Miliband. It’s only by the widespread spreading of this muck that is been possible to lump Labour members and supporters under the headline grabber ‘Red Tories’, with no distinction between socialists in the party and New Labour. It’s a comforting thought for many of those making the break with Labour, because it draws a clear party line between those on the right side of the fence and those on the wrong side. Evil must be punished and good will prevail. But it’s simplistic bullshit, actually.

Not only has there always been a vocal minority in the party which attempted to fight New Labourism from its very origins, but many of that group (who coalesced around Tribune, the Socialist Campaign Group initially, and later, the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland, the LRC and Welsh Labour Grassroots) were there at the coal face well before the broader left – and tried to warn against the Blair revolution while others in the party were being seduced by the charmer himself and the idea that after a succession of electoral disasters, there really was no alternative. The ‘Campaign Group’ left begged to differ – but it faced an uphill struggle to convince those around them. This group has been depleted by the fall out and demoralisation in the wake of Benn’s defeat in the deputy leadership election of 1981; the 1983 General Election defeat; the defeat and betrayal of the Miners during the strike of 1984-85; the abolition of the GLC; the near constant attacks on the left during the Kinnock era and had witnessed at close quarters the accession of Blair – who announced himself as the gravedigger of the left by stripping the party of Clause IV in 1995. At this point, many simply had had enough. Some socialists – mainly from the activist left of the party – departed to start a new venture, the Socialist Alliance, while others stayed in to fight another day.

What’s clear from this little potted history, though, is that the left in the party had taken a battering. It felt like a defeat, if not a final one. How did it happen? What were the root causes of the succession of wounds inflicted from the mid-80’s onwards? It certainly wasn’t about waving the white flag. There was no surrender, but the left voice was getting submerged, quieter year by year. What really inflicted the damage on the left wasn’t “losing the argument” but bureaucratic manoeuvre. The Blairites learnt very quickly that it wasn’t about winning the ideological battle, but about capturing the party machine – as a precursor to winning the Parliamentary party.

Strategically those early New Labourites were very astute – and they understood that if you were genuinely going to remove the party from its roots, you needed to take away the voice of the ordinary party member. That was the real Blair revolution, right there. In a series of anti-democratic changes to the way the party debates and reached decisions, including turning the party conference into a showcase for the leadership, the apparatchiks of New Labour seized control of the party machine. Well funded and organised, it wasn’t long before they started the task of winning the Parliamentary party. Like dominos, selection after selection went to bright young Blairites. CLP’s became, in many cases, mere vehicles for New Labour branded careers – and old Labourites fled from local parties as they became increasingly alienated. This didn’t always manifest itself in tearing up the party card, but the effect was the same as former “troublemakers” went to ground.

Blair’s was a classic ‘top down’ revolution, one which was premised on silencing and marginalising dissent. On those terms, it couldn’t have been more successful. The fact that it didn’t trigger a ‘bottom up’ revolution in return is hardly surprising, considering the history outlined above. Grassroots resistance isn’t something that can be conjured out of thin air – and the demoralisation left by those defeats was hardly confined to the Labour left. Many a left project withered in the vine at this time, including the Socialist Alliance. However, it would be wrong to say that the Labour left simply gave in. It’s a forgotten footnote in history that 139 Labour MPs voted against the War in Iraq. Not long afterwards, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was set up specifically to address the crisis of representation of the left in the party. What was missing, though, were the much larger numbers of unaffiliated socialists in the party and the unions, beyond that activist core. They were the ones most affected by the disillusion which set in with the onslaught of Blairism. So there was always a vociferous and committed leftwing, it just didn’t have the wider base in the party that it needed to really be heard. That’s where we’ve been stuck for nearly two decades.

Now, we can debate the finer details of strategy, of what went wrong and the Labour left ended up in such a precarious position, but I don’t think that is what the “Red Tories” trope is all about. It too wants to silence debate, to dispel complexity and bury the Labour left once and for all. The idea that there might be several thousand socialists in the Labour Party still is dismissed quickly and ruthlessly, because to admit that would be to acknowledge an alternative strategy. At the extreme, the ‘Red Tory’ brigade berate those socialists on the left of the Labour Party as “left cover” for the leadership’s neoliberalism. It’s not too far off the old, discredited British Communist line during the ‘Class Against Class’ period , which castigated the left of Labour as “social fascists”. That had to be abandoned as the threat of real fascism in the shape of the Nazis focused the left’s minds. And this is the point.

People will no doubt say, “What’s the big deal about a few lefties slinging insults about? Surely you can understand the anger?”. In some senses that is right. Not only do we, as socialists in the Party, understand the anger, we share it. It’s been an everyday reality for us for over two decades – and often we’ve been there, on our own, fighting the New Labour spin, and triangulation over privatisation, foreign wars, anti-trade union legislation, financial  deregulation and austerity. But there are deeper implications of this unthinking and at times sectarian line of attack from our comrades on the left, and not all of them come from a sense of personal grievance, they’re also about the future of the left.

Firstly, the use of the term “Red Tories” to describe lifelong socialists is deeply insulting. Amongst some within the Labour Party, it quite understandably provokes a reaction – and we end up in a downward spiral of name calling and bile. That can’t be good for any of us.

Secondly, the vitriol may serve an immediate purpose – to draw a massive, fat line between the parties and therefore boost both morale and sense of mission within the activist base of those parties, but over the long term, it burns bridges that we may regret in the future – for instance in a political realignment on the left caused by economic crisis, a shift by the major trade unions, or in the event of an upsurge in the racist right.  Even on a practical level, it may stop us from working on joint platforms against austerity (whichever party forms a government) or through anti-racism campaigns in the here and now. That too, can only be healthy in the eyes of the most extreme sectarians.

Thirdly – and this is something that is not generally being considered at present – those socialists and radicals who have left the Labour Party for pastures greener, or have found a new hostility for Labour leftwingers, will almost inevitably come to a point where their politics come under challenge by a strong right or centre faction. It’s possible; likely even, that they will have to deal with disappointments, and defeat.  When that day comes, it might require different tactics from the uber confident trashing of everyone else on the left. It might even be that there are lessons to be learnt from the history of the Labour left.

It would be a travesty to claim that we on the left of the Labour Party have got it all right. Far from it, but the really important thing about the experience of socialists in the Labour Party is that we have had to deal with reality, with all its disappointments, failures and challenges. That means that we have lost our innocence. Of course, that can work both ways – it can make us cynical and prone to inertia, but it can also give us the chance to “do it better” next time. As an optimist, I tend towards the latter. I think, if we got our act together, the Labour left could be a massive force for change, not just within the party, but in wider society to. Yes, we’ve been beaten, but not decisively – and we’re not the only ones. In a truly hostile climate, no group should be castigated for their defeats. You don’t have to be a fan of what we do. You don’t have to agree with us ideologically or strategically. You don’t even have to show us #solidarity. Just don’t call us “Red Tories”.

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