Apart from losing the chance of a transformative Labour government (one actually equipped to deal with the multiple crises we’re facing), one of the tragic consequences of the fracturing of the left project since 2017 has been the degeneration of our political culture. We did a lot of good things during the heady days of Corbynism, around policy, grassroots democracy, debates, conversations. There’s lots to celebrate and be proud of. But I think one thing we haven’t really confronted was the importance of creating and maintaining the space to speak, debate and argue. I think there are good reasons for that, which I will come to.
Argument, debate, and discussion are the lifeblood of the grassroots socialist movement and socialism itself. That constant dialogue is the foundations on which the labour movement has been built. It’s where we learn ourselves and understand how to convince other people. To the centre and right, with their top-down politics, debate is a nuisance, something that gets in the way of the message, and opens them up to challenge. If you understand this, you can properly understand the authoritarian streak in much of Labour right politics.
A party, organisation or a movement without argument and discussion is a stifling place to be. But that is the Labour right’s ‘comfort zone.’ In fact, it is the only political culture that the establishment is comfortable with, including Labour’s self-styled hierarchy, precisely because it preserves their power.
I believe we must always kick against this stifling political culture, as socialists. To flourish, we must be able to breathe, to think, to develop ideas and make mistakes. But I get the feeling that many of us are unwittingly falling into the trap of that closed style of politics. And I think you can trace back to where it began to take hold.
Once the centre and right passed through their grief and denial stages following the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and moved towards acceptance, they pretty soon realised that they were going to have to fight to topple him. Politics weren’t going to return to normal without a fight. 2015 and 2016 saw a spontaneous flowering of ideas and discussion that was a huge threat to the party right and the bureaucratic party machine that supported it.
The Labour right also realised that truth is a very devalued currency in British politics. To the cynical hardcore of the political establishment, this has long been the case. You can instinctively feel this if you spend just a small time in Westminster. But Corbyn’s opponents needed to take this devaluation of truth and evidence further, through the media, and in this they were knocking at an open door. So, gradually, they started their war of attrition against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, with the backing of the majority of the media and political establishment.
In some senses, the more outrageous the lies the better. What was important wasn’t evidence, but the stink that was left behind. So, the Parliamentarian with the most consistent anti-racist record became a racist. And the left, who led the anti-racist movement for decades prior to 2015, somehow became racist too.
What they relied on was that most people hadn’t paid attention to grassroots anti-racist activity before 2015 and so didn’t know the difference. They didn’t know that Jeremy Corbyn was at the forefront of community campaigns confronting prejudice, xenophobia, and racism, while the Labour right were aping the BNP. We didn’t confidently tell that story.
And that points to another weakness that the right and centre were able to exploit: the defensiveness and silence of much of the left. Partly because of an understandable awareness of the sensitivities involved, partly because of an equally understandable denting of confidence under constant attack, there was little fight. As fear grew over disciplinary action, less and less people spoke out and asked questions. But that became an enormous problem. The first problem was that people believed the lies, because we didn’t correct them strongly enough. But more important, in my view, is that it shifted our political culture. And this may have more of a long-term impact than the defeat of the Corbyn project itself.
What the successful attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters showed was how to do anti-politics in the social media age. Whereas the Corbyn campaigns of 2015/16 and the General Election showed how people could be mobilised by a positive political agenda, the counter-attack by the Labour right showed how dishonesty and negativism could be embedded, via social media. And fundamentally, the message was this: don’t worry about facts, just focus on the stink; don’t argue, silence; don’t engage, smear. And it worked.
Our job as socialists, should have been to stand up to this anti-politics. But some of us, perhaps understandably, and maybe subconsciously, absorbed these lessons and methods and started using them too. And for this, there were rewards. It was easier too – arguments and debates, winning people over to your principled position is tough and demanding, especially in a political environment which leans towards a dreary liberalism conformism and further right.
But that had an effect. And now we are faced with a political culture that feels like a prison – that avoids argument and discussion in favour of nailing people. Of course, there are plenty of spaces outside of this and I think that’s where a lot of the left are heading but the fracturing is severe. I think if left people caught in this prison look back and reflect, they will realise that where we picked up these methods was somewhere quite dark and oppressive. And that our political culture should be the opposite: confident, open, discursive, rather than dominated by fear and hatred.
I think part of the problem is the speed at which things happened under Corbyn’s leadership. We didn’t have the time to establish the informal rules about how we related to each other, how we dealt with sharp disagreement and different ideologies.
I know there are good reasons to block people, both personal and political (mental health considerations have to come into those decisions). That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of toxicity in social media and in our politics and no one should feel like abuse / harassment is the price you pay for political involvement. But we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. We don’t have to become like the centre and right. We can learn to respect each other for the views we have and our different versions of socialism etc. Dissent and argument are ok and without it we won’t build, not healthily in any case.
The problem with not confronting this political culture is that, eventually, we will shrink the space we operate in. It might feel good to have a tight-knit group, and that is a tendency on social media where everything is so immediate, but if it’s slowly turning in on itself – what eventually happens is that no one is listening out there. That is a dead end for the left – because we have so much to do, so many hearts and minds to win.
Just as we don’t borrow the policies, politics, and attitudes of the right and centre, so we shouldn’t borrow their methods. Our socialist politics thrive when they’re dynamic, argumentative, and collective – and maybe even a bit messy. That’s the space we’ve occupied historically and it’s where we belong.
In general, I find writing cathartic. Having said that, it’s taken me a year to write this, partly because of the emotions involved. Many people have written detailed analyses of Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat and the campaign and they are enormously useful, but I wanted to do something different: to try to explore the political and emotional impact of that loss and how we might recover.
This time a year ago, members of the Labour Party were waking up to defeat. By the time polling day came, many had seen the writing on the wall: for weeks, the polls had predicted a sizeable Tory majority, but even as polls closed, there were signs that the gap might be closing. For those who invested so much of their time and energy into the socialist project within the Labour Party, the exit polls confirmed our worst fears and it came like a hammer blow. As the night turned into morning, the nightmare intensified.
The realisation of that defeat and what it meant was a strange thing. Much like grief, it came in waves. The first stage was numbness, which I realised later was a kind of denial. I remember driving home from the Louisa Centre, in Stanley, where the count for Laura Pidcock’s North West Durham seat had taken place. Counts are a special kind of torture, especially when you know that you have lost: the endless checking, speculation and estimation, and finally, the sinking feeling when you realise that it has slipped away.
Through the heavy mist that enveloped Stanley and Consett, I wound my way home. Even though the journey back to Durham City was one that I’d done hundreds of times, I felt lost. It seemed to take an age, desperate as I was to get home to a comforting hug from my wife and kids. When I got in, it was past 5 o’ clock in the morning. Everyone was asleep. I sat down and tried to take it in, but just felt numb.
I had been working for Laura since July 2017, starting not long after an election campaign that had a very different feel, when I’d been working for Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition. I’d known Laura for a long time and working with her so closely for two and half years had confirmed to me that she not only has incredible political instincts, but was also a genuinely good person, so the realisation that the working relationship had come to an end was also a massive thing to absorb.
A few hours earlier, in the enormous gym hall of the Louisa Centre, much of it had been about staying in control. In truth, even when the exit poll came in, my feeling was that we’d have done enough in North West Durham to buck the national trend. As a team, and as a wider group of activists in the CLP, huge efforts had been put into campaigning, both during the election period and in the years leading up to it.
After scanning the piles of neatly bundled votes already counted, I stepped outside into the cold and spoke to Laura on the phone and relayed the news that it was looking very tight. She was remarkably calm, as if this was the news that she had been expecting. She said that she’d come through to Stanley as soon as she could. Whilst the rest of the team watched the remaining votes spill out across tables and became increasingly fidgety – and understandably upset – Laura remained composed throughout.
It’s strange working for an MP, because there is one thing that you can never share with them, especially one that is as high profile as Laura Pidcock – and that is what it is like to be watched constantly, to be in the glare of the spotlight. Staff members might get a glimpse occasionally, when someone has a pop on Twitter – normally over something that you cannot, under the terms of your contract, answer. But really, that is small beer to what someone like Laura has had to put up with over the last four years, and so, those MPs who are under intense scrutiny almost have to train themselves to not show emotion, in public or online. Remember, in her short time as MP, Laura lost her dad, who was not only her rock and mentor, but also – as she said in her brilliant Miners’ Gala speech – her best friend. And, while being subject to almost constant bile from the right-wing tabloids, she also had a baby. These are no small things for anyone to cope with, but being in the public eye, it is an enormous pressure.
Clearly, for Laura as well as all of us packed into that gym hall – the office staff, the activists, the Labour members – and those watching at home on TV – losing North West Durham was a devastating defeat. Politically, because of the representative role that would now be in the hands of a free-marketeer, former Conservative Party Deputy Head of Press in a land decimated by Thatcherite policies. On a personal level, considering the commitment that Laura put into that role (right from the starting pistol of her Maiden Speech, which so signalled her intent), she must have felt that very intensely. Nobody expects hearts to bleed for MPs, Laura as much as anyone else, but having witnessed at first-hand what she went through between 2017 and 2019, the sense of personal loss and emptiness has to have been considerable.
People often think that people involved in politics – whether MPs or their staff – are machines. I can understand that and a lot of it is the responsibility of politicians themselves, at least those who trot out pre-prepared lines, or cloak themselves in the language of managerialism. But what that has engendered is a real lack of empathy from much of the public and genuine hostility to anyone who might show emotion, anger at injustice or – God forbid – make the occasional mistake. We say we don’t want robots, but when our representatives stray from the script, we nail them.
Clearly, we all make mistakes in the course of our lives, and it is no different for people in politics. I’ve noticed a tendency amongst people, especially on social media, to treat politicians as if they are there simply to defend their records, as if it were impossible for them to learn, to reflect on their own mistakes and analyse defeats. People are still hammering Laura for losing a “safe” Labour seat, with no concept of how complex that question is – it is certainly not something that can be answered in 140 characters.
For the Labour Party to bounce back in the North, just as for Laura Pidcock or any of the brilliant candidates who lost their seats or didn’t quite make it, the key is to make an honest assessment of where things went wrong and to rebuild ourselves on the basis of those lessons. We need to dig down into the way we run our elections, at national, regional and local level, but also what we do out of election time, as a party, in our communities.
We have to understand what it means to be a campaigning organisation, why our roots may be shallow in the very local communities we need to win. It is not just a case of re-branding our local operation as “community organising”, it means re-evaluating how we do the basics: how we get to talk to people, how we engage with those who are already fighting for their communities and how we mobilise those who aren’t.
The lessons to learn from North West Durham are manifold. I can just touch on a few things here, but in all the constituencies we lost, we must have an honest, root-and-branch evaluation of why. Of course, Brexit was a major factor – both in the sense that we were on the wrong side of the argument for many working-class communities, but also because of the lack of clarity for many others. In North West Durham, I’m convinced that many people who could have been encouraged to vote Labour based on the other policies in our manifesto, turned away from us based on what they were reading in the papers – that Labour were, at heart, a Remain party that would overturn the referendum result.
At various public meetings held during the election campaign and in the months preceding it, people would have a go at Laura for that position. Once they had listened to her explain a much more nuanced position on Brexit, their stance softened considerably. Despite the mix of politics represented in those meeting, many used Bennite arguments about the lack of accountability of the EU and were surprised to hear a Labour MP agree with them on that. But you can’t, in an election period, convince people one at a time, in the face of a media which is painting a different picture (with the help of some within the party).
In this scenario, the Tory candidate – who had virtually no profile, either online or offline – was able to sit back, rely on the national media and newspapers do his work for him, and let the damage be done to his Labour opponent. I heard a rumour that Richard Holden spent quite a bit of polling day in his car, sat in a layby outside Wolsingham, basically keeping out of the way. I don’t know if that is true, but it would make sense, because the campaigning he had to do was minimal. Our battle was to cut through the media messages and talk about the issues that mattered to Laura’s constituents, not with a fairly anonymous Tory candidate.
In addition, there are incredible pressures on someone who is promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, like Laura was. This has an effect on what someone can say as an MP, especially on the controversial issues that tend to dominate an election. Again, I don’t say this to elicit sympathy, but these constraints are tough for the MP and their team. If you are an MP, there’s always an element of collective responsibility. You are, after all, selected by members of that party and act as a member of that party in Parliament, even as a backbencher. As a Shadow Cabinet member, that pressure increases hugely – and not just in the lines that you have to accept, but in the events you are expected to attend, taking you out of your constituency, and the endless round of media appearances.
Of course, there is an argument that socialists like Laura should forego Shadow Cabinet positions and focus on their constituency. Being a backbencher gives you a good deal more autonomy. But that discounts the fact that Laura and those MPs who did those frontbench jobs were committed to the socialist project represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. It gave her and us as a team the chance to work with outstanding people like John Hendy and Keith Ewing to develop transformational workers’ rights policies that would have real impact in the community Laura was representing.
I think it’s a balancing act and it could well be that we got the balance wrong: certainly, there was an impression of Laura being a ‘high flyer’ and out of the constituency, pursuing her career – a false impression, as it happens, because she spent more time in her constituency and did more surgeries than most MPs. I have to say, too, that the talk of Laura as a ‘future leader’ of the party was possibly damaging locally. Two years in, people expected the focus to be on the constituency. It was (we had a rule in the office that anything we did had to be of benefit to the constituents, the movement or both). I was witness to Laura inviting some of her strongest local critics, those loudest voices on social media, into our constituency office, listening to them and trying to win them over – and often succeeding. Laura has never been a self-publicist, quite the opposite. She has strong views but is very grounded – anyone who knows her well will tell you that. Again, though, we were battling against a media perception, fuelled by social media outrage.
With all of these things stacked against us, how could we have responded? I’ve never advocated a defeatist attitude to politics; I simply don’t believe that Brexit made it a done deal. Nor do I think that it is impossible to get your messages to people directly, manoeuvring around the media narrative. I do think, however, that it takes an enormous amount of planned, disciplined and hard work. Some of that work can be done by a good social media presence, but increasingly, I’m realising that we can’t rely on that: we have to go deep into communities and do the hard yards.
A lot of people will say that we did that. And of course, the amount of work that local activists have done over the last five years is exceptional, both during election time and the weekly campaigns that are run by volunteers who just want to change things in their communities. However (and this has been recognised by local activists in Broxtowe, for instance) there is a real issue with the way that we do this campaigning. My view – and I accept that this is part of a huge debate, so it is not fixed – is that it is time to reconsider some of the fundamentals: the door knocking; the reliance on leaflet drops; the standalone petitions on the high street and the way we do street stalls altogether.
One of my impressions of the campaign in North West Durham was that it was hard to get to talk to people, especially those who had seemingly made up their mind due to Brexit. Getting through to those exact people was key to winning or losing that seat. The Tories, as I’ve already noted, didn’t need to speak to them: the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ had already done its work. But we needed to talk to them, and it needed to be meaningful – not a snatched word on the high street, not ‘will you be voting for us?’ on a doorstep, but a genuine conversation, starting with asking and listening. Richard Holden, the Conservative candidate won by just over 1,100 votes. Winning some of those voters in this kind of political environment, plus encouraging other to get out to vote, wouldn’t have been easy, but neither was it impossible. But it would have required more, in depth conversations.
Where could those conversations be had? It’s hard, maybe even unlikely, to be able to do this in the confines of a short General Election campaign. Firstly, people will assume that the conversations on the doorstep are not genuine, because the canvassers are “just trying to win votes”. There’s some truth to this. Secondly, by knocking on people’s doors, or stopping them while they are doing their shopping, we are immediately intruding on their private space. Immediately, the relationship is skewed. They want to get away, you want to engage them in conversation. Unless you are the best communicator in the world (and some Labour Party members are brilliant at this, no doubt), you are going to struggle to get anything meaningful out of that situation. We need to rethink this.
The answer lies in community organising: not a superficial, branded version of it, but a real, long-term commitment to working together with communities in all their diversity, to build relationships based on trust and respect. It should also foreground winning victories – small at first, but with the aim of increasing people’s confidence. Because, at the moment, many people don’t feel like they can win – and if we’re serious about community organising, we have to understand why and how we can change that, not by imposing ourselves on communities or individuals, but by being part of their struggles.
The community meetings Laura called around the North West Durham constituency were important, and we didn’t have the time to do enough of that. These public meetings didn’t have an agenda or a theme. The idea was that people could raise whatever they wanted, and Laura would answer. They were tough sessions, and tense at times because clearly people were angry. But also, they were some of the most genuine conversations that we had (outside of the surgery meetings), where Laura could listen and respond and there could be dialogue. It didn’t take too much for some common ground to be found. Of course, there are other ways to do this: we could try to revive Labour clubs, like they have in Wakefield; or we can get involved in small, community campaigns and initiatives which opens the door to talk to people in a less adversarial space.
Either way, I think it’s important to discuss this seriously, because it’s not just about the way we run our election campaigns better, it’s the way we rebuild the party and the left within it. We can’t do that until we make genuine inroads into working class communities. Ask yourself where the gaps are? Often, or at least in many constituencies, it is the working-class areas. That coincides with those people being attracted to some easy solutions offered in the form of slogans on behalf of the Brexit Party and the Tories. When it comes down to it, that’s not about people being inherently xenophobic or racist (though that does clearly exist) but being alienated by a political class that has not listened to them for a long time.
We have to reverse that alienation, and that means being brave. It also means questioning what we’ve always done. We cannot rely on raising our banners, writing our manifestos, delivering our leaflets and having our meetings and hoping for the best. Fundamentally, this is about getting stuck in – into the messy world of conflictual, but real, politics. Until we do that, with honesty and self-reflection, I think we will struggle to win back Red Wall seats like North West Durham in any meaningful way. Because it’s not just about winning elections, it’s about winning hearts and minds in the communities that have the most to gain from the redistributive, socialist policies that we all advocate for.
People keep saying, “Don’t leave, organise? But we were organised. And look what happened to us!”.
But just looking at the reaction of the socialist left in the Labour Party – scattering in a thousand different directions – tells a very different story. We weren’t organised, at least not enough to withstand the attacks. And we must ask why.
At the heart of defeat is always failure. That is hard for us to listen to, because so many of us put our heart and soul into the Corbyn movement, but actually that isn’t the way to look at it. Failure is part of life and is almost always a collective responsibility. To learn, we have to analyse our failures, no matter what campaign, union or party we are in.
Of course, it’s always easier to blame others: external factors are definitely part of defeat too. We know, for example, that without Brexit, the political landscape would have been very different. But here’s the thing. Those external factors are often things we cannot change – they are the facts of political life: as socialists, the press will always attack us; as socialists, the people who hanker after a New Labour renaissance will always exploit our weaknesses; as socialists, the establishment will close ranks to us and engineer victories for the centre and right, precisely because it preserves their privilege and power. Those are, for the moment, unmovable objects.
But unless we think that things are beyond our control; that history is not to be written by the likes of us; that we have no agency – in other words, unless we despair, we have to have a serious and analytical discussion, across the movement, of where we went wrong. This is absolutely not about navel gazing, it’s what any genuine political project has to do to learn & make sure that next time, we’re stronger. The things we can do something about, that are in our control, no matter how difficult the process is. Without that self-analysis, we’ll leap from failure to failure, without even understanding why.
What that discussion requires is honesty. Currently, I’m not seeing that from many quarters. What I’m seeing is deflection, the burying of mistakes and a rebranding exercise. That’s not good enough. We lost. Our supporters are scattered, demoralised and abandoning the fight, and the response from many on the left can be summarised as “covering our own backs”. We have to be more mature, politically speaking, than that. We have to talk about why we suffered these defeats and that discussion has to be genuinely reflective.
I know people don’t like doing this. Honest discussion is difficult, it causes rows, it’s against our natural protective instinct to bury bad news and for a brand new, shiny “unity”. But there are some real, hard facts here: we will not move on and we will not rebuild until we have a serious reckoning of the last five years. Warts and all.
I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘confessional’ approach to politics. Collective experience is what really matters. Occasionally, however, there are political situations where you get this over-riding sense of history repeating itself, that we’ve been here before. Many of us will have that feeling at the moment, so – just for a few minutes – I’d like to share my experience, not as some sort of prescription, but as the kicking off point for an updated, revamped discussion of where we are.
30 years ago, I joined the Labour Party as an 18-year-old, but without any real enthusiasm. My activism at the time was channelled through the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. It gave young people like me, with energy to burn, the outlet to campaign, organise and – importantly – to win. At last, we’d found real leverage against the Thatcher Government and, boy, did it feel good.
Obviously, many of us involved in the poll tax campaign, ended up being organised and trained by the Militant (‘caderised’ is the official term, I believe). Although I soon realised that these strictures were not for me, I don’t regret that experience or what it taught me. People love to label anyone who was ever a member of that organisation, but the truth is that it was the Labour Party’s failure to enthuse at the time, it’s awful, stifling political culture, that led people to find other routes for their activist energies.
At its root, that internal culture was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party. The idea was, that, after a succession of defeats, the thing that would break the spell was to turn the party into a more respectable, managerial party – top down, besuited and efficient. It quickly felt like there wasn’t a place for people like me. I left the Labour Party with a parting shot, delivered via letter, to party leader Tony Blair, who had just scrapped Clause IV in a big gesture of symbolic intent aimed at the party’s left.
For the next few years, I went from party to party, looking for a political home and a way to express my socialism. This was a time when all the discussion on the left was about a ‘new workers party’. I ended up in the Socialist Alliance for a time, and then in the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party. It was a frustrating time, filled with disappointment – as I watched political projects come and go, flare up in great excitement as “the next big thing”, then crash and burn with people becoming increasingly sectarian. I felt again like a bystander, like politics was something that was being done to me.
At that time, I read a lot about the trade unions and organising. I found a home of sorts in the labour movement, where, suddenly, the things I did made an impact. And it made me realise that you could spend the rest of your life looking for that perfect organisation, but it wouldn’t mean anything if you failed to become an actor within it. It was that realisation that eventually brought me back to the Labour Party, even when I my disagreements with the leadership were strong and even though little had changed with that internal, top down, political culture.
But something had changed, far away from the party hierarchy. In my time as a trade union organiser, I constantly came across people who expressed socialist values, many of whom had held their tongues during the high point of New Labour, but as that project was disintegrating, were questioning it’s fundamental principles and finding their voices, collectively. I discovered a whole load of other activists who had kept their membership cards in their back pockets, but who were finally starting to talk to each other.
Via social media, some of us came together. A group of us began developing a project called Red Labour, aimed at challenging the dominance of Blairite thinking, now becoming stale even on its own terms. We also came together to rebut the lazy and insidious ideas behind an emerging current in the party – Blue Labour – which fancied itself as a successor to New Labour, based on a traditionalist reading of Labour history and values, many of them with racist underpinnings.
Suddenly, it took off. Facebook proved to be an ideal forum to organise ourselves. People’s confidence soared from discovering that there were thousands of other members of the Labour Party who not only thought like them, with socialist principles, but who wanted to campaign and organise – whether that was over the bedroom tax, public sector strikes or challenging the rise of the BNP. Managerialism was going out of fashion. There were still people arguing for a new party, as there have been throughout the history of the movement, but this time, I was sure where my strategic loyalty was at.
This was, of course, the seeds of the Corbyn project taking root, and the next few years saw an unprecedented organising effort on the left of the party, augmented by a mass influx of left-wing activists into the Labour ranks, enthused and inspired by the Labour leadership campaign. But one of the most important aspects of that summer of 2015 was the collective organising approach of the Corbyn campaign. It was as if we turned all the years of tightly controlled, micro-managed politics of the New Labour years and turned it on its head.
The Corbyn campaign, as brilliantly captured by Alex Nunns’ book, ‘The Candidate’, was grassroots, creative and inclusive. For a summer, we put aside our differences and organised, truly organised, as a movement. I have discussed the social media campaign here (more detailed and slightly more academic version here), and what I tried to convey was that it was not a centralised, highly managed operation, but one that sourced it’s ideas and creativity from a wider movement, and fed back to that movement in turn. In the true sense, it gave masses of people ownership over the political project.
I think, somewhere along the line, we lost some of that. This isn’t the place to discuss when, where or why that happened, but I think my own, personal history tells me that it isn’t lost forever – and what really counts in politics is people’s engagement, their decision to become participants rather than bystanders.
An old comrade of mine used to come in the People’s Bookshop towards the end of the bad, old days and say: “You know, Ben, the problem is that too many people have become consumers in politics, happy to be entertained or angered, rather than grab it by the scruff of the neck and change it.” I have never forgotten that. We must never go back, but even more important, we must work together, as actors in our own movement.
I don’t think it’s useful for us, as socialists, to see the mainstream media as some kind of conspiracy (e.g in league with the Government or directly “doing their bidding”). Ironically, if anything, that might underestimate the problem, while also allowing people who work in those institutions to avoid responsibility – because they will not recognise this labelling. This seems to me strategically wrong. I want to explain why.
In fact, the situation with our major media sources (the surviving press, our public broadcasters and our private media corporations) is both more serious and more entrenched than this. It’s partly about class and partly about a centrist, unquestioning culture that has developed within national institutions like the BBC (but also other big media institutions) over decades and under successive Governments.
The class dimension has been well documented, but bears restating: the mainstream media overwhelmingly recruits from privileged group – whether they be middle or upper class – mainly, but not exclusively Oxbridge. Naturally, their politics will be right of centre / centrist. Of course there are exceptions, sometimes quite visible, but these are the norms.
What that well trodden recruitment route (and the cultures it reproduces) excludes are radical, dissenting and working class voices. Certainly very few left wing socialists will be in a position to take jobs within those media hierarchies, even if they wanted to, because the structures are deeply entrenched. They have evolved over decades. That exclusion of different, questioning voices, then dictates a culture and ideology within these media institutions. Naturally, those who share the ideology are rewarded, those who don’t are not. We don’t need to be conspiracy theorists to understand this: it’s the way most big institutions work. Media is no different.
What this has done, over decades now, is to entrench a centrist ideology (either of the centre right or centre left) at the heart of our media institutions. Apart from the odd token exception, this has become the entitled and intolerant modus operandi, seemingly unshakeable. Undoubtedly, within the BBC, some of the changes David Cameron made to BBC governance around 2016 will also have had an impact at a senior level – I don’t deny that – but I think the deeper, cultural forces at play are even more instrumental.
What Corbyn’s election and the rise of socialism has done however, is to (a) introduce a lot of ideas which this centrism doesn’t understand or recognise as legitimate and (b) project individuals into the political “mainstream” that the media establishment thought they’d long since dispatched and isolated. These people and ideas, though mainstream to us on the left, seem weirdly anachronistic to the media class.
Having to deal with these interlopers and what they think as ‘outdated’ ideas, clearly annoys them. You can see the overt manifestations of this annoyance in the way presenters talk to the likes of Owen Jones, Diane Abbott or even Jeremy Corbyn. This is not necessarily a conscious thing, but works at deeper level, running through the organisation. A big clue is when the language used to question or interrogate Corbyn’s team, supportive MPs or socialist members is designed to marginalise: that, despite overwhelming leadership election wins, and the best election result since 1997, this is still an isolated, freakish occurrence.
So, in many ways the BBC (and Sky, Channel 4 etc) can be said to be institutionally centrist. In my view, this isn’t a conspiracy, in the sense of an overt, deliberate strategy, but an evolving culture. This is important distinction because it dictates the way we, as leftists, understand and deal with it. To change this is generational thing more important than exposing a “conspiracy”. It’s about democratising media, challenging entrenched values, empowering working class voices and changing the cultures which exclude them. And building alternatives where this can’t be achieved.
This time, three years ago, on September 12th, 2015, I was preparing to walk into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall just down the road from Westminster, for the announcement of the Labour Party’s next leader, after the most extraordinary summer. I had been part of a team which had taken Jeremy Corbyn from 200-1 no-hoper to odds-on favourite in the space of three months. We had worked so hard, with hardly a break, and now it had all come to this. The day itself was surreal. Of course, we knew we had won, but we didn’t know by how much, or what the reaction would be. And it still felt a little unreal, as we watched the likes of Tristram Hunt slope past and into the building, knowing there was nothing they could do to stop the juggernaut.
Labour Party leadership announcements tend to be very structured, formal events. There is normally a clamour to be seated near the front, amongst the great and good, and of course, in front of the cameras. This time was a little different. Those who had passes to get in to the conference hall, the party staff, the MPs and assorted apparatchiks seemed a little less interested than normal, and were milling around in the lobby, gossiping and looking a little subdued. They knew the reality as much as we did. And although they’d spent much of the campaign hoping that we’d break, and ‘normal service’ would resume, by now they had accepted the inevitable. As the doors opened, there was no rush to get in the room, with just a trickle of people heading for the seats.
We took our chance: as regional organisers, campaigners and social media co-ordinators, we marched up to the front and sat in the first two rows without reserved signs on, and just in front of John Prescott, who’d already been seated for some time, and who gave us a smile and joked about being placed in amongst the troublemakers. There we sat, excitedly chattering, in two big rows, as the important people came trundling in. The look on the faces of the MPs was a picture, as they muttered under their breath. A few of them started to object, and there was much pointing and gesticulating, but you could see them weigh up the risks of asking us to leave and making a fuss.
What it meant was that, when the announcement was made, there was an explosion of noise and joy from the third row back: people shouting, jumping up and beaming as the reality of the margin of victory dawned on our organisers and supporters. Beforehand, we’d actually discussed as a group how we should react – and all agreed that we would be calm and collected, applauding politely. Well, that went out of the window as soon as the words “And, therefore, Jeremy Corbyn is duly elected leader of the Labour Party”. And it didn’t stop. We were staring at each other, hugging and cheering. It was a massive release of emotion after the sheer grind of the last three months, now rewarded with a proud socialist at the head of the Labour Party. Everything had changed in that moment.
Meanwhile, the two rows in front sat quietly stunned, as they too took in the scale of the defeat. It was a big symbolic moment, which the press cameras picked up, but what it symbolised was not just about the people in that room, but the whole of the wider movement which had grafted so hard during that summer, making this victory possible: the volunteers at the TSSA offices on Euston Road, the thousands who’d phone-banked up and down the country, the huge numbers who’d organised online, under the organising direction of the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Leader’ campaign, Red Labour and the many hundreds of DIY Corbynite groups who mobilised tens of thousands. It had come down to this moment.
I was just about the only one still seated: I had a job to do. As I tweeted the good news through our Jeremy for Leader campaign account, I thought of all those people who shared equally in this stunning victory – how people had just dropped everything, without any thought about reward or benefit, just because they were deep down good people, who wanted a different sort of politics and a new kind of society. I knew that, all around the country, there were people screaming, hugging and whooping as they took a share in this victory. We had done it. We had changed the Labour Party for ever, and while I sat there, my emotions took hold of me and I struggled to hold it together.
As we look back at that day, it’s important to remember that sense of positivity and togetherness, not because of some sense of nostalgia, but because we’re going to need a lot more of it in the weeks, months and years to come. Changing a party, never mind our society, is never easy. It rarely happens quickly, or smoothly. It is hard, hard work and it feels like there is little reward at times. As Tony Benn famously said:
“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”
But when we work together, in solidarity, we are learning all the time. We’re educating ourselves how to work collectively. When the victories come, we know how hard they will have been won, and that it’s due to the whole, not individuals. This has to be biggest lesson of the 12th of September 2015. The biggest reward we can ever ask for is that unity and sense of comradeship that comes from fighting together and winning together. Here’s to the next three years! And then the three after…
My first best friend was a Jewish kid with Egyptian heritage. He lived next door to me and, being a year older than me, was my absolute hero. I used to follow him around and although not really understanding it, I was aware of his Jewishness. Later, after we had moved away, we came back to go to his bar mitzvah and I can always remember finding the five pound note (hidden behind the piano music) and being very proud. Not long afterwards, I went on a school trip to Lightwater Valley, and there were some Hasidic Jewish children in the queue. I heard one of our class call them ‘yids’. It instantly sent a shiver down my spine and I was upset and angry when I got home, though again not understanding fully.
Growing up, our house was full of people from all over the world. My mum was a TEFL teacher and we had a constant stream of people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iran and China. It seemed almost every weekend, there would be some party with incredible food from different parts of the globe, and chatter about politics. Many of them were asylum seekers and refugees, and I would strike up conversations with them, and learn about their world. I remember clearly one time when two guys from Southern Africa (I think it may have been Mozambique) found out that I was a Bob Marley fan, and the next week one of them had gone out to buy an LP – ‘Survival’ – for me, incredible for someone who would have had very little money at the time. Even at that age, I knew what that meant, though. It was an act of solidarity and anti-racism. I learnt so much from those early experiences.
As a teenager, and as someone who’d been surrounded by people from so many nationalities, I was immensely affected by images I saw on the news, in films and in the papers from Apartheid South Africa. Even learning about Sharpeville, the Soweto Uprising and the Rivonia trials felt like living history, because I knew it was still happening, I was reading about it and absorbing that anger at racism and injustice into my very soul. I’d become an anti-racist, long before I was ever a socialist.
Around the age of 13/14, I decided that I needed to do something. I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, going to meetings in Northumberland and Durham and joining marches as they wound their way through the North East on the way to London. One weekend, I cajoled my little sister to make a big banner out of a bedsheet. It’s said: ‘Hey, Botha. Don’t mess with my Tutu!’. We took it down, on a coach by ourselves, to a big demonstration in Hyde Park where Desmond Tutu was speaking, and to this day I’m convinced that he acknowledged it as we struggled to raise it between ourselves, in amongst the crowds.
In the following years I read Biko, Malcolm X and even tried some Frantz Fanon. This stuff really interested me and excited me, but it lead me to socialism and Marxism, not the other way round. By the time I got to University, I knew I was a socialist, and started hanging around with the paper sellers, eventually joining Militant (they seemed more interested in life beyond the student union). One of the things that disturbed me, though, was that (maybe subconsciously), issues of race were often subsumed under a catch-all call to ‘unite the working class’. That seemed to me to be ignoring the needs of black and ethnic minority communities to address their own specific oppression. I felt uncomfortable with all that, and partly as a result, I didn’t stick around too long.
At Leeds University, and after, I threw myself into anti-racist campaigning. Confronting the far right, en masse, seemed an important and powerful expression of solidarity. In these years, I found it difficult to find a political home. I joined, and left the Labour Party, joined and left the Socialist Alliance, even had a spell in Arthur Scargill’s SLP and ended up back in Labour again, only to leave over the Iraq War and rejoin after Blair. Throughout that time, however, my anti-racism was a constant. I organised, small and big, I discussed how we could build anti-racism in the Labour Party, in unions and communities, so it wasn’t an add on, but something integral to what we are.
At times over that period , within the Labour movement, it was a bit of a lonely place to be. As New Labour took hold, fewer and fewer Labour MPs wanted to do the demos, develop the broad left alliances and the active work in communities. Only the Socialist Campaign Group Of Labour MPs would regularly come out to support us, and out of that group, Jeremy Corbyn would almost always be the first and most constant supporter. Amongst the party (and union) hierarchy, on the other hand, there became a stigma attached to big anti-racist mobilisations and I recall hearing Labour councillors say that a physical presence should be avoided, as it was just “picking at a wound”.
I became a trade union organiser myself, and specialised in supporting migrant workers to achieve their rights by joining trade unions. As Gordon Brown was talking about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, I was organising with Polish immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I made myself unpopular with some in the union hierarchy by arguing that sectarianism and factionalism should be left at the door when campaigning against the ever-increasing threat of the BNP. In truth, though it was probably for the best, my union career was ended by the stance that I took.
While I started a PhD on trade unions and migrant workers, which covered the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester by Ugandan Asian women in the 70s, I also threw myself back into grassroots anti-racist organising. I helped set up the County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition with a couple of friends. The group later went on to organise one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Durham against the visit of the far right under the banner ‘Bishop Auckland Against Islam’. 300 filled Millenium Square. Set against the safe, and inconsequential ‘box ticking’ anti-racism which has become commonplace in our movement – e.g a pop up stand in the corner of County Hall – this was where I felt at home.
Racism made me angry as a kid, long before I understood socialism and the economic chains that bind all of us. This is a story common to many of us on the left, and especially those who have come into the Labour Party since 2015 – and who frankly will have seen the party’s efforts as inadequate pre-Corbyn and perhaps understandably so (David Blunkett’s punitive and uncaring approach to immigration, Phil Woolas’ behaviour, and those bloody immigration mugs being a handful of recent examples).
I make mistakes. Like everyone in this movement, I get things wrong. When I do, I kind of expect to be called out on it. If it’s justified, I will try to reflect on it. That is fair and right. This is politics – debate is part of the lifeblood of the party and the movement, and if you can’t take criticism, it may not be for you. However, that is a very different thing from throwing around the word ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’ as a way of scoring political points, when even the accuser knows in their heart of hearts it’s unfair and wrong. So, call me what you like, criticise my decisions and pull me up for my mistakes. Rip into my politics and question my outlook. But don’t ever call me a racist.
In the aftermath of Labour’s phenomenal performance in the 2017 General Election, Tony Blair called on Jeremy Corbyn to return Labour to the centre ground or face political wilderness, warning of the ills of “unreconstructed hard-left economics.” However Corbyn used his 2017 New Years’ message to proclaim that Labour was “stalking out a new centre ground.” What is this lucrative centre ground and who has the key to capturing it? Is it Tony Blair, whose quest to capture the centre led New Labour into a triangulation of twenty years of Thatcherite politics; or is it Jeremy Corbyn, whose manifesto of nationalisation and redistribution, and commitment to peace, has transformed the nature of political debate in Britain? Does the centre ground even exist?
A very important comparison can be drawn between 2017 and the 1945 general election, in which Labour won its first ever majority. Long the orthodoxy among historians, Paul Addison’s contention that “consensus fell, like a branch of ripe plums, into Mr. Attlee’s lap” has seen the post-war period treated as a time of agreement between political parties in which debate was constrained within parameters that were set by the wartime coalition: a mixed economy, the priority of controlling unemployment and a welfare state were the main areas of convergence. Is this the fabled centre ground?
Not according to Winston Churchill. During the 1945 election campaign, Churchill made an explicit comparison between Labour and the Nazi Party by stating that a Labour government would require “some form of Gestapo” in order to implement its programme, only weeks after Belsen had been liberated. Similar smear tactics against Corbyn clearly affected Labour’s performance before the general election, but in June 2017 over 40% of the public voted for Labour- people who obviously did not take completely seriously the claims that Corbyn is a threat to national security. That the public largely rejected the claims that Corbyn and Clement Attlee were hard-left extremists suggests that their politics were far closer to the views of the average person than those of their right-wing detractors.
The assertion by many historians that all politics was conducted from the centre in 1945 is not evident in Labour’s domestic policies. While the Labour governments set about nationalising vast swathes of industry, the Conservative manifesto summed up emphatically in favour of the free-market, arguing that “Nationalisation involves a state monopoly, with no proper protection for anyone against monopoly power. Neither that nor any other form of unfettered monopoly should be allowed to exist in Britain.” While maintaining nationalised industries such as coal and rail, the 1951 Conservative government privatised the steel industry. Evidently, the Conservatives had been forced into accepting a settlement that they were ideologically opposed to since it aligned with the majority of public opinion.
The “unreconstructed hard-left economics” that Tony Blair has warned of bear a lot of resemblance to the policies that won Labour a landslide in 1945. Despite attempts to portray Corbyn and John McDonnell as unpatriotic Marxist extremists, these economics are firmly within the boundaries of Keynesian management theory. And they’re popular- 53% of people in a recent YouGov poll said the they supported the nationalisation of energy companies. Nationalisation is back on the agenda and like in 1945, Labour is winning the argument.
Aneurin Bevan led the Labour government towards creating the NHS in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association, who were backed by the Tories. Although concessions were made to allow private patients, Labour’s NHS was a dramatic step towards universality of provision. Labour’s own wartime policy, outlined in the 1943 publication ‘A National Service for Health’, did not advocate nationalisation of the hospitals. Instead wartime Labour and then the Tories and some members of the 1945 Labour government supported a tripartite system, which preserved voluntary and charitable hospitals. However, Bevan referred to these voluntary and charitable hospitals as an important source of ‘political and social patronage’ for the Tories and pressed ahead with nationalisation. The principle of charity, where welfare is voluntary and totally dependent on the kindness of individuals, is alien to a socialist system and if it were not for Bevan’s efforts, it might have been the basis of our health service today. The NHS is phenomenally popular and perhaps the most enduring achievement of Labour; so popular that these days the Conservatives have had to resort to privatising the system under flowery language such as ‘Accountable Care Organisations’, all while proclaiming their love for nationalised health care.
It would be a positive step towards defending public health care if Labour were to lend their full support towards the NHS reinstatement bill, as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and others have done in the past. Since the public are overwhelmingly in favour of public healthcare (83% favoured nationalised healthcare in the recent YouGov poll), it falls upon Labour to make the connection between the public’s desire for nationalised health care and the reversal of decades of privatisation.
Where the left is most disappointed by the 1945-51 Labour governments is in foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers were placed in domestic departments- Bevan had both housing and health- whereas those on the right of the party were given foreign policy roles. As a result, Labour’s foreign policy accepted the pro-American orientation of the post-war world. Opposition to American dominance came from the Labour left, with Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Seymour Cocks, Raymond Blackburn and a dozen other Labour members voting against America’s multi-billion dollar loan to the UK, which entailed commitments to NATO. Although there were some differences between Labour and Conservative foreign policy, most notably on Indian independence, the efforts of some Labour MP’s to create a socialist foreign policy failed. Jingoism prevailed and Britain developed its first nuclear weapon. Ernest Bevin summed up the mood among the Labour leadership: “we’ve got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it!”
Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to peace sets him apart from the majority of the PLP like no other issue. Although Labour’s 2017 manifesto remained committed to Trident and the 2% of GDP military spending target, there was a moment during the 2017 election campaign that turned the whole debate around foreign policy on its head and in many ways summed up the Corbyn project. Straight after the Manchester terror attack, Corbyn delivered a speech that highlighted the role that British foreign policy in the Middle East plays in fostering terrorism. It totally unconventional for an opposition leader to deliver a political statement on such an issue. If the press and right-wing politicians were to pick a moment to deliver their fell blow and brandish him as a terrorist sympathiser forever, this would be it. Yet Labour’s poll ratings continued to rise. Jeremy Corbyn must continue to demonstrate the merits of an anti-war foreign policy and dispel the myth that wars win elections.
So whose model of the centre ground works best? Is it Tony Blair’s assertion that elections are won by agreeing with your opponents on most major political questions, or is it Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the many by putting out a distinctly redistributive platform? Labour won a landslide in 1945 by disagreeing with the Tories. If we are confident in our left-wing beliefs, then we should be promoting them without hesitation. What Labour proved in 1945 and are proving again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election is that the centre ground of public opinion is malleable and responds to political arguments. Tony Blair’s impression that centrists are above left/right politics- that they don’t stand for anything- is disingenuous. A centre ground of politicians who go a third way on essentially binary issues such as public or private does not exist- all must take sides. And ever more increasingly of late, these so-called centrists are being proved out of touch with a newly febrile public opinion. Socialists in the Labour Party must resist all efforts to return the party to Blair’s centre ground.
One of the broader issues raised by Laura Pidcock’s comments about not befriending Tory MPs is that it’s clear that many people just don’t get representative democracy. This has also come up over Brexit. I don’t think it’s people’s own fault, but a symptom of the bland, centrist politics encouraged by our political establishment (including New Labour) for many years, which is now getting a big kick up the arse by a more combative politics represented by the 2015-17 intake of Labour MPs and a more polarised political culture.
Because of that polarisation currently happening, the idea of representation is now back on the agenda. How do our MPs actually represent us? But because of the almost depoliticised atmosphere generated by the middle in British politics, confusion reigns – about what party politics means and how our representatives do their jobs.
Three things feature.
Firstly, people see Parliament (or rather, the corridors of power at Westminster) as the arena where policy is “thrashed out”, or negotiated. They often compare it to a work place. So, of course, the story goes, you need to view your fellow MPs as “work colleagues”. What sort of person would seek constant argument and confrontation at work? This idea connects very strongly with liberal, British, middle class sensibilities: that the project, in life and in politics, is to seek compromise, and work towards the best outcome – which will always be the moderate outcome.
But Parliament isn’t a workplace, not in that sense. It’s is an arena, sure, but a place where competing ideologies, mandates and political manifestos are represented. The really clever move by the centrist politicians who have dominated over the last 20 years or so was to hide that fact and present it as common sense. The result was that private financial interests, the backbone of those centrist politics, were represented very well, thank you. Post-2008, and in the era of Bernie and Corbyn, that clearly does not wash any more.
Secondly, and related, there is this idea that politicians are there to represent the views, very directly, of their constituents. This is a bit more of a tricky one, because in some senses it’s true. MPs do represent every one of their constituents. They can’t, realistically, select only those who voted for them to represent. But it very much depends on what you mean by “represent”. If that means the MP taking on, uncritically, the majority view of their constituency on every matter, then no. That would be an entirely different model of democracy (and practically, would have to depend on referenda on each of those issues to ensure accuracy).
Representative party democracy works in a very different way. A candidate in an election, stands on a policy platform, ideally presented in a clear manifesto, but also by what they say during the campaign. A party candidate stands under that party name, associated with a set of policies. Their job is to explain those policies to the electorate during the election campaign. If enough people trust what they say and enough people put a cross a cross next to their name, that candidate becomes the MP – on that programme. That’s the deal.
The idea that MPs are there just to uncritically reflect every individual issue in the constituency is wrong. That’s not representative democracy. No MP in the history of Parliament has ever done that. A Labour MP, voted in on a clear Labour manifesto, needs combine that policy programme with the interests of their constituents the best they can. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they do that at the next General Election, when everyone gets the chance to vote them in / out again.
Thirdly, and again linked, is a real misunderstanding of the function of parties. I remember sitting in a local pub a few months ago with a bunch of Labour socialists. We were talking about getting our message out through social media, when we noticed a guy listening in. He was clearly itching to say something. He told us that he was appalled by what we were saying, and that somehow we were ‘manipulating’ ordinary people, who should just be left alone to “make their own minds up”.
Apart from the very obvious point about the influence of the media, it struck me that this is symptomatic of the way many people see politics, that they are a little frightened of what they see as “confrontational” politics, based around ideology. Again, some if this has been fostered by the anti-politics of New Labour (at a national and local level), but also by a suspicion of political ideas generally. This hasn’t always been the case. Both the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherism which followed brought to the fore a more combative, working class grassroots politics, but it was muffled by Kinnock and Blair. I think the rise of Corbyn and the movements around him is changing this, but we still have a long way to go.
So, when Laura Pidcock comes into Parliament and says that she is there to represent her community and her class, not play Parliamentary games; when she declares that she will not give the Tories a moment to breathe, she’s not only coming up against the sneering of the right-wing establishment, but a more general cynicism about politics: that somehow there’s something inherently suspicious about someone who has a clear ideological standpoint. The former is to be expected, and welcomed. It’s good that the Tories and their chums in the media are upset. The latter is our real challenge.