Dear Labour Councillor…

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Dear Labour Councillor,

Don’t blame me – it was your choice to stand as a representative of the people, for the Labour Party – also known as the People’s Party. If you are now being held to account for your decisions which you have made in the course of that duty, representing that party, that is very much par for the course.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t make you wave through a pay cut which would have amounted to a 23% pay cut or more than £5,000 a year for some of the most valued and worst rewarded public servants that we have in County Durham. I’m not the one who seemed to think Teaching Assistants washed paint pots for a living.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who unquestioningly took the officers’ word for it when they told you that you must vote for an imposed TA contract which was inevitably going to cause such grief and hardship. I wasn’t the one who failed to check out the validity of the legal advice, to research the talk of equal pay claims, and above all, whose conscience didn’t twig. We vote for you to represent us. We don’t vote for Chief Executives.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the Labour member who made my excuses, walked out or abstained over the crucial vote, when there was still the option of speaking out, of being a leader, a hero even. When there was still the chance to join with the trade union movement and presenting a solid bloc against Tory austerity, I wasn’t the one who ducked out.

Don’t blame me – I didn’t force you to pick a fight with the county’s equivalent of NHS nurses: incredibly strong women with the respect of teachers, parents, communities, even some Heads. You’re supposed to be a politician – aren’t you supposed to think ahead, have a strategic sense?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who has invested so much power in one or two ‘leaders’ – the leader of the Labour Group and his trusty lieutenants. I even warned you, when you were voting through care home closures, hiving off Leisure Centres to community groups with hardly a peep, because they were the “tough decisions” you were supposed to make, right?

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who buried their head in the sand when the dislocation between DCC and local communities was becoming evident. I’m not the one who “objected” when being warned that Labour councillors were becoming divorced from the people they represented.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who refused to protest, to join us on the picket line when the frustration became obvious and the anger palpable. I’m not the one who read a prepared “statement” on the steps of County Hall. Neither am I the genius who thought it was a good idea to argue with the hundreds on Facebook, justifying the unjustifiable.

Don’t blame me – it wasn’t me who tried to stop a debate being held by the local Labour Party, who attempted to deny members the chance to rectify the mistakes of their representatives at County Hall. Neither was I the person who refused to put up a single argument in favour of the pay cut and imposition of the TA contract.

Don’t blame me – I’m not the councillor who had to go back on everything they had said, who had to backtrack on the legal argument, the equal pay claims which allegedly made compromise impossible or the ‘non-negotiable’ position of the Council Cabinet.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t the TAs fault, it wasn’t Davy Hopper’s fault back in June or Tom’s, or Dick’s or Harry’s fault – indeed, all of the people you have viewed as ‘trouble makers’ for too long are completely blameless – and, by the way,  it won’t be Jeremy Corbyn’s fault if an electoral disaster happens in May. Jeremy Corbyn, who came to the Miners’ Gala, and felt the need to speak out about a local dispute, quite against all protocol. He asked you to ‘sort it’, but you were stubbornly deaf to his plea.

But look, it’s not personal. I’m more than prepared to see it in a bigger context: of a long history of deferential, meek Labour politics in County Durham – where individual councillors have, for too long, gone along with a small group of unrepresentative decision makers (some of them not even elected). You’ve given them too much respect, you trusted them too much – and now they have led you straight down a cul-de-sac.

You have one last chance for a ‘mea culpa’. It means no more sniping; no more whispering about those who exposed this sorry mess; no more conspiracies about the Teaching Assistants being led by this or that group. No more sourness in respect of a new group of prospective Labour councillors who have distanced themselves from these terrible decisions, and tried to revive the party’s name. It means taking responsibility, starting with a very public apology. Also, a long, hard look in the mirror will tell you one thing: that if you do survive the local elections, and emerge once again as a representative of the people, you should never again take decisions that hurt your own constituents, your own communities and potentially our party’s people, so carelessly. Because, apart from anything else, you know, it’s a real vote loser.

 

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Five things taught to me by Tony Benn

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It’s been three years since Tony Benn left us. For many of the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, his departure still leaves a huge hole, despite everything that has happened since his death in March 2014. I think about Tony a lot, imagining what his reactions would be – to Brexit; to Trump’s election; to the shifts on the British left, and the schisms that have opened up.

Benn’s formal political career stretched from 1950 to 2001, but he continued as a huge presence after that decision to ‘leave Parliament to spend more time on politics’, especially in the Anti-War movement. In that huge span of 50 plus years, he transformed from the ‘bright young thing of the party’ (with few socialist credentials) to the ‘kindly, harmless, grandfather’ figure that used to annoy him so much. In between, his politics and his career made somersaults and contradictory turns: there were certain themes that stayed with him throughout (like democracy, internationalism and peace) but there isn’t one, consistent, static Tony Benn, no matter how much the media and the right of our Party would like to fuel the myth.

On top of that, nearly all politicians have contested histories and politics – more so those whose careers span decades rather than years. Even Keir Hardie was appropriated as a Blairite hero, at one very bizarre point of our recent history. Bevan’s quote about the language of priorities being the religion of socialism is paraded around to justify all manner of political compromise. Once they are gone, their words and taken out of context so easily, that it’s hard to retrace the steps to find the real person and the real politics. Partly because of the great volumes of diaries he produced, I suspect this will happen less to Tony Benn himself, than with the political legacy he left: Bennism. Because the concept has become so elastic that it accounts for any practice; from the fight for democracy in the Labour Party, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ factionalising, from socialist internationalism to ‘pulling up the drawbridge’; from ‘a kinder, gentler politics’ to the ice pick. But for me, Bennism does have a core, and it has very little to do with politics itself, but instead the way we do politics. That’s what I learned from Tony.

That is not to say that Tony Benn’s politics in his heyday weren’t important, soundly socialist and expertly communicated. They were – but they weren’t especially different from much of the left around at the time, for instance Jeremy Corbyn or Audrey Wise. They were sound, but not spectacular. Unlike the Ken Livingstone of the 80s, who sought to create a new route out of the crisis faced by the left under Thatcherism, Benn instead tried to take us back, to the roots of the movement for our hope and our inspiration. So, perhaps not fundamentally a revolutionary political thinker. But there are important things other than policies, economic models and strategies – and they are about the process of politics: how we conduct ourselves, build our movements and interact with each other. Some no doubt consider this to be fluffy, new left nonsense, but if you listen carefully to Benn, its integral to his philosophy.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what Bennism is about, at it’s core. Not the alternative economic strategy, not the Euroscepticism, not even the workers’ control, important though all of those aspects were. No, to me, Tony taught us how to do our politics, which is the most valuable and inspirational legacy of all. For me there were five key aspects:

  1. Benn was a huge advocate of democracy, both within the Labour Party and wider society. He saw democracy as the real danger to entrenched, capitalist power, but importantly, he also advocated being a democrat in the way you practice your politics. Debate – and comradely disagreement – wasn’t a danger that needed to be silenced, it was to be encouraged and nurtured as the source of ideas which often sprang from the ‘boat-rockers’ rather than those with ostensible ‘power’.
  2. Alongside that belief in democracy, came a trust in people; a faith that people will come to the right conclusions of their own accord. The narrative of the “sheeple’ which has become so lazily commonplace in the age of social media would have been an anathema to Tony. People, no matter what their experience and what their background, should be treated with respect, not condescension.
  3. His practice also showed that he understood human psychology deeply. Tony Benn was possible the greatest story teller the party has ever known, not because of any rhetorical flourish, but mostly because he could tell the essence of a political situation in the simplest stories about human experience. I think the greatest example of this is his speech, on the occasion of Thatcher’s resignation, about the “socialist train”. What he was teaching us, before Bernie Sanders, was that to tell stories, to connect with people emotionally, is as important if not more, than the hard politics of policy.
  4. Tony Benn also taught us the vital importance of history – in particular, it is there that we find stories that inspire us and give us strength. His constant return to the Levellers, to Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists wasn’t a coincidence: it was because they offered us simple, understandable emblems of solidarity. We have an enormous and catastrophic ability to overcomplicate what are very simple ideas on the left. Tony understood the currency and power of the simple narrative of “people power”, overcoming ‘David and Goliath’ odds and turning the world upside down.
  5. Finally, Tony Benn refused to be drawn into any sectarian battles. This isn’t to be confused with the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics we’ve heard so much of recently. Tony wasn’t above the odd faction fight, and he wasn’t naïve about the problems of the left. No doubt, like many of us, he became frustrated at the antics of smaller, factional groups – who often attacked him as vociferously as the likes of Kinnock and Blair. But he never allowed that battle to become a feature, he would always defend the right of people to organise freely and would defend them against witch hunts and purges. He didn’t do that out of a sense of charity, or goodwill, but because he recognised the existential damage that would be caused by going down this road.

For all these reasons, and many more, I miss Tony Benn hugely. To have a fully fit, sharp Tony Benn surveying the present political scene would be pretty bloody instructive. In my view, we have no one with that clear insight, that understanding of how the big picture works, how we relate to each other as socialist and activists – and that is desperately needed. But there’s little point in speculating about that for very long: he’s not here, that’s gone. But what we do have is a legacy, and a series of principles, left in YouTube clips of speeches, in his books, ‘Arguments for Socialism’ and ‘Arguments for Democracy’, and most of all, in the pages of his phenomenal diaries. If people could, on occasion, take a step back from the immediate chaos, intrigue and dirt of the political moment, and consider the legacy of Tony, of what Bennism at its best might look like, I reckon we’d be in a better place – and we might not miss him quite as much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t sweat the small stuff: Militant, Trotskyism and my advice from Tony Benn

Back in 1992, I wrote to Tony Benn. I was living in Leeds at the time and had just left the Militant Tendency. For me, at that age and in those circumstances, it was a big deal. The split between those who’d argued for staying in the Labour Party and those who thought the future lay outside had just taken place, but the rancour remained. I’d had enough of the whole thing. My experience of Trotskyist organisation had exhausted and disillusioned me, but still it was difficult. I was leaving many friends behind and all the things that I had thought were important.

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I wrote to Tony to vent my spleen, essentially. I was bitter. I couldn’t work out what place Militant’s philosophy had in the party, and I was left with the feeling that Trotskyist groups could only be wreckers, living off the good work that the Labour Left (represented by the Campaign Group at the time) did. I wrote him a lengthy, somewhat pretentious letter. To my surprise, he responded straight away, not once but twice. I had met him only briefly, we had no relationship as such, but despite this, he took the time to give me some advice that it took me a little while to process, but keeps coming back to me.

In his first letter, he said:

“I think we’ll have to argue it out and if, as you believe – probably quite rightly – that the long term aims of Militant are not realistic, then we don’t really have to worry about what they are saying.”

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In his follow up, handwritten letter, he said:

“…rank and file people sometimes join Militant out of despair with the party – and I am always in favour of contact across the whole spectrum of opinion in the party.”

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Actually, the detail of what he said is less important than the general thrust, which was: stop worrying about what they are up to and focus on what you can do, what your contribution is and can be. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It took me a long time to understand this. For years after leaving Militant, the minutiae of what they said seemed significant. Because the important thing about obsessing about Trotskyism or any other philosophy within the party or the left, and prioritising the defeat, organisationally or otherwise, of smaller groups within the Labour Party, isn’t what it does to them, it what it does to you and your politics. Once that becomes a focus, it’s both a poison (it paralyses positive organising approaches) and a repellant (to those not in the know, or those not interested).

There is a reason why people like Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have not devoted their lives to ‘clearing out’ Trotskyism or any other sectional group within the Labour left. It is because they recognise the corrosive effect on our own politics of that particular cul-de-sac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our representatives or managers of decline?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why we need a Red Labour alternative

829709500_85c84686c6_bA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled ‘Sleepwalking in the Labour Party’: about the failure of the left in the party to get ourselves organised in the context of the long hegemony of the right in the party and in the face of a Blairite retrenchment in “One Nation Labour”. The article was meant as a provocation – to ask individual party members:

“If you’re not in the party to cause trouble, considering its trajectory for the last 15 years, what are you in it for?”

The reaction was interesting. The vast majority of comments were supportive. That was the easy bit. We can hardly fail to agree on what is wrong. However, a few people asked the more pertinent questions, which were “How?”, “What now?” and “What can I do?” That article didn’t seek to answer those questions, or map out a plan of action. I want to start the task of doing that now.

Firstly, although the article was an appeal to individual responsibility for the situation we’re in, the answers can only ever be collective. Like anything else in the Labour movement, it has to be rooted in collective experience and collective solutions. I believe that some of the answers lie exactly in some of those problems we’ve experienced both as a party and a left in the party. Specifically: education; democracy and organisation. The first one is the lack of education in the party. When I say education, I don’t mean in a formal sense, but informally, through discussion in party meetings. This has all but gone – and it is a massive vacuum. Secondly, the Blairite “revolution” in the party had at its heart the closing down of democracy in the party. Blair and his friends needed this to secure their “New Labour” project. This is a clear block on any movement which seeks to change the party. Thirdly – while the right wing of the party, and the Progress wing specifically, have been extremely well organised, not surprisingly, considering the financial resources at their disposal courtesy of Lord Sainsbury, the left in the party have been fragmented, disorganised and ineffective at getting their message across and winning positions in the party.

This is not the sum of everything that is wrong in the party – far from it, unfortunately – but those three areas (education, democracy and organising) might come together in a project that attempts to grab some power back for members. A few of us on the left of the party, involved in the Red Labour Facebook group, have been talking about this for some time. That involvement has led us to the question: should there be a Red Labour in the real world? It isn’t (and never has been) a case of trying to replace anything else on the left of the party, but to gather forces and organise them with an explicit focus on the Labour Party – to give a coherence and confidence to attempts to present an alternative to “New Labour lite”. At present, there are other positive things going on in the party – the Defend the Link campaign, the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, Unite’s engagement in party selections, the continuing efforts of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy to name a few, which will hopefully slot together with Red Labour in a virtuous cycle as opposed to the vicious cycle we’ve been trapped in for the past decade or more.

The Red Labour Facebook page began its life just over two years ago, in June 2011. In a couple of years of existence, it has grown to become the largest Facebook group on the left of the Labour Party. At the time of writing, the Red Labour page is ‘liked’ by (as in followed by) 4,693 people. Compared to other broadly Labour-left orientated groups, it is now the largest by quite some distance:

  • Red Labour 4,693 likes
  • Fabian Society 3,147 likes
  • Compass 1,648 members
  • Labour Left 1,225 likes
  • Left Futures 1,180 likes
  • LRC 667 likes
  • CLPD 198 likes

Granted, we’ve still got some way to go before hitting the Labour Party’s 147,675 likes, but we’ve gained nearly 2,000 followers in the last 2-3 months, so who knows what’s possible? What is significant too, is the amount of ‘buzz’ that there is around Red Labour. At the time of writing, 14,389 people were “talking” about Red Labour on Facebook (i.e. interacting in some way with the group). This compares to the 6,124 talking about the Labour Party on Facebook.

Red Labour creates online discussion about Labour movement politics. We have aimed to do so in lively and at times controversial ways. It has proved an enormously successful formula over the last two years. In the last six months, particularly, it’s been apparent that we are sitting on a phenomenon. We now regularly get 100 likes and 200 shares of our statuses, some reaching over 100,000 people on Facebook. A recent post quoting Keir Hardie on the arrival of the royal baby in 1894 reached 181,568 people and attracted 14,970 likes, comments or shares. Our interaction with those people who have liked the page grows on a daily basis.

About six months ago, in this context, we started assessing the impact of the page politically. We looked at the state of the Labour left and felt that it should be making the sort of progress that we were online. While all the time bearing in mind the difference between social media political activity and that in the movement itself, we nevertheless started to wonder about the huge void that there was for socialist education, discussion and debate in the party and how Red Labour might be able to plug that gap and help build the left in the party more practically. Over the last few months have been developing this idea while steadily building its facebook (and now twitter) presence. It seems to us that there is a desperate need for a project that takes the Red Labour approach to Labour members and supporters in different parts of the country, offering an alternative not only to austerity, but one that boldly and confidently challenges the narrowing of the political agenda in the Labour Party – offering radical alternatives and allowing members to develop and voice those alternatives in independent “Red Labour” fora. This would not be about building a membership organisation, it would be about creating forums for socialist alternatives in the party and organising the Labour left specifically.

Red Labour is a project in the making. It is not the finished article and will require building over months and years. Although it is a long term project, with education at its heart, there is now an urgency caused by the ‘One Nation Labour’s backsliding towards Blairism. The last six months have seen a clear change in the leadership under Ed Miliband as the 2015 election comes into view – and it is bad, rather than good news for the left as New Labour retrenchment gathers pace. What has also been noticeable, however, is the beginnings of a resistance in the party. We should all be wary of overplaying this, but it seems there is the start of a groundswell of anti-austerity sentiment amongst sections of the party – and not just amongst its union affiliates. This has been fuelled in particular by the abstention on workfare sanctions, the fudging of the opposition to the Bedroom Tax and most recently, the seven day ‘Wonga’ extension for benefits claimants.

A week or so ago, we decided to put that idea to our Facebook followers, hardly expecting the incredible response we got. The question was:

If Red Labour were to move into the real world, to start to organise within the Party and to hold public meetings based around issues that ordinary people faced, would you support it? Like if you would, and also comment if this interests you.”

In under 12 hours, we received 449 ‘likes’ and 115 comments, 90% of which were wholly positive. Here are some of the typical responses

  • “Absolutely. I want my Labour party back out of the clutches of the current lot in charge”
  • “Yes this would bring me back to Labour”
  • “Yes, definitely! Apart from anything I’d feel a lot happier going along to, and speaking up at, meetings of my local party and university Labour Club knowing there was an organised group and others around who have similar views of what politics should be about. Progress desperately need an organised opposition, especially so in universities etc. where the trade union connection isn’t particularly strong”
  • “I was at Tolpuddle last weekend and heard many similar sentiments; we need to rid ourselves of public school career politicians greedy for personal power. We need discussion groups to establish fundamental principles (remember them?) & then, organised, we need to reclaim OUR party. Hell yes I’m in.”

Even taking into account the obvious caveats about online activism, the response shows that there is a clear desire amongst party members (and those who have recently left) for a clear, socialist alternative in the party, popularly expressed and demanding a voice for our members. It ties in with similar sentiments echoed in the affiliated trade unions over recent months.

Practically speaking, what we have talked about is piloting a few Red Labour meetings around the country, with a broad brief to challenge both Progress and Blue Labour – as well as a developing critique Ed’s One Nation re-branding of New Labour. The real development of the project would be in the regional meetings which would come quickly after any launch. Meetings would initially be planned in areas where we feel we have some base. Each series of meetings would have policy, campaigning and organising outcomes. We could theme them for maximum impact nationally – e.g. having meetings on “free schools”, “defending the welfare state” or “tax avoidance” in several locations over a period of two week, with local media coverage – as well as all the usual social media. The emphasis would be on giving Labour Party members a voice again, gradually building confidence that we could effect change in the party.

In some ways the Red Labour name is a direct challenge to the Purple and Blue variants and therefore would have a wide appeal. This defines our approach, in a sense. The Red Labour project is based on a belief that there are thousands of Labour members and supporters out there who believe similar things to us or can be convinced by a strong, bold challenge to New Labour lite. This would not be about bringing together the 57 varieties of the left, however – it would be focused on changing the Labour Party solely. It wouldn’t be set up to compete with any group on the Labour left, but act as an umbrella and work on common campaigns and policy interventions. It would also be about engaging those five million mainly working class voters who have stopped supporting the party since 1997 and those members who have left the party in despair, but are equally despairing of the left outside the party.

It is also about organising the left in the party better – in order to challenge the bureaucratic control of the right. We would hope to attract support from the unions, whilst acknowledging that the success of the Red Labour facebook page has been based on its independent nature – and it will be important to retain this in “the real world”. Most importantly, the point of this would be that it would be grassroots-based. It would not be encumbered by the committee structure, as it would be more of a forum for our socialist views rather than a membership organisation. Red Labour would have supporters, people who engaged and contributed to the project at various levels, rather than members. Undoubtedly, there are other attempts to do similar things – e.g. on a broader scale with Unite or the Labour Assembly Against Austerity – and we see this as a positive not a negative. It shows that people are starting to stand up and are planning some kind of resistance – at last. We’d welcome joint working, while at the same time believing that Red Labour has both a distinctive approach and longevity. There is a massive leap from where we are now to a fully functioning, confident and effective left in the party. Obviously, too, there is a long way to go with the Red Labour project, but if the latter can support the former, it has got to be worth our time and effort. Please support us, help us, but most importantly, join us.

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