Square pegs and round holes, organisers and factionalists; why the Corbyn left has two projects on its hands

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Ten things you need to be a good organiser:

Organising is an entirely different concept to factionalising: it’s a much more risk-based enterprise. Organising is outward facing, ambitious and democratic by nature. With organising, you don’t necessarily know the outcome – and you may have to adapt your strategy as you go along. True organising welcomes that uncertainty as the building block of creativity.

  1. You have to like people

The starting point for any good organiser is that you like people. You want to be amongst people. You enjoy conversation, debate and challenge. This is the lifeblood of the movement and shouldn’t be seen as a threat.

  1. In turn, you have to be liked by other people

It’s important that you are liked and trusted by your fellow activists. That relationship must be developed over time by a consistent approach and a constant engagement with people, whether you agree with them or not. Simple likeability is a key strength in organising.

  1. You need to give power away

A good organiser will not suck up power, but seek to give it away. That means looking for succession plans, delegating properly and setting up structures that will eventually ‘do you out of a job’. That is a sad fact of life for an effective organiser: the better you do your job, the more likely you are to be redundant.

  1. You need to work inclusively

It sounds a bit woolly, but in order to build organisation, you need to work inclusively. This means being open about your decision-making process, bringing more people into that process and making sure that barriers are broken down for easy participation  across the board – even if that makes the job of organising temporarily more difficult.

  1. Your need to be able to listen

Trade union organisers are taught that in conversations with potential activists or members, they should be talking 30% of the time, and listening 70% of the time. It might make you feel important to be dominating a conversation, but it’s ultimately self-defeating, because those doing the ‘listening’ are slowly switching off.

  1. You must believe in collectives

‘There’s no I in team’ is a bit of a cliché, but in terms of movement building, it’s absolutely bang on. The work should be collectively organised, but the rewards doled out collectively too. It’s important to keep an eye on this constantly, and safeguard against empire building, because there will be the temptation for one organiser or more to think ‘I deserve more than this’ and break the collective ethos. Once this has happened, it’s hard to go back.

  1. You need to trust people

One of the key principles of democratic organising is a deep trust in people. Without being naïve, it’s crucial for good movement building that organisers trust their fellow activists and seek to bring them into positions of real power. This is how we build.

  1. You need to have good people skills

It’s an absolute rule that a good organiser must have good people skills. This can be at the micro level – i.e being able to support people personally in difficult circumstances; but also at a macro level – in being able to command the support of collectives because you have proved yourself to be trustworthy and supportive.

  1. You should be able to identify good leaders

Movement building and organising is all about developing structures, but importantly this is about people, not bureaucracy. A decent organiser will have a good instinct, be a good judge of character and be able to identify people they can rely on. Once they’ve identified them, a good organiser will also hand over power and responsibility, safe in the knowledge that they’ve spotted a good leader.

  1. You must see the big picture

An organiser will not become too bogged down in the detail of personal antagonisms or sectarian conflicts. They will keep their eye on the big prize – which is building the coalition that will deliver victories. Anything that gets in the way of that isn’t worth sweating the small stuff on.

 

Ten things you need to be a good factionalist:

Factionalism isn’t necessarily organising’s poor relation, though it’s inevitably seen as the ‘dark arts’ in comparison. It’s just a very different thing. It tends to be hidden, taking place below the surface, and by definition, not so focused on ‘democracy’. Its results may be “grassroots” but it’s not primarily concerned with big movements, but small wins, incrementally winning the war.

  1. You must have authority

A factionalist must have ultimate authority over the group. This can be won by charisma or by instilling a system of favours and fear. Either way, people must respect your authority.

  1. People should be willing to do as you say

You don’t want to get bogged down in debate as a rule. The group that you’ve constructed should accept the tasks that you’ve decided as priorities and get on with them. Anything else is wasted time.

  1. You need to keep power close, and confined to a small group

Because of your mode of operation, it’s necessary to keep your group small and close. You can’t afford to be ‘done over’ so it’s best to confine the power you dole out to a small group. The larger the unit, the more danger there is of betrayal.

  1. You need to work exclusively

Operating a faction is all about developing a close group, keeping them loyal and close. Conversely, this involves identifying your enemies and excluding them through several methods – whatever it takes. In most cases, the ends can used to justify the means.

  1. You need to be able to give orders to a team

As a faction leader, you need a team, that is without doubt. But there should be a strict hierarchy to the team. A factionalist can’t be doing with a ‘flatarchy’. Ultimately, the leader must be able to hand out orders, without too much dissent. That’s how factions get things done.

  1. You must develop a loyal band

Ideally, the power that a factionalist wields shouldn’t be imposed, but should be generated by the loyalty that they inspire. Conflict within the group should be minimised and loyalty can and should be generated by favours and patronage. Get the followers to do your work.

  1. You should never trust people beyond a small circle

Trust is a major issue for a proper factionalist. It’s given out very sparingly and with an awful lot of caution. Once someone has proven themselves to be trusted, then they are part of the ‘inner circle’ and we are rolling, but until then, keep a watching brief – with everyone.

  1. You must be single-minded

The organisation is everything. Created in a tight, disciplined way, it can be used to gain influence in ways unimaginable in a more democratic operation. A good factionalist needs to keep their eye on the prize, which isn’t a principled politics, but influence. Sometimes, that equates to manoeuvres which people will wail about, but the focus is always on power.

  1. You need to know your friends

To run a faction, you can forget about ‘mass politics’. That’s a fantasy: this is about a select band of friends, people who would go over the top for you. It’s important to know your friends and keep them close, even if that means forgoing a bigger, more chaotic movement.

  1. You must keep an eye on the detail

With factionalising, the devil is in the detail. It’s about close, small level organising – punching above your weight by understanding the micro politics. If you don’t understand this, there is a chance you will lose your focus and become an organiser.

So, what is the purpose of pointing out these distinctions? Well, it’s a matter of square pegs in round holes. If you have a factionalist in the position of an organiser, you have a problem. They simply can’t do that job. So much so, that they are likely to ruin the organising project through their factionalist practice. Similarly, if you place an organiser in a factionalist’s place, you are likely to get a fudge – because they won’t understand the necessity to build closely. But there are two definite projects here. If we, as a left, mistake the two things, if we fail to see the distinction, we are in big trouble – and unlikely to be able to move beyond the present confusion and chaos. We must be strategic and clever: stop trying to force square pegs into round holes.

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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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