Three years ago, everything changed: 12th September 2015

sept 2015

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…

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Open Letter to the Durham TAs

RL

The other day, I wrote a blog post which took Durham Labour Councillors to task over the TA dispute. That was the easy part. Most people are agreed, across all parties, that they’ve made a catastrophic mistake. This is like a “part 2” in a sense – and it’s much harder to write, because I feel like I’m swimming against the stream on this one. Also, when we started this incredible journey, I promised that I would never ‘direct’ the campaign. As Trades Council secretary, as a Labour Party member and a socialist, I was there to support you, pure and simple, not tell you what to do, or lean on you to do things ‘my way’. That bargain still stands.

So, why am I interfering now? Why the need for a “part 2” at all? Well, firstly because the TA campaign has moved into the political arena – signalled by the rally last Saturday. This is hardly surprising: after all, it was the Labour councillors who made it political, when they decided to slash the pay of 2,700 women and men, many of whom would have been ‘natural’ Labour supporters in the past. Even with all the mitigating circumstances of Tory austerity, it was a disastrous decision for a party which was founded to represent working people. It’s completely understandable that TAs would question why any loyalty would be owed to a party that acted in such a way.

Secondly, though, I’ve had many TAs asking me to explain the situation in the Labour Party, where, for instance, it’s leader can come to the Durham Miners’ Gala and call for Durham County Council to “sort it” and be ignored, on one hand; and local Labour Party members can organise themselves to oppose the decisions made by their councillors in local Labour Party meetings, on the other. How Red Labour can plug your campaign relentlessly, but ‘Blue Labour’ remain quiet as a mouse? No wonder some people are confused.

You’ve just organised the most amazing campaign. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it will go down in the history books alongside labour movement events such as The Ford Machinists Strike and Grunwick. Right now, everyone wants to be your friend. Mostly that is a good thing, but there are dangers in it too. So, there are two things I want to talk about: firstly, the complicated situation in the Labour Party and secondly, why you should be wary of ‘independents’ bearing gifts.

  1. The Labour Party isn’t one, big bloc of people who all think the same.

So, firstly, you have probably noticed: the Labour Party is going through a pretty tough time. It is split, right left and centre, between leadership and party in Parliament, between its members and the representatives locally (especially councillors). I’ll admit, it’s not a great situation to be in – and it means that the public are constantly getting mixed messages, including the Teaching Assistants. But in truth, the party has been split for a long time: those divisions were masked by successive general election wins in 1997, 2001 and 2005, but Blair’s leadership essentially side-lined thousands of members – and put power in the hands of the few: those who went along with his project to make Labour safe for the middle classes, the City of London and the media.

This was reflected in places like County Durham, where the party turned in on itself, becoming a preserve for councillors and “loyalists” who rejected the idea of struggle. They gradually became divorced from the communities they came from, but still collected enough votes to be elected again and again. No one really challenged them, but the anger was steadily growing.

Then came Corbyn – which in some ways was a complete surprise (though the signs were there for those who were taking notice). Suddenly we had a socialist and a trade unionist as leader – someone who had stood on picket lines all his career. This sent shockwaves through the party, including in County Durham. Only one Durham Labour councillor put his name to a letter supporting Corbyn’s campaign in 2015: ironically, Deputy Leader Alan Napier. The majority of Labour councillors in the County were actively opposed to Corbyn and everything he represented – or completely non-plussed.

So, it was completely predictable that we had a split between the national leadership and Durham County Council. They came from completely different traditions. When he first heard about the dispute, Corbyn’s gut instinct was to support the TAs fully and seek dialogue with Durham’s council leadership. I gather that wasn’t very welcome – and Simon Henig et al decided to plough ahead with their plan to sack TAs and impose new contracts on them.

When he spoke at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and asked DCC to ‘sort it’, that also went down like a lead balloon. It was unprecedented for a Labour leader to intervene in a ‘local dispute’ between a Labour council and its workers. But technically, Corbyn – as leader – had no power to ‘tell’ Labour councillors in Durham to do anything: they were responsible to their local parties, and their electorate, not the leader of the party. That might seem strange to some, but much as I disagree with the councillors on many issues, I personally wouldn’t have it any other way: local representatives should be democratically accountable to their local communities and local parties, not a leader based in London.

Then came another division. The local parties in County Durham, their numbers swelled by members who had joined since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, took quite a different attitude to the TA dispute than the councillors who voted to the pay cut. Yes, it took a little while to work its way through. A few, from Red Labour and Momentum, became involved early on – as did the local grassroots union movement. Unfortunately, not many members are very connected to the trade unions or the Trades Council, so it took Jeremy speaking up at the Gala for many grassroots members to understand fully what was going on.

But as those on the left and the unions did their work, more Labour members joined picket lines and started discussing how they could help the Teaching Assistants in their struggle. By a large majority, they were outraged by their local councillors. Eventually, that crystallised in a number of branches taking motions to the local party body (the Constituency Labour Party), criticising the attitude of the councillors. An attempt to stop the debate (orchestrated by senior councillors) was defeated. Motions at several CLPs were passed unanimously. This hugely increased pressure on the councillors and the cabinet. Suddenly, they were at war with their own members. Not a comfortable place to be.

This was the most effective use of the ‘power’ that local Labour members had. But many people involved in the TA dispute have understandably asked why we put up with this? Many councillors are clearly not representative of the ‘new’ membership, the hundreds of thousands who’ve joined the party. The simple answer is time. It takes time to get political movements organised, especially when the task at hand is changing long established structures. In some wards, new Labour council candidates have been selected – those who’ve had nothing to do with the TA vote at County Hall. Some have been regular visitors to the picket lines that you’ve set up and have been organising behind the scenes to support the TAs. But in other wards, the same old faces have been selected. That’s the way it goes – it’s a fact that things take time, that big changes don’t happen overnight. But we have made a start.

  1. So-called ‘independents’ rarely are.

So much for the Labour Party. There are other parties involved in the TA dispute. Some have been completely genuine, I’ll agree. There have been a few prominent Lib Dem councillors who’ve we’ve seen at demos from the start, who’ve offered logistical support. The loyalty displayed to those local politicians from the Teaching Assistants has been earned. It kind of sticks in my throat, at times, because I remember what that party did in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015, rubber stamping cuts to local services, the devastating increase to tuition fees and the failure to put a brake on the chaos that the Tories brought to communities like ours. Many of the issues we are facing in terms of school budgets are a legacy of that coalition. So, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that’s been erased from my memory, but at least they stand on their record.

What worries me, in the development of an ‘anyone but Labour’ narrative, is that many so-called ‘independent’ candidates are taking a ride on the coat-tails of the dispute to get themselves into County Hall. Again, some of the independents are no doubt genuine, but a great deal of them are chancers who have seen the strikes and the enormous publicity that the campaign has received as their opportunity to get into power under the cloak of independence. In some cases, it’s even worse than that: they are hiding some pretty nasty politics.

Traditionally, the ‘independent’ ticket has been used by local Tories, fully aware that if they’d stood under that party, they would never have a chance of election in County Durham. More recently, a lot of candidates with UKIP-style politics are flying under the independent flag. Always worry if someone says they put people above politics, or claim that they have no politics, because every decision that people make as a councillor is political: what to fund, how to tax, what to prioritise – these are all political decisions.

I’m all for local people with fresh ideas becoming councillors. Maybe we are moving beyond the era when people voted tribally for the established parties local council elections, but the TAs need to understand the power that they have in their hands, and avoid endorsing candidates without checking them out first. It would be awful to replace Labour councillors with people who neither understood or cared for education, and had reactionary views on all sorts of other issues to boot. We should encourage community activists of any party, people who are open about their politics, so we can have a good debate locally and decide in a democratic way. No one is asking for a ‘free ride’ for any candidate, no matter what their party – just that people are allowed to state their case in an open, fair way.

So, the last thing I will say to you is simply a plea to be careful about the local candidates: check out their backgrounds, google them, question them. Make it your job to find out what they really think – on a range of issues. I would say the same about the Labour candidates. All candidates should be able to take a grilling. That’s the way you’ll find out whether they’re genuine in their support. It may well turn out that you have more in common with some of the Labour candidates than you think, and less with some of the indies. Or not. That’s democracy, and with the TA campaign now moving into the political arena, these are the questions you’ll have to wrangle with.

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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. You 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

Image result for corbyn sanctuary pub

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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Stay and fight: Why socialists should stick with Labour

clive

When I read Michael Chessum’s piece in the New Statesman, I felt the immediate need to respond. Not because I was outraged, but because I think he has hit on a crucial debate about where the Labour left have been and where we go next. I’m sure that virtually every socialist in the party has wondered whether it’s worth sticking with the party in recent years. Who cannot have thought about what might lie on the other side as Labour MPs failed to oppose something as basic as the Workfare Bill? Looking further back, even more made the leap after Iraq, and while some have made the return journey since, party membership is ‘on notice’ for many of these returnees. As socialists, our loyalty to the Labour Party isn’t down to a kind of misplaced tribalism, as many of our critics would have it, but is contingent – based on our experience and a carefully considered strategic judgement of where we are of most use. It has to be up for debate, though, and as Michael rightly points out, the idea that socialists are best positioned in the Labour Party has been challenged again by the 2015 election – with a dramatic implosion of Labour’s support in Scotland and a steady chipping away of Labour’s traditional support in the former heartlands of the North East, North West and Wales. Alongside the Collins Review, which has sown the seeds for a potential break in the organic link between the trade unions and the party, we are clearly a further step down the line to a free-floating, Democratic-style party, despite the brief and fairly superficial optimism of Ed Miliband’s tenure and the accompanying (cautious) leftward shift on policy. So Michael is right to urge another review of our position and it is up to us, on the left of the party, to make the argument for staying.

Firstly, I think we have to be honest and analytical about how we have arrived in this position. Many analyses of the Labour left’s position treat it as an innocent victim of circumstances. That is understandable. Since New Labour’s inception, we have been faced with a seemingly unconquerable ‘machine’ – well-resourced, organised and ruthlessly efficient. However, New Labour’s conquering of the party apparatus, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership didn’t happen by magic. It was preceded by a period of deep disillusionment and flight by the left, who immediately prior to the Kinnock-Blair purging of party democracy, were in their strongest position for many decades. What happened? This isn’t really the place to go into the detail of the Bennite movement in the party, but there seems to have been a fragility about it which we maybe haven’t explored enough. In any case, what is clear is that from that point in the late 1980s, the Labour left appeared like a rabbit caught in the headlights. While some continued to plug away at internal party battles and the democratisation of the party via CLPD and the Socialist Campaign Group, the majority despaired, and previously active Labour Party socialists became members in name only. Many others left at this point to join the Socialist Alliance, myself included – which hardly helped (I’m exercising self-criticism here). The point is, that at no point was there a united, collective, strategic opposition to Blairism in the party – and the New Labourites, never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, consolidated their power by dominating moribund CLP’s and winning selection and selection at a canter. It was like taking sweets from a baby.

So much for the history of it. What about now? Why have we got to this crisis? Well, twenty years on from that pivotal point between ‘Old Labour’ and ‘New Labour’, we still haven’t learnt our lesson. There are still socialists in the party – of that there is no doubt. We don’t know enough about why, but it is clear that many are still members in name only, clinging on to their party cards in the “hope” that something will change. They still get angry at the leadership, exasperated at the lack of democracy and now have more opportunity to voice that discontent via social media. But our numbers are smaller and the numbers of active socialists in the party are smaller still. Despair, once again, has set in – if it ever went away. The familiar story goes like this: we’ve been stitched up; those Blairites, they can’t be beaten; look at our leadership – how can we stick around and endorse that. What is missing is any sense that the left has contributed to this. Of course, it’s an attractive idea, to say that we’ve given it a good go and now it’s time to move on to other projects. Who can’t be seduced by a fresh start and greener grass – but that is based on the assumption that we have tried and failed. Have we? Really? Maybe a tiny activist core – but once again, there has been no sustained, strategic approach to coalition building within the party, to challenging the Blairites over selections and to shaking things up in our CLPs. Where that has happened, it has been sporadic and normally led by the unions – but many ordinary party members, socialists included, have sat back and let this happen around us. This is not to individualise blame – and neither is it about berating good people for “not doing enough”. Of course, it’s a natural reaction to withdraw when faced by such seemingly overwhelming odds, but we do need to take collective responsibility if we are going to turn this situation round.

But should we even bother? The ground is changing, isn’t it? Maybe we’re just clinging onto the wreckage. This is what Michael seems to be arguing. It is true that socialists tend to stick to tried and tested means and only realise far too late that the world has moved on. To me, there are three main arguments against leaving the Labour Party and starting again:

Firstly, Michael puts an awful lot of store by the prospects of a Unite split from the Labour Party. Agreed, that would change the landscape considerably, but there’s ample evidence that it won’t happen like that – and there’s an argument that a right-wing shift in the leadership of the party might nudge Unite and others in the direction of serious alliances with the party left at grassroots level. Our society appears to be in turmoil, with the old certainties disappearing quickly. That leads us to think that institutional change can and will come quickly too, but trade unions are by their nature not risk-takers, and the main unions will stick to Labour while there is a chance that they can influence the leadership and the policy of the party. If a Progressite were to win the leadership, that again might shift the situation considerably, but (a) I don’t think that will happen and (b) it won’t inevitably lead to a split – after all, the big unions stayed in during the Blair years and were in some cases the biggest cheerleaders. Even where the leadership has changed, and talks more of a left game, the organisation is fundamentally the same.

Secondly, he talks about the left turning outwards towards grassroots campaigning, and how that might reinvigorate those campaigns and the Labour left itself. Of course that is important. Only during the Bedroom Tax protests did we see large numbers of Labour Party members out on the streets. But that will only take us so far. We have to take the campaigning inside CLPs, not just to mobilise a sleeping membership, but to challenge the depoliticisation and anti-democratic nature of many local parties. This is some challenge, but it is something which has almost disappeared from the armoury of the Labour left during the last two decades. Where we have seen a tentative resurgence in campaigning CLPs, they have quite often managed to secure the selection of solid, left-wing candidates (witness the anti-austerity letter signed by 10 new Labour MPs). Again, I absolutely agree – without that ‘revolution from below’ in the party, we are just treading water, but with a well thought out and executed organising strategy within the party, “fading” away is not an inevitability. But we can’t expect to change the Labour Party without taking part in the Labour Party.

Thirdly, the elephant in the room. I’m talking about our good friend, the dysfunctional ‘outside’ left. I very much don’t mean that in a name-calling, derogatory way. I’ve been honest about the Labour left’s deficiencies, but I think it’s equally important to point out that the British left outside of the Labour Party has not offered a coherent, credible alternative to the Labour Party at any point in the last thirty years. From the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Labour Party, Respect right through to TUSC – not a single initiative has taken off in what have been incredibly favourable conditions for the building of an alternative workers party. Having tried my hand outside the party, I’m now almost convinced that they are not capable of building that alternative. That is what marks us out from Greece or Spain – we have, for historical reasons, been landed with a left that works in silos, which is often sectarian and obsessed with the minutiae of past battles and ideological purity. Not every part of it, of course, but enough of it to wreck every attempt to build ‘left unity’ (small case). I don’t say this with any joy, but I think it’s a reality that we are faced with. So despite our massive challenges in building a Labour left, they are dwarfed by the enormous task of pulling together a Syriza-like left in the UK. The phrase herding cats springs to mind. If all this history and experience can be broken, and something solid can be built and gain some purchase amongst the working class, again we are in different territory. Maybe, as Michael Chessum suggests, the prospect of the unions pitching into a new party could be the way in which the game changes. Again, I think that is misunderstanding the motivations of the larger unions. You can’t simply graft a social democratic union politics onto one of the various political projects that have started their lives as either the possessions of a Trotskyist political party or a chaotic bringing together of various shades of anarchism, communism, green and socialists. The unions aren’t going to go for that. What they would want is a party with parliamentary credibility, with basic social democratic credentials, with a working class base, with the potential to make policy which would create jobs, house people, protect the welfare state and workers’ rights. In other words, the Labour Party we are fighting for – not as an end in itself, but as a huge step on the road to a more socialistic society.

Of course Michael and others are right to raise this debate. It’s essential to the way we view our tasks ahead. But what is often missing is a sober analysis of where we’ve gone wrong as a left. If we’re honest, collectively we’ve done what we always criticise as futile: we’ve shouted at the telly a lot, but we haven’t organised – not seriously and strategically. It’s as if we’ve excluded the Party itself from our sound analysis that in society, power cedes nothing without a demand. We can no longer sit back. We have to get together and build a serious, organised, engaged and thinking Labour left, one that leaves behind some of the false walls that have divided us. That is what Red Labour (now 20,000 strong on Facebook and with 40 plus local groups) is all about.  I think it would be a disaster to leave the Labour Party, but not as much of a disaster as waiting for something to change, like the proverbial boiling frog, slowly being cooked to death.

Previous published at Left Futures

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Who are you calling a Red Tory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering Tony Benn – a year on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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