I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘confessional’ approach to politics. Collective experience is what really matters. Occasionally, however, there are political situations where you get this over-riding sense of history repeating itself, that we’ve been here before. Many of us will have that feeling at the moment, so – just for a few minutes – I’d like to share my experience, not as some sort of prescription, but as the kicking off point for an updated, revamped discussion of where we are.
30 years ago, I joined the Labour Party as an 18-year-old, but without any real enthusiasm. My activism at the time was channelled through the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. It gave young people like me, with energy to burn, the outlet to campaign, organise and – importantly – to win. At last, we’d found real leverage against the Thatcher Government and, boy, did it feel good.
Obviously, many of us involved in the poll tax campaign, ended up being organised and trained by the Militant (‘caderised’ is the official term, I believe). Although I soon realised that these strictures were not for me, I don’t regret that experience or what it taught me. People love to label anyone who was ever a member of that organisation, but the truth is that it was the Labour Party’s failure to enthuse at the time, it’s awful, stifling political culture, that led people to find other routes for their activist energies.
At its root, that internal culture was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party. The idea was, that, after a succession of defeats, the thing that would break the spell was to turn the party into a more respectable, managerial party – top down, besuited and efficient. It quickly felt like there wasn’t a place for people like me. I left the Labour Party with a parting shot, delivered via letter, to party leader Tony Blair, who had just scrapped Clause IV in a big gesture of symbolic intent aimed at the party’s left.
For the next few years, I went from party to party, looking for a political home and a way to express my socialism. This was a time when all the discussion on the left was about a ‘new workers party’. I ended up in the Socialist Alliance for a time, and then in the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party. It was a frustrating time, filled with disappointment – as I watched political projects come and go, flare up in great excitement as “the next big thing”, then crash and burn with people becoming increasingly sectarian. I felt again like a bystander, like politics was something that was being done to me.
At that time, I read a lot about the trade unions and organising. I found a home of sorts in the labour movement, where, suddenly, the things I did made an impact. And it made me realise that you could spend the rest of your life looking for that perfect organisation, but it wouldn’t mean anything if you failed to become an actor within it. It was that realisation that eventually brought me back to the Labour Party, even when I my disagreements with the leadership were strong and even though little had changed with that internal, top down, political culture.
But something had changed, far away from the party hierarchy. In my time as a trade union organiser, I constantly came across people who expressed socialist values, many of whom had held their tongues during the high point of New Labour, but as that project was disintegrating, were questioning it’s fundamental principles and finding their voices, collectively. I discovered a whole load of other activists who had kept their membership cards in their back pockets, but who were finally starting to talk to each other.
Via social media, some of us came together. A group of us began developing a project called Red Labour, aimed at challenging the dominance of Blairite thinking, now becoming stale even on its own terms. We also came together to rebut the lazy and insidious ideas behind an emerging current in the party – Blue Labour – which fancied itself as a successor to New Labour, based on a traditionalist reading of Labour history and values, many of them with racist underpinnings.
Suddenly, it took off. Facebook proved to be an ideal forum to organise ourselves. People’s confidence soared from discovering that there were thousands of other members of the Labour Party who not only thought like them, with socialist principles, but who wanted to campaign and organise – whether that was over the bedroom tax, public sector strikes or challenging the rise of the BNP. Managerialism was going out of fashion. There were still people arguing for a new party, as there have been throughout the history of the movement, but this time, I was sure where my strategic loyalty was at.
This was, of course, the seeds of the Corbyn project taking root, and the next few years saw an unprecedented organising effort on the left of the party, augmented by a mass influx of left-wing activists into the Labour ranks, enthused and inspired by the Labour leadership campaign. But one of the most important aspects of that summer of 2015 was the collective organising approach of the Corbyn campaign. It was as if we turned all the years of tightly controlled, micro-managed politics of the New Labour years and turned it on its head.
The Corbyn campaign, as brilliantly captured by Alex Nunns’ book, ‘The Candidate’, was grassroots, creative and inclusive. For a summer, we put aside our differences and organised, truly organised, as a movement. I have discussed the social media campaign here (more detailed and slightly more academic version here), and what I tried to convey was that it was not a centralised, highly managed operation, but one that sourced it’s ideas and creativity from a wider movement, and fed back to that movement in turn. In the true sense, it gave masses of people ownership over the political project.
I think, somewhere along the line, we lost some of that. This isn’t the place to discuss when, where or why that happened, but I think my own, personal history tells me that it isn’t lost forever – and what really counts in politics is people’s engagement, their decision to become participants rather than bystanders.
An old comrade of mine used to come in the People’s Bookshop towards the end of the bad, old days and say: “You know, Ben, the problem is that too many people have become consumers in politics, happy to be entertained or angered, rather than grab it by the scruff of the neck and change it.” I have never forgotten that. We must never go back, but even more important, we must work together, as actors in our own movement.