Labour’s left – it’s crunch time

By Simon Hannah, Wandsworth Momentum activist and Tooting CLP joint secretary

The defeat at Copeland inevitably ushered in another round of crisis-soul-searching-existential-fear in Labour and whoops of derision from opponents. Journalists rushed to their keyboards to pile blame onto Corbyn, gleeful that another Two Minute Hate was about to commence.

The problem facing the left renaissance in Labour now is that a lot of Corbyn’s own base of support are now openly talking up the need for “succession”. Before the right tried to beat him, then a soft left candidate was presented, now the battle to unseat him moves to the inner core. Corbyn loyal MPs names keep surfacing, Angela Raynor, Emily Thornberry and others. The problem isn’t particularly Corbyn, he is only a symptom of the long term political problems of the Labour left. The left knows Labour needs radical overhaul to make it fit for purpose and it knows that — as Michael Foot said “A left MP is only as good as the movement behind them” yet they pull back from the necessary steps to actually transform the institution, preferring to integrate themselves into it as is.

Windows closing

The truth is that the Labour Party may be a coalition (the much talked about broad church) but it is also one where tendencies and factions vie for control and where energy and initiative count for a lot. If you are in the driving seat then you need to steer the car, you need to set the velocity and direction of travel. If you want to win the party then you have to be all in. Look at Blair when he won. Within a year he had changed the entire party branding and abolished Clause IV. He wasn’t fucking about. The left recently hasn’t even come close to that kind of bold vision.

Corbyn opted to be a peacemaker in the party, no doubt trying to delay a show down until the left could consolidate some power. The right sensed the hesitation and regrouped for a counter attack and they have set the agenda ever since. The leaders office was essentially transformed into a bunker, surrounded by the hostile PLP. Corbyn’s troops are in the trenches elsewhere, without commanders in the field. The tragedy was that in a sense the left knew this would happen, that is why Momentum was launched to be a conduit for activity if the party stalled. Sadly, the coup in Momentum removed any real hope that Momentum had to initiate bold manoeuvers and set the political agenda.

When people say that the loss in Copeland wasn’t directly Corbyn’s fault there is a lot of truth in that. But what is Corbyn’s fault is that even after two leadership victories there is no clear direction. When Dave Prentis from UNISON broke ranks the day after the Copeland defeat and demanded to know what Corbyn’s plan was to turn around Labour’s electoral fortunes he was speaking as a major funder of the Labour Party who wants to know when he will get a return on his unions investment. The same will be true of McCluskey. Unions want to see Labour governments that is why they fund the party in the first place. So what is the plan?

We need momentum (small m)

Corbyn smashed it during his leadership campaigns, speaking and mass rallies of supporters across the country. We need something similar, an outgoing campaign to popularise the bold ideas; national education service, rent controls, trade union rights, more council homes and so on. Target the constituencies that return Labour governments and target them with policies that answer their needs. Big vision ideas — no more foodbanks under Labour, end the housing crisis with Labour, a million green jobs with Labour.

Where Labour institutions have been a drag on getting bold policy out there the left needs an organisation that can take the message out to communities and into the party conference. It is clear Momentum is pretty much a busted flush though it will hang around for a bit longer and will be useful if there is another leadership challenge or another by election but that is pretty much the limits of its remit. We need something new to pull this thing off.

Three pronged offensive

Three things need to happen in the next 6 months to have any hope of salvaging something from the looming crisis. Whether Corbyn stays in charge or not these are the battle grounds.

The first is that the left needs a strong showing at this year’s Labour Party conference. It needs policies and rule changes through that can give the leadership more ammunition and be advocated as official policy. Another right dominated conference this year will see another wasted year as we limp towards the general election and the left continuing to be side-lined even though they have the leadership.

The second is related to conference. We need a push for mandatory re-selection of MP. This isn’t just as some kind of old left demand for the sake of it. It is the only hope the party members have of disciplining their MPs and restricting the autonomy of the PLP. It will cause more MPs to think twice before sticking the boot into the left and it will force the left MPs to up their game if they want to have any hope of being re-selected.

Finally we need some campaigns. Labour’s response to the NHS demo on 4 March was pitiful. No leaflets, no apparent official endorsement, no call out to CLPs to build the biggest demonstration on the NHS the country has ever seen. If we don’t start building a movement around the issues that Labour is solid on (housing, wages, jobs, health) then Brexit and anti-immigrant bigotry will dominate totally for the next few years and Labour will find it very hard to change the direction of politics. If Labour won’t do it officially we need auxillary organisations that will so they can boost the Labour vote.

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