By Martin Thomas
“Alongside the modern evils”, wrote Karl Marx in a preface to Capital, “a whole series of inherited evils oppress us… We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!”
Political habits ingrained in the Blair-Brown years, timorousness bred by old years of defeat, and ancient ideological lumber, are pressing down on the new Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party.
The idea, from which the Labour right are now cunningly stepping back in order to help the soft left advance it, that we should go for some blander, younger replacement – an Angela Rayner, a Rebecca Long-Bailey – is foolish defeatism.
Both Rayner and Long-Bailey were hesitant Corbyn supporters. Neither has the long record of battling against the odds which recommends Corbyn. Even if either should get elected – and more likely a Thermidor of Corbynism would bring someone more right-wing into leadership – it would be essentially a cover for “restoring order”, yanking Labour back into neoliberal alignment.
Yet, if the living elements in the Labour Party do not deal with the inherited inertia pressing down on us, only short respite from Thermidor can be won. Things are not going well.
1. Restoring Labour as a living, breathing, working-class party
The most important opportunity created by Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015 was one of restoring life and democracy in the Labour Party. Without that life and democracy, no leftwing election pledge is worth much. With that life and democracy, for many years yet the right wing will have difficulty putting the lid back on.
Yet the rule changes in the Labour Party since 2015 – those passed at Labour conference 2016 – are with scant exceptions regressive. That is not because the team around Corbyn has been defeated in attempts to open up the party structures. They have not tried.
Any talk of fighting for a sovereign Labour Party conference has been dropped in favour of promoting Blairite-style online “participation” – not considering technical innovation as part of a fight to democratise the party, but as an alternative to it.
The unions, in 2016 at least, were quietly willing to back democratic rule changes, as they had been in 2010-1. Corbyn’s office did not take them up on it. The existing rules, contemptuous of natural justice, provide for left-wingers to be “auto-excluded” (no hearing, no appeal) from the Labour Party on the vaguest grounds.
618 members were “auto-excluded” during the 2016 leadership election alone. Many thousands have been suspended.
Aided by new technology, this is probably the biggest purge of the left in Labour’s history, bigger than in the worst days of right-wing hegemony. Many of those now expelled or suspended had been vocal through the Blair-Brown years without reprisal.
The numbing effect on the party spreads further than those evicted. When excluded members say they should still be able to come to Labour Party meetings as guests, as non-members routinely do, even leftish CLPs squeak that they fear being shut down by the Compliance Unit. Momentum officials cited, as a motive for the 10 January coup in which they abolished all Momentum’s elected structures, the fear that Momentum itself might be purged.
John McDonnell has spoken against the purge, once or twice. Corbyn’s office has not. The Momentum office has done the opposite: promised it will do its own auxiliary purge of the “hard left”.
It’s not that there’s no difference with pre-Corbyn Labour. But let’s be honest – the leadership did not do well on supporting the junior doctors’ strike…
2. Creating a campaigning, active party
The hundreds of thousands of new members give scope to make Labour a party which, on the streets, in the communities, in the workplaces, can mobilise protests capable of blocking much of the Tories’ agenda and convincing the disillusioned that it is “on their side” not just in bland promises of legislative measures in due course but here and now, actively.
Yet neither the party machine, nor Corbyn’s office, did much to mobilise for the demonstration for the NHS on 4 March. A number of Labour politicians, including right-wingers, have backed the Picturehouse workers’ dispute: the leadership has done nothing, despite repeated requests, beyond John McDonnell speaking at one demo at the request of a personal contact.
They have organised no demonstrations themselves, despite a huge base and audience. The old right-wing Labour leadership of the 1950s did better. In 1956 they organised the biggest street demonstration since World War Two to protest against the Tory government’s Suez invasion.
In 2015 Liverpool’s right-wing Labour mayor, Joe Anderson, said about the cuts in local government budgets: “We’re looking over the abyss. In 2017, we fall in”. Now local services are falling into the abyss, and the labour movement is mounting less protest than in 2010.
Even the left, in the shape of The World Transformed, lives with fantasies of Labour dealing with the Tory cuts not by fighting them but by softening them through charitable volunteering: “running food banks, cooperative childcare centres and cinema clubs… sponsoring sports clubs, running pubs and opening spaces for community use”.
3. Integrating a new generation into labour movement activity
Even today, when the Tories have a 5-to-1 poll lead over Labour among over-65s, Labour still has a 5-to-2 lead among 18-24s.
For decades now, young people have been politically active in as generous and lively a way as ever, but sporadically and intermittently. Labour has not offered them the means (and nor has anyone else) for an organised, long-term, rhizomatic movement.
Now we have a chance. Whatever the difficulties Corbyn’s office faced with the Labour MPs and apparatchiks, no-one could have stopped it running a campaign to build a real constituency-based Young Labour movement and a strong network of campus Labour Clubs.
It has not tried. Nor has Momentum. The evidence of our eyes is that most of the young people who signed up to vote for Corbyn have not been integrated into regular meetings, discussions, and activities. Their enthusiasm is being wasted.
4. Clearing out the blockages and dead wood
When I talked with Jon Lansman off-the-record shortly before he launched Momentum, he told me that the principal aim of this organised continuation of the Corbyn swell was to help the new Labour members clear out the virtual caste of old Blair-trained office-holders and functionaries which infested the labour movement.
So far the Blair-trained functionaries of Progress and Labour First have been more vigorous and more effective in claiming back political territory than the left has been in marching through the institutions. They have done that despite the conflicts within the Labour right and the demoralisation of many right-wingers after Corbyn’s victories.
I talked recently with a comrade about her ward where the right wing has just swept the board at the AGM. A couple of right-wingers had worked the phones and turned out 20 or so old-timers. She had just five phone numbers to work with. Probably there are dozens more in her ward who voted for Corbyn. The Momentum office, presumably scared of giving the “hard left” anything, has refused to give her local Momentum group details. The story could be re-told many times.
5. Establishing socialist policies and winning a Labour government
Without progress on the first four counts – on building a real movement – “socialist policies” are empty words, and we lack the means to convince an often dejected and glum working-class electorate to vote for those policies and join in the active mobilisation necessary to carry through against entrenched capitalist power.
No, a return to the old smarmy, condescending, profiteer-worshipping, market-adoring, activist-hating Blair model of Labour politics is not the way to beat the Tories!
But there is no point pretending. The Copeland by-election result was dismal. To hail keeping Stoke as a triumph, after Ukip had tripped over its own feet so often, was risible.
The poll figures are not just made up. The polls, gradually improving previously, started going bad after the nationalist triumph in the EU referendum and the Parliamentary Labour Party’s attempted coup against Corbyn following 23 June. But they are continuing to go bad because working-class voters can see, whether or not they are fully conscious of what they are seeing, “the dead seizing the living”.
No attempt from Corbyn’s office to mobilise to win left-wing policies at Labour conference 2016, or to extend the powers and sovereignty of confernece. No attempt to use and build on the left-wing policies that were passed there thanks to grass-roots effort, as on the NHS. No break from the old Blairite model of “policy development” as a matter of clever people in an office handing down carefully-blanded formulas.
No building on what has enthused so many people about Corbyn – that, unlike the Camebands, and the Milirons, the Blairs and the blurs, he can be seen to have principles and to believe what he says. Instead, Corbyn has been fed with diplomatic formulas.
For months after 23 June, Corbyn defended freedom of movement, with not even a murmur from Momentum to help him, despite activists winning clear Momentum policy on this. Finally he succumbed and mumbled the words his office gave him: “not wedded to freedom of movement as a principle”.
He said in November that Labour would vote against Article 50 if it was on Tory terms. Then he was pressured into giving Theresa May a free pass for an explicitly “hard” Brexit, and allowing Keir Starmer to claim, pathetically, that the Tories saying that Parliament will have an “our way, or no way” vote on their Brexit deal right at the last minute was a “huge concession”.
This feeble compliance will not have placated Labour voters really moved by anti-immigrant feeling; it will have undermined our efforts to reason with and convince them; and it has disgusted and alienated many young people for whom backing Corbyn is at one with backing human rights, an open society, universal values.
The Corbyn Labour Party needs a new surge from below to push of the weight of dead inertia which is increasingly closing in on it. Ideologically, the main obstacle to stirring up that surge is the continuing influence of one of the most archaic sets of ideas on the left – the ideas which stonyfaced bureaucrats on the Kremlin wall falsely called socialism, the idea of socialism as political and economic manipulation from above of a national economy. Such ideas, in watered down form, have been dominant in Corbyn’s Leader’s Office from the start, and are becoming more so.
Those dead old ideas will wither and collapse if opened up to free debate among Labour’s hundreds of thousands of new members. To win that free debate is now the most urgent task of those who want to see the Corbyn surge leave a lasting and healthy legacy.
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