By Mohan Sen
The activity around Momentum’s upcoming national elections provides possibilities for relaunching discussion about what the Labour left should stand for, and how to get a bigger, better organised, more effective and above all politically better socialist left in the party. In the context of the harrowing crisis we are living through, this debate is essential.
In the context of the scandals surrounding the Labour Party machine, emerging just as we prepared to publish this, I take it as a given here that socialists should continue organising in the party and fight.
There has been buzz around the new Forward Momentum initiative. I agree with the suggestions for and criticisms of it made by Michael Chessum here. Much of the following implies further critique of Forward Momentum’s approach.
However, these are positive political proposals focused not just on Momentum but the wider task of transforming Labour as an essential part of transforming the labour movement. They are aimed at the whole of the left, or those on the left who aspire to be socialist – pro-working-class struggle, anticapitalist, democratic, internationalist and critical-minded. Any initiative on the Labour left and in Momentum can be measured against them.
They are ambitious – but they need to be, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the left’s crisis of confidence and direction. They are quite specific – deliberately so. There is lots more I could have included. Many of these demands we should have fought for and won under Corbyn, but the struggle must continue and step up. Now is a time it would be easy to lose confidence and become less ambitious and radical, but a time we emphatically should not do that.
Comrades should also read the proposals made by Labour for a Socialist Europe in January.
1. A radical response to the crisis
What is the Labour left’s stance in the Covid-19 crisis?
Keir Starmer has said that “when we do get through this, we cannot go back to business as usual… Things are going to have to change”. The future change he advocates, however, is extremely vague. And today Starmer is at pains to downplay Labour’s disagreements with the government.
Labour should indict the Tories’ record: the gutting of public services and the social fabric through austerity; the stinginess of their crisis measures to protect livelihoods; the failure to protect and support essential workers; the undermining of social distancing in the interests of employers; the attacks on civil liberties beyond reasonable measures to deal with the pandemic; the continued assault on migrants and the determination to push ahead with a fast, hard Brexit.
The party should campaign for clear positive demands: higher guaranteed living standards with work or full fallback pay for everyone; workers’ control to decide what work needs to be done and how it can be done safely, and bring anti-social employers to heel; cancellation of all rent, mortgage and utility payments during the crisis; requisitioning into public ownership and social use of private hospitals, the pharmaceutical and medical supplies industries, empty housing and other essential facilities and resources.
If the labour movement does not aggressively challenge the Tories, and argue for clear alternative policies, we are strengthening their ability not only to resist further concessions but to emerge from the crisis triumphant.
We must strongly oppose Labour joining a “national unity government”.
Radical change in the future will be harder if Labour pursues a conservative policy today. The less we change for the better now the more likely and more complete the eventual return to something like the disastrous pre-crisis status quo. The leadership’s current stance does not bode well for what a “radical Labour government” might look like.
The left should be eager, not afraid, to develop and fight for policies to radically reshape society in the interests of the majority during and after the crisis. We should make the case for a government based on and serving the working class and for comprehensively transforming society on the basis of collective ownership, democracy and workers’ control – ie for socialism.
2. A campaigning Labour Party
Even before the crisis, the reality was that Labour, nationally and for the most part locally, did little campaigning or mobilising its members outside elections. That was surely a significant background factor in the 2019 defeat, and more widely the decay of the party’s base in the labour movement and in working-class communities. The left must do its best to change this, immediately by pushing for party campaigning in response to the pandemic.
Of course mass meetings and demonstrations are not possible at the moment, but that will not be the case forever. Even now, there are many ways the party and unions could campaign much more. Where are the posters, leaflets, graphics, online petitions, social media activities? Where is the concerted and coordinated political message – beyond agreeing fundamentally with the government? The leadership’s conservative political approach limits the possibilities even more than the (very great) technical difficulties of the situation.
We need a short-to-medium-term strategy to get the party nationally to launch real campaigning on pressing issues like the NHS and social care, benefits, local government funding and climate change – there are no lack of options – and getting active CLP and branch campaigning going wherever we can. The minimum message should include taxing the rich to reverse all cuts, comprehensively rebuild public services and guarantee good jobs, services and homes and a sustainable future for everyone.
3. Migrants’ rights and free movement
No socialist response to the crisis can ignore the central question of migrants’ rights – the many-sided neglect of and attacks on migrants, and the need to exploit openings to resist the anti-migrant agenda – or the Tories’ desire to push through a destructive hard Brexit in less than nine months regardless of the already dire economic and social situation. Before the pandemic these issues were crucial for Labour and the left; now even more so.
Momentum’s record on migrants’ rights, free movement and internationalism has been mixed to say the least. The left should fight for the party to campaign for the policy the Labour Campaign for Free Movement got passed at last year’s Labour conference.
Immediately, ending “No recourse to public funds” and other restrictions on migrants’ access to services is key. Immigration enforcement must be suspended and all migrants enabled to get help without risk of deportation. All detainees must be released and the detention centres closed (and most prison inmates released too).
We must demand the resettlement in decent conditions of people held in refugee camps across the world, and massive aid from richer countries to poorer ones.
We should demand a long extension to the Brexit transition period, unapologetically oppose and fight every facet of the Tories’ Brexit plans and be willing to reopen the whole issue of Brexit. Socialists must advocate increased international cooperation to meet the crisis, and support the lowering of national borders, not their re-raising.
4. A Socialist Green New Deal
The “Green New Deal” and the “Green Industrial Revolution” have had a tendency to become content-light buzzwords, rather than adequate platforms for campaigning to tackle climate change and for political education about socialism.
The left should argue for a “Socialist Green New Deal” which integrates the demands from the policy passed by last year’s Labour Party conference, the more radical motions submitted by CLPs, and the policy passed at the Fire Brigades Union conference in May.
Among other demands, I would highlight: net-zero emissions by 2030, free public transport, an end to airport expansion and – in line with the policy passed by the FBU and at TUC Congress 2019 – public ownership with democratic control of banking and finance as well as the whole energy industry. We should fight for Labour to take up and campaign for as much of this as we can get.
5. Repeal of all anti-union laws
Under the lockdown, the right to strike through established legal procedures has all but disappeared. Many groups of workers have rightly taken action unofficially, and won victories, but the anti-union laws designed to prevent such action are now an even heavier burden around the labour movement’s neck.
Labour conference has voted repeatedly to repeal all these laws, but the leadership under Corbyn did not campaign for this. Neither did Momentum: in 2017 the National Coordinating Group agreed a proposal from Rida Vaquas, but the office did not carry it out even minimally.
Campaigning for repeal of all anti-strike laws – and their replacement with strong positive rights for workers and unions – is an acid test for a Labour left which sees workers’ struggles as genuinely central. Without committing to remove legal barriers to workers organising and taking industrial action, no serious discussion about “new models of ownership” or workers’ control is possible.
The left must demand active support from Labour, nationally and locally, for trade union-building and workers’ struggles, including the unofficial action taking place now – and set an example itself. It should set itself the goal of transforming the unions as well as Labour.
6. Workers’ MPs on a worker’s wage
The Tories’ response to Covid-19 should reaffirm that the working class needs its own independent representation in workplaces and industries, but also in politics.
“I come to this House as a workers’ representative”, said new Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome in her maiden speech. Nadia has made a stir by giving a big chunk of her MP’s salary (rising in April 2020 by 3.1pc, to £81,932) to campaigns and struggles, explicitly on the basis of taking something close to “a worker’s wage”.
The broader point is that to develop workers’ struggle politically, and win a government serving the working class, the labour movement needs MPs who see their election as part of building working-class political representation, not a career path. We need a drive for candidates who come from grassroots labour movement activism in workplaces and communities – teachers and train drivers, posties and care workers, firefighters and logistics workers, librarians and cleaners – not more lawyers, senior NGO officials and people who worked for other MPs. We should advocate all Labour MPs take a worker’s wage and give the rest to labour movement organisations and campaigns.
7. A sovereign Labour conference
Labour cannot be democratic, member-controlled movement allowing political self-expression by working people unless annual conference has real decision-making power over party policy, direction and campaigning. Again, neither the Corbyn leadership or Momentum fought for this. Starmer’s election highlights the importance of stepping up – or really, beginning – the fight now. We must insist the party’s policies and broad plans are developed by and in the movement, not announced from on high by politicians and their staff.
Winning open parliamentary selections is important, but the sovereignty of conference even more so.
We should link the demand for a sovereign conference to getting the party to argue and campaign for the left-wing policies agreed by conference (on public ownership, migrants’ rights, the right to strike and many other issues).
8. A sovereign Momentum conference
Likewise, Momentum cannot be meaningfully democratic, empower its members to steer the organisation and hold its leadership to account, or collectively decide what policies and proposals to push in Labour – there seems to be a growing consensus this is necessary – without the mechanism of a national decision-making conference. A democratic conference requires the (re)development of functioning local groups and regional networks to elect delegates and hold them to account. For more on this, see Michael Chessum’s document.
For further ideas on democratising Momentum, see the proposals made by Dudley Momentum in 2018.
9. Fighting Labour councils
Labour councils too should represent and serve the working class, not aspiring careers, and be accountable to Labour and union members. They should join with local workforces and communities to fight the Tories, not implement attacks on them. Momentum has encouraged its members to become councillors, but along with the leadership discouraged analysis and debate of Labour’s poor record in local government. We need: serious, comradely but frank discussions in the party about Labour councils’ approach – including in this crisis – and the strategy going forward; a push for real national and local campaigning to restore councils’ funding and powers; and demands to democratise local government, for instance by abolishing executive mayors.
10. Young Labour groups
Despite massive youth support for Labour since 2015, Young Labour has never become a real movement. In some respects it has regressed. Most importantly, there has never been a coordinated drive from YL or the party nationally to build functioning local groups across the country, despite good efforts here and there.
The existence of hundreds of YL groups as centres for discussion, socialising and campaigning would make a major difference to all sorts of things. It’s not unrealistic: similar was done, for instance, in the early 1960s, from a virtually standing start. Making this happen should be a major focus for the left and for Momentum.
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