Confession time. I've found getting my bearing in the new politics extremely difficult. That's inevitable I suppose as previous self-evident truths were upended in little over a couple of months. The amateur dramatics we've seen from commentators and MPs is entirely understandable - though not excusable. The universe they knew has evaporated and the party as a whole appears keen to forget it. In the new situation, political activity and writing as concerns the Labour Party and labour movement requires some reassessment - mine included.
Thinking about your own politics and dissecting them isn't an easy thing to do, but I think you could say my 'programme' - for want of a better word - had a number of objectives. The aim was to push Labour to the left, which has happened. The aim was to renew and reforge the links between party and movement, which the new leadership is committed to do. The aim was to shift the economic policy agenda to address issues around self-security, which Corbynomics is doing in a more consistently than Ed Miliband's half-arsed approach. The aim was to decisively break with market fundamentalism, which - arguably - left and right now agree on - the difference being a matter of degree. And the aim was to get as many people into the party as possible - and presently we're up 170,000 or so. On each of these scores, you could say the job is done or is at least now being taken seriously, and the question is how to extend and deepen them.
The huge great blue bottle in all the ointment as far as I'm concerned is how I voted in the summer. I.e. Not for Jeremy. Once the tax credit debacle catalysed support around his candidacy, surely as the left candidate it was down to self-identifying lefts to support him? If politics is about expressing one's identity, then yes. But as it's always about power and struggle, some analysis was required and I - reluctantly - concluded no.
Why? There was
electoral strategy, namely the seeming indifference much of Jeremy's support has to winning over Tory voters and the emphasis he wishes to place on mobilising non-voters. This approach has been gamed on Ravi's blog under the present boundaries. His best estimate puts us behind the Tories - assuming present Labour and Tory support stays where it is - and he also notes that the 2020 election will be fought on boundaries less favourable to our party. The next election is going to be a tough slog, and I'm sorry, I have very little time for anyone agnostic about us winning. Over the next five years the Tories are going to shaft our funding base and throw obstacles in the way of trade unions. And do we have to talk about what they have in store for our people as well? Can you imagine what could happen again if they win in 2020? I've got a good job and have no reason to believe my health will deteriorate over the next 10 years, but that could easily change. There are, of course, many millions not as fortunate as I and will suffer unless we get back into power at the first available opportunity.The old perspective was premised on a gradual pace of struggle, of the party and the wider electorate coming around slowly to ideas and policies that pushed the cosy consensus, and that rebuilding the labour movement was a painstaking street-by-street and workplace-by-workplace process. Jeremy's successful leadership bid has short-circuited all that, but problems remain. Unfortunately, nothing has convinced me that the party under Jeremy's leadership can win a general election - in effect, the unexpected victory for the left has come too soon, and there is the risk of mistaking the influx of new members with a wider shift that just doesn't exist.
And there is the development and strength of the left itself. Few, if anyone expected a left insurgency of this magnitude. But one should not cheer lead uncritically, like much of the far left outside Labour are doing, but to try and understand it in order to shape it. As far as I'm concerned the new member/supporter wave is not a 'social movement' as such, as per Scotland, but more like a mass affiliation of many ones and twos. It is a tendency attracted by Jeremy's unorthodoxy and amplified by social media. Some of it are former Labour people, but the overwhelming bulk are new to politics - that's if the membership surge we've had in our neck of the woods is anything to go by. If you like it is rootless, a variegated and individuated group of people in search of a social movement. As such, noting its rootlessness, it would be a huge mistake to take this as evidence of a much wider constituency waiting to gift us local election after European election after general election. The second related point here comes from an opportunity/risk analysis. A Jeremy leadership is likely to attract another wave of new recruits and strengthen the gravity of left politics generally. The problem is I cannot see how, in the absence of a catastrophe, that this will be enough to win an election. Even worse, an electoral defeat will be taken as a defeat for socialist ideas, just at the moment their revival is getting underway. There is, of course, never a right time for the left to make a play, and the opportunity Jeremy's candidacy represents is one that does not come along too often. Nevertheless, that is what I think - an early peak could see us stumble into an equally early trough.
Still, there is no point lamenting theoretical schemes that have been brushed aside by events. The task is now to see whether there's anything that can be salvaged from it to make sense of the new situation. On pushing Labour to the left, we have to be clear what the new members represent. Those tens of thousands are a consolidation of the left, not a widespread radicalisation pulling masses into politics. Furthermore, there are many new faces turning up at party meetings but they are only a small proportion of the new membership. True, over the course of a year only about a third of my constituency party would attend a meeting anyway, and even fewer would do some campaigning, yet you might expect thoroughgoing radicalism would feed through greater numbers - particularly as Momentum was set up to harness this enthusiasm. It could be the bulk of the new members are very, very raw (I have encountered a few who didn't know the party had meetings), and equally it could be a faddy thing - the equivalent of sticking a ribbon on your social media account of choice. Neither are mutually exclusive, of course.
The leftism of the new members has exerted its power well enough though, much to the annoyance of moaning MPs, and Jeremy has proved adept in using them as an implied threat against actual and would-be rebels. No wonder he's set on e-polling the membership whenever a thorny issue comes up in the future (if that was the only stick I has vis the PLP, I'd do it too). That leftism, however, is very fresh - hence the perceived agnosticism towards questions of power and governance - though as Julian points out in the comments here, polling around this issue gives a question with two counterposed answers and no room for nuance. However, the problem with this leftism more generally is a lack of wider purchase. As out-of-touch and privileged the majority of the PLP are, their views are more representative of the country-at-large than the comrades of the leader's office. The opinion polls say this (remember, they overstate Labour's support), and the local by-elections are telling us this as well. One parliamentary by-election in a safe Labour seat doesn't say a great deal, I'm afraid. If anything, the push to the left is putting further distance between the party and the people we need to win over.
A start at reversing this is rebuilding the labour movement. Easier said than done, but historically the organisations of working people have reached further than the formal structures of the party. Unfortunately, Labour's new members haven't been matched by a similar uptick in union membership. The reaffiliation of the FBU, of course, is very welcome news, and one would hope the RMT follows suit soon as well as other unions who, for whatever reasons, have steered clear of the party. Bureaucratic relationships, however, are no substitute for forging real relationships between the party and the movement. If there are "established" Labour people worried by the activities of new members, few things are better for inculcating a sense of collective responsibility and pragmatism than active involvement in trade unions. Remember, it is a (never enforced) condition of party membership to be a member of a union also. This isn't simply a shibboleth, a stronger movement means a wider consciousness about the basic values of labourist politics, a (potentially) stronger community of solidarity that can be mobilised to resist Tory austerity and, not least, a larger number of people with a more favourable disposition to vote for our party. The more individual trade unionists there are, the more that can be recruited to the party, and the better it can reflect the universal interest - the interests of the huge majority that have to, are destined to, or have spent a lifetime selling their ability to work in return for a living.
The question is whether Jeremy is a help or a hindrance for achieving this objective, whether the party can become a repository of that universal interest. And the answer, as it has always been for all leaders, is both. His leadership remains a pull factor and recruits to the party far outweigh the - mostly inactive - numbers who've left, but at the same time - and I've only skirted the issue here - the electorate do not share his supporters' enthusiasm. In effect, and in a wry ironic twist, the new left in the Labour Party sometimes is and in the future will be a barrier to embedding the leftist politics and leftist common sense in the popular imagination. The careful-as-she-goes approach to rebuilding was overtaken by events, yet retains an overall relevance because of the new situation. If you can't take the people with you, all that is left is radicalism for radicalism's sake.
Self-critically then, it means carrying on as I have been doing these last few months on here. Trying to understand the Corbyn phenomenon while emphasising the importance of pragmatic considerations against the left, and taking the centre and the right to task for moaning and whingeing isn't going to win me many friends but, as I said, politics is about interests. The defence and projection of those on which our movement stands must always come first.