Wednesday 23 December 2015

An Essay in Self-Criticism

Quoting Mao is in thanks to John McDonnell's invocation at the dispatch box. With Stalinist revivalism in the air, I'm going to indulge another practice associated with China's unlamented Red Guard movement: the self-criticism.

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.

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.
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.

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.


jim mclean said...

Jeremy saved the Labour Party. How? Stopped the others winning.

Speedy said...

Well, this post would be a good example of being careful what you wish for!

"equally it could be a faddy thing"

You think?

Thank you for your posts over the year, and have a happy Christmas, providing it will not lead to your compulsory re-education at some point down the road!

Dave K said...

Good Post Phil (they always are but this is a good summing up of the Corbyn Surge). The regeneration of the general labour movement is key. The problem here is three fold in terms of the unions and interconnected.
- The low level of class struggle. Apart from some train and tube strikes lead RMT there have not been any noticible strikes. The public sector unions defeat/capitulation over pensions in 2011 has cast a long shadow over workers willingness to fight.
- The abscence of unions from many sectors, towns and working class life in general
- A sclerotic and minimal internal democratic life in most unions. Branches are often Moribund, other committees are often stuffed with retirees and is unrepresentative of diversity of the membership.

There is another issue which is harder to quantify but I think social movement campaigns in general seem weaker and more dependent on unions ans party. The Peoples Assembly and NHS campaigning still remains large but are largely part and parcel of the unions and closely link by ties of personel;, funding and politics. The womens movement is a noticible exception of thid malise but hasnt really generated large national organisations.

Phil said...

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.

Or they could just not be there yet. It's still very early days. You're looking at it as an activist - understandably; you've been one for most of your adult life, as far as I can tell. But people who aren't activists won't respond to the first email prompt to attend a regular meeting they've never gone to before with people they've never met before, some of whom are probably going to be hostile (to Corbyn and to them). Or even the second, or the third.

I joined the party in September; it's twenty years since I last gave up an evening to politics, and the prospect of getting back into the habit isn't entirely appealing. I'm going to my first local party meeting (branch meeting? ward meeting? I don't even know the lingo) in January.

New members don't turn into active members overnight - and leaving the house on a school night is being active! I haven't joined Momentum, but I have been to a couple of party socials. At the second of them - to my great relief - I talked to some people who actually support Corbyn, including one who joined at the same time I did; that's actually one of the reasons I'm going to the local block committee (or whatever it's called), "I will if you will" sort of thing.

So that's my experience, and I'm a former activist - never been in the Labour Party, but I did a good ten years on the Socialist Society/Socialist Movement/Red Pepper scene. For somebody who's never blocked out the first Tuesday of every month (or equivalent) the cultural barriers will be even higher. This is why we need Momentum, I think; outside of student politics, it will always take time to get new members involved, and the support needs to be there while that time is passing.

Incidentally, that support certainly isn't always going to come from the local party. A personal friend had a go on Facebook at people who join Labour although they'd previously voted for other parties - "and that's how we ended up with a Tory government". There's a lot of bitterness, not so much on the Labour Right as on the solid centre-left, people (like my friend) who had to grit their teeth very hard indeed during the New Labour years. (I'm not sure how much of a Labour Right there is at local party membership level, and in any case they would hate anyone to the Left of Kendall.) Corbyn's victory - how can the centre-left get over it? There's a topic for you.

One parliamentary by-election in a safe Labour seat doesn't say a great deal, I'm afraid.

It would have said a hell of a lot if Labour had lost it or scraped a win - which was widely expected to happen, let's not forget. For me there are two reasons why Labour got 62% of the vote in Oldham West (while the Tory vote collapsed): on one hand, the vote held up, which suggests that Corbyn isn't poison to Labour's traditional supporters, however you define them; on the other hand, good old-fashioned doorstep campaigning on a large scale got the vote out, which suggests that the hordes of Momentum can be put to work.

It doesn't say much about how Labour can win in Basildon, fair enough, but the Oldham West result does say a few things - and they're all good.

Phil said...

Part 2

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.

For a historical materialist you seem remarkably indifferent to the dimension of time. It's certainly true that Corbyn's personality and self-presentation don't ring the general public's bell in the way they do mine. But give him time to get his ideas across - which is all he really cares about - and we'll see how much of a barrier that is. My hunch is that it won't be insuperable; the polls are already improving.

It's bound to be a long haul, though. Blair's revolution went through quickly, partly because his enforcers were working for him (I've been very disappointed in Tom Watson) and partly because the press were on his side, but mainly because he was abandoning beliefs that were no longer widely or sincerely held within the party and openly embracing the common sense of a post-Thatcherite free market society. In effect Corbyn's trying to take Labour back to the kind of commitments it half-heartedly professed to have before Blair, and get them taken seriously.

Now I suppose I'd better write this up properly and put it on my blog - too long for a comment section (although you should still publish it!).

Dave Cohen said...

I'm a little more optimistic than you, with all the caveats you mention. (Another fine piece by the way). One of these is that for all his talk of a new politics, Jeremy still has along way to go to recognise what they are. "A kinder gentler politics that's open to debate - about everything except Trident" immediately undermines itself.

Also, throughout the summer no one asked the most important question that remains unasked - what is labour?

Work is changing massively but no one in Labour is addressing this change: how the knowledge economy is rewriting the rules, how globalisation is impacting on world labour - which would force us to properly address the subject of immigration, beyond the awful binary 'good thing/bad thing' debate dictated by the right.

I get the sense that John McDonell sort of gets it, but as long as we continue to define ourselves by the Tory agenda we'll just be playing catch-up.

Anyway, Happy Christmas, thanks for your excellent posts and here's hoping for a better 2016 for Labour.

Rob Stevens said...

The most important aspect of this piece is that you don't think Jeremy (and a hard left platform) can win power to help all the people and groups in society that desperately need it. I think you are correct: he has the worst polling data (as opposition leader) in history and Labours still overrated numbers- as methods not fully adjusted yet- average a losing 33% since the summer. To the 200k open primary voters it all seems very fresh and exciting but that will get extremely old within 18 months as polls and election performances disappoint. Furthermore (most) TU leaders- for all their recent antagonism towards centre left- will drop the hard left if it is clear Labour are steering head on towards the iceberg. For me the hope is that Labour as a brand as well as a movement is not permanently tainted during this next 4 years of Chinese style 'interesting times'.