Accountability, Schisms, Momentum
Welsh Labour Grassroots’ recent meeting took an introduction from Jon Lansman, of Left Futures and Momentum, on the current state of play on the Labour left. Here, Gordon Gibson explores some themes from the discussion.
What is Momentum’s rallying call to the enthusiasm of thousands of new members and supporters, many young, many women – characteristics unfamiliar to Labour Party branch meetings?
Deselection, via Blair-destroyed democracy, is the last thing to subject enthusiasm to. We will come at that from a different direction. On the other hand, if ever an issue justified deselection, it is ‘war’.
Where are the new enthusiasts? What do they want to do? How do we reach them?
First, let’s look inwards to the immediate needs of the Labour Party and its new leader.
MPs will not be subject to reselection for a while yet, with the next general election scheduled for 2020. There are more pressing elections and selections – for the Scots and Welsh governments next May and for local councils the year after. Many new enthusiasts will commit to leafleting, door-knocking and cold-calling if their optimism for an alternative from Labour is sustained.
Constituencies that were unable to take a position on the rushed Syria vote will wish to review how their representative voted. Those who voted in favour of war, against the mandate of the party and the leader, should certainly be challenged. Just who are they representing? The opportunity should also be taken to endorse those who voted against the Tories, if only to demonstrate that constituency parties should have a major input on such policies.
It is not just a matter of ‘listening to the debate in parliament’, as our local party was fobbed off with. Previous local incumbents, in their monthly reports to their party, used to indicate what issues were coming up on the parliamentary agenda so that party members could express a view. Steps should be taken now to reintroduce that democratic accountability.
In Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn has a different game to play. He has only a small core of support and a residue of two election defeats, a backward looking party, an apparatus dominated by ‘Progress’, the externally funded party within the party, and a thoroughly undemocratic legacy. Little encouragement is to be found in the parliamentary party. Corbyn’s task is immense.
So many of those whose career was set out for them over the Blair years, now find themselves subject to scrutiny. Yet they appear day after day in a media, slavering over every obscure criticism of the elected party leader. The media laps it up, contrives much of it, to the extent of blaming Corbyn for the pro-war vote! We expect no less from the media – actually, we do, even the ‘liberal’ media has been shocking. Neither do we expect less from the ‘outriders’ for the right, many of them hitherto unheard of, dug out for some titbit of trash. Here in Wales, renegade and bon-viveur, Kim Howells, is unearthed to throw in a few words about Islam, terror, a welcome for bombs. Our representatives have to be held to account.
To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn turned a majority of Blair-grounded MPs to vote with him against the Syria bombing, forced a Tory u-turn on Tax Credits, and has begun to establish Labour as an anti-austerity party. The PLP will jump on him when they get the chance. The ‘free vote’ was forced by those threatening to formalise a split grouping, as is all the guff about a cabinet reshuffle. The new leader is making every effort to maintain unity, the ‘broad church’ that is Labour; that was Labour until Blair’s New Labour came along.
The parliamentary left grouping may have made understandable mistakes in their surprise elevation to party leadership, attempting a balance between wholly inexperienced newbies and a selection from the ‘middle ground’ – a generous label for many of them. They can’t just be dumped, reshuffled. The PLP would then have an excuse to formalise open rebellion. In reality none of them are good enough to defeat him, without a fawning media – Benn’s speech was leapt on by a rabid press; Hunt utters the word ‘socialism’; Cooper bemoans bullying; they are a shower, unable and certainly unwilling to recognise that their strategy, tried and failed in two elections and responsible for a Labour wipeout in Scotland, is like the emperor’s new clothes to the electorate. The Scots saw it and Corbyn has opened the wardrobe in England.
If there is to be schism, it will be from the right as it always is. It will be top down and it will ultimately fail, but not before causing untold damage. Jeremy Corbyn has re-established honesty, trust, open-ness. He says what people want to hear. The influx of members and support comes from alienated voices, from socialists and the socially minded, disenfranchised by pandering to neo-liberalism and austerity. And war. Assembling and holding together a unity of that broad cohort is the primary challenge to the left in Britain.
‘Progress’ and the Blairite appeal to the ‘middle ground’, to win back votes from the Tories, is no longer a tenable strategy. Labour votes are the lost votes, not Tory votes. Alienation expresses itself in many ways – UKIP is one of them. The great and unheralded Oldham by-election result revealed that Corbyn is electable and that UKIP may have been a threat when Labour offered nothing, ‘more austerity but nicer’. When Corbyn offers an alternative, the votes come back. He looks outwards to them. By their involvement and inclusion, they will determine the outcome of votes and selections in the parliamentary party. The media and Progress are in a frenzy of fantasy bluster in fear of that reality.
And so to Momentum.
Already subject to a torrent of criticism from the Labour right and the media, even before the infant grouping has taken shape, pressure builds to ‘close Momentum down’. In the best traditions of the British left, we discuss who to exclude, a theme reflected in Tom Watson’s warning against entryism and damage to the party, and in well orchestrated calls for Corbyn to withdraw from Stop the War. The real debate is how to engage with and unify all that support outside and coming to the party.
Grassroots’ discussion with Lansman on what form Momentum might take, was far from complete. Just this week, a consensus confirms that it be open to Labour members and supporters, with members of other parties and perhaps non-affiliated organisations excluded. Here in Wales, we have exactly that organisation – Welsh Labour Grassroots, which has proved itself to be arguably the best organised, geographically spread, representative and influential left grouping in the country exactly, literally ‘exactly’, as is being proposed for Momentum. Such a format may be appropriate in England (I doubt it) but not in Wales. That is why there is such angst about who, how and if Momentum should be initiated. What do we need another organisation for, if we do it already?
WLG’s role is to be at the forefront of, and be seen to be encouraging Momentum in Wales. The task is to bring together, to welcome, all those who support Corbyn’s stances. Many of these people are former Labour voters, some have joined other parties, currents, campaigns. Many are coming to politics because of Jeremy Corbyn and what he stands for. Momentum is the vehicle (for now) to bring them together, the welcoming open door, the accessible forum, an activity centre, through which innovative new approaches to politics and social organisation can be developed.
The immediate task for the left, is to help develop mechanisms, vehicles in which potential Labour voters and activists can find some resonance. There are very few Labour branches capable of providing that. Momentum will be a broad front to bring together resistance to austerity and to war. Where that goes, how it will develop, will reveal itself in due course.
With some humility, recognise that new voices bring new vehicles.
In Scotland, in the face of Labour in self-destruct mode, the left coalesced, in a unity unprecedented in British politics, around the Radical Independence Campaign, now fighting, not easily, for a unified party identity as RISE. That is the best shot at the moment and we must run with it. The Scottish parliament itself reached out with its weekend Festival of Politics. In Spain it is Podemos, with exciting new formats, in Greece, Syriza, both with evident contradictions and many challenges for leftists. In Britain, we have a very English (sic) version, expressing opposition around the election of the leader of the Labour Party. However, the suggestion that this is likely to be contained within the ranks of the Labour party is a self-deluding fiction.
Our task is to encourage, participate, even initiate Momentum with the objective of underpinning Jeremy Corbyn, giving him and his miniscule support in parliament a breadth of active support on the ground, democratically organised, inclusive, yes, of support beyond Labour, promoting new blood, hopefully new candidates, to help establish the alternatives to austerity and war. Our job is here on the streets, aspiring to solid expression in parliament and perhaps even renewed life in the Labour Party.