Book Review: Owen Jones’ “This Land: The Story of a Movement”

The book’s title is somewhat misleading: it’s the inside story of the circle of advisers and strategists around Jeremy Corbyn’s office, not the story of the movement that backed him. Jones gives a lively account of Corbyn’s election as party leader and the immediate attempts by the parliamentary party to unseat him. He describes the initial disorganisation of the leader’s office confronted with the infighting of the party bureaucracy, which was resolved when the calling of the 2017 general election gave the Corbyn team a new focus: an “insurgent, take-on-the-elite populism.”

The party’s relative success in the election led to new problems, in particular the need to articulate a coherent policy on Brexit. Jones argues that the Corbyn leadership missed the chance to make clear it would not support a second referendum and present instead an alternate Brexit plan that would focus on workers’ rights and jobs. That didn’t happen: it’s easy to say these things in hindsight, but at the time the party as a whole was conflicted over whether to advocate a progressive leave strategy, or work to stay in the EU.

Jones points out that the Remain movement, which gathered steam through 2018, had the support of many in the membership who reacted to the xenophobia of Tory Brexit propaganda. But there were also bad actors within Labour who saw Brexit “as a convenient wedge issue, something to provoke a split between the Labour leadership and the largely pro-Remain Labour membership,” as he puts it – including hostile MPs and even more hostile political operatives like Peter Mandelson.

The compromises made at the 2018 party conference on the issue “catastrophically damaged” Corbyn, says Jones. Keir Starmer broke with party policy to advocate a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. But by attempting to bridge the sides in the cabinet, Corbyn, says Jones, “had spent the two and a half years since the election in a constant but erratic retreat from accepting the referendum result,” and by 2019 voters saw him as “weak, indecisive and a flipflopper.” Jones implicitly blames Corbyn’s indecision for the conflicts within his leadership team. But he doesn’t discuss the ideological confusion over Brexit on the left, some tending to submerge it under domestic economic issues, although he credits Seumas Milne with keeping Labour’s Brexit position “intentionally vague.”

Were the accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party all the responsibility of the leader? Or were there larger social forces at work? The support for Corbyn had channeled the mass antiwar movement of 2003 into the electoral system. This posed a challenge to the military and intelligence communities in the Anglo-Israeli-American alliance as well as the lucrative British arms industry with its links to both Labour and Tory politicians, both closely connected to the media. Corbyn’s foreign policy plans that would have ended the selling of arms to Saudi Arabia were a threat to these entrenched forces, and they worked assiduously to discredit him.

At first, as Jones points out, the onslaught against Corbyn centred on his lack of patriotism, then on his contacts with the IRA during the peace agreement negotiations, then on his initial decision to accept the results of the Brexit referendum. But the anti-semitism allegations were more difficult to defend against. They were taken up and amplified by Corbyn’s many political opponents in the establishment.

After Jones gives a sanitized version of the relations between Israel and Labour, he gives the impression that more effective political messaging would have dealt with the accusations. He criticizes Labour’s responses as being ad hoc, there was “no coherent strategy within the leader’s office on how to tackle claims of antisemitism,” he says. Corbyn’s public interventions “were often angry and defensive, centring on his lifelong opposition to racism.” After Margaret Hodge called Corbyn “a fucking antisemite” in the House of Commons, he was “shaken up;” when John McDonnell attempted to patch things up with Hodge, fearing a split in the PLP, Corbyn refused to speak with him and became detached from his staff. According to Karie Murphy, “he was paralysed. He was being asked to do things that in some way would confirm in people’s miinds that the reason he had to do those things was because he was antisemitic.”

Jones blames the “lack of both strategy and emotional intelligence” on the part of the leadership, which he thinks should from the start have “displayed an uncompromising opposition to antisemitism, and offered more vocal support for the Palestinian cause.” But Corbyn’s defensiveness “led him to disengage and shut down when antisemitism was discussed … Corbyn’s slow-motion collapse encapsulated that of the movement. The relationships within the leader’s office had started to crumble.” This begs the question of whether any form of strategic appeasement would have ended the assault from social forces hostile in the extreme to a socialist foreign policy. The fragmentation of the Corbyn leadership team reflected not just its unpreparedness, but the extent of the establishment’s opposition to a socialist agenda. If Corbyn appeared to be “broken” by the antisemitism claims, that demonstrated the extent of his isolation at a time when he was trying to hold the party together.

Jones constructs another narrative of leadership paralysis after Johnson took over the Tory party – it was “frozen in the headlights of Johnson’s victory.” When Tom Watson faced being sacked, “as usual, Corbyn, when faced with an impasse, had gone AWOL.” But Jones is an unreliable witness when he discusses the 2019 conference vote on a second referendum. Out of two competing resolutions, one advocated that the party remain neutral in the referendum, while the other mandated it to campaign for Remain. Delegates voted down the Remain motion, while according to Jones “during the whole process Corbyn himself had been withdrawn, almost invisible.” Jones was at the conference, as I was, so he knows that during this time the Supreme Court was adjudicating the legality of Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. Corbyn was working with MPs at Westminster to work out some kind of strategy. Before the vote on the referendum he intervened at the conference with a compelling speech arguing that the party should advocate for a neutral stance in any forthcoming referendum – which is why it was carried. He was hardly “invisible.”

Although Jones acknowledges that Corbyn was driven by a deep-rooted commitment to building a world free of exploitation and racism, he concludes that Corbyn’s aversion to conflict “rendered him chronically indecisive, and his leadership sometimes directionless and rudderless.” Corbyn was in an impossible position: “His stubbornness ensured his survival in the face of an unprecedented assault from every direction, but it also left him all too defensive and contributed to a bunker mentality some of his allies perpetuated.” Jones thinks it a tragedy for the left that McDonnell never assumed the leadership. But whether members would have voted for him, “whether there was something about Corbyn’s personality … that was key to his triumph” is untestable. But he leaves the question of what that “something” was unanswered.

Perhaps a better coda to Jones’ narrative is Craig Murray’s comments about the leaked report on rightwing factionalism within the Labour bureaucracy. He says it is hard to read the report without concluding that Corbyn lacked the requisite ruthlessness to deal with his enemies in the party. “But then, his not being a ruthless bastard is why so many people flocked to support Corbyn in the first place.”

Owen Jones, This Land: The Story of a Movement, Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, 2020

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Can British Labour learn from Biden’s defeat of Trump?

Joe Biden’s clear victory in the US presidential election has prevented Donald Trump from doing what he threatened: using what journalist Patrick Cockburn calls the “Turkish playbook” to cling to power. This is, he explains, a “strategy employed by several populist national leaders across the world in recent years to stay in power by prematurely claiming a win at the polls, and then manipulating the final result in their favour through their control of state institutions, such as election supervisory boards and the courts.” The classic example is Erdogan in Turkey.

Anticipated violence at the polls never materialised: the electoral system quietly and efficiently dealt with a huge number of mail-in votes. But Trump leaves behind a legacy of a packed Supreme Court and appointees to the federal judiciary. To rebalance the courts would require a Democratic majority in the Senate, but the party leadership’s strategy of channeling resources to handpicked centrist candidates in the hope of winning over moderate Republicans (if they still exist) failed miserably. Novara Media pointed out: “As progressive Democrats were sidelined by the leadership, [Senate minority leader Chuck] Schumer threw millions of dollars into his appeasement slate. And by the time of the election on Tuesday, upwards of $350m had been spent on [failed] Senate races in South Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Montana. Meanwhile, in West Virginia and Tennessee, where progressive Democrats claimed the nomination, candidates were comparatively starved of resources – $1.1m and $400,000 were spent respectively on the races of Paula Jean Swearingham and Marquita Bradshaw.”  

On the other hand, Sanders-inspired socialists in Congress like “The Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – were reelected with significantly increased majorities. Two more socialist-backed candidates were added to their number: Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Jamaal Bow­man in New York, and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Cori Bush, the first ever Black Con­gress­woman in Missouri. 

So it’s laughable that centrists in the British Labour party like Wes Streeting could tweet “Definitely need to learn lessons from the Democrats. Particularly the part where they won,” crediting Biden’s centrism for the result. Streeting completely misunderstands US politics: Trump increased his vote share from white Americans while Biden benefited from the community organising of Latino, Black and Asian Americans who had been campaigning over the last four years against voter suppression and racial discrimination. In Georgia, campaigns to expand the electorate after Stacey Abrams’ narrow defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election proved that increased nonwhite voter turnout could change the balance of power in the state irrespective of the white vote. In Arizona and Nevada, a decade of organising by Mexican-Americans against discrimination energised the Latino community. Rashida Tlaib mas­sive­ly increased vot­er turnout in Michigan from the 2016 election. And Biden’s majority in Pennsylvania, which clinched the presidency for him, was owed to campaigning by organisations such as Reclaim Philadelphia, a group focused on working-class issues founded in 2016 by local organisers.

Biden had to take on board policy positions from the Sanders campaign: notably his version of the Green New Deal, an increase in minimum wage, and an expansion of Obamacare (if not Medicare for All). After Bernie Sanders gave Biden his support, a de facto Democratic coalition extending from conservatives to the progressive left worked to overturn Trump’s presidency. 

Far from learning from the presidential election, the Labour party centrists have adopted the opposite strategy. Instead of uniting the party to fight Boris Johnson’s corrupt and incompetent government, they are doing their best to marginalise the Corbyn left. Community organising won Biden the presidency, but Labour’s plan is to shut down the party’s Community Organising Unit. Starmer is slavishly imitating the mistakes of the Democratic party establishment by pinning his electability on winning votes from disaffected Tories. He won the leadership by promising to continue the party’s 2017 and 2019 policies, but has broken his pledges at the first opportunity. After getting elected on the basis of a lie, Starmer is carrying out his own pale version of the Turkish playbook by using control of the party apparatus to purge any opposition.

Labour’s General Secretary David Evans has emailed all local party officials to warn them he will “not hesitate to take action” if members are allowed to discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension or the EHRC report at meetings. But the Starmer leadership has seriously misjudged the party membership. It expected to be able to unite the rightwing of the party with centrist neoliberals while intimidating the left with threats of lawfare. The middle of the road membership was supposed to stay inactive while this was going on, but instead has been outraged. While not necessarily supporting Corbyn politically, they identify with his ethical socialism because it forms the DNA of the party.

The result has been to polarise much of the party membership against the bureaucracy. This is significant because it brings to a head a simmering member discontent with arbitrary officialdom, especially over its role in the general elections, even if they approve Starmer’s politically inept approach to opposing the Johnson government.

Constituency parties are defying the General Secretary and party officials by passing resolutions condemning Corbyn’s suspension and taking to social media to publicise them. One of the first is South Thanet Labour Party which voted by an overwhelming majority to call for Corbyn to be reinstated. According to their Facebook page, chair Norman Thomas said he thought the vote reflected widespread anger among Labour Party members. He said: “Jeremy is not an antisemite, he is a man of utter integrity. I believe it’s a measure of how much the party establishment fears Jeremy that they have taken this incredible and outrageous decision.” 

Welsh Labour Grassroots, the Welsh equivalent of Momentum, said the suspension was an “unwarranted attack on those many thousands of Labour Party members who were and remain inspired by Jeremy’s socialist vision and principles, who now feel let down by the leadership’s action”. Blyth Valley CLP in the northeast formally expressed solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn – and demanded his immediate reinstatement. 

At the important London Regional Executive Committee, meeting over Zoom, delegates from Unite the Union attempted to share an emergency motion that called on the party leadership to restore the Labour whip to Corbyn. On their Facebook page, the London REC reported: “A clear majority of members voted to hear the motion but staff advised they could not be present during the debate as it was not ‘competent business’. The staff turned off their cameras and chose not to participate until the next item of business.” While the motion was debated, a party officer prevented the vote from going ahead by removing the chair as a co-host of the Zoom call, disabling his control of the voting functions. The report calls this “clear interference from staff who should be neutral in the democratic decision-making of the Labour Party.”

Momentum national coordinating representative Mick Moore declared after the meeting: “The Labour leadership and their allies in the party are embarking on an authoritarian, factional crackdown. First they told members they couldn’t meet over lockdown, then they tried to ban motions on the suspension of a former leader, and now they are preventing members from exercising their democratic rights – party unity is being systematically undermined by a culture of control-freakery and forced silence.”

Hilary Wainwright writes eloquently in the Guardian that, “contrary to the mainstream perspective, the Corbyn period was not ‘an aberration’, but a period of renewal and growth that now needs to be built on and expanded, not destroyed, in order to unite to bring down this cruel, incompetent and now divided government. In the interests of free expression, party unity and party renewal, his voice and that of his supporters must be part of the debate and his membership reinstated.”

UPDATE: Keir Starmer has jumped on Biden’s bandwagon, suggesting that the Democrats won with a “broad coalition, including many of the states and communities that four years ago turned away from them.” Starmer is trying to make an analogy with the “red wall” voters Labour lost in the last election; but he conveniently ignores that the grassroots organising in key states that won the election for Biden did not succeed in convincing Republican voters to abandon Trump, but instead extended the nonwhite Democratic electorate in key states. Labour also needs community organising to rebuild its base, but how can the party do this when it is losing members at a great rate?

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What a Labour government would do differently about Covid-19

Andrew Fisher, former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, has been pilloried by the more dogmatic sections of the left for calling for an alliance of the Labour left with supporters of Keir Starmer in order to defend the party’s policy programme. The left should not go back into a self-imposed “sealed tomb,” he said.

Fisher’s complete argument, however, published in OpenDemocracy, is considerably more nuanced. The Corbyn left’s rise and fall in the party was the consequence of “structural factors,” he says: the left was simply not prepared to manage a major political party, and Momentum’s original purpose of transforming the party into a social movement was diverted because of the huge resistance from the PLP and the senior staff at party headquarters. When Corbyn took the leadership in 2015, the Labour left was not an organised force within the party’s institutions. “This long-standing absence of an organised Left imposed material constraints on Corbyn’s leadership from the start.”

But, he points out, “The structural conditions that gave rise to Corbynism still persist. The Left is in a stronger position than it was in 2015. The membership is still favourable to the key tenets of the policy agenda (as is much of the public). The new party leader ran on a 10-pledge policy platform almost identical to Corbyn in 2015, and called the 2017 manifesto (unfathomable for decades in Labour politics) his ‘foundational document’.”

The shift in the centre ground of debate within the party means that “the Left can play a constructive (and, when necessary, constructively critical) role that reflects both our influence and the position of the current leadership … the Labour Left must work constructively to build on the best of Corbynism’s legacy, while organising to remove the structural factors that inhibited its success.” 

Fisher doesn’t include the party bureaucracy in the structural factors. But Martin Smith, a community organiser who ran Labour’s campaign bus in the 2017 election, came up against the entrenched prejudices of headquarters staff, which he calls a party within the party. He thinks that the biggest threat to the election of a future Labour government is “the overwhelming scale and depth of centrist groupthink and confirmation bias among Party staffers on all matters, big and small, which stems from the dominance of single faction monoculture. What divides the Party is not mere ideology between centrists and the Left but organisational and bureaucratic control and power.”

Paid officials loyal to this faction have almost unchallenged control over the appointment of regional organisers, and from there “who gets shortlisted and selected as candidates in elections, and who sits on the NEC. And all too often with the coordinated assistance of people the monoculture has placed in the political departments of major affiliated trade unions.” The elected members of the NEC need to “take back control of the Party machine and bring in more diverse voices and experience … [and] reform the process of selecting candidates to tackle the domineering ability of the Party staff culture to ‘pick winners’ from among their friends.”

The NEC needs to take back control in the course of upholding the party’s policies, particularly those in the 2019 manifesto. These policies constructively address the problems surfacing because of the coronavirus crisis. Yet when members of the opposition front bench are asked what they would do differently about the pandemic, they are unable to articulate the manifesto policies of insourcing public services and ending the presumption in favour of privatising them. Instead, they criticise the government for failing to act rapidly and aggressively enough along its current course.

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian that the sidelining of the public sector is directly responsible for the current chaos in the “test and trace” system. “The Nobel laureate and head of the Francis Crick Institute, Sir Paul Nurse, wrote three times to Downing Street and Hancock at the start of the pandemic, offering to coordinate university labs to help the NHS in testing for Covid. Had his proposal been taken up, he says, up to 100,000 tests a day might have been done from very early on. That alone could have avoided some of the deaths in our care homes. He didn’t get a reply, so his institute went ahead anyway. Similarly, nearly 70 leading virus experts wrote twice to Downing Street’s top scientists offering to help. As public health officials working at local and regional level, they were brushed off. Control was centralised. Even after all the lethal errors, Hancock and Johnson plough on, offering a vast £5bn contract for private companies to take over Covid testing.”

In a letter seen by the Independent, the experts warned that the privatisation strategy would cause problems that would “inevitably cost lives” yet were “wholly avoidable.”  The government decision to commission private sector laboratories they considered a major mistake that was made too late and without consultation. The experts said “privatised labs were often taking 72 hours from the time they received tests to determine a result – by which point the results were of no use for wider strategy or policy. By contrast, they said local labs could give results in six hours from the point the test is taken.”

The private sector Lighthouse labs were set up by the accountancy firm Deloitte, bypassing the NHS and the public health network. Prof Alan McNally, of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at Birmingham University, who helped set up the first private Lighthouse lab in Milton Keynes, said it was hard to know why tests were unavailable. “It is the most closely guarded secret in the UK right now,” he told BBC Radio 4. “I wish that there would have been some clarity and honesty and open communication. If this was Public Heath England or the NHS that was running this testing system, there would be full transparency and public disclosure of what the issues were.” It was fairly clear, he said, that the private labs were intended to be a long-term replacement for the public health network. 

Allan Wilson, the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, the professional body for lab scientists, said more openness from the private sector labs was essential. They had not disclosed how many tests they were able to carry out, and may now be overwhelmed because their capacity was insufficient. He said the secrecy was frustrating and that he didn’t think the Lighthouse labs ever reached the capacity that was hoped. “That’s been exposed because there is a bulge in demand.” He said the two pillars – NHS and Lighthouse – should be merged and samples taken and processed locally.

The case for consolidating testing and contact tracing through the NHS and local public health teams is overwhelming. This is what a Labour government would do differently, and it is about time the Labour front bench asserted it against the Johnson government’s shambles of a privately-run system. When the new NEC is elected, the left should seek the membership’s support for insisting the leadership fulfil its promises of defending the party’s policies. 

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Filed under British Labour party, Covid-19, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis, Privatisation

No need to wait and hope. The left has every right to fight for party democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn has thrown his hat into the dispute over the internal Labour party report that revealed the extent of factional activity by senior functionaries that could have cost Labour the 2017 election. 

Corbyn and his 2017 election committee have made a submission to the Forde inquiry set up by Keir Starmer to investigate the leaked report, claiming that the diversion of funds under the control of hostile officials could constitute fraud. The report alleges that they set up a “secret operation,” hidden from the leadership, in a separate Westminster office location as part of efforts to shape the election result to favour the rightwing. 

The report states that the aim of the operation “appears to have been to funnel additional resources into seats of key figures on the right of the party.” The leadership was pushing for resources to be targeted at key Tory marginals, but instead they were funneled into seats “that would actually – thanks to the ‘Corbyn surge’ – return overwhelming Labour majorities, such as those of Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper. Other key figures from the right of the party in completely safe seats, such as Angela Eagle, Heidi Alexander, Chuka Umuna, Rachel Reeves, also received additional funding, as well as Facebook advertising.”

The Guardian reports that the joint submission said: “If claims in the report of significant sums of money being spent on such actions without authority are correct, then the inquiry must consider ‘whether it may have constituted fraudulent activity’.”

The significance of the report is that it gives context to the motives of the party officials who were promoted as “whistleblowers” in the BBC  Panorama programme “Is Labour anti-semitic?” The party pushed back by criticising the partisan nature of the accusations, which prompted lawsuits by the officials involved.

Starmer circumvented the lawsuits with an apology and payment of substantial damages, which undercut the party’s rebuttal of the accusations. He justified his action with the claim that the Corbyn left had been defeated in the 2019 election and it was time to draw a line under the Corbyn era. The party, he said, was now under “new management.” However, the left was not defeated in that election and the party’s manifesto policies remain popular. Labour lost because it was up against a reactionary Tory populism that broke all the election rules to denigrate Corbyn, and because the right-centrists in the party saddled it with the policy of a second referendum.

Starmer was elected as party leader by winning the votes of a large number of Corbyn supporters through promising to respect Labour’s ethical values, end factionalism and win elections. But if we revisit his soft-left election statement from January 2020 it is profoundly ambiguous. His initial sentence states he has “always been motivated by a burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice, to stand up for the powerless against the powerful. That’s my socialism.” Note that he envisages himself as a (literal) knight in shining armour defending the powerless, not as an agent who will enable the powerless and marginalised to stand up for themselves – which was always Corbyn’s perspective. He goes on to say: “Labour’s values are my values: peace, justice, equality and dignity for all.” But these values can only be realised within a common culture of cooperation and equality. In practice, Starmer has not treated party members as equals with equal rights. Instead, he defers to the established social hierarchy. 

For example, Starmer has visited a number of constituencies without informing the local party and excluding them from his appearances. In July, he visited the coastal town of Falmouth in Cornwall and called for support for the tourism sector. But Jennifer Forbes, who was the party’s Truro and Falmouth candidate in 2019, and a Momentum supporter, pointed out: “First he failed on courtesy to contact the CLP exec, or myself as ex-PPC. Having worked for 70 hours a week for nearly 2 years. I know a thing or two about what worked in Truro & Falmouth – we learnt, and had some valuable successes. As has been noted elsewhere, his visit was organised along factional lines. So, we were snubbed. Besides the rudeness, there are two significant problems with this. One: he promised unity. I really want him to just try a little to deliver on that. He seems to be doing the opposite & that’s not good enough for the whole party.”

“Secondly and most importantly, he got the policy issues embarrassingly wrong. Twitter picked it up before he even arrived. One of the poorest counties in the UK does not need more of the same [increased tourism]. The polices we put forward to expand the docks and the green industrial revolution were hugely popular because they were based on what the voters want. Tourists might want to protect our tourism industry, but locals want more high quality jobs.”

Starmer also visited Stoke-on-Trent in early August, which Labour lost badly in the election. He met with former MPs Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell, who both lost their seats, but ignored local activists. A Facebook comment read: “Local Labour party activists who have a wealth of knowledge on the community were not invited – nor even informed of his visit. But he invited Blairite rejects Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell to join him …”

He has used the ideological narrative that the Corbyn left were responsible for the election defeat in order to encourage the right to suppress and exclude the left in the constituencies. A clash is likely over party democracy: Starmer’s appointment of rightwinger David Evans as General Secretary, together with hints in the party’s report on the General Election result, point to a downgrading of the party conference in deciding policy. Evans wrote a report for Blair in 1999 that advocated “representative democracy should as far as possible be abolished in the Party.” He proposed that General Committees in local Labour Parties be replaced with a smaller “working Executive” in order to marginalise the left. 

The left needs to prepare for a fight to prevent the gains of the Corbyn era from being rolled back. The rightwing narrative about the election defeat must be rejected and confidence restored by bringing together socialists as a group. Writing in Red Pepper, Momentum activist Sabrina Huck proposes: “Rather than taking over Labour in order to win elections and take over the bourgeois democratic state, we should see the party as a platform to agitate and educate from. … For the Labour Party to be a useful instrument we cannot shy away from arguments within the party for the sake of ‘unity’. If the party at present captures the constituency in British society that is most interested in socialist change, then focusing on mobilising them to consolidate a critically minded group must remain our main goal. A focus on internal battles is a distraction from this more important task.

“The Labour Party should be viewed as a catalyst that can equip us with skills, resources and people to work towards building an alternative public sphere and erecting the counter institutions that support it.” In other words, she suggests, the Labour party can function as a temporary scaffolding that can be discarded when counter institutions have been constructed.

Even in the current circumstances where constituency parties are unable to meet, it is still possible for the left to cohere around the Corbyn team’s submission to the Forde inquiry. Moreover, the huge sum raised spontaneously by Labour members for Corbyn’s legal defence against the threat of a libel action by John Ware, the maker of the BBC Panorama programme, shows that his supporters are still a political force.

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Filed under 2019 general election, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Momentum

Communities will find their own voices – despite the Labour right

The Labour ex-staffers who took part in the BBC Panorama programme purporting to show that the party is anti-semitic are threatening to bankrupt it unless the parliamentary whip is withdrawn from Jeremy Corbyn. The party is now caught between the accumulation of financial settlements with a hostile anti-Corbyn faction and the slump in membership dues as Corbyn supporters drop out.

The programme maker, John Ware, is to take Corbyn himself to court for libel because of his criticism of the Panorama settlement. The “whistleblowers” who were interviewed are reportedly “astonished” at the fact that Corbyn is resisting the characterisation of antisemitism; what they have all overlooked is his supporters in the party who have raised over £300,000 in a few days to pay for his legal defence.

Carole Morgan, who organised the defence fund, wrote that she needed to express her support for Corbyn and found that many people felt the same way. “Those of us who have always longed for a better world, one that ensures dignity, security and peace for all humanity found ourselves voiceless after the terrible general election result and the subsequent loss of Jeremy as our democratically elected Leader of the Labour Party. Through Jeremy’s fund we have found our voice again.” 

Why are all the agencies of the British establishment so determined to destroy Corbyn politically? After all, Keir Starmer and the right have re-established their firm control over the party and Corbyn himself has been relegated to the back benches. A material factor in the explanation is the extent to which Corbyn shocked and alarmed the political class with Labour’s strong showing in the 2017 election. It was then that accusations of anti-semitism were ramped up, culminating in the Panorama programme shown just six months before the 2019 election.

Corbyn’s firm defence of colonial peoples against state oppression, including that of the Palestinians, breaks from Labour’s traditional alignment with Tory support for the arms trade and overseas wars. If he had become Prime Minister, the balance of European support for countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel would have been tipped in favour of the oppressed.

Should activists leave Labour now? That must be an individual decision based on concrete circumstances, but it is worth considering why the ruling elite are so determined to control the party ideologically – as signalled by the 10 pledges candidates for the Labour leadership were made to sign in exchange for not being witchhunted for anti-semitism. Why is it so important to prevent Labour showing any political opposition to the populist right? 

The establishment anticipates mass protests after the economic impact of Brexit and the coronavirus crisis begins to hit the public. They do not want a Corbyn left to legitimise these protests with any recognised presence in Labour, and so far Starmer has acquiesced with this requirement.

Corbyn’s legal stand provides a new focus for clarifying the anti-semitism canard, but it doesn’t have the same popular impact as his leadership campaign in 2015. The problem for the left is its ideological confusion, which centres on contested narratives of the 2019 election loss. Those who supported Corbyn had expected at the very least another hung parliament, if not a small Labour lead, so the 80-seat Tory majority disoriented and demoralised them. It’s not surprising, then, that Keir Starmer’s appeal to “electability” and promises to continue with the party’s radical policies won him support when Labour had to elect a new leader.

But there are different narratives about Labour’s electability. There is what I will term the “sociological” account, made recently by former Corbyn adviser Andrew Murray in Tribune, that points to “class disintegration” in the north and midlands seats where Labour’s vote dropped sharply. No longer does the “entwining of work, community, trade union and party” underpin a cultural affinity to Labour, he says, and so the Brexit politics of identity filled the vacuum created by the collapse of class consciousness. Corbynism was “unable to cut through” in working-class communities with a message of economic solidarity.

The answer for Labour, he suggests, is to find enough political compromises with disaffected voters so as to rebuild its electoral presence in northern communities. But this views these communities as objects to be negotiated with from the outside, as part of a set of coalitions, rather than acting on their own account. Murray can only hope that Starmer will “lead the long march from the security of North London to the battleground industrial hinterlands” – in other words, rebuild Labour’s putative coalition from above.

A different narrative about the election stresses the Johnson government’s populist success in shifting Labour from being the anti-establishment party to being perceived as part of the establishment opposition to fulfilling the Brexit referendum decision. “Class politics,” which Murray seeks to re-establish, is back already from the point of view of the grassroots – because of the attacks of the ideologically vicious Tory government. 

Andy Searson, a Labour activist and working-class thinker from South Yorkshire, argues in a guest article for Skwawkbox that working-class communities can only be revived from below. Socialism is “just an abstract idea,” he says, if it’s not tangibly related to people’s everyday experiences. For this reason, “community control of economic frameworks” is needed to create an economic practice of fair-shares equality. He emphases the need to find local leaders, “those who instinctively stand up for their community,” to serve as local election candidates. Rebuilding trust with the voting public depends on “a new generation of authentic, altruistic candidates.”

A new base is needed for the movement that doesn’t rely on the past solidarity of industrial trade unionism. He contends that the answer can be found in the communities already. “There are huge amounts of people already engaged in working for the common good within our communities. Unsung heroes who work tirelessly for no reward other than the feeling that they’ve achieved something positive for someone else. … Nearly always these people are driven by social conscience not personal gain. They’re unwilling to walk by on the other side whilst they [see] suffering or people in need. They see value in the idea of working for the ‘common good’.”

The Labour leadership has no appetite for the radical change that people are demanding. But what about the thousands of members who signed up to the party to support Corbyn? Searson foresees the danger of a “major split” if Labour continues on its present trajectory. “Without the will or commitment for real systemic change, more citizens will become indignant, disenfranchised and without a voice,” he concludes. “In those circumstances, people will find their own voices and organise outside the usual main party structures. That moment may be here sooner than we think – and it will come from the ground up.”

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Reasons to be cheerful (part three)

Keir Starmer’s purge of the Corbyn left from the opposition front bench appears to have given the Labour party’s rightwing a green light to step up attacks on left-wing councillors. Accusations of anti-semitism, gleaned from old Facebook posts and Twitter, are one of the right’s favoured weapons.

In Haringey, right-wing councillors have called an “emergency” meeting to bring a no-confidence motion on the council’s leader, Joe Ejifor, for postponing the Labour group’s annual meeting to May next year because of the coronavirus pandemic. A source in the Haringey Labour party told Skwawkbox that the attempt to discipline Ejiofor was a manoeuvre “driven by the right’s opportunism. They think that with Keir Starmer running the party it’s their time to re-take control and they certainly seem to be getting the assistance of regional Labour officials… It’s a blatant factional attack on a good council leader, with racism in the mix.”

This follows the resignation of Cllr. Yvonne Davies, the Sandwell council leader, in face of the unrelenting attacks of a “white male old guard” who are defending the corrupt rightwing stranglehold on the party in the West Midlands. She asked: “how far does the collusion and malign intent reach up into the Labour Party hierarchy?” She was censured by MPs associated with the right of the party, including disgraced former Labour MP Ian Austin and Warley MP John Spellar, and earlier in the year by former deputy leader Tom Watson. “The white male, old guard will play lip service to equality and black lives matter,” she said, but “will seek only to preserve their own power base for its own sake.” 

After the 2019 election, the membership was persuaded by a narrative that blamed party disunity for its defeat and believed Starmer’s promise that he would make Labour more electable by ending factionalism, while continuing support for the party’s radical policies. But he has reneged on both these promises. He refused to condemn the anti-Corbyn factionalism in the party’s central office revealed by the leaked report into the Governance and Legal Unit. Despite the report’s revelations, the party is now to apologise to the same clique of ultra-factional party officials who took part in the notorious Panorama programme that accused Labour of being institutionally anti-semitic. 

Starmer was elected because of an ideological confusion in the party’s membership that accepted his formal agreement over policy and discounted his orientation to the centre. The former national coordinator of Momentum, Laura Parker, told the Guardian she has seen no mass resignation from Labour because it is still “an anti-austerity, pro-common ownership party. It is a pro-peace party, and it is not a ‘relaxed about the filthy rich’ party – far from it.” Michael Chessum, a former member of Momentum’s steering group, says “the sacking of Long-Bailey and appointment of [David] Evans [as general secretary] have split the left and caused irritation. ‘But,’ he said, ‘most members are probably willing to tolerate this, as long as the new leadership honours its promise to maintain Corbyn’s radical policy platform’.” However, they seem not to have noticed the exodus of BAME members over Starmer’s dismissal of Black Lives Matter protests and the party’s abrupt change to its policy over Kashmir. 

The Labour front bench is notable for its refusal to commit to policies that counter Johnson’s government, even the popular proposal for a wealth tax to protect jobs, and cancelling parking charges for NHS workers. Labour’s shadow business minister Lucy Powell was unable to name a single Labour policy in a television interview, and claimed that “now was not the time” to put forward alternative policies.

Leading left theorist Christine Berry argues that “Corbynism has not been replaced by reheated Blairism, it has been replaced by a vacuum. … Keir Starmer’s Labour is single-mindedly pursuing a clear political strategy regardless of what happens around it: the coming years are about rebuilding the party’s credibility. The way to do this, they believe, is through reasoned critique of government policies while distancing themselves from Corbyn-era policy and avoiding controversy at all costs. Then, and only then, will they start to think about putting forward a positive policy offer. … There’s just one problem: the assumptions underpinning the strategy are wrong.”

Labour’s election defeats have all come about when the terms of debate were dictated by the Tories. “Only in 2017, when it successfully shifted the debate on to its popular domestic agenda, did it come within a whisker of victory. For all its flaws, the Corbyn project understood that Labour must seek to shape public opinion, not simply follow it. In 2019, it did not do this nearly successfully enough, overreaching with policies such as free broadband, for which the ground had not been prepared. But the lesson here is that the party must get better at setting the agenda – not give up trying to do it at all.”

The party needs to tell its own story about the economy and “own the rising desire for change,” she says. In Tribune, she points out that the Tory budget unveiled by Rishi Sunak is profoundly ideological, funneling money to pad corporate profits rather than getting it into the pockets of workers. “The best way to do this would be through a mass programme of direct public investment to create secure, well-paid jobs in sectors like childcare, social care and renewable energy – sectors that are job-rich, socially useful and which the pandemic has exposed as being desperately in need of investment. Alongside this, a minimum income guarantee would give those who are worried about losing their jobs the financial security of knowing that they will never be destitute.”

The Labour right has a fundamental weakness. It cannot advance decisive action of any kind that would disturb the status quo. When in October furlough subsidies are ended and mass unemployment skyrockets, it will intensify the rift between the Labour leadership and the members, who up until now have been prevented from expressing their opinion by the suspension of constituency meetings. But there are signs of mounting frustration at the grassroots: one is that Momentum members decisively voted to remove the soft left leadership around Lansman in the organisation’s recent election. 

Civil society is far more critical of Johnson’s government than the Labour front bench. Doctors, nurses, and teachers have openly defied the government’s dysfunctional pandemic measures. Research shows that most of the public do not want to return to the “old normal,” but want “better funding for the NHS, better treatment and pay for essential workers, and an economic recovery that doesn’t just focus on London. There is also an appetite for a kinder society that prioritises better support for people struggling with mental or physical health problems, allows workers more time off with family and friends, cares about the environment and ensures high levels of employment.” 

While the Labour right distances itself from these popular demands, the left has every reason to align itself with upcoming mass protests and fight for “a new economic settlement to change lives and communities,” as called for in the party’s own Election Review. 

Ian Dury homage

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Labour’s Corporate Makeover – Part Two

Labour’s Election Review tells us that defeat in the 2019 election was a result both of the Tories being able to mobilise their base and Labour failing to reproduce their success of 2017. But it goes on to point to the long-term decline in the Labour vote over decades. It says: “Labour lost millions of voters before it lost office in 2010 partly as a result of political alienation from politics more generally, and from the Labour Party particularly, including perceptions that there was little difference between the parties and the prominence of new cultural divides.”

The report is referring to the decline from 13.5 million in 1997, to 10.7 million in 2001 and 8.6 million in 2010 under the leadership of Blair and Brown. The Labour vote recovered slightly to 9.35 million in 2015, and in 2019 it was 10.3 million. The exceptional year was 2017 when Labour won 12.9 million votes. The report is misleading, then, by comparing the 2019 vote with 2017 rather than 2015 and calling it an “historic low point in Labour’s electoral success.” The question really is why Labour won 3 million more votes in 2017, when 2019 simply reproduced the long-term trend.

Grace Blakeley explains in Tribune that, since 1997, “working-class voters have dropped out of the electorate – the natural result of a New Labour electoral strategy based on the idea that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. Brexit was the issue that finally encouraged many of these voters to re-engage with electoral politics. Many previous non-voters turned out to vote Leave and some of those same voters turned out again to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. But in 2019, they were disproportionately likely to vote for the Conservatives.”  The referendum was the catalyst for an anti-establishment politics that supported Labour when it was seen as the anti-establishment party, and voted for Johnson when he successfully portrayed Theresa May and Labour as part of the parliamentary establishment frustrating Brexit.

The report accounts for the drop in the 2019 vote by referring to a cultural divide. It characterises ex-Labour voters as more “socially conservative” compared with Labour support in the major cities. But a revealing 2017 study of a group of voters who switched from Labour to the SNP in Scotland found it was motivated by highly political considerations, especially hostility to New Labour. It was “scathing in its assessment of the Labour Party: from being a ‘shambles,’ to ‘totally duplicitous’; a ‘shower of career politicians,’ who ‘have lost their way’ and no longer represent the ‘working class’. The reasons for this palpable sense of hostility towards the Party were varied: unsurprisingly, some referred to the Blair era and the feeling that the Party had lost touch, with the specific issue of Iraq being mentioned, while others raised the issue of the independence campaign and its fallout.”

If voters’ feelings about Corbyn had remained at the 2017 level, the report estimates that Labour’s vote share would have been over 38 percent, six points higher. But by 2019 Corbyn’s reputation had been shattered by the continuous drumbeat of antisemitism accusations from a hostile cabal within the party apparatus and from Labour MPs, readily amplified by the media, and the party’s ratings began to decline. The individual policies of the manifesto were and remain popular, but were overshadowed by the party’s compromised position on Brexit. The single most unpopular policy was the second referendum, precisely the one pushed by Starmer before the election.

The report does little more than divide the electorate into marketing categories, such as “Young Insta-Progressives” versus “The Older Disillusioned.” But it found that when people from different groups were brought together, there was a space for understanding and compromise. So-called “Urban remainers” listened to the concerns of leave voters, particularly in the context of a desire for Labour to rebuild its coalition. “For the ‘town leavers’ there was an acknowledgement about the benefits of immigration, and their demands were not as far reaching as some in Labour may worry about – their key concern being that there should be fair rules.” 

A positive finding was that “a new economic settlement to change lives and communities must be the centre-piece of Labour’s political strategy.” In particular, there was a conviction that the whole system of housing needed fundamental change: “far greater access to social housing, action on private rents and landlords, and, strongly amongst town dwellers, a sense that Right to Buy should be halted until more houses were available. Restoring a sense of pride in local high streets or towns also featured strongly … There is also real potential for Labour to tell a clear story about the possibilities of new, decent jobs from green and technological developments.”

Despite these political possibilities, they were not acted on in 2019. The report blames “strategic and operational dysfunction, resulting in a toxic culture and limiting our ability to work effectively.” But then it adds piously: “Responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement.” Keir Starmer has revealed the true content of this “factionalism has to go” approach. By avoiding placing the blame for the electoral campaign’s strategic dysfunction, it enables the Labour leadership to evade dealing with the hyper-factionalism in the party’s central office and the anti-Corbyn factionalism in the PLP. It was the anti-Corbyn faction that was responsible for the “staggering incompetence” and “vicious sectarianism” exposed by the report on the party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism. By making it nobody’s fault, the report enables the rightwing to blame it all on the Corbyn leadership and justify Starmer’s elimination of the Corbyn left from the Labour front bench.

Starmer is following the trajectory of Kinnock in establishing himself as a “strong leader” who can trounce the left. But it took Kinnock several years to finally isolate the Bennite left and then turn against the miners in their strike. It’s taken Starmer only months to sack Rebecca Long-Bailey and hang the teachers’ union out to dry, emboldening the right in the party. Already the Labour front bench are backtracking on the 2019 environment decisions, and the conference decision on Kashmir.

The report’s recommendations are purely organisational. The membership is to be bypassed in policy formation with new public “consultations,” which might be better called market research. “Reform our Party policy-making process at all levels, to ensure that it is connected to our communities,” the report says. The new form of policy-making should involve the public through “methods such as People’s Panels, Citizens’ Juries, and Citizens’ Assemblies and other methods involving the voices and experiences of people across our movement, alongside the public … resulting in policies that are co-produced with the public, supporting our political strategy.” [page 145] This plan for co-production of policies bypasses the party annual conference and the democratic expression of the membership’s views, while decisions on the party’s political strategy are centralized in the leader’s office.

Right now, CLPs are unable to meet to discuss any of these proposals. But when they do, will they accept this downgrading of the party conference? And the party front bench’s response to “big emerging questions” like Black Lives Matter or defunding the police is particularly flat-footed. In the midst of the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, Labour should be at the head of these movements of disaffection, not scrambling to shore up the system.


Filed under 2019 general election, anti-semitism, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, British elections, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis

Labour’s Plan for a Corporate Makeover

The long-awaited review of Labour’s 2019 election result is more notable for what it doesn’t say than for what it reveals. It contains many details of experiences in the failed election bid, but never addresses a central question: was the election ever winnable by Labour, when after 2017 the Tories had focused on maintaining power at any cost, and had learnt from Trump and Erdogan that the way to win elections was blatant lying to smear and annihilate opponents?

The Tories were able to mobilise their base, the report says, turning out around two million of their supporters who didn’t vote in 2017. A major driver of this success was its campaign to “Stop Jeremy Corbyn”, that motivated the party’s previous non-voters and the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories. According to the report: “Among voters who switched from Labour to the Conservatives, concern about Jeremy Corbyn was intense … Labour Leave voters who switched to the Conservatives were likely to talk about terrorism, anti-Semitism, what they saw as extreme far-left policies, or unaffordability.”

What the report doesn’t make clear is that Corbyn’s unpopularity was manufactured. In 2017 Corbyn won many new voters and improved Labour’s ratings dramatically. But since then he was systematically and mercilessly vilified. The report cites by way of example a 52-year-old woman who voted Labour in 2017 but switched to the Tories in 2019. She said she was “Frightened at the possibility of a Marxist government. Disgusted at Corbyn being a terrorist sympathiser. Most disturbed about plan to nationalise BT as I fear it would allow a Labour government to spy on internet users.” 

Where did all these far-fetched ideas come from? Apart from the obvious suspects like the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the BBC, the report gives us some clues. It describes how the Tories invested heavily in digital media after 2017, intensively testing content for impact and setting up a network of “supportive outriders” like the Campaign Against Corbynism Rebel Media, Working4UK or Parents’ Choice, that did not acknowledge their political connection. The Tories’ professional approach “proved highly effective, particularly in exploiting negative perceptions of Labour’s leader,” says the report, and they began testing their messaging on Facebook as soon as Johnson was elected Tory head. Labour’s research found “a Facebook Group in Dudley which built followers by posting local news which hosted a large amount of anti-Labour and anti-Jeremy Corbyn content, with ‘comments’ being used to organise protests against Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to a local pensioners’ club during the campaign; this story later appeared in The Sun, with the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn heckled as “dirty IRA scum” when he arrives in key Dudley marginal.’ The account hasn’t posted since 12 December 2019.” 

The Tories dealt with their shortage of skilled media personnel by handing over their digital campaign techniques to a commercial consultancy, but the report does not draw the obvious conclusion that the funding for such outsourcing was readily available from deep-pocketed donors. And it notes the intervention of at least one foreign government: “Labour support among Hindu voters fell significantly in this election, due to the extensive sharing of anti-Labour content across a network of Whatsapp groups.” Hindu voters who supported Labour in 2017 were 42 percent likely to withdraw their support in 2019. This is evidence of how Modi’s government directly campaigned among British Indians on the grounds that Corbyn was anti-Hindu because of the Labour conference position on Kashmir. 

But the Tories were aided in their campaign by the activities of hostile Labour MPs who accused the Labour leader of anti-semitism and demanded the party take a clear “Remain” position. “The sharp collapse in support both for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour between December 2018 and June 2019 coincided with the defection of MPs to form ‘The Independent Group’, disagreement over Labour’s position on Brexit going into the European elections and the controversy of the Party’s handling of anti-Semitism.” These MPs were vociferously in favour of a second Brexit referendum and amplified the factional activities of leading Labour MPs like Tom Watson and … Keir Starmer.

The politics of the run-up to the election is omitted from the report. The wrangling over Brexit in Westminster facilitated a sustained propaganda effort by Johnson to portray Labour as delaying the country’s democratic decision from being carried out, through his “Get Brexit Done” slogan. However, the report doesn’t highlight the weakness of Labour’s response but instead focuses on the internal confusion caused by competing bureaucratic power centres. “There were multiple power centres with no clear chain of command – including an Executive Director of Campaigns, Leader’s Office, Party Chair, General Secretary, National Coordinators – with no single person setting the strategy.” 

Since it frames the problems with the election campaign as a purely technical question, the report concludes with a purely technical answer. What we need is “A coherent strategy to build a winning coalition at the next election” with confusion eliminated by centralising strategy decisions. The strategy should include a “big economic change for the whole country” – but this is no different from any Labour policy of the last forty years. The report recommends a “Strategy group chaired by the Leader and involving key members of the Shadow Cabinet and a political lead tasked with election strategy – responsibilities would be the development of political strategy and the plan to execute it.” “This strategy needs to be based on data and evidence and robustly scrutinised and understood by all levels of the organisation.” 

What this means in practice, the report tells us, is that “Keir Starmer has recently said that ‘we will be going into [the Scottish Parliament election] with a Labour Party position that is not for a second referendum.’ This position has now recently been agreed by the Executive Committee of Scottish Labour. This clarity is welcome, and as a party we should now unite around this position and focus on building a strong message for the 2021 elections.” Clearly, this strategy is being based on an agreement between the bureaucracies at the top of the party, not by data.  What surveys were done with those many Scottish Labour voters who deserted the party after its abortive unionist stance in the independence referendum?

The commitment to build “a genuine popular movement of party members, trade union supporters … deeply rooted in our communities through good local government” etc. sounds good – but is negated by a top-down messaging strategy that doesn’t engage community self-empowerment. The intrusion of corporate management-speak – such as “best practice” – ignores the actual experience of successful practice like the Preston community wealth-building model (perhaps because it was too closely associated with the Corbyn leadership’s economic policies).

The report is careful to state that the responsibility for internal party conflict “rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement.” I disagree. The factionalising that plagued the party in the election campaign was driven by an anti-Corbyn faction at the heart of the party machine and the parliamentary party. At the root of it was opposition to Corbyn’s policies, not his leadership style or personality. The avoidance of discussing this fact makes the document a recipe for a corporate-style makeover of the party, where hierarchies are preserved while paying lip-service to member involvement. The new anti-factional message means silencing Corbyn supporters while the opposing faction rules the roost.

As Ailbhe Rea writes in the New Statesman, “the report reads even more fascinatingly as a document, not about Labour’s past, but Labour’s future. It isn’t so much an analysis of Corbynism, as a blueprint for Starmer and Starmerism. … Keir Starmer and the parliamentary party took the knee for George Floyd and supported peaceful protest, but the Labour leader, on his new LBC phone-in show, which reaches exactly the voters Labour needs to win back, notably did not support the way in which the statue of Edward Colston was toppled.” This is Labour stripped of its politics, a corporate shell of a party.

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Johnson incites right-wing violence in London

Patrick Collinson lifts an injured counter-protester to safety on Saturday.

Thousands of people all over the UK came out last week to support a diversity of multiracial and peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The Guardian reports that more than 155,000 protesters gathered organically, “by word of mouth and social media, without networks or experience. In British towns from Ledbury to Prestwich, Darlington to Blackpool, anger and frustration at generations of racial injustice has burned up young, first-time activists. A DIY sense of community is palpable; scrappy homemade signs and face masks replace glossy placards and loudspeakers.” 

These are all signs of a spontaneous movement for social change, which was most visible in the tearing down of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last week. It has sparked a reappraisal of the role of slavery in the accumulation of wealth in cities across the country.

However, on Saturday counter-protesters descended on London ostensibly to “defend” statues in the capital, but with a rightwing hard core intent on attacking anti-racist demonstrators and the police. Video footage shows some of them performing Nazi salutes and chanting “Eng-er-land” in front of Churchill’s boarded-up statue and the Cenotaph. Black Lives Matter cancelled a planned demonstration from Hyde Park because of the danger of rightwing violence, but many protesters turned up anyway. Hundreds of police in yellow vests maintained a physical barrier to keep the two sides apart.

Several hundred of the mainly white “statue defenders” had gathered in Westminster by mid-morning, many of them drinking. At one point the crowd broke into a chant of: “We’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.” At other points they chanted the name of the far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson, and “There’s only one Winston Churchill.” What really upset them was the idea of an attack on the symbols of imperial greatness. A placard held by a counter-protestor read: “Anti-antifa: Hands Off Our History.” War memorials are “sacred” for them, says Dr. Joe Mulhall of the campaign group Hope Not Hate, and their reaction to defacing statues could be compared to how religious communities would react to the desecration of holy sites. “It really is a culture war moment,” he added.

Journalist Andrew Anthony walked with a black protester named Clem, together with his friend, both in their forties, who were both busy breaking up fights,. “We marched peacefully last week and we came out as elders today to protect our kids,” said Clem. “As we spoke,” wrote Anthony, “another group of middle-aged white men in shorts and football shirts came out of a side street and Clem engaged them in conversation. ‘It’s not about race,’ the ageing football democrat said. ‘We don’t have problems with you. It’s about our history’.”

This evocation of “our history” highlights the ideological role played by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in inciting the “statue defenders.” While being forced to acknowledge public outrage at the police killing of George Floyd in the US, Johnson aims to discredit the Black Lives Matter protests by converting their goal of racial equality into an attack on the cultural values of white Britishness, as well as being a threat to law and order. In a series of eight tweets early Friday morning, he warned that Winston Churchill’s statue outside parliament was at risk of attack by “violent protesters,” by “extremists intent on violence.” To tear down statues is “to lie about our history,” he tweeted. Churchill’s statue “is a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country – and the whole of Europe – from a fascist and racist tyranny.” 

It’s irrelevant that Johnson distorts Churchill’s actual historical role. The importance of the statue for him is to symbolise Johnson’s own version of past British greatness. He singled out Churchill’s statue as in danger of attack, not that of Margaret Thatcher nearby, to appeal to the nationalist illusions of British exceptionalism, building on the mythology of countless film and TV dramas about the Second World War. His tweets were aimed at marshalling his Vote Leave base against the anti-racist movement, equating spray-painting slogans with violent attacks.

The Guardian totally misreads Johnson’s intervention as directed at Labour, commenting: “Throughout recent days, Johnson has sought to draw a sharp dividing line, and put Labour on the other side of it – alongside the ‘thugs’ disfiguring statues, and po-faced killjoys censoring the TV archives. With Brexit in the most part resolved as an issue, Conservatives hope ‘culture war’ issues such as these will serve a similar function, by severing the two parts of Labour’s electoral coalition – dividing its ‘red wall’ voters from its liberal city strongholds.” But this is not an electoral ploy. Johnson and Cummings want to isolate the social movement behind the protests and take the struggle to the streets. They are well aware of the role of the far-right, and want to deliberately associate Black Lives Matter with its violence. 

The most powerful image that came out of Saturday’s events did not support Johnson’s narrative, however. It was Patrick Hutchinson, who is black, lifting an injured rightwing demonstrator to safety. He told Channel 4 News that he attended demonstrations to keep others out of trouble. The man he helped had been separated from his fellow-demonstrators: “His life was under threat, so I just went under, scooped him up, put him on my shoulders and started marching towards the police with him.” “If the other three police officers who were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today.” He added “I just want equality – for all of us. At the moment the scales are unfairly balanced and I just want things to be fair – for my children and my grandchildren.”

The government is now planning legislation that would give ten-year prison sentences for the specific crime of desecrating war memorials, supported by the Labour front bench. This is to distract from the real issues of confronting racism in British society. The dunking of Edward Colston’s statue has taught more people about the connection of slavery to the institutions of the British ruling elite than any number of learned treatises.

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Starmer hopelessly out of touch

Keir Starmer has badly misjudged the current political moment. At a time when millions are protesting police brutality against black people, he has distanced himself and the Labour party from the worldwide movement to challenge entrenched institutional racism.

The protests against the police killing of an unarmed black man in Minnesota have echoed through every country because of the US centrality to the neoliberal world order. The statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis has been pulled down in Virginia, as have several of King Leopold III in Belgium. But on an LBC phone-in Starmer said that tearing down the statue of the notorious slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol “shouldn’t be done in that way, completely wrong to pull a statue down like that” after demonstrators toppled the bronze memorial and dumped it in the harbour. He also criticised Labour MP Barry Gardiner for attending the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London, saying MPs must “lead by example” on social distancing rules – opening up a narrative that isolates protesters from the public.

Labour MP Nadia Whittome and the Labour mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, who are both black, thought differently. Whittome tweeted that she celebrated “these acts of resistance” and said that the toppling of the statue was a call to “tear down systemic racism and the slave owner statues that symbolise it.” MP Dawn Butler said that seeing the statue fall enabled her to “exhale.” Rees called for it to be understood as a “catalyst for change.”

Historian David Olusoga describes the scene: “The crowd who saw to it that Colston fell were of all races, but some were the descendants of the enslaved black and brown Bristolians whose ancestors were chained to the decks of Colston’s ships. Ripped from his pedestal, Colston seemed smaller: diminished in both size and potency. Lying flat, with his studied pensive pose, he looked suddenly preposterous. It was when the statue was in this position that one of the protesters made a grim but powerful gesture. By placing his knee over the bronze throat of Edward Colston, he reminded us of the unlikely catalyst for these remarkable events.” 

The death of George Floyd acted as such a catalyst because it became the symbolic focus for a social change that had already taken place. It has developed within the pervasive disruption of the coronavirus pandemic and the cumulative outrage over the failure of the state to protect black people and minorities. Protesters are using the moment to assert that the lives of the oppressed are more important than property.

So why is Keir Starmer so tone-deaf to the motivations of the protesters? Momentum activist Sabrina Huck sums up succinctly the difference between Corbyn and Starmer. “Of course, Labour under both Corbyn and Starmer would see winning an election and taking state power as the primary goal. But Corbynism aimed to be more than ‘just’ a traditional party. It saw Labour as a tool to bridge the gap between the institutions of state power (government, parliament) and extra-parliamentary struggles fought through trade unions and social movements. … This is why Corbynism presented alternatives to government policy, rather than supplement or improve it by making helpful suggestions. It didn’t view politics as an arena to forge consensus but as an opportunity for struggle to force a break with convention.”

When thousands of protestors closed down important road junctions in London for several days, they brought climate change to the centre of political discourse. The impact of the protests enabled Corbyn to get parliament to accept a declaration of climate-change emergency, which in turn legitimised the protests, and at the same time he announced a detailed ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ policy that linked reduced carbon emissions to a massive investment in renewable energy.

Starmer, on the other hand, has returned to a traditional role of negotiating unity between different parts of the dominant social class. At best, this can lead to social democratic measures within a mixed economy. “At worst,” writes Huck, “this means Labour will side with landlords or small businesses to advocate on their behalf against a Conservative Party that might be more concerned with the needs of the financial sector and multinational corporate giants. … A Labour Party that once again sees itself as an integral part of the system poses a huge challenge to those who still hope that a Labour government is the first step to transforming the state and society.”

The Johnson administration is not concerned about being rhetorically coherent when it can rely on manipulating the public with three-word slogans. No amount of intelligent questioning in parliament can undo the protection of the government by the BBC, Daily Mail, and the rest of the right-wing media. To remain relevant, the Labour left must fight to align the party with mass protests that will inevitably break out as the coronavirus pandemic recedes and the stark reality of the economic collapse becomes clear.

[UPDATE] The myopic writers at the New Statesman consider that when it comes to Colston’s statue “Starmer has very little incentive to keep [the Labour left] happy on every issue: even if he isn’t as strong on certain issues as they would like, they have nowhere to go. … Starmer can afford to stray far from the left of his party in pursuit of the centre ground and the voters Labour has lost, without shedding many votes to the left.” It doesn’t occur to them that there is a real movement outside the realm of party politics that Labour has to reckon with.

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