Category Archives: British Labour party

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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Filed under 2019 general election, BBC, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, Labour Party, political analysis

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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Filed under 2019 general election, anti-semitism, Black Lives Matter, Boris Johnson, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, local government

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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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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Tom Blackburn on “the capacity to imagine”

Tom Blackburn has an interesting piece in New Socialist that argues the left needs to take seriously the challenges faced by local government today in the face of cuts and legal restrictions on councils’ room for manoeuvre.

He foregrounds Preston council as a pioneer in exploring the use of public procurement to encourage local development. However, without central state support its long-term viability seems uncertain.

The left, he says, needs to champion more responsive and participatory local politics in marginalised communities: a visible campaigning presence would be essential for “continually encouraging exploited, marginalised and oppressed people to find new ways of seeing the world, and their place in it, differently.”

Socialists must use their positions in local government as a “platform for agitation and education” about the role of central government in slashing the funding of Labour-run boroughs.

To leverage popular energies and valuable local knowledge, local non-party organisations should be involved in drafting new manifestos and an ongoing public monitoring of their implementation. Socialists should highlight class contradictions and build on them “to develop counter-power and enhance popular assertiveness, organisation and capabilities.”

They should enable people to develop the “capacity to imagine” alternatives to capitalist rule.

His case is supported by the relative success of both Preston and Portsmouth councils – both innovative Labour councils that have systematically built community wealth and cohesion. Their record might profitably be compared with that of the bankruptcy of Tory-run Northamptonshire county council as a result of both mismanagement and government cuts.

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The root cause of Labour’s defeat was 40 years of neoliberalism


The left is currently engaged in postmortems on Labour’s loss in the 2019 general election. Many of them focus on policy or leadership: but other factors need to be taken into account for an all-sided view of what the defeat represents. The most salient political difference between 2017 and 2019, it seems to me, was that the shock of Labour’s increased electoral vote galvanised the Tory right and its supporters in the international right to intensively prepare for a new election to overcome the hung parliament and give Johnson a clear path to “get Brexit done.” The avenues that enabled Labour to increase its vote in 2017 were ruthlessly closed off. The constant drumbeat of Brexit, from both the Tories and the centrist “People’s Vote” campaign, overshadowed Labour’s social message, and its compromise between Remain and Leave was unpersuasive.

How was this able to happen? I want to draw attention to cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert’s epic six-part analysis in openDemocracy, “Labour’s defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism,” which attempts to make a comprehensive analysis of the various factors in the election defeat. He argues that exit polls show the most significant numerical voting shift from 2017 to 2019 was not the loss of leave-supporters, as many think, but was the desertion of “centrist Dads” for the Lib Dems, the Greens or abstention. At the same time, in the north and midlands, “a section of the ageing ‘traditional working-class’ population saw Corbyn’s commitment to implementing Brexit [in 2017] as sufficient indicator that he was ‘on their side’. There is no doubt that many of those voters becoming disillusioned with Corbyn’s leadership, and convinced that Brexit must be done at all costs, had a devastating effect on the 2019 electoral outcome.”

In those heartland seats, he says, older voters had been moving away from Labour for “hard economic” reasons since 1997: the erosion of the welfare state meant that the over-60s are concerned with “protecting their property wealth” against possible penury in their 80s. Corbyn’s support, by contrast, was based in the “emergent culture shared by young urban workers and older professionals, characterised by social liberalism, cosmopolitanism and an extremely-online lifestyle.”

Gilbert’s argument seems to infer the existence of discrete social groups from their political behaviour, then explain their political behaviour from the cultural attributes of these groups rather than making an effort to identify their ideology. “Protecting their property wealth” is not simply a rational economic response to the erosion of the welfare state but is an aspect of neoliberal thought that makes building “personal capital” the moral alternative to collective welfare. Likewise, the “emergent culture” of young urban workers is in fact created by neoliberal society, but it contains within itself an ideological opposition to the specific attributes of inequality and austerity that characterise the globalised economy, forming a large part of Corbyn’s support.

Gilbert makes the very valid point that Labour should have argued against the last 40 years of neoliberal governments, not the last ten years of austerity. Focusing on austerity did not resonate with those whose communities had never recovered from the industrial devastation beginning in the 1980s. Canvassers in “heartland” constituencies reported that “voters showed no clear awareness of the profound difference between Corbyn’s Labour party and Blair’s, and gave their disillusionment with the New Labour years as a reason not to vote Labour again.” However, he says, “a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party simply won’t tolerate any significant criticism of the New Labour policy regime.” This is certainly plausible, and indicates that Corbyn’s efforts to keep the PLP together hamstrung him from advocating policies that might have retained the support of heartland voters.

But it indicates more than this. What was the reason a large section of the PLP will not tolerate criticism of New Labour? There is an ideological reason, as well as the inability of the membership to effectively replace MPs. And that is they fiercely defend New Labour’s “third way” version of the neoliberal consensus against Corbyn’s challenge to the economic elites. They consider themselves guardians of Labour as a “responsible” party that accepts the economy should continue to be dominated by international markets sustaining financial speculation and real estate inflation.

According to Gilbert, it was Corbyn’s “unique decency, his sheer humanity, that enabled him to usher a movement into existence.” Yet this did not enable him to mobilise the working class electorate in 2019: his “intensely moral condemnations of the social consequences of austerity” did not voice working class anger at what they were subjected to – and that lost him support. There may be some truth in that explanation, but what Gilbert leaves out of it is that in 2017 Corbyn was perceived as a refreshing break from the professional political class that had been running the country for years. By 2019, after two years of parliamentary stalemate over Brexit, it was possible to portray him as yet another conventional politician. The anti-establishment aura that initially boosted his support had worn off, and voters were susceptible to the argument that “they’re all the same.”

The party needed to hold “centrist-leaning voters”, says Gilbert, who he describes as those who spent their 20s-30s “in the halcyon days of New Labour, who were the very last cohort to benefit from the long property bubble.” They voted Labour in 2017, but by 2019 many of them were driven back into the arms of parties who they felt represented their Remain views more unambiguously. Labour’s 2017 coalition “had fractured and shrunk” by 2019, while the right had regrouped behind “Johnson’s new type of anti-political nationalism.” For Gilbert, then, the key factor in the fracturing of Labour’s coalition was pro-Remain centrism.

“Labour’s electoral base was split, and the section of that base that was numerically much smaller than the other happened to be in a strategically crucial position because of the iniquities of the electoral system. … a large constituency of middle-class cosmopolitans in their 40s and 50s deserted Labour precisely because we seemed too concerned with pandering to this ageing, conservative section of their traditional base.” Labour, Gilbert says, must bring middle-class liberals into its voting bloc. “It was losing their support that cost Labour perhaps more dearly between 2017 and 2019 than anything else.”

There is a good case to be made for proportional representation – and Gilbert makes it at the end of his series of essays – but no need to exaggerate the significance of the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Indeed, the Brexit party had a greater impact on the election result, without gaining a single MP. More important was the fact that Labour had allowed the right-wing press to dominate the narrative on immigration and Brexit. “We inhabit a political system that is not only designed to prevent the socialist left of the Labour party from taking power. It is now clearly biased against every force other than nativist ‘platform nationalism’ … it makes no sense not to try to build as broad a coalition of anti-Tory forces as possible – from anarcho-communists to liberals – to try to challenge its and change it.”

While there may well be a good justification for purely pragmatic, tactical alliances with anti-Tory forces, Gilbert confuses this with recruiting them into an ideological campaign against right-wing nationalism. Labour, he says, “must start campaigning in communities … explicitly against the ideology of conservative nationalism that has cost it so dearly in this election. … But if we’re going to launch an ideological campaign against right-wing nationalism, why on Earth wouldn’t we try to enlist the liberals into it, given that favouring a liberal immigration policy would be one of the few positions that almost all Labour radicals would share with almost all Liberal Democrats?”

This is the key to his argument. Although references to ideology run through Gilbert’s account, he doesn’t attempt to define it. Instead, he bases his strategy on winning support from specific constituent blocs, based on their programmatic positions. But the ideology that needs to be confronted is the way that the rationality of the market has been internalised by many in the electorate and by politicians after 40 years of neoliberal governments: the ideology of conservative nationalism builds on this ground, which is why it is so hard to overcome. Since ideology has had such a powerful effect in history, Gilbert’s neglect of it is a significant omission.

In short, I think the 2019 loss marked an ideological defeat for Labour at the hands of an extreme right current in the Tory ruling elite (assisted by generous financial support from billionaire oligarchs). But this would not have been possible if there was not already a nationalist strain in the electorate, amplified by neoliberal messaging, that resonated with Johnson’s propaganda. Acceptance of neoliberal rationality, what Thatcher called “winning the soul” of the nation, has morphed into a strain of nativism.

How did the Tories establish an electoral coalition that aligned both “highly affluent and ‘left behind’ areas”? Luke Cooper, co-author of a report from the London School of Economics on the election, commented: “Brexit has created a really tough situation for Labour. By making values and identity the central questions of the day it has broken the party’s traditional electoral coalition.” He adds: “If the economy becomes the most important issue then Labour can break up this potentially fragile Tory coalition.” In other words, the new Tory alliance is held together by a nativist redefinition of values and identity through Brexit rhetoric.

To break up this alliance, Labour needs a renewed socialist ideology underpinning a new common sense that rejects neoliberal values and redefines patriotic identity as pride in taking care of people’s basic needs and giving communities opportunities for control of their future. It requires a change in political practice – putting down roots in communities and participating in existing struggles to regenerate them – and building from the bottom up rather than relying on alliances with the tops of other parties. This would not be just an intellectual endeavour, but must rest on the sharing of an accumulation of experiences of alternatives to neoliberal society, such as cooperatives and community-owned assets, or building collective economic power through trade unions or groups of consumers. This would be the foundation of a movement to overturn the legacy of neoliberal governments.

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Book Review: Protest and Power in the Labour Party

There’s a genre of journalism that consists of interviews with political actors to produce an apparent “behind-the-scenes” look at the politics of power. Bob Woodward, for example, has written a number of volumes about the American presidency that chronicle internal dissensions in the White House – but do not leave us much the wiser about the true significance of the power struggle. The author tends not to account for the gap between the stated intentions of politicians and the historical outcome of their actions.

This approach, then, has considerable limitations. None of them are overcome in David Kogan’s new book, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party. He presents a history of ideological conflicts within the party as a Game of Thrones struggle for supremacy, where the terrain being fought over is the party leadership. The book’s dustjacket promises a revelation of “Corbyn’s long march to take control of Labour” (Robert Peston); how the left “turned decades of protest into the once unthinkable – the prospect of power” (Nick Robinson); and “the political drama of the popular uprising that is Corbyn’s Labour party” (Jon Lansman).

But anyone looking for insights into the dynamic of the disputes within today’s Labour party will be sorely disappointed. Kogan’s superficial assessment of the party’s condition is that it is splintered in multiple ways, between Corbyn’s alleged machine politics and the new membership, as well as between leavers and remainers. Kogan’s top-down analysis, made inevitable by his method of interviewing established political performers rather than actual party members, avoids situating his interviews in a more objective description of relations between the party tops and the grassroots.

What the recent Panorama documentary about anti-semitism within Labour demonstrated was the existence of a tight-knit clique of young apparatchiks in the party’s compliance unit, most of whom came out of student politics, and who were linked by their determined hostility to Corbyn and their claims that the party is institutionally antisemitic. The subsequent ideological fallout has confirmed once again that what is driving the rifts in the party today is the tension between the bulk of the parliamentary party, aided by the party bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the empowered membership on the other.

Kogan assumes a historical logic of repetition, where the intra-party conflicts inevitably reproduce what came before. He writes: “The different elements of the Labour movement in the mid-seventies: the big tent centrists, the pragmatic center-right, the Tribunite soft-left and the New Left have never really gone away, they have just taken different forms over the decades.”  Kogan’s thesis is that there is a continuity of the Labour left from the 1970s to the present that managed unexpectedly to attract majority support within the party in 2015. The huge growth in party membership after Corbyn’s election, he says, does not alter the value of Labour’s history in assessing its future prospects. In fact, he implies that the influx of new members was absorbed into the party’s structures with no noticeable effect on the leadership which “learned its politics in the 1970s and 1980s,” at the genesis of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) in 1973.

The result of Kogan’s approach is a narrative that is remarkably bland, a flattening-out of the historical process. He writes that the competing groups “have seen Labour’s pendulum swing from the centrist governments of the 1960s and 1970s, to the first manifestation of the New Left between 1978 and 1982, and back to the centre under New Labour in the 1990s. New Labour had thirteen years in government until 2010 when it was repudiated first by the country and then by the party. In 2015 the left rose again, reincarnated by the veterans of the 1980s who used the new, powerful engine of social media to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader.”

This talking-heads form of journalism leads Kogan to accept uncritically the establishment narrative in the guise of a “definitive account.” New Labour’s electoral defeat and ousting from the party leadership is framed by a quote from Blairite Peter Mandelson that explains it as merely the result of the breakup of the “progressive alliance” between the northern working class and socially liberal southern middle class, triggered by divisions over the Iraq war.

Where the narrative picks up is when it tells the story of Corbyn’s election as party leader, when individual decisions and opinions meshed with a dynamic movement. Even so, his account is curiously one-sided, and decidedly inferior to Alex Nunns’ The Candidate. Corbyn’s popularity among the young was a complete surprise, he writes: nobody could have foreseen “the impact of Corbyn’s appeal to the young who had never been in the Labour party.” He mentions as a kind of aside that “this was the generation that, since 2010, had suffered from hikes in tuition fees, cuts in benefits and the overall impact of austerity.” And he adds his own assessment of its significance: “It was a prime target market if it could be reached”  – in other words, a demographic that could be manipulated, rather than a generation with its own self-consciousness and agency. Austerity, which had spawned a number of active protest groups, was simply a political influencing factor, not a reality for masses of people.

Kogan ignores the social content of the “Corbyn movement” because he sees it as merely a rerun of the Bennite left’s struggle with the party right. In fact, what was new in the movement was that it represented a fusion of the Bennite appreciation of the importance of extra-parliamentary struggles with the enthusiasm and horizontal democracy of anti-austerity movements like Occupy, UK Uncut and the antiglobalisation protests of the 2000s.

The movement was unleashed after Corbyn’s nomination for the party leadership united loyal party members, older members who had left the party in disgust with New Labour, and the new social movements in his support. Voting for Corbyn became a way to express political hostility to the Westminster political establishment that denied representation for the victims of austerity. The key factors in his election were not the manoeuvring and organising of Corbyn’s close supporters, which gets highlighted in Kogan’s account, but the radicalisation of the membership at the base and the rapid politicisation of the anti-austerity movement after Corbyn’s candidacy was announced. These fused around his ethical socialist message, which resonated in the heart of the labour movement.

Jon Lansman’s description of Corbyn campaigning is interesting, but doesn’t go far to explain what the social movement was all about; Lansman took it for granted that there was finally a mass left movement, but he understood it in terms of the old Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Corbyn’s campaign message, says Lansman, “was anti-austerity, it was hope. It was not triangulation. It was politics that inspired.” But he characterises it as a repeat of the Bennite arguments: “You know, the people could feel enthusiastic, refreshed by things they’d never heard before; it was from twenty years before they were born. So, even if they were old ideas, the alternative economic strategy hadn’t had a hearing for decades.”

The pitfalls of taking participants’ words at face value is shown by Kogan’s acceptance of Lansman’s account of the history of Momentum. While Lansman himself was focused on organisational structure, the other founders “wanted it to be a totally horizontal organisation, totally anarchic.” He admits that in 2015 he was still thinking in terms of a larger CLPD that would support Corbyn at the constituency level, but he and his colleagues moved closer together after the “chicken coup” of 2016 that made Momentum more prominent in the Labour party.

The opportunism of the attempted coup against Corbyn is inadvertently illustrated in an interview with right-wing MP Margaret Hodge. She says “Corbyn was blamed for the referendum going wrong. It felt like an opportune moment in which to move against him.” But the effect of the coup’s announcement was to energise the membership to defend Corbyn in a second leadership election. Momentum leaders were able to organise a mass demonstration of support in Parliament Square in a matter of hours, and quickly doubled its own membership, becoming a force within the party in only a few months. However, Lansman controlled the mailing lists and shifted its membership structure from the delegate system it had initially adopted to one-member-one-vote. His rationale was to prevent Momentum from becoming embroiled in internal fighting over an independent political line, and he steered the organisation to changing the Labour party itself through influencing parliamentary and functionary selections.

A new constitution was devised in secret and emailed to Momentum’s members that required them to become members of the Labour party, the national committee was abolished and replaced with a Labour-only coordinating group. An online mode of organisation without a regional structure was created specifically to curb the influence of the sectarian left. In other words, Lansman circumvented the perennial desire of left activists for an alternative socialist grouping that would challenge Labour from the outside by making Momentum an element within the party. This bureaucratic manoeuvre was temporarily effective but did not resolve the underlying tension between the leadership and the grassroots.

If we look at that history from the viewpoint of those grassroots, we find that Momentum groups sprang up autonomously around the second leadership election in 2016, independent of the national body. The national organisation was formed after the event to coordinate these groups. Momentum was able to successfully organise interventions in national elections because it broadly facilitated what its members wanted to do anyway. But grassroots members are still chafing at the way decisions are being taken by Lansman personally without consultation, and have strong disagreements with some of his interventions in party disciplinary actions and statements on antisemitism in the party.

Kogan’s top-down approach seriously misleads him when he asserts that “Jon Lansman’s challenge to Unite in March over the Labour party general secretaryship was an example of the grassroots challenging the unions over a key post”. Momentum’s leadership is not a synonym for the grassroots, and Lansman’s claim to represent it was not supported by any kind of democratic vote within his organisation. His rhetoric was part of a campaign to win support away from the Unite-backed candidate Jennie Formby, risking a split in the left vote that could have seen a right-winger elected. He was eventually forced to withdraw after one of his supporters, Christine Shawcroft, called for the party to sever its connection with the unions, creating a monumental backlash from those same grassroots. John McDonnell had to declare explicit support for Formby before Lansman abandoned his candidature, and reportedly Corbyn also called Lansman personally about it.

Since Kogan’s claim to originality lies in his interviews with many of the key Labour figures of the last 40 years, it is a shame that he develops no theoretical framework that would situate their views more concretely in the party’s history. None of his interviewees reveal much about what they were involved in. But that is to be expected when asking politicians about their past – more critical analysis of their responses would be needed to avoid being taken in by their self-justifying rationalisations, and Kogan has not done the historical research this would require.

David Kogan, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party (Bloomsbury, 2019)

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The lesson of European parliamentary elections: Tax the rich!


The prominent left journalist Paul Mason has rightly been taken to task for his unprincipled attack on senior members of the Labour leadership after the party’s disappointing results in the European parliamentary elections.

But the content of his article deserves a more detailed analysis. He makes the panicky claim that “We have to begin from the facts: the struggle against rightwing authoritarianism and fascism is now the main priority.” Of course, it’s important to struggle against rightwing authoritarianism. But the only facts he references are the large vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. He conveniently forgets the utter humiliation of the extreme rightwing Islamophobe “Tommy Robinson” in the Northwest, who slunk off from the count rather than face the tiny vote for him in this working-class stronghold.

Prof. John Curtice assesses the vote as showing the country is equally divided for and against Brexit – so nothing much has changed materially since the referendum in 2016. What has changed is the complete disintegration of the Tory party’s vote: Farage was able to hoover up its disaffected voters as well as those of the dying UKIP he abandoned. The election result is not evidence of a sudden rise in xenophobia: the bulk of the Brexit party’s voters are the same people who always voted for the right.

It got support in Labour heartlands because the statements of a number of Labour MPs gave the impression that the referendum vote would be overturned, allowing Farage to present himself as defending a democratic decision. As Skwawkbox commented: “To working-class leave voters who voted leave because they were sick to death of feeling ignored and discounted – and who feel even more ignored and discounted by media and politicians looking to prevent the enactment of their vote – that message resonated.”

Labour also lost voters to the Liberal Democrats because they took a clear anti-Brexit position. However, it is not clear they would stick with the LibDems in a general election, given their association with the Tory coalition government. Their call for a second referendum obfuscates the fact that the social conditions that motivated people to vote Leave have not just persisted, they have gotten worse.

Theresa May’s tearful resignation as Tory leader marks the collapse of her party’s hegemony in the UK. Her indifference to her own dismal record is not a personal characteristic, but is shared by her entire party. Although the proximate cause is the failure of the government’s Brexit negotiations to arrive at a deal that both factions of the party could agree on, the roots of the crisis go back to the 2008 banking crash.

Austerity after 2010 began to dismantle the core of the welfare state that was the foundation of parliamentary legitimacy and national identity. Oblivious to the social effects of austerity policies, Cameron called the referendum when parts of the UK were already profoundly alienated from Westminster representation.

The referendum unleashed social forces that turned a Tory political project into a constitutional crisis. Cameron originally called it to counter the electoral threat from the anti-EU party UKIP, which was attracting support from the ultra-right of the Tories and its voters who were blaming immigration for welfare cuts. The narrow victory of the Leave vote, however, transformed his attempt to deflect the political cost of austerity into a crisis of governmental legitimacy, and Cameron immediately resigned. The vote cut across party lines, superseded the constitutional sovereignty of parliament, and threw its authority into disarray. The majority for Brexit was thus a signal of the disintegration of consensus, not an aberration or the result of a rise in racism.

Mason has imperiously written off Brexit voters as supporting a project of the “racist and xenophobic right.” But the referendum Leave vote gathered those who were signalling disaffection with the Westminster elite that had devastated their communities. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and “taking back control” had a resonance for many working-class voters who wanted a restoration of the 1950s economy and welfare state, symbolized by the Leave campaign’s cynical slogan of returning £350 million per week from the EU to the NHS.

Mason’s prescription for winning back “socially conservative” voters from ex-industrial towns is “to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism. It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” Essentially he holds that the antidote to pro-Brexit views is to return to the failed politics of New Labour, forgetting that New Labour’s record in these ex-industrial towns is as tarnished as the Tories’, since both encouraged the financialisation of the economy that drained resources away from these areas to the Southeast.

What was Corbyn’s mistake? In Mason’s opinion, it was “an attempt at triangulation between two wings of Corbynism: between the demands of an economic nationalist current from the old left, and the internationalist and progressive politics embedded in Labour’s new urban heartlands.” He is attempting to pit the sources of Corbynism against each other, as though nothing new was created out of the fusion of anti-austerity protesters with the legacy of Bennism that led to Corbyn’s election as party leader. One of the fruits of this fusion was the successful 2017 election manifesto. Since then Corbynism has developed creative policies that address how to deal with the power of transnational capital.

It is true that Labour’s position of uniting both leavers and remainers on the grounds of their shared experience of austerity is hard to explain on the doorstep, in the context of a political discourse that drowns out everything but Brexit. In the next general election, a simpler position needs to be developed that places the blame for the realities facing both sections of society more squarely on those responsible. I’m going to suggest: “Tax the rich!” In order to restore and rebuild communities in Britain, the economic elite must be made to pay back the social resources they have leached out of privatization of necessities and fraudulent contracts.

The way to win the war against the right is to campaign on the message: “Rebuild our towns! Rebuild the NHS! Tax the rich!”

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