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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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Filed under Anti-austerity, Britain, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis, Uncategorized

Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part Two


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part Two: Socialists must “hold the centre”

The authors accuse Corbyn of ignoring the “messiness” of real politics, “the calculated compromises necessary to achieve something concrete in a contradictory world,” in favour of an abstract morality manifested in a history of protests. However, as party leader, Corbyn has had to engage in many calculated compromises, such as holding a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, for example, and has had to navigate a difficult political terrain when aiming to unify Brexit-supporting and remaining constituencies. He has succeeded in holding together different wings of the party with moderate but practical policies that aim to reverse some of the most egregious aspects of privatization and welfare austerity. When he advocates more radical political alternatives aimed at encouraging popular democracy and involvement, he prefers practical examples like Preston and the “people’s Uber” pioneered in Barcelona over ideological purity.

Corbyn’s strength lies in his ability to communicate his ethical socialist beliefs to the public in a way that connects them with the political fight against austerity. The inclusivity of his message enables him to make a human connection with crowds at rallies and events. He does not perform well in parliament, on the other hand, since its procedures rely on making facile debating points rather than engaging with substance, a form of discourse modelled on institutions of ruling class privilege like Oxford, Cambridge, and the independent public schools. His political room for manoeuvre in parliament is limited by the hostility of many centrist Labour MPs, and even if a Labour government were to be elected in the near future, many of them would probably keep their seats. But this does not make him a prisoner of the parliamentary party. For him, the cabinet’s collective responsibility means fighting for policies decided by party conference, although his opponents had no compunction about resigning from the shadow cabinet.

As party leader, he can leverage his support from the membership in a way that previous left leaders like Bevan and Benn could not. At the same time, Labour MPs all believe in a certain amount of redistribution of wealth to alleviate social problems, and that creates a political space for Corbyn to keep the PLP together, since British capitalism now subsists on extraction of rents (in the broad sense) from the population through privatised industries and the financial sector. So, while the reforms proposed in Labour’s 2017 manifesto may be modest, the threat of halting or even reversing this flow of wealth to the rich alarms the establishment, even more than Corbyn’s foreign policy which would end the enrichment of the arms industry from dictatorships throughout the world, especially Saudi Arabia.

Bolton and Pitts’ pessimistic prognosis is that socialists must “hold the centre” to resist the advance of fascism and national populism. Only through the “structures of formal democracy” can the labour movement carry out its traditional activities. What is missing from their entire analysis is any sense of labour as a combative force in struggle with capital and its representatives, a movement that fought and fights for democratic rights even when outlawed by the state. In the 2017 election campaign Corbyn was able to shift the centre ground of politics to the left, something the authors perversely attribute to the Brexit vote, and his radical democratic instincts impel him to turn the party away from the arcane procedures of parliament towards local communities from which, he says, all progress originates. The authors concede none of this: for them, the “abstract, intangible forms of capital” remove all agency from socialists, since fighting to make the super-rich pay their taxes would illegitimately persecute those who are only the personalizations of money, capital and commodities. Demands for accountability for those who made the decision to cut costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment so drastically that they made it a death trap would not be acceptable to them. Socialists can only be spectators of “the fateful objectification of human activity in a reality that increasingly enslaves us.” This is their “Marxist” justification for accepting the neoliberal argument that there is no alternative to accepting the domination of the financial markets.

Labour’s immediate challenge is to establish itself as a clear alternative to both a Tory Brexit and the disenfranchising of neglected communities, navigating divisive political pressures exerted on the leadership by the media and sections of the parliamentary party. This depends on the politically empowered and knowledgeable party membership being able to develop policy through their connections to social movements. As Corbyn told a rallyin 2019, “What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future.” This prospect is deeply disturbing to most of the PLP, who want to preserve the division between the political arena and extra-parliamentary struggle that facilitates their domination of the party. It also frightens the ruling establishment, for whom any tactic is justified to prevent the election of a government that might reverse the transfer of wealth and power to the rich.

How could Corbyn achieve his platform in the face of such opposition from the establishment? The plain fact is that the dominant class has little inherent strength and depends on its control of the state and the grip of ideology to sustain its rule. Corbyn challenges this ideology by asserting the imperative of community solidarity, of inclusion rather than the division of Brexit and racism. Above all, he is able to channel popular dissent in a way that enables it to express itself in a creative struggle for policies of social change. This undermines the ruling elite’s historical strategy of using the elective legitimacy of parliament to contain and manage pressure from below, while strictly limiting popular influence on the actual conduct of government. Whatever limitations Corbyn may have as a politician, what is important is the fact that he has broken through the exclusion of the party membership from decision-making and released their energies in order to transform the relation of the party to the public and to the state.

Under a Tory government British society faces deepening austerity and a sharp growth in absolute poverty with its imposition of Universal Credit on benefit recipients, which can only be made worse by Brexit. The crisis it has induced threatens to break up the imperial British state, which has always depended on external advantage for its internal stability. However, social radicalisation has found an outlet and focus in a social democratic party that, for historical reasons, has provided the only practical conduit of organised political opposition to an austerity state. Rather than Bolton and Pitts’ faith in the institutions of “internationalist liberalism” to resolve the contradictions of a globalized economy, a Corbyn-led Labour government would be an inspiration for anti-austerity movements across Europe and the US, acting as an antidote to the rise of rightwing populist parties. Corbyn’s outreach to socialist tendencies battling the existing conservative leaderships of left parties and conservative Democrats in the US lays the foundation for democratizing international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU itself.

The strengthening of a mass social movement in close connection with a Labour party transformed by its roots in the localities offers the possibility of undoing the effects of years of neoliberal governments. The party at the constituency level is becoming increasingly open to the concept of empowering ordinary citizens so they can restore the social values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort for the common good. This is the socialism Corbyn aspires towards.

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Emerald Publishing, Bingley, 2018

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Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part One


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part One: Is Corbyn a populist?

The two authors previously published an article in the New Statesman that argued antisemitism in the Labour party was the logical outcome of a critique of capitalism that framed it as a conspiracy of the economic elite, citing the idiosyncratic views of the Canadian theorist Moishe Postone. Their book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, extends this argument much further, claiming that Corbynism rests on a populist understanding of capitalist society that stresses the divisions between “us” and the elite. Corbyn, they say, fills a “symbolic space” carved out by the economic and political collapse after the 2008 banking crash. His “depoliticised image of moral exceptionalism” became attractive to the Labour membership because of “the particularly moralistic way in which the broad liberal-left came to terms with both the 2008 financial crash and the Tory program of public spending cuts that followed.”

The symbolic space they describe is large enough to include a diverse array of populist movements: Occupy, UK Uncut, Bernie Sanders, Trump’s voters, and more bizarrely an “austerity nostalgia” that the authors say accounts for the election of Cameron’s Tory government (ignoring the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote). But grouping together all these movements as somehow equivalent distracts from their specific nature and the social realities underlying them. Corbyn’s support is characterized as a left populist movement marshaled behind Bennite “economic protectionist” policies, expressing the zeitgeist of “a certain kind of society,” Corbyn himself being “a kind of cipher for a wider political moment.”

The problem with their analysis is that they view the social responses to the 2008 crash as an unreflective populist reflex, when in reality there are always a series of complex mediations between the contingencies of any specific political moment and the logic of capitalist economy. The protests against austerity cuts and UK Uncut’s campaign against tax evasion were clearly part of the wider political moment, but were mediated by a cultural sense of fairness, distinguishing them radically from, say, the Republican “tea party.” In the same way, when the Labour membership rejected the leadership of New Labour and moved towards an anti-austerity alternative, its response to inequality was mediated by its conception of what Labour should stand for. The authors discount the agency of the membership: it favoured Corbyn not because of his moral exceptionalism but because of his ethical socialism. This was an expression of his politics maintained over many years that aligned him with the shift in the party, as well as with anti-austerity protestors and returning ex-members.

The significance of this return to ethical socialism is that it continues a long tradition of the labour movement. In his book, Losing Labour’s Soul? Labour historian Eric Shaw clarifies how New Labour, while retaining the social democratic principle of redistribution, had abandoned ethical socialism in its policies and practice. “The ethical socialist criticised capitalism not simply because it distributed resources in a grossly unequal manner but because it extolled the values of acquisitiveness, ruthless competitiveness and individual aggrandisement, all derived from the market mentality and market practices.” The welfare state was intended to be insulated from market forces and to embody the values of public service, solidarity, altruism and cooperation. This notion of the “public service ethos” had survived the decline of the industrial working class because it was “historically deeply embedded in both the ideology and the culture of the Labour party.”

Corbyn’s election as party leader validates Shaw’s argument; his appeal to the membership derives substantially from his rehabilitation of ethical socialist values against New Labour’s market philosophy. These values are clearly apparent when Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” appealing to a strongly-held popular desire for social support that seeks to restore collectivist priorities. In his speech to the 2017 party conference, he criticized the Tories not only for driving down wages, but also for their promotion of ruthless competitiveness and individual acquisitiveness: “their disregard for rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, the disdain for the powerless and the poor have made our society more brutal and less caring.”

At the 2015 Labour party conference, Corbyn posited the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders, and attributed his election to the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society.” New Yorker correspondent Sam Knight also noticedthe appeal of Corbyn’s ethical approach to the broader left-leaning public. After his first speech for Labour’s pro-EU campaign at the University of London in 2016, a student asked about the refugee crisis in Europe. “The crisis has flummoxed leaders on the left and the right, from Berlin to Athens,” wrote Knight, “but Corbyn didn’t need to think. ‘They are all human beings, just like you and me,’ he said. ‘In a different set of circumstances, we could all be in those refugee camps.’ When he speaks simply and off the cuff, Corbyn can have the moral clarity of a priest. The room broke into loud applause.”

Ethical socialists sought to integrate the community through a sense of belonging and shared fate. While the revisionist right concluded in the 1950s that the future of social democracy was tied to the efficient management of the capitalist economy, Shaw maintains that the vision of ethical socialism persisted insofar as its values were embodied in the universalist aspects of the welfare state, which both secured a fairer distribution of life-chances and “a mode of human interaction in which people related and behaved towards each other as equals in a spirit of mutual respect.” One important corollary to this principle for Labour is that basic needs should be filled by public organizations. The idea that the public domain should be insulated from market forces and commercial competition became central to social democratic thought. The maintenance of a large and expanding public sphere, governed by an ethos of public service, came therefore to be seen as the principal institutional expression of ethical socialist values, according to Shaw.

The National Health Service, then, forms an oasis of ethical socialism in a capitalist society and has taken on the responsibility for the overall well-being of the public, even though that is not what was intended at its foundation. The reluctance of Thatcherite governments to dismantle it and its current centrality in public opposition to privatization is a testament to the persistence of the social change begun in 1945. New Labour, Shaw says, shed this socialist tradition when its introduction of the market principle into the public domain “represented an explicit effort to re-engineer the culture of the public sector and to lessen the role of professional norms in favour of market or instrumental rationality.” For Bolton and Pitts, this is only normal, since they believe “we live in a world structured and socially reproduced as and by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market” so that “local wealth only appears as such through its validation as social, or global, wealth.” They make the assumption that use-values needed to maintain life are only accessible through the global market, as though they all have to pass through the portals of Amazon. Trade therefore can and must be extended globally, not limited to the national or local community.

This assumption is a misapplication of the labour theory of value. It the basis of their objection to Corbyn’s stress on the shared process involved in wealth creation, which he called “a cooperative process between workers, public investment in services and … innovative and creative individuals and businesses.” The wealth Corbyn is referring to takes the form of products needed by society, in technical terms use-values, the consolidation of productive capacity that includes the workforce rather than the accumulation of money. However, the authors comment: “The wealth Corbyn talks about here … in capitalism takes the form of value,” and as such has to be mediated in the world market. Since they consider that in a capitalist society “the fulfilment of social needs and the need to make profit exist in an inseparable contradiction,” the authors equate all forms of wealth-creation with abstract labour, which is validated as wealth in the market, so that for them “labour and capital are two sides of the same coin.” In effect, they extend the sway of capitalist logic into all forms of social life.

They assert that Corbynism naturalizes concrete labour, regarding it as “production as such,” or “the means by which humans interact with the external world in order to satisfy their needs, existing in the same way across history.” But human needs still have to be satisfied, even under capitalism: concrete labour is only part of capital circulation if it is engaged in producing commodities to be sold on the market, in which case it takes on the form of abstract labour. Socialism, from Corbyn’s point of view, has the aim of organizing production for society’s needs and removing it from the sphere of capital circulation. This does not necessarily mean a totally state-controlled national economy – the NHS, for example, has survived up until now as an institution oriented to people’s need for healthcare and not an insurance-based market. The political pressure for privatization of the NHS is precisely to return it to the ambit of the market and make the efforts of doctors and nurses subject to “globally mediated” abstract labour.

To give another example, workers who installed badly-fitting windows, faulty fire doors and combustible insulation on Grenfell Tower were engaged in labour that contributed to the creation of surplus value realized by the subcontractors, contractors and manufacturers involved in the refurbishment. The firefighters who courageously attempted to contain the fire and then risked their lives to rescue people after the initial instructions for them to stay put in their flats were rescinded were, however, from the point of view of capital, engaging in labour that had no value.

Bolton and Pitts further confuse the nature of labour when they critique the “Preston model,” often cited by Corbyn as an example of how Labour policy might work, which uses the procurement policy of locally-based “anchor” institutions such as hospitals and universities to favour local supply chains, local businesses and cooperatives. They describe it analogous to what they call Bennite national “protectionism,” which they consider reactionary in the face of international trade and production. However, if the surplus value produced in a community is redirected into local supply chains, the model provides more jobs and local control over the economy, it increases the tax base for local services and keeps wealth in the form of both money and use-values within the community. It answers corporate disinvestment in a way that the building of an Amazon warehouse would not. The Preston model is not socialism: but it has in practice increased democratic participation, reduced unemployment in the city, and strengthened the hand of the labour movement in its struggle against local deprivation and central government cuts.

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The political ground is shifting: Chicago rejects the Democratic party machine


The Democratic party establishment is struggling to keep control of its message. In last year’s congressional elections, a number of left candidates gained office, including Ilyan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have been speaking out against Trump’s anti-immigration policies and facing hostility and attacks from Republicans and the media.

Former president Barack Obama joined the fray on Saturday, accusing the left of enforcing standards of political “purity” by suggesting that rightwing Democrats could become targets for reselection in the party primaries. He was responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of 26 Democrats who joined a Republican vote for undocumented immigrants to be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they attempted to buy guns.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic party strategists believe that centrist policies are needed to unseat Trump, and have sidelined left positions such as the abolition of ICE, Medicare for all, free public higher education, a $15 minimum wage, and action on climate change – all of which are now part of mainstream discourse, thanks to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidential nomination. However, the evidence from last week’s municipal elections in Chicago indicate shifts in both the party and the electorate.

On April 2, Chicago voters elected Lori Lightfoot by a landslide as the city’s first African American woman and openly gay mayor. But they also elected at least five socialists to the city council, fragmenting the Democratic party machine controlled by outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Intercept reported that three members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won runoff races, joining two others who won outright last month. Jeanette Taylor, a community activist who led a month-long hunger strike to reopen Dyett high school in Bronzeville, won the 20th Ward. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, another well-known community organizer, replaced an incumbent in the 25th Ward who had held the seat for more than two decades. In the 40th Ward, Andre Vasquez toppled one of the most powerful members of City Council and an Emanuel ally – Pat O’Connor, who held the seat for nearly forty years. In addition, “there were a handful of candidates who have significant ties to the labor left and other political movements that predate the rise of DSA, like the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike.”

Chicago has long been ruled by a monolithic Democratic party machine, with close ties to the Clintons and Obama. Rahm Emanuel served as Obama’s chief of staff before running for mayor. His decision not to seek a third term enabled a host of challenges to incumbent aldermen with strong connections to the machine. According to In These Times, the challengers ran on demands raised by social movements in the city, including instituting an elected, representative school board and creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council to oversee the Chicago Police Department. “They also built on the work of community organizers who have opposed large-scale tax increment funding (TIF) projects that often fund luxury developments. One of the most controversial TIF projects is a proposed $95-million West Side police and fire academy, a priority of the outgoing Emanuel administration. Local residents and activists argue that this funding could be better invested in schools, mental health facilities and other resources.”

The election was hard fought, with Emanuel’s allies spending heavily on television and digital advertising to support candidates aligned with the political establishment. But candidates from the left were able to break through the patronage system and created a city council more representative of the city’s diversity. “In the largely Hispanic 33rd Ward, democratic socialist Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez ended the night ahead of incumbent Deb Mell, who was appointed by Emanuel after her father and former Ald. Richard Mell stepped down in 2013. The Mells have long served as a powerful political family in the city, and Rodríguez-Sanchez’s potential victory stands as a shot across the bow to the machine.”

Emanuel’s grip on the party was loosened after he suppressed police video of the shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 17 times while walking away from officers. Emanuel’s refusal to take any serious action against the notoriously corrupt and violent Chicago police department lost him the support of the Democratic party’s base. According to University of Illinois history professor Barbara Ransby, “The Laquan McDonald case was really the pivot of this election in a lot of ways. It was the issue that Rahm Emanuel couldn’t run away from. And he couldn’t run away from it because of the relentless pressure by a whole network and coalition of organizations, from Black Lives Matter Chicago to Assata’s Daughters to #LetUsBreathe Collective to Black Youth Project 100. So, putting the pressure on Rahm not to run, or letting him know that this was going to be the fight of his life if he did run, was part of what shaped the election as it unfolded.”

The newly-elected mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is a former prosecutor and also has questions to answer about her role as chair of the police board and reluctance to prosecute police, despite promises for police accountability and reform. Aislinn Pulley, lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago, commented: “We should view this election cycle as the beginning of a seismic shift against the neoliberal project that has resulted in privatization, militarized policing and destruction of many of our community institutions and resources.”

Ransby writes about the new cohort of activists like Pulley in The Nation, where she explains that many of them gained their first experiences of organizing in campaigns to oust State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Police Chief Garry McCarthy for their roles in the Laquan McDonald case. Another critical issue was “the 2015 City Council Reparations Ordinance for survivors of police torture, which was the culmination of a five-year struggle for accountability in the Jon Burge torture scandal. And it is impossible to escape the shaping influence of the Black Lives Matter Movement (now a part of the larger national coalition, the Movement for Black Lives), which not only birthed a new political ethos—one that goes beyond simplistic notions of representational race politics—but also emboldened a new grassroots force of powerful leaders, many of them women.”

While the old guard still clings to power in Chicago, in certain areas it was decisively defeated. The key to this success was activists’ grassroots mobilizing on issues important to citizens, incorporating left solutions to the city’s urgent social and economic problems. Decades of political corruption won’t be overturned in one election cycle, but last week’s results indicate that voters are moving away from identity politics and responding positively to a new generation of activists with a bottom-up, left agenda. Obama and the Democratic leadership are out of touch with the changes in the party and the electorate. Bernie Sanders is still the candidate who has the most appeal to the overwhelming desire for change.

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Filed under African Americans, Black Lives Matter, chicago teachers, Democratic Party, Fight for 15, Obama, political analysis, Rahm Emanuel, Uncategorized

Against the McCarthyite Witchhunt of Chris Williamson


Labour party activists are coming out in support of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party pending investigation into expressions he used at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that rejected the accusations of institutional racism against the party. Sheffield Hallam CLP and Hackney North CLP have already passed resolutions strongly in his support.

The suspension has aggravated the divisions between the rank and file and the parliamentary party. According to the Guardian, 38 Labour MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to the party general secretary Jennie Formby calling for his immediate suspension. The Yorkshire Post had published footage of Williamson telling the meeting: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic” over the antisemitism allegations. He later issued a statement that said it “pains me greatly … that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of antisemitism … I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”

Deputy party leader Tom Watson has led the campaign against Williamson. He criticised the apology as “long-winded and heavily caveated,” and told BBC Radio that “disciplinary action should be concluded swiftly. ‘It’s definitely weeks, not months, in my view,’ Watson said. Although he said Williamson should be allowed to present his case in a formal hearing, the deputy leader condemned his comments.” In a clear challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, Watson also claimed he was not acting as his deputy but had an independent mandate from 200,000 members that gave him a responsibility to speak out. Perhaps a new “people’s vote” on Watson’s position would give members a chance to reconsider his mandate.

Momentum seems to be confused on how to respond to the issue. The organization has backed an open letter apologizing further to the Jewish community for the party’s handling of antisemitism, although reiterating support for Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s anti-racist principles. But its Camden branch urged Momentum’s national leaders to argue for Williamson’s immediate reinstatement, condemning the “new McCarthyism” driving the disciplinary action. In a letter to the leadership it points out that “nothing about that speech deserves the suspension of the Labour whip, let alone suspension from the party. Jewish Voice for Labour have rightly pointed out that Williamson’s suspension is unjust and have called for it to be rescinded. Camden Momentum adds its voice to that call.”

However, Williamson’s defenders have mistaken the official reason for his suspension for the real one. It has little to do with antisemitism and a lot to do with him touring the constituencies presenting the case for compulsory reselection of MPs. Sections of the PLP are desperate to take back control of policy, know their constituency parties are critical of them, and are violently hostile to Corbyn’s radical democratic philosophy. Cultural and political theory professor Jeremy Gilbert  points out that the party rightwing would continue its campaign of vilification against Corbyn even if he were to “convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party.”

He argues that the “independent group” of defecting MPs will attempt to build a centrist party that, like in Germany, would potentially hold the balance of power in parliament and become an obstacle to progressive government. However, first these MPs would have to be re-elected, and there is little evidence that their future party would fare any better than the Liberal Democrats, especially since the Labour rank and file will be vigorously campaigning against them. The Labour party, Gilbert says, needs to face questions about its future relations with the SNP, the Greens, even the Lib Dems. It should convene a national conference with all these parties as well as trade unionists and NGOs to build a mass progressive movement as an alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

But what has transformed the party has been the shift in the rank and file and the new members who have joined it since 2015 in order to fight austerity. Gilbert’s characterization of Corbynism as merely a left variant of Labourism – the assumption that socialism can only be achieved through a parliamentary majority – is way off the mark. Corbyn is not at all averse to building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements, and the experience of Tony Benn when a cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government shows that the party’s parliamentary campaigns and government power can be important components of a transformational movement, giving it political legitimacy with the public.

Rather than holding a neo-popular front convention, Labour activists should immediately begin selecting new candidates to replace the “independent” parliamentary squatters, and campaign on local issues in such a way as to connect with social movements that already exist in their constituencies. This would help to clarify the public about Labour’s radical programme and the true politics of the defectors.

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Filed under anti-semitism, Britain, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum, muslims in america, political analysis, Uncategorized

Judge and Fury: Kavanaugh’s Rage Exposes the Festering Politicization of Justice


For the last few days, America has been transfixed by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. The entirely believable testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford was contrasted with Kavanaugh’s aggressive, blustering, and enraged response at her accusations’ damage to his shot at a lifetime Supreme Court judgeship.

The Court is the highest and most visible part of the justice system which is theoretically independent of the legislature and the executive branches of US government. Whatever happens with Kavanaugh’s appointment, the Court’s independence and the Senate’s legitimacy are now facing intense public scrutiny. That is why, after voting in favor of Kavanaugh on committee but then being confronted in an elevator by two angry victims of sexual assault, Senator Jeff Flake brokered a week-long delay on the final Senate vote in order to allow the FBI to conduct an investigation.

The Washington Post reported: “After this [hearing], public perception is going to increasingly be that it’s more a political body than a judicial one,” said Benjamin Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who studies the federal judiciary. “To me, this will be a disaster for them.” Added Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia. “The court is a political institution, yes, but as much as possible it’s critical for the justices to be — and be regarded as — impartial, trustworthy and above the political fray. The justices have reason now to be concerned.”

Republican support for Kavanaugh is only the latest in extreme partisan interference in the normal workings of the justice system, with Senate leader McConnell delaying and frustrating Obama-era appointments until Trump’s election enabled them to fill hundreds of lower-court vacancies with conservative judges. The transformation of the judiciary into a weapon of mass incarceration is a project more important to the Republican leadership, it seems, than their success in the House and Senate mid-term elections.

The New York Times commented: “Party leaders have concluded that supporting Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, in the face of sexual assault accusations against him, will all but ensure that Republicans lose control of the House in November even as their fortunes may improve in some tough Senate races. … Even as Mr. Trump and Senate leaders acceded to an F.B.I. investigation into the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, Republicans say they did so grudgingly. Privately, they are determined to press ahead with the confirmation process despite the political risks and the possibility that Republican senators may still defect and oppose the nomination in the end.”

The Republican Senate committee members attempted to blame the Democrats for disrupting their staged confirmation by raising Dr. Ford’s objections. Kavanaugh himself raged: “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups,” which apparently impressed Trump enough to tweet his support.

But the Democratic representatives are voicing a muted version of public hostility to the corruption of the political system that has been festering for many years before Trump took office. Kavanaugh is closely connected to this corruption: in earlier hearings, he lied skilfully about his involvement with formulating the legal justification for torture under the Bush administration, about his extreme partisanship during the Starr attempt to impeach Clinton, and the 2000 Supreme Court verdict that gave Bush the presidency.

The Democrats on their own could not prevent Trump and the Republicans from shifting the Supreme Court sharply to the right, endangering the Roe v. Wade decision and civil rights generally. But the glare of the spotlight on the raw machinations of power may well force a retreat on Kavanaugh’s elevation – who, despite the revelations about his character, will remain in an influential position on the Washington D.C. Appeals Court.

In any case, the Republican party has now clearly branded itself the party of white male entitlement, attracting those railing against the modern world that they believe “is hostile to their individual rights, political power and social status.” But in doing so, they are alienating themselves from the mass of people who don’t regularly vote, and may well be inspired to do so in November after the hearing’s demonstration of exclusive class privilege and of hostility to women.

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Filed under #MeToo movement, Democratic Party, donald trump, Feminism, political analysis, Republicans, Supreme Court, Uncategorized

Parkland Students Tell Politicians: Represent the People or Get Out!


Last Saturday, upwards of 300,000 school students and supporters packed Washington DC for a rally to demand politicians enact gun control. “Vote them out!” was the most common chant on the “March for Our Lives,” as the protestors pointed to the inaction of Congress after each tragic mass killing. A consciously diverse platform of school age speakers displayed the range of the movement’s support, which was replicated at hundreds of sibling rallies throughout the country. Reportedly, nearly a million people joined the protests worldwide.

The speakers, aged between 11 and 18, spoke with a passion and fearlessness that expressed a defiance of their own vulnerability, and demanded the government take responsibility for their safety by taking common-sense gun control measures, such as banning access to assault rifles. The active shooter drills that they are subjected to in schools across America have made even the youngest children sensitive to gun violence and the threat to their lives. They are responding to the public’s disaffection with the political system by taking things into their own hands.

Elena González, who survived the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, named all seventeen victims to humanize them and underline each individual tragedy. She then held the entire crowd for over four minutes of silence – not even requesting the audience to observe it – ending only when she had been on stage for six minutes and twenty seconds, the time it took for the gunman to shoot 17 people dead. Through her own mute stillness on stage, she was able to exert a moral authority unavailable to politicians of any political party. As the Guardian pointed out, “That a teenager unknown to the country until a little over a month ago could command such quiet respect and deep introspection among a rally of this size illustrates just how powerful the student-led movement to rise from the Parkland massacre has become.”

A key theme for all the speakers was to name shooting victims who went unrecognized by the authorities to celebrate their memory, and by extension assert the importance of their own lives. Many said they were there to represent their community and those who had died: they refuse to allow members of their generation to be treated as a statistic. Sam Fuentes, who was injured in the attack and still has shrapnel in her face, led the crowd in a rendition of Happy Birthday in honor of Nicholas Dworet, who was killed in the shooting and would have turned 18 on the day of the rally.

Edna Lizbeth Chávez, a high school senior from South Los Angeles, said that gun violence had become so normal in her community she learned to duck bullets before she could read. She spoke movingly about her brother, who was shot dead while she was a young child. “Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” she asked. And she ended by saying: “Remember my name. Remember these faces. Remember us and how we’re making change.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne commented: “The unmistakably political character of this movement is another change. No phony bipartisanship. No pretending that everyone approaches this issue with goodwill. Thus the importance of ‘Vote them out.’ Thus the imperative of casting the NRA as the adversary and all who welcome its money and support as complicit … this march established the gun safety alliance as multiracial and intersectional, reaching far beyond its traditional base among suburban white liberals. Few voices echoing from the platform were more powerful than 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s. She declared that young African American women who were victims of gun violence would no longer be seen as ‘simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential’.”

She also said: “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know. We know that life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.” She added, “And we know that we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote.”

Another survivor of the Parkland massacre, David Hogg, declared that they would make gun control a major voting issue. “We are going to take this to every election, to every state and every city. We’re going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run, not as politicians, but as Americans, because this—this is not cutting it. … Now is the time to come together, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans, Americans of the same flesh and blood, that care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s the future of this country and the children that are going to lead it.”

He was evoking a different America from the right-wing fantasies of Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association; he was evoking the memory of John and Bobby Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, symbolically underlined by the appearance of King’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King on the platform. She told the crowd: “I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”

The students have succeeded in shifting the political dialogue in a way that had previously seemed impossible. Republican politicians, especially in suburban districts, are coming under increasing pressure to act on gun control. At a town hall in Denver, Colorado, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman faced a barrage of questions — his district includes the town of Aurora, the site of a deadly 2012 shooting at a movie theater. “We’re done with thoughts and prayers!” shouted out one constituent during a moment’s silence for the Parkland victims.  Other attendees held signs that noted the National Rifle Association’s contributions to Coffman’s campaign. One woman identified herself as the wife of a first responder who was at the scene of the Columbine high school shooting, also in Colorado. Her son had planned to see a midnight showing of the new Batman movie the night that the gunman attacked the audience in Aurora. Yet, she told Coffman, she hadn’t spoken out until watching students from Parkland campaign for new gun laws. “An avalanche is coming to Washington, sir, and it is going to be led by our children.”

Republicans have made gun ownership an ideological point of purity as part of a culture war against Democrats, championing primarily rural and white constituencies that want fewer immigrants and more access to guns. As a result, the NRA has a political influence out of all proportion to its real support in the country. But the message of Saturday’s rally is that the organization’s time has ended. The protestors’ practical focus is to “vote them out” in November’s elections. As Cameron Kasky, another Parkland student survivor, told the rally: “To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”

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Filed under donald trump, gun control, political analysis, public schools, racial justice, Republicans, social justice, Uncategorized