Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.
Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.
Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”
These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.
Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.
Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”
Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.
It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”
Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.
Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.
Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.
As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”