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Against the Party Machines: Momentum Boldly Asserts People Power in Britain, while US Progressives Fight for their Democratic Moment


Throughout Europe and the US today, the dominant political theme is how the public are shut out of meaningful decision-making at a time when globalization is having a devastating effect on people’s lives. This has led to protest voting that has unsettled the ruling elites: Brexit in Britain; in the US, support for the demagogic Trump.

The British political class, whether Labour or Conservative, believes that it is qualified to rule by virtue of family upbringing and attending Oxford or Cambridge, despite all historical experience to the contrary. What matters most is not its record of achievement – deindustrializing the economy, squeezing living standards with austerity policies, embroiling the country in a constitutional nosedive – but to be able to give the impression of administrative competence while presiding over one disaster after another.

In the US, on the other hand, the essential qualifications are money and support for the security state. That is why Trump continually talks up his mythical billions while never missing a chance to push his authoritarian vision for society. While Clinton “won” her first debate with him, the key question of the presidential election remained unacknowledged: the profound disenchantment of the public with the political system. Her message was directed at those who think the system is fundamentally sound and only needs modifying, while Trump appeals to those who think the whole thing should be blown up.

The left’s role is specific to the conditions in each particular country. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum are taking political struggle outside of the party machine and into the communities. While the official Labour party conference last week resulted in the right keeping control of the party’s inner workings through overturning Corbyn’s majority on the National Executive Committee, Momentum held a vibrant alternate event, The World Transformed, at a nearby venue. It was able to maintain and expand its organization after Corbyn’s election as party leader, thanks to the master tacticians in the Parliamentary party who gifted Momentum a popular issue to mobilize around by renewing their challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

Many of his supporters are from a new generation of “networked, horizontal, democratic, globalist and liberal young professionals,” writes Paul Mason, “who regard [the far left], largely, as oddities. When the man in charge of crowdfunding the Momentum fringe event approached me for help, I asked what had brought him into this. He’d studied social movements at university, he said, and spent five years in banking.”

The Independent’s Ashley Cowburn contrasted official Labour with Momentum’s activists: “One evening, back at the gloomy official conference, I am asked by a Labour MP: ‘How is it over there in cloud cuckoo land with the rainbows and unicorns?’ However, 28-year-old Emma Rees, a former primary school teacher and one of Momentum’s national organisers, dismisses the comment … ‘It discredits the very real experiences that lots of people are living through and I don’t think it’s rainbows and unicorns to actually want to discuss how we can do things better – how we can structure society so that it benefits more than just the privileged few. And I actually think that’s the founding principles of the Labour Party and movement, is to empower ordinary people and the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives’.”

It’s a straightforward message of empowerment and commitment to work towards a better society – no wonder Labour MPs think it a fantasy. Another Momentum supporter, Michael Segalov, explains: “Labour conference may have been consumed by party infighting, factional posturing, and endless debate of internal rules,” but at The World Transformed, “Sessions on phone banking, crowdfunding, community organising and planning were peppered throughout the long weekend, a clear sign that this new, invigorated membership is interested in more than rhetoric and backslapping.”

The situation is not so clear for Bernie Sanders’ supporters in the US. The presidential nomination process allowed a brief democratic moment around his campaign; now that Clinton has won the nomination and Sanders’ backing, the Democratic party establishment has shut down public participation in policy-making.

The dilemma of how to sustain the campaign organizationally has led to a conflict between Sanders’ professional political staff and his volunteers, who were responsible for the success of his fundraising.

Sanders introduced the promised independent organization designed to continue the fight for left policies, “Our Revolution,” through a national webcast. It sought to harness the campaign’s energy into support for candidates with a progressive platform in down-ballot elections. However, Our Revolution is to be structured as a 501(c)(4), in other words a legal entity geared to fundraising, not one able to interface directly with local political campaigns. This decision was taken apparently without consulting the volunteers who were the backbone of Sanders’ campaign.

According to the volunteer-run site Berniecrats.net, 210 downballot primary election candidates—a figure that includes local, state and congressional bids—were “Berniecrats,” meaning they endorsed Bernie Sanders and a similar progressive platform. Roughly half claimed victory. Since the primary season began on March 1, Berniecrats have won 238 of 379 races. Sanders told The Nation that “Our Revolution candidates have already won a lot of primaries. In Massachusetts, with the support of Our Revolution, a young attorney, a very progressive guy, beat a long-term incumbent. In Rhode Island, the majority leader in the House got knocked off.”

But Our Revolution is uncomfortably like MoveOn, a top-down organization sending out emails asking for donations. The difference is that potential donors are asked to contribute directly to the local candidates. While Our Revolution may develop other forms of political organization, the techniques that were successful in an electoral campaign are not the same as those needed to work with grassroots movements around the country that can change the political climate. Internet technology alone doesn’t build a movement – human interaction is the key to long-term change.

In fact, a number of leading Sanders’ volunteers resigned because of the decision to form a (c)(4) entity. Claire Sandberg, the former digital organizing director for the primary campaign, explained that this legal structure had already prevented them from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who stood in the primary against Debbie Wasserman Schulz; they were unable to coordinate phone campaigning with his campaign or mobilize Bernie supporters to participate in his field operation.

John Atcheson comments in Common Dreams, “Under its current framework, Our Revolution denies people that direct sense of agency, and is less transparent than it could be.  There is an explicit ‘trust me, we’ll do the right thing’ that is exercised by an intermediary. The appeal is based on the promise to support ‘progressives’ – an abstraction – rather than the specific list of policies Bernie offered.”

The challenge for the left in both countries is how to connect with the mass movement. In the US, millions of Latino and African Americans will be voting against Trump; in the UK, the left needs to reconnect with disaffected Brexit voters without compromising with racism. The ideological confusion on the left means that Sanders’ supporters are splintered, most probably voting for Clinton but some for third parties like the Greens.

November’s elections will show how the public responds to “Berniecrat” candidates at local and state level. The danger is that without a national caucus within the Democratic party they will be absorbed into the system without making headway on more progressive policies. For now, it looks like opportunities are greater for the left in the UK.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, Britain, British elections, British Labour party, Democratic Party, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, latino americans, political analysis, Uncategorized

Brain Transplant for Blairites: The Labour Party Conference and Jeremy Corbyn


The British Labour party conference, held in Brighton this week, demonstrated the close affinity of newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party’s rank and file. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne remarked: “Corbyn brought delegates to their feet with his appeal to popular decency and solidarity, his rejection of illegal warmaking and Trident renewal, and his unqualified opposition to the new benefit and tax credit cuts about to be imposed on millions across Britain.”

His popular support meant that anti-Corbyn MPs could not challenge him on austerity and the economy. But his opponents, including some in the shadow cabinet, loudly voiced their hostility to Corbyn’s aim of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system, whose usefulness is a myth furiously propagated by the Tories, the military high command, the armaments industry, and some rightwing union leaders.

As Milne noted: “the gap between the party’s leader, elected by hundreds of thousands, and the majority of its MPs, who didn’t vote for him, is stark.” British politics is highly ideological, and so is all about using and manipulating symbols of state legitimacy. For example, the press and BBC have attacked Corbyn on whether he would authorize a nuclear strike, his willingness to sing the national anthem, and possibly not wearing a red poppy on Armistice Day.

Corbyn’s conference speech, which so resonated with the party membership, countered these attacks with an alternative symbol, 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. He said he was elected on the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society. … We are going to put these values back into the heart of politics in this country,” the subtext being that these values had been abandoned by the Blairite leadership in its quest for electability.

Gary Younge commented: “The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.”

Corbyn does not stand so much for a new politics as for rolling back the tide of neoliberalism. Despite the descriptions of him as having a far left agenda, he didn’t call for a change in society’s structure, but only for an end to the diversion of resources to financiers that has defunded social services for the working and middle class, and the privatization of public assets. Through his rhetoric of common values, he gave direction to party members to reground the party’s policies.

His speech implied that building a movement was more important than electoral success, troubling Labour MPs and their house journal, the New Statesman, which noted “how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government.” This is what his opponents call realism. But the reality for most people in Britain is that they are experiencing decline in just about every aspect of life: housing, jobs, wages, health, benefits, road and railway commutes, issues which are driving the movement against austerity, and which the Blairites failed to challenge.

This poses a conceptual problem for the British left. Socialist Workers Party supporters object that, since the Labour party is aligned to achieving a parliamentary majority, “How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity?” Like the New Statesman they are asking how he would achieve change through parliament. This indicates they see the movement that elected him as being incorporated into the traditional Labour left, and not changing anything in the political climate. But they are missing how the Labour party is being transformed by an anti-austerity movement that has grown both inside and outside of it.

The real struggle now is between Labour’s newly-enlarged membership and the party establishment. While Corbyn proposed that its values would drive party policy, Rafael Behr commented: “the question of what policy is adopted is really a subset of the battle for control of the party machine. That tussle, well under way, is conducted mostly behind closed doors. It focuses on appointments, nominations and votes for positions on the key committees … what we used to call the ‘old Labour right’ (tribal centrists who mostly backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership) is doing its best to defend the machine from infiltration and control by the hard left.”

But Corbyn’s values have in fact reverberated within Labour’s membership and a significant slice of British society. So the stage is set for a clash in the constituencies as the membership begin to assert their sovereignty over policy. Labour activists want democracy within the party as a precondition of achieving democratic support in the country.

Public opinion in Britain is constructed with a monolithic barrage of propaganda from the press and media. So far, Corbyn has succeeded in neutralizing much of it by giving a voice to ordinary people. In doing this, he becomes part of a European-wide trend to reassert the politics of the local against the interests of the globalized banking system, the “enemies of democracy” in Thomas Piketty’s words. When the New Statesman argues that Corbyn wants to live in a “perfect world” and is reluctant to deal with real problems like intervening in Syria or hard choices about public spending, it is tone-deaf to these new political forces, manifested in Scotland, Greece and Catalonia.

It contrasted the “admirable idealist” Abraham Lincoln’s “cold-eyed realism” in hedging and compromising his way towards abolition with what it sees as Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with real issues of government. But Lincoln’s adoption of abolition depended on the campaigning of radical abolitionists to change the discourse of the country before the Civil War. As Lincoln’s foremost biographer, Eric Foner, explains: “They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn.”

Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaigners have a great opportunity now to change the political discourse in Britain – not in parliament or the media, but on the doorsteps of the country. But first they have to deal with the supporters of the status quo within the Labour party itself.

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Filed under British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, tony blair