Against the odds
WHEN JEREMY CORBYN WON THE LABOUR LEADERSHIP 18 months ago the odds were always massively against us. We were fighting:
- the state, with veiled threats by generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government;
- the media, with 18 months of relentless attacks and ridicule;
- the Tories;
- the PLP, shamefully refusing to accept the Party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, acting as a party within a party and fearing a Corbyn government more than another Tory government;
- the undemocratic structures and rules of the Party, with the right wing dominated Compliance Unit being used to suspend hundreds of Corbyn supporters;
- and all this in the context of a vote on Brexit that put Labour between a rock and a hard place and the death of Labour Scotland that would take years to recover from, whoever was Labour leader.
Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy had to operate day-to-day in a parliamentary framework, putting together a parliamentary opposition within a hostile PLP. He and John McDonnell were embattled on the front line from the very start.
The only possible way to fight against such powerful opposition forces was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below. There were valuable lessons to be learned from Bernie Sanders and even from the populist right in Britain and the US.
But this was not the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when the working class in Britain was powerful - so powerful that Heath called an election in 1974 on the theme of “who rules, the government or the unions”, and lost!
We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. Although Jeremy’s victory reflected in part a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neoliberalism - part of an international movement, such as in Spain, Greece and the US - at the same time our movement was at a low ebb.
Our task was to rebuild the movement, utilising our leadership of the Party to help do so. It needed a democratic grassroots movement that would have to try - openly and transparently - to transform the Party itself. That insurgency had to be a radical crusade against the establishment and an authentic voice for the dispossessed.
But here was the conflict - how to achieve that while at the same time achieving some unity within the PLP and shadow cabinet sufficient to keep the parliamentary opposition on the road. There were two aims - party unity and the building of a radical, democratic grassroots movement. How could the two be reconciled?
The odds were against us but Momentum could have provided the beginnings of an answer. To do so, it had to be:
- politically tough enough to withstand the enormous pressures of the establishment, and
- radical enough to break from the old top-down politics that had so disfigured the left in a long period of downturn.
So far it has failed:
- It failed to stand up to the witchhunt - and, in particular, the fake antisemitism allegations used to undermine Jeremy and divide the left. If the left was weak enough to capitulate to the Zionist lobby, how could it stand up to the forces of establishment reaction against a Corbyn-led labour government?
- It failed even to attempt to build a movement both supportive and independent of the leadership at the same time. What was needed was not just an echo of the inevitable limitations and constraints of the leadership’s programme - but an independent movement, able to help develop a programme and a movement capable of exerting some counter-pressure from the base to all of the establishment pressures at the top. For the first time we had a leadership that welcomed such a movement.
- And it failed to break from the old politics, culminating in the coup which abolished Momentum’s democratic structures and the separation of Momentum’s leadership from the local branches - which would have to become pivotal in changing the balance of forces within the Party. The failure of the left at last year’s Labour Party conference was a salutary lesson. The crisis in Momentum goes well beyond the failures of its chair, Jon Lansman. We have put too much emphasis on bureaucratic manoeuvres at the top, such as doing deals with Unite - which at best must be an adjunct to building a mass movement, rather than a replacement for it. And we need to rebuild our forces at the base of the trade unions.
As Matt Wrack put it in the March 2017 Briefing, “If we want to reverse the decline of the past 30 years it will need to be done from the bottom up. General secretaries may not always be too comfortable with the sort of rebellion which will be necessary - but it will be necessary nonetheless.”
Our leaders cannot hope to win without a mass movement behind it - a movement rooted in our communities and, through that, wired into our Constituency Labour Parties. We need to re-unite our fractured forces.
Now a General Election has been called, the opportunities - with the Tories facing a volatile post-Brexit crisis and with the transformation of the Labour Party into a mass party and an unprecedented influx of members - are still the chance of a lifetime.