John McDonnell

Preparing for the socialist challenge

John McDonnell
Preparing for the socialist challenge

I MET LEO PANITCH earlier this month following the publication of his and Sam Gindin’s recent book, The Socialist Challenge Today: Syriza, Sanders, Corbyn. Get yourself a copy. It’s certainly worth a read if you are interested in how the left can move on from being a campaigning force to a political movement for transformational change in government.

I suspect that after our conversation Leo left a bit perplexed and no doubt a bit worried - because if there is an overriding but understandable weakness in how we operate on the left in this country, it is that we allow activism to crowd out sufficient analysis and discussion. The British left has never been especially good at combining theory and practice into praxis.

His and Sam’s book is a concise and perceptive description and analysis of both Syriza’s development effectively from a protest movement into a party in government and the startling emergence of the Sanders campaign into a potentially influential dynamic in American politics.

From both the Syriza and Sanders experiences Leo and Sam draw some warts and all conclusions and proffer some direct advice for those of us engaged in what Gordon Brown recently described as the “Corbyn phenomenon”.

They address the question that many critical commentators throw at us in interviews and in their often derogatory commentaries. That question is: “Can we make the shift from the politics of protest to the politics of government?”

The Syriza and Sanders experiences demonstrated to Leo and Sam that “making the shift from protest to politics really effective would entail a profound transformation in party structures.” Change has to start with the party. Tom Blackburn, a Momentum activist, sums up what’s needed in three steps:

  • First, absolute clarity and honesty about the scale and nature of the task we face if we aim to bring about the transformational change of our society we aspire to.
  • Second, remaking the Labour Party as a campaigning force in working class communities.
  • And third, democratising our party policy-making structures and bringing through the next generation of activists and candidates.

One of the key lessons Leo and Sam draw very clearly from the stories so far of Syriza and Sanders is that in addition to creating a party that educates, motivates and mobilises its base, there has also to be a “democratic socialist strategy for entering the state through elections to transform the state.”

If we are to be successful in ensuring that the Labour Party becomes what Tony Benn described as “a party of democratic socialist reform”, we have to recognise that at every level of the state and policymaking we need to develop our plans and train our representatives in how to reform and use the machinery of government to implement our political programme.

These are exactly the challenges we now face in the Labour Party.

  • With a new general secretary and a decisive NEC, we can now start the process of engaging the whole party in the discussion of the task we face both to win office and to implement the radical policy programme we need to transform our society.
  • After years of neglect of political education within the party, we need now to draw upon all the resources we have of the educators within the party to rapidly develop a basic political and economic education programme.
  • With the appointment of our team of community organisers we can use them to assist our local Constituency Labour Parties to support existing campaigns, and launch new campaigns in our communities on a scale we have not seen in some areas for many years.
  • We need now also to apply the resources needed to train our elected representatives in how to go into government office at whatever level, local or national, so that they understand the change we wish to effect, the obstacles that will be thrown in our way by the establishment, and how we can overcome them.

The instability within Theresa May’s cabinet may mean that the opportunity of national government could come soon. We are already working on a preparation for government exercise, but so much more needs to be done, especially within the party structures.

Party members need to be raising in branches and management committees, with councillors in Labour groups and members in our affiliated organisations, the question of how their local bodies can contribute to, and participate in, the political education, campaigning and training processes needed to make us the party of socialist transformation we aspire to be.


Shadow Chancellor, MP for Hayes and Harlington, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and Chair of the Labour Representation Committee. John has been involved in Labour Briefing since the early years.