Learning from Thatcher?

“The job of the grassroots is not simply to get Labour elected and to defend it in government. Rather, it’s the other way round: the job of the Labour Party must be to serve the movements that will transform the economy, society and politics.”

DON’T READ THIS BOOK if you think all we’ve got to do to change the world is get Jeremy Corbyn elected. On the contrary, as the authors say: “Relatively speaking, getting elected may prove the easy part. The task of transforming the UK beyond neo-liberalism … will have only just begun.”

And that’s why this book is so important. It analyses the challenges facing a Corbyn-led government after it gets elected. And its real value is it includes hard, practical examples to illustrate them.

It takes as its starting point two governments which have actually succeeded in bringing radical change to the UK: those of Attlee and Thatcher. Surprised/appalled to be pointed towards Thatcher for lessons? This is a strength of the book: a readiness to learn from ideological enemies as well as friends. And from other parts of the world, too, including Mitterrand in France, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece.

And we have a lot learning to do because if a Corbyn government gets elected and gets it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous:“The biggest risk is that Labour wins power but loses the prize: that it is unable, for whatever reason, to survive in government and to implement a radical agenda. This scenario truly would spell the end of the UK left’s hopes for a generation…”

The answer, the authors say, is for the left to be prepared. We must be aware of the forces which will to try to stop the Corbyn project (for example, global finance) and draw up plans to stop them (for example, capital controls). We must prioritise the policies that will both bring change and get widespread support for that change (such as renationalisation) and work out plans to transform Whitehall so it can and will deliver these changes.

This won’t be easy. The civil service is designed for continuity not change. And it won’t be enough to replace a neo-liberal technocracy with a progressive technocracy, say the authors. There has to be structural change: “The real prize is radical decentralisation and democratisation, breaking up the power relations of the old ways whilst also building the foundations for a new politics.”

And finally, the authors say, the left must build a “strong ecosystem” of groups and thinkers both within and outside the Labour Party (my emphasis) who will support the new government - but not unthinkingly. “This support must be independent, capable not only of defending the government when its agenda comes under attack, but also of keeping it on course when the pressures of governing push it away from radical change.”

In its early days Momentum seemed ideally placed to be the number one outfit to provide this support. But now the authors confess to being unsure of the organisation’s destiny, it having become, they say, what appears to be an “electoral machine pure and simple.”

On the one hand the authors hope that Momentum can be “reinvented in a way that rebuilds organic connections with the communities it claims to represent.” On the other…“Nonetheless, we need to recognise the strong pressures pushing Momentum groups from new kinds of organising, and take active steps to counteract them.”

Here either the authors are being deliberately vague or they really don’t understand the nature of the messy split in Momentum between its national top and many of its grassroots groups. And this leads me to what I believe to be the greatest weakness in what is otherwise an extremely well written and thought provoking book.

The authors address all the problems of preparing for a Corbyn government, except what I believe to be the most pressing. This is the combination of forces inside the party, including a large number of MPs, a cohort of bureaucrats and careerists, Blairites, and assorted reactionaries who are all trying to derail the Corbyn project before he’s even elected Prime Minister. These witchhunters and wreckers, secret and not-sosecret saboteurs, will, if left unchecked, either force Corbyn out or render him powerless. But you will search in vain in this book for what to do about this. Still, even if they don’t fully diagnose the malady the authors are spot on with the potential cure: bottom-up, grassroots action.

“The job of the grassroots is not simply to get Labour elected and to defend it in government. Rather, it’s the other way round: the job of the Labour Party must be to serve the movements that will transform the economy, society and politics. If the Corbyn project is to survive … it will need both an informed, empowered and strategically aware party membership, and a strong ecosystem of social movements outside the party. Our task now is to build both.”

Some task!

is Vice-Chair of South Thanet CLP and chair of Thanet Momentum