Note: I drafted this yesterday, before Owen published Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer. It is therefore not a direct reply, but is stands, I think, as a contribution to the same debate.
I am writing to you as a comrade who takes a great interest in your writing. Yours is a rare voice in the media — one which is informed by the history of the labour movement, and above all, one which recognises the central role of the movement in the progress we have made over the years, and understands that all progressive change comes from below.
In particular, a year ago, you saw the insurgent movement around Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign for what it was — an expression of the failure of neoliberalism and the end of New Labour as a political force. Almost alone amongst the “official” media, you understood, and explained, what was happening.
As you said at the time, the election of Corbyn last September was the very beginning, not the end of the fight. Corbyn’s success was riven with contradictions, not least the fact that it occurred at a time when the organised left was about as weak as it has been in recent history. I remember discussing the situation with a friend this time last year: I said that I was sure that Corbyn would be horrified if he won, because of the nature of the PLP he would find himself nominally leading.
But Corbyn did win, and that day became one of the happiest days of my year (along with the Irish equal marriage result), after the horror of the general election loss and the defeat in Greece. Of course, it was also a day full of foreboding — now the left would have to deliver something, under the most difficult circumstances, rather than commentate from the sidelines as we have done for decades. But one thing we can learn from history is that we have never had the luxury of choosing the time and place of the struggle — it is thrust upon us, and we do the best we can.
And so, it did turn out to be difficult. From the “soft left” of the Labour Party to the extreme right of the establishment, everything was thrown at us. But surely we never expected anything else. We could have a long discussion about the frustrations we have about how Corbyn and his team might have approached the task differently and better, and how they need to change and improve. We would probably agree about much. But that is not the question before us today.
There is only one issue in front of us right now: should Corbyn continue as leader of the Labour Party or not? Like it or not, the future of our movement has been reduced to the future of one man. Not because we want it to be, but because the quasi-presidential nature of British politics now poses the stark question: Corbyn, or Smith?
When you recently interviewed Jeremy Corbyn, you expressed your concern that a general election defeat of a Corbyn-led Labour Party would mean the defeat of the left for a generation or more. My argument is that the defeat of Corbyn in the current leadership election would mean the same thing.
I hesitate to add that it would also mean the end of the Labour Party as a progressive force in politics, as those (including myself) who have proclaimed this in the past have been proved wrong, precisely by the election of Corbyn. But it would certainly render the Labour Party irrelevant to the activists who are right now flooding in its direction. To me this would be a serious defeat. The “Occupy” generation is groping towards some sort of coherent political expression through the Labour Party, in alliance with old socialists like me, who no longer believe we have all the answers, but want to engage and learn again from the new generation.
Much of the “muddle” of Corbyn’s leadership so far is an expression of this turning point in left politics, an expression of the international crisis of social democracy in a globalised, post-industrial world. It is not primarily because of the individual shortcomings of anybody. I am reminded of something Slavoj Žižek said a couple of years ago — that the problem for the left is not that we don’t have the right answers, it is that we don’t have the right questions. Under a Corbyn leadership, through the birth pains of a mass movement being created for the first time in generations, we might start to find those questions, and hopefully the answers.
I joined the Labour Party in 1983, just before the general election of that year. After the defeat, when Michael Foot resigned, I supported Eric Heffer for leader. A very decent USDAW official and local party member, who had taken me under his wing, argued for Neil Kinnock, because he was “fed up of losing”. We all know how that worked out. Then, the Party reacted to defeat by retreating to a comfort zone based on the past. If we elect Owen Smith as leader, we’re doing the same thing. And it would be even more inexcusable — at least Kinnock had a “radical” history, which fooled some people. Smith has nothing of the sort, his radicalism would disappear as suddenly as it appeared, the moment he was elected.
All of us, without exception, are desperate to get the Tories out. It is one of the great calumnies of our opponents that we are not. My belief is that it will be incredibly difficult for Labour to win the next general election, whether it comes in 2020 or earlier, not least because we must write off Scotland in the medium term (and for ever if they go for independence). The only chance, in my opinion, is to build a mass party and a mass social movement, and the defeat of Corbyn this summer would rule that out.
To be clear, social media activism is not enough. Such a movement has to be primarily based on community activism, a party member in every street, politicising every local struggle whether it be food banks, bin collections, or anything else. As you say, We are far from making this a reality, but I honestly believe that there is no alternative.
If the Labour Party is going to be the vehicle for social change, we need to rebuild it from the ground up, taking account of the atomisation of the working class which means that the old hierarchical structures of the movement need to be replaced. A Corbyn leadership makes this possible. Owen Smith as leader would make it impossible — the nascent transformation of the Party into a new mass movement would be stillborn and the stultifying party bureaucracy would regain its hold.
Social media activism, of course, has its place, and we should not criticise it, even if individuals think it is more effective than it is. We should, following Tony Benn, always make sure we are encouraging people. We can gently nudge people towards more effective modes of involvement where possible.
On a perhaps more personal issue, I get the impression that you are frustrated with the regime around Corbyn. As an ordinary party member (a new one at that, having only rejoined last year) I also get the impression that there is a bit of the “bunker mentality” about the leadership team. This is not surprising, though it must be frustrating for you, as someone who surely proved your loyalty to the cause last summer. But the point is that regardless of whether Corbyn, or the team currently around him, is the final answer (it would be very strange if they were, given the isolation of the left for so long), they must be unconditionally and enthusiastically (though of course not uncritically) defended against the current challenge.
Last year you said a couple of things pertinent to this discussion: firstly, you wrote in an article that your journalism was just the means by which you pursued your activism, not an end in itself. I hope that you can act on this, and so ask yourself what course of action is in the best interests of the movement, to which you have dedicated yourself, and of which, through your writing, you have become an important advocate.
Secondly, in a discussion with Aaron Bastani, when Aaron asked you, why the Labour Party? you answered that is was a tactical question, tied up with its historic roots, etc. Obviously, it would be a tragedy, if having got to this point, the Labour Party destroyed itself. But as I have argued above, to reduce the Party to irrelevancy by demobilising the growing mass movement coalescing around it would be just as bad.
The current situation is fraught with danger. It places a responsibility on the left. Recently, in a weak moment, I wondered if it would be best if the NEC did exclude Corbyn from the ballot, thereby removing our responsibility and allowing us to retreat once more into righteous oppositionism. Thankfully the thought passed quickly. It was wrong, we have a duty to fight for what we believe in.
So please, Owen, come out clearly for Corbyn. The movement enabled by, and represented by, Corbyn’s leadership is currently the only game in town for the British left. Now the genie of xenophobia and racism is out of the bottle, if our movement fails, Teresa May will be the least of our problems.
With my best regards,