Lessons from the bunker

Louie Woodall
Aug 9, 2016 · 4 min read

It’s time that battered D:REAM CD was put on Ebay. It will not be played these next 20 years.

The Corbynite faction’s clean sweep of National Executive Committee (NEC) constituency seats on Monday cemented Labour’s future. While the ideological balance of the Committee will not be skewed by the result, the massive majorities stacked up by members of the Centre-Left/Grassroots Alliance slate revealed, to those who still entertained hopes to the contrary, that the membership at large stands by its leader.

The Corbynistas have been unremittingly criticised by their opponents within the party and established media over the last ten months for their maddening naivety and uncertain grasp of electoral politics. Now they stand as masters of the party for as long as their haphazard coalition endures.

Within the party, it is not they who are living in a bunker. It is the scarred and shaken moderate rump that shivers behind reinforced concrete. There’s one plus to being bunker-bound, though. It means you’re not dead.

Those moderates resolved to stay within the party and fight for their brand of democratic socialism in the face of overwhelming odds can take heart from the very Corbynista opponents they face. After all, not so long ago the disparate bands of hard left activists that make up Labour’s footsoldiers today were themselves underground, eking out a half-life on the twilit borders of the political system.

So, what lessons to take from their time in the bunker?

The importance of organisation, for one. In my Trotskyite student days, I was part of the amorphous left group at our union that obsessively planned for our monthly General Meetings. We wrote resolutions and lined up speakers to support them in public, as well as rebuttals to reactionary policies. Victories were small and largely inconsequential, but when they came, they came as the result of meticulous planning.

Fortunately Labour’s moderates are already diligent schemers and ruthlessly disciplined to boot. Look at how members from across the non-Corbyn left, from Progress to Open Labour, have rallied to Owen Smith. Yet this level of dedication cannot be reserved for set-piece leadership battles alone.

There is no victory too small to be worth fighting for. Look at how the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy worked in the seventies and early eighties to bring their agenda into the limelight. Year after year, they’d submit a model resolution to conference calling for constitutional change and agitate for support, CLP by CLP. Year after year, they’d get knocked back. But boy did they keep at it.

By the 1980s they could boast around 300 affiliated organisations and 450 members (not half bad in an age before social media) and eventually brought about the electoral college system that chose every Labour leader up to Ed Miliband.

Small wins lead to bigger ones. Moderates may find it unpalatable battling in the dingy church halls and civic centres of CLP meets when they once used to be able to sit back and exchange ideas with like-minded folks at the odd conference fringe (I’m guilty as charged, here) — but it is necessary. Vital, even.

Moderates also need to embrace the tactics of the underground resistance. In war, this means hit-and-run raids and guerrilla-style skirmishes. It politics, it means the procedural motion. The rulebook is the underdog’s only friend — as the five members that won their right to vote in the leadership contest after taking the party to court discovered on Monday.

Jim Murphy gave us a taste of what these tactics can achieve for moderates when he prevented Rhea Wolfson from gaining the nomination of her initial home CLP. In the unholy mess that is the Labour Party rulebook, this made her ineligible to stand as a candidate for the NEC. The rules were on Murphy’s side — it was only a fortunate intervention by the NEC that allowed Wolfson’s campaign to get back on track.

This particular incident offers another lesson. Yes, Murphy had every right to do what he did in speaking to his home CLP and persuading them not to nominate Wolfson. Yet it left a bad taste in the mouth. A very bad taste. Conducting political campaigns from the bunker will often be squalid and shameful. It will be no use pleading for comradliness to prevail once the votes are counted and the motions — no matter how trivial — are passed. Moderates are already hated. They will be hated even more for persisting now when they are at their lowest ebb.

No matter. The hard left survived two decades or more of moderates’ unadulterated ire. They are just starting to repay the debt. If moderates can survive the next nineteen or so years of relentless abuse, they may live to reap the rewards.

And so we come to the most important lesson from the bunker — patience. The hard left never gave up. They quarreled and split and reformed but they never quit. Jon Lansman mischievously alludes to his own dogged persistence on Twitter. His bio reads: “After decades in the Wilderness, heading for the Promised Land’.

Moderates are now the ones roaming the desert, and there is no worthy preacher out there to lead them to salvation (sorry, Owen). That doesn’t mean, though, that they should just lay down and die.

There will be splits within the moderate faction to come. There will be disputes on the best way forward. I fully expect the soft left to divide upon Corbyn’s victory into ‘collaborators’ and ‘combatants’. I also expect some members of the Labour right to defect. However, as long as there remains a moderate presence in Labour, however dysfunctional, there is hope for future salvation.

So courage, comrades. Moderates can turn the lessons of the hard left against them, and rise from the bunker to reclaim the party. One day.

Louie Woodall

Written by

Financial journalist | Freelance graphic designer | Englishman in New York

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