The Gorton by election and the selection of a Labour candidate to fight it has been one scarred by controversy and infighting. The ultimate selection of Afzal Khan, a local politician from the centre of the Labour Party, with the left voting three different ways with bitter disputes breaking out as to the tactics used to select certain candidates along the way. The role of Momentum here has been almost entirely negative in terms of securing a left candidate. Not only were the methods of the national organisation entirely bureaucratic but they were totally ineffective. What happened in Gorton represents the failure of Momentums methods and reveals them as being wholly inadequate for the political situation facing our class. For Socialists in Manchester Labour changing the party presents a unique challenge. Labour dominates every aspect of Manchester’s political life. Labour hold 95 of the 96 council seats, every single MP in the city of Manchester is Labour and the trade union movement is still a highly significant force within the city and the region. What this does present though is a situation where the Labour right and centre have powerful operations in the area and whilst there have been may new members sign up as part of the Corbyn wave the numbers who have been brought into political activity are still far too few. Gorton itself is a place where radical Socialists in Labour should be stronger than we are. It is a seat featuring large working class communities, many of which suffer from extreme poverty. The child poverty rate in the constituency stands at a disgraceful 37%. There are large Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi populations and a large student area. It is also stark example of the failings of the Labour right leaders of Manchester city council in that the “regeneration” carried out in the city has not seen the Gorton area benefit, remaining an area scarred by widespread poverty, poor housing and lack of access to vital public services. All challenges which a Corbyn supporting candidate should be able to mobilise around. This turned out to not be the case and in the end Gorton shows yet again the failure of the Corbyn supporting left to come to terms with the challenges of changing the party.
Following the passing away of Gerald Kaufman there quickly emerged several candidates who could make claim to be the left-wing choice. Rabnawaz Akbar, a councillor in the Rusholme area and supporter of the local Momentum BAME caucus who has spoken at events supporting Corbyn including the Manchester victory rally in September 2016, Julie Reid a councillor from Levenshulme who addressed the 3000 strong pro Corbyn rally during the coup last year and finally Sam Wheeler a member of the executive of the senior civil servants union the First Division association and very much Momentum insider. The decision was quickly made by the Momentum national coordinating group that Wheeler was their candidate of choice. This was readily accepted by the local Momentum committee who swung behind Wheelers candidacy. At no point in this was there ever any attempt to involve the Momentum membership locally, no attempt was made to seek member endorsement for Wheelers candidacy it was presented as a fait-acompli. The leaders had made a decision now it was down to the members to get behind it, no questions asked. This attempt ran aground as the Labour right outmanoeuvred the pro-Corbyn group on the NEC, made sure Rebecca Long-Bailey was excluded from the selection panel and kept Wheeler off the shortlist. The Momentum leaders then decided, again with zero consultation, that the candidate was now to be local Councillor Yasmine Dar. Yet again though, there was zero membership involvement with this at all merely an instruction given out that now they had to back Yasmine Dar as she was the official “left candidate”. The result of all this was the alienation of a whole layer of Socialists within the CLP and more widely within the Labour Party in Manchester. The result of the selection meeting in the end were close. Afzal Khan came out on top, having received a lot of CLP members second preference votes and being the candidate who was the most politically acceptable to many of the tendencies in the party.
The failure to get a left candidate selected here reveals two fundamental problems for Socialists within Labour about the way forward. The dominant approach within Momentum now is to have their chosen candidate selected by the leadership, a decision far removed from the local membership. This mirrors how the Labour Right have organised candidate selection with the party itself. Such an approach is utterly self-defeating and totally wrong headed as it is trying to apply the methods of the right to the struggle to build a more left wing party. This approach used by the Momentum leaders springs out of the union bureaucracy, specifically the Unite leadership. Since the Miliband period the Unite leadership have been attempting to get more “left” candidates selected using the same method. Such methods could, in theory, be defended when the Labour Party had far fewer members and even less active ones. Now though, with 500.000 members and the urgent need to dismantle the power of the Labour right and party bureaucracy, attempting to win more MP’s via the methods of bureaucratic fiat fails to understand the moment we are in. What those who now run Momentum and their allies in the union bureaucracy are seeking is not a Socialist Labour Party and certainly not a more democratic one. What Lansman and his allies want is a party that is no more democratic than it is now, that is slightly further to the left than the Miliband era, where the Blairites are side-lined and a new arrangement has been reached with the right of the party that the union leaders are back in a commanding position again having been side-lined and spurned during the Blair-Brown era. What they seek is a reborn Social Democracy with no space within it for anything more radical or democratic. The approach in Gorton typified this and it is an approach which will not deliver the victory it’s proponents claim to want. The moment in history we are in is one where, to quote Antonio Gramsci “the old is dying and the new struggles to be born”. The period of neo liberal capitalism has reached its death throes, the working class of Britain and internationally seeks a way out and we see sudden swings behind different political organisations on the left, centre and right as a result. The Corbyn movement represents part of this and in order to turn that enthusiasm into tangible gains for Socialism a serious movement is required to mobilise as many of those members as possible into the Labour Party. Not only was this necessary to support the leadership of Corbyn but also to ensure that the unfortunate tendency of the leadership towards capitulation to the right shown by McDonnell and others is kept in check. As John Lansman himself has said though, he never had any interest in a movement that would pressure Corbyn from the left.
The failure in Gorton shows that Socialists in Labour must adopt new tactics and move away from the bureaucratic politics displayed by Momentum during this campaign. Getting left candidates selected at council and parliamentary level is a priority but that means little without the organisation within the wards and CLP’s to back this up. Strong, democratically powerful local Labour Parties will be the foundation upon which a truly strong Socialist movement within the party will be built. It is to this task we must turn now. We must turn our local Labour Parties into campaigning organisations oriented around the concerns of working class communities by making them part of the political life of those communities in a way they haven’t been for decades. Only by doing this will we be able to undo the damage done to the party’s reputation done by the new labour years. Those who seek to bureaucratically restore a social democracy which ultimately failed the first time around will find that history has left them behind and their route to power will be shown for the sad nostalgia fest it really is. Only by rebuilding the political confidence of the working class and channelling that into the Labour movement will we see real progress. It is worth bearing in mind that the most successful ever Labour government came at a time when the politicisation of the working class was at its absolute high point in 1945–1951. Those of us who believe in this vision must now be prepared to struggle for it without any assistance from those who run Momentum as they have made it clear that the thin gruel of social democracy is all they seek. We Socialists must hold our heads high, do the difficult work of organising on the ground that the Momentum-crats have no interest in and be prepared to always be the ones leading the fight against the Tories. Our way will be more challenging but ultimately is the only way of securing the socialist change that the Labour Party urgently needs to lead.