Resisting triangulation and putting fire in the belly
It’s a tale as old as time. Ed Miliband even joked about it back in 2011 after his nose operation to correct a deviated septum — referring to the realignment of his nose he knowingly joked “Typical Labour leader… he gets elected and everything moves to the centre.”
The history of the Labour left is dogged by triangulation and compromise — moving to the centre to chase votes. Corbyn’s election promised a new dawn of principled politics, a chance to start again, for the withered a marginalised Labour left to forge a new path and a new identity.
Yet the same problems occur. The recent comments on immigration by Clive Lewis MP are a symptom. The rhetoric coming from John McDonnell, a man who described himself as a socialist only months ago but now gives speeches about his fiscal credibility rule (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35780703) which revamps some of the argument from Ed Miliband’s “triple lock” pledge of 2015 (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/ed-miliband-promises-no-extra-5508798)
Labour let the Snoopers Charter pass through parliament and when it came to a vote about whether Blair mislead parliament over the case to go to war with Iraq (answer: yes he did) Labour MPs had a free vote which most of them used to let Blair off the hook. You have to pick your battles in politics but this is getting ridiculous.
The point of this provisional balance sheet isn’t to sow doom into people’s hearts. Parliamentary politics is a horrendous exercise in soul destroying compromise, it is a process by which even the most fire brand of socialists are taught to “bend the knee to power”. There are a number of reasons why left wingers move right in parliament, from ‘institutionalisation’ to the ‘aristocratic embrace’ to the sheer pressure of the media and the other MPs to give ground on issues in order to win elsewhere to the fear of losing their seats through being seen as making unpopular choices.
The point isn’t to despair whenever it happens — but it is to consider what can be done to bolster the left’s position. How can a left movement put pressure on its MPs to help slow down the process of triangulation or to stiffen their resolve?
Two key ingredients are necessary. The first as Michael Foot explained in the 1970s “No left MP can be effective if there is no mass opposition outside parliament.” That is the crux of the issue at this stage. Without protests, strikes, direct action and mass campaigns, the left MPs are just stuck in parliament surrounded by industrial lobbyists, Tories and Labour MPs who carry a small portrait of Neil Kinnock around in their wallets. Left MPs are at their best when they are in parliament advocating on behalf of the people who are mobilised outside, it puts fire in their bellies. Not just the concerns for the poor and the marginalised, which is a passive relationship, but if they can act as tribunes of the people in parliament who are themselves fighting for their rights and to improve their situations.
Putting fire in the belly is crucial — we need more anger. For God-sake people are dying because of the benefits regime, people are going hungry and using food banks, child poverty is through the roof and the housing crisis is getting worse. Things are miserable — let’s see some of that popular anger against the elites that the right are tapping into used by the left. Down with the callous 1% and their monstrous regime! (Hopefully someone can work on that and make it a more catchy slogan.)
The other key element is politics. That might sound obvious but the left needs to be clear what its policies are and what it is campaigning on. For instance, are we fighting to defend freedom of movement in the Brexit negotiations? Are we campaigning to increase Corporation Tax to 28% (as it was under Brown)? Are we prioritising bringing in a Trade Union Bill of rights, not just scrapping the current obnoxious Trade Union Act?
All of those policies require an understanding of what the priorities are and a commitment to arguing them out in Labour, the trade unions, co-ops and certainly with our MPs. Without clear politics the Labour left is just flapping in the wind, unable to play any serious role.
And this brings us to Momentum. With 20,000 members it is a drop in the ocean of the 600,000 members of Labour. But it is still a large force that could be used to both build social movements and to put the necessary pressure on the parliamentarians to ensure they don’t triangulate Labour out of existence. All of that requires internal democracy and policies that help define what kind of campaigns Momentum is running.
No doubt most people will review the first year of Momentum’s existence with some concerns, no matter what side of the current debate you are on. Apart from the excellent phone banking around the NEC elections and the Labour leadership contest, Momentum hasn’t done much. The NHS campaign has taken months to launch and even then it has no drive or energy behind it, even though it is clearly an issue that Labour could win big on. The coming conference in February is a chance to give Momentum a new lease of life and position it to help boost some of the exciting ideas that galvanised so much support for Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
The left can resist the inevitable triangulation and institutionalisation but it will have to act quickly. Time is not on our side.