Find each other and act!
Twelve principles for a neo-Bevanite left
Corbyn has won with 62% – and today much of the focus will be on: what does he do next?
I’m posting this from the conference hall floor where there’s almost a visible generational change: people in suits from the Blairite era alongside people with wild coloured hair and nose rings definitely not from the Blairite era.
He clearly has to compromise enough to bring a majority of Labour MPs into a joint project to fight the Tories, mitigate Brexit and prepare for a possible snap election. But today gave him a massive mandate to reshape the party.
So here I want to answer a different question: what should we do next? The people who’ve collaborated to support Corbyn?
The most basic answer is: find each other and act.
Here’s twelve bullet points I am using to orientate myself during the next phase of Labour politics. You are welcome to use them, attack them, or pick and mix. You’ll understand why I’ve called it neo-Bevanism when you get to point 12 — but in general I am inspired by Nye’s lifelong determination to combine what he learned as a syndicalist with radical Labour politics and parliamentary democracy, which he described as “a sword pointed at the heart of property-power”.
I think a modern Bevanism would build on the strengths of networked activism, community organising and the “organising” strategy adopted by unions here and in America. And it would ask how we translate the new methods into an movement that can deliver a radical left government in Westminster. Here’s my answer…
1. Understand what’s really happening. The revolt against Corbyn was a class line drawn through the Labour Party, just as in the miners’ strike. Ranged against us are all the people listed as donors to Progress, Saving Labour and Labour Tomorrow: the hedge funds, supermarket bosses and City types who thought the Labour Party was going to be a vehicle for a compassionate form of neoliberalism. What they’re facing is the permanent loss of the Labour Party as an institution supporting the economic system of the past 30 years. That’s why they’re fighting so hard to undermine us.
2. Exercise free speech. The purge by Labour HQ is designed to reduce Corbyn’s majority and remove as many conference delegates as possible who will support him. The new rules imposed by the NEC on social media use mean freedom of political speech for Labour members online is effectively curtailed. The great British plebiean tradition of ribald humour, naming traitors and ridiculing the powerful is — to all intents and purposes — banned. Therefore, until the membership are able to properly control the bureaucracy, you have to operate like a democrat in Erdogan’s Turkey. Be subtle. Facts alone can be arguments. So can images. If you want to share information with friends, link to it in a neutral way. It won’t last forever.
3. Form affinity groups. One happy byproduct of Labour HQ shutting down the entire party’s internal life is that people had to organise things for themselves, informally. But the Jeremy for Leader Campaign will wind down now. So at the most basic level you have to decide where the focus of your activism is going to be, and create loose, overlapping networks to make things happen. There’s a great quote from the French autonomists that explains this:
“The pioneers of the workers’ movement were able to find each other in the workshop, then in the factory. They had the strike to show their numbers and unmask the scabs. … We have the whole of social space in which to find each other.”
4. Emulate social movements. Labour cannot “become” a social movement: it has to fulfil the organisational functions of a party; it has a “brand” that the right wing media stands ready to tarnish should just one official body take an unorthodox action. But we can build, within and alongside these rigid structures, more fluid networks, temporary swarms, cascades, waves of activism. There is a whole repertoire of principles, tactics and theories in the handbook Beautiful Trouble, which came out of the Occupy movement.
Frances Fox Piven, the veteran US theorist of social movements, sums up what they do. Social movements cause:
“commotion among bureaucrats, excitement in the media, dismay among influential segments of the community, and strain for political leaders.”
We need to start by recognising Labour operates now in a sea of such social movements. There are some things a movement does better than a party — even a party committed to community and workplace organising.
I am trying to produce a social movement “toolkit” focused for Labour activists. I’ve been questioning activists and I’ll release the questionnaire later if you want to help. Watch this space. But the main principles are:
- Resist in a way that forces those in power into a “decision dilemma”
- Think of every action in three parts: prepare, act, reflect
- Design actions either to communicate or to achieve concrete goals
- Act in a way that reframes the story; re-set the narrative — on poverty, inequality, war, grammar schools and privatisation
- Be peaceful, funny and human
5. Link to the wider progressive movement. Labour is a century-old party, with a rigid hierarchy, in a world that’s become fluid, and full of autonomous movements — both political and cultural. The Green Party has grown by tapping into the values of people mobilised through local and national activism to save the planet. Scotland is living through a radial cultural renaissance linked to nationalism. Some people who voted for Brexit did so thinking they were part of a plebiean resistance to global capitalism. At the core of the surviving Libdem vote are people who value peace and liberty as much as redistribution, and watched horrified in the Blair/Brown years. Then there are the social movements of oppressed groups: Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut, the LGBT groups who fought for PrEP on the NHS.
Not all of these social movements and cultural resistance acts agree with each other, and some will be hostile to Labour as a party. So we need to reach out beyond the party boundaries and join hands with everybody fighting for social justice.
Sadly that’s exactly what the purge is designed to stop: over and above weeding out Corbyn supporters, its purpose is to inculcate the party sectarianism that Labour’s “hard man” culture thrives on. Ignore the hard men and form cross-party alliances of those fighting for social justice at local level, wherever possible.
6. Learn new ideas. Or teach people. With half a million members and rising Labour is the biggest left party in Europe. We need to educate and train ourselves, and each other, in three directions:
- The history of resistance, including a critical history of Labour as an alliance of social movements and trade unions
- How change happens. Here’s a clue: not ususally in parliament alone. How technology, social change, mass movements, new laws and regulations, big legal cases and changes in the ownership of communications combine to force progressive change
- What’s wrong with the economic system and how it’s killing the planet. Hours of airtime and yards of newsprint are produced every day to justify the way the neoliberal economy works. We mean to replace it — with a more humane and greener form of capitalism at first; and — gradually — to expand the islands of non-capitalism until they coalesce into something better.
We can do this through book clubs, documentary film nights, seminars, formal education programmes in unions and local parties. Don’t wait — just do it.
7. Adopt a new election strategy. Labour is strong now among the salariat, the multi-ethnic populations of big cities and the networked youth. That’s no tragedy because that’s the way globalisation is shaping humanity and the future workforce. But globalisation has left behind many of the small-town, ex industrial communities that were Labour’s heartlands. Tony Blair’s generation took them for granted; the elite despise their culture. So we have a multiple challenge: to win back the best part of a million Green voters for whom Labour was not radical enough; but also that part of the UKIP vote that shares our values on nationalisation, social cohesion and a responsible, fair immigration system. Plus of course a lot of people who voted Tory, or SNP or Plaid.
The only glue that can stick this new coalition together is economic radicalism.
The only way of building that coalition into an election winning force is to form a mass, active social movement in every community in Britain.
It has to deliver real change in advance of elections and legislation, and bring a Labour political presence into every pub, workplace, cafe, college and high street. But it has to remain a coalition: there is no monolithic Labour culture any more; we have to tolerate and celebrate fairly wide cultural differences and make space for multiple cultures inside the movement.
8. It’s their media but it’s our voice. Yes the mainstream media is against us, but the broadcasters have rules we can enforce on them and the newspapers have advertisers and need to sell papers. Already, executives at papers like the Mirror and Sun, and networks like the BBC, are feeling a back-blast from their audience for the bias and vitriol they’ve displayed against Corbyn. And at the same time, numerous alternative media outlets have appeared that we need to nurture. Practically we should:
- Populate the media. The letters pages, radio phone in programmes, audience Q&As, vox pops — they are all spaces Labour’s radical voice needs to be heard. It takes time and effort but it can work. The 99% meme in America spread from social media to the mainstream because enough people talked about it and it was true
- Create waves through social media. The newspapers and TV are important because they maintain a monopoly of distribution. The internet breaks that monopoly. Social media, no matter how heavily policed and distorted by algorithms, is an important tool in our fight for social justice. It can bring to the palm of everybody (i) truth (ii) undistorted arguments (iii) periodic calls to do something.
- We need our own media. The experience of the leadership campaign shows that even the progressive media and the regulated TV stations will never willingly tell the story right. We need to think big: key moments of the Labour upsurge were boosted by the movement having its own media — and our allies on the radical left in Southern Europe operate TV and radio outlets. The point is not to make propaganda. It is to report the news fairly, in a way the mainstream media will not do. In the short term we need a way of aggregating the content produced by small alternative media; professionalising whast they do; and introducing union rates of pay and NUJ standards to all their journalism.
9. We need new MPs, of a different type. Cameron got rid of the “nasty” old guard within the Tories by promoting women, gay people and people from ethnic minorities who shared his values.
We need an A-list of at least 100 people who are prepared to be selected as MPs.
Their views should reflect the radicalism of the expanded membership, and they should possess passion, competence and a commitment to social justice.
They don’t have to be Corbyn supporters: we have to help the right and centre of Labour to renew itself as well as the left. As the democratic process inside Labour unfolds, a few arch-Blairites may move to the Libdems: since we’ll have to make a progressive alliance with them against the Tories, let’s keep our relations with them friendly — and acknowledge some of the achievements of Blairism. Others simply want to stay in the party and sabotage it, on behalf of the warmongers, privatisers and hedge-fund types. Local parties who can’t live with this level of sabotage have the right to deselect such MPs in the trigger ballot process and should do so if they wish.
Nobody should be de-selected for policy disagreements, or following their conscience. We need to keep Labour as a broad alliance of left, right and centre in social democracy.
10. Turn Brexit into a battle for social justice. We cannot overturn the referendum result. We can draw red lines of social and environmental justice that — if crossed — would allow Labour to veto any Brexit proposal in parliament. We should stop pussyfooting around the issue of the Single Market: Britian should apply to remain a member of the EEA, and to retain a modified version of free movement designed to reduce inward migration from the EU (with aggressive labour market reform to eradicate cheap labour workplaces). This may not work, but it’s a clear negotiating strategy. And if the Brexit offer coming from the EU27 is terrible — because Johnson, May and co. go into this process weak — Parliament has the right to say: the deal on offer is no good, so we will remain inside the EU and fight for its reform. In the process, over the next two years, we can put Labour at the centre of a Progressive Alliance — which should aim to include the Lib Dems, the progressive nationalists and the Greens, to impose social justice from below onto the Brexit negotiations, and to prevent a Tory majority in any future election.
11. Goodbye Lenin. Bolshevism doesn’t work. All forms of hierarchy are being transformed by networks. The strange thing is that, long after the far left ceased to believe in command planning and state overthrow, they’ve stuck to the old organisational form of democratic centralism. On top of this, in an era rich with information (and surveillance), the “entry tactic” is an insult to people’s intelligence. The far left’s ideas can find a place within the Labour Party but they need to genuinely and permanently dissolve their organisations.
The most exciting left organisation to be in now is Labour.
The most revolutionary thing we can do in the era of fragmenting neoliberalism is put a truly radical social-democracy in power.
12. Be Bevanite on defence. Trident will be renewed — so we should put it on the table in an active multilateral disarmament programme; in the meantime we should be prepared to unilaterally move back from continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) — or conversely to ramp up both Britain’s nuclear and conventional deterrents, depending on global conditions. I accept unilateral nuclear disarmament is also a viable and logical policy, and has supporters way beyond Labour, but I do not support it.
Whatever your principles, I urge you to understand practically what Syriza in Greece understood: if you are going to make serious inroads into the wealth and power of the elite, don’t try simultaneously to disrupt its military hierarchy and geopolitical stance. Even if Labour were to adopt unilateral nuclear disarmament as a policy, it’s should pledge a referendum before implementation.
When it comes to conventional security, there are serious threats facing the UK, both from Islamist terrorism and from an autocratic regime in Russia that is playing a destabilisation game in Ukraine, Syria and East Europe. Labour should have a distinct, ethical foreign policy; it should ban arms sales to despots like Saudi Arabia; it should never again blindly support Israel’s wars against the Palestinians. It should disavow Cameron’s policy of a military with “global reach” in favour of one that defends us against terrorism and takes responsibility of stabilising Europe’s borders with Russia.
But Labour should uphold the “military covenant”, remain in Nato, meet the 2% of GDP spending commitment; and remain a P5 power at the UN. Our national security strategy has to be serious, coherent and command a broad consensus across society.
I know this final point will annoy some people who fought for Corbyn, but I’ve supported him on this basis: priority number one is a government that breaks with neoliberalism.
If we do this right, we are one election away from that.
The above obviously raises the question: what should become of Momentum. I would prefer it to register as an Labour affiliated society, exclude members of left groups and parties that stand against Labour - and concentrate on a) policy b) extending left influence on party structures c) be ready to resist more coups and purges. It should avoid becoming a parallel hierarchy as far as possible – transforming Labour organisations so that they, not Momentum, become vibrant and democratic. This will take time though.