Labour: The Way Ahead
In the war movie The Way Ahead, David Niven is in charge of a platoon of working class conscripts, who skive their way through basic training. In their first real battle they’re forced to launch an attack on the elite Afrika Korps. As they go over the top Niven quips: “This is for the day on the training ground we missed”.
For the Labour left, the last five weeks have seen the same kind of payback. Last year’s victory was too easy: it felt like a bloodless revolution. But they’re never bloodless.
Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015 almost by accident. He wasted months trying to operate a “collegiate” shadow cabinet, half of whom turned out to be leaking and sabotaging everything he did, and preparing to overthrow him. The movement that brought him to power got shunted off into local ward meetings, got bored and demobilised. His own leadership operation was, at times, shambolic.
But the revolt of 170 Labour MPs following the Brexit referendum has now forced the left, unwillingly, to wage the fight that was always coming. With Corbyn assured of a place on the ballot paper, winning again will still be a challenge — but not the main one.
The real challenge is to make this leadership campaign the springboard for winning a general election. That, in turn, demands we spell out an alternative political strategy to the one inherited from Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband.
To do this involves facing the following facts squarely:
- A hard-core of Labour coup plotters intend to destroy Labour as an effective opposition between now and 2020.
- Corbyn to become prime minister means Labour will have to win as an insurrection or not at all (For the sake of clarity, this is a metaphor not an actual call for armed insurrection).
- Labour has suddenly become a mass party. It can become, as Corbyn says, a social movement. But this would be something new in Labour politics and therefore difficult to achieve and hold together.
- The route to power also involves Labour itself becoming a more formal alliance and, in turn, being prepared to make political alliances across party lines.
Understanding the coup
Day after day, the tactics of the coup plotters have evolved. It began with veteran Blairites, quickly spilled over into a disorientated group of soft-left young MPs and was organised in the background by the Blairite apparatus. The sole aim was to remove Corbyn: lest we forget, Angela Eagle launched her doomed campaign with not a single policy.
Then a pattern of political coercion emerged: create a spurious victim narrative so that the Labour membership, whose democratic decision was being stolen from them, could be portrayed as a bunch of mysogynist thugs.
Then Corbyn’s enemies on the NEC suspended the entire local apparatus of the party and excluded 130,000 recent joiners from the vote. They used millionaire money to attempt to get a court to exclude Corbyn from the ballot. They used the Sun and to encourage non-Labour voters to join the party defeat Corbyn. They dragged Labour’s reputation through the mud of tabloid journalism with slanders, willingly repeated in the broadcast media.
Then — when the opinion polls plummeted — they threw the following logic into the faces of half a million-plus Labour members and registered supporters:
You can never win with Corbyn — because we can always sabotage the party as a front bench opposition, and because we will always have the press on our side, and because we can drip-feed negative stories to tank Labour in the polls from now until 2020.
When you survey the vehemence all this — above all Labour MPs’ jubilation when their own party falls in the opinion polls or loses a by-election — it should cross your mind to ask: what are they really afraid of?
What has got them existentially scared?
The answer is clear: that Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power.
Neoliberalism is in crisis
The reason a left Labour victory is possible is because neoliberalism is a busted system. It does not work; it threatens global stagnation; consent for it is eroded; its is generating acute geopolitical fragmentation and — at home-the fragmentation of two-party politics.
But Corbyn is the only mainstream politician who has openly rejected neoliberalism. For all IMF’s admission that neoliberalism is flawed; for all the frantic calls by mainstream thinkers like the FT’s Martin Wolf to “reform capitalism” — nobody close to power in Britain actually proposes to break with the economic model of the past 30 years except Corbyn and his shadow chancellor McDonnell.
They have been right on the futility and injustice of the welfare cap; right on the unachievability of Osborne’s fiscal targets; right on the need for massive infrastructure spending; right on the need for a German-style investment bank; right on the need to abandon austerity in the post-Brexit situation — and they will go on being right because Conservative economic policy is now in improvisation mode.
Even if, following the Bank of Japan’s false start this week, the global central banks mobilise one last round of monetary easing to stave off stagnation, the strategic problem remains: how to replace a model based on wage stagnation, credit growth and low productivity? And what to replace it with? In Britain, only Labour so far has even begun to answer that question.
Brexit creates a new situation
On top of this, Brexit will be a disaster. Theresa May’s reincarnation as a zombie Thatcher at her inaugural PMQs cannot hide the basic problem: by voting for Brexit without a plan, the UK has put itself at the mercy of its negotiating partners among the EU27.
They will force Britain to eat so much dirt to retain a trading relationship with the EU single market that a deal may be impossible. As uncertainty fuels an economic downturn there will be a clamour for answers — and May’s Conservatives do not have them.
Her administration contains too many ministers who — like Liam Fox — favour UKIP’s option of a clean break with the EU and the complete end of inward EU migration. And they will negotiate under acute pressure from UKIP.
The Conservative Party is supposed to represent the interests of the bourgeoisie — and the majority of the elite want maximum integration into the single market or, if possible, a reversal of Brexit.
Faced with any serious opposition May’s government will implode, just as the Cameron administration did after the 2016 Budget fiasco.
Meanwhile new divisions have opened up in British politics. Social media — like the pubs and clubs of UKIP-land — are awash with an angry racist populism. For many people caught up in it, this combination of racism, xenophobia and anti-globalism is the first political thing they ever did. They are flushed with the excitement of winning.
While it is a metropolitan fantasy to claim that the 52% of people who voted Brexit are xenophobes, a minority of them clearly are. This new, vocal and sometimes violent racist populism is real. As the Independent revealed this week, it’s led to an “explosion of hate”.
If Scotland now stages a second referendum, the instincts of this new right-wing English nationalism will veer between two destructive responses: either to say “good riddance” to Scotland or to try and veto its desire independence.
So this new situation creates new stakes in British politics and potentially new priorities in the minds of the progressive part of the electorate. It means all models based on an “electoral cycle” have to be suspended. Public opinion is likely to veer sharply, as the economic, constitutional and diplomatic crisis unfolds.
In turn this creates an opportunity for Labour to put itself — as the Libdems never have and never will — at the head of a progressive movement.
Its aims should be:
- to resist racism, nationalism and xenophobia;
- to retain the UK’s membership of the European Economic Area;
- and to protect workers’, consumers and environmental rights.
Though the idea of overturning the referendum in parliament should be a non-starter, there is strong support for the idea of a progressive alliance: an electoral pact or tacit arrangement whereby Labour, the Greens, Plaid and — if possible — the Libdems co-ordinate to prevent the Tories getting a majority in the next election.
Though Corbyn does not himself favour PR, and has been reticent on the progressive alliance idea, Clive Lewis, his shadow defence secretary, is prominent in grass-roots calls for a progressive alliance.
Once Labour’s leadership contest is settled, and if Labour remains a single party (see below) a vital part of Labour’s strategy in the next election has to be the attempt to create the anti-Tory alliance.
Labour approaches critical mass
Above all, victory is possible under Corbyn because Labour can become a social movement. Corbyn himself called for this at his leadership launch rally. The problem is that the Labour tradition has very little experience of social movements — especially the networked, anti-hierarchical forms of organisation associated with them since the late 1990s.
To call for Labour to become a social movement when it had 130,000 members and a bunch of moribund local committees would have sounded futile. With 600,000+ members, the majority pro-Corbyn and amid a summer of street rallies and overflowing mass meetings, it sounds highly possible.
The media, apart from repeating the jibe that the new members are mainly “Trotskyists” shows no interest in who they really are — but their mere existence is a new and central phenomenon in British politics.
Anecdotally, the prominent new activists are young, networked, mainly mobilised around the same kind of issues that spurred the social movements in Greece, Spain and Turkey in 2011–13. However, with the double influx of June/July 2016 it also looks like significant numbers are working class, often community activists or trade unionists — people whose voice has authority in their local milieu.
This is a massive difference to the 1981–83 period when a left-led Labour party struggled in the face of a press onslaught. In the early 1980s I was in the LPYS and we tried to expand our base beyond the committed activists by holding disco dances. The results were dire: if we got 50 sad looking twenty-somethings into a room we were happy, but they soon evaporated on contact with the robotic cadres of the Militant Tendency, wearing kipper ties. In any case, in the era of hierarchy all there was for them to do was pass resolutions, attend rallies, and work a Gestetner machine.
Today, by contrast, Corbyn’s Labour could fill the Albert Hall with a dance party, if it wanted to. On the night Corbyn won the NEC nomination battle, 1700 people paid £10 a head to see a pro-Corbyn comedy night organised at two weeks notice. In the past week, Labour attracted 500 people to a meeting in Oxford entitled “Industrial policy for the 21st century”. Corbyn filled York city centre with a spontaneous rally and brought 3,000 people onto the streets of Hull.
What this means is: in some cities, Labour are close to a tipping point in terms of social capital and presence in the communities that are vital to delivering a new kind of election victory. Above all, it is mobilising the two demographics turned off by normal politics: young people and working class people.
As with Syriza at its height; as with Podemos in some Spanish cities, as with the Bolivian MST before Evo Morales came to power; Labour is close to having an identifiable face in every milieu — in every pub conversation, every workplace, every college lecture, every group of mums with toddlers.
Once you grasp this, the underlying purpose of the vilification campaign against Corbyn is clear: it is designed to make it impossible to identify yourself as Labour.
As the inimitable @chunkymark — a pro-Corbyn taxi driver and artist — put it in an impromptu watercolour: “It’s not Jeremy Corbyn they’re afraid of, it’s you”.
However, it is a long way from using the words “social movement” to becoming one. And a long way from that to an election victory.
To counter the argument that a left-led Labour party is “unelectable” we need a convincing political strategy; an understanding of where the social movement idea fits into it; a narrative that fits the new situation and makes sense to millions of people; and an approach to official politics just as ruthless as the people trying to stop us.
A new political strategy
An entire generation of centre left politicians has grown up around the certainty that Labour can only win in “the centre”. You take your working class base for granted and reach out to the middle class wavering voter, especially in southern England, hoping the Sun and the Mail will go easy on you; you promise nothing particularly left wing and “cost” any minor reforms against the budget plans of the previous governments.
That was how Blair won, how Brown lost and how Ed Miliband lost. A political-economy explanation for why the strategy no longer works begins from two clear and simple facts:
a) neoliberalism worked for about 10 years and then stopped working;
b) by destroying organised labour, neoliberalism destroyed the labour movement’s cultural hold on ex-industrial communities, allowing the politics of racial/national identity to take over from class solidarity.
Blair, in short, won by losing the party millions of working class votes and tying it to an economic model that can no longer deliver prosperity to the majority of people. Brown and Miliband lost because they refused to recognise this, or come up with any strategy to move beyond it. Almost everybody opposed to Corbyn wants to continue with a version of that strategy.
A new strategy must be based on the realisation that Labour’s heartland is now in the big cities, among the salariat and among the globally oriented, educated part of the workforce.
Geographically that means not just the big cities; it includes the small universtity cities; plus the places where the defence, shipbuilding and aerospace industries have survived enough to maintain a core trade union identity; plus pockets of absolute resistance to the destruction of class identity.
This new core of the Labour project is not “the centre”. The populations of the cities are, if anything, radical with a small “r”. Cities are populated with the new, “networked individuals” that Manuel Castells describes at at the centre of radical, horizontal social movements. They are also populated with small, often socially-conscious, entrepreneurs and large numbers of people who work in a globalised corporate environment. And they are some of the most diverse and tolerant communities on earth.
Though nobody planned it, it is no disaster for Labour to find its core support among this demographic — because it is the future of the workforce in any successful 21st century capitalism.
On the right of British politics are: the elite, their fake-tan flunkies, minders and PR people, and a large suburban middle class which will vote Conservative or Libdem forever, unless a major crisis disturbs them.
The major demographic battleground in politics is the small-town working class. Having been abandoned by Blair, impoverished by the Cameron administration, some have gone to UKIP; some have remained steadfastly pro-Labour; in Scotland many have swung to the SNP. Though often lumped together as C2DEs in electoral sociology, for this group place is as important as income.
Insofar as the Brexit vote was a cry of despair by these communities, it took place in localities where the old heart has been ripped out by globalisation; where a new heart was not installed; and where rapid and recent EU migration took place (as opposed to the slower and long-term migration of people from the Commonwealth).
The added strategic problem Labour faces is Scotland, where its stance against independence ensured a near total wipe-out in the 2015 general election; where it is now just three points ahead of the Scottish Green Party; and where — despite a renewed surge of support for independence post-Brexit — there is little organic support for it inside Labour. [I will return to the Scottish element of a new strategy in a future post, because there are elements in flux that will only settle after Labour Conference.]
This problem of a new electoral strategy faces all potential leaders of the Labour Party. Yet Corbyn’s opponents have barely grappled with it. The soft left around Ed Miliband produced no account of their own failure in 2015. Miliband himself points to the low youth turnout; northern MPs report hostility to immigration; others point to the poor communication skills of Miliband himself; many doorstep campaigners reported the sudden realisation that a Labour/SNP coalition would be necessary as the reason for a late swing to the Tories in 2015.
Jeremy Gilbert — politics professor at East London University — situates Labour’s problem within the wider breakup of two-party politics, and the emergence of identity, which has driven both UKIP and the progressive nationalisms of Plaid and the SNP. One could add also the emergence of a “Green” identity strong enough to propel 1.1 million people into voting for a party which, outside two or three constituencies, had no chance of winning — but every chance of punishing Labour by splitting the progressive vote.
Given the fragmentation of Labour loyalties outlined above, there is only one logical course of action — and it is the one implicit in Corbyn’s politics.
It is to identify the urban salariat as the new political core and the impoverished small-town working class as the “battleground”, where winning is the key to electoral success. The thing that ties them together has to be a new, clear Labour identity.
The offer Labour needs to make is dictated by the strategy. To the multi-ethnic, globally focused urban demos, it is everything that expresses their values: racial, sexual and gender equality; reluctance to wage war; remaining within the Single market; devolving power; freedom of expression; internationalism; and policies that make living in the dense city more bearable.
To the beleaguered working class of the small towns it can only be: massive economic stimulus. Labour’s message has to be: we will flood your community with resources, jobs, training opportunities, transport links, nursery places and better schools. And even before we get into power we will bring decision-making power to your doorstep by putting you, the local electorate, in charge of the priorities we fight for.
The issues that are important across both groups are of course: equal rights, the defence of free healthcare, extended state provision of both childcare and elderly care — and a dramatic reduction of university fees.
On migration, while Labour must now countenance some variation, or temporary suspension of, free movement during the Brexit negotiations, it cannot and must not try to become — as it did under Blair and Brown — a party of anti-migration rhetoric. Instead it must be tough on the microeconomics allow the migrant-exploiting businesses that have suppressed wages at the bottom end of the scale.
These are only the bones of an electoral strategy, and the precise targeting of it at constituency level (and in Scotland) would need to take account of the following variables:
- how far are the boundaries redrawn to favour the Tories between now and 2020?
- what happens to the 12% who voted Ukip in 2015?
- can the Libdems ever come back from the defeat the Tories inflicted on them in their south-west English heartland?
- are there still Scottish MPs at Westminster?
If the UKIP voters swing back to the Tories, if the Libdem heartlands stay Tory, and if Scotland leaves the UK it will be hard for Labour — under any leader— to win power in England and Wales alone. But none of these things are certain.
Renewing the Parliamentary Labour Party
It’s clear that the MPs intent on sabotaging the party, to ensure Corbyn becomes unelectable, are not only — nor even mainly — the Blairites. The Blairite wing of the PLP has gone quiet, in order to prevent their backstairs influence on Smith becoming obvious. Some are in discussions with Vince Cable about the formation of a united centrist party.
The real problem is the hardcore “centre-left” group that has emerged during the leadership crisis. Their project, rather than leave, is to wage a non-compliance struggle that destroys the party in the polls, and its credibility in parliament, until the majority of members accept the MPs “right” to run Labour as a pro-austerity, pro-war, pro-market party.
Jeremy Gilbert is right about the origins of this. Even many MPs who profess not to be Blairites were recruited and schooled in the Blair tradition, in which the PLP’s role was to systematically flout the wishes of the working class base in favour of appeasing the mythical “centrist” voter. However, Gilbert writes:
“… it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of the current parliamentary party are just not personally, socially or intellectually suited to the task of representing even a moderately left-wing party or its key constituencies in the early 21st century.”
This is an overstatement. The vast majority of the PLP are persuadable to support a leadership that has the confidence of the members and looks like it has a strategy to win. If so, the task is to dissuade as many Labour MPs as possible from the sabotage strategy, or from a split, and to offer as many as possible new modus operandi.
The precondition is, after the leadership vote, a reimposition of party discipline. There is a simple question for MPs if Corbyn wins the leadership election on 24 September: “are you prepared to take the Labour whip with Corbyn as leader?”
Any MP who equivocates should have the whip withdrawn, and a replacement candidate should be chosen by their CLP as soon as possible. However this will only weed out a few kamikaze right wingers. The sabotage strategy involves taking the whip but refusing to co-operate.
To address this problem, Corbyn should offer Smith’s team places in the shadow cabinet in strict proportion to his vote among the membership. Corbyn should nominate the shadow chancellor, with Smith nominating either Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary, and then work down the ladder of seniority until Smith reaches the limit of his quota. It would be a clear concession, and a signal that Corbyn does not intend the contest as “winner takes all”. It would be a clear signal that Corbyn intends to lead Labour as a more formalised alliance of the left and centre left.
But the price for it should be confidence. If Corbyn wins on 24 September then, at the substantive and sovereign party conference that begins the next day, Labour MPs should be asked to register publicly their confidence in the new leader.
The party should also ask all MPs to sign a statement recognising that the leader elected on 24 September is the lawful leader of the legal entity known as “The Labour Party” and that he is legally entitled to run the two limited companies that own its assets (Labour Party Nominees Limited and Labour Party Properties Limited).
Those MPs who refuse to register their confidence in Corbyn, or to recognise his legal right to run The Labour Party, should be marked down for de-selection.
This can happen in the trigger ballots that come before a general election, or during boundary changes that begin next month, or under any mandatory reselection process that emerges from Labour conference.
The point of deselections is not to remake the PLP as a pro-Corbyn monolith, but to fill it with MPs from many different traditions and persuasions within Labour who are prepared to accept the results of a leadership election and stand with the membership in the event of a split.
After the conference Corbyn needs quickly to create a public “A-list” of potential candidates who will take the whip and vote confidence. It should represent all political persuasions in the party and heavily skewed to female, working class, gay and ethnic minority candidates. Momentum and the unions should endorse this as an official list whose candidates they will back at local CLP level. As with Cameron’s original A-list, nominees should be ready to enter public life now, in advance of their actual selection.
It is still possible, however, that those contemplating a sabotage strategy will attempt, instead, a cold split. Stage one is the formation of an “independent Labour” group in parliament. To be recognised as HM Opposition, that group would have to declare itself a party and register with the electoral commission — which would void the whole point of fighting for the leadership.
More likely then, if the coup-plotters sense abject defeat in the leadership election, some will try to use the pre-conference session of Parliament — 5–15 September — to signal the formation of a non-Corbyn Labour group. In this scenario they could allow the SNP to become HM Opposition, as a final act of demoralisation to try and force Corbyn out.
The logical response to either of these outcomes is neither preferred nor palatable — but it will be necessary: to expel the entire group from the party.
From social movement to Labour-led government
Nobody in the pro-Corbyn movement should underestimate the challenge of winning the next election. But it is worth considering what’s at stake if the Blairites are right.
If the UK’s middle class is so right wing, its press so racist and vituperative, its broadcasters so open to bias, its elite so wedded to neoliberalism, its electoral boundaries so gerrymandered that a left-led Labour Party cannot win…then the following negative conclusions could be drawn.
Either you commit to Blairism for all time, putting yourself to the right of the Libdems on many issues, and abandoning any idea that Labour can express interests counter to the financial elite. Or you embrace PR and accept minority status, allowing the Libdems to set limits — via permanent coalition — on the aspirations of Labour voters. Or you forget parliamentary politics and just do struggle from below.
The Corbyn movement is an expression of hope: that a left-led Labour party can form a government in defiance of these obstacles. But to make it happen we have to understand what the “social movement” really means, and how it could lead to election victory.
In an influential blog critical of Corbyn, Roehampton academic Matt Bolton, claims the social movement idea is at odds with the objective of winning elections.
“The one thing that extra-parliamentary activism doesn’t have to worry about, unlike parliamentary parties, is winning over swing voters in Nuneaton or Croydon. …[There is] no need to think about ways to tailor messages to deal with the particular concerns of particular groups of voters in particular areas.”
If the social movement was, as Bolton describes it, simply an “extra-parliamentary activist” movement “marching from A to B”, that criticism might be valid. But the successful social movement-based parties, above all Podemos in Spain, operate very differently.
Social movements, in an era of networked communications and fragmentary identities, are a means for achieving change, not just protest. By devolving decision making, setting local goals and forming themselves around existing identities they are the opposite of the hierarchical political party.
Nevertheless, what they create is a new kind of leadership and a composite new identity: they allow people to discover their own ability to create change — and to survive in the situation where, either locally or nationally, the right is in power.
When we say Labour has to become a social movement, it is precisely because 600,000 people cannot be gainfully employed going to ward meetings several hundreds strong, nor properly represented in a CLP delegate structure designed to put 50 people into a room once per month.
To the extent that these old structures remain, the activism will need to happen often beyond them. It could involve Labour members getting involved in campaigns and occupations to save local libraries; or in support of strikes like those of the junior doctors; or to impose — as parent governors — a progressive curriculum on a local school; or to force the renationalisation of a failing rail franchise like Southern.
Alongside this, if Labour can reach a critical mass of active members, it becomes possible to begin organising networks inside workforces that unions do not readily reach. For example, the huge precariat of the creative industries; or the precariat of the coffee bars (the two precariats overlap); or the three million EU nationals currently employed in the workforce, who did not get a vote in the Brexit referendum but who can vote in local council elections, and who can — if they’ve lived in the UK 12 months — become Labour members.
The point about a social movement is that it moves via waves and swarms. It disrupts the workings of official politics and creates new — often temporary — forms of representation. It can feel fragmented — but at a given moment, it can concentrate the efforts of everybody around one thing, be it an election, or an iconic protest, or a big, memetic idea.
But the critical point about a social movement is: it creates its own story.
In a process the exact opposite of that the elite uses to “manufacture consent” it — to continue the metaphor — handcrafts discontent.
Pablo Iglesias, the figurehead of Podemos, explains two crucial features of the transformation of the 15 May 2011 indignados movement into a party. First, “to generate a popular identity that can be politicised along electoral lines”; second to avoid the ideological framing created by the elite.
Podemos studiously avoided becoming pigeonholed as a new version of the Spanish communist left. It refused to campaign around the left’s various badge-of-honour issues: the monarchy, the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, or prison policy. It campaigned instead around evictions, inequality and corruption. (Pablo Iglesias, Understanding Podemos, NLR 93, May-June 2015)
It also launched an iconic TV programme, and tried to populate the mainstream chat shows, so that a clear popular message could be heard everywhere there was a TV set (which in Spain is everywhere)
By demonstrating the truth of their arguments, and the falsehood behind those of the mainstream parties, both Syriza and Podemos were able to build their parliamentary positions while facing a press qualitatively more hostile than that of the UK media, and states designed to keep the left out of power.
Despite what Galbraith writes about the majority of the PLP, the only thing that matters is how many of them can learn: to co-exist with Corbynism, to accept the changes that come as the party evolves into a social movement, to take their place within the social movement, and to articulate a specific centre-left agenda within the overall electoral strategy outlined.
I continue to believe this is possible because — despite the destructive factionalism of the coup plotters — they would identify with most of the story Labour needs to tell in the new political circumstances.
Telling the right story
Matt Bolton cites Nuneaton and Croydon as the places a a social movement would be useless because, unlike an traditional electoral party, it is incapable of “tailoring arguments” to specific places.
Let’s take these two marginal seats — Nuneaton, which the Tories won in 2015 with a 4% swing, and and Croydon Central (I am assuming Bolton means this because the other two Croydon seats are solid Labour and Tory respectively).
In Croydon Central the demographics are in Labour’s favour. If just 166 of those who voted Green (or 39 Greeens plus the 127 people who voted for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) had voted Labour, the constituency would be Labour, not Tory. The town — across its three constituenceies — voted solidly to Remain in the EU in June.
However what could cement a victory in Croydon Central in the next election would be the promise to nationalise the Southern railway franchise, penalise the owners who have run the railway chaotically, and prioritise the interests of commuters over profiteers. That, plus the promise to build thousands of homes for affordable social rents, in a commuter hub where both rents and house prices are soaring. And the fight to remain economically connected to the European single market.
Paradoxically, it would hardly need a social movement to achieve this — such is the level of discontent over the railway issue; but both Labour and its affiliated transport unions have been campaiging hard over the issue since the chaos started.
Nuneaton, however, is a different story. As the flagship marginal of the 2015 election, the constituency’s demographics and local issues have been pored over by political scientists — but no single theory emerges.
However the voting results are striking: the constituency tells the whole story of political fragmentation.
Labour won Nuneaton back from the Tories in 1992 and lost it in 2010. In that 2010 poll, the racist right was represented by the BNP, not UKIP, and they got 6%. In 2010 the Libdem vote was up and Labour’s down. But the biggest switch in 2010 looks to be straight from Labour to the Conservatives. It was Gordon Brown, then, who handed this working class constituency to the Tories in 2010, not the left. Blairism had chipped away Labour’s support here, election after election.
In the 2015 election the “centre” in Nuneaton collapsed: the Libdems suffered a 13% swing against them, falling from thousands of votes to hundreds. The Tories added 4%. Labour lost 2%, ruining any chance of taking the seat. But the big change was UKIP: now on 14.4% — (compared to the BNP’s 6% in 2010). As a result the right (Tories + UKIP) have 27,000 votes out of 45,000. Labour, the Greens and Libdems together have about 18,000.
So the story of Nuneaton does not look like one where propaganda “tailored to local differences” will matter. The 2015 candidate was young but fought a textbook Milband-era doorstep campaign. My hunch, having reported from Nuneaton several times, is that UKIP doubled its vote by taking Labour and some Tory voters, plus all the existing BNP-ers; some Labour voters switched to the Tories, believing the Tory message of economic stability and being unimpressed with Miliband. And the Libdems probably split between the Greens and the Tories.
If we apply Blairite electoral logic to Nuneaton, the “centre” is not the Libdems with their 800 votes, but the Greens with 1500. Using Blairite logic, Labour in Nuneaton should appeal to the Labour-Tory switchers and the Greens. But on what issue?
From anecdotal and press reports, many Labour-Tory switchers are likely to have gone because of the threat of a Labour/SNP coalition — the subject of a media propaganda campaign in the media before May 2015. The Greens are likely to have gone because they hated Labour’s illiberalism, its commitment to nuclear weapons, and its ambivalence on fracking.
It is clear from the figures that the “centre” is only one battleground in a place like Nuneaton — and a fragmented one at that. Ane equally important battleground is the old industrial working class, at present prepared to vote in large numbers for UKIP.
You only need 5,000 votes to bring Nuneaton back to Labour — and you could try and piece them together from the Greens and Tories. But here is why fighting UKIP matters: the UKIP vote is new and unstable. It could consolidate, or switch to the Tories, or (some of it) back to Labour. If UKIP’s 14% of voters switch to the Tories, then not even a “progressive alliance” of all other parties could take Nuneaton.
There are only two ways of winning the working class UKIP voters back. One is to pander to their xenophobia, and start pledging to limit migration.
The other is to offer them hope — not in long term and intangible hope, based on left wing policies alone, but by creating a local movement now around the problems that beset their lives.
And it is here that Labour’s need to become a social movement kicks in. From local sources it’s fairly clear Labour has been executing a classic “doorstep” strategy in Nuneaton: leafleting, canvassing, putting the arguments at election time. Why is it ineffective? Because it is up against a right-wing populist social movement.
UKIP has gained an ideological foothold. The “common-sense” view that “migrants are responsible” for low pay, that there are “too many”, that Labour will allow the breakup of the UK, etc — is what you’re up against when you try the “Labour doorstep” approach. That happened in two stages — with the BNP doing the heavy lifting in the old miners’ clubs in the late 2000s, then UKIP consolidating.
What Labour needs is the confidence, the techniques and the people to go out and erode this ideology, face to face, pub by pub, ward by ward and issue by issue. It needs a media strategy fitted to this task. Social media along won’t work: you need the new media vehicles like the ones Syriza and Podemos employed, at both local and national levels. [This is difficult because of the Ofcom rules, but not impossible. I will return to how this might work in a future post].
In a place like Nuneaton, everything Labour does has to tell a story — not just about policies but about identity. In what’s left of working class culture there is a progressive core and Labour has to “own” it; and mould the Labour story to it. It has to — as Podemos did — frame the discussion beyond left and right. Towards concrete things: secure jobs, decent wages, affordable rents — and radical reductions in the cost of university education and childcare.
We need, amid this summer of street enthusiasm for Corbyn and in defiance of the media’s hate campaign, to create a distinct, new radical Labour identity.
The sheer diversity of the movement’s component parts means the identity can only include values common to all: fairness, equal rights, anti-racism, a commitment to publicly owned services, to workers rights, to a Green New Deal, to taxing the rich to pay for services — and rejection of the corruption surrounding elite politics.
If that core identity is strong enough, it can subsume the cultural and political differences that have developed between the city salariat and the small-town working class. That means unilateralism can’t be core to the identity; and nor can “open borders”. You have to be able to exist within the social movement even if you support nuclear deterrent, and you want some restrictions on free movement post Brexit.
With a strong political identity of your own, and belief, and solidarity you can do in a working class community what generations of trade unionists had to do: stand up to the scabs and racists, isolate them, shame them, explain left politics and anti-racism in the language of the community that surrounds you.
And this is not something only the left can do. Though I would be critical of their politics, both Stella Creasy and John Mann — two very different MPs on the non-Corbyn wing of the party — have waged exemplary social-movement type campaigns in their areas.
If Corbyn wins on 24 September, we should say to his opponents inside the PLP: end the passive resistance. We have something that neither Brown nor Miliband ever had, and which Blairism lost ten years ago.
A story that makes sense, a strategy that can win, an unprecedented mass membership; and a leader who, in the face of intense pressure, gets stronger.
Afterword: I am aware that this article, though 5k words long, does not answer all the questions. It’s a contribution to a debate. I have many criticisms and differences with Corbyn and I will not hide them (Trident, Syria, Scottish independence). But I have always said: Corbyn is a placeholder for creating a different kind of politics, a new strategy and a more radical Labour Party. Possibly the most relevant criticism would be that Corbyn comes from a wing of the left that sees social movements as adjuncts to radical leaders. And there is certainly a danger that — in the enthusiasm of mass recruitment — Corbyn’s supporters try to win using the classic, old left rhetoric that parties like Podemos and Syriza represent a break from. I will return to these dangers once the main one — the coup — is over. I’ve written this as a genuine attempt to convince those thinking of supporting Smith that we in the Corbyn movement have a strategy; and to fill in the blanks about the social movement. I will also return to the issue of Scotland: the political realignment of the left needed there will probably only happen once Corbyn is secure as leader.