I’m not long back from Liverpool where the ‘Axe the Housing Act’ (AtHA) campaign tried to make an impact at Labour Party conference and the parallel ‘World Transformed’ event organised, I think, by Momentum. Obviously the main focus of attention was the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn and there’s no doubt this is highly significant and particularly welcome for all those fighting for better housing in general and against the Act in particular. One AtHA activist was leafleting outside the conference centre on Monday when Mr Corbyn appeared (unannounced, unaccompanied, unphotographed) and gave her a big hug, not something he could do with some of the people inside the conference! In this moment he confirms what many of us already know – that as well as being a decent, approachable human being, he is genuinely and passionately committed to defeating the Act as part of a future Labour government reversing the neoliberal tide. If only it were that simple!
The reaction of the Labour right to their latest crushing defeat was entirely predictable, but it would be wrong to under-estimate their determination to carry on regardless. There are already clear signs that the corrosive party machinery is attempting to grind Corbyn and co. into submission and reassert the primacy of MPs and their union allies over rank and file members. It’s in this sense that the role of Momentum and those outside the Labour Party who want a change of direction is critical.
Clearly, if Labour is to win the next election under Corbyn (as I believe it can) it has to build an alliance beyond the party and appeal to disaffected working class voters. The enormous surge of support for Corbyn and the ideas he represents are evidence that it can, but I came away from Liverpool with some concerns.
I acknowledge that I make ‘special pleading’ for housing. It’s what I do. But I also think any objective assessment recognises that it’s an issue of big and growing social and political significance. Not for Momentum apparently. Across four days of meetings – about 100 in total – the organisers of The World Transformed (TWT) couldn’t find any time for a meeting about the Housing and Planning Act and only one of all the many sessions was even tangentially about housing. This would be bad and annoying enough, but the AtHA campaign contacted the organisers well in advance of last weekend and it was agreed, in writing, that we would have a dedicated slot on the programme. Without explanation, we were dropped. When challenged, TWT apologised and said they would make alternative arrangements for us to be included, but this promise was honoured in the breach and we had to constantly hassle them to be anything other than consigned to the pavement outside the venue.
People in politics can get very precious about the order of things; their place at the table, on the speaker list or in the programme. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of lots of moaning about this kind of thing over the years and mostly find it tiresomely egotistic. I hope I’m not doing the same now, but I am astonished that a group (TWT/Momentum) purporting to be ‘reaching out’ to new and/or ignored social movements and causes can be so myopic.
If this experience was just about the campaign I’m particularly involved with then it might not be so important, but I think it illustrates bigger problems that could seriously hamper the chances of a more progressive Labour Party capable of wining elections and power. Decent, secure, affordable housing, or the lack of it, is a massive issue for working class communities up and down the country and for that matter, of increasing concern to people who might not traditionally support Labour. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell ‘get it’, but some of the people around them seem not to.
Understanding this and placing it on the ‘cock up’ or ‘conspiracy’ spectrum is difficult. TWT/Momentum are by no means the only organisation on the left or elsewhere who have a housing blind spot. Indeed, it’s partly because the issue is so frequently marginalised that we have the housing misery we do. But given the situation Corbyn is in, it’s vital that those who support him connect with the forces who can defend him against those that want to unwind the events of the last 12 months. Housing, like the NHS and education, is a unifying issue both within and beyond the Labour Party.
There are, perhaps, some deeper issues of political culture demonstrated by what happened at TWT. Before saying this, I have to also acknowledge that while I was brooding in Liverpool on Saturday, I turned 52. I am not of the same generation as many of those who are most active in TWT/Momentum and who have propelled Corbyn to improbable victory. My political education was founded in a different tradition and it wasn’t always a good one. But nor was it always wrong. I attended a session called ‘What is Momentum For?’. It was based on the kind of allegedly inclusive, collaborative, participative model of organising a meeting that has become second nature in local government ‘consultation’ exercises. It’s an approach that has its uses, but can also be alienating, patronising and based on a fundamental dishonesty.
I’m not a great one for political theory, but the more I think about Jo Freeman’s ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ (1970), the more pertinent it feels. The style adopted by TWT/Momentum presents an image of free-form egalitarianism, but it’s a charade. I spoke to some other people at TWT who had shared some of my experiences and frustrations and one of them described a process whereby ‘power elites are being recreated’. Another, more caustically, referred to Momentum being run by ‘a bunch of public school boys from London’.
I don’t know if the latter accusation is true, but part of what worries me about the constellation around Corbyn is a failure to communicate openly and clearly identify and align with the issues affecting working class people and communities. Not recognising the importance of housing is clear evidence of this and could have disastrous consequences.