I hesitate to enter these waters. If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s more pontificating about the state of the Labour Party, its leader and the left. As someone once said ‘the point is to change it’. But like many others, I’m increasingly worried and frustrated that the huge potential harnessed by Jeremy Corbyn’s election is in danger of changing nothing.
This is not primarily about the individual. I don’t know Mr Corbyn and my only brief personal contacts have confirmed the view that he’s a decent fella with a genuine commitment to social justice. I can’t comment on his leadership qualities (which is a bit of a fake science anyway), but if his style is more consensual than autocratic, then that’s a good thing. The election of a genuine socialist and trade unionist as Labour leader was a great moment. I would probably have re-joined the Party if I’d thought they’d have me. The fact that they probably wouldn’t is indicative of the first problem.
Until Corbyn’s election, the Labour Party had been in decline as a democratic, participative, campaigning organisation for most of my life. Yes, it could still win elections, but the organic sinews of a party rooted in working class communities had been withered by long-term social changes, short-term political opportunism and bureaucratic manoeuvres. That can’t be reversed overnight, or in 17 months. However, as I understand it, the foot soldiers for beginning the process of making the Labour Party more relevant to people’s everyday lives is Momentum. Leaving aside the organisation’s internal issues, the major problem I perceive with Momentum has been its failure to adequately engage with grassroots campaigns and this is linked to its initially confused, but eventually prescriptive attitude to membership. Requiring that members of Momentum can only be members of the Labour Party excludes many of us who might otherwise have been enthusiastic to work within a broad alliance to oppose austerity and neoliberalism and who knows, maybe join the Labour Party at some later point. Momentum’s narrow dogmatism has reinforced those on Labour’s right wing who have conspired for years to exert central control over the party, while taking it ever further away from being a socialist organisation.
The second problem is linked to the first and concerns the mainstream political culture which privileges an inner-core of apparatchiks over the rank-and-file. That’s true of all hierarchical organisations, but part of the appeal of Project JC was a sense that it would do things differently. I’m not sure it has. To illustrate this, I think of two encounters I’ve had with Mr Corbyn since he became leader. The first was last July when I bumped into him at Euston station. He was on his own, buying a magazine and chatting to people in W H Smiths. The second was in October when he was surrounded by staff and advisors and appeared unable to relate to an issue which, three months earlier, he’d naturally connected with. Of course, we all have our off-days and there’s no question the incredible strain he’s been under will take its toll. But I think this contrast reflects the way the political establishment strangles any attempt to devolve power away from its sanctum.
This in turn feeds into the third problem which is the appearance that Corbyn and his allies are being held hostage by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Again, the assorted right-wing, Blairite and careerist MPs were never going to relinquish power easily, however big Corbyn’s mandate from the party membership. But just like media hostility, that’s a given. The task for Project JC was to move beyond the Westminster constraints and appeal to people who have become disillusioned with mainstream politics. The Copeland result and the Stoke turnout show that it’s not happening. Last week I spent some time in Hull and I’ve rarely felt more sympathy for those who lash out through UKIP, Brexit and worse to remind the establishment they still exist.
There are no simple answers to these problems, but at the moment, it feels like Project JC has run out of ideas and is in danger or running out of road. Here are three suggestions for things that could be done.
- There’s been a lot of talk of Corbyn’s use of three-line whips lately, but I think the party leader should instruct every Labour MP to attend the Save Our NHS march this Saturday. Some, of course, will be there anyway, but imagine a phalanx of 228 MPs joining their constituents to defend one of our proudest achievements. Those who don’t should be named and we can draw our own conclusions.
- There are hundreds of empty shops in places like Hull. Labour should rent one of them for two weeks and use the time to develop a real dialogue with local people – and not one based around the attempt to win votes. John McDonnell and his colleagues have lots of good suggestions for how to rebuild the economy, but they haven’t penetrated working class communities and don’t engage them with the process of developing local campaigns for change.
- The Labour Party, including Momentum, needs to own the issue of housing. It remains a massive problem for millions – either directly or as a proxy for other frustrations – and one where the government is failing spectacularly. It’s a political open goal that’s constantly being missed.
It’s not too late. The Tory government is gathering superficial strength and confidence, but in reality is weak, divided and faces huge problems it has no answers for. It’s time for Project JC to stop moaning and start organising.