Three Big Problems with Project JC

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.



This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Three Big Problems with Project JC

  1. Ron Greenwood said “There are only two situations in football. Either we’ve got the ball or they have.” It doesn’t change what the side is trying to do, only how it does it.

    All political parties that are committed to electoral success include people at the principled end of the spectrum who share this view that the party is there to pursue its principles and the policies derived from them in office or opposition, with or against the tide of public opinion.
    These parties also have a pragmatic end to the spectrum which sees “power” as the only way to get anything done and to get elected the party has to strike a deal with public opinion as it finds it on polling day.

    Such electoral parties put up with pragmatic leaderships so long as they deliver electoral success. The Tories are ruthless at this, dumping both Heath and Thatcher when they didn’t deliver. The Labour Party has lurched away from pragmatism three or four times. After Ramsey MacDonald they turned to George Lansbury whose pacifism makes Jeremy Corbyn look like Henry Kissinger. After the deft Clement Attlee they turned Right to Hugh Gaitskell. The pragmatism of the Wilson years may be more show than substance but led to Michael Foot. And so again with the reaction to Blair’s legacy.

    But these turns to principle didn’t challenge the notion that being in “power” is all that matters and that being in Opposition is a fallow period where nothing can be done except to re-calibrate the pitch the party is making to an electorate supposedly wedded to the ideas of the other parliamentary party.

    Opposition is an honourable estate where the party can campaign for its ideas and be a tribune for those disenfranchised by the Government. This does require effective transmission belts between the party and grass roots campaign groups. Parliamentary cretinism can prevent this. Some of us are old enough to remember Foot having a fit of the vapours when Peter Tatchell urged extra-Parliamentary action.

    So too can a defensive mindset about such local power bases which the party does hold. Labour councils can be abjectly Tammany Hall (eg Newham or Southwark) and can swamp any activist input.

    I know this doesn’t solve anything but I hope it helps to set out the problem as I see it.
    Nik Wood

  2. Tim(ck) says:

    Excellent piece Glyn! Serious and timely.


    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Pingback: Three Big Problems with Project JC | poplarphilosophyproject

  4. Andrew Lloyd says:

    Interesting read. I entirely agree with your points 2 and 3. All the media will tell you is how dire Labour’s position is. We know that. The party needs to embrace where it is and think quickly about the points such as you make. The Tories can be halted and need to be. If they get in big now, they will be still be in ten years from now. Who wants that? Labour are all we have, though personally I would vote for anyone to get a Tory MP out. All of us across the progressive spectrum need to do whatever we can to turn back to Tory tide. We can make June the end of May ( catchy hashtag I saw in Brighton) but people on the left need to hang together. I’ll stop there. No Ron Greenwood references from me sadly. He was a fine manager though.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thanks for that Andrew and for getting in touch. Well, I suppose the proof of the pudding is about to be in the eating. I still don’t think it’s impossible that Labour could win. But to use another footballing analogy, I suppose it’s more like Leicester winning the league than Chelsea.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s