From the perspective of policy the Corbyn years shifted the Labour party significantly to the left. Politicians previously committed to cuts ‘harder than Thatcher’ now recognise they must, at the very least, re-write history in presenting the party from 2008 to 2015 as being opposed to austerity (it wasn’t). In addition to that, as Ellie Mae O’Hagan has astutely observed, an ascendant left gave the party’s ‘soft left’ more intellectual coherence, and a policy platform which is both popular and radical.
But while Labour has just completed a tortuously long leadership race, culminating in triumph for Keir Starmer, from the perspective of the party’s left the next three months matter more than the last three. Why? Because the legacy of the last five years, in terms of socialist organisation, will be decided as the pieces are put back together. How that happens, and what choices are now made, are vitally important.
So here are six recommendations for what the Labour left should now do if it’s serious about not just consolidating the gains of recent years but going further, and taking them into power. For supporters of Keir Starmer, who might view the below as somehow antithetical to his interests or those of the party more generally, I have a simple response: Keir Starmer can not win a general election without a strong, well-organised left. Despite the prevailing common sense in the media this same left will work infinitely harder to make his leadership work than the centre ever did with Corbyn. Recognising that should be the first step to effective coordination.
So, what is to be done?
- Fragmentation and Enmity Must Be Avoided At All Costs. Serious mistakes were made over recent years – by all sides. And while productive, congenial criticism is welcome, those mistakes are now in the past. What matters going forward is that a historic opportunity for the left, which, yes, remains with us, isn’t missed because of rancour, bitterness and blame. See this for what it is: the anger at a project failing – in part because one’s enemies were much stronger – projected on to the very people who tried to make it work.
- Accept That The Long Bailey Campaign Was Bad. Given my previous point this might seem strange – but it shouldn’t. As I say, offering constructive criticism and feedback does not require rancour. But an inescapable fact is that the Long Bailey campaign gaining just 27% of the vote was incredibly poor – and the ultra low end of what was expected. Could any candidate from the left have won? I doubt it, although a hypothetical run by John McDonnell would have had a more than decent chance. Realistically, however, Long Bailey should have been gaining around 40% of the popular vote. Why didn’t she? Because there was no previous succession plan – which certainly wasn’t her fault – the campaign was poor, and she in no way sought to distinguish herself from her rivals. Yes, this can be done while being positive, and it shows an absence of political strategy to think otherwise. Claiming 27% was a good result is counter-productive because (a) it means the right lessons can’t be learned and (b) it denigrates the political legacy of a leader who, whatever you think of him, is the most admired among Labour’s party membership. Long Bailey’s campaign felt like a triangulated NGO-style effort with no real vitality. This turned off core voters to campaign for her while aiming to win over those who weren’t in the least bit interested. As ever, and just like the December general election, that should be on the candidate and nobody else – especially her team. But there are lessons there for all of us.
- Accept Momentum Needs Fundamental Change. As it is presently comprised Momentum is very close to the end. One of the more bizarre aspects of the recent NEC elections was that a director and member of its NCG ran against the Momentum slate. Whenever I’ve raised this it has often been interpreted as an attack on that individual. It is not, but is simply recognising the situation for what it is: supremely dysfunctional and, from the outside, a result of increasingly poor organisational management. Again, this is not a personal or a moral failure on the behalf of anyone involved: Momentum has achieved quite remarkable things in recent years. But where it has succeeded, in supporting an under-fire party leadership, makes little sense in the newly changed environment. That switch will require new political leadership and an adapted mission. Calls for unity – needed more than ever – can’t be used to disarm and neuter the now self-evident need for reform. The basic question every Momentum member can and will ask is this: what am I getting for my membership? Agency, voice, influence, capacity to build power nationally? Right now they are getting none of these things. That needs to change.
- Accept that Momentum Should Be THE Home For Socialists in Labour. The recent launch of ‘Forward Momentum’ has catalysed an interesting debate – and confirms widespread recognition of the veracity of point 3. Where there is disagreement, however, is about what happens next. Here there are two competing views: one is that Momentum needs to engage in more grassroots activism; the other that it needs to focus on Labour as an electoral organisation. These are ideal types it should be added and, rhetorically at least, there is significantly more agreement on the scale of the problem than any cursory glance at social media might suggest. But there is a tension nevertheless, and one that goes to the very heart of Labour and the left’s historic relationship to it. To those that say ‘let’s have both’ I would respond that the kinds of resources and processes required for an effective organisation aiming at parliamentary politics differ to extra-parliamentary politics. Does Momentum want to engage in social reproduction, or does it want to be a transmission line for ideas, accountability and people that runs from nationwide local organisations, through the trade unions and into the left of the parliamentary Labour party? This isn’t meant to minimise the role of community organising, or engaging around issue of social reproduction, both of which are of immense value, but I would add two points. Clearly the need for both is obvious, but why Momentum? After all membership of it requires having to become a Labour member anyway. Secondly, why couldn’t something else be created? Here The World Transformed (TWT) offers a powerful example. The organisation that is being described by some clearly needs to be built, but why should it be Momentum? Meanwhile socialist Labour members – in communities, workplaces and in Westminster – need a place to organise their collective power for elections, to refine their politics, and to create a national pole of political attraction. In my view, this should be Momentum.
- Understand That Not Everything Is a ‘Social Movement’. As someone who studied social movements as part of a PhD I can say with a reasonably high degree of certainty that whenever anyone says ‘x should be a social movement’ this is, more often than not, a substitute for a worked-out strategy with specific objectives. There is not a binary between organisations and movements, and the latter need the former: the black civil rights movement looks very different without the NAACP; and Italian autonomism, which fetishes spontaneity, can’t happen without the Italian PCI (at that time Europe’s biggest party). There is no such thing as ‘organising without organisations’, at least not if you are serious about doing it for the long term. This discourse, of preferring networks over organisations, is often a substitute for the hard work of building coalitions with people you may not always agree with, and always views collective action in the short-term. Whether it’s migrant rights, Britain becoming a republic or unionising workplace, none of this happens without the steady and often dull business of building organisations. On both sides of the Atlantic the left now needs to build them, centring sustainable collection action in a post-Corbyn, post-Sanders environment. Those two individuals were the beginning of a process, not its culmination.
- Insist That ‘Normal Politics’ Isn’t Coming Back. This is something supporters of Keir Starmer will quickly find out. Not only do we have a broken economic model, but challenges like climate change and demographic ageing, which pose fundamental threats to market capitalism (which will respond by squeezing living standards) aren’t going away. On top of that we now have the Coronavirus, which will see the return of massive state deficits, could sound the death knell for the high street and will, in all certainty, paralyse entire industries from aviation to print media. The centre-left’s response to all of this is one of the critical questions which will define the next few years. Fundamentally I suspect the left, through intellectual production and campaigns responding to specific issues (age, climate, austerity, housing) will still exert leadership – albeit informally – within Labour. If Starmer takes Labour right at the very moment these crises intensify he will, I think, receive fewer votes than Jeremy Corbyn did in December.