From George Barratt
After three decades of market fundamentalism, millions have finally become disillusioned and have reacted against the UK political class. The rise of UKIP, the collapse of the Scottish Labour Party, and the unexpected election of the outsider Jeremy Corbyn have all been signs of the revolt. What is also interesting is the emergence of the numbers of “silent radicals” who have flocked to support Corbyn. This has shocked the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) who had made various half-hearted attempts to remove Jeremy as leader. The post-Brexit intriguers now include London mayor Sadiq Khan, who has declared support for the slippery Owen Smith.
The Labour Party (LP) is now in an unstable state of “dual power”, with the PLP pitched against many of the LP membership. This situation cannot last indefinitely, so how can Counterfire (CF) best use its resources to support, retain, and integrate any free radicals in the labour and trade union movement?
The original notice for the meeting suggested three topics for discussion on the day:-
How to deal with the right in the LP.
How Jeremy Corbyn could win an election.
How we can ensure that there is a mass movement capable of taking on the establishment and pushing the Corbyn campaign forward.
Accordingly, here are some considerations on these three points.
How to deal with the right in the LP
There has been a subterranean battle against the right inside the LP for many years. Since the 1970s the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) has been attempting to democratise the LP. Their method has been to minutely study the small print in the rule book and to suggest amendments in order to widen participation by rank and file members and reduce the power of the parliamentary party. Rather later, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was founded and chaired first by Tony Benn and subsequently by John McDonnell. The membership of both these groups overlaps, and is now middle-aged and elderly. However, these networks have been very useful in launching the Momentum group, which is now achieving some success in organising rallies for Jeremy Corbyn.
If CF members wish to engage in these worthy campaigns of the CLPD and LRC inside the LP, these organisations can easily be contacted on the internet. But since these organisations operate exclusively within constituency LPs, it raises the question of “entryism”. Tom Watson’s team has been busily scouring the internet to compile a dossier of evidence of “Trots under the cot”, so care is needed here with any public statements or published work which identifies any radical political views. The Co-Operative party (LP affiliate) has less stringent security vetting, so it might be an easier way into CLPs if entryism is a chosen tactic. However, CF members’ energies might more usefully be employed in the mass movement or Momentum (despite misgivings that Momentum may be overly focused on the “parliamentary road to socialism). There is also the possibility of the future disintegration or a war of attrition within the LP which will be considered later in this document.
How Jeremy Corbyn could win an election
We live in a Ruritanian semi-democracy in which everyone can vote. However, there are certain built-in refinements which give electoral advantages to the ruling elites. One of these is the “first-past-the-post” electoral system which enables a Tory government to be elected with a minority of the vote. Under this system, only about 100 marginal constituencies actually change hands during a general election. The remaining 500 constituencies are “silos” with massive Tory or Labour majorities. This means that during an election campaign, all political resources are focused on a minority of middle-aged, middle-class swing voters in marginal constituencies who could vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative depending on what goodies are on offer. This is the group that our very own Parliamentary Labour Party is most anxious to schmooze. This group is probably less favourable to Corbyn, which explains the LP drive to find a more acceptable leader, with a less radical platform.
Barking LP has been nationally commended for its energy in recent elections because of the high contact rate with prospective voters. This contact rate consists of LP councillors and wannabe councillors systematically knocking on doors, ward by ward, and canvassing voters to update LP voting records. Under the GOTV (Get out the vote) system, records are maintained of names and addresses of LP voters. These voters are contacted on election day to ensure they get down to the voting booth. But no political relationship is established between the voter and the party. Constituents are regarded primarily as voting fodder.
That is the flaw in the system. In the last general election, repeated and intensive contact with undecided swing voters by Tory activists swung marginal seats to give a narrow majority to David Cameron. This narrow majority has been disputed under electoral law because hotel and battlebus expenses were not declared by the constituency Tory election agent, but attributed to the Tory Central Office budget. So basically, if a political activist is prepared to take time to talk to an undecided voter on the doorstep or telephone in order to understand their hopes and fears, they can scare them into voting their way. This technique is obviously mainly applicable to swing voters in marginal constituencies, and would only increase the majority in safe LP seats. Any time spent on middle-aged, middle class voters in marginal seats would probably be unproductive in terms of votes for Corbyn.
There is also the question of the electability of Jeremy Corbin. Jeremy has been a breath of fresh air to many after the smoothly honed performances of LP establishment figures selling “austerity-lite” to the electorate. However, he is not loud and posh, and therefore does not fit the leader stereotype. Criticism has also been made of his organising role in the PLP and shadow cabinet. But the attendance at meetings and rallies and the increased LP membership shows that he has struck a chord with many people. The problem is how to direct this enthusiasm into a form capable of combating the political elite in a skewed electoral system.
How we can ensure there is a mass movement capable of taking on the establishment and pushing the Corbyn campaign forward
Support for Corbyn seems to come from a variety of different sources. There are disgruntled ex-LP members who were disillusioned by Blair, but have rejoined the party. There are health and education workers who are angry with diminishing pay packages and deteriorating working conditions. There are single-issue campaigners who have previously had support in their campaign work from Jeremy. There are benefit claimants and disabled people struggling to survive, while battling for cash with an inefficient and underfunded bureaucracy. And there is the “precariat”, stuck in low-paid temporary jobs while living in over-priced flats. There are probably many other sources of support for Corbyn.
Although all of these people have grievances, there is little opportunity for redress. This has resulted in feelings of extreme frustration and powerlessness among this large but amorphous group. What Corbyn has done is to stand up and state that the dominant political and economic systems of market fundamentalism do not work. Another world is possible. Indeed, in the years before Thatcher and Blair it was possible to get a job with decent pay and conditions, it was possible to get council housing, and it was possible to get to university without being saddled with high fees. This reminder offers hope to many.
The problem here is how to turn this vast number of people into a unified radical movement. To some extent, Momentum has filled a gap by providing a rallying point for Corbyn supporters. But the trajectory of Momentum is not yet clear. It is still in course of development, and it may be focused narrowly on the Labour party and the parliamentary road, or it may be broader and engage in extra-parliamentary action.
The People’s Assembly against Austerity has been successful with large rallies and demonstrations, but it appears to be understaffed and underfunded. Another problem is that its coverage is patchy, with areas where no grassroots organisation exists. Although it appeared to be promising initially, co-ordination collapsed, there was a turnover of convenors and ultimately, contact was lost.
This may be a moment to re-think organisational methods. In the past it was customary to publish and sell newspapers. This has been useful in terms of “street politics”, to sell the paper locally and to make contact with sympathisers. However, this process has been expensive to produce and labour-intensive to distribute and sell. Counterfire has moved on with its freesheet, but there is still the organisational problem of finance and fundraising.
The Counterfire daily and weekly email bulletins have been most informative and this may be a better and more economical way of organising sympathisers. Labour List has been useful as a digest of LP news, but it seems to be subject to trolling in the subsequent internet discussions. There could be a similar Counterfire spin-off with a closed email discussion group, and possibly a linked “Marxism for beginners” educational course. What is important is that the anti-austerity and political exposure news items are regularly sent out, and that contact with sympathisers is maintained, with records of their email addresses.
And finally, the possible disintegration of the Labour Party
It is unlikely that the 24 September leadership election will settle anything. Whether Corbyn or Smith wins, there will still be either a disgruntled PLP, or a membership angry at being disenfranchised and overridden. An SDP-type split appears to be unlikely because it has failed in the past, but there now appears to have been an influx of PLP MPs into the Cooperative party. This could endow them with semi-legitimacy as an affiliated organisation and also give some freedom to organise independently of the Corbyn parliamentary leadership. There are also moves to mount another legal challenge, this time on the question of “who owns the Labour party assets”, funded by wealthy Blairite allies.
A war of attrition looks likely, and obviously Counterfire wants to be in the strongest possible position to catch any LP membership fallout. Momentum has already established itself as the key Corbyn supporters group, but it is not known how it will develop in the future with a relatively immature and diffused leadership. The People’s Assembly could present itself as an alternative with a membership overlapping with other groups. However, this could require an input of greater resources. The SWP may not be so attractive to ex-LP members because of its over-emphasis on the binary opposition between social democratic and revolutionary parties. Political hegemony is a more promising strategy than armed insurrection in the UK. The Socialist party may benefit from LP problems, but politically they are stuck with fossilised strategies from another age. It is likely that unexpected things may happen, and so a flexible approach is required.