In anticipation of a Jeremy Corbyn victory, Chris Nineham highlights some strategic goalposts for both the Labour Party and the wider movement
Moments after Jeremy Corbyn's likely victory on Saturday, politicians and pundits will be lining up to tell us it’s time for team Corbyn to tack to the centre, make peace with the moderate 'mainstream', put away the placards and abandon the politics of protest. In fact an election victory in the teeth of such a relentless establishment and media assault will be an indication that radicalism and grassroots organising are precisely what the left needs.
It is this combination that has led to the greatest surge of enthusiasm in Labour's ranks for as long as most can remember and opened up a generational opportunity for the left. The way we approach that opportunity depends above all on two things. First, how we assess the current situation in the country, and second, what we believe left wing activism is for. The two questions are not entirely separate.
Explaining the surge
Most available explanations for Jeremy's rise are deeply unconvincing. Ed Balls spluttered through a few of the mainstream favourites in an incoherent interview on Newsnight earlier this week. First he blamed the 'purism' of 'mainly new' (how awful) party members who are ignoring the reality of middle England opinion, and then puzzlingly went on attack Corbyn's 'populism' which apparently lines him up him with Le Pen, Trump and other undesirables. Finally, he blamed Owen Smith for not outlining an attractive centre left alternative.
Nowadays that is a contradiction in terms. Corbyn's popularity is precisely a product of a spreading sense that centre left muddling through is a dead end. The right likes to think this is a delusion confined to party members. But while the recent dramatic change in mood in Labour is partly the result of bitter electoral experience, it is surely more than anything caused by members' contact with the wider population, at work, in constituencies and amongst families and friends.
Seeing Corbyn's popularity amongst members as something separate from wider trends in society is wishful thinking by the right, made especially implausible by the huge influx of new members to the party. For some years commentators have been discussing a democratic deficit and a growing dissaffection with established politics. Many put it down to apathy or anti-politics but poll after poll has shown that it has actually coincided with a growing opposition to the economic and political paradigm that has dominated public life for decades. Hostility to the influence of corporations, anger at spiralling inequality and support for renationalisation and higher taxes for the rich for example have all been growing steadily over the years, and most sharply since the banking crisis of 2008.
A 2014 Populus poll, for example, found that the public overwhelmingly agree that “whichever party wins the next election, the government needs to be tougher on big business”. The SNP's post referendum surge in 2014, a Green Party spurt in 2015 and soaring Labour Party membership since then, all suggest that it is not politics per se that has turned people off, but the kind of politics that has been on offer for so long.
Getting priorities right
Given the recent traumatic experience of cuts, austerity, crisis and war, this is hardly a shock. Nor can anyone really be surprised that it’s the promise of change that enthuses in politics today. Of course the kind of political reordering that is taking place is an uneven process, but the media's static picture of a society with a right wing, a big moderate middle and a small group on the left is hopelessly outdated, if it ever corresponded to anything real. Calls for renationalisation, for example, resonate across the board. Big majorities oppose the foreign wars that successive governments have been fighting.
One recent poll of polls concluded 'the population is generally to the left – often radically so – of mainstream political parties on many major issues: distribution of wealth, capitalism, minimum wage, working hours, renewable energy, drugs, and the nationalisation/privatisation of rail companies, energy companies and the NHS'. In fact it is tight clustering around the self-defined middle ground of pro-market, pro-austerity and pro-war politics that has so alienated people from the Westminster circus.
Two things shouldn't, but unfortunately do, need to be repeated about the antics of the Labour right. The first is that the views of the likes of Ed Balls, Owen Smith and Neil Kinnock about who is electable should be treated with scepticism given that the kind of politics they champion has lost Labour the last two elections. The second is that the constant plotting and briefing against the elected leader of the Labour party has done untold damage to Labour's electoral standing. What is more, the right must know this. Their recent behaviour is evidence that in their own minds they would rather wreck the party's chances for an election or two than allow it to swing decisively to the left. Given the permanent semi-chaos they have created it is remarkable that in actual elections Labour has done relatively well since Jeremy Corbyn took over.
The problem is it is not just the right pushing for moderation. There are a number of more left wing voices calling for compromise, particularly on questions of foreign policy. To re-engage with the millions who have stopped voting and with Labour supporters who have drifted to Ukip, centre-left politics is useless. In both cases what is needed is not more of the same but a clear break with the status quo and in particular a clear message that Labour is going to challenge the corporate interests that have shaped domestic policy for so long and the pro-US, pro-war stance that has driven our foreign policy. What is crucial is that it is this strategic calculation that determines the kind of policies and leadership the party adopts in rather than internal moves to placate right wing malcontents shaping the party's political agenda.
Protest and propaganda
Clearly just adopting radical policy programme is not enough, crucial though it is. While in general public opinion has moved to the left over the last few years, there are a whole series of questions, from immigration to nuclear weapons, that remain contentious. There are two ways of approaching such issues. In general, electoral politics tends to encourage the passive, opportunistic attitude of the focus group, basically, find out what people think and go along with it. If you follow this path you end up reflecting the 'common sense' of the media and the elites rather than challenging it. Socialist activism on the other hand is predicated on the idea of campaigning for change and trying to win people to your point of view.
This has been Jeremy Corbyn's chosen path over many decades. He has not only stuck to a coherent set of principles, he has campaigned for them, even when they were unpopular. In the process he has contributed to the creation of a series of interlocking campaigns and movements that have won victories and helped shape public opinion. There is nothing that gives people more confidence or projects a moral and political case more eloquently than a genuine grass roots movement. From Anti-Apartheid to Palestine Solidarity, from the Poll Tax campaign to the Stop the War Coalition, mass movements have displayed an ability to counter elite propaganda and change minds by passionately projecting politics and organisation into every corner of the community. Today's political landscape would look very different if it hadn't been for this history.
Participating in such campaigns is also one of the most important ways the left can strengthen its connections with every section of the working class. There are signs of growing popular resistance to the government. Groups of workers on the railways, the post office and education have been taking strike action, junior doctors are promising to reignite their inspirational struggle to defend conditions in the NHS, Black Lives Matter activists have been in the street protesting institutional racism. Far from turning its back on the politics of protest the left needs to focus its energy on forging a diverse and powerful popular movement for change.
There is one final reason why a great movement from below matters. The last two years has shown that the right and the establishment will use every means, fair or foul, to derail a genuinely left Labour project. And the dirty tricks we have witnessed so far are only really opening skirmishes. If Corbyn got into office it wouldn't just be the Labour right and the media on the warpath. Financial institutions, the civil service, the courts, the whole panoply of the state would be co-ordinating against him and his government. In those circumstances, the only way a radical agenda could be pushed through would be by a massive popular participatory movement permanently organised and ever ready to take to the streets.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Brighton 2021: Members speak out on Starmer, stitch ups and next steps for the left
- 'On the road to nowhere': Leah Levane on Labour, Starmer and the expulsions - video
- 'We need to move fast': Ken Loach on Starmer, socialism and building a new left - interview
- Gas and greed: Why Britain faces a special crisis
- Aukus: ratcheting up Western confrontation with China - video
- The tragedy after the tragedy: 9/11 and the war on Afghanistan
- Back to the future: revolutionary art on the Mersey