It is now more than ever the time to transform Labour into a social movement, argues Mark Perryman
In a week that my new best comrade George Osborne has described the impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s Customs Union speech as “The Labour leader, has with the smallest of nudges, manoeuvred himself into a more pro-business, more pro-free trade European policy than the Tory Government”, the question of whether this marks the Corbyn Moment stretches way beyond the ranks of the Corbynite Left.
George meant those words as a compliment; however, their provenance and meaning will trouble many on Jeremy’s side. But this, dear comrades, is what hegemony looks like, our ideas becoming the new common sense. And without in essence even a smidgen of principle being sacrificed either.
Anyone who doubts the difference Jeremy has made, and continues to make, to Labour politics should be force-fed Tony Blair’s 2005 Labour Conference Speech to read. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” The economic powers reshaping the world described as a force of nature, unstoppable, irresistible, no point in expecting that they can be changed in any meaningful sense.
Of course Blair in government did many good things. Nobody in their right, or left, minds should pretend otherwise. That’s what Labour in power is expected to do isn’t it? But crippled by this embrace of neoliberalism the measure of Blair’s failed promise would bedevil Brown and Miliband who unsuccessfully followed in his wake. During the 2015 General Election opposition party leaders debate Ed snapped back that he wasn’t the same as the Tories under the torrent of the sisters united criticism from Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and the Greens’ Natalie Bennett. Quick as a flash Nicola tellingly retorted that no Ed you’re not the same, but neither are you different enough.
Notwithstanding Osborne’s plaudits this is something nobody is ever going to say about Jeremy Corbyn . And that’s why the next General Election will be so momentous in the same way ’45 was, which ushered in the post-war settlement, and ’79, which not only ended it but carved out its replacement in the shape of neoliberalism. A Corbyn government would put an end to all of that, for good.
To achieve this requires a laser-sharp campaigning focus on winning a minimum of Labour’s 66 target seats and holding on to Labour’s 19 most precarious defences, those with majorities of less than 1000. The 3rd May local elections will be the first test of how far Labour still has to travel to not just come a decent second, but to win. Despite all the chatter about a ‘Progressive Alliance’ via tactical voting it is this kind of tactical campaigning that will secure a Labour majority.
Meanwhile on the all-important ideological level it is hard to dispute, despite the naysaying commentariat and backbiting from the Labour hard Right, that Labour has been setting the agenda almost from the moment the 8th June votes were counted. Exposing the Tories getting into bed with the DUP as not so much a coalition of chaos but the coalition from hell. Responding to the causes and consequences of the Grenfell disaster. Standing up for an NHS facing the impossible task of coping with a winter crisis as resources and morale wither away. Locating the Carillion collapse in the rottenness of privatisation at any cost. And now most recently outlining a way to navigate Brexit in a manner that puts the haplessness of Johnson, Davis and Fox to utter shame.
But winning in 2022, or sooner if at all possible, is going to take all of this and then some. It means the transformation of Labour into a social movement on a quite unprecedented scale. We saw the beginnings of this last May and June as marginal seats were flooded with eager, often new, campaigners to win the Labour vote street by street and led by Owen Jones and Momentum this has continued with regular #Unseat days of mass canvassing in the most high profile of Labour’s target marginals. All this doorstep activity carried out not as a duty-bound stage army of the party’s extras but as a building block towards a mass members-led party rooted in our communities rather than the entrenched deference of the parliamentary party.
For those steeped in the Labour tradition of Keir Hardie and Ellen Wilkinson, the hunger marches, Cable Street, the International Brigades, Stafford Cripps, Labour winning the peace in ’45, Bevan and the foundation of the NHS, Barbara Castle on the picket line with the women Ford strikers campaigning for equal pay, Foot, Kinnock and Benn leading CND demonstrations, Bernie Grant standing with his community after the ’85 Broadwater Farm riots, none of what I am describing here should appear either new or all that threatening. But for some it certainly seems as if the latter was precisely how they regard such a change, and 8th June has done precious little to alter their opinion either. They describe this as ‘Clause One Socialism’ and have the pin badges to prove it.
The grouping most identified with this Clause One position inside the Labour Party, Progress, puts it thus:
In the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s Labour was pulled away from its true path by syndicalist social movements. At its founding, the party’s intention was clearly spelled out for the world to see in the very first paragraph of the constitution: to ‘maintain in parliament … a political Labour Party’
Contrast this with the symbolism of who was called upon to introduce Jeremy Corbyn at the final big outdoor rally of the 2017 General Election Campaign, Saffiyah Khan. A few months previously the photo of Saffiyah, a young Asian, Muslim woman fearlessly facing down the English Defence League boot boys in her Birmingham town, peacefully, with a smile on her face, had gone viral. She had stood up for what she knew was right. Neither parliamentarianism nor protest politics can do that on their own, rather it needs Saffiyah and hundreds of thousands like her to make such resistance possible. Not a stage army at anyone’s beck and call but individuals who come together to create communities of change. That’s the party Labour might become, and if it does just about anything is possible. Now that’s not something I suspect George and his big business mates will welcome with such open arms as Labour’s commitment to a Customs Union. And in the greater scale of things that is what both really matters and will shape Labour’s future.
Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect and will be speaking at ‘The Corbyn Moment ’ a day of discussion and debate on Labour as a social movement featuring Alex Nunns, Andrew Murray, Francesca Martinez, Hilary Wainwright and others. Saturday 10 March, London. Organised by Counterfire details from here.
The Corbyn Effect, ed. Mark Perryman, foreword, Paul Mason (Lawrence & Wishart 2017) xiii, 274pp.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.