Building power: it’s up to us

Having consolidated the leadership, the Corbyn left must continue to build a member-led listening party – especially on Europe, argues Tom Miller

“It was no abstract Question for us. The circumstances of our lives made it a burning luminous mark of interrogation. Where was power, and which was the road to it?”

So wrote Aneurin Bevan in the semi-biographical introduction to his yet relevant magnum opus In Place of Fear. This single insight shaped Bevan’s entire outlook in a way which speaks to an eternal truth, namely that politics is about the pursuit and exercise of power, and divining the process that brings us there.

Personalities in politics, be they commentators, activists or politicians, tend to fall into two camps with regard to power and the question of its attainment: seizers and builders.

The camps are tribes with counterpoised cultures, split by a silver river flowing with political power itself. They make their existence in a wide and open flood plain, not unlike some ancient American Midwest. Life here is tough, shaped as it is by the ebbs and flows of political power, its changing meanders and bow lakes. On the river depends all life.

One camp is warlike. This is the camp of the Seizers. They are determined never to be threatened, by monopolising access to the river, by way of war, coercion or defences. Pugnacious, they make raids on the other camp, but pay the price by living in permanent fear of the other side.

On the other side of the river live the Builders. They dig channels so that the river may flow and irrigate their crops. They build and reproduce, knowing that if they continue to do so they will come to dominate the land. They know that one day, their ever-growing settlement will come to dominate what is now the camp of the power seizers, on the other side of the bank.

Where should the democratic socialists of 2019 stand?

Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 election victory was based on long term and deep principles that those of us on the left of the party had fought for for0 decades, and through the years of New Labour. His offer on policy was actually fairly light outside of the arena of counter-austerity, but the classic hallmarks of a party which was both democratic and tolerant marked a rupture from New Labour and a return to older values in the Labour movement, neatly summed up by the unfairly ridiculed slogan of ‘kinder, gentler politics’. Here was a man who seized with giving power to the builders.

Corbyn has faced adversity in the form of a leadership challenge and a hostile press, which has certainly not helped, but it is indisputable that much of the Corbynite left is still shaped by a defensive and bunker-like mentality. How far we as members have been able to shape policy against the centre, especially in the area of policy on the EU, is disputable. Powered by the seizing mentality, powerful elements of the organised left still focus around political narrowness and total control, even when this does not work out well or denies a voice to many other members, including socialists.

Corbynism was produced by something which ‘was not supposed to happen’ – the left winning the leadership at the top of the pyramid before the bottom of it had been built. In other words, it has come to be because the left exploited an opportunity to seize power long before it had any interest in building it.

The left that we know now will one day be something else, and again, a return to core values is becoming necessary if our long term beliefs are to be preserved. Europe serves as an example. At the last party conference, members built power. They built power effectively, and did so on the basis of pushing Labour towards a people’s vote-type platform, as favoured at the latest count by 86% of members. This was met by attempts to water down members’ wishes, in some activist circles to stigmatise pro-EU leftism, and by long step back from a policy that the leadership, wrongly in my view, sees as potentially dangerous rather than as an opportunity to build.

To see through the values proposed by Corbyn’s run in 2015, if there is sufficient public opinion to build power, we members must hold our nerve and move from seizing to building the ideal of a Labour Party which is not afraid to consult and be member-led. A party which is not afraid of diverse opinion in its ranks, but sees it as a source of strength, is something which Corbyn supporters must stick to building in practice. Our members and unions should be in charge, and for that reason we could do nothing better than hold a special conference to decide on the biggest issue of the day.

“We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders”.

Tom Miller

Tom Miller is a Brent councillor and Chair of Open Labour.