Labour left at a turning point

Don Flynn sets out the challenges facing Labour’s left in seeking to build on successes and secure a Corbyn government

The socialist left inside the Labour Party has been strengthened by the radical political moods gripping a large segment of the population in response to the impact of the austerity measures adopted by the Tory-led governments after 2010.

The half million rise in membership of the Party has sustained the radical leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and supported his call for an active role for government and the public sector in returning to economic growth while challenging the deepening inequality scarring British society.

The launch of Momentum, intended to give this surge a robust, organisational form, held out the hope that the new members would become engaged in important new political projects both at local level and more widely at national and international levels.  In this way the left turn would be consolidated across all levels and a united labour movement would emerge with the resources needed to challenge the reign of free market, financialised global capitalism.

Inevitable victory?

How are things working out for this project? The apt title for the grassroots movement, Momentum, conjured up the idea that a force has been set in motion that would gather strength to the point of becoming unstoppable. This optimistic view has been read into a political strategy which has at various times come close to arguing that a Labour victory at a future election is all but inevitable, if only we all agree to hold back from the discussion of potentially contentious issues, and simply all get behind the slogan of Jeremy for PM.

The optimists in the ranks of the left are not entirely wrong in their enthusiasm for unity over controversy.  The weirdness of the British electoral system combined with the deep unpopularity of an incompetent Tory government could well have the effect of precipitating Corbyn into office in Number 10 at almost any time in the next twelve months or so.  But the fractiousness of the debate around Brexit has shown that there are issues that deeply divide the left, whose resolution has not been served by the reluctance of the Momentum leadership to offer a distinct perspective on this issue.

This approach to the task of politics and leadership has signalled to opponents of the left turn that there is something about it which seems fragile.  The centrist and right wing majority in the Parliamentary Party, having failed in its efforts to dislodge Corbyn through no-confidence votes in 2016, has learnt that a full frontal assault will not work, and is instead chipping away at specific issues where he is considered vulnerable.  The often hard-to-follow shifts in the leadership line on the single market and customs union have been high on this list, as well as the more recent claims that Corbyn is the front man for a stratum of antisemitic feeling across Labour.

Brexit – a working class perspective

Chartist has argued that at this stage of the Brexit negotiations the Labour Party should have moved on from its position of ‘constructive ambiguity’ and by now should be offering its working class base in particular a much clearer picture of the risks they will face if the UK crashes out of the single market with either no deal or a very poor agreement on access. This needs to be set out by referring to the issues which, we are told, led to the denizens of towns and cities outside the Remain areas of London, Scotland and Northern Ireland to vote Leave – namely what will happen to job prospects and public services when the arrangements of the last 45 years have been dismantled, and the reactionary fantasy of checking migration has been achieved.

If government is ever to be for the many then it has to mean a great deal more than just having Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10

The Momentum leadership has been diffident at best in offering a class-based perspective of life outside the EU.  It worked hard during the period of the Brighton annual conference in 2017 to suppress any discussion of the Brexit issue, even in meetings and events during what otherwise was a very lively fringe programme.  The line offered up was never anything better than ‘we support Jeremy Corbyn on the issue’.

Internationalism and the Left

Labour’s new supporters have straddled a demographic that combines vulnerability to exploitative, zero-hour style work contracts, subjection to the burden of debt arising from efforts to raise skill levels through participation in higher education, and permanent insecurity in terms of their housing needs. But in addition, they constantly show up in psephological research studies as having broadly cosmopolitan outlooks on life, which means a willingness to frame concerns about their own life circumstances within the wider context of global settings. Awareness of a lousy jobs market runs alongside dismay at the xenophobic and nationalist turn in politics across the countries of advanced capitalism.  The intensifying threat of human-induced climate change has made them more likely to be aware of the need for practical measures of international solidarity in order to mitigate harm to all people on the planet.

A robust internationalism ought to be at the heart of the left wing politics that have been gaining ground in the Labour Party.  We are having to contend with currents that come dangerously close to the demand to ‘make Britain great again’.  Defence of inconvenient migrant workers – never a popular cause for the Labour Party in any event – is further marginalised by uncontested acceptance that free movement for workers will come to an end when we finally quit the EU in March next year. In line with other trends observable in the French and German left, Bertolt Brecht’s admonition – meant for different times and different circumstances – of “grub now, ethics later”, is providing a banner for a politics that will continue to divide working class communities on ethnic lines.

Demand for democracy

There is considerable irony in the fact that, on the very issue where working class communities have registered most concern, the left in the Labour Party has least to say. That issue is democracy. Whilst the great majority of wage-earning citizens have shown awareness that stagnant wage levels and austerity-starved public services have made them poorer, their response has not, in the main, been a return to industrial militancy or its equivalent in defence of hospitals, schools, etc. Instead they have set up a complaint against the quality of the political leadership of the country which they accuse of leaving them behind whilst monied interests are allowed to crack on and get ever richer.

The populist revolt against the elites has shown awareness of the fact that Britain – and the English part of it in particular – is very badly run by a narrow clique of individuals who all seem to have gone to the same public schools and universities and who have a free hand to plot together with their chums in the media to decide who is going to have a crack at running the country.  Much of this agonising about the failure to govern in the interests of the majority has been displaced into an over-inflated antagonism towards the European Union, and hence the Brexit vote.

The left’s favoured slogan – ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ – has channelled some of the frustration and anger over the way things are turning out. But it leaves unanswered questions about what we could expect from a Labour government to reverse the huge increase in inequality.  ‘Trust Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour’ seems to be the most complete response, when what we need is a detailed programme explaining how political power is going to be wrestled back from the elites and rooted in a newly-invigorated democracy. If government is ever to be for the many then it has to mean a great deal more than just having Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10.  It will mean a democratic revolution that will transform the entire character of the UK’s ancien regime, decentralising the state and building new organs of regional and local government, all equipped with real power to intervene in the economy and structure public services in ways which benefit the majority.

More than a Corbyn fan club?

Three years on from Corbyn’s stunning victory in the leadership election, a huge surge in active membership of the party, and a dogged defence of his leadership against centrist and right wing would-be wreckers, it has to be said that the left has not yet made progress in formulating the political programme that would guide a Corbyn government and mobilise the social forces needed to bring about change.  Leadership supporting events, from the Assemblies Against Austerity through to The World Transformed still have too much of the fan club approach about them, perhaps with a sprinkling of contributions from star bloggers and newspaper columnists to maintain the sense that new ideas are driving the movement.

In fact ‘new ideas’ are the very thing that the Momentum leadership and its kindred cliques seem to be determined to block.  Check the debate on Brexit policy; back-track in the face of the bogus claims made by the right wing of a tsunami of antisemitism; and strangle any discussion of the democracy issue before it gets off the ground, are all part of the record to date.

But maybe it is not too late to change that.  It could be that we still have time to set out a plan for tackling the damage that Brexit will do to working class Britain.  Perhaps the left will consolidate its position amongst young radicals by supporting their internationalist commitments, rather than indulging in divisive ‘let’s take care of our own’ parochiality. It could be that the left will finally recognise that it is up to us, and no one else, to build and invigorate the movement for real democracy that Britain needs.  But if it is to do these things it has to acknowledge the need to become something a great deal more than what it currently is.   

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network