In recent weeks, the announcement that Jeremy Corbyn has managed to limp onto the ballot paper, if only through the reluctant endorsements of several MPs who don’t actually intend to vote for him, has provoked great excitement among some sections of the left. Fairly predictably, I don’t really share that excitement, so I thought it was worth setting out a few notes about why that is.
Firstly, it seems a sort of historically blind project. I might just be missing it, but amid all the excited endorsements, I’ve not seen anyone trying to draw up a balance sheet of the results of earlier attempts to transform Labour, in particular the enthusiasm around Benn’s campaign for deputy leader in the early 1980s, the entrance of several left groups into Labour around that time, and the long-term strategy that saw the Militant tendency briefly gain control of Liverpool council, only to end up expelled shortly afterwards. Say what you like about Militant, it would be hard for anyone to argue that Corbyn’s fans are more numerous, cohesive or better organised than Militant and their supporters were, or that the Labour Party is more open, more left-wing, and less bureaucratic now than it was then, so, if there’s a convincing case to be made as to why a smaller, less organised group of people would be able to achieve better results in conditions that are more hostile than those faced by earlier Labour left projects, I’ve yet to see it.
Insofar as Corbyn’s supporters can offer any strategic justification, it often comes down to a belief that, while Labour cannot be meaningfully reformed, a new workers’ organisation can only be formed through a split in the existing Labour party. This view again seems ahistorical, and a perspective that’s overly focused on the official pronouncements of the leaders of the organisations charged with representing workers, to the exclusion of the actual activity of workers themselves.
The most glaring example here is recent events in Scotland, where the vast bulk of the Labour Party’s traditional support have gone over to the Scottish Nationalists – does this development only count as significant if they pass official motions saying that this is what they’re doing? And this is just a more dramatic example of what’s been happening in the rest of the UK – the fall from around over a million members in the early 1950s to about a quarter of that today, the declining vote that’s seen them suffer a net loss of seats in every single election since 1997, the steady growth of UKIP in old Labour heartlands – do these things not count as a split? Ultimately, arguments for getting involved in internal Labour politics tend to boil down to some variation on “it’s not perfect, but it’s the only game in town” (or, as Andrew Burgin puts it, “the hegemonic political party of the working class”), and, whatever sense that argument may have made in Labour’s heyday, in 2015 that is just very glaringly not the case.
To note the erosion of Labour’s traditional support base is not to endorse either the SNP or UKIP as being any better, but just to look reality in the face. Not only does the idea of trying to influence the Labour leadership race ignore the steady ebb of support from Labour’s traditional base, but as a strategy it calls for actually trying to reverse it, trying to corral all those who’ve given up in justified disgust and persuade them that it’s still worth paying £3 for one last spin of the wheel.
I don’t particularly agree with the idea of trying to create a British Syriza, because any such party would inevitably end up tangled in the same contradictions and anti-democratic mechanisms that have ensnared the original Greek edition, but I do have some sympathy for the idea that the Labour Party becoming a British Pasok, as has already happened across Scotland, is a necessary precondition for the emergence of anything more inspiring than the current squalid mess. From this perspective, the idea of trying to round up disillusioned ex-Labour voters and members – as well as people who were never members in the first-place – in order to turn them into paid-up, card-carrying, Corbyn-supporting Labourites, seems like a peculiar attempt to close down the possibilities opened up by the erosion of the old Labour monolith.
But so far this analysis has still broadly stayed on the terrain of organised, official political allegiances, and it’s difficult to make a full criticism of the sterility of left-Labourism from that ground. Whether we talk about transforming Labour or building an alternative from outside, any perspective that stays too focused on the Politics-with-a-capital-P sphere of parties and their official policies will tend to find itself drawn into the electoral logic of looking to 2020 as our next chance to have a real say. Against this, it’s necessary to restate that there’s things we can be doing to make a difference right now – not to alter the hypothetical policies of a hypothetical Labour government five or ten years down the line, but to actually prevent the implementation of the real policies of the real government we have right now.
In much the same way that the Poll Tax was defeated by people who resisted the siren song of Labour politicians promising to repeal it after the next election and organised to make sure that no local authorities, whether Labour or Conservative, could actually collect it, we have the power to make all austerity policies unworkable, as long as we’re willing to resist them at the point where they’re implemented.
Worried about the increasingly nationalist, anti-migrant policies shared by all the main parties? You can follow the example of the Anti-Raids network, and particularly the great work seen in Walworth recently, and make it harder and harder for the UKBA to carry out their dirty work, as well as taking to the streets to block those forces seeking to push opinion even further to the right. Worried about attacks on workers’ organisation and the right to strike? You can join in with the grassroots organising around wage theft, the living wage, and the attempts being made to research and organise in the logistics sector to help build the kind of militant bottom-up response we need to push back against these attacks, as well as supporting action by the mainstream unions where they take it. Worried about the housing crisis? We can all play a role in building up a self-organised tenants’ movement, from the small steps of accompanying each other to the housing office, through the tactics that have seen off evictions again and again, to the great leaps of rent strikes and mass occupations, to build the power we need to fight both private landlords and the state. Worried about the attacks on welfare and benefits? Again, from keeping up the momentum against workfare exploiters to making sure that Maximus goes the way of Atos to just making sure that no-one has to face the jobcentre alone, there’s a lot of things we can do to build claimants’ collective strength in the here and now.
None of these things will bring down the government today, or even tomorrow. But they’re all things that we can do ourselves, without relying on politicians to do them for us, and we can do them no matter who the leader of the Labour Party is. In the absence of an explanation of how campaigning for Corbyn would make any of these tasks any easier, it’s hard to see it as anything but a distraction.