The Corbyn Effect

Nov 24th, 2015 | By admin | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage, Lead

Converting supporters and new members into active campaigners is the challenge for Labour today, but will Momentum help? asks MIKE DAVIS.

Democratic socialism is back on the agenda. For the first time in 30 years members and supporters are talking about what socialism means in the 21st century. If the Corbyn leadership can be sustained then we are likely to be campaigning on a range of policies which put both clear red water between us and the Tories and give members something positive to campaign for.

Chartist Conf issue cover leadLabour Party membership continues to grow upwards of half a million. There is  a new enthusiasm abroad and team Corbyn is beginning to score a few hits on Cameron over tax credit cuts, gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and health cuts.

Back on the agenda is a fresh way of conceiving politics, as something participatory, pluralist and active and not simply the preserve of parliamentarians or councillors, or something that happens at elections. Partly inspired by the Scottish referendum campaign and by social movements in Greece and Spain what Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell remind us is that extra-parliamentary work is vital. Without a confident, strong and vibrant movement outside parliament and town halls fundamental change won’t happen.

At Party conference McDonnell pledged to support every strike for jobs and living standards and show solidarity with anti-austerity protests – a refreshing change from the timidity of Labour for the past 30 years or more. Self activity allied to parliamentary activity is the wellspring of change rather than the patronising old school fabianism of ‘we know best’.

Change that people participate in is likely to produce sustainable results. A parliamentary Labour Party and councillors who seek to cooperate with social movements, be they trade unionists in action against steel plant closures, junior doctors against longer hours and further diminished working conditions, or homeless people squatting for homes, will mark a real transformation.

When we talk about the democratic part of the democratic socialism phrase this is what it means. Whilst the couplet is also designed to distinguish socialists from the undemocratic Stalinist models of bureaucratic, authoritarian socialism experienced in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and, yes, China and Cuba today, it also seeks to emphasise that socialism is nothing if it is not in the vanguard of democratic revolution.

Britain’s antiquated semi-feudal state needs that transformation to republican, pluralist, transparent governance more than most in modern Europe. We may have a relatively free press and media, independent trade unions, a right to demonstrate, free speech and wider human rights but this government is launching offensives against all these historical achievements.

Extremist government

Make no mistake this is an extremist government seeking to turn the clock back to the 1930s. We are witnessing a fundamental shift of wealth and power to the rich, with hideous levels of inequality, at the same time as experiencing a social state shrinking to pre-war levels.

So without the emergence of broad and combative social movements allied to Labour we will not secure the redistribution of wealth and power to the vast majority that should be at the heart of the socialist project.

However, Labour must be more than against what the Tories are doing. We must project a vision and a narrative which both explains the situation while outlining a convincing road forward. To achieve that change of direction and positive alternative also requires the ‘building of economic, social and political alliances way beyond our comfort zone’, to quote Ken Spours author of a new Compass pamphlet The Osborne Supremacy. It also means engaging with how people see the world now, not just how we would like them to see it.

Momentum logoSo is Momentum, the new extra–parliamentary group supporting Labour, part of the solution? It could be if it grasps these challenges and is able to convert the claimed 60,000 supporters into Labour Party members, or at least maintain a non-sectarian symbiosis with local Labour Parties, providing a vehicle for discussion and political education.

However, there is the danger it could become a distraction from building up an active Labour membership, a diversion from the battle to democratise Labour and prevent the Labour right from regaining the initiative. There are many unreconstructed Leninists with whom we can work in broad front organisations but whose politics are antithetical to building a democratic socialist Labour Party. The danger is that Momentum becomes a harbour for sectarians and authoritarians who have little conception of democratic socialist politics and don’t want to join a ‘reformist’ party for fear it will sully their revolutionary purity.

Our energies should be directed to building strong local movements against austerity, identifying popular issues be it the closure of a library or health facility, exposing low wage employers, especially if they are part of the civil and public services while championing the needs of refugees, the disadvantaged and poor. An urgent task over the next few months is to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people, especially youth, are not disenfranchised by Tory plans for individual voter registration and by the impending boundary changes which could be framed by these voter enrolments.

Transforming local CLPs into campaigning bodies involved in our communities will be key to transforming the 100,000 plus supporters into members. Local councillors should not be content to pass on Tory spending cuts but actively seek to support trade unions and citizens’ campaigns for social housing, maintained schools, lower rents, safer streets, maintained parks, leisure and learning facilities.

Perspectives

Yes, we need to have perspectives for the non-metropolitan areas. But people in ‘middle England’ are also affected by diminished health services, by rising housing costs, by insecure and low wage employment. These are issues around which a popular, even populist, democratic socialist narrative can be built.

The Tories are not sure how to respond to team Corbyn. They have not faced a socialist Labour alternative for many years. This raises the stakes. But a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win, providing there is no big split from Labour as in the early 1980s with the ‘gang of four’ SDP wreckers.

We have more than four years to build the alliances and garner support around a democratic socialist platform. Capitalism does not work for the majority of people. Neither here nor internationally. Private profit is not a basis to build a cooperative, egalitarian society. Of course there is a role for markets and private enterprise but the free for all we have with neo liberalism is leading us to hell in a handcart.

Now we have a Labour leadership that will be working for social solutions that put people before profit, with a wave of enthusiasm behind it. We need to make that wave a tsunami to sweep out the Tories and their elitist establishment.

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Mike Davis is the editor of Chartist magazine.

This article was originally published in the November / December 2015 edition of Chartist.

For more about Chartist, visit the website here, or follow them on Twitter.

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  1. What is needed is that Labour should move in a democratic socialist direction in what (overall) are politically winnable ways. Ideally, this should involve guidance from a Corbyn-led PLP which the party membership (old and new) should also help to shape and finally determine.

    We can start out on this path over the immedate issue of what to do about ISIS in Syria. We have a clear democratic Party position to respond to. The recent Labour Party Conference provides a good starting point, for it overwhelingly carried on emergency resolution on the issue. So Jeremy and the PLP should seek to further it. Nothing, however, in politics is straightforward. For in the current circumstances the resolution is complex and can be subject to differing interpretations.

    My own attitude towards the decision is expressed in an email which I sent yesterday to the offices of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Will it gain momentum? It went -

    “Hello,

    I hope that, whoever, receives this will bring it to the attention of Jeremy or to a key member of his team.

    Whether Jeremy should press for Labour Party support or opposition to any motion put to the Commons by Cameron for the bombing of ISIS, will (of course) depend on what exactly is being proposed. If the motion is over the top, then in addition to voting against it Labour has the option of putting forward an amendment to qualify the proposals.

    But as Jeremy is a strong advocate of internal Labour Party Democracy, a resolution on the “Syria Emergency” which was passed at the recent Labour Party Conference (moved by UNITE) should clearly come into play. It was overwhelmingly carried.

    It said that Cameron should be opposed unless the following conditions were met – (1) clear and unambiguous authorisation for such bombing by the United Nations, (2) a European Union-wide plan to handle the resulting increased number of refugees which the bombing would lead to, (3) the bombing to be directed exclusively at ISIS’s military targets and (4) that any military action should be subordinate to international and regional diplomatic efforts.

    Jeremy could buck at point (1) by claiming that the UN Resolution was not adopted under Article 7 of its Charter. But this would just look like a technical get-out to most people.

    If Cameron had his wits about him, points (2), (3) and (4) could be put down in his own Commons motion. Otherwise Labour could (and should) put these down in an amendment. Which it might carry, if it was the only way a relevant motion could win the day. In fact Jeremy should be pulling the stops out to further the Conference resolution. And he could be the winner. One avenue is for him to meet with Cameron to press the case.

    This is not a sell out of our past position, for when Ed Miliband blocked Cameron’s earlier proposals to bomb Syria the target was then the Assad regime and not ISIS. The situation has changed significantly.

    Of course, Cameron might use such a Labour-inspired motion to deliver only the bombing. But Labour should then continuously press for points (2), (3) and (4) to be acted upon. It would hold the initiative and the high ground.

    All the best,
    Harry Barnes”

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