The darkest hour just before dawn

Submitted by martin on 27 August, 2017 - 12:52 Author: Martin Thomas
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Review of "The Candidate" by Alex Nunns

Alex Nunns, a journalist on Red Pepper, has based this book on sympathetic interviews with many of the central people in Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 Labour leadership campaign. It's a well-crafted, well-informed view of the Corbyn surge as it looked from the top.

It's hard to remember now just how unexpected Corbyn's 2015 victory was. As Nunns writes, as late as May 2015 "it was easier to imagine the famous monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter and producing the complete works of Shakespeare than hammer out a plausible story that ended with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party".

Before the May election John McDonnell had attempted to assemble a "Left Platform" group. It flopped dismally. Activists around Solidarity initiated a "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory", and that got a reasonable response, but it was marginal.

Labour lost the election. Ed Miliband resigned. The main candidates to replace him as leader started to compete in promoting themselves as even more right-wing than they had been known to be. John McDonnell wrote: "This is the darkest hour that socialists in Britain have faced" for many decades.

Nunns quotes Michael Calderbank: "Everybody was tearing their hair out, there was despair".

A first lesson from the surprise is how easily we can underestimate the potential of dispersed and thin-spread shifts to the left. Years of small meetings, difficult literature sales, and so on can make us think that everyone out there is uninterested, when it may just be that we're not strong or dynamic enough, and they're not confident enough, to turn their interest in consistent activity.

We had all underestimated the growth of a left-wing body of opinion in the country, diffuse, indeed atomised, but there. Although meetings and strikes had become sparser, demonstrations had often been big.

Student protests in November and December 2010 had drawn over 50,000. Big marches had accompanied the public sector strikes in 2011, and maybe 400,000 joined the TUC demonstration in March 2011. Maybe 250,000 would show up to the People's Assembly anti-cuts protest in June 2015.

All those demonstrations, following the economic shock of 2008 and the "double-dip" in 2012 when GDP fell again, had left a deposit in opinion.

We had also underestimated a slow-burning and unspectacular shift to the left within the Labour Party. Ed Miliband's leadership victory in 2010, seen as a victory for the unions against the dominant forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party, had made some Blairites flee in despair and some tens of thousands of left-minded people join or rejoin the Labour Party, raising its active membership above the worst-since-World-War-Two levels to which it had fallen under Blair and Brown.

The promise of 2010 seemed to have been thwarted. Miliband dithered and veered to the right.

But "the 2008 financial crash [had] changed everything. Suddenly the Faustian pact [with capital] underpinning New Labour... was exposed as a catastrophic gamble... By 2015 the party had changed. There was no big moment of epiphany, just an unspectacular drift leftwards".

No-one in this new, diffuse Labour left saw immediate openings for shifting the party to the left. In Labour's highly-controlled conferences, there were few manifestations other than more activity on the conference fringes, a radical policy victory on the NHS in 2012, angry but unsuccessful challenges to the platform here and there.

But the leftward drift was sufficient to create wide indignation when Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall started the 2015 leadership contest all following the media consensus of the time, as cited by Nunns from the deputy editor of the New Statesman: "This is an analysis that's going to appeal to a lot of people in Labour, the idea that Labour lost because it was too left-wing".

So much did Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall live in a media-geared political bubble that they thought that blather about "aspiration" was the way to go.

Tristram Hunt, then shadow education minister, said Labour should appeal to "John Lewis couples and those who aspire to shop in Waitrose". As Nunns remarks, that strategy, "if adopted in [Hunt's] Stoke-on-Trent constituency... could have seen him out of a job. Waitrose refused to open a store in the town because 'residents are not up-market enough'."

A flurry, mostly in cyberspace, demanded a left candidate for leader. No-one at that stage imagined a left candidate could win. Many thought there should at least be a voice of protest in the leadership battle.

John McDonnell refused, and was cool on the whole idea of a left candidate. Ian Lavery refused. He had already opted for Andy Burnham. Jon Trickett refused. The journalist Owen Jones argued that the left should not try to run a candidate, because that would expose it to being "crushed".

But the pressure was sufficient that, eventually, in a meeting of left MPs, McDonnell told Corbyn: "It's your turn", and Corbyn assented. And that enough soft-left MPs, under pressure from their local members, agreed to nominate Corbyn that an addition of maverick and right-wing nominations was enough to get him into the contest.

"When Corbyn offered to stand", writes Nunns, "he was volunteering - in all probability - for no more than a couple of weeks of lobbying and media appearances, a chance to raise the issue of austerity and, when he failed to make the ballot, to demonstrate that the leadership election rules were rigged against the left".

It is fantasy, writes Nunns, to think that Corbyn "was somehow foisted on the party by outsiders". Without the pressure inside the party for a left candidate, Corbyn would not even have stood. And then "Corbyn was ahead among party members within weeks of getting his name on the ballot paper".

There followed a much broader "breath-taking surge of people inspired by Corbyn's candidacy". But that "came after party members had put him in the leader, after trade unions had lent his challenge an air of plausibility".

15,800 people volunteered for the Corbyn campaign. Starting from zero, it became a bigger operation than any of the establishment candidate campaigns.

In addition to the left shifts in the Labour Party and in wider society, and the self-destructive bubble thinking of Burnham and Cooper, two other circumstances were necessary for the year-of-the-comet concatenation which brought Corbyn's victory.

Labour's right wing had in 2014 changed the rules for Labour leader elections to make them simple one-person-one-vote operations among Labour's members and "registered supporters". The right-wingers did that because, as they peered out at the populace through the opaque windows of the world of parliament, lobbyists, the media, think-tanks, and PR, the only world many of them had known in adult life, it looked to them as if New Labour babble commanded wide support which would help them outflank labour-movement activists. They were utterly wrong.

The union leaders, who had through almost all the history of the Labour Party been the bulwarks of the right wing, were fed up. In 2014 they had been through a bizarre exercise with the Collins Review.

At Labour's special conference on the review, one trade-union leader after another got up to condemn the Collins proposals to reduce the unions' weight within Labour - and then to ask the conference to vote for those same proposals. They had decided to let Ed Miliband have what he wanted, and then to go for damage-limitation behind the scenes.

In 2015, the right-wing pitch of Burnham's and Cooper's campaigns signalled to the union leaders that they were in danger of being excluded from political influence even more thoroughly than under Blair. And Blair had after all been prime minister, with great resources at his disposal. They had accommodated to Blair. But neither Burnham and Cooper was Blair. Neither looked specially like a future prime minister. And the candidates themselves, we must suppose, thought that conciliating the union leaders was unnecessary, or would even create a danger of being stigmatised as "the unions' candidate".

So both the biggest unions, Unite and Unison, and many smaller unions, backed Corbyn. They did not get out many "affiliated supporter" votes for the ballot, but they provided money and resources and credibility for the Corbyn campaign.

The Labour Party staff's "'Operation Icepick' - after the weapon that killed Leon Trotsky in 1940 - ... [in which] soon staff and officials were trawling through the social media posts" to expel hundreds of Labour members and ban thousands of new supporters could not stop Corbyn.

Nor could the media hostility, though even the Daily Mirror declared: "those who look to Labour... must be holding their heads in despair".

Corbyn won, and doubled his supporters' joy by going straight from the leadership result announcement to speak to a "refugees are welcome" protest. But Nunns reports: "Members of his campaign staff [had] been anxious that he should not go".

That clash signalled some of the problems of the two years since then. And in many similar clashes it seems to have been the backroom staff who prevailed, rather than Corbyn's better instincts.

Nunns interprets Corbyn's victory as the breaking-through of an "anti-austerity movement" long incubated. In a loose sense he's right, and he qualifies his use of the word "movement": "The definition of a 'movement' in this context is, like the phenomenon itself, somewhat fuzzy".

Contrary to what Nunns writes, the local anti-cuts campaigns which had been lively in 2010-1 had shrivelled by 2015. There was no organised movement.

Nunns cites an off-the-record comment from someone in Corbyn's inner circle: "He's not an ideologue; he's not a strategist; he's not an organisation builder".

Corbyn had a creditable record as a voter-against-the-odds in Parliament, and as a supporter of working-class struggles in his area. But, since the early 1980s at least, he has never been an organiser.

John McDonnell had made repeated attempts to create Labour left organisation, through initiatives such as the Labour Representation Committee, launched in 2004. Corbyn was always off on the edge of such efforts. In the Labour Party battles of the years before 2015 - the fight against the Collins Review in 2014, and the campaign over the Labour Party rules review in 2010-1 - Corbyn played no part.

Drifting somewhat towards the soft left from his early loose involvement with Socialist Organiser at the end of the 1970s, Corbyn had become a regular columnist for the Morning Star, although he clearly dissented from the Star's "amputee Stalinist" line on Tibet, for example.

Before May 2015, it must have been, Corbyn had no political perspective than to spend a few more years before retirement (he was 66) casting dissenting votes in Parliament, and then to be an occasional speaker at protests and rallies.

Having been active on the Labour left for over forty years, Corbyn knew all the veteran activists. They all knew him, and respected him for his moral steadfastness on issues where he could see a clear left-right divide. No-one, though, looked to him as a source of fresh ideas, incisive thinking, or bold initiative.

But Corbyn had no organised group around him at the start of the leadership campaign.

"In its struggle for power", as Lenin put it, "the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation". The greatest political significance of Corbyn's victory is that it opened the way for the diffuse "movement" which had propelled him to crystallise into an organised, effective movement, capable of reviving and remaking the broader labour movement as a whole. But it only opened the way. It guaranteed nothing.

Once he was elected, he needed organisation and ideas to deal with the hostility of the great majority of Labour MPs and of the Labour Party staff. Nunns describes the conference hall where the leadership election result was announced in September 2015: "MPs... sit in stony silence, betraying their emotions with the occasional grimace. Party staff wear sullen, sad faces to match the black attire they are sporting, symbolising the death of the party they have known".

"In no sense was [Corbyn] or his team ready" for the challenges of party leadership writes Nunns. There's a general lesson here, too, for the left. Often the time that Marxist organisations spend on discussing history, grand perspectives, and revolutionary experiences seems off-beam to activists. Why don't we just talk about the immediate practical tasks, and leave all that other stuff aside?

Why not? Because if we do that, when history suddenly jolts forward - as it does sometimes, and it did with the Corbyn surge - then we will be left floundering at exactly the time when our opportunities are greatest.

On a personal level, Corbyn has not done badly. The coup attempt against him in June 2016, in which most of his Shadow Cabinet demonstratively resigned and Labour MPs voted no confidence in him, must been based on a calculation that, faced with such things, Corbyn would simply retire. He refused, won a second leadership contest handsomely, and then led Labour to a good result in the June 2017 general election.

But even that only keeps the openings open. It does not resolve the questions of organising and political initiative.

Beyond that, the year 2015 delivered two warnings about the need for the Labour left to sharpen its politics if it was going to go beyond protest to transform society. Syriza won Greece's general election with a left-wing but ambiguous program, and within months those ambiguities led it into administering cuts policies no different from previous conservative administrations.

In Brazil, the Workers' Party, which had made real reforms in office since 2002, managed to retain office in the October 2014 election. By early 2015 it was implementing cuts similar to those which its right-wing adversaries had advocated in the October 2014 election; by late 2015 it was on the way to losing office through impeachment, and the Workers' Party organisation had become so hollowed-out that it was incapable of resisting.

The staff of Corbyn's campaign, and then of his "Leader's Office", were mostly scraped together from the left margins of the politico-media-sphere and from networks at the top of bourgeois society, and.

Seamus Milne had been working for The Economist and The Guardian since 1981: any involvement he had with rank-and-file labour movement activism dated back to his days as business manager of the ultra-Stalinist newspaper Straight Left in the late 70s and early 80s. Simon Fletcher became chief of staff of the campaign, and then of the Leader's Office (until February 2017), because he had been chief of staff for London local government under Ken Livingstone and then trade-union adviser to Ed Miliband. He too had few links to grass-roots activism.

Worse, both Milne and Fletcher have politics which see the old USSR, or today's China, as viable models of socialism - politics which see bureaucratic manipulation, not working-class agitation, education, and organisation, as the key to change.

Jon Lansman, an early member of the Corbyn inner circle, had a more serious record. But he "made a bad mistake [in their eyes] on 2 September [2015] in agreeing to be interviewed by BBC Newsnight about mandatory reselection" and saying what he thought: that he had backed it for thirty-odd years. Lansman told Nunns: "I was hung out to dry [by the circle round Corbyn]... persona non grata".

He was "exiled" to run Momentum, an attempt to organise the new Labour-left base, and warned he must do it in a way compliant with the wishes of the Leader's Office; of the more-or-less-Corbynista, or semi-Corbynista, MPs; and of the union leaders.

Nunns quotes Lansman: "Really no-one has been taking the restructuring of the party seriously... The issue of how you actually capture the party and change it is not occupying anyone's mind in the leader's office". As we shall see, that issue ended up not faring well in the minds of those in the Momentum office, either.

The membership of the Labour Party has increased to 570,000. But none of the undemocratic rules instituted by Blair have been changed. The September 2016 Labour Party conference, despite coming just after Corbyn's second leadership victory, brought several victories for the right, unimpeded by any large-scale organisation by the left. The June 2017 Labour manifesto was widely welcomed, but it came entirely from a Blairite-type process - the work of clever advisers in a "Leader's Office" - not from any process of democratic deliberation.

The "Operation Icepick" started in 2015 has been continued, in fits and starts, since then, expelling (without prior notice of charges, hearing, or appeal) hundreds more left-wing members than have ever been expelled before in purges under right-wing leaders, and suspending thousands more.

Labour got two-thirds of the youth vote in June 2017. But few of its new young members have been organised into attending regular meetings. A few active new constituency Young Labour groups have been organised, but only a few. Labour Students remain under capricious right-wing control, and campus Labour Clubs anaemic.

That could be changed, even before much modification of existing Labour Party rules, and in a way which would be hard for the Labour right to exist, by Corbyn and his Leader's Office appealing publicly for a revived Labour youth movement. They have not done that.

Despite Corbyn's keynote appearance in September 2015 at the refugee rights demonstration, the Corbyn Labour Party has called no demonstrations. That is, it has called fewer than Michael Foot did when he was Labour Party leader. Or Hugh Gaitskell.

The political weaknesses arising from this delay in organising was shown in 2016 over the issue of freedom of movement for workers. For five months after the June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Jeremy Corbyn continued to defend freedom of movement in Europe. But there was no broad organised Labour left to support him.

Eventually he gave in to pressure from the Labour right, from trade unions, and probably from his own Leader's Office, and declared that Labour would drop freedom of movement and go along with exit from the European single market.

In June 2017 Labour's evasive and ambiguous policy on Brexit escaped electoral censure. Despite everything, voters still identified Labour with "soft" Brexit and a more liberal attitude to migrants than the hard-Brexit Tories. As the Brexit process continues, though - or if Labour should oust the Tories earlier - the evasions and ambiguities will be spotlighted.

The remedy to much of this was to be Momentum, launched in October 2015 by some of those around Corbyn, and with the help of the databases gained from the leadership campaign, to rally the "Corbynista" grassroots.

Momentum has gained twenty-odd thousand members - making it, probably, the biggest Labour left movement ever - and generated some good local groups. It has made an effort to construct a left presence at Labour's 2017 conference, after failing entirely to do so at the 2016 conference.

But it has conducted no campaigns within the Labour Party on any issues other than internal elections. It has publicly declared no policies to fight for. It has pressed for no democratic changes.

In fact, in January 2017, its office shut down Momentum's own incipient internal democracy, abolishing all its elected committees overnight and imposing a constitution which in fact gives all decisive power to the (unelected) office itself. It made that coup in order to forestall the convening of a Momentum conference, and for fear that this conference would adopt policies and resolve to campaign on democratisation measures in the Labour Party.

Back in 2015, Momentum was launched on a promise to become a "mass social movement", an NGO-type outfit with a well-funded office, a large membership connected to the office primarily through electronic messages and web content - rather than what activists like those round Solidarity advocated, a "traditional" Labour left grouping, focused on activity within the labour movement, and with the usual democratic procedures.

Clive Lewis was called in to write the prospectus. Lewis had been a left-wing student activist. In 1996 he ran for the presidency of the National Union of Students from the Campaign for Free Education, a coalition within which Workers' Liberty and Solidarity played a major role.

When elected as an MP in 2015, he told the local press that "the Labour Party now has to move away from the centre ground, taking a bolder and more radical stance... New Labour is dead and buried, and it needs to stay that way. We need something different that can offer an alternative". He was seen as one of the most promising of Corbyn's few allies in Parliament.

Yet Corbyn's victory, and the "management" of left-wing affairs by Corbyn's staff and then Leader's Office, made Lewis more cautious, rather than bolder.

Interviewed by Solidarity in January 2016, and asked straightforwardly whether he was a socialist who wanted to overthrow capitalism, Lewis strove to be roundabout and vague enough that the bourgeois media couldn't pick on what he said to brand him as too left wing. "I am a democratic socialist. But there are as many definitions of socialism as there are of capitalism... Do I want to see an end to neoliberalism and this version of capitalism? Yes. Do I think that there is a role for capitalism in the future? Well, I happen to be a pragmatist..."

Lewis presented Momentum in these terms: "Momentum will strive to bring together progressives campaigning for social, economic and environmental justice across the country..." It must be designed to answer the questions: "How do you become a mass social movement? How do you begin to capture all those people, all those in Avaaz, 38 Degrees, environment activists, tax avoidance activists..."

Never mind the manipulative overtones of the terminology ("capturing" people). The immediate problem was that most of the people who came to the early Momentum meetings were socialists, and socialists who wanted to organise and debate. Baffled, feeling out of their depth, and increasingly aware that their vague "social movement" model was unviable, Momentum's leaders progressively panicked, imposed more and more restrictions on the membership, and finally staged their January 2017 coup.

Momentum remains a large movement, and one within which work can be done, but at present is hamstrung by the anxiety of its leaders to keep in with the union leaders and the Leader's Office.

Again, there's a lesson: don't be beaten down by the common argument that "traditional" organising - meetings, debates, votes, democratic decisions, regular activity - is just too difficult now, so we must settle for clicktivism instead. We can and should be imaginative about our forms of meetings, but without high-intensity organisation, which means meetings, votes, accountability, and so on, we can never defeat those who now hold the commanding heights, or even the commanding foothills, of society.

Nunns concludes by arguing that the Corbyn surge showed "a movement", arisen "in favour of 'a new kind of politics'", finding expression in and conquering "the principal party of organisation". Such events show that "things can, and they will, change".

He is right that great openings have been created. But society changes in a socialist direction only through organised effort informed by clear politics. And for the diffuse "movement" which has come together round Corbyn to achieve that still requires a large further effort of organisation, democratisation, debate, and self-education.