(Overspill meeting at Ruskin House, Croydon)
I was slightly late for the meeting Croydon Trades Council held for the Jeremy Corbyn campaign on 4 August (“privatised trains”, joked Corbyn, who was even later than me). By the time I got there, the hall at the back of Ruskin House was full, as was the garden next to it, with more people inside the main building – perhaps just short of five hundred in all.
There was, genuinely, a real mix of people there – young and old, black and white, men and women, established labour movement activists and people pulled into political life by the Corbyn campaign. The hall was full of local trade union banners.
Croydon Trades Council collected details, advertised upcoming events and had a good profile. GMB organiser Nadine Houghton gave a very good speech on its behalf about fighting the government’s Trade Union Bill and defending the right to strike. I guess most Corbyn meetings, except perhaps the central London ones, are organised by and will help boost similar local labour movement organisations or networks. That’s one of the most positive elements of the campaign.
It was very easy to sell literature and have conversations (though I noticed there weren’t many organised socialist groups there). Interestingly lots of the people I approached, at random, were pretty new to political activity.
So far, so good – excellent in fact. It was great, inspiring to be at such a big, lively meeting. What about the content? What did Corbyn say?
He said lots of good things – about housing, about wages, about benefits, about public ownership of the banks. He called for an end to austerity, an end to pandering to the Tories, a start to fighting the cuts and fighting for the rich to pay. Even for someone who wants something more radical, as I do, it was good hearing all this from a politician with a decent chance of leading the labour movement.
The best bit of the speech, in a way, was Corbyn’s call to replace technocratic Blairite dictat with democratic labour movement discussion. He argued for an end to “secluded policy forums in leafy hotels” and for a “grittier process of discussion and decision-making in community centres and union buildings across the country”. He said that the policies he’s advocating are “not finished” and that the campaign wants ideas and argument.
In that spirit: there were some things on which I thought he was a little woolly. On lots of issues he cited detailed proposals; but on immigration he limited himself to condemning Tory and Blairite “rhetoric” and arguing for a “humanitarian approach”. From the press and reports, I’d guess that is his general pitch. More specific policies – about detention and deportation, about access to services, about immigration controls more generally – are necessary.
The other thing to say is that while Corbyn's speech had “socialist values”, to use his phrase, it was not particularly socialist. It didn’t make an explicit case for class politics, or do more than hint about the possibility of replacing capitalism with a new society. I asked a friend what she thought about that: at first she was surprised I didn’t think the speech was socialist, but when I explained she said “Well, it’s a step”.
And for sure it is. The Corbyn campaign has potential to break the blockade – not just of socialism, but of anything approaching a labour movement political voice – which Blairism has maintained for twenty years. The excellent meeting put on by Croydon Trades Councils shows that, as do similar meetings up and down the country.
If Corbyn wins, big possibilities will open up. To maximise the impact and opportunities, socialists need to argue within this movement for clearer, more consistent, more explicit socialist ideas.