Building the left after the Labour leadership vote

Submitted by AWL on 8 September, 2015 - 5:56

Max Munday, co-ordinator of the Corbyn supporters’ organisation in Sheffield, spoke to Solidarity about what they’ve built in the city.

Why is the campaign shaking things up in the labour movement?

I think the campaign gives people a clear, positive focus. Immediately after the election we had demonstrations; people were clearly saying we don’t like the Tories and we don’t want cuts. This is more positive, we have a clear goal of electing Corbyn and an opportunity to get left-wing ideas discussed with a national platform.

There is a similarity with Syriza and Podemos, but in some respects the Corbyn campaign is better. As compared to Podemos it’s not based around a trendy leader, but more rooted in principled left-wing politics. Of course we may see similar struggles to stop a move to the right if Corbyn wins.

The buzz around the campaign in Sheffield is things like people wandering around wearing badges, talking about it in the pub, promoting it on social media, but it’s not just online stuff. A lot of people are regularly attending meetings and becoming active, and we’ve had very successful rallies.

How have you organised?

In mid-July we convinced a local Red Labour supporter who we’d worked with in the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory to host a planning meeting to kick start Sheffield support for Corbyn. We got 25 people. Since then we’ve met as an open forum, without reference to people’s status in the Labour Party. We began with lobbying of members at the different Labour endorsement meetings. We’ve also organised phone banking sessions, which have been well attended from across the city and beyond, across South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire.

We elected a steering committee to organise our rally at the Crucible Theatre and in Tudor Square outside. We did good press work. There was a lot of excitement and the Crucible was booked out in about fourteen hours, overnight, as soon as tickets became available. We must have had over 1,500 people in total. The fact that the event went smoothly showed people our competence but also our extensive connections in the city. We had a positive youth meeting afterwards as well.

We’ve worked with some very good activists to put on a meeting for BME people in Sheffield at the start of August. It was attended by a lot of Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali people who said their communities have been taken for granted by Labour for too long and who want to refresh the party on the basis of a united working class and proper representation.

The rally as an opportunity to bring councillors into the campaign, and for us to say to them, be open about supporting Corbyn, and we can talk together about opposing the cuts. We need to be positive, collaborative but unflinching in our disagreements. But bringing councillors in, that’s a good step.

We have activists who want to stand in the council elections — we have all out elections in Rotherham and Sheffield next year — but we need a discussion about the basis for that. Some people want councillors to take a clear anti-cuts stand, but others think you need to be more pragmatic, at least until you get a critical number of councillors and critical size of movement in the community. That argument has to be had.

The thing we didn’t get right with the rally was not having more grassroots campaigners speaking on issues like refugee solidarity work, our local NHS campaign, plus broader issues like Kurdish solidarity, so that people could see it’s not just a list of policies, but things we’re fighting for as a movement.

Who’s involved?

We’ve got a really good range of supporters, from those who fought for the left in the 70s and 80s through to people who weren’t born in the 80s. There’s about a 60:40 split members to supporters, and lots of people are tentatively involved in the party, because they’ve had really bad experiences of the right before and they’re nervous, but they’re also incredibly excited by this opening.

The older comrades have loads of experience of fighting for left-wing politics in the party and outside and that’s vital to draw on, or instance on tackling the issue of democracy in the party.

We’re going to have a workshop on the erosion of democratic rights from the 80s and the 90s, so we can better think about where we want to get to. We need to understand how it was shut down in order to reassert it.

What response have you had from the local labour movement?

It’s mixed. Perhaps because we’re such a grassroots network, working with but not run from the central Corbyn campaign, that has put off some of the more routine-focused or politically conservative union officials. Unfortunately we had unbelievable hostility from the Unison regional office when we tried to ask for their support, completely ignoring the national union’s agreed policy. That’s an issue Unison activists really need to take up.

We’ve had very strong support from prominent members of the Trades Council and Unite, who’ve let us use their offices for phone banking. Also a lot of help from the First Bus workers’ Unite branch. The summer break has also been a problem for getting unions involved.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’ve worked so well as a Sheffield campaign. Within the group we’ve got big differences on international politics, and even on Labour Party politics, yet people are really committed.

What next?

We’ve got a post-election meeting to discuss next steps on 14 September and a big social on the 20th. Socials are important: we also need to bring people together more informally. That allows more fruitful discussion and means we can have a labour movement that functions on different levels, creating a sense of community.

That would be my advice for people in other cities. Also make sure you get contact details when you meet people, and keep in touch, so you can start to build a profile or map of the area you live in, what forces you have in the party and the wider labour movement. If we don’t get these solid connections the movement could turn out pretty ephemeral after 12 September.

How would you like to see the Labour left organise after the election?

We need a balance between clear positive momentum around the policies and gearing up to counter any challenge from the right. Many of the people who are excited about Corbyn aren’t used to harsh struggles and arguments in the labour movement. We need to be realistic but we don’t just want to be defensive.

We should aim for politics to be discussed in communities, in workplaces, with a stronger Labour Party tied to stronger union organisation, but also stronger socialist organisation on the ground.

Someone said at a meeting the other night, “our [Labour] branch never goes to a picket line together”. If the party was active in workers’ struggles and the community it would allow us to take on the difficult arguments about topics like Europe and immigration, to pro-actively make the case for a class solidarity.

We haven’t yet discussed about how much energy people should put into becoming branch and constituency officials, about the possibilities and limitations of that for promoting socialist politics, but that discussion is going to be had. It’s worth saying that some people love being in our network but don’t want to be too active in the party.

We need a strong grassroots movement, to complement a Corbyn leadership with rank and file pressure at the bottom, because without that it will flounder. Trade unions are an essential part of that too.

Is your group a space for discussing ideas as well as organising?

We’ve got a plan to hold workshops, to understand the party better, to talk about democracy, also one about councillors and the cuts, but also we’ve agreed to have discussions on big issues like the EU. On that there’s a legacy of Tony Benn’s politics and a sharp disagreement on the Labour left. We need to be discussing these things on the left as well as in the formal structures of the Labour Party.

Everyone is positive about having those debates, which I think is a testament to the strength of our organisation and its positive, comradely atmosphere.

What kind of organising would you like to see at a national level?

The key thing is strong roots in local groups that feed into the national structure, to allow not only coordinated organisation but discussion of political program and demands. I’d also want to see the support given by unions nationally replicated in involvement at a local level, because without that we’re going to struggle.

I don’t think we should wait for a national organisation, we need to do things locally now. I’d want a national structure to aid and guide local groups, but not dictate every action. The labour movement needs renewal at every level, and the Labour Party moved to the right in part because we haven’t had, at a local level, enough assertiveness to counter that.

Now we’ve got an opportunity to do that effectively. We need strong local groups all over the country.

“Bring together the entire labour movement”

By a Merseyside Corbyn supporter

In Liverpool, organisation sprang up around the twice weekly phonebanks. In the last couple of weeks there have been times when we’ve had more volunteers than phones.

There have been two large rallies on Merseyside, but both organised by the district TUC rather than the local campaign. 350 attended one in Birkenhead at the start of the campaign and 1,200 in Liverpool later. We are soon to meet as Corbyn supporters to discuss the state of the local party and what we can do about it. Hopefully we will bring in some members of the affiliated unions too.

We need to assess the strength of our forces locally in relation to the state of the party and wider movement. We need long-term organisation and are starting to build that.

We need to put people in the same CLPs in touch with each other so they don’t feel isolated. Where we are confident and numerous enough we should stand for positions in local parties. But we need to be wary of getting bogged down in a long march through the institutions of the Labour Party.

I think we should call local meetings of the entire labour movement — the party, affiliated and non-affiliated unions, and community groups — to discuss how to keep a Corbyn-led Labour Party “on track”.

We need to be good party activists but, as ever, keep the interests of the class before the interests of the party. We should not simply become foot soldiers for a leftwing leadership.

If Corbyn loses we should guard against demoralisation and point out that we’re still streets ahead of where we were five months ago.

Lots of people will understandably not want to slog their guts out for a Labour Party led by one of the others, which is why the labour movement as a whole needs to be made into a political home for the people enthused by Corbyn's campaign.

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