What does victory for Labour in the Stoke by-election mean for the Party’s strategy after Brexit? Is defeat in the Copeland by-election down to Corbyn’s “weak” leadership and he should consider standing down? Those are the discussions dominating the media and occupying Labour’s right wing.
They should also, in a different way, be our concerns. In the first place we should resist the idea that Labour’s fortunes, respectable (as in Stoke) or poor (as in Copeland), are down to Corbyn’s personality. Such views do not deal with the political situation.
Sadiq Khan has probably articulated the Labour right’s current position — that there is no appetite for a leadership election. But that does not mean they are not on the look out for potential challengers and successors for the future. Any plan, from the left, to replace Corbyn with a more “media friendly” Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long Bailey or Clive Lewis is not a solution. There is no guarantee that any of those people would seek to uphold promises made by the Corbyn leadership on for example, nationalisation and capping high pay.
The major failing of the Corbyn leadership is a lack of clarity over Labour’s direction. Corbyn may well have been drowned out by right-wing MPs and right-wing papers, fudging his actual views on nuclear power, but Corbyn should have been clearer in Copeland that, regardless of his views on nuclear power, he will fight to keep jobs in the constituency. He need to call for a labour movement response to the pension deficit and other threats of jobs cuts. Of course the press — from the Guardian to the Sun — are lined up against a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Any radical and left-wing Labour leader will be vilified by the press. If Corbyn were to become Prime Minister the furore would be even worse.
That’s why Corbyn needs to be much clearer, sharper and more militant on policy. Is it right to criticise Corbyn’s performance from this point of view? Absolutely. It in essential if we are to build a labour movement that is capable of achieving even some of Corbyn’s more modest goals, and certainly if we are to go beyond them. If Corbyn resigns tomorrow, Labour’s membership would remain four times the size it was before Corbyn was elected. It will remain much more left-wing. But the Labour Party’s functioning has not changed significantly since the days of Miliband, or even Blair.
The current leadership, like their predecessors, conceive of policy as something issued by clever people in an office. Take for instance the supposed “red lines” on Brexit. Those “red lines” might have meant something if there had been a local, street-level campaign around these issues; a call to members – new or old — to organise street stalls and public meetings and other activity around these issues. Or to take another example. Labour Party conference passed policy on the NHS which included calling for an NHS which is “publicly funded, owned, accountable”, which is free “including prescriptions, dentistry, optical care” and “an end to NHS privatisation”.
Throughout the recent crisis in social care none of these policies were drawn on or used to sharpen Labour’s stance against the Tories. A weak call for more investment was all that we heard. top-down Yet for many years MPs like Corbyn and McDonnell rightly argued that the Labour leadership must take conference delegate decision-making as sovereign, as it is in most other areas of the labour movement. Now we see a continuance of a top-down bureaucratic approach both to policy-making and the limited campaigns Labour has run.
If Labour’s political machine is being obstructive on these issues, then both Corbyn and McDonnell should be prepared to go over its head. Perfunctory, top-down approaches are redolent of other political traditions as well as for right-wing social democracy; it is the norm for Stalinism.
Unfortunately, increasingly, that is becoming too evident in the politics of Corbyn’s office and Corbyn himself. The Labour left must push forward a positive democratic organisational agenda and rapidly.
Both McDonnell and Corbyn have privately made supportive noise for members who have been expelled, auto-excluded and suspended with no right of appeal. Those comments need to be made publicly and they should be at the forefront of supporting the left and the newly engaged activists in winning over the party at a rank-and-file level. The left needs to redouble efforts to turn local Labour Parties into active campaigning organisations that discuss and debate politics, going beyond either routinism or blandly supporting the leadership.
The right have successfully maintained or gained control of London Young Labour and LGBT Labour, with the left, including our supporters and friends, just not well enough organised. For some of the new activists, and within the Momentum leadership and office, there is an attitude of giving up when the situation becomes more difficult or when you encounter resistance from the right. There is also a hard faction of Stalinists in Momentum who focus on promoting themselves and witch-hunting Trotskyists and the hard left.
A lack of experience among many of the younger activists breeds disbelief in the idea that people will commit to anything other than what is made easy for them. We need to counter the idea that passive clicktivism is the best we can hope for. There are many issues that left need to urgently mobilise around in our local Labour parties and Momentum groups: from the NHS crisis to solidarity with migrants, but the drastic cuts to school budgets is a campaign that the Labour left could take up in every ward across the country.
Every primary school and every secondary school face cuts. A vibrant energetic campaign, linking up with teachers and parents, would help to revive local labour movements. It has the potential to win and to make Labour’s fortunes depend, not on the vicissitudes of the media, but on the strength of its politics.