Ruth Cashman, who is standing for election to the Momentum National Co-ordinating Group (London region), discusses the future of the left.
Part three of three articles. Part one, 'How I Became a Socialist' + part two, 'The irreplaceable strategy of simply keeping going'.
The depth of the recession facing us means that the Tories might either force through an enormous amount of new cuts or that they will calculate that such a magnitude of cuts are not worth it. That the economic hit and ensuing social chaos will be too great. Whatever is in store for us, it has been a big failure of the Labour Party and of the Labour left to shy away from fighting cuts in local government over the last decade because that has been, in many ways, the epicentre of the cuts over the last ten and more years.
Unfortunately, the debate taking place around the Momentum NCG election has not so far got to grips with these hugely important issues. Both the Momentum Renewal and Forward Momentum slate and many of the activists engaging in the elections are talking about things that are meaningless to most people.
For example, I have been to several hustings where the main question has been, “how will you get a united slate for the Labour’s National Executive?” But there is no discussion what the political purpose of that united slate should be. No one is saying, “we need to build a movement against local government cuts.” Some are saying “We need to talk about supporting our councillors in their municipal socialism.” But what does that even mean in this context, when we are faced with the deepest of economic recessions, presided over by a right-wing populist Tory government?
Nobody, with the exception of Momentum Internationalists and the Anticapitalist Platform is talking about the coming crisis. That is extraordinary. Already lots of people have lost their jobs. How can you put yourself up to be the leadership of part of the labour movement and not talk about these realities? There are Unite officials on both platforms and Unite members are losing their jobs — tens of thousands of British Airways workers are faced with losing their jobs, for example. Yet there has been no connection to these realities in this election.
I think it reflects the way that, over years, the left has lost its connections with a working class base. It leads an orientation towards trade unions that is hollowed out and tokenistic. On the surface, statements such as, “We need to not just work with General Secretaries but also rank and file members” sound nice, but there is no understanding here that we also, right now, need to rebuild the labour movement's rank-and-file.
There is a lot of discussion about “winning back the Red Wall”, but this too is shallow. If you want to blame Remainers and Londoners for losing Labour the election, you won't do the necessary thinking about what is really going on; that the labour movement was defeated years ago in these areas and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
The task ahead is enormous. There are lots of people in working class communities who are already voting for Tory governments and blaming migrants and who, along with the rest of us, now face a huge recession. Where there is very little labour movement infrastructure, we may well see a growth of far right ideas and organisation.
It is quite hard for either of the main slates to talk about the bigger picture because that would mean talking honestly about the politics of Brexit and what it represented. Neither slate wants to do that. For people in Forward Momentum it is too controversial and risks dividing their carefully balanced alliance. Many people in Momentum Renewal supported Brexit, but they also know that the majority of labour movement activists opposed it.
This political paralysis reflects the fragmented state of the labour movement. For sure, some people on the Forward Momentum slate have better politics than many trade union leaders. But nevertheless, trade unions are class organisations and trade unionists have to, sooner or later, be involved front and centre in struggles. Many people in and around the Corbyn movement are still not meaningfully involved in unions. Sooner or later they will have to be. They will need to make a conscious choice to be involved in the class struggle, including the necessary fight against council cuts.
The Black Lives Matter movement has really shown how struggle changes your outlook on everything. People's conversations about racism and the police are hurtling forward, precisely because they are faced with a struggle. Because they have had to pick a side and think about the issues involved.
In the near future we will have struggles over job cuts and conditions; there may be mass evictions across the country. How the left deals with this, and what it decides to do, is still to be decided.
There will be newly inspired activists, and socialists have a duty to involve them in the labour movement – the trade unions and the Labour Party - and pass on knowledge and experience. Already we’ve seen new activists come forward as part of the BLM movement. The kind of things they are doing and saying shows that they are, in some ways, miles ahead of people in this Momentum campaign. That’s shown by the way - for example - American liberals have called for the abolition of the police. (Compare that to Momentum declaring the police socialism in action, because we pay for them through taxation!) It reflects an instinct against injustice and racism. They are throwing themselves into a fight and have to decide on the rights and wrongs of the issues through visceral experiences.
Despite it all, the Corbyn years showed that it was possible for the left to be popular. That is an enduring positive legacy. But we have to move on. In this period, all of the problems of Corbynism — the obsession with triangulation, the tail-ending of the most reactionary bits of the class — are going to those who hang on to that side of Corbynism, outside of the terrain of the struggle. The left has to change or it become completely irrelevant for the future.