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A Magazine for Sheffield

Labour: Change beyond Corbyn

When Jeremy Corbyn squeaked onto Labour’s leadership ballot, he was a 100-1 outsider. Nobody expected him to win, least of all a demoralised, fragmented and weak Left. While his victory is a huge boost, the odds in the war ahead remain stacked against both him and us. This is not defeatism, but a necessary starting point for developing any effective strategy. That strategy - clumsy and error-ridden as it will inevitably be - must nonetheless be based on expectations of lengthy and patient engagement, rather than on any illusions of a power which Corbyn’s win, in and of itself, does little to increase. More specifically, if his support base is to develop resilience, it must create its own capacity to organise, communicate and act. The nascent popular agency which has been evident in recent months at rallies and meetings must consolidate itself into a genuine social movement, supportive of, but not dependent on, a Corbyn-led Labour. In parallel, he faces the challenge of transforming the Labour Party into an entirely different type of institution; not an electoral machine, but a catalyst and focus for self-organising campaigns which both work within and transcend its boundaries. If both these things can be done, they may energise one another to a degree which surprises us all. But each aspect of this strategy faces serious obstacles. Only if Corbyn’s election gives his supporters greater confidence to conduct their own struggles in workplaces, over housing and against all forms of discrimination, can we start talking about a significant and lasting realignment in British politics which is able to resist the inevitable counter-attack. Secondly, in transforming Labour into an organisation capable of working with such popular movements, Corbyn faces a huge task. In no way does this involve reclaiming the party via a return to Old Labour values. Labour never has been, and has never wanted to be, the kind of institution which is now required. On the contrary, whether under Tony Blair or Clement Attlee, at the heart of labourism has been a belief that change comes incrementally, through expert guidance, governmental institutions and national, cross-class consent, not as a rupture driven by popular mobilisation or class conflict. Labour’s fetishisation of parliamentary democracy and lack of theorisation of the economic power that always circumscribes such political power has meant that not only has the party always been afraid of taking on elite capitalist interests, but much more importantly has never believed in the need to do so. What terrifies Blair et al is not so much Corbyn’s precise policies as his willingness to embrace a political agency which goes beyond a paternalistic control of the party machinery. Labour must either disarm this agency or accept that it will push them into inevitable conflict with existing power structures, inside and outside the party. In this regard, Corbyn’s rhetoric of Labour being a “broad church” and his emphasis on unity are acknowledgements of his own weakness. In another significant sign of compromise, he has already ruled out giving ultimate control over the selection and recall of MPs to the grassroots. The right wing of Labour has always been ruthless in expelling individuals who threaten its vision. Sooner rather than later, the Left must do likewise. Precisely such an inversion of hierarchy is needed if Labour is to be transformed into an organisation that builds people’s independent capacities, engages with autonomous movements (perhaps through a new federative, affiliation structure), and eventually enters the state with both a transformative programme and the support of a radicalised and empowered social base. As 2020 approaches, pressure to abandon this project will intensify as the logic of electoral politics re-asserts itself over the logic of social movements. The former requires a united party, the targeting of swing voters (thanks to first-past-the-post), and the appeasement of the powerful. The latter dictates intra-party conflict, the uncompromising demands of sectional interests and the acceptance that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Inevitably, there will be a compromise between these contradictory logics. The shape of that compromise will be determined by the balance of class forces. That, in turn, depends less on what Corbyn and Labour can do for us, and more on what we can do for ourselves. Photo by David Holt )

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