John McTernan isn’t the only Labour person who gets published in the Telegraph:
By Sasha Ismail
Most Labour “moderates” must have expected a crushing Corbyn victory, but this result will surely have left many feeling bewildered. As a campaigner for Corbyn, let me explain what I think is happening and offer some advice.
To listen to some on Labour Right you’d think the party membership had lost their minds. This is ironic given the anti-Corbyn camp’s behaviour over the last year, and particularly the last three months. In any case, we’re far from mad; there is something deeper going on.
The movement which swept Corbyn to office, and has just crushed the attempt to remove him, is fundamentally a class movement. It reflects the deep frustration of various sections of Britain’s working population with the bland, technocratic political consensus which has served the interests of employers and the rich so well for thirty years, and spectacularly enriched them during the decade of “austerity”.
Yes, “Corbynism” is primarily based among big city-based and more formally educated workers (which is not necessarily the same as better-off workers – let alone the absurd idea that Corbyn’s support is a movement of the wealthy). But Labour MPs and the whole middle-to-upper-class social layer who make up the main cadres of the Labour Right cannot understand the anger and frustration which has given such drive to the new Labour Left because they have not suffered in the same way that even better-off workers have since the financial meltdown – from falling real wages, gutted public services, and a spiralling housing crisis.
And to those who didn’t share at all in the “boom years” before 2008 but at best trod water, suffering under New Labour’s regime of “flexible labour markets”, privatisation and burgeoning inequality, the Labour Right almost literally have nothing to say – except to pander to the attempts of nationalists to divide workers. Blairism wanted to exorcise the discourse of class from politics to better serve capitalism. But class reasserted itself with a vengeance, in various ways. In that sense, the Corbyn movement and the rise of Ukip have the same root. The latter represents a reactionary revolt against elite-consensus politics, the former the beginnings of a progressive one. There is a similar polarisation in many countries – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders being an obvious example – for similar reasons.
The Labour Right have numerous advantages, but so far they have failed to stifle the Corbyn movement precisely because it is a movement, whereas they are not. Their attacks on us remind Labour members and supporters precisely of what they hate about “New Labour”, reinforcing our determination and our numbers. That is why Momentum as a whole and its groups across the country have experienced such a remarkable surge of support and involvement since the coup. Owen Smith can talk Left, while Corbyn sounds all too moderate – but Smith “smells” like a man of the capitalist establishment, while Corbyn does not. Labour people are not stupid; we have a good sense of smell. And, at the end of the day, like it or not, antagonistic and clashing class interests do exist. As long as they do, labour movements will emerge and re-emerge, no matter how much they driven down (physically or ideologically).
Of course this won’t happen automatically. The Corbyn movement must conceive of itself as an attempt to revive the labour movement and make it a force in society once again. It needs to radically shake up the structures and culture of the Labour Party, rejecting the idea we can go back to the 2015-16 status quo – but conceive this not as an end in itself, but part of a drive to build a social movement which takes on the rich and helps workers and communities organise in their own interests.
Because make no mistake: even at a time of low strike figures and underlying low confidence among workers, there are plenty of struggles Labour can mobilise behind, help win, and help make the beginning of a wider movement. From newly unionised fast food workers and cleaners to growing housing struggles in working-class communities, from the Picturehouse cinema workers striking for the Living Wage to the junior doctors, the Labour Party needs to organise and act to justify its name. There is a new workers’ movement waiting to be born.
A reinstatement of class politics means reviving trade unions. It also means talking about the idea of workers’ representation – not just how we select our candidates for Parliament, for instance, but who they are. Why should Labour candidates be mainly Spads, highly paid lawyers, heads of think tanks and NGOs? Why shouldn’t they be train drivers, teachers, cleaners, fast food workers, social workers, posties, care workers? Why shouldn’t they be people with a record of trade union and community struggles?
All this requires us to challenge some of the fuzzier populist ideas among Corbyn supporters. A lot of Corbyn-supporters’ organisational thinking inadvertently mirrors a Blairite, media- and internet-driven version of “democracy” (cleansed of its more unpleasant aspects). A new model Labour Party can and should be much more ambitious about its use of new media, but more “online consultation” and policies cooked up in the leader’s office are not what we need – a structured democracy based on an active membership is. Most urgently, we need to deal with the party bureaucracy. If we don’t it will continue to act as a permanently organised factional machine to undermine Corbyn and trample the membership. A “clean slate” won’t do.
A democratically organised party, freed from its bureaucratic tethers, inspiring and mobilising hundreds of thousands of members and linked to a revived trade union movement, could become powerful, reach out to wide layers of society and win millions over to its ideas. It could finally create a force capable of bridging the divisions of origin, ethnicity and religion which the Right in various forms has so capably entrenched over the last two decades – a force allowing the majority to act unitedly in their own interests.
Potentially, it could go further and restore to the political agenda the unsettled aspiration of the old Labour Left – the task of replacing this society of inequality and exploitation with a new one based on meaningful democracy, collective ownership and sustainable provision for human need.
I don’t think I’m naive. Posing the question of socialism is a long way off. It will be a hard struggle even to transform Labour, oust the Tories and change society’s direction. But we need to begin the work now, not go on as we did before.
Let me finish with an appeal to the Labour “moderate” rank and file. You should be angry at your leaders. You should be angry at self-styled Labour loyalists who have done their best to wreck our party; at self-styled social democrats who have strained every muscle to defend unrestrained neo-liberalism and the interests of the rich. There is a place for you in a transformed Labour Party and labour movement, but not for the professional wreckers. Help us call them to account.
Sacha Ismail is a campaigner in Momentum’s Lewisham branch