We live in interesting times. It seems that everyday the political establishments hold on popular imagination is breaking down. On one hand, this is leading to the rise of right wing movements like One Nation in Australia, and the rise of Donald Trump. But more optimistically, this breakdown is leading to a resurgence on the left. New radical political instruments have sprung up in Europe and Latin America, which grew out of complex social movements and outside of the established political parties.
Surprisingly, in the Anglo world this dynamic has found expression within the old political parties. Jeremy Corbyn been an isolated socialist on the UK Labour party backbenches for decades, but last year decided to run for the party leadership. To the surprise of almost everyone, Corbyn not only won the election, but his campaign generated a wave of enthusiasm which led to half a million Britons joining the party.
The election of a principled socialist to the leadership of a party that has spent decades committed to the neoliberal consensus has kicked off an intense political battle. The new Socialist leadership is determined to fight for a new popular politics, but the established party machine and the overwhelming majority of MP’s are determined to protect their commitment to the political mainstream. At the center of this dispute is Momentum- and activist organisation established by Labour party socialists to cohere and and organise the thousands of new labour members.
The right to organise
The Labour party’s right wing has been quick to condemn Momentum, and claimed that its existence is a breach of fealty to the Labour Party. Surely Labour Party members should be organised purely in the official Party organisation, and not need other spaces on the side?
Pressure groups within and/or alongside the Labour Party are nothing new. At its foundation the Labour Party was not so much a single organisation, but a lashing together of various existing socialist groups, trade unions and middle class liberals. Some groups from that time continue to this day. The Fabian Society has been a forum for discussing (therefore directly or indirectly campaigning for) political ideas for well over a hundred years. Similarly the Labour Representation Committee was a founding component of the Labour Party. While it’s initial role was to coordinate trade union representation in Parliament, in its modern form it acts as lobby group for left positions and trade union perspectives within the Labour Party.
The most obvious parallel for the establishment of Momentum however comes from the parties right wing. After Tony Blair won the party leadership he and his co-thinkers established the think tank and activist group ‘Progress’. Blair was at the head of an ambitious political project that sought to radically reshape “progressive” politics and fully integrate social democratic politics into the neoliberal consensus. Recognising that such a political direction would generate resistance, Progress was established to furnish Blairite MPs with the political tools and organisation to overcome opposition. This took the form of research, publications and education, and providing training and organisation to prospective MPs to further their chances in achieving preselection.
So it may seem strange that Momentum is under such concentrated attack when there is such clear precedent for its existence. Driven by statements from right wing labour MP’s, there have been multiple media attacks on the group. The media and establishment labour MP’s are tripping over themselves to mouth faux outrage at Momentum and it’s activists for a supposed campaign of intimidation. So far, the “gotcha” moments are hardly that. Despite the hype, all that has really been uncovered is that momentum members publicly put forward political positions that differ from the majority of the Parliamentary Party, and that they seek to elect like minded people to elected roles in the Labour Party organisation. All this is, of course, obvious. What political lobby group would form for the purpose of not advancing their political positions?
Unfortunately, just because a media/establishment attack is an attempt to scandalise the obvious, it may still be effective. It is worth understanding these attacks and how they seek to disrupt the left. This is not just of value for socialists in the UK, but for others around the world it is worth attempting to understand these media attacks. They will often be replicated against campaigners, unions or political formations elsewhere.
It’s the Politics, not the processes.
It is important to understand that these media hits are driven from a political attack. There is no genuine concern about the procedures of intervening in Labour party elections. If there was, these sorts of articles from the press would have happened for years and would have been appalled at the actions of the right.
The real target of these attacks is prevent the growth of the left within the labour organisation.
If we accept that this was driven by a genuine concern of organisational process, and there was a breach of rules that was galvanising the right, there may be grounds for the left to review tactics and re strategize. Further, if this was a genuine source of concern, removing the tactic would potentially remove a source of contention and give the left more space to operate in the media. But those concerns are not genuine. The concern only applies to those on the left, while the right is given free reign to expel party members and shut down constituencies parties that are centers of socialist organisation.
Given that these attacks are not genuine and are driven by a desire to break the organisation of the left, any concessions to these attacks would be giving the right exactly what they want. Giving up organisational space would be giving into the hypocrisy, of the right, and weaken the capacity of the left to organise in response.
The same can be said for attempts to expel individuals. It is unlikely that the party establishment will try to expel Momentum en mass. It would generate massive political resistance and be hard to justify. Even if successful, it would potentially create a rival political organisation of over 17,000 members, which all parties would want to avoid. Expelling individuals however could disrupt Momentum by removing capable and articulate organisers. Some may think that this can be avoided by (for example) ensuring that Momentum representatives have pure political credentials and no past links to other socialist organisations. But these concessions must be resisted. In practice, it allows the right to dictate who can and cannot lead the left, a position they have no right to be in. And further, this would exclude many with important political experience.
Instead, the Corbyn left response needs to be on the front foot, and be political.
Dont be distracted, play by your own rules
The central objective of the political establishment is to disrupt the political momentum of the left. They want to make the left focussed on fending off attacks instead of building towards its own political objectives. To do so it is necessary to undermine the capacity of Momentum to fight for change. Beating these attacks means making sure that this does not happen.
The attacks from the right will continue. It will be difficult, but important to focus on rebuilding the left. Corbyn understands this. There is a reason that Corbyn used his victory speech to call for rallies against the Tories education reforms. It is not possible to change the editorial line of the major papers by argument alone. But it is possible to build a movement that has activists in communities across the country. Mass social movements can create the audience and organisation that can protect the left from media attack, and also create the basis for a radical government in the future. Being stuck responding to attacks will keep activists out of the organisations that can make change possible.
For example, the Fast Food Rights campaign to organise a union in the fast food industry and fight for a wage of 10 pounds an hour is an opportunity for the left. Building on the example of the Fight for $15 in the US, this could become a vibrant campaign that has activists in every city and town in the country. Momentum activists could play a big role in this campaign- and if successful could raise confidence of thousands of people in radical alternatives. This kind of confidence in alternatives will be essential if Corbyn is ever to be elected. It is unlikely to come about with the left caught defending its right to exist.