When Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership 18 months ago, the odds were always massively against us. We were fighting:
- the state
- the media
- the Tories
- the PLP
- the undemocratic structures and rules of the Party.
JC had another problem. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders in the US, he had to operate day-to-day in a parliamentary framework, putting together a parliamentary opposition within a hostile PLP. He and John McDonnell were embattled on the front line from the very start.
The only possible way forward - to fight against such powerful opposition forces - was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below. Here there were lessons to be learned from Bernie Sanders – and even from the populist right in Britain and the United States. But here was another problem.
This was not the late 60s, 70s and early 80s, when the working class in Britain movement was powerful – so powerful that Heath called an election in 1974 on the theme of “Who rules, the government or the unions” – and lost!
We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. Although JC’s victory reflected in part a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neoliberalism, at the same time our movement was at a low ebb.
Our task was to rebuild the movement, utilising our leadership of the party to help do so. That needed a democratic grassroots movement, that would have to try – openly and transparently - to transform the party itself. By definition that movement, that insurgency, needed to be a radical crusade against the establishment, and an authentic voice for all the dispossessed.
But here was the conflict – how to achieve that while at the same time achieving some unity within the PLP and shadow cabinet to keep the parliamentary opposition on the road.
There were two aims – party unity and the building of a radical, democratic grassroots movement. How could the two be reconciled?
Momentum could have provided the beginnings of an answer. To do so, it had to be:
- politically tough enough to withstand the enormous pressures of the establishment, and
- radical enough to break from the old top-down politics that had so disfigured the left in a long period of downturn.
So far it has failed on both counts:
- It failed stand up to the witchhunt – and, in particular, the way fake antisemitism allegations were used to undermine JC and divide the left. This culminated in a political witch hunt within Momentum itself. If the left was weak enough to capitulate to the Zionist lobby, how could it stand up to the forces of establishment reaction against a Corbyn-led labour government? And now only one centre-left grassroots NEC member voted against referring Jackie Walker and Mark Wadsworth to the right wing dominated NCC (with 2 others from the centre-left in favour of referral to the NCC and 3 abstentions).
- It failed to break from the old politics, culminating in the Lansman coup and the abolition of Momentum’s grassroots structures, and the separation of Momentum’s leadership from the local branches – which would have to become pivotal in changing the balance of forces within the Party.
This has culminated in the recent crisis in which Momentum has been forced onto the back foot. It is a crisis that goes well beyond the failures of Jon Lansman. We have put too much emphasis on bureaucratic manoeuvres at the top, such as doing deals with Unite - which at best must be an adjunct to building a mass movement, rather than a replacement for it. And we need to build our forces at the base of the trade unions.
As Matt Wrack put it in March 2017 Briefing, “If we want to reverse the decline of the past 30 years it will need to be done from the bottom up. General Secretaries may not always be too comfortable with the sort of rebellion which will be necessary - but it will be necessary nonetheless.”
Time is short. Our leaders cannot hope to survive and win without a mass movement behind it – a movement rooted in our communities and, through that, wired into our Constituency Labour Parties. We need to re-unite our fractured forces.
The opportunities - with the transformation of the party into a mass party with the unprecedented influx of members – were, and still are, the chance of a lifetime.
South Thanet CLP and member of the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing