Norman Thomas

Bottom-up politics: not one step back!

Norman Thomas
Bottom-up politics: not one step back!

IN JANUARY 2016 SHADOW CHANCELLOR JOHN MCDONNELL came to the inaugural meeting of Thanet Momentum and set us a challenge. Can you come up with a local plan to transform your community’s economic fortunes? If so, John said, I will present it to my shadow treasury team with a view to helping you turn it into reality.

This was just months after Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader, hopes were high and all things seemed possible, Thanet Momentum, with our organiser Jackie Walker taking a lead role, set about laying the foundations of the plan which we called ‘Another Thanet Is Possible’.

We analysed problems like low wages, unemployment and inadequate housing, which have beset this beautiful but depressed part of east Kent for so long. We assembled a group of economists with a track record of helping distressed communities to see if we could benefit from their experience. Most importantly, we called public meetings to consult and enlist local people in our initiative.

We were all set to launch a concerted, grassroots effort to bring radical change to our area. But then - bad things happened. Right wing forces inside and outside the Labour Party assaulted Jeremy with every dirty trick and smear in the book. Some of Momentum’s most active members, including our own Jackie Walker, were suspended on utterly bogus charges. Nationally, Momentum itself was torn apart.

Toughest of all, Jeremy himself was forced to seek re-election as leader. And we in Thanet Momentum dropped everything - including our local plan - to support his cause. A stunning victory, of course, followed. But hardly had we waded through these political quicksands when we faced something even worse - a snap general election.

Many, including even the wisest thinkers on the left, thought the Corbyn project was doomed.

Even worse, on the Labour right many actually hoped it was doomed. But, as it turned out, they were wonderfully wrong. A national grassroots powered movement - so grassroots that many of its members were neither in the Labour Party, nor in Momentum, or hadn’t even voted before - produced a result which put a radical figure of the left closer to prime ministerial power than we have ever seen in this country.

So what happens next? We campaign and work to make sure Jeremy is elected Prime Minister. And we resume working on our local plan for Thanet. But there is something else. Our plan and our campaigning will not be possible if we retreat one step from the grassroots spirit that has electrified left wing politics today.

Anyone who thinks that the motley band of greens and anarchists, passionate youngsters, grizzled leftie veterans, and assorted political pirates which helped Jeremy Corbyn succeed is now going to be satisfied with a return to ‘politics as normal’ is mistaken.

There are plenty of creepy crawly characters in the Westminster establishment, including Labour MPs of all stripes, who are setting out to normalise Jeremy Corbyn, to make him compromise and to tame him until he becomes a pale ghost of our socialist hopes and dreams. But we, the grassroots, won’t have it.

We put Jeremy where he is exactly because he was the quintessential non-political politician, the man who never courted power or position, the man who always put principle before advantage, the man who voted according to his beliefs, no matter what his party told him to do. That’s why we lifted him from the bottom and put him on top.

But that is only the beginning of our struggle, not its consummation, a symptom of our success, not its fulfilment. The point is, by definition a bottom up movement can absolutely not rely on change coming from the top - not even when it’s JC up there. Change must come from the bottom while the top must enable it to happen.

Our local plan for Thanet, we hope, will be a glorious example of this - people at ground floor taking their destiny into their own hands.

  • The original outline for the Thanet Plan can be found here. 

is Vice-Chair of South Thanet CLP and chair of Thanet Momentum