Chris Williamson examines the Labour Party and why we lost the general election while making a compelling case for why the Left needs a real grassroots movement.
The election defeat last year requires serious consideration about how best to respond. Rightwingers in the Labour Party have been falling over themselves to administer the last rites to Corbynism and establishment media hacks are anticipating a return to the neoliberal consensus.
How did we get here? The outcome of the 2015 general election was a shattering blow, a majority Tory government had been elected for the first time since 1992. But the gloom was lifted when Jeremy Corbyn secured enough nominations from MPs to be a candidate in the Labour leadership election. He offered a fresh approach, an end to austerity and an expansion of Labour Party democracy.
I naively expected the MPs, who had supported one of the other candidates, to accept the democratic decision of the members in the tradition of the party’s broad church principles. Sadly, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) had other ideas and set about sabotaging Jeremy’s leadership from day one. My naivety got the better of me again when I thought help was at hand after ‘Momentum’ was launched. How wrong was I?
Momentum made a big impact at first, mobilising grassroots members and helped secure Jeremy’s leadership in 2016 after the PLP mounted a coup in an attempt to get rid of him. The 2017 general election campaign was Momentum’s high point. With the Labour Party’s head office and many so-called ‘Labour’ MPs actively working against a Labour victory, Momentum mobilised activists all over the country and helped secure Labour’s biggest increase in vote share since 1945. Had Labour’s bureaucrats and MPs enthusiastically embraced the progressive policy programme set out in the manifesto, instead of trying to wreck it, the course of history would have been very different.
I was returned to parliament in that election, after losing by just 41 votes in 2015, and used my platform as an MP to get behind Jeremy and promote party democracy to give Labour back to its members. Giving members more power would keep MPs in touch with reality and make Labour an unstoppable electoral force. When Jeremy called for a democracy review in 2018, led by Katy Clark, I toured the country promoting it and urging members to get behind open selections as well. If we are ever going to secure a PLP that is fit for purpose, MPs must be made accountable to the party they are supposed to be representing.
It was in the summer of 2018 that things started to go wrong with Momentum. The focus shifted from mobilising grassroots and promoting democracy and accountability, to joining in the witch hunt against longstanding anti-racist activists. This included left-wing Jewish members of the party who were systematically smeared as antisemitic and ridiculed too with claims they were not really part of Britain’s Jewish community. At the 2018 party conference, Momentum also tried in vain to persuade constituency delegates to oppose open selections and embrace trigger ballots instead. Regrettably, open selections were narrowly defeated after most trade union delegations voted against, including the Unite delegation who opposed their own union policy on the issue.
Following that conference, things went from bad to worse with Momentum. The organisation is now a positively pernicious influence in the Labour Party. Its early promise of mobilising grassroots activists and inspiring working-class communities has been jettisoned in favour of a metropolitanism that has little or no chance of resonating with people outside a rarefied political bubble. An example of just how out touch Momentum has become was when its leading figures were actively demanding a winter election, which inevitably focused on Brexit and Labour’s absurd second referendum proposition.
After Boris Johnson’s Tories were returned, with an 80 seat majority, they will undoubtedly unleash an avalanche of attacks on working class communities over the next five years. His huge majority was gifted thanks to the hubris of Momentum and the likes of Tony Blair relentlessly calling for a second Brexit referendum.
The PLP will now be irrelevant and impotent in the face of this Tory juggernaut, so we need a new grassroots movement to do the job Momentum should have done. Any new movement must aim to engender a politics of resistance in the communities likely to be worst affected by the Conservatives’ plans. We should plan to have community organisers embedded in communities. We should be striving to empower communities rather than patronisingly telling them to put their faith in electoral politics and simply wait for the next general election. That will be too late for many because, as we know, well over 100,000 of our fellow citizens have been killed by Tory austerity already.
We should therefore look at grassroots political action elsewhere in the world. We need to organise outside traditional party-political structures. The Panthers achieved this when they organised against the discrimination, poverty and exploitation that communities were facing in the US. In the face of the state’s failure to provide decent services, the Panthers did it themselves. They established community assistance programmes including medical services, free clothing, legal aid and children’s breakfast clubs. The Rochdale Pioneers did likewise. We should aim to replicate these examples to help communities fightback. We also need to resist the Labour Party once again embracing the discredited neoliberal ideology adopted by Miliband, Brown and Blair.
I am working with others on organising a conference soon to discuss these ideas and to launch a new initiative. I think we need something with a loose federated structure that can share best practice but allow different solutions to thrive, because every area, every neighbourhood is unique.
I believe this approach has the potential to genuinely mobilise communities and enable genuine working-class leaders to emerge. They could become the next generation of MPs who could actually deliver the irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power that we hoped Corbynism would deliver.