Against Voluntarism

Doing more, much more, of the same won’t be enough – it’s time for a different, better Corbynism.

Hastings and Rye, the final Sunday of the campaign. For the fourth time in six weeks carload after carload of Labour members and non-members, with more by train, have travelled over from Tory-Lib Dem marginal Lewes to help out in Labour’s number one Sussex target seat. 

It feels good, all together with others joining Hastings members from across Sussex and beyond there’s several hundred of us, the response on the doorstep pretty positive. But as we finish I can’t banish a nagging doubt in my mind. If the polls are accurate the Tories still have a big enough lead to win, what if more and more of us are making an effort for a message and with a method that has got it badly wrong? Four days later, Thursday 10pm that doubt was confirmed, in bucketloads.

Hastings and Rye mass canvass, Sunday 8 December 2019

No story to tell

2019 wasn’t 2017. Corbynism was no longer new, Jeremy no longer a fresh and unknown face unleashed in the TV studios. ‘For the many, not the few’ worked the first time round because it was so different to what had come before. But two years later, while the policies were, broadly, good we failed to create any kind of narrative around it. Two years of Labour being trapped in the Brexit impasse and a seemingly never-ending anti-Semitism crisis meant Labour needed a story to tell, and there simply wasn’t one. The manifesto was a shopping list of one pile of dosh to spend on this, another pile of dosh to spend on that. 

The morning before the manifesto launch Jeremy Corbyn trailed it as ‘a manifesto of hope’.  Wow, I thought, that’s bold, that captures a mood beyond Brexit, that’s positive. But instead of this we end up with ‘it’s time for real change’, no compelling vision. So just as with Remain vs Take Back Control, pitch Real Change vs Get Brexit Done and there’s no contest.

That’s not to say the policies were wrong, but if they can’t be packaged in populist messages, they reach not enough, not nearly enough, people to win the votes we need. If there was a large enough support to do something about billionaires, Labour would never lose an election. There isn’t, but nobody likes a tax-dodger, this is the kind of simple message that could have cut through.  

Or private schools? Abolish them? I’m not surprised that despite the euphoria when this was passed at Labour conference just a few months previously, the policy barely got a mention in the manifesto. Good, because what does it mean, nationalise Eton? Tanks on the playing fields of Harrow? Years of litigation, and then the schools would move abroad in any case, travelling to board in say Switzerland or Ireland at a fraction of an extra cost for those who send their kids to these schools can afford. Total waste of what could have been a good single message. A populist policy would have been to focus on charging VAT on private school fees. The well-off getting their extra advantages on the cheap, how does that go down? Badly. But go further, hypothecate, 100% of the billions raised, goes into our hard-pressed primaries and secondary schools. And localise, too. 75% goes into the constituency’s primaries and secondaries where private schools are located. In my constituency alone, Lewes, this would amount to tens of thousands of pounds every term. That’s the leaflet I wanted on the doorsteps, or even better, at the school gates: easy message, radical politics. 

Worst of all, the manifesto’s biggest idea, the Green Industrial Revolution, didn’t cut through, hardly at all, quietly shelved by the end of the campaign as Labour retreated into one-trick pony politics, defending the NHS. How many times does Labour have to lose to understand this isn’t enough for us to win?

Simply declaring 2019 as ‘the climate election’ didn’t work, for most it clearly wasn’t. We have to have the means to translate Labour’s green politics into a popular politics and the starting point should be coastal Britain. In Sussex, two of our target seats, Hastings and East Worthing, if they’re not already underwater by 2030 will be subject to regular and huge flooding. Street-by-street leaflets with illustrations to powerfully show this, facts and figures tailored to the locality explaining what this will do to shops, workplaces, house prices, canvassing teams specially trained to deliver what for many will be a terrifying, scarcely believable message. We had none of this. We should have done. 

Change from above

I wouldn’t have joined Labour if it wasn’t for what Jeremy Corbyn represented. I’ve produced two books – The Corbyn Effect and Corbynism from Below – on the reasons why, for me, and hundreds of thousands of others, the appeal of Corbynism was so new, and different. I’m not about to repudiate that. Those who do have to explain what they would put in its place, why the leader they favour would work any better than Corbyn, why the politics of those leaders who presided over first a declining Labour vote ever since 1997, and then defeat in 2010 and 2015, will do any better for Labour in the next five years. And while an active membership isn’t the be all and end all, hence my critique of voluntarism, if a new leader repudiates every part and facet of Corbynism, where will the new membership come from to replace the hundreds of thousands shoved out the door?

Thankfully, there seems to be a new leadership generation entirely capable of both uniting the party and maintaining the radical-left trajectory.  Most know if they can’t do the former they won’t deliver the latter. It’s a simple enough formula. And those who don’t seek to provide some sort of continuity with Labour’s rediscovered radicalism, what kind of party unity do they favour? These are entirely reasonable questions to ask of all the leadership candidates. 

Crucially any new leadership must be founded on a commitment to collective leadership, framed by co-operation and respect of differences, not enforced party discipline via the whip. Such a politics from above will help frame an inclusivity and pluralism, to convince all but the worst malcontents, on either side. We need this not only for the parliamentary Labour party but the entire party culture too. 

And when the leadership election is over, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott should resign their seats. Simultaneous by-elections, their politics will survive them but as MPs it is time to move on, to help the party make this kind of dramatic and very public break.  

Change from below (1)

The leadership election should be a genuine plebiscite of not just Labour members, but supporters and voters too, just like 2015 was, and to a lesser extent 2016.  

But the registered supporters scheme was hiked up from £3 to £25 in 2016 and isn’t to be reversed, and the short window for new members and supporters to sign up excludes tens, hundreds of thousands who might have been inspired to become part of the leadership election as a result of a campaign that lasts until 2 April. In 2015 almost by accident Labour became a mass, open, party – what the researcher Jess Garland calls a ‘multi-speed party’. All of this was chucked away when the party’s National Executive Committee met to determine how to run the leadership in the interests of either factional advantage or defence of a conservative organisational culture, or both. 

Yes, the centrist dads and mums might sign up in huge numbers, the Blue Labour lot too, but so might all those 2019 first-time voters who backed Corbyn.  If we don’t have democracy, we don’t have a Labour party worthy of its name. The Left should have set the example here, argue for an open primary of hundreds of thousands, making it as easy as possible to take part. But it didn’t. 

A further symbol of change from below would have been to elect a deputy leader who is not an MP. It won’t happen this time round, but why not a deputy leader to represent the members? Tom Watson was never Corbyn’s deputy in parliament, others served that role as required. Watson stood, and won, on a platform to revive the party’s grassroots, though what he actually did in that regard remains a total mystery. 

A deputy elected to represent the party outside parliament on a fixed term of two years, on a paid sabbatical from their current job. A start at least in shifting Labour’s organisational culture towards what a modern, democratic, mass membership party should look like. And the reforms need to widen too. The party chairperson, not elected by members, an MP, the party’s General Secretary, despite their patently political role, unelected, an appointee. All of this remained unchanged despite Corbynism being more or less in control of the party machine since 2016. Were those levers of power a target for critique only until our hands were on them, instead of theirs? Not good enough, who amongst the leadership contenders will change that? We’re not going to be running the country for the next five years, at least; getting how we run our own party right isn’t enough, but it would be a decent start.    

No easy answers

But on the way to electing a leader, there’s a wider debate to be had than just the party. If the early signs are anything to go by, and in most political debates the terms of reference are pretty much set in stone almost as soon as they begin, the debate, with some exceptions from the 2nd tier outliers –  Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy – threatens to be worse than useless.

We’re back to the impasse that has blocked Labour’s progress since the near breakthrough in 2017. Any full-blooded rejection of Remain while possibly stemming the losses elsewhere would have cost Labour dear in those mainly metropolitan seats we managed to hold on to. Labour was too pro-Remain for some, not enough for others. The increased Liberal Democrat and Green vote in almost every metropolitan constituency, the swing to the Tories there too cannot simply be ignored. Likewise being a staunch Labour leave MP, Caroline Flint, Melanie Onn, Gareth Snell and others made not a ha’porth of difference, they still lost their seats. 

The post-election Morning Star front page banner headline was ‘Remain is Over’. No, it’s not, by a long chalk. Any leaving of the EU will take years, 31st January is just the end of phase one. This will rage on, and on. Then there’s those pie-in-the-sky trade deals to negotiate, or not. If there’s any faltering in the progress, I wouldn’t bet against a revival of the Brexit Party either. Labour’s post-election debate needs to explain how it will cope with, provide an alternative to, all of this. 

We won’t get even close to that point if the roots of our catastrophic decline in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats are all heaped on either Corbyn or Remain. Both, in their different ways, are symptoms not causes of this process. Labour MPs, Labour councils, Labour leaders and governments who all took these constituencies for granted explain the collapse in support. Deindustrialisation and demographic change have changed these areas. The method and the message Labour needs to win them back will have to change too. Forget the platitudes, for the foreseeable future Labour will be a party of opposition. What is the practical plan for how we organise in these seats we’ve lost to arrest and reverse this decline? One thing is certain, a six-week campaign five years down the line won’t, Labour will just lose even more of these seats. 

We now have large parts of the country, in the inner cities, towns, the deindustrialised areas, who feel entirely shut out of Westminster. Taking back control, getting Brexit done, Scottish independence are all electorally successful responses to this, Labour 2019 wasn’t.

Democratic reform of the British state has always been a niche issue of the liberal Left which has failed spectacularly to provide it with the kind of populist edge in the way that Brexit and Scottish independence in their different ways have. Hardly noticed in the campaign was Farage’s assault on a 19th century electoral system and his support for PR, warts and all, is right. Any future for Labour must be founded on the wholesale reform of our antiquated regime but in a manner that will speak directly to those most shut out, not just those lamenting the predicament of others.

In the meantime, public services are going to get worse, and worse.  Our pride in the NHS was never going to be enough. We have to get better at identifying the root causes why these services are so bloody awful for the everyday use, and why they don’t have be this bad. Ken Loach is the darling of the Left, his latest film Sorry We Missed You a miserabilist epic of the dehumanisation created by the casualisation of employment. But not even Ken could weave into his film the very obvious connection between this dehumanisation and the privatisation of Royal Mail and the NHS, which created the cowboy employers running courier and care services.  Where are Labour and the unions making the connections with those who don’t watch a film about this plight, but live it? Nowhere.

The same is true of Generation Left. Two general elections running Labour has raised the hopes hugely of first rime voters, only to see them dashed by first a near miss and now crushing defeat. There’s no guarantee they’ll have the same faith in us the next time, why should they?  What kind of relationship over the next five years can Labour forge with the 18-21 year olds who voted for us the first time in 2017 and 2019 and the 13-17 year olds who will be the first time voters next time round. Not via the mini-older-me versions of Young Labour and Labour students modelled almost exactly the same as the existing organisational culture of a party entirely suited to the activist class, of either side, and just about nobody else. A party culture for the few, not the many, doesn’t appeal to the overwhelming majority of post-thirtysomething members, so how on earth is it going to appeal to thirteen-year-olds? Any debate that ducks this threatens to lose Labour its one demographic advantage. 

The coming storm 

Two momentous events are likely to shape Johnson’s term. 

First, the climate emergency. Labour was absolutely right to place it’s Green Industrial Revolution at the centre of the manifesto, but it simply didn’t cut through. Things are going to get worse, but that is no guarantee more people will therefore turn to Labour for the answers. As countless examples from history prove, the fear and threat of the unknown rather are just as likely to spark the reactionary, or worse. Labour needs to dump any suggestion of environmental determinism; we need a party equipped to be pro-active convincing communities that governments can do something to reverse this emergency. 

Second an irresistible demand for Scottish independence. Scottish Labour is already virtually dead, reduced once more to a solitary MP. Continuing to back the unionist cause will kill it off, for good. Backing instead independence would be a huge change, not just for Scots Labour but UK Labour (sic) too. It should have been made long ago, now it simply has to, there’s no other choice. And don’t bet on Johnson not granting an independence referendum either, he has no deep-seated loyalty to the Union Labour backs, the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland proves that. Having seen off the hapless Lib Dems and oxymoronic Conservative rebels, he can now get the second largest opposition party, the SNP, out of Westminster via a referendum the independence cause wins. A tempting proposition for a Prime Minister interested in only one thing, maintaining his grip on power, and never mind any principles.   

Hegemony rules

Labour is and always has been what is rather quaintly described as a ‘broad church’. For those who jumped aboard, or came back home since 2015, and don’t recognise and accept this, they joined the wrong party and will only ever be a destructive element within it. Goodbye.

But the idea that it is only a small but significant section of the Corbynite Left who refuse to accept the breadth of Labour is a dangerous and wilful delusion.  The most committed sections of Labour’s right and left organise at times with virtually the sole object of get rid of the other lot. 

Corbynism grew out of Labour’s hard left, before it never had the numbers to organise to any great effect. Since 2015 it has. That helped entrench the Corbyn project within the party machine but meant leaving the rotten use of the levers of power untouched. Just so long as we’ve got our hands on them, all well and good, well actually, no.

The everyday culture of Labour is anything but conversational. It is shrill, distrustful of difference of opinion, denunciation taking the place of conversation, the instant take-down of those we disagree with the usual response for an opposing point of view to our own. All this is common to Labour’s right and left, the latter lumbered as well with too many shouty men as heroes of the movement. 

None of this makes for the construction of a more thoughtful politics, one sensitive to the needs, concerns, culture of those not privy to – inside and outside the party – these kinds, of debates-come-arguments. 

We need a manner of talking with, not at. Listening to rather than shutting out those we disagree with; some, not all, of what’s being said by those to the left of us, those to the right of us, those of no fixed political abode. A conversation for all those who just want Labour to be doing better than it currently is, because we can’t afford it do any worse.   

This is what a plural party might begin to look like. Open to political differences, coalition building as our means of sticking Labour back together again. But this can only be the start. There was much talk during the general election of tactical voting, pacts, standing down for the greater cause of beating the Tories. All have their place, and Labour is far too timid towards embracing anything resembling such an approach. The heated denunciation of Lib Dem and Green Party candidates’ votes who cost Labour wins was entirely hypocritical, when there wasn’t a single seat Labour stood down in where it was only the Lib Dems or Greens who could win.  

But this is corporatism. A fix that treats each party’s voters as a bloc to be moved about at will. Politics doesn’t work like that, or if it does, it takes a lot mote effort than a last-minute carve-up of the requisite seats. What is required instead is a broad progressivism whose core elements are shared both within Labour and between the parties of opposition. These might include anti-austerity, against inequality, for a sustainable economy, both in broad principle and policy detail. 

The ‘Green New Deal’ had at least the potential for this. In such circumstances in those seats Labour cannot win, it can afford to be relaxed if another opposition party does, and in the far more numerous seats, still, where only Labour can win, vice versa. Sadly, rightly or wrongly in major part, Jeremy Corbyn made this impossible. Jo Swinson likewise went out of her way to offend, insult and lose Labour voters who might have voted Lib Dem as a second choice in the seats only they could win. Disastrous, for both parties. 

In Scotland, Labour’s vote simply collapsed into the SNP’s to beat the Tories with the progressive option most likely to win. This is what Labour needs to look like, across England and Wales: the progressive option that others are happy to back. In Scotland, where there is a popular and meaningful politics of changing the historic way in which we are misruled, this is key.  Elsewhere across Britain, taking back control is what the Right promised, and as a result won in 2016 and 2019.  What Labour should now focus on providing is the means of popular power to exert that control, something the Right, and the ancient regime, will never willingly cede. This is what hegemony looks like. Far more important than whoever the leader is will be their ability to communicate such a message and deliver such a change.  

Change from below (2)

While the huge numbers who campaigned in the target seats didn’t deliver the votes those of us campaigning hoped for, the scale, energy and commitment cannot be faulted. This is a vital resource for any future Labour is to have, both as a more effective opposition, winning local elections, starting 2nd May, by-elections and prepared for the next general election too. But being a member of the Labour party needs to amount to a whole lot more than this. The party under Jeremy Corbyn remained resolutely top-down, the stitch-up the default position, the last-minute selection of parliamentary candidates amongst the worst of this, to serve factional, left and right and trade unions’ purposes.    

Over the next months, Labour members will be voting in a leadership election. It’s just about the only meaningful vote most Labour members get. Meaningful participation in policy-making is close to non-existent. Local parties’ delegate structures serve to exclude all but the most committed who represent whom? Horizontalism, local initiative-taking, sharing lessons learned, all of this is given little or no encouragement. Instead, meetings after meetings, with no practical outcomes of any note, nights going through the motions, literally. What this amounts to is a party that involves a tiny fraction of its membership and doesn’t seem that bothered. What a waste. 

Going local 

The key to Labour’s revival is the local. To root the party in our communities as elected representatives of those communities, but a whole lot more too. This will take different forms across the country; there is no one-size-fits-all version of the Labour Party anymore, if there ever was. Those shelled out Labour Parties that represented their constituencies in parliament, ran the local council for decades, which now find themselves out of office with the Tories running the show, are one version of this.  

Elsewhere in the cosmopolitan cities, the Liberal Democrats and Greens are resurgent at Labour’s expense, their rising support cruelly under-represented by our rotten electoral system, the other version. And all points in between. The former we will only win back by practical efforts, of whatever scale, large or small, to help reverse at least in part the chronic consequences of the decline for these communities. But local parties there with small, ageing and declining memberships, few resources, made worse by the 2019 defeat, will be in urgent need of concrete assistance on the scale of a general election campaign. 

While in the cosmopolitan cities Labour needs to both prove its worth in the face of a government that will do all it can to control finances from the centre, blame local councils for their lack of money to invest and shirk all responsibility for the consequent decline. These Labour cities need in response to become citadels of the progressively different. Fortresses of resistance won’t be sufficient to give hope to those who while progressives have lost faith in Labour’s ability to effect the change they would broadly agree with too. 

No time to waste

The starting point for such a process of localisation, as in 2017, is a target seats and defences list based on the 2019 result. The focussing of all efforts on these was absolutely the right thing to do. But in the intervening two years, Brexit entirely changed seats that seemed winnable into no-hopers. Seats that seemed secure in a very short space of time became first at risk, and then lost. 

The objective sharing of data from the frontline campaigns is very poor. Almost every constituency, every sitting MP or candidate will say they need help, that just one more mass canvass could turn things around. Objectivity needs to frame the strategy; not gung-ho enthusiasm.

From 2019 we have seats within a 5% swing which on paper can be won or won back. We have defences which on the same swing against Labour would lose. Jeremy Corbyn achieved 9.6% in 2017. Johnson achieved a 6% swing in Leave-voting constituencies, while in Remain-voting constituencies the Tory vote fell by 3%. Here, Labour suffered because of a rising SNP, Lib Dem and Green vote at its expense. 

Next time, there may or may not be a Brexit-type party, and if there isn’t, the Right’s vote will be even more united behind the Tories.  

How post-Brexit these voting patterns will change is unpredictable, although the decline in Labour’s vote outside of the cities predates this and has shown no sign of changing since the 1997 high point. What is unquestionable is that any recovery of Labour’s vote has to begin almost immediately. The 2nd May 2020 local elections will be the first big test of the new leadership and the direction they seek to take the party in; another failure making any sort of comeback more difficult. 

The Tory success in the non-city seats was built, in most cases, on winning council seats first, then control of the councils there. Labour needs to do the same. And then prove, in the most difficult fiscal circumstances, it can make a difference. That’s not easy with the cuts, but Labour politics should also be about how towns are governed, community rebuilding from the bottom up, support networks, practical help for those with the ideas to transform their locality. 

A Labour party, Labour councils, rooted in these communities can begin to make all this possible in the way planet placard London marches from A to B won’t, serving only to confirm the resentment to party politics being a ‘London thing’ and never mind the rest of the country. On the doorstep is where we can effect change, not marching down Whitehall, Labour’s extra-parliamentary Left needs to learn this lesson, fast, adjusting its focus and priorities accordingly. 

And there’s another, awkward, aspect to this. 24-hour news offers umpteen opportunities to get into a TV or radio studio and become a representative of Labour opinion. Within easy reach of a London studio, able to drop everything to appear, mostly unpaid, those who can would do well to check their privilege. What kind of voices get such slots from outside this bubble? What would Labour look and sound like if they did? What does Labour look and sound like when they don’t? The Left is very good at critiquing the media, perhaps it should give just as much thought about how we use it too, because if the local stretches only to the vicinity of medialand we have a problem, of our own making.   

Pessimism of the intellect – was it all worth it? 

So at the end of the day was Corbynism in general, the 2019 mass campaigning in particular, worth it? A resounding yes, but. Both could have been so much better, but both were absolutely the right thing to do.  

Labour’s centre-right are vey good at telling us they don’t, and never did, want Corbyn, but they don’t have a single idea, not one, to put forward to replace him politically. Well they do, Remain, though even on this they are divided, just like the country, down the middle, some centre-right Labour MP’s amongst the most prominent Leavers. In 2019 the country had the Lib Dems to champion the Remain message, total vote up yes, but nowhere near enough to win more than a handful of seats. The idea that such a shift politically for Labour, whether in 2015 or now alone would have saved Labour from this crushing defeat, nonsensical. 

While the messaging was poor, Jeremy as leader not the universal plus some of us would have liked him to be, the deployment of our best efforts often ill-informed, a mass campaigning Labour Party has to be the future. It is the only way anything resembling a radical programme will win support, and power. But that process cannot consist of a door knock on the eve of a vote. 

This is Labour’s biggest challenge organisationally. No serious observer doubts the numbers, enthusiasm and commitment of Labour’s 2019 ground campaign. But we were there to serve, the time and space in the duration of a six-week campaign to create severely restricted. Now, we have five years to do so. But if Labour turns off the tap, fails to value, and trust, its single biggest resource, to empower and enable, reliant instead on a new leader to do this for us, then we confirm the worst suspicions of the voters we lost. That politics doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to Westminster and Brussels, and given the choice they’d rather be out of the EU, led by a bloke who said he’d get precisely that done, and not much else, now promising to transform Westminster too.  

Against voluntarism? Yes. Leave things as they are because that’s what our politics have been most confortable with since Jeremy became leader? No. For a radicalised Labour party with a do-it-yourself localism. If our pessimism of the intellect is to be matched by an optimism of the will: absolutely. 

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes Labour Party and Momentum. His latest book Corbynism from Below, published before the 2019 General Election, predicted many of the themes referred to above. It is available from here

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