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The Post-Election Woes of the Labour Left

Christine Berry

10.02.2020

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, he has been described as “divisive” by those on the right of the party – who themselves were determined to ensure the party remained divided as long as he was in charge. But the aftermath of Labour’s defeat is actually exposing just what a broad coalition Corbyn as leader was able to hold together: from social democrats to Marxists of various stripes, as well as a large mass of party members who didn’t identify as any of these, but were simply fed up with austerity and Labour’s failure to oppose it. The only people truly excluded from this coalition were those on the right of the party (and, to a lesser extent, the soft left) who voluntarily exiled themselves from it because they simply could not bring themselves to accept Corbyn’s leadership – the Chuka Umunnas of the world.

In particular, Corbynism was always an alliance of the ‘old’ left who had stuck out the Blair years in Labour (or joined from various socialist fringe parties), and the ‘new’ left of younger activists who had cut their teeth in horizontalist social movements like UKUncut, the climate movement and the anti-fees protests. The organising cultures of these two groups were always very different. 

Now that Corbyn is gone, these various tendencies are beginning to fracture – with splits opening up not just about who to back in the leadership election but about wider strategy going forward. The danger is that the left will turn inwards and destroy itself – and that these splits will ultimately hand control to the right of the party. But if we can’t maintain an alliance with ourselves, how can we ever hope to build an alliance capable of winning an election?

Missed Opportunities

In some ways, it’s unfortunate – perhaps even disastrous – that a leadership election is taking place so quickly after the election result, even if this was inevitable. A leadership contest does not lend itself to honest reflection and discussion about what has just happened and how we move forward. It creates pressure to dig in and defend one’s existing faction, refusing to engage with any arguments that might weaken that faction’s position. It further polarises the party and may exacerbate the toxicity of Labour’s internal politics.

Meanwhile, grassroots organising capability such as that housed within Momentum is inevitably being diverted away from proposals for creative bottom-up organising to address the structural reasons for Labour’s defeat, as attention focuses on the leadership race – which itself threatens to become divisive and acrimonious. The recent row about Momentum’s widely-derided compromise approach to internal democracy – asking its members to rubber-stamp their choice to endorse Rebecca Long-Bailey – is a case in point. Members undoubtedly would have endorsed Long-Bailey anyway, so the decision not to trust them to make this choice is baffling. It typifies the tension within the Corbyn movement between a commitment to participatory grassroots politics – to which new left activists are passionately attached – and the default top-down organising model of much of the old left.

Manchester Momentum’s post-election event crystallised many of these issues for me. I’d hoped it would be a chance for the 100+ people in the room to harness their collective wisdom on the campaign: what went well, what went badly, what we must build on, what lessons we must learn. I’d hoped it would be a space to create a shared strategy for the group’s activities going forward – from pushing for municipal socialism in Manchester itself, to building an on-the-ground presence in places we lost such as Bolton and Bury, to scaling up political education programmes. These are the things I feel motivated to get involved in, that I’m both excited by and convinced are essential if Labour is to win again. Instead, we were funnelled into groups based on our CLPs (mine wasn’t even represented, as I’ve just moved about 100 yards over the border to Trafford) where the discussion was largely about attending local branch meetings and influencing selections. Other than this, there were no clear next steps for activists looking for ways to be useful. I couldn’t help feeling it was a huge missed opportunity – and I strongly suspect it is far from the only local group where this happened.

It now transpires that many of the key organisers whose work helped put Manchester Momentum on the map are resigning from the committee, citing “political differences [that] have proved impossible to resolve”. This feels like a tragedy and a huge loss to the movement. It also feels like a microcosm of the tensions between Labour’s old and new left, between internal base-building within the party and organising with social movements and communities. 

Since publishing the first version of this piece on my personal blog, I’ve been told that this version of events is contested by some of the remaining members of the committee, who instead characterise the situation as one of a clique who refused to work with them. A few people have suggested that the situation, both within Manchester and more broadly, is more complicated than a straightforward divide between the old and new left. That’s probably true; things usually are more complicated. But just as many people (actually, more) have contacted me to say ‘thank you for writing this, it’s exactly what is going on in my CLP / local Momentum group’. On reflection, I still think that this distinction captures something true and important about two different tendencies and cultures on today’s Labour left – even if the boundaries between these two tendencies are fluid and can’t be used to easily pigeonhole particular individuals or groups into a given camp.

The Dangers of Disillusionment

In People Get Ready!, Joe Guinan and I wrote of debates about whether Momentum could feasibly be the home of both of these kinds of activity, or if the former would inevitably overwhelm the latter. At the time, we argued that this must not be allowed to happen. But recent evidence is not encouraging. Caught between the Labour right, who howl hysterically about Momentum “thugs”, and the old left, who are too often reluctant to change the way the party does things, the new left has always faced an uphill struggle. After the devastating loss of an election campaign they had thrown everything at, Manchester cannot be the only place they are feeling burned out and defeated. 

We may hope that more creative organising approaches will be revived once the leadership election is over, but there is a danger that the initial post-election urge to do something positive will subside into apathy and disillusionment – especially if the leadership campaign has been bruising and exposed rifts within local organising groups. Even if it is revived, this is surely the wrong way round to do things: in an ideal world, we would listen and reflect first before charting a path forward. We would go back to the places we lost, knock on doors again, hold citizens’ assemblies and work out what needs to be built to make Labour a force for good in these communities. And then we would set about building it, together.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that fighting the leadership campaign isn’t important, even essential, for the Labour left. I am not naive about this. Clearly, the outcome of this election will determine the space available to develop the ideas many of us have been fighting for in the last few years. In a worst case scenario, it could spell the end of Labour’s attempts at renewal and a return to the path that has led social democratic parties to decline across Europe. But if the left turns inward and turns against itself, the roots of this new politics may wither away regardless.

Whoever wins the leadership, one of my greatest fears is that the election result and its aftermath will seriously damage the left’s capacity to organise together, to talk and to listen – both to itself and to the rest of the country. That instead of building on the good things our movement has achieved until now, they will be dismantled – if not by the Labour right, then by in-fighting and demoralisation on the left itself. We cannot afford to let 2019 be the high water mark of Corbynism and of radical organising on the left. We have to be better than this.

Christine Berry is a Contributing Editor at Renewal. She is a freelance researcher and writer and was previously Director of Policy and Government for the New Economics Foundation. She has also worked at ShareAction and in the House of Commons. She is the author, with Joe Guinan, of People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government (OR Books, 2019).

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