Big v Small Politics

Labour politics is all-too-often a spectator sport. Mark Perryman argues we need a transformational political culture; ‘small’ politics – politics from below – has the potential to generate the broad political alliances that we need.

At the outset of the Coronavirus crisis, sportswriter Jonathan Liew wrote a piece about the closure of ‘big sport’ – sport as ‘extravaganza’ – and its replacement by ‘small sport’: ‘sport not as something you sit and pay for; but something you get up and do’. For the duration of  Lockdown One, deprived of wall-to-wall coverage of ‘big’ sport, ‘small’ sport took centre stage.

When I’m not enduring the rigours of a Labour committee meeting there’s nothing I like more than a long bike ride along East Sussex country lanes or briskly cold lengths in the community-owned, unheated and outdoor Pells Pool. It is these varieties of ‘small’ sport that appeal to me. Big sport is our pre-eminent secular religion, and when there’s a big sport event, I turn to the back pages first. But despite that, it is the participating, not the spectating, that motivates me.

And it has dawned on me that this precisely describes my relationship to Labour and the broader body politic.

The Perils of Big Politics  

Keir Starmer has hauled the party back from the disaster of the December ’19 election, and plummeting support in the polls afterwards, towards something approaching neck and neck with the Tories. But will simply appearing like better managers of the coronavirus crisis than Johnson and co be sufficient to win in ’24?  There is a growing sense that it won’t be.

This is not to hanker after an unaltered continuity Corbynism, but we need a message and vision which is different and radical enough to shape the politics and economics of the post-Coronavirus crisis.  So it gladdened my political heart to read Alan Finlayson’s Guardian piece, ‘The era-defining question facing Labour: is there such a thing as Starmerism?’ Finlayson argues that Starmer

needs to offer a compelling explanation for why we got here, what we have to overcome, and who we need to be to create a better future than the overheating dystopia that we feel in our bones is already here. 

Having read, nodded sagely, and shared approvingly on social media, I thought, yes Alan, but how? 

Labour is a fundamentally top-down organisation. Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest single failure as leader was that, despite all the well-meaning rhetoric of Labour as a social movement-oriented party, he did nothing to change this. There is no evidence that Keir Starmer has any intention of making any such changes.  David Kogan’s Protest and Power shows how Labour leaders from Kinnock to Corbyn, for all their talk of ‘modernisation’ or ‘a new kind of politics’, have left party organisation more or less as is, so long as it serves the purpose of  reinforcing their control over the party from above.

The possibility of a big-picture politics emerging from below is very limited within Labour’s existing structure. Perhaps over time some kind of common-sense hegemony might emerge amongst members and supporters; but would the Leader’s office notice or even care?

Then, just as I was mulling this over, Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension was lifted, followed within 24 hours by the withdrawal of the whip at the behest of Keir. Whatever the right and wrongs of the case, its development has played out as ‘big politics’. First, the spectacle of a frontline politician making a statement for us to cheer on or boo from the stands. Second, a ban on questioning the manager’s tactics: no dissent in the stands! Third, the backroom staff stage a rebellion against the manager’s tactics, splitting the support down the middle: trouble and strife in the stands. Fourth, upset by the rebellion and fearing the possibility of losing half his supporters, the manager re-establishes his control of all team matters, sidelines his backroom staff, sends the player causing all this grief off to train with the reserves for the duration.  

It leaves me thinking that the model that Labour is most comfortable with in terms of organising is a supporters’ club.

The Appeal of Small politics

But like many others, that for me is not enough; I joined Labour not to be a passive supporter but an active member. The trouble is the party’s organisational culture provides next to no means for those on a journey from one to the other. As I’ve written before, we pay our subs, receive badly-designed e-newsletters from head office, complete meaningless surveys, do a leaflet drop or canvass come election time, attend a few meetings, and hardly discuss politics at all. When we do, it’s either entirely top-down (here’s the new policy), or argued over from opposing positions so entrenched we might as well not have bothered.

Lockdown, however, as I’ve described elsewhere, has meant (re)discovering the joys and purpose of ‘small’ politics, organised around tackling food poverty in my local area.

This ‘small’ politics has achieved big things. In my home town, Lewes in East Sussex, on Saturday 12 December, our Christmas food banks collection saw a staggering 7,002 items of food and household goods collected. Outside the three Lewes supermarkets for 14 hours were 13 choirs, 7 panto casts, 6 live bands – spanning ska, rock, folk, ukulele, brass and classical, 5 churches, 4 sports clubs and gyms, 3 bonfire societies (they’re a Lewes thing), 3 political parties, a yoga class, book group and bunch of chefs plus all the individual helpers, secret shoppers, loaders, drivers, and liaison team: an astonishing 300 plus collectors in total. In just nine months, a public, visual and aural coalition against food poverty has reached out to parts of our community entirely untouched by ‘big’ politics.  

A ‘small’ politics doesn’t indulge in the ‘cult of the activist’; it encourages everyone to get involved, at whatever scale and in whatever way they can; it emphasises professionalism but also joy and fun; and it’s participative: it doesn’t assume we know where we’re heading at the outset.

It is centred on coalition-building, not as a tactic but an over-arching strategy, a philosophy, and roots the coalition in a form that is public, visual and inclusive.  In our case, the coalition is centred on food poverty at the point of consumption. As the extraordinary impact of Marcus Rashford has proved, food poverty has the capacity to touch people in the way dry statistics of inequality and policy proposals of redistribution never will. We don’t aim to guilt-trip, but to raise consciousness, to spread the idea that a town helping to feed its community through the coronavirus crisis is something to be proud of, to be part of.  The parade of a town’s sports clubs, bonfire societies, faith, arts groups and more is a visual symbol of a coalition rooted in locality and community. ‘Small’ politics is a politics to effect change on whatever scale we can manage.    

When Small becomes Big

Such ‘small’ acts of human solidarity and organising collectively may seem almost entirely divorced from the ‘big’ politics of what the Labour Leadership gets up to.  But there is a continuity: the ‘small’ gives us hope that via coalition-building change can become possible on a far bigger scale. If we can do it in our small town why can’t that lot in Westminster? It encourages us to look to each other for inspiration and hope rather than simply looking upwards. 

But we also need to connect: small might be beautiful, but on its own it can never be radical enough to effect change on the scale required. In 2021, we have the opportunity to make those connections.

First, if as expected Labour comes third to the SNP in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, or at best a distant second, it becomes inconceivable that Labour will win sufficient seats in ’24 to form a government in its own. The last time Labour won, 2005 (when Labour achieved a record-breaking low share of the vote as the winner, just 35.2%), it did so thanks to winning 41 Scottish seats. In 2010, when Labour came close enough to almost form a coalition, this was because Labour still held on to those 41 Scottish seats. By 2015, we had just 1 Scottish seat (we won 7 in 2017, but just 1 again in 2019). ’21 will tell us what kind of recovery Labour might be able to expect in Scottish seats for ’24. If it’s below double figures then forget about a majority Labour government; the best we can hope for is a coalition. 

‘Big’ politics cannot afford to make such an admission; it’s admitting defeat before a ball has even been kicked.  ‘Small’ politics has no such responsibility. This isn’t about arguing the toss over a Progressive Alliance or tactical voting – that’s just a softer version of ‘Big’ politics from above – nor is it giving up all hope of what might be possible. Rather the ‘small’ politics response is to face the reality staring us in the face – that without Scotland the chances of  Labour winning on its own are massively reduced – and not be afraid to face the consequences: that coalition-building will have to be central to our message. If such a practice has become a central part of what we do via ‘small’ politics this will be the building block towards a ‘big’ politics version too. 

Second, the 2021 Labour Conference vote on Proportional Representation, or as I prefer it, Democratic Reform. This has all the makings of a politics from below.  It is a debate pressed for neither by the party leadership nor the organised factions of left and right. The natural inclination of both is to oppose, but should the conference vote be won, and a clear and unambiguous manifesto commitment be established to reform our unrepresentative democracy, then everything changes. A realignment of English politics becomes a realistic possibility, both to achieve the goal of a democratic reform majority in ’24, but afterwards too.  The consequences for Labour would be seismic.

But to properly grasp this historic opportunity, the ‘big’ politics won’t be enough. Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed the support of a majority (two thirds or thereabouts) of party members and unions, because he was a break with the same-old-same old. Critics can dismiss his appeal, but they ignore the reasons for it at their peril. The massive swing to Labour in ’17 following a declining Labour vote in every General Election since ’97 reinforced Jeremy’s support in the party, ’19 devastated it. But the dissatisfaction with status-quo politics hasn’t disappeared.  It is startlingly obvious that a significant number of those who voted for Jeremy in ’15 and ’16 voted for Keir in ’20.

The route to coalition-building for Labour is neither the winner-takes-all majoritarianism of a victorious new leadership (or ‘new management’ as Kier prefers), nor the unrepentant truculence of those who once filled that position themselves and now find themselves cast out, desperately looking for some margins to occupy. Instead it involves finding the means to connect a plural politics of  ‘small’ Labour  with a plural politics  of ‘Big Labour’: the long march from a visual, public and civic coalition collecting for food banks outside a town’s supermarkets to a coalition Labour Government with a programme of economic and democratic reform.  Get your marching boots, we’ve only just begun. 

Mark Perryman describes himself as a ‘coalition-builder by trade’; a member of Lewes Constituency Labour Party, his latest book is Corbynism from Below.