Where next for the soft left?

With the results of the NEC elections out, we know that the vote share in the CLP section was 9% for Open Labour, with the two main factions on 37% for Grassroots Voice and 31% for Labour To Win. Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite talks to Tom Miller, founder member and, until recently, co-chair of Open Labour, about the prospects for the soft left.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (FSB): So how are you feeling in the aftermath of the election?

Tom Miller (TM): Open Labour supported Ann Black last time round, but that campaign was organised outside of Open Labour, with us playing a supporting role. This time was different – this was really our first shot at fighting an NEC election.

We had two candidates in the CLP section; Ann Black got on there again, but it’s a real shame that Jermain Jackman didn’t get on. I think he’ll have a really good shot if he stands again, though, and in his case, there’s a chance that he might stand next time as a candidate for both Open Labour and Momentum – I personally really hope that’s something that happens. 

We also got Alice Perry on in the Councillors section, and our candidate for disability officer, George Lindars-Hammond, came really close to being elected.

With 9% of the vote we’re established pretty clearly as the third force within the party, and we’re potentially a swing vote on some issues, so there’s a lot to celebrate and to build on.

It’s really important to think carefully about what conclusions we draw from the NEC elections. I think the results show a party membership which leans to the left, but which is politically diverse. It also shows a lack of compromise between the two much better-resourced and established factions. The Labour To Win vote share is pretty stagnant, and the Grassroots Voice share declined by about 9% on the elections earlier this year, a decline that I think will continue as long as they don’t have the party leader. That means that eventually they’re going to have to start talking to other groups: I think a lot more should be – and will have to be – done to negotiate between factions. So our call to everyone would be to start talking. 

FSB: There was also an increase in voters not just voting for one slate – and though Grassroots Voice voters tended to vote ‘down the line’ more than Labour To Win voters, it wasn’t by much. 

TM: Yes, and there are some strategic lessons for us there. We didn’t call on our supporters to preference either of our two candidates in the CLP section; we should have recognised that Ann Black has a bigger profile than Jermain, and called on people to vote for Jermain first. We need to improve the distribution of our vote, next time. 

Grassroots Voice’s regional strategy worked well to distribute their support effectively. A couple of their candidates – Mish Rahman and Gemma Bolton in particular – were good at winning transfers, and that’s something we should think about. 

FSB: What’s the strategy, then, for Open Labour between now and the next NEC elections?

TM: Well one thing that’s important to remember is that NEC elections aren’t just about members – I’d like Open Labour to spend more time organising with and speaking to grassroots trade unionists. I think that as a faction, we probably have the biggest overlap with most of the trade unions – and we haven’t capitalised on that yet. 

The second thing we need to do is to build up our mailing list. At the moment it’s about 10-12,000 people. The turnout for the NEC elections was 27%, which means that there were about 130,000 ballots cast. Momentum were, of course, able to take the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign’s mailing list; that puts them in a hugely powerful position. We need to build up our independent organising power.

My experience is that Momentum is only really interested in talking to you when you pose a real threat. Labour First has been much more eager to build public alliances with us – I think that’s because they’re looking to history, and thinking they might have a Neil Kinnock-type situation where the soft left and right of the party work together against the hard left. It’s funny to be in a situation where you’re closer to the politics of the hard left, but it’s the soft right that wants to court you. So building up independent power is really important for us. 

FSB: How do you build up that data? 

TM: Well, we started as an organisation with just six people meeting in a room, and we now have a membership base of something like 1,300-1,400. That’s a massive growth, but it’s still tiny in the context of something like Momentum. So we need to build membership and infrastructure; we need at least one full-time staff member to do that, because you build up membership and influence by being part of political campaigns, not just within the party but within Britain. And that requires organising capacity.

I think doing that will also help us to define the soft left more sharply: there’s often this assumption that the soft left is a bit woolly and vague, just sitting between the two more defined factions to either side.

It’ll also mean working with the intellectual ecosystem around the soft left – places like Renewal and Chartist; some of us write for Tribune sometimes, and we have links with LabourList. We need to work with those networks, too. 

Defining the soft left

FSB: What are some of the campaigns you’d want to see Open Labour being part of – the campaigns that should define the soft left?

TM: The environment is really important – the Green New Deal needs to be a central, totemic issue for the soft left.

Internally to the party, campaigns around safeguarding – on racism, bullying, sexual harassment – these are really important issues.

Brexit is going to be salient again – when we find out the final settlement, we’re going to start seeing just how many people are going to lose their jobs, and that’s a really important issue that I think we should be talking about and campaigning on. 

And finally, campaigns to decentralise and devolve power. When I think about what really distinguishes the soft left on policy, it’s about having a more decentralist – and green – model of socialism. We should be bringing the money and power down, away from Westminster and towards communities, and rethinking ownership, with more local, public, cooperative and other forms of ownership. This is very much a personal opinion, but I think Open Labour should be campaigning for a federal England and a federal UK. Former industrial regions should have more of their own spending power, and local government should have more power and autonomy, too.

FSB: Is there so much difference between that agenda and some versions of ‘Corbynomics’?

TM: In many ways no: it’s an approach that I think appeals to many on the hard left as well, and to some on the soft right, too – think of someone like Jonathan Reynolds, who’s come from a Progress background but is really interested in decentralising the economy. 

It’s important to say that it’s bigger than just Community Wealth Building: CWB strategies by their very nature are local – focused on just one community. We need CWB, but we need something bigger, too: a plan to devolve and decentralise power and control around the country. And we need to go much further than the current model of devolution which, in places like Scotland and London, has given some autonomy, but very limited powers to raise money, and very limited powers to reengineer the economy. This is about the economy but it’s also about the state, too, and about decentralising power.

The ownership agenda is also shared with much of the hard left. One way that parts of the hard left misunderstand the soft left is that they sometimes think that the hard left is where the socialists are, and the soft left is just social democratic – but the soft left cares a lot about economic democracy and public ownership. What sets us apart a bit is that we’re more focused on local and cooperative public ownership. But there’s overlap even there.

This agenda covers the space right from parts of Corbynomics, through the soft left, to Blue Labour. So there’s potentially a wide alliance for reimagining how the country works – politically as well as economically. I think there’s a lot of mileage for the soft left in leading that agenda. 

Strategic alliances

FSB: So what’s standing in the way of more cooperation, more alliance-building around this agenda?

TM: It’s striking how few areas of policy there are where there’s a big difference between the hard and soft left – on the Green New Deal, on landlords, on Community Wealth Building and ownership. The soft left has more of an emphasis on decentralism and democratic reform, but that’s a difference of emphasis.

On foreign policy, there’s a clearer division, with the hard left having a stronger anti-imperialist analysis, while the soft left is more pro-multilateralism.

But what really keeps these groupings separate is a couple of things.

One block to any united left slate bringing together the soft left and the hard left is the fact that many on the soft left want a complete cordon sanitaire between the soft left and anyone who’s implicated in antisemitism or minimising the significance of antisemitism. The hard left has shown it’s happy to endorse for the NEC people with really dubious records on issues like trans rights, too – I think the lack of pragmatism about some of the hard left’s candidates is a problem. Many on the soft left would be uncomfortable being linked to some of the hard left candidates.

And then there are some fundamental differences on strategy. The soft left is less optimistic – I would say more realistic – about how popular the left’s ideas are within wider society, and the power of neoliberal hegemony. 

And the soft left insists on the importance of a Labour Party, and a left within the party, that’s pluralist. There are some people in Momentum who are for a ‘broad front’ way of working, but there are many who aren’t in favour of that. 

FSB: What are the chances of bridging that gap then?

TM: Corbyn supporters will defend the Corbyn project’s pluralism by pointing to the way that non-Corbynites were brought into Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet; but I think that just points to the fact that the Corbyn project was actually very labourist, and very focused on Westminster. Within the party, Momentum operated in a vanguardist way, rather than trying to build alliances with other groups or trade unions that might have been on the fence about the Corbyn project. It’s a very top-down project, focused on the idea that you need to win and hold the leadership as your top priority: it’s building the top of the pyramid without paying attention to the foundations. There have been opportunities for years for dialogue and learning from each other, so it’s disappointing that there have only been moves to open up to that after the loss of the 2019 General Election and the 2020 leadership election.

There’s a difference in politics, I think, between power builders and power seizers, and there are appropriate contexts for both of those approaches – but the power-seizing mentality tends to dominate in the Corbyn project. If there had been more of a power-building mentality it could have been more successful. 

I don’t think the NEC elections will prompt a rethinking of the hard left strategy, though. The splintering of Momentum, with a new internal faction taking control of the organisation, is a bad sign. But the success of Grassroots Voice in the NEC elections will, I think, be taken by some on the hard left as a sign that nothing needs to change – and that’s far too simplistic. It might have been better in the long run for Momentum if its slate had got a thumping this time, which would have forced the organisation to think about how it works and how it appeals to members. 

FSB: The history of Momentum shows how hard it is to turn a single-issue campaign (get Jeremy Corbyn elected as leader) into a more rounded political project. People can think they are all signed up to the same political project, but when you have to flesh out the policies and the values around which you organise, differences of opinion suddenly come into focus. 

TM: Yes, and one of the things that mobilises Momentum members most successfully is defence – defence of Corbyn – and that’s basically a negative appeal. Momentum members get very vocal and very organised in the face of a threat. So whenever there’s a threat to Corbyn’s position in the party, it increases Momentum’s influence. Right now, their focus is on Corbyn, not on any policy stuff, because that’s such a powerful mobilising factor for their members. But that’s very limiting. It means that Momentum doesn’t spend the time and energy debating what sort of a left we should have. 

Those questions are outsourced to TWT – which in my experience is a very thoughtful forum for developing ideas.

But Momentum has also always been typical of the hard left in being programmatic. A recent paper by Jo Ingold, Frederick Pitts and Paul Thomson argues that the hard left tends to develop its political platform based on fundamental values and beliefs, without a strategic focus on the electorate and where voters actually are. And that’s a problem because everyone on the left needs to think about the political, social and economic contexts in which we operate and in which we have to try to win votes.

Momentum has done well in the NEC elections, but it’s clearly lost its ability to dominate, and it doesn’t have a way to move forward, to reinvent itself, because its primary purpose remains the defence of Jeremy. It feels like Momentum is a train stuck at a red signal. 

FSB: What’s the future, then, for a more pluralist left? Is it about building alliances with those people on the hard left who are interested in a ‘broad front’ organised around those – as you say, very substantial – elements of the policy platform that are shared?

TM: I can definitely see some moves in that direction in the future. I think if it happens, though, it’ll be led from parliament. Frankly, I don’t think the activist organisations are comfortable enough with each other to make that happen. But there’s overlap at the parliamentary level. MPs who are members of the Campaign Group and others who are more soft left have a very similar approach on a lot of issues, as well as good relationships. 

The question about how a more joined-up, pluralist left might develop in activist circles depends, I think, on what happens within Momentum, and whether the more pluralist-inclined people in those circles are willing to make a point of publicly opening dialogue. I think people on the soft left would be – that’s part of the founding credo of Open Labour, it’s why we’re called Open Labour. There’s more of a taboo on opening those dialogues and building those alliances on the hard left.

FSB: Might TWT play a role there?

TM: Yes, I think that really should be a role for TWT. They’ve talked a tremendous amount about policy, and organising, but I think TWT has put a bit less emphasis on talking about strategic questions – asking those meta questions, the strategic stuff. 

The benefit of the way TWT is set up is that there’s a lot of political freelancing – it’s a genuinely pluralist organisation, and I think a forum that could be used a lot more to develop mutual understanding. 

Links across the left

FSB: What blocks that understanding?

TM: One thing that’s frustrating for a lot of people on the soft left is that the definition of the soft left is fairly clear to those within it, but less clear to those outside it. And that means if you have that kind of politics you often feel misunderstood.

On Twitter, some Momentum person might post that you’re a neoliberal warmonger, or whatever, and you think – I joined the Labour Party as an anti-war campaigner in 2004, and so did lots of others who founded Open Labour. We need more knowledge of the history of the party. 

FSB: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about changing how people are socialised into the Labour Party. That’s not necessarily working very well at the moment – people aren’t given the understanding of Labour Party history, and the knowledge of how the structures of the party work, and the culture, how we do things and why.  

TM: That’s definitely been my experience of it – being a councillor, I find most new members are really eager and open-minded; they don’t know much about us as individual councillors, but why should they? 

I’ve also found, though, that a minority have come into the Labour Party in recent years with the assumption that everyone who’s a sitting councillor must be right-wing, because there’s a sense of a complete break between the party before Jeremy Corbyn and the party after Jeremy Corbyn. That’s a very strange thing to encounter when you’ve spent the last decade being called a Trot by Labour Party staff. 

For a lot of people in Labour, 2015 seems like year zero, the moment everything changed. And that’s just not true – 2015 happened largely off the back of people who were already members, and factions that already existed. 

FSB: The flames of factionalism have obviously jumped a lot higher over the last few weeks over Corbyn’s suspension, and Starmer’s decision not to readmit him to the PLP. Starmer is in a really difficult position right now, where whatever he does over Corbyn’s membership of the PLP is going to anger one faction or other. 

TM: At the moment everyone is angry – he’s getting run over by traffic from both sides. A big risk for Starmer is that he has quite a technocratic style – not just on policy, but his whole approach to party management – and the danger when it comes to the party is that that sort of measured, technocratic style doesn’t work to keep the left’s trust and engagement. I’ve written about this in Chartist recently: Starmer needs ongoing, organic links to the membership – to all parts of it.  He has a strong organic link to Labour First, because Matt Pound, who works for Starmer, used to be Labour First’s organiser. He has some links to the left via his former campaign staff. But he needs to have a better dialogue with the grassroots left, I think, to have a level of trust.

Some people on the right of the party have said to me, well why does he need to care what the left thinks – they’re irrelevant now? But they’ve just got the largest vote share in the CLP section; they’re not far off controlling the NEC. These results mean that the leadership should be thinking seriously about how to fulfil that pledge to create unity. I don’t know how to do it, but I think the question should be asked. Otherwise unity might become a bit of a joke – like the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ of Corbyn’s campaign. It’s not an easy path to walk, but it has to be done. 

Tom Miller is a councillor in Brent, and an editor for Open Labour, of which he was a founding member.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a co-editor of Renewal.