Next election-ism is the biggest threat to radical Labour
Edit: I’m delighted to say the argument I made in this article has been proved wrong – Corbyn supporters were right to throw themselves into electoral politics, and it’s much more possible than I ever thought for a radical party to win an election. But I still think that left-wingers need to not get sucked into seeing politics purely in electoral terms. I don’t think a Corbyn government, or a socialist project more broadly, will ever be successful without widespread grassroots organisation to build institutions outside the mainstream.
The charge most often thrown the Corbynistas’ way is that they don’t want to win elections. They’re supposedly fixated on ideological purity at the expense of getting into government.
But go to a Momentum event or a New Model Labour Party meeting, and you’ll find the opposite is true. Corbyn supporters are obsessed with winning in 2020, on the whole — to an extent that’s setting themselves, and socialism’s best chance in decades, up for a massive, quite possibly catastrophic fall.
The Westminster-Whitehall establishment is radicalism-proof. That was the case pre-Corbyn. That’s still the case now. Our electoral system pivots around affluent, individualistic, quintessentially neoliberal middle-class voters living in a few strategically important swing seats. The opinion-shaping machinery of the corporate mass media strictly enforces a neoliberal default worldview and seeks and destroys anything that opposes it. And what that means in practice is that it’s now staggeringly unlikely that anyone or anything worth voting for will a General Election in the foreseeable future. Even bland old Ed Miliband’s chances were crushed over five years of sustained belittlement, misrepresentation and ritual humiliation.
It’s not impossible for Corbyn-led Labour to win. But I’d say it wasn’t far off. Despite what many of his critics say, that’s not got all that much to do with him. No-one could lead Labour to a stonking victory in 2020, or whenever the next election comes. The state’s default setting is Tory. The multi-tentacled establishment only gives Labour an easy ride when it shifts itself so far to the right, and the Conservatives are so shambolic at the time, that for a moment it’s the better horse to back if you want to maintain the neoliberal status quo. Unfortunately (the Tories aren’t in disarray) and fortunately (Labour isn’t horrifically right-wing for a change) we’re about as far from that scenario as we’ve ever been.
Corbyn has obviously had some effect. He was utterly unprepared to be Labour leader in September. He’s never really ‘run’ anything. He stood as a fairly tokenistic left-wing outsider candidate and probably expected to come last — and I say all this as someone who voted for him twice and would do again. He was never going to find it easy.
But even if he’d spent the last ten years shadow-boxing and practising PMQs one-liners in the bathroom mirror, he’d still find elite power in the media, in the government, and within his own party undermining everything he tried to do, simply because of what he represents. ‘Leaders’ are supposed to be smart-looking, slick-talking non-ideological management types — long-serving establishment insiders who don’t rock the boat, and just try and run the existing system efficiently, or at least ensure big capitalism keeps raking in the profit. Corbyn is the opposite. And that means the most powerful people in the country will do their utmost to destroy him.
When we ignore that, and chirpily go on about how Jeremy’s going to win a landslide and bury the evil Tories, we start to see elections exactly how the media and the Westminster mainstream want to see them — as the ultimate test of a candidate and a party’s worth. If Corbyn wins in 2020, he’s judged as a success. If he loses, he’s a failure. He’s dumped immediately — and much more importantly, so are the values and the policies he stood for.
But the Corbyn movement has potential. At the moment, it’s still young and fragile. Carry on as we are, short-sightedly obsessed with 2020 as the be-all and end-all, and we risk smashing it into a brick wall and squandering all that. Instead, we need to be looking at how we can bring about social change outside parliament — that, in the longer-term, might make it easier for a radical Labour Party to get elected in 2025, or 2030, and so on, while actually changing and improving people’s lives.
Does that mean Labour should just forget 2020 entirely? No. People in this country are suffering now. We have to try and take the opportunity, however slim, to do something about it at a big, national, governmental level. But we have to sensible about the scale of the challenge — and not let 2020 be a horizon we don’t bother thinking beyond.
Every month I go to my Constituency Labour Party meeting and listen to people obsess about raising money. There’s raffles, lotteries, collections — all with the express purpose of generating funds to ‘take on the Tories’. But we live in a seat that’s utterly hopeless for Labour as far as sending someone to Parliament is concerned. Corbyn could win a landslide victory nationally and barely dent the sitting Tory’s 15,000-vote majority here. In 2015, we barely came second. Pre-coalition, we always came distant third behind the Lib Dems. There’s a possibility we could come distant third behind UKIP.
So, in other words — colossal time and effort will be poured into raising thousands of pounds that will be completely wasted. Meanwhile, we live in a town brimming with poverty, inequality, unemployment, addiction, alcoholism and homelessness. I think there’s a very simple, moral and strategic alternative — raise that money and use it to help tackle some of that instead.
In hopeless seats like ours especially, but in every seat in the country, I think the new, Corbynised, activist Labour Party needs to essentially do what the Community branches of Unite the Union do — help unemployed people get work, help people challenge benefit sanctions and so on. Rather than talking shops and election strategy committees, I think CLPs need to become part-food bank, part-citizens advice, part-social services, part-befriending service — and do so primarily because it’s the right thing to do, not in the hope that it will win votes.
The poorest people in society — many of whom come from Labour-voting families, or might have previously voted Labour themselves — are often bitterly hostile to anyone involved in politics, and for very good reason. The political mainstream has abandoned any pretence of caring about them. It’s left them to rot. Now, if they show any enthusiasm for politics at all, it’s often for the very worst kind of racist, scapegoating, right-wing parties and policies — and it’s going to take a lot more than helping them with a few CVs and lobbing the odd tin of carrots their way to reverse that trend.
But it’s possible, that, very slowly, over years if not decades of left-wingers speaking with actions not words, people who’ve been abandoned by the system might start to open up to the Left’s overtures again — and let us put together an electoral coalition that could finally deliver a radical Labour government, if not start to transform society from outside the Westminster bubble entirely.