Written by Fraser Amos.
It has been a hard two months for our movement. Many of us burnt ourselves out in an election campaign that ended in a severe defeat that will cost the lives of many thousands of people. But for that reason, we cannot afford to succumb to demoralisation, dejection or defeatism. Just two and a half years ago we came within a whisker of government, having won the battle of position over austerity, transforming public opinion on welfare and public spending. Those that voted for a programme of mass public ownership and investment two years ago have not abandoned this position. We are living in the wreckage of neoliberalism, a climate of anti-establishment sentiment and a period of extreme political volatility. In these conditions, electoral success for the left in 2024 is entirely possible.
Over the two and a half years since the 2017 election, the Tories abandoned a rhetorical defence of austerity, hardened their Brexit position and wholeheartedly embraced the Brexit polarisation. This polarisation, co-produced with one of the largest and most self-defeating liberal movements in British political history, divided the working class, destroyed the insurgent appeal Corbyn acquired in 2017 and broke our electoral coalition.
The Tories successfully created a narrative of parliament versus the people, with us set against the people, preoccupied with Parliamentary manoeuvres against Brexit. For many people, Brexit felt like a kind of democratic revolution, the first time their political agency had pierced the Westminster bubble and we were seen as standing in opposition to it, conceding to campaigns that saw leavers as ultimately undeserving of this agency.
We failed to appeal to the anti-establishment and anti-political sentiment driving much of the Brexit vote. We should have emulated the strategy of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Where we should have run a combative campaign with simple class messaging, we shifted to the nebulous “It’s Time for Real Change”. Where we should have been combative, been robust with the media and attacked Johnson hard in debates, we reheated the catastrophic Clintonite strategy of “when they go low, we go high”. Where we should have called out the corruptions of Parliamentary politics, taking aim at the political as well as economic elite, we were positioned as defenders of the Parliamentary status quo.
We did not sufficiently develop on our anti-austerity message in response to the Tories’ shift. We did not make enough of our Green Industrial Revolution policy and it was an exception in this regard. We needed to do more to talk positively about how we could not just address crises but realise people’s collective aspirations.
Even as public opinion shifted in favour of migration we failed to adequately fight with and for migrants, to move beyond economistic arguments and to properly articulate how the interests of working people at home and abroad are inextricable. An unequivocal and full-throated defence of migrants on these terms from the outset of the Brexit vote would have put us in a better position to resist the consolidation of socially progressive Remainers behind liberal parties.
Ultimately, we did not move far enough beyond left-technocratic commitments to do things for and to the many, to putting power in the hands of working people; power over our workplaces, communities and political institutions.
At a more fundamental level there exists a gulf between the political position of the party and level of organisation reached by the movement in workplaces and communities. Trade Union membership and militancy in Britain remains low and pales in comparison to that of the French labour movement on general strike against Macron’s pension reforms. The mobilisation of 5 million in a Women’s Strike as occurred recently in Spain is unimaginable in Britain. We lack any serious alternative mass-media networks capable of challenging the grip of the press on the political life of the country.
We have to strengthen our movement at the grassroots to reach and communicate with people over the heads of the press. More importantly we have to organise, to fight and to win for communities on the ground in the face of another 5 years of Tory government. It’s only by doing this that people can be convinced we aren’t just promising nice things to win an election, but we are determined to deliver transformative change and we have the capacity to fight for and deliver it in the teeth of bitter establishment opposition.
We have to appeal to communitarian impulses and pride in place on an anti-racist class basis, not one of social conservatism. Rather than seeing this as a task of simply listening silently to views tinged by racial antagonisms in the absence of class solidarity, we must see it as one which requires the building of class power in communities. From workplace organising to tenants’ unions to environmental campaigns, these are the social movements that can rebuild community ties.
We have to build a party fit for this challenge. The party remains today in its structures, culture and political capacities remarkably similar to the pre-2015 party. We need to democratise it, empowering members, expanding the Community Organising Unit and using Momentum’s distributed organising model to equip them to build our movement.
We desperately need to move beyond the Brexit polarisation by meeting it with an insurgent message based in class politics. Not attempt to build a remain coalition and defend a failed Brexit strategy with a QC and Knight of the Realm for leader in an anti-establishment political climate.
Whatever their promises in this contest both Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy’s records speak for themselves. Even if we take them at their word now, with their core support bases on the right of the party and their socialist politics thinly rooted, when the pressure is applied, just as in 2016, they will concede and retreat toward the failed politics of the centre.
Then, if the ambition of our message and programme does not speak to the scale of the social crises experienced in people’s everyday lives, we will lose credibility and we will be betraying the interests of the people our Party exists to represent. More than this, if our programme does not match up to the threat of the climate emergency, we will be betraying the working class the world over, and we will haemorrhage support to the greens as has happened across Europe.
Only one candidate is promising a democratic revolution to address people’s alienation from our political system. Only one candidate is committed to democratising our party and building our movement in workplaces and communities. Only one candidate is championing a Green Industrial Revolution to realise people’s collective aspirations.
Only Rebecca Long-Bailey can be trusted to champion and stick to a socialist programme, to fight a campaign of class politics and to not just win an election but win power for our movement.
This leadership election however is far from the only or major factor in the trajectory of our movement. There are legitimate concerns over even Rebecca Long-Bailey’s commitment to international solidarity. Whatever the result of the contest, the party has a long way to go. Those of us committed to building a socialist society must struggle and organise collectively both inside and outside it harder than ever.