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Fighting in the left corner

“We are an organization with one staff member, and a limited amount of energy because nobody in the political and activist left wants to talk about Brexit! “

lead MIchael in thought in the market place for ideas, Team Syntegrity 2017, Barcelona.Rosemary Bechler (R): We are keeping track of the Team Syntegrity process and its impact, and participants seem quite happy to do this. In your case, Michael, I have an added reason for a catch-up, because I felt guilty as your host as well as a facilitator of the event – not something that one normally combines! – that I didn’t register the algorithm preventing you from participating in the ‘transforming and rebuilding the left’ discussion – which is where so much of your expertise in various fields lies.

I should have done something about the fact that you weren’t really able to contribute as you would have wished.

So, well, why don’t we give you the opportunity to talk through what you were thinking about, and update us on that as we approach the end of 2017. We can just feed it back into the post-event stream of consciousness that we are tracking! Does that make sense?

Michael Chessum (M):  Sure! It wasn’t that big a deal. I had a great time!  I don’t normally think of myself as a leftist dogmatist but surrounded by pirate people, I found myself fighting in the left corner pretty well throughout.

So what have I been up to? Well, I still work in ‘Another Europe is possible’.  Since the days of the radical Remain campaign, we have been grant-funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and I am fully-funded, working in Global Justice Now, just around the corner.

For the last year our main priority has been the Progressive Deal for Europe, based on our six progressive reasons for EU membership which gives you a series of flashpoints to fight over: workers’ rights, environmental protection, free movement, human rights, science and research funding and Erasmus.

Free movement and migration is the main controversy that engages us. But what we are doing now is pivoting towards the democratic process as such. So our remit is these six elements, plus democracy and the process. This is because of the Withdrawal Bill, but also because of the need to review strategy around a possible call for a new referendum on the terms of any final deal, including an option to remain.

The question is how we do that? How do we communicate such options in a way that isn’t totally toxic.

R: Why did the Withdrawal Bill elicit this change of tack?

M: Well, the Bill as currently constituted is the biggest power grab by the political executive in modern British political history.  It takes hundreds of EU laws, claiming merely to be doing the admin for the Brexit transfer, but in the process in fact gives important powers to the executive to strip out major rights and protections, without going through a vote in parliament. The Bill as currently constituted is the biggest power grab by the political executive in modern British political history.

R: Do we have a list now of what they are keenest to strip out?

M: Sort of. A lot of them are very up front. What came up this week, for instance, was the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights, which they very forthrightly insist is ‘coming out’. We lost the vote on that one, including all the material on digital rights and privacy for example, in an extraordinary moment of spinelessness on the part of the Tory rebels.

Labour forwarded an amendment to keep the Fundamental Charter on the books. Dominic Grieve, Tory backbencher, leading his band of rebels, puts forward an identical amendment.  The Tory Minister gets up and says, “ Well I have heard Dominic Grieve’s position and would like to assure him that I am producing a report on this and will be looking into this again”…  and so Grieve withdraws his amendment and then leads his Tory rebels to vote against Labour’s amendment which was lost by ten votes ! So Grieve took the whip. You have to hope there has been some sort of backstage deal because together we could have won on the Charter.

It was one of those moments when as a leftist you can only rely on the House of Lords, like the civil rights campaigns of the Blair years, where the Lords were again the only recourse.  Because that’s where it all goes next. They will then kick it back. The thing that they will do is put the Charter back in, and the Government could give way then in that ping pong period. But what is not happening is any kind of ‘cross-party alliance’. Ken Clarke is the cross-party alliance. He is the only Tory who is consistent in voting with the opposition. The rest of them are totally solid.

The Opposition is on the whole solidly united on this terrain, except for the bigger issues in the second and third readings when Frank Field and Kate Hoey, who are pro-Brexit, come out in favour of the Government, which makes things more difficult. Ken Clarke is the cross-party alliance.

So we are forced to think about democratic process under these circumstances because this is the most important and dangerous piece of legislation that has faced the country in a long, long time.

The political left, moreover, isn’t mobilized around this at all. This has been a huge missed opportunity for them. Because if we had managed to popularize this democratic cause against the power-grab, even with one of those boring old traditional rallies and marches in Central London, we could have brought popular pressure to bear and at least made the Government think twice about a lot of these things. Especially given the very weak parliamentary position the Government is in.

We have missed a trick on this precisely because it is about process, and the left has never known how to talk about democratic process very well at all. This is why even in Corbyn’s platform and movement, despite it being very radical and popular, there is nothing in there about federalism, democratic electoral reform, the crisis of the British state as such. None of that is in there. For the same reason, the political left is not focused on this seminal power challenge. The left has never known how to talk about democratic process very well at all.

R. Has Momentum and its very creative World Transformed festival which accompanies Labour party conferences nowadays made no difference in this area – because surely wherever ordinary people are invited to have a voice, that is where democratic process begins to matter!? I was disappointed to see Momentum close itself to non-members of the Labour party, for example. Doesn’t that constrain Momentum’s true potential?

M. I don’t think Momentum has missed its chance. What you had in Momentum when I ended up ceasing to be on its steering committee in January this year, was two competing functions. There is the social movement, facing society, and engaged in community activism, and the disciplined party faction. The first function is quasi-democratic, but it is a very messy process and can be very unpleasant too. On the other hand, you have this very disciplined party machinery which is essentially top down.

So that dual life played out in the initial leadership campaign for Corbyn which produced Momentum. Momentum changed into the second leadership campaign, and then changed back into being Momentum, and that dual life has always been there. But Jon Lansman’s understanding of the need for a very well run, top down effective campaign – very effective at what they do, winning the internal elections, mobilizing for general elections – has essentially won out for now.  What it isn’t any more is a pluralistic, bottom-up, grass roots organization. The local groups have no official say.

Some people think that was what Momentum always should have been. For others, their position is determined by factional politics. So announcing that Momentum would henceforth be Labour members only was ensuring that whoever was expelled from the Labour party – at the time it was the organized far left who were internal opponents of Lansman and the current leadership  grouping who were getting expelled – would be prevented from taking it over. Moreover, Momentum at the time was also deciding to ‘seek affiliation to the Labour Party’, which was easier if you went down that road of ‘Labour members only’.

But I agree, I do think the decision to exclude non-members was a mistake, because effectively it takes us backwards by several steps. The British Left has been through a collapse of British Labour Party membership, the near death of the official labour movement under Thatcher and then the hollowing out of what’s left of the Labour Party under Blair.

Suddenly, almost from the outside, but relying on party activists who had been around for a long time – people like Lansman who did good work, together with Corbyn and McDonnell – formed a base from which the left on the outside could spring to life inside a transforming party. Unfortunately that is not the narrative which Momentum’s current leadership has of its own history. For them, this is labour values proving themselves and coming true again. So we are moving back, historically, in terms of where this surge has come from.

R. But if Momentum can’t reach outwards, how will it build its movement? Isn’t this frustratingly self-defeating?

M: It will begin to reach outwards more again. If you think about it, so far there has been the leadership campaign, setting up Momentum, and then from early 2016, in short order, waves of rebellion, the referendum, another leadership election, internal warfare, 2017 and the e-mail coup in which all the structures were abolished, and then an election called in May. So there has been no room to breathe thus far.

But they are recruiting staff as I understand it, to campaign around issues, not just around elections. Even at the grassroots of the Labour left, though, people are more party oriented than they were a year ago, and a lot of that has to do with what they learned from the polarising second leadership election, which hardened everybody against the Parliamentary Labour Party and against the Labour right. Everybody knew who the enemy was all of a sudden and was going to make sure they beat them in their local CLP. That was it. Everybody knew who the enemy was all of a sudden and was going to make sure they beat them in their local CLP.

But one way or another, those Momentum outreach campaigns are going to become essential. Either there will be a bit of let up, now, and we have to face all those cuts on a local level which are still under way, so we have to become active around that defence. Or there will be another general election… and Momentum will become crucial for reaching out.

The big problem is that the strategy of that disciplined party faction is always going to be vesting control in the party leadership: ”what we need to do is get behind the party leadership and make sure we get a Labour Government.” There is very little intellectual engagement in that strategy – maybe taking a long hard look at Greece or Chile, or any example we have of a serious leftwing government  gaining power under contemporary global conditions, and what happens to them, either in terms of being forced out, or in terms of self-destructive compromises. So there are a lot of dangers in gathering all your agency at the top of these party mechanisms. There are a lot of dangers in gathering all your agency at the top of these party mechanisms.

R: Very interesting. Do you mind my asking how you came to quit the steering group of Momentum last January?

M: I didn’t quit. The steering group was abolished. A democratic conference was being planned for a few months after, which would have had delegates from all over the country. Lansman wrote an e-mail proposing a new constitution to the 12 people then on the steering group, which didn’t have a steering committee in it. People in the majority had already been lined up to agree. In my group, three refused to participate and one said no. But in an hour and a half, all of the democratic structures which had been evolved within Momentum were simply swept out. So was I, and I haven’t been back in the office since.

There was a question about us setting up some new kind of process – a grassroots Momentum – since we totally agreed that what had happened, which we refer to as ‘the coup’, had no democratic legitimacy. But after that, there were a lot of disagreements: the debate was split between ‘delegates-based movements’ and one member one vote – I didn’t like either much and was looking for a compromise position.

Then there were differences over whether we should split from Momentum or leave Momentum, or stay inside, and I was saying let’s fight on.  All the different opposition elements failed to get on with each other, and what with the disagreements and no funding, it wasn’t going to go anywhere very fast.

R:  So where next for fighting for a better leftwing understanding of democratic process?

M: I’m friends with a lot of the people involved in Momentum still. I just haven’t been actively involved or in the office. Lansman and I had a friendly but slightly tense conversation at party conference. But yes, I come from a background in the student movement and the labour movement and I do understand both democratic traditions. What I see inside Westminster and inside the Labour Party, is that these are systems where you do whatever you can get away with. Inside Westminster and inside the Labour Party, these are systems where you do whatever you can get away with.

This isn’t just about opportunism. It is about the basic norms of our democracy. It strikes me as absurd, for example, and I only learned this recently. But there are four hundred amendments tabled to this incredibly important bit of legislation we were talking about. Who gets to choose which ones get selected for debate? The Deputy Speaker of the House, with no rights of appeal.  When are the chosen amendments announced? On the day of each amendment debate. So you don’t know what’s coming up until the day of the decision, so – how do you run a public campaign?

You don’t. Parliament is not about running public debates. There may be scrutinizing committees, calling for submissions of evidence that then get circulated. We have a legal expert who has written a lot of these amendments, working on these. But this is not at all the same as a public information campaign. Parliament is not about running public debates.

There is then one account of what happened in Momentum which is a single story running from that totally unaccountable feature of Westminster politics, into ripple effects on all surrounding processes. You have a Westminster elite that with processes and procedures like this is deliberately walling itself off from the outside world. In that system, MPs and your parliamentary representatives have the supra-rights that accrue to parliamentary sovereignty. That infects the Labour Party via the PLP. Because what MP’s essentially have is a sense of entitlement on the basis that they have been elected by the people, and as such have the right to tell the membership of the Labour Party to ‘sod off’.

That means that the basic norms of democracy – that you should be able to select your candidates – that you should be able to give them a steer in close consultation – that the MPs are the voice of the Labour movement in parliament rather than being some kind of professional detached entity with their own rights – that is where all the trouble starts. That infects the whole culture of the Labour party, including, subconsciously, the old Labour left, who basically have an attitude which isn’t rigorously, procedurally democratic. They too are out to win, at any cost, and by the shortest route. Things will happen at local and national level to do with conferences which are basically about people who don’t technically have the right, somehow taking it upon themselves to throw their weight around because they can get away with it.

It goes broader than the thinness of our representative democracy: it is about the lack of process. Ultimately, it is about a lack of respect for members and a lack of respect for their collective wisdom. Whereas, in a world which had a rational approach to movement-building, I like to think that we would put that argument for the organization that I want to see to the members as a whole and trust them to know what’s best. It goes broader than the thinness of our representative democracy: it is about the lack of process.

R. So here are two issues that I think did come up in the Team Syntegrity in Barcelona. One was ‘rational approaches’ as such: and the question of what happens to these in the emotional times in which we seem to be living – your generation seems to know much more about this than say, mine did.

The other question is about ‘collective wisdom’.  Under the individualizing pressures of neoliberalism, can one really rely on collective wisdom in the same ways we once did? I’m thinking of the proliferation of enemy images which is the way the right increasingly wield power. Don’t we need rich pluralist political cultures to overcome this – a commitment to much more empowering forms of self-organisation, and conscious, willed collaboration with others – not just a rubber-stamping chorus of approval ?

M: Absolutely, but the need for pluralism doesn’t only correspond to the need to involve individual voices. Pluralism is the only force that enables a movement to redefine itself, adapt, to be an effective collective. Yes, people want agency and I think that getting people to think about their agency collectively is almost the first step in political consciousness, where a subculture becomes a politics. This challenge is not at all confined to working under neoliberal conditions. A sub-culture, ‘Corbynism’ for example, means that being into Labour politics suddenly becomes ‘cool’, with ‘grime nights for Corbyn’ and whatever. And this is the start.

The leaders of ‘the Momentum coup’, by the way, are always talking about ‘the dynamism of the Sanders movement’. But ironically the Democratic Socialists, the Momentum-like movement in the US, are a delegate-based movement who run socialist education meetings, which actually I think may be a good idea. It’s really missing from Momentum and the Labour left, reading things and talking about politics and ideas….

Yes political movements need pluralism more than ever I suppose, but I also remember the 2007 student movement with people coming out onto the streets who almost wanted agency just for themselves. And it was drawing them into that collective that made them political.  It was drawing them into that collective that made them political. 

R. So in the absence of this basic democratic and democratizing culture, how will Another Europe is Possible make that pivot towards democracy?

M:  The ‘referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal with an option to remain’ has always been our policy, but it’s hugely difficult! We refer to this as ‘the Rotdwor’ problem, which is an unpronounceable acronym using the first letters of that phrase to sum up rather well the communications challenge involved!

Especially if it is accompanied by what we refer to as ‘the blue problem’ – that many people campaigning for Remain seem to think that waving EU flags and singing Ode to Joy at random passers by is enough to win over the swing voters – not true. (I couldn’t help thinking that if all the people marching on the March for Europe had thought to do this before the referendum, that might have been more useful!)

And then there is the Establishment problem that Alistair Campbell believes he is a good face for the movement – also not true.

So this is probably our main demand and how do we articulate it? Then there is the Establishment problem that Alistair Campbell believes he is a good face for the movement – also not true.

‘Free movement’ is the other big issue campaign, but that is very much a principled argument to be had within the labour movement and amongst progressives about migration and what we think about it.

On the referendum, it is making a very reasonable democratic case to say, the British people decided by a small majority that they wanted to exit Europe. They didn’t know at the time what that meant. Now it means this. They should be allowed to decide whether that corresponds to what they wanted.

That’s very rational: but you can’t just say that. I’m straw-manning one strand inside the Remain movement – but one strand of thinking is undoubtedly of the opinion that people were misled and stupid and therefore should vote again. We can’t give any traction in any way to that sort of idea.

They are right that what would make the difference this time is that it would be a vote on a particular deal, and they are also right, in my opinion, to believe that we might win that vote overwhelmingly, and not just because the demographics would be more in our favour with those too young to vote last time coming of age and some of the older generation dying off.

Even so, what we need is a narrative that can also bring in a more resurgent, anti-Establishment case. When people experience the downturn in the economy that’s going to result from Brexit, they won’t be saying, “Oh that’s bloody Brexit!” For most people it will just be the next chapter in a series of betrayals by the political elites. And so to have a narrative that opposes Brexit on the basis that it will cause yet more of what afflicts us, has to be an anti-Establishment argument. To have a narrative that opposes Brexit on the basis that it will cause yet more of what afflicts us, has to be an anti-Establishment argument.

R. The right led by the far right will manage to make that case very well if we leave a vacuum there.

M: Exactly.

R. Isn’t that why we need a much more profound debate about what future we want for the UK?

M: We do need some kind of nationwide deliberative process, to be sure, and one basic reason for calling for a referendum is that it is not democracy if you can’t change your mind. We don’t have just one election and then that’s it for all time ! 

The flaw with a referendum however is precisely the lack of deliberation, and so the question arises, how could we inject some of that deliberative democracy into a debate leading up to the referendum?

From the position we are in, at the end of the day, and I hesitate to call it a single movement – but this is the problem of the Remain people in general – the considerable resources are all in the wrong places. We, for example, are an organization with one staff member, and a limited amount of energy because nobody in the political and activist left wants to talk about Brexit!

R: Really?

M: Well, the decision not to have a Brexit debate at Labour Party conference was the result of the Momentum leadership not wanting to put the Labour leadership in a difficult position. Something similar is going on with the free movement issue, though most CLP’s would like to talk about free movement. But the Left doesn’t want to talk about Brexit because the orthodox position is, “Why do you want to talk about this. We need to get a Labour Government in and once we do that, then we can talk about what we want for our society and all this. Let’s just get behind the leadership and push it through.”

That’s what I was referring to when I commented on the notion of investing all of your power in the leadership – the lack of ideas, the lack of a sense of history and what has happened to governments in the past… the lack of discussion.

So that lack of energy and of resources makes it very difficult for us to turn our minds to how best to prompt a national debate. Instead, we have got to go into the Labour Party and the progressive spectrum of parties in the UK and try and persuade people who have some influence. I was at a Lib Dem conference running a fringe event, also the SNP conference and the Greens. We need to persuade these people across the broad left any way that we can, by just doing the basic nuts and bolts of a very basic politics, that this referendum idea is the right, progressive and democratic way to go.

R: Aren’t you worried about the false binarism involved in another referendum, once again forcing apart what I see as natural allies: those who wish to stay in Europe to have a broad democratic alliance that can change it fundamentally in the interests of all the European peoples, and those who want to leave in the hope that they will have more democratic control over their lives and their prosperity as a result? Hasn’t the Labour Party been rather clever at not alienating either of those two important constituencies? What I’d like to see is a richer opportunity for debate between them… don’t you agree?

M: It will be important the way the new referendum is framed: of course that’s true. It needs to be drawn up along very different lines. The good thing is that the Tories are making that possible. Because they are busy making themselves ‘the party of Brexit’, and that makes it much easier to talk about Brexit as a Conservative cause.

At ‘Another Europe’ we talk about a ‘fresh’ rather than a ‘second’ referendum, precisely because this will be a discussion about a bad deal that is on the table. Taking it down will be relatively easy. But getting the opportunity in the first place is what is going to be very difficult, the critical thing. And that is why the national conversation is not our priority.

R: But isn’t it the same issue that’s at stake? Don’t you need people leaping up all over the place and saying – you’re not pushing that through without giving me a chance to ask questions and say what I think! And doesn’t that come down to the expectation at least, if not the experience, of a deeper democracy in the UK, as well as across Europe? Isn’t this what we have to push for in the next two years of  ‘transition period’ – or longer maybe if Yanis Varoufakis is right about how long these transitions actually take?

M: It is about mobilization. A lot of people are talking and thinking about this. But we need to know how we can put pressure on our political leaders to that end. Not another academic debate in the abstract about what we need. Do they want one? – that’s what we need to establish.

R: So aren’t you getting pushed back into top down politics, because of the lack of time and capacity?

M: Absolutely. Yes.

Team Syntegrity, June 2017. Cameron Thibos, photographer. All rights reserved.R: One of your six demands is on ‘free movement’. How did you bring about that Labour campaign, seemingly overnight?

M: I and others thought that we needed an organization that is specifically dedicated to intervening on this issue in the Labour Party. We set it up, wrote a statement, got a few MP’s on it and a few trade union leaders. I was surprised how well it went and we got a load of press coverage. So immediately it shot out of the cannon, around three thousand people signed up.

We went to conference and Young Labour submitted a ‘contemporary motion’ which didn’t get debated because Brexit wasn’t debated, so you had this bizarre position where the ‘Single Market’ motion, predominantly from Labour’s rightwing, and our ‘Free Movement’ motion would have ended up being composited together, which would have been strange. But it was never prioritized.

Now we have a few irons in the fire. We need to start building up constituency-level pressure and sending speakers all over the country. I’ve been talking this over today. We particularly want to start talking about migrant workers’ struggles, European and non-European, McDonalds and the like, so that we can start to kick back against a growing tendency on the Labour left to compromise with the right on ‘free movement’ while attempting to make it look as if you are taking a leftwing position. 

The totally disingenuous position we come across a lot is, “No, I’ll vote against your motion to defend ‘free movement’, because why can’t we have free movement globally?” Our motion always has talked about us defending and extending free movement. But let’s defend what we have got! That’s our argument. While these guys are really covering themselves as they resort to the age-old proud tradition of throwing migrants under the bus for reasons of electoral credibility!

The UK labour movement has a long history of this: the TUC after all lobbied for the Aliens Act, didn’t it! What you find now is people who have come out of Bennism and also around the old Communist Party who can convince themselves that free movement is just a tool to drive down wages. What you find now is people… who can convince themselves that free movement is just a tool to drive down wages.

So we are going to try and kick back against all of that. We would like to get Momentum on board, because it has a huge base of young people who are internationalists. It’s not going to be easy, thanks to that new constitution, but if we can get 10% of all Momentum signatures and a referendum call and win that vote, they will be bound to help us at the next Labour party conference.

Once again, however, we have to be careful to balance reaching out to our metropolitan, millennial choir on the one hand, and at the same time trying to reach out to a much broader layer of people, for whom migration is not an exchange of advantages but something that happens to them, without it being at all obvious that this guarantees their rights as well – people who would never consider living, studying or working in Europe, for example.

R: I wonder if you felt at the Team Syntegrity in Barcelona that there was only a limited understanding among European progressives of those sorts of profound political challenges in Brexit Britain today?

M: There definitely is. I was at the European Alternatives meeting, the Transeuropa festival in Madrid, and it was a very good conference. But although Britain is often referred to by leftwing Europeans as the great hope for Europe – there is not a profound understanding of Brexit or Brexit Britain, and the different deepseated ways in which neoliberalism and the Thatcher period have affected our political culture in the UK.

And at the same time, many of them will cheer on the European Commission in the negotiations… So there is a lot to talk through!

R: Well, thank you so much for this conversation, Michael, and very good luck!


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