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From Movementism to Labourism

Prospects for the renewal of the left: a perspective from the movementist element of the UK Labour Party grassroots activist body, Momentum.

lead Jeremy Corbyn, photo: John McDonnellOn September 12 2015 Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party with a landslide of 59.5 percent of the vote. The result was an indictment of New Labour, whose chief representative Liz Kendal took a mere 4.5 percent. In the period between the general election in May and the leadership contest in September over a hundred thousand signed-up to Labour as registered supporters while almost twice that amount joined as full members. The election revealed an appetite for a “new kind of politics” pitched far from the moderate centre-ground that Labour’s dominant intellectual forces considered political common sense.

Commentary on the flood of new energies into Labour was divided: for progressives Corbyn’s support represented new organic constituencies and contemporary political tendencies in British society far less moderate than Labour’s Fabians and Blairites had imagined, while for commentators close to the Party’s ruling elites the surge was a case of unfortunate opportunism by Labour’s perennial socialist militants, back after two decades of isolation.

The new politics

Labour’s influx of Corbyn supporters contradicts the trend of long term decline in political party membership with Labour currently the biggest left-wing political party in Europe, composed of over 550,000 members and supporters.

Two broad types of intellectual trajectory can be identified among the advance guard of Corbyn’s activists. On the one hand are the traditional left with strong ties to the trade union movement (not only in terms of networks and organisations but also cultural and political practices) and with intellectual traditions spanning revolutionary socialism, militant trade unionism and Bennism. On the other is a far more recent “social movement” or “movementist” tradition whose concerns have often been plural (in contrast to any totalising class-based perspective). Their political practices diverging from those of the trade union movement to sharing ideological references inflected with broadly conceived feminist (vis-à-vis identity) and anarchist (vis-à-vis democracy) logics and practices.

This article focuses on this latter trajectory, from movementism to Labourism. I draw from my own experience and observations as a (white, male) activist in these movements before jumping on board the Labour Party bandwagon. I cover three developments of Corbyn’s left-wing advance guard, focused on Momentum, the extra-parliamentary group that evolved out of Corbyn’s initial leadership campaign: first the transition from “social movement” activism to parliamentarianism; second, how the extra-parliamentary politics of post-movementist activists are being tapered by the Labour Party; and third, the way movementist tropes regarding democracy are being operationalised in order to sideline the decision-making structures in Momentum which benefit the traditional left. I end with a critique of the traditional left’s position in Momentum at present.

My experience suggests that “social movement” activists from the recent period of struggle (the alter-Globalisation era) have had a tendency to prefigure the world they want to see, such that at times they have announced the premature death of an existing one. These proclamations have often included the death of the nation state as well as the traditional left which, it turns out, have only been dormant.

From alter-globo to austerity

The Camp for Climate Action was a protest movement that descended directly from counter-mobilisations against the G8 in Gleneagles in 2005, itself born out of the alter-globalisation movement whose tactical motifs were counter-summit protests (“summit hopping”) and “direct action”. In its western sphere of action, this movement reached spectacular peaks in 1999 when a meeting of the World Trade Organisation was shut down in Seattle and in 2001 when a riot against a meeting of the G8 in Genoa led to a protester being shot by police. A month after the murder of 23-year-old activist Carlo Giuliani the attack on the Twin Towers would fatally recast this movement in terms of terrorism.[1]

In Britain the intellectual and cultural legacy of alter-globalisation was far greater than any trace it left on the state’s political economy.  It was activists from Climate Camp who planted the consensus decision-making process into the British Occupy phenomenon, while other activists inspired by the spectacular “direct action” of climate protestors founded UK:Uncut, whose networked mobilization against corporate tax evasion successfully helped bring the issue into the mainstream at a time when billions in public money was being used to bailout the banks.[2]

The climate movement, Occupy and UK:Uncut were sustained largely through voluntary organisation resulting in “burn-out” of individual activists, state repression and a lack of institutional memory. As popular discourse moved on, overwhelming the countervailing efforts of activists, all but the intellectual and cultural traditions of these movements would fade away.

Late in 2010 the slashing of Education Maintenance Allowance – a flagship of New Labour’s redistributive policy – combined with the newly elected government’s plans to increase university fees, led to the first signs of resistance to austerity in Britain when student protestors smashed the windows to Millbank Tower, home of the Conservative Party, and occupied the Tower’s roof. The demonstration itself had two advanced elements: anarchists who earlier that day attempted unsuccessfully to storm the Department for Education showed a sign of things to come, and revolutionary socialists (many in the Socialist Workers’ Party) who planned and led the way to Millbank Tower. It was working class schoolgoers, however, their unmasked faces visible to CCTV, who ensured the full destruction of the Tower’s glass façade.

Subsequent student demonstrations escalated in a dialectic of revolt and repression until MPs passed the reforms of December 2010. As the Commons deliberated, the last student demonstration of this period was held outside. Surrounded by riot police, the result in Parliament and the freezing cold induced despondency in the protestors. Following this ebb in student mobilization, the Trade Union Congress called a demonstration in March 2011 under the banner of “jobs, growth and justice”, advocating state-led investment to stimulate the economy as an alternative to austerity (the backbone of Corbyn’s economic vision today). While up to half a million people are reported to have marched through London, a small “black bloc” roamed Mayfair smashing the windows of several shops, the last phase of such militancy for some time and one which went largely unreported.[3] UK:Uncut however received the greatest airtime: their occupation of Fortum and Mason led to the arrest of 138 protesters, of which the police identified thirty leaders who were successfully convicted for aggravated trespass.

Outside traditional left and trade union activity the fruits of this phase of mobilization were again cultural and intellectual.[4] For those of the movementist trajectory, events and their political economic context impressed an urgent need to respond to conditions of austerity. As a result ‘social movement’ actors and organizations became inflected by an emphasis on class as well as a renewed awareness of the material and ideological power of the nation state, which, in the theories that had been popular among the movementists, was thought about only in terms of its erosion (eg Hardt and Negri, 2001). This shift in political consciousness was the prerequisite for ‘social movement’ activists adopting state-centered strategies. Such a shift alone, however, did not necessitate an explicitly parliamentary direction. But as revolutionary praxis in the UK collapsed with the rape scandal that led to a crisis in the SWP, radical movements on the continent were taking shape. 

Crisis on the continent

The uneven spread of the financial crisis traces the unevenness of power within the European Union, from which, of course, Britain remains largely isolated. Ideas however crossed borders as activists in the UK closely followed the fate of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Both cases signified new prospects for a left praxis as a result of the crisis; both however emerged in drastically different political-economic and intellectual contexts.

In the aftermath of 2008 as now, the Greek people continue to bear the brunt of crisis in the Eurozone. Syriza was forged in 2004 as an alliance of left parties driven by Synaspismos, a split from the Stalinist Greek Communist Party (KKE). In between the ruling social democratic left party Pasok and the KKE, Synaspismos might have continued to drift irrelevantly had it not been for the rapid development of political contestation that began with youth riots at the end of 2008 and encompassed a broad sweep of mobilization; including a massive wave of strikes, workplace occupations, occupations of public squares and popular assemblies as the now infamous Troika threw acid on the Greek economy. The crisis toxified the legitimacy of Pasok (in much the same way as economic crisis damaged Labour in 1976 and 2009) who fell to third in the 2012 elections with 13.2 percent of the vote, down from its 43.4 percent in 2009. In January 2015 and again in September that year Pasok took a mere 4.7 percent and 6.3 percent respectively. Syriza instead had risen on a tide of popular contestation to become Greece’s dominant political party.

A 'NO' demonstration in Athens. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.In power Syriza put their strategy into action. However their plan to exploit fissures in the ruling elites of the EU failed. Unprepared as it was, and as the Greek people had been, for life outside of the single market, Syriza signed Greece’s Third Memorandum with the Troika ensuring the creditors’ demands for deep and long-lasting austerity. Before Syriza’s capitulation, however, the Oxi referendum raised the unforgettable spectacle of popular mobilization in combination with left-wing government.

This alignment had a stark effect on activists in the UK, polarized as elsewhere between exclusively movementist and parliamentary trajectories. Despite failure, the images and the drama of the Greek left’s rise and fall injected awe into those activists who now desperately sought-out their country’s own Oxi moment when the political trajectories of the street and parliament could align in a direct confrontation with neoliberalism. For some, Syriza’s failure represents a missed opportunity (either as an option not taken, or as one foreclosed by unripe conditions) for a model of national economic development that might have followed from Grexit. The idea that a Keynesian reflation could be a possible alternative to decrepit neoliberalism remains in vogue among much of the left, including, it seems, the offices of the UK’s Shadow Chancellor.[5]

For the Spanish working classes, likewise living without deep reserves of social welfare before 2008, the crisis produced general conditions of want and indignation. Unemployment rocketed, especially among a younger generation who had psychologically prepared for a fate better than that of their parents and who, as a result of the crisis, would prove to be a core constituency of the Indignados movement and, later, Podemos, a new political party that would puncture the Spanish political scene in 2014.

Another core constituency of Spain’s new left-wing electoral movements was provided as a result of evictions: in 2014 the rate of home repossessions stood at no less than 119,442. La PAH (the platform for people effected by repossessions) successfully organised a movement against the lenders. Ada Colau, a leader and activist with la PAH, would in June 2015 go on to become the mayor of Barcelona for Barcelona en Comú, a party with its origins in the movements. Spain’s dominant political classes, both the right-wing Popular Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (socialist by name alone), had been hapless in the face of austerity while the legitimacy of both was being deeply corroded by a series of high-profile corruption scandals. It was into these dynamics – popular contestation and ruling class illegitimacy – that an intellectual clique (once spanning the corridors of the philosophy and politics department in the University of Madrid and politically forged through a series of DIY television shows) formed Podemos.

Initially the Party was constellated among local organic structures that mirrored the movementist spirit of the Indignados, the “circles” (still referenced in Podemos’ logo), before becoming centralized around the original leadership at a historic conference in Vista Alegre. Much more can of course be said about the development of Podemos, however here it is enough to state that its chief intellectual exports have been twofold: first, explicitly adopting the socialist strategy of Laclau and Mouffe (2001), the intellectuals of Podemos explained their successes in terms of their focus on the contingent and popular aspects of political discourse; second, for all its rhetoric of democracy, garnered in its relationship to the Indignados, Podemos’ innovation was an old one indeed: centralized power. 

Momentum

In the UK, the election campaign for Jeremy Corbyn who, according to the narration of his close ally John McDonnell, only reluctantly put himself forward for nomination, galvanized thousands to turn up to rallies to hear him speak. Events packed out across the country, with speeches atop fire engines and a constant stream of support on social media against the established punditry; Corbyn’s election campaign wasn’t the product of a sustained social movement, yet aided by the spectacle of crowds against the grain of the New Labour establishment, it felt like one, and as several key activists in Momentum intended, it had the potential to become one.

The two trajectories discussed here – the movementist and the traditional left – converged on Momentum. Corbyn’s election demonstrated an organic demand for a movement that could outpace the Party in terms of organizing. Tens of independent meetings were held to discuss the victory and ask where next, while in many official Party Ward and Constituency meetings the election was brushed over with an embarrassed shudder by the caste of incumbents.

A centre to Momentum began to crystalize around the right to possess and access the data gathered during the leadership campaign. The names and contact details of tens of thousands of supporters were made the possession of a board of trusties composed of several Corbyn-friendly MPs and the seasoned Labour Party activist Jon Lansman. With a name provided by popular left-wing commentator Owen Jones, Momentum was officially founded and all other independent pro-Corbyn initiatives and the mass of supporters accepted the branding.

At the newly-formed centre, Lansman and behind him a network of activists with deep roots to long embittered struggles within the Labour Party, represented one pole of attraction; on the other were the three members of staff and group of unpaid volunteers drawn from the leadership campaign, among them James Schneider whose own checkered political history diverges dramatically from that of the typically “tribalist” Labour Party activist. Schneider’s thoughts on the development of Momentum reveal his intellectual “fit” with the movementist trend, evidenced by a weariness of trade union practices (motions and delegates, for example), a preference for UK:Uncut style tactics and an expressed desire to make the Labour Party “more like a social movement” (Schneider, 2016). Unprepared and under siege (both within and outside of the Party) Momentum’s centre and Corbyn’s offices contributed next to nothing that would definitively shape the early development of the organisation. Likewise Lansman’s initial efforts to limit and control the spread of local groups was counterbalanced by the movementists in Momentum’s office who ensured a laissez-faire approach. The result was that the aims and structure of Momentum took shape without a shred of authoritative guidance, a power vacuum into which the traditional left gained ascendance.

Momentum is thus comprised of a mix of groups operating unevenly. Several have continued to operate well within an ethics of autonomy, taking their own initiative to engage their community and the Labour Party’s structures as they see fit, often avoiding the bureaucratic elements of Momentum entirely. Some groups are directly controlled by self-designated revolutionary socialists whereas others have collapsed or become bogged down by petty factionalism. At the national level, however, all groups have had pressed upon them the development of a structure following a traditional left mould: formal membership of individuals, local groups, group delegates to regional groups, regional delegate to a national committee and the national committee electing a steering group. As this development took shape it drew in the usual suspects of the traditional left to Momentum’s democratic structures. At its apex the Steering Committee includes a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known militant trade unionist, as well as Jon Lansman who, having initially obstructed these developments, nevertheless made sure to obtain his own seat at the table.

The coup factor

Momentum stumbled through its early beginnings while events outside it gained apace: unlike Oxi, the anti-establishment vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was led from the right and the result provided cover for an organized coup against Corbyn’s leadership. MP’s took a vote of no confidence in their leader and a well-orchestrated hailstorm of cabinet resignations followed. Both failed to dislodge Corbyn and so the coup plotters proposed a new round of leadership elections. Over the summer of 2016, moves made by Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP and the Party bureaucracy increased the indignation of his supporters, prompting yet another surge in membership and a flood of income as new members coughed-up the £25 that the NEC now required new members to pay in order to vote. The Party’s disenfranchisement of thousands of new members and the purge of many others contributed towards a moral economy of injustice, which, testified to by a frenzy of outrage on social media and new media platforms (foremost among them the spurious journalism of The Canary), largely replaced a more sober analysis of the Party’s conjuncture.

For all the incoherence and rage it generated, the coup had one intelligible effect upon those members whose political consciousness had been shaped by the ‘social movement’ trajectory. Prior to that summer, such members had oriented their politics outside the Party. The initial leadership election had shown that Corbyn’s power might lie in stimulating a left-wing, street-based movement where none had previously existed. Now, however, the struggle turned inwards. The already-mooted idea of deselections grew to become a key theme in debates promoting maneuvering in Party wards and CLPs over any wider social mobilization. However recomposing the Party was not the only means by which activists had started to look inwards at Labour’s troubles: a foothold appeared for more seasoned so called “soft leftists” who, like Owen Jones, found an audience for their appeal to compromise with Corbyn’s opposition in circumstances of Labour’s plummeting in the polls.[6] The effect of this inward-looking trajectory was to limit the focus on mobilization outside the party, particularly acute in instances where enemies could otherwise be constructed out of Labour-led councils who had unapologetically administered Tory cuts.

Such were the circumstances that presided over the difficult birth of left renewal from a deeply neoliberal Labour Party, a dilemma largely dictated by the conditions of Britain’s first past the post electoral system. Movementist activists entering Labour with radical political consciousness are being shaped into a new cadre of Labour party door-knockers, focused on Party maneuvering, electioneering and at best community engagement deploying methods drawn more from Obama and Sanders’ campaigns than from the organic ruptures of Greece and Spain. Stripped of strategies for social change which foreground social mobilization, the post-movementists in Labour now have at their disposal merely tactical innovations (networked and “crowd-sourced” forms of organising) constrained within the reformist boundaries implied by Labour’s long history of Fabianism. In contrast to Podemos, a party formed, its protagonists claim, “under no obligation to make concessions to the left’s conservatism” (Iglesias, 2015), the situation for the new cadre entering Labour has been the exact opposite.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. Paimages/Francisco Seco. All rights reserved.

Momentum’s Vista Alegre moment?

A power-struggle has been taking place in Momentum between the two broad intellectual tendencies in the Corbyn movement outlined above. 2016’s election campaign mobilised personelle at the centre of Momentum and drew in many of its key activists. This led to an expansion of the group’s bureaucracy and a deeper bond between it, Corbyn’s offices and Party staff.

Momentum’s Steering Committee (SC) was shut out of the campaign and meetings were blocked for its duration. Following the result, and after several delays, the National Committee (NC) were due to meet in November in order to prepare for a national conference in early 2017 at which Momentum members will finally make a decision on the constitutional structure of Momentum.

After more wrangling, the office has taken the initiative, launching MxV an online platform for crowd-sourcing proposals for Momentum’s structure which each member can “like”, moving the motion upwards or downwards in popularity. The most popular motions are intended to be discussed at conference. The launch, however, has been badly (if at all) explained by its architects who have acted independently from Momentum’s NC, finally due to meet in December. The result so far has been more outrage from traditional left elements, trolling and confusion.

In an ironic mirroring of the constitutional wrangling that led to Corbyn’s own election, a constitutional structure defined by one member one vote (OMOV) is being mooted which would undermine the traditional left’s power in Momentum as based on group delegates. Prepared to sit though more meetings (additional to or instead of Party meetings, union meetings and whatever else) and schooled in the merits and techniques of delegate elections, traditional leftists hold on the one hand that democracy is only meaningful if it is deliberative in person (and not online), while lauding the delegate system, presumably as the means of pursuing a counter-power-like strategy. Whatever their perspectives, those attached to the current system are incensed by the take over of their gains by an unelected, nepotistic clique in Momentum’s office.

Prospects

Both tapered post-movementist radicalism and the traditional left have deficiencies. The campaigns Momentum HQ have organised so far show little ambition beyond Party wrangling, however crucial (and in this regard it has lacked clear management and experience) whereas autonomous groups have demonstrated little that is truly game-changing. For their part the indigent traditional leftists fail to recognize the problems inherit in their operation. Their favoured delegate system creates a too-many-meetings problem for new activists who, given a scarcity of time and energy, when directed to Momentum as the primary vehicle for organizing, will limit the focus on creating an electable Labour Party that can win socialism both inside and outside the Party. The danger in creating a mirror of the Party structure in the form of Momentum is that this destabilizes rather than cements the left’s still precarious foothold in Labour.

Labour has to be the focus of the left’s activities, and as long as the Party remains swamped by anti-Corbyn tendencies Momentum will play a role in directing it, focusing on political education and campaigns to be democratically adopted at ward and constituency level whenever possible, effectively transforming Labour into a political-Party-cum-social-movement that will transform the lives of millions. In order for this to happen Momentum needs a form of democracy that circumvents distracting and factional group-based elections. That system may be some form of regionalized OMOV that can counter the hierarchies of reputational status (unlike Podemos where the national slate-based OMOV system favours those leaders with the greatest media presence). At the same time the organization of the office must become transparent and jobs must be openly tendered and distributed on a basis of merit.

Can the ‘social movement’ and the traditional left trajectories work together productively? It is possible that the traditional left has the ideological maturity to counter a post-movementist turn to short-termist Fabianism. On the other hand the movementists offer a useful skepticism regarding bureaucracy and a greater sense of post-colonial and contemporary feminist perspectives. Between the two tendencies is Momentum’s office, the core of which will be probably unwilling to hand over the keys to any national structure that fails to make Labour the movement’s primary vehicle.

 

[1] It is from the Southern sphere that the alter-globalsation movement claimed its intellectual origins, particularly from peasant movements in Mexico led by the Zapatistas. Earlier than in Europe, new social movements and political parties would productively forge the conditions for Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, yet again offering intellectual references that were transmitted to European left populism, influencing the development of Podemos in particular.

[2] Today Sisters Uncut continues an intersectional form of activism in this vein.

[3] The riots in 2011 were for some a confirmation of the insurrectional spontaneity of urban working classes, however feeble ties existed between the group of political anarchists who stood in awe of the event and the subaltern rioters. For others, England’s brief moment of anarchy may have beaten back their radicalism. Movements against racist policing have continued to develop where the issue remains fundamental to many intersectional activists, unfortunately however these struggles are less foregrounded within the pro-Corbyn movement.

[4] A case in point would be Novara Media, an online media platform with a bent towards far left politics.

[5] Costas Lapavitsas went so far as to suggest that Keysianism would be a necessary bridge between neoliberalism and socialism: “Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now.” (2015)

[6] In this context an influential blog appeared written by an academic with autonomist-Marxist leanings who, accepting the right’s narrative of defeat for Labour under Corbyn and hence the absolute priority of class compromise, expressed the doubts of new radical members navigating this strange land of reformist electoral politics (Matt Bolton blog on Medium, July 2016).


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