3 ways to build the social movement in Britain after Corbyn’s victory

Jonny Jones discusses how Jeremy and his supporters, whether they are inside or outside the Labour Party, could help to build a social movement that can challenge the Tories and point towards serious social transformation.

Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has been met with astonishment and celebration from many, ridicule and fearmongering from others. While the Tories lurch from mocking him to painting him as a threat to national security, the left has been trying to take it all in: what does it mean to have a socialist leading the Labour Party, elected by 60 per cent of the voters, whose ranks were swollen by hundreds of thousands of people, motivated by a campaign characterised by demands for peace and social justice?

Everybody knows that Jeremy will face going to face opposition not just from the Labour Party establishment, but from the British and global capitalist establishment as well. He clearly realises that resisting these attacks will require him to situate himself as part of a broader movement. Jeremy has already said that “The way forward for Labour is to recruit more members, to become a stronger social movement, but above all have an absolute passion to end inequality and poverty in Britain.” I don’t here want to get into a discussion about whether socialists should be inside or outside Labour. What I do want to suggest are a few constructive ideas for how Jeremy and his supporters, whether they are inside or outside the Labour Party, could help to build a social movement that can challenge the Tories and point towards serious social transformation.

A movement in the streets

Tory Justice Secretary Michael Gove took to the airwaves on Sunday to contrast Jeremy’s “humane tradition” with the very different approach of organisations “who want to bring protest on to the street”, saying he thought it “important that we keep our politics civilised.” The contrast is, of course, a ridiculous one. The “civilised” politics that Gove professes to hold have led to enormous attacks on benefits, education, healthcare and workers’ rights. In opposition to this. We have seen a wave of street protests – from the student revolt of 2010 through to UK Uncut and the anti-austerity demonstrations called by the TUC and the People’s Assembly, and Jeremy has supported them all.

In a recent interview Jeremy called for opponents of austerity to protest at the Tory Party conference in October, saying that “what happens in parliament is a reflection of what happens outside”. Jeremy’s campaign should try to mobilise as many of its supporters as possible for the demo. Jeremy could directly message his supporters and use the impressive social media reach of his campaign and the media machine of the Labour Party itself to publicise it. Trade unions are already laying on transport and could be encouraged to provide more if there was big demand. A huge turnout in Manchester would strengthen Jeremy’s anti-austerity position, and a militant protest that was big enough to block roads, disrupt delegations and shut down the conference would enormously bolster the movement outside parliament and lay the basis for ongoing protests and deeper local organisation.

A movement in the workplaces

Four years ago Ed Miliband gave an interview about public sector strikes in which he repeated the mantra “These strikes are wrong” like a broken record – and this was the man dubbed “Red Ed” by the Tory press. What a difference to see Jeremy continue his unstinting support for striking workers while a backbencher by backing the striking National Gallery staff during his first speech at TUC conference as Labour leader. Having a Labour leader who supports striking workers could be of great importance as the Tory assault on trade union rights begins in earnest. However, simply hoping for a Labour government in 2020 that can repeal the new anti-union bill would be a real mistake. That’s why it’s good that the TUC has called for a day of action to oppose the bill, but how can the enthusiasm of Jeremy’s new support be brought into this fight, and how can we got from days of action to winning? He has always supported action from below, and it would be really helpful if he explicitly came out and argued why it won’t do to wait for 2020 – both because it’s such an urgent fight and because waiting would mean (at best) him taking office with a weak movement behind him, badly placed to stand up to the establishment attacks on his government.

Jeremy has already made it clear that voter registration will be a key task, adding the post of shadow minister for young people and voter registration to his shadow cabinet. He should place a similar emphasis on union recruitment, launch a major campaign to promote it and call on his supporters to join a union, become union reps, organise at their workplaces and take on their bosses. Trade unions should offer major resources for signing-up new members. The task of rebuilding our power in the workplace will be a long one, but this is an opportunity to promote a significant influx into the union movement.

A movement for our future

John McDonnell’s appointment as shadow chancellor was a sign that Jeremy has no intention of relenting on his anti-austerity programme. Like Jeremy, John has been a committed socialist activist throughout his parliamentary career, and soon after his appointment he spoke to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News saying:

I don’t think change comes from Parliament, or from above. Change comes from below. One of the roles I can play is to stimulate debate about the potential alternative there is. We used to use the slogan “another world is possible” and I believe that, but you can only achieve that is people are absolutely convinced that there is an alternative. So part of my job isn’t just about the politics of the Parliamentary Labour Party or the politics in the House of Commons, it’s about getting out there and stimulating this debate on the alternative.

There has been much discussion of the kind of economic policies that Corbyn should pursue and of next steps, strategies, and programmes he could adopt. In the important discussions and debates among Corbyn, McDonnell and their supporters, that slogan of another world and its possibility, indeed, its necessity, should not take a back seat.

The movements that have emerged around the world over the last few years have at their best coupled the power of mass action with an anger at the existing state of affairs and a longing for something different; something better. The Egyptian Revolution was infused with a desire for “Bread, freedom and social justice”. The 15-M movement of the squares in Spain demanded “Real Democracy Now!” The Occupy camps around the world pitted the immense majority against the few with its slogan “We are the 99%”. Each of these, and many others, have been a crucial education for the left, one that we are still attempting to learn the lessons of. But one thing that is clear is that marrying mobilisation and organisation with an internationalist vision of a better future is a challenge we have to meet.

The recent surge of support for refugees, including the demonstration of tens of thousands who marched through London on Saturday, shows the potential for an internationalist movement in solidarity with migrants. Jeremy’s support for this campaign, and his unequivocal linking of the migrant crisis with imperialism, strengthens that potential. The inspirational work of organisations like London2Calais shows that it is possible to organise concrete solidarity not on a purely humanitarian basis but on a political one. Translating that potential into a living, breathing campaign is something Jeremy and his supporters should attempt in the months ahead.

Finally, a vision of a better future must tackle the question of runaway climate change. That’s why it’s so important that Jeremy has included the creation of a million climate jobs in his environmental platform. The One Million Climate Jobs campaign connects the need to save the planet from capitalist crises (economic and environmental, through enormous investment in renewables and the growth of quality, well-paid public sector jobs) to campaigns and struggles in every arena, from street protests to factory occupations, to make it happen. It is a programme for social change that is linked to mass mobilisation and self-activity.

The movements that we need to deliver serious change will only be born out of significant social struggles. Jeremy’s election alone is not going to deliver those struggles, but his actions and those of his supporters over the coming years and months could strengthen all of us who want to see a socialist future.

There are 5 comments

  1. hicsalta

    So revolutionary socialists are to do more of the same that characterised the worst aspects of the centralist Socialist Worker days? The tenor remains the same: march round in (militant) circles, recruit activists and demand more work as a response to the crisis (‘Green jobs now!) Why is it that the ‘esoteric’ demands of communism have to be constantly consigned to the crypt? In some kind of memory box, to be opened at some undefined date. Meanwhile valorisation continues, there is no analysis of what constitutes ‘the automatic subject’ and abstract labour, the money form, all the Marxian categories, remain buried in dust, out of reach for debate and discussion – because there’s work to be done, comrades!

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  2. Mark

    “I don’t here want to get into a discussion about whether socialists should be in or out of the Labour Party.” Yes, I understand – it is always embarrassing to be forced to face important questions and to have no response. In fact you’re caught between your tradition and reality, between dogma and a gut instinct to join the struggle.
    As Trotsky said, let the struggle be your guide. Time to update your theory
    For most of us, it is a no-brainer: all socialists should join Labour, now. Face the facts. You’re not a revolutionary party and workers are joining Labour in tens of thousands. Time for a French turn.

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  3. Rob Owen

    I’m not sure we are stuck between dogma and reality.

    I’m not in principle against joining an organisation like Labour when revolutionary forces are so small as an organised group. However there would have to be a very good reason to do so – specifically being a part of battles alongside a radicalising audience I’d want to work with.

    The huge numbers who voted and supported Corbyn are clearly an audience of that type but I’m not at all convinced there are battles that necessitate joining labour I want to fight. Defending Corbyn from within Labour is a strategy that defies logic as the battles Corbyn will face are primarily from the parliamentary party and labour party machine. Areas the members have no say.

    There could be a battle to democratise Labour – deselect MP’s and councillors, rebuild a radical left, turn structures outwards. But this is unlikely to be the next battle people choose (unless directed to) given the dynamic that drew them to Corbyn – migrant rights, the NHS, education, housing are all issues more likely to bring people together into activity. Such a fight to reform Labour would have to be lead from the top and the Corbyn team is seeking an alterantive strategy – that of drawing in a section of the moderate PLP and labour structure into their camp and focusing on the anti-austerity part of their politics while beating a soft retreat on their own broader radical politics (publicly at least).

    A battle to reform Labour is certainly not where I’d chose to direct my (or argue for others to) direct their efforts. This is for ideologocal reasons. The Labour Party is structurally an intervention of the Labour movement into the structures of the British state – primarily parliament. This exerts a powerful pressure towards assimilation and cooption even when Labour is pressured by a leader like Corbyn with a powerful popular mandate. The structures of the Party are built around this intervention from wards through to the privileged and undemocratic position of the PLP. As a revolutionary betting on the potential (and believing in the necessity) of liberation from below this means the Labour party can never becone fit for purpose. To join it would only ever be for short term or medium term tactical reasons. Imv as such an established (and establishment) structure it lacks even the potential of newer more unstable but equally reformist organisations like Syriza (pre-capitulation) where the potential to create a real confrontation with power on our terms was at least more possible given the party was initially on the outside disorganising the existing establishment.

    As it stands there seem to be plently of ways to work alongside people and fight to defend Corbyn from the right with out joining. Also very few of those backing Corbyn seem to have the tribalism towards Labour of the team at the top. Nor do they seem likely to rush into the CLP’s in a bid to fight over council processes and policy. We have to hope Corbynism opens up new possibilities for the things Jonny outlines because that’d be a sign the movement was continuing to develop.

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  4. Mark

    “Labour is certainly not where I’d chose to direct my efforts.” OK, but you don’t get to choose your preferred terrain. No-one has offered you a menu. You choice is join and help organise the fight, or don’t.
    There’s a very big fight shaping up. Hattersley and Mandelson have openly called for the right to organise to destroy Corbyn. You say you will, “fight to defend Corbyn from the right without joining.” How on earth is that possible, from the outside? This is just rhetoric, something to keep your group together, to have something to say, something that fills the space where coherence should go.
    Several tens of thousands have joined in the last ten days. In every large workplace there will be some who have signed up recently and many more who are actively paying attention to the Corbyn movement. What do you think they’ll make of you – assuming they ever find you? If you want to grow – join a Labour Club on campus or set up a Young Labour group. Do it now, with urgency! There are scores, maybe hundreds of people, in every big city, who would be brought into your orbit if you do.
    And don’t turn away, snobbishly, when you don’t find an immediate pool of would-be Trotskyists. Work with these new Labour recruits and help them become revolutionaries by organising with them in the battles with the Labour right. Many of these people will go well beyond Corbyn.
    “Labour party can never becone fit for purpose.” Meaning what? Your purpose – socialist revolution. No of course not. It could, however, form the next government. And that would be a big confidence boost. Laying open the possibility of some pro-working class reforms.

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