The Labour Party experience – interviews with new Labour activists

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has attracted new activists to party politics, as well as those who were members of other parties, further to the left of Labour. As part of our ongoing discussion of Corbynism and the future of Labour, Tom Haines-Doran, from rs21, interviewed some of these activists, to get a flavour of their experiences and their thoughts on the road ahead.

Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

Zoe, a community activist and returning Labour member

I rejoined the Labour Party in March 2016. I had previously been a member in my late teens and early 20s but left in around 1998, having become disillusioned with the party under the leadership of Tony Blair.

After leaving the Labour party in the nineties, I was not politically active for quite a long time. I was briefly a member of the Green Party and then got more politically active following the 2015 general election, when I started getting involved with the People’s Assembly and Unite Community.

Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party, I feel the party has changed direction and now matches my own political beliefs more closely. My main reason for joining was to support Jeremy as leader and to help campaign for a Labour victory under his leadership in the next general election. I don’t think I would have rejoined unless he was leader, his integrity and principles made me think I could trust the party again.

I was, and still am, concerned that the politics at branch and constituency level do not reflect the change in direction for the party that is happening under Corbyn’s leadership, although so far my contact with branch and constituency has been limited. There seems to be a disconnect between what is happening nationally, with the huge growth in membership and growing popular support for Corbyn, and where there is anti-Corbyn sentiment from local party officers and Labour councillors, and even antipathy towards new members.

I haven’t had a huge amount of contact with longer-standing members. I suffered a bereavement shortly after joining, then our constituency party was suspended, so I’ve only been able to attend one branch meeting. I was very interested to hear what my branch felt about Corbyn’s leadership, and proposed a motion of support for him during the meeting.  The response from longer-standing members and branch officers was overwhelmingly negative (only one other person supported Corbyn in the room).

To me, the main goal must be Labour’s electoral success. I feel another term of Tory government would be too disastrous to contemplate. We need to support Jeremy’s leadership, contribute to the development of good policies and candidates for election, and to get out there and convince everyone to vote Labour.

We all need to do as much as we can to unite the left, to engage with as many different parties and organisations on the left as we can, to open up debate on policy and electoral strategy. We all share a common goal, to defeat this Tory government and protect services and people from their policies; we need to work together to do that.

I like to think that JC will win, everyone will unite and we’ll get on with getting the Tories out, but it’s just never going to be that simple and recent political events have shown how difficult it is to predict the future. I do think JC will win this leadership election but fear that this won’t be the last attempt by the PLP to force a leadership contest and this could potentially be disastrous, maybe even heralding a split in the party.

‘Sara’, a Junior Doctor and new to political party membership

I joined Labour in August 2015. I wanted to be a member so I could vote for Corbyn. I have been a Labour Party supporter for a long time, however never felt particularly inspired by previous Labour Party leaders. Corbyn seemed (and still does) like the kind of leader who I think embodies what I believe to be Labour Party values.

I have attended and spoken at various Momentum meetings. I campaigned for Remain with the Labour party and I’ve recently become a delegate to the Constituency Labour Party. However, all meetings have been suspended recently, so I’ve not been able to carry out my delegate duties so far.

I think many long standing Labour Party members value the left wing of the party and have similar political ideas to me. I have met a few who are concerned that Labour cannot win a general election with Corbyn as leader and we’ve spoken about those concerns.

I think those on the left should be in the Labour Party, and I believe the Labour Party should represent truly left wing policies. Corbyn is doing a great job constructing and promoting policies to renationalise services, to protect education and the NHS. Proper investment in public services and equity across the nation should be shown to be a practical alternative to what the Tories are offering. The left wing of the party need to keep promoting these policies, rather than settling for neoliberal compromise.

People that do stay outside Labour could help by engaging in debate and researching alternative economic and public policies. The mainstream media generally tells one narrative, real life discussion and social media discussion can explore an alternative narrative.

I think Corbyn will win the leadership election. I hope, although I’m not too optimistic, that differences can be put aside and everyone get behind JC to show a united front and start properly opposing the Tories. I am quite concerned that the current in-fighting and possible fall out of the election result will make Labour look completely incredible to voters. I think this has caused damage to the Party, which may be difficult to undo.

Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

 

Aaron’ is a socialist in Manchester who has been in revolutionary organisations before joining Labour recently

I joined on a whim around May 2016. I couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to, and many of my friends on the left had already joined. I wanted a voice. In the past I was in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for eight years, then the International Socialist Network and rs21 [both formed after a split in the SWP].

I was concerned that my previous affiliations would mean I was barred from joining. But they let me in, no questions asked. [Aaron has yet to be sent an email from Labour’s infamous Compliance Unit, as many others have in ‘Labour Purge 2’]. I also wondered what my 18 year old revolutionary self would think of me.

I haven’t yet formally been involved in any Labour Party meetings or events, being tied up with work recently. That means I’ve not yet been able to relate to others in the party in the way I’d hoped. I have to say, my local Labour MP seems politically suspect.

In terms of left strategy in the party, there are too many ‘lefts’ at present to think of one single strategy. But in general, we should be building the party’s bases in local communities and unions, whilst formalising a stronger democracy, particularly around policy making.

To those comrades deciding not to join Labour, I hope they will help the left in Labour by counteracting arguments against Corbyn and the Labour left, providing an alternative narrative.

Corbyn will probably win the leadership election. Then you might see some formal resignations from the more right wing MPs like Jess Phillips. More likely is a continuous groundwar from the right, undermining the leadership, waiting for the next big ‘failure’ to try and launch another leadership campaign. Hopefully Corbyn and his team will set about strengthening the left within aspects of the Labour Party and mobilising new members around extra-parliamentary activities.

Richard has been in revolutionary organisations before and has now joined Labour

I joined Labour after the Brexit vote. I voted in last year’s leadership election for Corbyn, via my union, and went one step further, since many of my colleagues have signed up recently.

There’s a surge going on, and contrary to the rest of Europe, where social democratic parties have collapsed, here we have a peculiar situation, where there is a revival [in the major social democratic party]. Moreover, there are some pretty climatic battles to come in the party and I didn’t feel I could abstain from these.

I was previously in the SWP for many years, then on the National Council of Respect. I was briefly a member of Labour back in the 1980s.

During my political activity over the last 35 years, I witnessed the retreat of Labour and all that it entails, and then the defining issue of Iraq. Recognising the terrain is now changing rapidly was a hurdle to get over.

I’ve been a Shop Steward in Local Government for nigh on 20 years. I’ve not been involved in much Labour Party activity, the exception being my Constituency Labour Party meeting, which voted 64 – 15 for Corbyn. The party seems at best patchy in welcoming new recruits and knowing what to do with them, and at worst very hostile to them.

I’ve been relating to long standing Labour party members for years. As a community activist based in North Manchester I worked quite happily alongside my councilors and others on a range of campaigns.

I think it’s critical that those organisations outside of Labour continue to exist. There’s huge struggles on the horizon and external anchors may be useful. There are those who have worked alongside Corbyn in Stop the War and other campaigns he’s been involved in. It’s vital we extend these other arenas of struggle to help deepen our movement. They have been critical to Corbyn’s rise. But other left parties need to guard against being seen as parasitical; they should instead be active and embedded in campaigns.

When Corbyn wins it will be followed by the mother of all shit storms. By then, the establishment, from the right all the way to the Guardian, will know Corbyn is further entrenched. Expect a media campaign of unparalleled hostility until the next general election. Prepare for a bumpy ride, get stuck in; we’ll see where this takes us.

Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

‘Dave’ – joined Momentum, but not Labour. Former member of a revolutionary socialist organisation

I was a member of the SWP for 27 years, but left recently.

I have been attending Lewisham Momentum meetings, rallies and fundraisers since Corbyn got elected as leader. I decided to join Momentum about a month ago. I felt that I would get more respect within the local group if I formally joined, and now I’m taking a leading role in Lewisham Momentum.

I have helped to get speakers from key campaigns – like the Junior Doctors’ strike and a local library campaign – into Momentum meetings. I have also used my links to Lewisham Trades Council and the People’s Assembly to publicise demos and strikes. I helped get a massive venue for Corbyn to come and speak, due to my trade union connections, so we went from a venue that could hold 130 people to one where we had 700.

I have been up to the Corbyn HQ to phone round Labour Party members from around the country. This was an enjoyable experience as you get a chance to talk to a lot of people from a range of areas, and you can get a sense of how well Corbyn is being supported. It also gives you a chance to try and win over any waverers, and there seem to be quite a few of them especially in London.

I have not joined Labour as I think the main way is to change society through struggle: strikes and campaigns. I don’t think the Labour Party can bring about the kind of socialism that I want to see. What happened to Syriza last summer shows the limits of a radical left reformism. The same issues would beset a Corbyn-led government. However, I do think that I can play a useful role as I have a lot of political experience. It has also been exciting to meet so many new people especially the people who have been newly politicised or the older ones who have been rejuvenated.

There is a lot of pressure within my local Momentum group to join the Labour Party and get involved in all the ward, Constituency Labour Party and Party Conference stuff. In Lewisham about 25% of the 700 Momentum members are members of Labour. Clearly, many identify with Corbyn and what he is standing for, but have yet to be won to fully joining.  Why the majority have not joined the LP as full members is a good question.

There are two sets of Momentum members: a younger group who are mostly new to politics and certainly to the structures of the Labour Party, and an older group who were often members before Blair and have now re-joined.  I would say about 40% of the people who actually attend the meetings are quite new to organised politics. The vast majority of these people I have not met before, so Corbyn has helped to generate a new layer of militants. Many of these younger people are enthusiastic and creative. They want to see a different future for Britain and see New Labour as a disaster. However, they do not sometimes appreciate the incredibly hard task of trying to organise within the LP and the different procedures and processes.

Over the last few weeks as more and more time time is being spent discussing internal Labour party matters. In the earlier meetings there was far less time spent on this We would try and start meetings with talking about outside campaigns, and only later move on to the battle within the party. I think this is a shame and also sends a message about what is seen as key. If you are not in the party, like me, it can feel like you can’t contribute that much. I think this tendency will grow over time.

I think that the vast majority in Momentum know they are engaged in a hard battle. I think that the left needs to keep pushing its influence and to get the policies we need and to get Labour MPs to support strikes, demos and campaigns. I think in the long term it is going to be very tough.

Those that remain outside of Labour should try where they can to attend local Momentum meetings and bring people along. We should be trying to emphasise that the battle is not only within the Labour Party, but also that the struggles outside are actually more important.

If JC wins there could be many implications. It will certainly boost the left generally as he is popularising left ideas to millions. I think how the Parliamentary Labour Party behave depends on how much he wins by and whether the unions keep backing him. If Corbyn can’t shift the opinion polls more in the next few months, I can see some trade union leaders putting real pressure on Corbyn to do something or possibly resign. There is still a vague possibility that Theresa May may call a snap election and this could cause a lot of turmoil. The movement in the streets and in the workplaces needs to increase to match the higher politicisation that Corbynism represents.


Interviews conducted by email and subsequently edited by Tom Haines-Doran. Some participants were given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

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