Analysis Guest article

Rebuilding socialism outside of Labour

In this third article of a three-part series (part 1, part 2), former Corbyn staffer Phil Bevin looks at the prospects for real change – and how to achieve it outside a Labour party whose regime no longer represents even the vaguest idea of genuine socialism

Real, lasting change doesn’t come from negotiating for crumbs from the establishment’s table but working with communities to help them claim power for themselves. This means talking to people, finding out their concerns, and campaigning to ensure that the holders of power are held to account, and the system they serve contested at elections.

In large parts of the country, this kind of activism is impossible to achieve through the Labour Party because its representatives are the local establishment. Many of us who are trying to contribute to progressive change end up fighting against the Labour Party.

‘Labour and its associated culture of managerialism should be allowed to die’

For instance, I live in Birmingham, where Labour controls the City Council. Despite having £500 million in reserve, at least £50 million of which is unallocated, the housing conditions are appalling, even slum-like. Flats suffer from damp, cockroach infestations, urine in lifts, and overcrowding. It should be a scandal, but Momentum and the Labour left have done nothing to address it, perhaps because highlighting the problems would mean damaging the image of the party they represent. Even worse, at election time, Momentum and the Labour left will most likely be out knocking on doors urging people to vote for the very Councillors that presided over this misery. For socialism to thrive in my area and elsewhere, Labour and its associated culture of establishment approved managerialism should be allowed to die. 

This may sound uncompromising. But it is simply the logical conclusion of my personal experiences as a former activist and employee of the party, as well as the arguments outlined in my previous two articles for Skwawkbox. The actions by members of the Socialist Campaign Group – such as withdrawing their names from Stop the War statement on the Russian Government’s invasion of Ukraine at Starmer’s order – strongly imply that, unfortunately, most left-wing Labour officials prioritise holding the Labour whip above their socialist principles. If there is a conflict of interest between socialism and Labourism – which there frequently is under Keir Starmer’s regime – most members of the SCG are very likely to choose Labourism, however far to the right the party’s trajectory. Again, this is simple logic, as the best way to determine peoples’ future actions is through studying past behaviour.

Momentum and the left establishment

Many influential people, including some former colleagues of mine, still see the Labour Party and its outrider institutions as essential to the future of socialism in the UK. I’ve seen arguments for a leftist social movement organised through and around the Labour Party, its MPs and allied unions. Proposals like this amount to the equivalent of reworking or rebranding Momentum, which has repeatedly failed to mount an effective challenge to the Labour right since Corbyn stepped down in 2020 and arguably even before then.  The concept of a Labour-centric “social movement” is in fact Momentum’s brand and any new organisation along these lines or reworking of the existing Momentum will encounter the same problem: the centrality of the Labour Party to its aims and objectives. For instance, Momentum maintains that “with its links to the labour movement and with its rich socialist tradition, a transformed and democratised Labour Party is our best chance of delivering meaningful change in government.”

This is a clever rhetorical sleight of hand. Labour – the largest political opposition party in the country – is, by definition, the most likely to deliver a change in Government. But it does not follow that this will deliver real change in policy and political culture. Meaningful change is hard, because social forces with vested interests will always fight tooth and nail against it and Labour is a party saturated with vested interests. 

Momentum’s position may have less to do with Labour’s viability as a vehicle for driving socialist change than proscribing “undesirables”; Momentum is not an inclusive organisation of the left. This is revealed by restrictions on the involvement of people who aren’t Labour members in Momentum activities:

“Individuals that support candidates from political parties other than Labour, or are a member of those parties, cannot be a Momentum Movement Builder”

In other words, you can be involved in the Momentum “left”, so long as your politics are compatible with the Labour Party, as currently managed by right wingers. This is not the policy of an organisation serious about building a broad movement or establishing a firm base in UK communities: party activists cannot assume that the people they may need to work with to improve conditions locally will share the aims and values of Labour and Momentum. Regardless of the actual work you do, to Labour and its outriders, it’s your associations that matter. This is just identity politics writ large.

It logically follows that, to Momentum, it is more acceptable to be allied with the likes of Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair than actual socialists in other parties or non-Labour aligned organisations. To my mind, this only works to demarcate the “respectable” from “unrespectable” or “crank” left in the most dubious fashion. Is Tony Blair more “respectable” than, say, Dave Nellist, Mick Lynch, Chris Williamson, or George Galloway? According to Momentum’s policy he is, by virtue of his association with the Labour Party; the perverse conclusion of the twisted logic of Labourism is self-avowed “socialists” accepting the legitimacy of establishment heroes and war criminals but acquiescing to the punishment and expulsion of activists who dare to associate themselves with former Labour Council Leader and MP Chris Williamson via his Resist organisation.

Therefore, although there are undoubtedly excellent branches of Momentum throughout the country, which do great community work independently, the purpose of Momentum policy as imposed from the centre seems less about activism than it is about splitting the UK left. No wonder Sam Tarry, a member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet is comfortable serving on Momentum’s NCG. But the weakness of Momentum is only part of a wider fault running through the left establishment. The network of the restrictively “respectable” Labour left extends far beyond organisations openly associated with it, into various think tanks and NGOs.

The cost of collaboration

Oliver Eagleton lists some of these think tanks and NGOs in his book, the Starmer Project: a Journey to the Right, and they include the New Economics Foundation, the Centre for Labour Studies, and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

These organisations form the basis of a respectable, or “sane” “left intelligentsia” aiming to influence the establishment and civil service, shifting it leftwards through policy research.  However, there is a risk that the thinktanks may themselves be influenced by the forces of Government and market capital and feed this back into the political programmes of the Labour left. This particular danger is well illustrated by the links between the “leftist” thinktank, the New Economics Foundation and NHS England.

Before I go into further detail, it is important to explain the history of NHS England, which was established under the coalition Government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, with the specific intention of managing the process of privatisation as set out in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and, more recently, the NHS England “Five Year Forward View”. During the earlier part of collaboration between the NEF and NHS England, NHSE was still headed by now-peer Simon Stevens, a former CEO of American health insurance giant UnitedHealth. But it gets worse. The following passage is from the New Economics Foundation’s Programme Report: Health is a Social Movement:

The project is an attempt to flesh out what it means to focus on the role of communities and individuals, which is fundamental to the strategic direction of the NHS outlined in the Five Year Forward View. It looks at what we can do to move away from the ‘factory’ model of care to build  a sustainable future based on a more personalised approach. It is an approach that recognises the aspirations and energy of individuals and shows the power that arises from people who are more connected with their wider communities.

Here we have a leftist thinktank, with ties to Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group, explicitly promoting and endorsing what amounts to the privatising, service-denying premise of NHS England’s Five Year Forward View.

Rather than building the case for re-establishing the NHS in its true form – dismissed as a “factory model” – the NEF is working with a pro-privatisation, Tory-invented quango to embed the ideology that healthcare is the responsibility of private individuals and ‘the community’ – rather than public institutions. It may or may not be a coincidence that the collective response to the latest Health and Care Bill by the Socialist Campaign Group and its outriders has so far been dishonourably weak. Instead of a robust challenge to the direction of travel and a call for a firm push to renationalisation, many on the Labour left have chosen to retreat, arguing that Labour should return to the content of the 2017 manifesto, a significant step backwards from its more socialist 2019 promise to end and reverse NHS privatisation. This issue, as much as any other, highlights the central problem of trying to work with and through the left Labour establishment to achieve progressive change.

Any strategy that requires working in collaboration with the Labour left will also be subject to the influence of the left establishment – think tanks, Momentum-backed groups and personal networks, often tied to corporate and state interests. As this implies, the Labour left has become too infiltrated by the corporate state to be a viable vehicle for socialism. So, how can we build a truly progressive movement in the UK?

The alternative

We should focus on what real people want and need. Right now, peoples’ basic rights are under unprecedented assault by the establishment in a society that has returned to Victorian levels of inequality. Far more effective than raising the issue at CLP meetings in the hope that concerns will trickle up to council level or higher is engaging directly with and challenging the structures of power in our communities.

In Birmingham, for example, residents have set up a forum to organise for improvements, led by activist Ed Woollard, which has had some success fixing these issues, and even succeeded in securing the reopening of a local park In Bordesley and Highgate; this is real political work with tangible results.

Nevertheless, Community activism alone lacks political force. Although piecemeal and ad hoc improvements to repairs and conditions are welcome, systemic change will not take place until the Labour Party is removed from Birmingham City Council in favour of members of the working-class taking power for themselves. Party politics will, if it isn’t anchored by achievements in the community, be little more than a popularity parade for inflatable egos.

But it is still essential to have candidates standing in elections. If local and national establishments aren’t threatened by a political alternative, community activism can become a means of ameliorating the evils of the status quo, to the benefit of the holders of power. Once more, we see this in the NEF’s concept of “Health as a Social Movement”, which excuses the state’s decision to abandon its responsibility for our health and wellbeing, reframing it as the duty of the community. The trend is visible too in voluntary litter picking or drain cleaning campaigns organised by established Councillors, a form of voluntary action that only serves to distract from the truth that these jobs are the responsibility of local government, which should ensure that the issues are dealt with systematically and efficiently by paid workers.

The increased reliance on volunteer labour to clean the streets, staff libraries and (soon) provide healthcare is the death knell of the public realm. It is therefore essential that great community activists like Ed Woollard – who won 15% of his ward’s vote from a standing start during this years local elections – run for political office. Elsewhere, in Kingston upon Thames, my friend James Giles has successfully been elected as an independent Councillor after working hard in his community and resolving residents’ issues for eight years. Delivering change on the ground all year round boosts candidates’ chances at election time. It requires, time, care and effort but this strategy does work.

Thankfully, new shoots of change are growing. An informal coalition is building around the RMT Union via the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and collaborating groups. TUSC links together the RMT, Socialist Party and Resist. In recent weeks, the Workers’ Party of Britain has also gained observer status with TUSC. This grouping may presently represent the best hope of a political movement that may one day rival Labour. At the least, it presents opportunities for non-aggression pacts between left wing parties – none of which have the resources to launch serious competitive campaigns in every constituency and council ward in the country – to prevent the socialist vote from being split in targeted seats.

Supporting Peace and Justice

And this brings me to the prospect of a possible Peace and Justice Party and why I support the idea. Many are arguing that a Peace and Justice Party wouldn’t have the money, membership or activist base achieve immediate national success. They are of course right, but this is not what a Peace and Justice Party would need to achieve right away.

When the Labour Party was first formed – before it was captured by the establishment – it had no MPs. The first Labour MP, Keir Hardy, was elected a full six years after the Party’s formation. Its parliamentary base had to grow from him. If a Peace and Justice Party was established by Corbyn tomorrow, it would already have one MP with an incredibly strong organised base within his constituency. Yes, his five-figure majority would take a hit but the prospect of Corbyn being unseated from Islington North, where he is an active, engaged and genuinely popular MP, is unlikely.

Corbyn’s seat could then be used as a base for expanding Peace and Justice activism into neighbouring constituencies, with organisers building a platform for future success by engaging in the same kind of work currently being undertaken by Ed Woollard in Birmingham and many other activist groups working across the UK; the focus would no longer be on winning over the embarrassingly out of touch left establishment in and around the Labour Party but working on the ground with real people to assist them in achieving tangible victories, while challenging the holders of power at the ballot box. Rather than joining TUSC formally, a Peace and Justice Party could at least apply for observer status, thus keeping its independence and maintaining its freedom from other groups, while constructively coordinating with others. And through informal relationships, initially tentative ties between a Peace and Justice Party, TUSC and other groups may grow into a powerful electoral alliance.

The Grayzone’s revelation of Paul Mason’s alleged email correspondence with an MI6 agent appears to show the former journalist and would-be Labour MP raising fears about the emergence of an anti-imperialist left outside of Labour. The establishment should be worried, because it is from a loose alliance of anti-imperialist groups, as described in this article, that a meaningful challenge to the status quo will emerge.  

Previously, I believed it didn’t matter whether people’s activism was inside or outside Labour. But recent experiences have changed my mind. If you want to fight for real change and show Corbyn that there is enough enthusiasm to carry forward a Peace and Justice Party, leave Labour, give your subs to Peace and Justice instead and urge its leadership to start a new party. When socialists are no longer inhibited by Labour, we will have a better chance of winning power by and for the people.

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  1. I am not promoting this article, because the author has not squarely faced the absolute nonsense that is the so-called “Peace and Justice Project”, the only real function of which, is to stop activists being active. Secondly, while confronting the motives of the SCG – well done, at least, for that, he fails to follow through on Corbyn’s motives. As a result, his final conclusion is a nonsense.

    1. Merry Michael, all true enough. I remember the old term for unpaid labour, does anybody else?

  2. Do you know why I support having Two Cheeks on here, because he acts as a lightening rod for every ism that other contributers would defend to the death
    It would take all of two weeks for us to eat each other alive
    One example from the article, JC could I have no doubt create a viable alternative that would have the legs to get up and run against the kleptocracy the Morra
    But not as the leader of the party
    For that you need someone who is untouchable, young female bame or someone who is a horrible bastard, a hatchet man to drive the Tories, Red Blue Tartan Yellow and Green into the sea
    Try a practical exercise, sound out the unions in strictest confidence, how many would jump and fund the new party, problem is which have already been bought out by the vested interests
    Plan its all of them, then anything you get will be a bonus
    But doing nothing is the worst option, so whilst JC is still breathing, then FFS die a lion rather than a lamb

    1. Unions and confidentiality in the same sentence. Deft work my idealistic friend. They are a major part of the problem. I am deep in my dotage but I applaud you and wish you and your future endeavours well. I will be dust but I vow to haunt the brute pervert bolsheviks to suicide. Best to you and yours. From the lip of the grave, wobbly.

      1. Wobbly
        Keep on keeping on
        JC was onto something and they are shit scared of it, so lets line up a party leader and make JC President for Life
        270,000 members by tea time the day you announce it
        Not being idealistic just a numbers man
        qwerboi recommends Vitamin D3 and Zinc, I recommend Newcastle Brown Ale and Guinness

  3. The UK Labour Party is dead, it has been infested and devoured by Thatcher/Reagan’s flavour of Neoliberalism since blair gnawed his way into parliament.
    The Neo-Labour TORY Party of Blair and Starmer are no more thar a Thatcher/Reagan Neoliberal Conservative Party as made obvious by The Clintons, Obama, Biden, Trudeau, Macron, Blair, Starmer et al. Removing choice from The PEOPLE

    1. Bloody phone!
      ……as This TORY OR That TORY.
      Within without I would personally like to see the 10 or so UK Labour Party MPs leave and see an uptake of UK Labour Party staffers to undermine secretively from the inside. But perhaps it would be best if some mps remained, it would be great if JC gets the whip even if that is just for rubbing salt into wounds. However a unification of Socialists and Communists is urgent as is hard hitting speakers and fighters no more gently, gently!

  4. Momentum’s position with respect to socialists who are not members of the Labour Party is indefensible.
    But it gets worse …
    Socialists throughout the Labour Party have put aside factional interests to support the Grassroots-5 for the Labour NEC.
    Except Momentum – Who refuse to endorse one of the 5 – – – the leading JVL activist, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi.
    Naomi is an outstanding socialist and activist AND LABOUR PARTY MEMBER, with a track record equal to any of the GR-5.
    So – What’s the problem Momentum ??
    I’m a Momentum member, and I don’t know.
    Perhaps someone from Momentum will use these replies to tell us.
    I get all Momentum’s mailings.
    I’ve asked the question a couple of times … and don’t get an answer.
    Come on Momentum – Spill !!

    1. Well done Johnsco. Keep going and you will see the truth in all of it’s disgusting reality. Some people like to be big fish in a puddle, whatever that puddle consists of.

  5. I thought the article was a welcome change that faced reality,that the labour party we fought for and for a time was a part of our lives has gone.
    and not a road for real change or even basic respect for the working class.The solutions are coming and I keep saying this Whilst condeming those who participate in proping up this labour party.
    Whilst it remains in operation its clearly part of the Opposition to ordinary people of Britain.We don’t need tribute bands but full blooded left wing solutions to the divided society thats getting worse by the day….

  6. Don’t worry Wobbly.
    I have seen the truth in all its disgusting reality.
    I’m a similar age to yourself.
    I was for many years a senior lay activist in a major trade union.
    I witnessed the corruption whereby everyone who mattered had to be “bought and paid for” by the Bliarite ascendency.
    I refused to add my snout to those already at the trough.
    I was threatened, blackmailed, offered bribes.
    I told them to go and find sex and travel.
    Many of those who were “bought and paid for” in the Bliar days are still there and have been joined by many other careerists who have taken the shilling.
    Don’t hold too many hopes for the leaderships of the trade unions.
    Fuck ’em.

  7. Given the probability of Jeremy Corbyn joining or advocating a party outside the Labour Party is a big fat zero then why even mention it ? All talk of a P&JP is just displacement activity IMHO : the fight is inside the LP.

  8. David Jonson may or may not be correct regarding J.C.
    It’s only bloody mindedness that keeps me in the Labour Party.
    The fight within the L.P. is decisively lost.
    The party has been colonised by the representatives of the rich and powerful.
    Their grip on the burocratic levers of party control is total.
    Every dirty, dishonest trick in the book is used to ensure that this remains so.

  9. I pleaded with Jeremy Corbyn the Greatest PM who isn’t via email and twitter to beware the Fifth Columnists Watson Starmer Nandy Murray Lansdowne Philips Eagles Hodge Sugar et al and stated clearly if he didn’t rid the Party of every single dissenter and Traitor they would without Mercy Rid the Party of Himself, I rejoined the Labour Party after shredding my card in 1997 when the insidious Blair came in, I had held my card from age 18 1970 my second card was but a fleeting vision Jeremy Corbyn should have had a Wall of Steel surrounding him He was and I do not exaggerate here the Messiah the one who if properly protected by Socialist Members would have with the aid of Socialism Cleaned out the Stinking Sewer that is Westminster the Rotten Corrupt Cesspit that is The English Parliament Governed by Billionaire Shysters Liars and Sexual Predators who can if they wish buy up Countries Threaten Bully and Silence the laughably referred to FREE PRESS the most Vile twisted rotten Bunch of Power Mad scumbags with to much influence with a perfect vessel to Spread their filth bile and HATRED of all who are not English along with the Decent Honest Honourable Citizens like Jeremy Corbyn who was Dignified throughout the worst hate filled personal attack and Character Assassination I have witnessed in my 52 Years as a Trade Union Activist Blacklisted by Lothian Buses as was now TFE, I will never forgive or forget the way the English Press BBC ITV CH5 and SKY the Nazi Right who have taken a once great Political Party and Destroyed it along with a Man a Real Man who cared for us the Many, And the English Electorate who so readily believed the Murdoch Dacre Brothers the Insidious Tory Dictatorship the even worse Starmer Watson Landsmann Hodge Philips Sugar Baldric the pric The bitch who played and made a fortune for herself and BT as BT yep Mo Lippmann so Jeremy a Man who would’ve saved not only England but even maybe the Union was Betrayed by everyone even Thornberry and McConnell eventually knifed the Great Man in the Back and the gullible reality infatuated Brain Dead English and a huge number of Welsh it hurts me to say who will believe all the Bullshit piled on them by ruthless LYING journalists News Readers Tory Scum New Labour Nazis who will do and say anything to protect The Illegal Apartheid Jewish State of Israel so the BLOOD MONEY KEEPS FLOWING INTO THEIR GREEDY GRASPING SWEATY PALMS. LONG LIVE JEREMY CORBYN AND TRUE SOCIALISM. May all the Traitors ROT IN THEIR OWN FILTH.
    Every Opinion in this post is Mine and Mine alone none of this can be used in any way to Attack Skwawk Box or anyone associated with it

    1. So you pleaded with Jeremy via email and twitter, did you. So when was that? Can you post a link to your tweet. Thanks

      As for ridding the party of people, there were around 170 Labour MPs opposed to his leadership…… And you know of course how the MSM would have reacted. And are you suggesting that he should have got rid of all his detractors all in one go, or one at a time, or a few at a time?.

      You say you were a trade union activist for 52 years, and yet you are totally divorced from reality!

  10. Well peej1952
    You’ve just about said everything I would have ever wanted to say.
    You’re obviously not sitting on the fence then !!

  11. Over 50s (saves all ages) party seeks, please, volunteer political admin to bring it into existence.

    We can win as we permanently solve cost of living crisis and include policies for Grey Vote that no other party does, including all the discrimination against women (all ages) and discrimination against women from age 50, especially in National Insurance and state pension.

    Corbyn has been too fully demonised to return with a Peace and Justice party.

    Over 50s party is unique being Greatest Suffragette party and Pensioner party in UK history, but also renationalise public services, bring down cost to customers, wipe out historic student debt, free tuition university and student grants, and fully resurrect public NHS. And so much more.

    Over50sparty org uk

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