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staffer Phil Bevin looks at the prospects for real change – and how to achieve it outside a Labour party whose regime no longer represents even the vaguest idea of genuine socialism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?
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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