Harry Williams is a Labour and RMT activist
Why do Marxists contest elections? Is it to show that reform of the state is possible? Why do some Marxists join the Labour Party? Is it to prove that the Labour Party is secretly a socialist organisation in need of nudge in the right direction? These are the accusations frequently levelled against us on the Labour left and our comrades across the movement by sectarians and utopians. The charge, however, is quite wrong. The broad left of the movement does not advocate the above because it contends that, deep down, the British State or the British Labour Party are somehow one last heave from being reformed. The problem is rather that the working class does think this, and will continue to do so unless the contractions of these institutions are forced by the left.
Watching the British state violently resist a perfectly legitimate, democratic mandate to leave the EU is one example where these contradictions became visible to the watching public. The Labour Party’s internal sabotage of the Corbyn project and indeed of itself, another. None the less, during the years of Sanders and Corbyn, reformism on its own terms seemed especially tempting. The advent, after so long, of real and existing social democracy would of changed the lives of millions of working people and their families. Indeed much of the sectarian left, at a rank and file level at least, came round to the straw man they had argued against and joined the Labour Party in hundreds if not thousands, mostly in good faith.
Of course Corybnism came to the end it was always likely to. It was trapped into trying to follow rules and procedures that its opponents within and without happily ignored. Witness the spectacle of Jeremy Corbyn attempting parliamentary scrutiny of the EU Exit Bill while the Tory Party defied parliament and courts alike. Corbynism was forced out of office and the new masters of the party are obliterating its ideological and structural legacy root and branch. The project’s fatal fragility in opposition has led to its demise, but even if it had limped its way into government, it would of ended in stock market crashes and palace coups. Just ask Francios Mitterand… or Salvadore Alledende.
So our sectarian comrade returns to their original, basically correct thesis that the Labour Party is institutionally reactionary. They then draw absolutely the wrong conclusion. “Therefore” they summise, “Corbynism was a waste of time and Labour need not be engaged with henceforth”. In truth their problem is not so much reformism as it is having to share contested political space. The real achievements of Corbynism are two fold. First, is that for millions of people it blew apart the political horizons they had held their whole lives.
In 2017 and 2019 millions of people voted for a program that we were told no one could possibly want and couldn’t possibly work even if they did. Capitalist Realism has taken a big step back and, as we enter a new world of continual crisis, may never recover. Second, it has demonstrated to many thousands of activists the true nature of our party’s internal life. Whether it was the 2016 Chicken Coup, the People’s Vote wrecking operation or the revelations of the Labour Leaks, no one could now in good faith claim the Labour Party is a fair factional fight where the winner is allowed to win.
The idea that the left fails on its own terms is a myth, the left is made to fail. For the left, party management is a game of kill or be killed; a cold hard reality that many on the left, overwhelmed by Corbyn’s 2015 landslide mandate from the unions and the membership, found hard to understand or accept at first. So if Corbynism has left us with some tangible success, how is this to be capitalised on by those of us on the Labour left and other progressive sections of the labour movement? Millions now accept a settlement approximating the post-war Social Democracy that their parents benefited from is perfectly possible, but that doesn’t mean they support a planned socialist economy.
Thousands more now understand the ‘establishment’ rigs our nominal democracy to make sure the house always wins, but that doesn’t mean they support a revolutionary destruction of the state. Neither will they vote for a new working class party in the near future. Indeed many well meaning activists take Starmerite parliamentarians at their word of continuing Corbynism without Corbyn. The great elephant-in-the-room is that a disturbingly vast section of the working class, including that section of it still organised in trade unions, have come out of this with more faith in Boris Johnson and British jingoism than in the necessity of a more rigorously Marxist workers’ party.
The key tasks are therefore clear, and both take the form of building bridges. The first task is to turn the mass of activists in the Labour Party into trade unionists at work and Marxists or Bennites in their worldview. The other is to reach the sections of the working class Corbynism couldn’t, via hard, useful, industrial work in those trade unions So what does that work look like? How do we avoid the failures of the last five years? How do we build a movement that can force Kier Starmer’s hand, as the industrial working class of the 1940s did Attlee and Bevin? The answer, as stated, is industrial work.
In the RMT we have tried to build a bridge between young activists inspired by the left advance in the Labour Party and their day to day activity at work and in their union. This is hard work, but it bears fruits in the long term. This isn’t the immediate work of packing a CLP meeting or brow beating people to vote one way or another on the conference floor. Comrades will need help with job applications, they will need to exercise patience to wait out probation periods, they will need to learn the ways of the branch and slowly build the respect and trust of their colleagues. Most importantly, they will need to move at the speed of their workplace organisation, doing bread and butter tasks that will seem drab and grey next to the glamour of the heady days of Corbyn’s initial rise to prominence.
In a sense, this is how right wing trade unionists are made, as our activists slowly learn that most working class people do not see why they should care if its shareholder’s railway or a people’s railway so long as their pay increase is above inflation. None the less, we have to slowly build a large cadre of committed industrial activists with concrete experience at the material base of the labour movement. However, not all union branches are the socialist bastions of the popular imagination, sadly many are politically moribund and industrially inactive. So in the short term this serves the function of increasing the general level of productive activity in the union as well as training more well rounded and worldly party activists.
Fortunately trade unions, like other political organisations, develop their own momentum. Given inputs of time and energy, the workplace will before long be producing assertive working class socialists organically. The purpose of this kind of work isn’t to cynically salt workers’ organisations with radicals, it is to turn optimistic working class young people into hard nosed realists and, in turn, to instil indifferent workers with political optimism. The long term benefit of such work is immeasurable. It will embed the new generation of Labour left wingers into the real labour movement, it will raise the level of militancy at the rank and file level and – eventually – it will radicalise the most important voting bloc, unions, on the floor of the Labour Party Conference.
None of the ideas outlined above are in any way new to the left but, crucially, they where missing entirely from the Corbyn project. Thousands of young workers did become dedicated campaigners, some standing for positions in their CLPs and injecting new and much needed life into the political apparatus of the party. However, they almost universally engaged in politics in their own time, leaving it at the door as they entered their workplaces. This doesn’t even account for the fact that much of the heavy lifting in CLPs was done by retired activists with time on their hands, newly energised after many years in the political wilderness. There are already foreboding signs that this modus operandi has already entered into the trade union movement itself.
Many well meaning young activists get the message that union work is important and throw themselves into trade union sponsored conferences and events in their spare time, while resigned to sub standard conditions in their own workplace. Its one thing changing the world in a room full of comrades, quite another to stand up to your boss. As theoretically exciting as non-TUC affiliated unions are, and as good the work they do on specific campaign issues is, they have no way of performing the vital function of sustaining an institutionally unified labour movement. This is not a call for changing the professional bureaucracy of the trade union movement with newer left activists.
Maintaining resilient, politicised and confident professional structures in our unions is important. Just as the hardcore of an older generation of Bennite’s kept the space open in CLPs and Parliament for Corbynism to enter in and flourish, dedicated union organisers have continually prevented the left collapsing altogether during years of low tide. However in a movement as democratic as ours, full time officials can only offer so much by way of leadership. As Lenin said, Marxists must follow the class as well as lead it. The blunt truth is that in many British unions, the rank and file membership are disengaged from the political side of their own organisation, and could barely name their own national leadership, let alone engage usefully with the Labour Party.
This was reflected in the way Corbynism did markedly better in university cities than in what remains of our industrial towns. In a sense Lisa Nandy was right in her attacks on the left, however she was hopelessly wrong in concluding that Labour Should Respond to this problem by retreating to a broken economic model and topping it up with social conservatism The solution, as always, is one of organisation. We must match the mass of young, newly radicalised, workers to their unions and then, subsequently, to the progressive currents within those unions.
This is a monumental task and one that cannot be achieved by narrow sectionalism or rhetorical radicalism. These are the goals that some activists in my own union, the RMT, have slowly started to address. This is something that must be done with coordination across the TUC by those of us on the Labour left alongside progressives of all parties. Then once again we will be able to force the reality of class politics onto the Labour Party whether it likes it or not, just as we did in 1945, in 1973 and almost did in 2015.