Why is Islington so left wing
It may seem like yesterday to some of us, but it's been over four years since Jeremy Corbyn - a simple left-wing MP from Islington North and a veteran of the British anti-war movement - became Labor leader and leader of the British opposition was chosen. Though reviled by broad circles of the mainstream media and the political establishment, Corbyn has managed to maintain and consolidate his influence within the party. He succeeded not least because he knew how to build on the unprecedented enthusiasm of the youth and the now revived democratic-socialist wing of the Labor Party. The latter had sunk into insignificance since the rise of New Labor under Tony Blair in the 1990s.
With Corbyn at the helm, the Labor Party has won hundreds of thousands of new members and - even if the majority of Labor elected members remain in the moderate camp - has become a reservoir for progressive forces from across the UK political landscape. Seen in this light, Labor is unique within the European left - while left forces across the continent struggle against their impending insignificance, Labor seems to be on the rise, regardless of the problems and rifts over Brexit.
The resurgence of the left Labor wing was followed by a revival of internal and non-party campaign projects, above all Momentum - an organization with the slogan “Let's build a Britain for the many” Labor left has encouraged to take control of party affairs in many places. In addition, Momentum organizes and sponsors political events and panel discussions and has been instrumental in strengthening a left-wing social democratic platform, both within the party and across British society. This revival has so far been demonstrated most impressively at the four-day political festival The World Transformed (TWT). Parallel to the Labor Party Conference, thousands of campaigners, activists and academics came together there to develop plans and strategies in discussions and talks that lead to the desired goal of a socialist world - a goal that can be achieved with a Labor Government was getting closer.
This year's festival took place in Brighton from September 21st to 24th. During the TWT Festival, Loren Balhorn spoke to Labor activist and movement researcher Callum Cant about the revival of the Labor left and the relationship between momentum and broader party circles, as well as about the prospects he associates with democratic-socialist change in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn.
Loren Balhorn: One group that cannot be overlooked here at TWT is Momentum, which is mainly known as the pro-Corbyn movement within the Labor Party. Momentum is still quite young, the organization was only founded in 2015 and is also not without controversy. How would you describe the organization?
Callum Cant: Momentum can best be understood as a concrete result of Corbyn's first campaign for party leadership. After Corbyn's surprise victory in 2015, people joined the party in droves. Momentum was then the only way to permanently weld this diffuse mass together. There, people with institutional experience such as Jon Lansman and people from the long-standing party wing that had grown up around Tony Benn met new members who gave the still young movement a lot of momentum. But the actual claim of Momentum had not yet become so clear at the time. Was it a party political grouping to support Corbyn's leadership, or was it a broader organization with bigger goals?
This debate is no longer so acute, because Momentum is currently acting primarily as a party-affiliated movement - its role is to influence internal party elections and democratic processes and to strengthen a new left within the Labor Party. She has been very successful in this so far - the left wing is currently setting the tone in all party committees. Wherever there are free and democratic elections, we win.
The only remaining bastion for the conservative wing is the parliamentary faction of the Labor Party, because there are no open selection procedures there and we are therefore unable to elect our own representatives.
Can you tell us a little more about the open competition debate in the party? It sounds like that was a sensitive topic at this year's party conference.
Currently, once you have been elected to parliament, you will automatically be nominated again as a Labor candidate for the same constituency - unless you lose your seat, resign or lose in an internal party voting process (»trigger ballot «), which enables local party members to force a new election in which you have to run against other candidates.
A relatively conservative Labor parliamentary group currently represents the more left-wing party base, which is why many members want other candidates. But the only way to do this is by campaigning against incumbent candidates, which is of course a very anti-party option - basically you have to be ready to hold a gun to the head of your local association leadership, and in the end you are setting two groups of members at one another. Most MPs are spared from party votes unless they screw up really big. Therefore, they hardly notice the changes in the membership base and are safe from democratic processes that could lead to their replacement by left-wing candidates. So they continue to take positions that are much more conservative than what the party leader suggests.
The last party conferences decided to relax the rules for internal party votes, but a genuinely democratic nomination process is still not the norm. This is one of the major weaknesses of the entire project. The reason for the whole thing is that the current constellation of forces does not allow it. One is concerned about snubbering the parliamentary group and thus triggering a mass exodus of MPs. Nobody wants a new edition of the Social Democratic Party, which, with its split from Labor in the 1980s, weakened the party so much that it could no longer stand up to Margaret Thatcher.
So can one say that momentum at the grassroots level has a great deal of «momentum», but that the parliamentary centrists still have the reins in their hands?
Well, the four years that the project has been in existence have been very successful. Let's just take the package of measures we got through this week: a 32-hour workweek; CO2 emissions to net zero by 2030; Closure of private schools and cancellation of the funds previously made available for them! We have made important progress in almost all areas. A concrete problem, however, is still that the strongest bulwark of the party itself, i.e. parliamentary representation, is not determined by the party base.
Do you think momentum is paving the way for young people to join the party? And is there a clear dividing line between momentum and the Labor Party?
Most people are primarily involved in Labor, not momentum. As a committed party member, you will probably go to the meetings of the local associations and, above all, get involved through the decision-making processes there. At Momentum there are also individual local groups, but it is far from being the point there. The majority of our 40,000 members clearly identify with Labor politically - they participate in Momentum because they approve of the influence that the organization has on the party and because they want it to continue in this direction, but as part of it Labor Party.
However, this was not entirely undisputed. Some have called for the Momentum chapters to have more say and more power to build their own political structures - but over time, things have turned out to be the way they are now. At the moment it is mostly the case that a momentum group in a certain city - let's say Brighton - organizes local political discussions or supports demos; or we act within the party and support certain candidates for the party council, but we are not a substitute for existing party structures. These structures continue to have priority.
You said that your focus is primarily on the relationship between electoral politics and social movements and that the student movement shaped you in 2010. As a visitor to TWT, I noticed that the revival of the left in this country, more than anywhere else in Europe, is particularly evident in electoral politics. Given your personal background, where do you see the strengths and limits of this shift?
If you had told me in 2014 that I would be here in five years, I would have been horrified. But I also have to say that things have developed positively since then, as the British left has completely reorganized itself. That's the amazing thing about TWT - this is where you meet people from union politics and housing politics and people who are active in political movements, and they're all here now and part of the Labor Party. It is a huge breeding ground for new political constellations - experienced people from all sorts of movements can exchange ideas here and use the Labor Party as a mouthpiece.
I think that this kind of unity is the real strength of corbynism, but it also has its difficulties. The criticism of the electoral policy on which we have relied is not entirely unjustified; but I believe that we have only limited strategic options and that is why we have to maximize participation within the framework of classic, bourgeois politics as much as possible.
It seems to me that today's key strategy across much of the left is practically to use the Labor Party as a vehicle to address certain points of conflict. It serves as a kind of instrument to join forces, initiate things and tackle the current crisis. Such a project can of course also work under the current conditions - I seriously believe that a reform-oriented Corbyn government can lead to real success - but I see the real potential in what happens once you go beyond these conditions and get into fundamental issues Finds confrontations again. In our context, in which there is no room for maneuver and compromises are impossible, even a modest reformism can lead to a direct confrontation with capital - and this is exactly what our movement is actively preparing for and sees the whole thing as a development process.
Here at the festival we played a game called The First 100 Days. In this role-play, together with other comrades, they try out what the first 100 days of government would look like. A second problem of the project becomes clear, namely how weak the extra-parliamentary class power is. The number of strikes is at an all-time low, the mobilizing power of social movements is demonstrably dwindling, and the party base does not necessarily have the experience and training necessary to exercise state authority.
There's this great saying from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell: "When we get to government, we come to government together." The whole project ties in with that thought - that a working class movement challenges the party and goes beyond it it challenges the state and goes beyond it, that it makes demands and motivates us to fight for these demands. The idea behind it is that this movement is the mainspring that allows us to outgrow the tried and tested electoral politics. But does this movement really exist already? How can we lay a foundation for them? This question is currently bothering everyone who is seriously concerned with corbynism. The party must not only be a reservoir where we can reposition ourselves, but must also be a starting point for our further expansion.
Can you tell us a little more about the actual Labor Party Conference? How do you rate them and which political measures do you find particularly promising?
It is becoming increasingly clear that left forces no longer only determine internal forums, but also participate in setting up a serious party program. One of the main takeaways from this conference was that we want to implement an impressive program! A 32-hour week without a reduction in wages - that is a pioneering global innovation in terms of progressive post-work policy. CO2 neutrality by 2030 - only Norway is pursuing a similar ambitious goal. And it's about more than a CO2 target: it's part of a Green New Deal, and the transition to it is an opportunity to reshape the economy. The abolition of private schools! If you want to understand Britain, you have to keep in mind that the ruling class of this nation has actually been fed by the same institutions for a millennium. And now this class is finally being held responsible for being an engine of social inequality.
That's the good news. The bad thing is that one should have tried to get rid of the Conservative Vice-Party Chairman Tom Watson before the conference. A corresponding application was submitted, but the state board screwed it up. This is symptomatic of the political cowardice of the left - that we refuse to treat our enemies as they treat us; that we refuse to use our strengths to bring about change within the party, be it in Watson's case or with regard to democratic selection processes. Incidentally, this cowardice is not rooted in the party base or the trade unions.
The results at the party base make it clear that we are the dominant force. As hard as the centrists are to construct a crisis narrative, there is no danger that the corbynism will come to an end in the near future.
Everyone here at the festival is talking about the Green New Deal. Can you tell us something about what it means to Labor?
The Green New Deal is the most radical process of economic transformation in Britain to date. This project is even more ambitious than the post-war nationalizations - this involves restructuring the entire economy over a period of ten years. We're talking about turning every single industry and our entire way of life in the city and in the country inside out. To see how we envision the path to socialism through systematic social change, one has to understand how the Green New Deal works as a model. The desire to transform the economy and society will set everything else in motion and pave the way to the socialist goal. The Green New Deal is not just about environmental policy - it stands for a completely socialist policy, for an overarching political framework into which everything else fits.
The Green New Deal touches on the substance of what is really revolutionary about corbynism: One uses reformism and claims this field for oneself in order to be able to make sensible, meaningful and convincing demands of the ruling class - and if they are rejected, then is one is able to gain broad support in order to be able to strike back effectively.
Translated from the English by Utku Mogultay & Charlotte Thießen for Contrary Translation Collective
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