Paul Mason's unnecessary concessions are not 'the way ahead' for Labour

By Jeremy Dewar Paul Mason, former broadcaster with the BBC and Channel 4, has published an article on the Medium.com blog. As usual with Mason, it is well written and, insofar as it sides firmly with Jeremy Corbyn in the current Labour leadership election battle, provides a number of welcome arguments for party members and supporters.

However, the post is marred by the strategy Paul advocates in the second half of the article, where he calls on Corbyn, should he win re-election, to divide the Shadow Cabinet posts with Owen Smith and his team, despite their complicity in the of coup to oust him. Following on from this he argues that Labour should propose a formal electoral alliance with non-working class parties, Plaid, the Greens and “if possible” the Lib-Dems for the next election, including the formation of a Labour-led coalition government.

In our view, these proposals are poorly thought out, totally unnecessary and, if followed through, would shipwreck prospects for an anti-neoliberal and anti-austerity Labour government.

Leadership and concessions

First let’s recap Paul’s arguments for re-electing Corbyn as leader. Like Owen Jones, Mason accepts that Corbyn won last summer “almost by accident”, but unlike Jones, he believes it was a hugely important step forward for the party. It did however mean that he entered the leader’s office unprepared and has subsequently faced an unprecedented revolt launched from his own front bench:

“He wasted months trying to operate a ‘collegiate’ shadow cabinet, half of whom turned out to be leaking and sabotaging everything he did, and preparing to overthrow him. The movement that brought him to power got shunted off into local ward meetings, got bored and demobilised. His own leadership operation was, at times, shambolic.”

The story of what amounts to a class struggle inside the shadow cabinet is well known and well documented, culminating (before the coup) in shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn leading a large minority of Labour MPs to openly rebel against the party’s conference position to oppose a bombing campaign in Syria. Corbyn was certainly unwise to in give in to the rebels’ demand for a free vote and was duly punished with the media portraying Labour as a party out of control (led, it has to be said by the BBC and the liberal Guardian, for which Paul writes).

However, it is unseemly to chime in with the liberal media, whose judgement in such matters is far from objective, and describe Corbyn’s leadership over the past 10 months as “shambolic”. In this – and other – key tests of character, Jeremy has stood firm, where others would have and have crumbled, e.g. on the free movement of labour. He and his team of supporters have tiny resources and they are relatively inexperienced compared with the official Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Labour apparatus which have not only failed to service him but have tried to trip him up and make him look bad on every occasion.

We too believe he and his chief ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have made a series of counter-productive concessions to the right – e.g. allowing a free vote on Syria, advocating balanced budgets nationally and locally, retreating from full nationalisation of Tata Steel, remaining silent on the witch-hunt of leftist members – but these have their roots, at least in part, in their mistaken “collegiate” approach, which they believed was necessary to run their leadership in the country and in Parliament.

Had they taken Red Flag’s advice on these matters it would have certainly brought on the coup much sooner, rather than leading to a harmonious and “impressive” show at Westminster or in the media. But as we have seen that was not on offer.

Momentum’s activity

Also it is unfair to say Momentum, the movement created to support and develop Jeremy’s election manifesto policies, “got shunted off into local ward meetings, got bored and demobilised”.

Momentum has launched (too few, I admit) campaigns on the streets, like the Democracy SOS voter registration campaign last November, and been heavily involved in the junior doctors’ strike, the movement against the Housing Bill and the EU referendum – not to mention the local and mayoral elections. Local Momentum groups have been heavily engaged, alongside affiliated trade unions, in local anti-cuts struggles.

In Lambeth, the London borough where Paul lives, Momentum played an important supportive role in the campaign to stop the closure of five libraries, which was being carried out by the Progress-dominated Labour council. In this they opened up another front, to continue with Paul’s military analogy, against the Labour right, winning four wards, a CLP and one Labour councillor to break ranks and support the campaign. Lambeth council, Progress supporters were plainly furious, but Momentum stuck to it in the branches and on the streets. As a result the new membership – those who ever attended ward or CLP meetings – have not been demobilised.

Of course we were not helped by John McDonnell’s statement that councils should set legal (i.e. cuts) budgets and Momentum nationally could have made clear its own position on fighting austerity at a local level. But the work done will prove to have been of vital importance if we are to crush the coup-plotters, give Jeremy and his team a solid base in the party structures, and, indeed, to critically engage with him and his leadership team on major policy issues.

Anyone involved in this work knows just how hard it can be with a large number of new members being barred from joining or expelled, prevented from being delegates or holding positions and facing real intimidation and bullying at the meetings. However, some successes have come, in Wallasey and Brighton for example, where the left has won leading positions… only to have their CLPs closed down by the party apparatus. It’s a hard struggle, yes, but not a few Corbyn supporters have returned to Momentum since the coup, saying, “We thought going to ward meetings was unimportant or not for us. Now we know better.”

The coup

Mason’s exposé of the coup is excellent. Their “sole aim was to remove Corbyn” which explains why “Angela Eagle launched her doomed campaign with not a single policy”; they painted Corbyn’s supporters as a “bunch of misogynist thugs” while “the NEC suspended the entire local apparatus of the party and excluded 130,000 recent joiners from the vote”; they used the courts, they used The Sun and they used slanders; and when opinion polls slumped they threatened the members:

“You can never win with Corbyn — because we can always sabotage the party as a front bench opposition, and because we will always have the press on our side, and because we can drip-feed negative stories to tank Labour in the polls from now until 2020.”

Though the above quote is Paul’s imagining of their words, Luke Akehurst of Progress has actually said as much on the Labour List website: “None of this will be changed if Corbyn is re-elected, however wide the margin. MPs are not going to go crawling back to him saying they made a mistake. They will challenge him again and again as his failings and the untenability of his position become more and more apparent, until eventually he is defeated.”

In the New Statesman George Eaton reports the same strategy: “Rather than retreating, Labour MPs intend to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn. As one told me, “We only need to get lucky once. He needs to get lucky every time.”” From the other side of the barricades George gives us some words of wisdom we would be well advised to act on after the election: “Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, unity will remain elusive.”

 

Neoliberalism, Brexit…

What makes Paul Mason’s article more than just another pro-Corbyn-but-critical article is his ability to pinpoint the reason why Jeremy (and more importantly the hundreds of thousands who support him) is so feared by the Establishment.

“What has got them existentially scared?” he writes, “The answer is clear: that Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power.” [His emphasis]

In order to create a sense of urgency, which he then uses to launch his appeal for his “ progressive alliance” – once known to Marxists, including himself, as a popular front – Paul massively emphasises the crisis of neoliberalism (“neoliberalism is a busted system”). To this he adds the prediction that the Tory Brexiteers in the cabinet (David Davies et al.) will make negotiations with the EU “impossible”, leading May’s government to “implode”.

But what has unfolded since 2008 is not simply a crisis of neoliberalism, but a historically long crisis of the capitalist system. Recovery has only hovered a few percentage points above stagnation with repeated slips back and dips into the latter. Moreover many journalists have commented on the absence of any feel good factor. This is because real wages remain 8-10 per cent below their 2008 levels and the employment that has indeed reduced unemployment often consists of part-time, low paid, zero hours, temporary contracts. Paul in many articles and books has chronicled this.

A new major global recession is now highly likely, not just because of the sluggish recovery in the US, Britain and the EU, but this time round deep contractions in the economies of the BRICS countries, especially China, which has a far more Keynesian and statist approach but is still slowing down. The bourgeoisie may be worried about the neoliberal model but their hesitancy to adopt a neo-Keynesian model is based on realism.

Keynesianism is not a “kinder, gentler” capitalism at all, but one that has only really worked when linked to a drive to war, e.g. in Germany, the US and UK in the 1930s or as the result of the massive destruction of capital caused by war, thus boosting profit rates, such as we saw post-1945.

Similarly Paul relies the idea that the Conservative Party could be on the brink of becoming an obstacle for Britain’s bosses, rather than their chosen vehicle. It could happen of course, but the swift transition from Cameron and Osborne to May and Hammond was a sure sign that the capitalist class will do all it can to avoid that happening any time soon.

It is true that the search for a Brexit deal that gives Britain access to continental markets but with total freedom from EU rules and regulations will be a hard one and could well see the Tories’ popular approval ratings slump. A crisis election is not impossible by any means. But none of this means our rulers are contemplating a sudden conversion to tolerating a party in government that would raise wages, increase trade union rights, tax the rich, renationalise the railways or drive the privateers out of the NHS.

… and the Progressive Alliance?

Failure to recognise the capitalist crisis for what it is, instead focusing on neoliberalism and Brexit, leads Paul to make an incredible leap of logic. This puts him into a vulgar (not a dialectical) contradiction. He wants a radical break with austerity and neoliberalism but the agency he chooses for this is not just a Labour Party, in which Jeremy Corbyn compromises with Owen Smith and the coup plotters, but also with parties that do not even pretend to be socialist, and in one important case not even anti-austerity or anti-neoliberal. Mesmerised by electoral arithmetic and the pollsters he has unwittingly sabotaged his own project.

He writes:

“In turn this creates an opportunity for Labour to put itself — as the Lib-Dems never have and never will — at the head of a progressive movement.

“Its aims should be:

  • to resist racism, nationalism and xenophobia;
  • to retain the UK’s membership of the European Economic Area;
  • and to protect workers’, consumers and environmental rights.”

To make it absolutely crystal clear what he means, he adds the following formulation: “a progressive alliance: an electoral pact or tacit arrangement whereby Labour, the Greens, Plaid and — if possible — the Lib-Dems co-ordinate to prevent the Tories getting a majority in the next election” and proceeds to an appeal for a “Labour-led government”.

In the space of a few hundred words, Mason has leapt from the idea of a party that can “ditch neoliberalism and then take power” to an electoral pact and coalition that will resist racism, join the neoliberal EEA (which has rules of membership that hardwire in the neoliberal model), but protects labour regulation and action to combat climate change.

If utopianism is painting an idealised vision of the future but with no realistic agency for achieving it, this is a utopia. And to the extent that it is an alternative to class political independence for Labour and class struggle by the unions and communities, in the interests of alliance with parties that will never support such actions, it reactionary too.

Of course, no one could object to such measures, but they are hardly radical. And as with all coalitions, the get-out clause is in the name: coalition. “We would like to go further, but our partners won’t, so we’ll have to compromise, for fear of letting the Tories in.”

Popular Front

Paul dresses this up with some new phrases about “educated, networked individuals” and examples from Syriza and Podemos (more of which later), but the idea is very, very old and, to borrow Paul’s phrase, busted. To remind Paul, here is a potted history of the progressive alliance idea in Britain.

The Labour Party was formed at the turn of the Nineteenth Century because Lib-Lab MPs failed to represent their working class constituents in parliament; the minority Labour governments of the 1920s collapsed because the Liberals refused to support them in times of crisis (and we are fast approaching such a crisis), leaving the party in tatters while Ramsey MacDonald left to join the Tories; the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s collapsed once it became obvious that the unions would not support wage restraint (cuts) any longer.; Tony Blair tried (unsuccessfully) to revive the idea when he called the breakaway of Labour from the Liberals our “biggest mistake” and tried to write the unions out of the party’s constitution.

Stalinists and right wing social democrats still cling to this model as a way of avoiding an electoral triumph of the right, often exaggerated in order to frighten workers into accepting it, but the left (both social democratic and Marxist) retain their dislike for it. (By the way, the progressive alliance idea was first championed inside the Labour Party not by the left but by the centrist Compass grouping.) After all, the most famous example in history, the French Popular Front of the 1930s served not only to divert the working class from revolutionary action, but also served their youth up on a plate for the approaching inter-imperialist world war. In short, the popular front represents a mechanism by which working class political independence is abandoned in the interests of the bourgeoisie.

New Cold War

It is no coincidence that Mason in this article says the price of forming an alliance with Plaid, the Greens, Lib Dems and possibly the SNP should be to forego internationalism and anti-militarism: “unilateralism can’t be core to the identity [of the progressive alliance]; and nor can ‘open borders’”. No wonder he quotes the pro-Trident Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis, as one of the Labour left’s most forward thinkers. Mason himself has gone much further and used his Guardian platform to promote a foreign policy geared to an aggressive imperialist policy towards Islamist groups and Russia.

It is Corbyn’s principled opposition to these litmus tests of loyalty to British imperialism and its status as a world power that makes the thought of a Corbyn Labour government intolerable to our rulers.

That is why a “senior serving general’ told the Sunday Times: “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”

Perhaps that is why Paul wants to abandon saving the billions that Trident will cost and accepts the ridiculous notion that Putin is about to invade the Baltic States as a justification for increased military expenditure that the New Cold War will entail. But even with Clive Lewis at the Defence Ministry or Owen Smith at the Home Office, the ruling class will still not give Corbyn his security clearance.

If you want a government that carries through Corbyn’s Ten Points, in the face of political and military sabotage and revolt, then you have to mobilise serious mass forces that can challenge and check them. There is no class that can lead this mobilisation except the working class and it will have to resort, not just to anti-neoliberal or neo-Keynesian measures, but to anti-capitalist ones. A government resting on weak reeds like Plaid, the SNP, the Greens and – for heaven’s sake- the Liberal Democrats, will break down, leading to the confusion and demoralisation of the progressive forces which supported it.

Of course Paul does not even consider such a disaster for this new version of the popular front, but then neither did any of his forebears. No one calls for a strategy saying it may end in tears – or draws attention to the history of failures that precedes it. But Mason knows his history and it is intellectually dishonest not to answer the questions posed by history.

Greens

Leaving that to one side for the moment, there is another problem with the progressive alliance; all the projected partners have been very recently involved in implementing austerity cuts. The Lib-Dems are the most scandalous transgressors, but even the Greens, the most left wing of Labour’s proposed partners, got into trouble when it tried to impose cuts of up to £4,000 on bin workers in Brighton. Yes, Labour has and continues to implement austerity, but the forces mobilised by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have the possibility to change that.

Rather than compromise with the Greens, Corbyn’s Labour should call on them to disband and join our party. After all, most of the Greens’ progressive policies are in Jeremy’s manifesto and the mass membership is the place to develop them further.

Syriza and Podemos

It is good that the movement that sprung up in 2015 and mushroomed even more this summer around Corbyn’s leadership bid encourages Paul. He approves of Corbyn’s emphasis of its importance in winning the next general election: “Corbyn himself called for this at his leadership launch rally.” He is also right to point out that, “the Labour tradition has very little experience of social movements — especially the networked, anti-hierarchical forms of organisation associated with them since the late 1990s”.

However, the examples he puts forward of social movements allied to political parties or rather political parties basing themselves on such movements are not happy ones. In particular he holds up Syriza and Podemos as positive examples of such parties. What Paul doesn’t mention is what has happened to these parties when Syriza took power or Podemos approached it.

Syriza was formed as a coalition of political groups who had worked together fighting austerity during a series of general strikes, square occupations resistance to evictions, etc. It came to office in 2015 on a manifesto promise not to pay Greece’s debts to the banks until the economy was growing. But once in power, its leaders stood down the movement, which had mounted more than 20 general strikes against the cuts, and proceeded to negotiate for months with the Troika (IMF, EU and European Central Bank).

When this project failed, Alexis Tsipras called a referendum, which massively backed a refusal to give in to blackmail. But this “victory” led straight to the biggest defeat. Tsipras surrendered unconditionally and implemented a cruel austerity package. It became clear that he had no plan B to negotiations – no strategy for defiance. Above all he was terrified of mobilising the workers, the small farmers, the young, the unemployed against EU and Greek big capital. At no point were the social movement or party members consulted; the deal was ratified by… the parliamentary fraction! Hardly a model for Labour after this summer’s events.

The real lesson of Greece 2014-15 was that Syriza did not become a mass political party, whose social roots could exert democratic control over its leaders. But that is what the present movement holds out the prospect of building.

As for Podemos it has not has not won a general election yet but its direction of travel does not bode well. Far from being non-hierarchical, as social movements are supposed to be, Julio Iglesias, already a TV personality before he founded the party, successfully made himself the sole leader of the party at its founding conference – and then proceeded to ban any member who was also a member of a political tendency from standing for positions (the leadership of course was not considered a “tendency”).

Iglesias has abused this position of power (copied from Hugo Chàvez) to progressively water down Podemos’ policies (e.g. dropping withdrawal from NATO, abandoning the socialisation of parts of the economy) in his search for electoral success. Again, a “model” that we should be wary of. (See here for more coverage on Syriza and Podemos.) But it is precisely what Paul’s alliance strategy would lead to. And indeed he offers some suggestions as to what ballast Jeremy should throw overboard.

Concessions

He advocates a “temporary suspension of free movement” though without the “anti-migration rhetoric” of New Labour (of little comfort when you’re being deported). Others would come later as Corbyn and McDonnell divvy out shadow cabinet posts with Smith and Co after the election:

“Corbyn should offer Smith’s team places in the shadow cabinet in strict proportion to his vote among the membership. Corbyn should nominate the shadow chancellor, with Smith nominating either Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary, and then work down the ladder of seniority until Smith reaches the limit of his quota.”

I wonder who Smith’s Foreign Secretary will be? Warmongering Hilary Benn, perhaps? Paul appears to have learned nothing from the past 10 months. A leadership that gives away policy and positions to the right all the way down the line will not unify the party at the top but give the coup-plotters succour and encourage them to destabilise Corbyn and McDonnell until they can replace them. If they succeed, you can be sure there will be a winner-takes-all attitude.

Momentum and Labour

But what about the movement that actually exists, i.e. Momentum? Paul is a convert to non-hierarchical movements, but like a lot of late converts (and not a few originators) he wants to impose his own agendas and limits on them. Even though he claims that “the critical point about a social movement is: it creates its own story”, he already has a script for how the Corbyn movement should develop.

First it should remain local and non-political: “Social movements, in an era of networked communications and fragmentary identities, are a means for achieving change, not just protest. By devolving decision making, setting local goals and forming themselves around existing identities they are the opposite of the hierarchical political party.”

While Momentum and the wider movement in support of Jeremy has elements of a social movement about it and organises locally, it is most decisively neither in the main “social” nor purely “local” – it must become political and national, or it will be nothing. It will disappear as the Indignados, Occupy Wall Street and the Greek squares occupations did. Or rather it will be taken over by politicians or political parties that are far from democratic.

This scenario leads to two alternatives, “decentralised” political impotence or control from above (including a cult leader, like Chavez, Tsipras, Iglesias, and Sanders). Momentum’s weakness so far is that it has neither a policy worked out agreed by its members, nor a leadership elected by them. The claim that it is a social movement is an ideological excuse for this.

Another weakness – before the coup broke out – was Momentum’s separation from the Labour Party. It was an auxiliary to the Corbyn and the left MPs, who were fearful of being accused of creating “a party within a party”. No matter that Progress is just such a body – indeed it is a faction to use the correct word. Instead we have to fight fire with fire; Momentum has to be the same, i.e. a faction, albeit not a secret elite but a mass organisation: transparent, democratic and a organising a majority of the membership.

Paul, however, warns against any suggestion: “600,000 people cannot be gainfully employed going to going to ward meetings several hundreds strong, nor properly represented in a CLP delegate structure designed to put 50 people into a room once per month”. However, Momentum supporters have, slowly perhaps but now with renewed energy, seen that such work is vital if we are to transform the Labour Party root and branch.

If the meetings are boring, with tedious reports from councillors making cuts, if the venues are too small, if the ways of conducting business are top-down and discourage contributions, then change them. But to do this, we need to replace the right wing disorganisers with those who will help develop the party into a more participatory, democratic and engaging one.

Conclusion

Paul Mason makes important points in his article – for example, when he proposes that immediately following Corbyn’s election (if he wins) he should demand a pledge of loyalty from, or encourage the deselection of the 172 MPs.

However its main thrust – if adopted by the Corbyn movement – would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. To campaign for Jeremy as leader but then to leave the Labour Party in the hands of the right wing at local level, to share out policy and positions with Owen Smith’s coup plotters, to go through another 10 months of back-biting and coup-plotting, only then to triangulate with non-working class and anti-socialist parties to form a popular front government… would be a huge error.

It would also be wrong to restrict Momentum to being a social movement, engaged purely in local activism. For fighting to save saving local libraries and council estates often brings us slam bang up against the local (right wing) Labour council, implementing disastrous cuts. The needs of the social movement would clash directly with the compromises of a right-left alliance both within Labour and beyond it.

To Paul we should say, we appreciate you exposure of the right but on your Big Picture: thanks, but no thanks.

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