Believing in ourselves

Holly Rigby speaks to Hilary Wainwright about her latest book, A New Politics from the Left, and its application for flourishing new social movements.

April 13, 2018 · 12 min read
Picturehouse workers stage a demonstration for living wages and fair working conditions.

Was the book written in response to the current political moment of the Corbyn project, or have you had it in mind for a while?

The idea of a new politics, the basis of a different kind of left, is something I have thought about that has suddenly become mainstream. That has put an onus on people like me who have been thinking in these ways – ways that had been treated as completely marginal – to step forward and say: ‘What Jeremy Corbyn is saying has got real roots and is something of great importance.’

The book takes knowledge as the key driver of this new politics and of the social movements. Why the focus on knowledge?

When you look at Jeremy Corbyn, what is his appeal? He actually listens to people. He believes in the people. We interviewed him quite early on, and he gave a story of a friend of his – a building worker who organised his life in a very ecologically-minded way. Jeremy felt great respect for him. The way he put it was: the intelligence is on the streets.

In that sense, the book is underpinning Corbyn, because this is exactly his appeal and why he’s different. He’s not ‘populist’: he’s not telling people he’s got the answer and they should look to him. He’s saying they’ve got the answer, and they need to get organised.

But people can only participate if there is a public framework. They can’t participate in the market unless they have money. If you’re serious about popular involvement, harnessing and realising people’s practical knowledge, you have to provide a public, democratic framework. The market is simply about individuals asserting their choice, whereas the left, and the new politics, is about people’s ability to share their knowledge and, out of that, create something new.

You talk in the book about how institutions were created in the past: the women’s movement set up childcare nurseries, and to make them sustainable they were funded by the state. Is it your idea that we should organise these things now, and eventually they’d be state funded?

We need the state to be facilitating them, whether it’s through common services or grant funding.

What do you mean by common services?

For example, food production. The state could help to map out food stores and the nearby farms and food production, then bring together shops, restaurants, producers, schools, and lead a discussion on common nutritional standards. There’s a lot of public procurement of food, so you could imagine a policy of schools procuring their food from progressive farmers that have developed co-operative forms of production that are organic, or not using pesticides, or health-conscious. You could develop an ethical food policy, where the state provides a lead, but is facilitating and building on the knowledge of food producers, or retailers, or restaurants.

So popularly-created food policy?

It could be created popularly, but also implemented in collaboration with grassroots actors. Some of that could be done now.

Like what?

The Labour Party – maybe with some support from local government – could begin to map out, say, a food policy that involves talking to local people to start with and then identifies outlets and producers nearby and brings them together to discuss a policy.

It could facilitate relationships that could be the beginning of new institutions, asking, ‘What do you need from the state to facilitate the more organic side of your production?’ One of the ideas would be procurement by schools, or canteens in public institutions.

You could get an idea of what degree of food procurement there is, and then what leverage the state has.

You’re a Momentum activist, as am I. Have you noticed any new knowledge – tacit, practical knowledge – being created in the Corbyn movement?

There has been a lot of new knowledge about how to reach people, and how to campaign. The old, mechanical idea that underpinned Labour Party campaigning was that you just go round and find out who’s going to vote Labour, tick them off, and then go and find them on election day. Momentum, partly because it has been so keen to reach people and persuade people, partly learning from the [Bernie] Sanders campaign in the US, has developed a wholly different approach. It’s working out in the constituencies, where people who need to be persuaded are, and spending a lot of time persuading them, finding out what arguments work – why arguments about housing may be particularly effective, what counters the anti-immigrant arguments.

Some people would argue that this is still just electioneering. Do you think door-knocking can ever be the social movement itself?

It can’t on its own. It’s got to be combined with an ability to follow up what you discover through the door-knocking.

The door-knocking is a good way of collecting knowledge: finding out what’s going on, what people want, what people are already doing and recognising that. It’s starting from the assumption that people already have the capacity to organise and do things. Sometimes it might not be highly political but through neighbourhood forms of solidarity. By door-knocking you find this out. Then you need an organisation that can follow that up. If there’s a tenants’ group that’s suspicious of what the council’s doing and thinking it’s going to sell off the estate, then Momentum needs to move into action to link them with other tenants’ groups that feel the same way.

I’m also an NUT [National Union of Teachers] activist, and it’s interesting that there are a lot of people in Momentum who aren’t in trade unions. Do you think the trade union movement can have its Corbyn moment? Is it possible to transform the big unions, or do we need new forms of organisation and ways of doing things?

I think the two can come together. The Bakers’ Union [BFAWU] is a very old, traditional union, but it’s been open to change. BECTU [the media and entertainment union] is very encouraging of community strikes.

But we also need to meet them halfway, and support and encourage them. Often the innovators in the unions are not being backed up.

Do you think there’s a role for Momentum and Corbyn activists to play in that?

Definitely. As union members we can play a part, but also as people in a community that’s affected by what’s happening in workplaces. We’re very affected by what’s happening in hospitals and local government and schools. The NUT is very good, it’s one of the best unions. It’s been reaching out to parents and organises in a very holistic way. It sees workers and users – in their case students and parents – as all part of the same struggle. That’s a good model to follow.

You came from the feminist movement, and you mention it a number of times in the book. We’ve seen some amazing examples, like Sisters Uncut, of grassroots women’s organisations. But Sisters Uncut is quite an isolated example. Why do you think that is? What has happened to feminist politics?

It seems to me to be alive and well in the consciousness of many women, and women who are working in a sisterly fashion with each other. It’s not always under the umbrella of a women’s group but, let’s say in Momentum, there are a lot of really good women who I’ve found myself gravitating towards. We’ve found solutions to problems and developed a common way of making Momentum more participatory and democratic.

So there’s a feminist sensibility, or sensitivity, running through Momentum. I wouldn’t say yet that it’s dominant but someone like Laura Parker [the new national organiser at Momentum] will begin to facilitate that politics.

Austerity does knock women back. In some ways it has stimulated a new women’s movement. It’s maybe fragmented but it’s coming from a fragmented context.

Who do you see is leading the way for women, in the movement and in the Labour Party?

I’m not sure I identify so much with leadership. There are a lot of examples of women getting organised. Things like the Picturehouse strike is mainly women, and McDonalds, a lot of them are women. Women are just not taking it. They’re refusing that marginal, subordinate, exploited position.

There are a lot of women emerging in a leadership role, in organising workers. And a lot of the younger women took up the changes that Jeremy has been fighting for in the Labour Party. They defended him, and are now playing a major role in the shadow cabinet – women like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Dawn Butler, Angela Rayner. I’ve been impressed by the numbers of women who have got stuck in and taken a central role.

In your book you talk about horizontal, democratic forms of organising, and Jeremy Corbyn not being the typical leader in lots of ways. Is it important that we celebrate new kinds of leaders, and try to develop them – or will that just happen organically?

I think we need to celebrate movement leaders – people who have become leaders because they’ve championed and represented and articulated the needs of groups of people, and helped to empower those people. So leaders that are rooted, rather than leaders that are ‘out there’.

You talk about ‘ordinary culture’ in the book…

Raymond Williams, yes – ‘culture is ordinary’. He was pointing to the fact that obviously there is ‘high culture’, as it were – classical music, literature, theatre – culture that’s been consciously created as culture. Then there is all the meaning and creativity that exists in people’s lives.

You can see it at Christmas. Alongside all the cultural crap, there are people creating their own Christmas cards, organising amazing parties, creating extraordinary clothes and presents for their kids, organising games. There’s a huge cultural creativity in spite of, often against, and slightly distanced from – because of the expense – all the crap.

People are surviving, but they’re not just surviving. They are also being immensely creative. That’s ‘culture is ordinary’. Ordinary people are creative, and they’re also social. So they’re always creating shared meanings and shared cultural forms. Our politics, as well as organisations like the Labour Party and Momentum, need to be based much more on recognising the ordinariness of creative culture.

We’ve talked about a few things that activists of the new politics can be doing. What’s the priority?

I don’t think these things are alternatives. There is an organising principle. If you start from a politics in which change happens through people being organised, aware and alert, self-confident and self-organised, then that shapes everything.

It shapes how you work in the Labour Party, so you don’t just work to pass resolutions and get the vote out. You actually work to organise people so that the Labour Party becomes an organisational hub in the community to bring about change and create more cohesion among people, in the spheres of housing and community need and in the workplace. In turn that changes society because it creates a more egalitarian culture.

So the idea is that what we need now is this shared philosophy that you talk about in the book – of democracy, of collectivity – and just take that into whichever sphere of organising you do your work in?

Yes, and build your politics around it. Believe in your own capacities, believe in everybody else’s, and work in a collaborative way to change society.

Review – Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too

In this timely book, Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones explore new forms of democratic collectivism across the UK, writes Hilary Wainwright.

Old advertisement featuring happy housewives with vaccuum cleaners and one sad housewife with dustpan and brush

Covid and the household economy crisis

Even before the pandemic, the squeeze on household time and income had reached crisis point. Ursula Huws examines social reproduction in the digital age

A protestor wearing a 'no one is illegal' badge stands with raised first in front of a group of police officers

Direct action and the decrepit British establishment

Faced with an authoritarian government and decaying left-wing establishment, grassroots movements must turn to direct action, writes Rohan Rice

The Firm and its long-lasting grip

Laura Clancy examines the history of the Crown, its role in empire and its continuing functional and ideological purpose today

When truth is not enough

Ted Benton tackles questions of truth, science and radical alternatives in a period of political turmoil

Sporting politics

Behind the fanfare, numerous political, social and economic debates will play out during this years sporting events, argues Siobhán McGuirk