While so much has changed over the past two decades, the Labour Party has remained obstinately static. In embracing the market and ‘professionalising’ the party, Tony Blair was able to claim the mantle of modernity for Labour. But this was a hollow transformation. New Labour was not as new as its supporters liked to claim.
Fast forward to 2015 and change may have come to Labour in the most unlikely of guises: the flat-capped Jeremy Corbyn. Appearances can of course be deceiving. Corbyn has long been one of the few Labour MPs to embrace a more modern socialism, grounded in popular democracy and political pluralism. Already there are signs that he and his supporters are trying to spread these values throughout the party and turn Labour into an organisation that practices collaboration over paternalism and that seeks to learn as well as lead.
The new grassroots organisation Momentum could be central to this process and form the basis of an ‘open, citizen politics’, as Anthony Barnett called for in Open Democracy and as has emerged in Spain (see page 22). It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that those trying to turn Labour towards the new politics will not only face the hostility of the Labour right and an oppositional press, but also a Labour left in part characterised by a dogmatic loyalty to the party and a mistrust of ‘outsiders’. So too will the imperatives of electoral politics reduce the space in which democratic experiments can flourish, as we have seen with Podemos, who are just weeks away from contesting their first general election.
Perhaps the first real test of how much Labour has changed will be the referendum on UK membership of the EU. If Labour is known primarily for its involvement in campaigns such as Stronger In – seemingly a remake of the disastrous Better Together campaign in Scotland – then any claim to have broken from politics as usual will carry little weight.
As Luke Cooper argues, it is essential that progressives who support Britain’s membership of the EU separate themselves from those who make the ‘business case’ and appeal to British nationalism. At stake is the possibility of a social Europe, ‘based on human, social and environmental rights, and founded on the basis of real, substantive democracy’.
This is desperately needed, whether achieved through or beyond the EU. The experiences of refugees passing through Europe are acutely traumatic, a consequence of over-militarised borders and underfunded services, and a negation of the most basic principles of human solidarity. The situation is untenable and may become even more so as the effects of climate change accelerate – even if, as Alex Randall informs us, the impact of climate change on migration is more complicated than we may think.
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By Hilary Wainwright
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