For the British left, it has been a time of defeat and retreat; of confusion, disarray and disillusionment. The high hopes of the last few years now seem long gone – but it is easy to forget just how far we have come, and how fast. We are so much stronger than we were in 2015. We have built our ideas, our networks, our know-how. And we now know our programme.
As with the Sanders campaign in the United States, the Corbyn project was always a long shot, a short cut, an audacious attempt to grab the highest levels of state power. What is amazing is how close we came, not that we failed. We must now do the serious work of learning the lessons of our defeat.
Had we succeeded, it would have been – like Gramsci’s revolution against Capital – a victory over and against our own political understandings and strategies, bypassing the need for years, if not decades, of hard organising and base-building.
But we did not succeed. We must now address the limitations and contradictions of our recent advances, and what must be done to make up for their deficiencies.
One paradox of Corbynism was that the opportunity it afforded largely fell into our laps, rather than being the culmination of years of committed political organising. This led to some peculiarities.
It gave us the chance to develop a radical political-economic programme for what we would do if we were to actually win state power. Within less than five years, we went from a situation in which there was no blueprint for what a radical Labour government would do in office, to having the most detailed and comprehensive version of such a programme existing anywhere in the advanced industrial world. In this area, we massively overachieved.
But because Corbynism was in some senses a political accident, the task became to reverse-engineer the movement and develop the political education required to underpin this radical programme – a stark inversion of the usual order of things.
And in this respect we signally failed. Following the remarkable near-success of 2017, political education and movement-building work became the imperative. The failure to advance in these areas in the intervening period – two wasted years in which much of the left was seduced by ‘Remain’ fantasies – sowed the seeds of our December 2019 defeat.
This has dealt our movement a decapitating blow, severing the vital link between a radical party leadership and the mass membership it created. Hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members are now in disarray, leaderless and in danger of drifting away or sinking into apathy and despair.
But there is no time for apathy or despair. The climate clock is unforgiving. Multiple overlapping crises – political, ecological, economic, pandemic – are already upon us. We lost the election, we have lost the party leadership, but we have not yet lost the chance to build our movement.
We still have our programme. We already know the fundamentals of a viable next system: a democratic, community-sustaining political economy that operates within planetary boundaries, where all can thrive. We have strong evidence for the effectiveness of democratic economy models and community wealth building approaches as meaningful responses to our growing crises. We know we have our hands on the beginnings of powerful answers to many of the difficult challenges we face as a society.
However, a dangerous chasm remains between solutions we know are practicable and necessary to address the overlapping crises of climate, inequality, and racial injustice, and what is proving to be saleable politically. The two most promising recent opportunities to implement large-scale aspects of our agenda – Corbyn’s ‘new economics’ and Sanders’ ‘Green New Deal’ – have come up radically short when put to the electoral test. This has been especially true among working class communities who should be at the heart of any socialist movement. Here is the crux of the matter: we have developed a programme way in advance of the social forces and political groundwork required to carry it to victory. We simply weren’t ready on the ground, where it mattered.
Key to changing this will be the development of a powerful programme of political education around economic alternatives in communities where such capacities have been hollowed out (and sometimes lost entirely) after decades of neoliberalism. This is particularly urgent given the rising tide of far-right populism and the widespread uptake of all manner of conspiracy theories that are filling the vacuum created by the absence of a clear left programme.
It’s time to get concrete and specific about political education, community organising, and local actions – ignoring the Starmer leadership and working at the local and regional level on our own campaigns. ‘In and against’ the party, and outside it, as necessary.
We can get to work at the local government level, with community wealth building projects – we are being shown the way by visionary local leaders like Matthew Brown in Preston, Joe Cullinane in North Ayrshire, Jan Williamson in Wirral, and Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne.
We must develop powerful political education tools that can begin to close the gap between the understanding most people have of their material interests, and the newly emerging economic paradigm. Learning from experienced groups like Trademark Belfast, we need to work with activist and community leaders to propagate new understandings and approaches, building the necessary political base for the new economics exactly where it is most sorely lacking.
There will be much to learn in this regard from efforts in the United States, where Black Lives Matter is building on earlier pedagogical approaches to push a new wave of political education on the ground. Just imagine the power of such an effort at the grassroots of our own movement, in which the ‘each one teach one’ ethos embraced by the Black Panthers becomes the basis for a new community-based political activism.
This is the opportunity in defeat. Excluded from state power, we are now forced to take the time to do the hard work of building our movement that wasn’t done in the wake of 2017. We must use the coming years in ways we didn’t use the past three. Are we ready?
We discussed this question at The World Transformed, at a Transatlantic Strategy Session with campaigners from the US and the UK. Watch the discussion here – and join us in organising this movement.
Joe Guinan is Vice President of the Democracy Collaborative, co-author (with Martin O’Neill) of The Case for Community Wealth Building and (with Christine Berry) of People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government
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