Putting the people back in politics

The new politics is about much more than protest, writes Hilary Wainwright. But it’s about much more than parliamentarism too

October 12, 2016 · 9 min read

TWT 120Photo: David Walters at The World Transformed.

This article is taken from the current issue of Red Pepper, produced in partnership with The World Transformed – get a subscription now.

As if in direct rebuttal of the mantra dismissing Momentum as ‘just protest’, thousands of Momentum supporters are signing up to The World Transformed, to spend four days in Liverpool, celebrating and spreading imaginative new policies, from new models of municipal government to strategies for a democratic economy. Those who dismiss the grassroots movements that look to Corbyn for a political voice as ‘unable to to go beyond protest’ reveal how out of touch they are in their protected Westminster fastness. They seem unable to understand how politics beyond the Westminster elite has changed in the past 30 years or so, especially on the left.

The initiatives of different generations of women since the early 1970s exemplify the direction of this change and what it could mean in the future. To categorise decades of feminist activities simply as ‘protest’ is to entirely miss out on how feminism has changed the lives of millions of women in the here and now. They have protested and made demands on government, for sure. But what has been decisive is women organising themselves to find collective solutions in the present through mutuality and collaboration – in providing childcare, in creating centres for women facing domestic violence or rape, in achieving changes in health provision, so that care recognises women’s knowledge of their own bodies. These initiatives have subsequently been the basis for left councils using public funds to support this de facto expansion of public services in response to grassroots women’s initaitives. In other words, ‘new politics’ is about a lot more than politics in its narrow party-political, parliamentary sense. It opens up a new relationship between the Labour Party’s electoral politics and mutuality and solidarity in everyday life, in the community and the workplace.

Jeremy Corbyn has come to represent this opening up of politics in Britain. It is what he has been doing all his life, both in relation to the communities and initiatives in his constituency, Islington North, and as a national spokesperson of the left and the Campaign Group of MPs, collaborating with national and international social movements. This is what young people can sense.

‘Only with Corbyn’s first leadership campaign did the new politics come into the mainstream,’ says Asher, a Momentum volunteer, who immediately adds a cautionary note to over-focusing on the Labour leader. ‘I get infuriated when people talk of the new politics as a Jeremy fan club. This isn’t and was never about just one man.’ Another volunteer, Adam, adds that Corbyn is ‘a figurehead of the new politics’ but ‘not in control of it’.

Dogmatic devotion

From its formation as the Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party has had a relationship with the solidarity and mutuality of everyday working class life. It has been a relationship of representation – of the unions in particular. But it has always been limited by the commitment of the Parliamentary Labour Party not simply to parliament but to what Ralph Miliband termed ‘parliamentarism’ – the ‘dogmatic devotion to the parliamentary system’. As he put it: ‘The leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) beyond the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system. The Labour Party has not only been a parliamentary party; it has been a party deeply imbued by parliamentarism.’

Underlying Labour’s devotion to the parliamentary system as a fixed point of reference and conditioning factor of their political mentality is deference to the moral authority of the British state – the ‘crown in parliament’. It is significant here that the party’s founding manifesto contained virtually no commitment to constitutional reforms that would democratise the British state. Instead, it was fervent in its reassurance that the manifesto’s policies of public ownership and redistribution would all be carried out by means of parliamentary government, Westminster style.

Here the role of the UK’s unwritten constitution is most important and associated with the potent symbolism of the monarch as the entity to which MPs swear their allegiance – as distinct from the republican European convention of an oath to the people. The significance of this oath to the crown is that between elections moral authority lies within parliament, and that means not simply in the laws it makes or agrees to but in the way it relates to the executive power of the state. To suggest authority lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state.

In this way, reselection of MPs, the non-parliamentary election of the leader, and party conference control over policy all confront the long British tradition of rule from above. Hence the over-the-top reaction to any challenge, as in recent months when Corbyn has stood firm, loyal to his predominantly extra-parliamentary manadate, against the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The continuing hold of parliamentarism was evident in the statements of Corbyn’s critics: ‘He has great integrity. We share his values. But …’ – and here the speaker adopts an almost reverential tone as if to emphasise its seriousness – ‘..the Labour Party is, after all, a parliamentary party and a leader must have the confidence of the PLP.’

Extra-parliamentary mandate

What has been so striking about the self-important dogmatism this expresses is the dismissal of Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate. The membership and hundreds or thousands of individual union members might as well not exist. Indeed, most MPs seemed genuinely puzzled and deeply irritated by the lack of importance accorded to their wishes. Hence their incomprehension as to Corbyn’s insistence on sticking by this mandate and why their rebellion did not lead him to resign, as he might well have done had he been a lone and isolated MP instead of someone accountable to, and in effect created by, what has really become a movement.

The new young members and supporters, by contrast, understand the importance of Corbyn’s allegiance to his mandate. To them, this commitment is not simply about democratic formalities: the members voted for him, the MPs can’t force him to resign. Rather, to quote Emily, another Momentum volunteer, it’s also about ‘what Jeremy means when he speaks of “people-powered politics”. It means so much. It’s not good enough for a leader to speak for people, it’s about empowering those people to speak for themselves. In essence, it’s about creating a vehicle for the untapped potential of communities to collectively organise and lead the fightback.’

Similarly, they see Corbyn’s opening up of Prime Minister’s Questions to questions from the public as just a beginning of a ‘people-powered politics’. Emily assumes that ‘Corbyn understands new politics as being about promoting grassroots solutions … [it] gives ordinary people a chance to take responsibility for the changes made in their lives.’

In every locality, when you turn your political gaze from the latest shenanigans of Westminster, there are examples of people taking such collective responsibility, as people apply their creativity to building alternatives on the razed earth of austerity Britain. Momentum will be central in developing this people-powered politics, especially at a local level, where its members are involved with a variety of grassroots initiatives.

Its structures and mentality need to be responsive, a resource and source of support. On my doorstep, in Hackney Momentum, we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campiagns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence.

We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it. On our steering committee, we have both a Labour Party liason officer and a community/social movement one.

Old institutions, new solutions

It’s important also not to dismiss the older labour movement institutions, as if they had been built entirely from on top and as if Thatcher succeeded in destroying not merely the old industries in which labour was strong but the organisations of labour as well. As the experience of Davey Hopper in Durham shows in renewing the Durham Miners’ Gala as a focal point of a new collective strength (see page 42), the people who gave so much of their lives to building and sustaining the old labour institutions often have the capacity to transform the content and reach of these institutions too. You can see a similar process in Barnsley, where Women Against Pit Closures, with the help of the local Unite Community branch, have turned the spacious old offices of the Yorkshire miners’ union into a hub of local compaigns and initiatives.

In all these ways, the ‘crown in parliament’ is facing a lot more than protest. Only time will tell whether this grassroots organisational creativity can be sustained, but since material and human sustainability and self-organisation is built into its goals it has a good chance. It is not about paper resolutions – as Momentum volunteer Katy says, the old politics is ‘obsessed with motions’ – it’s about creating lasting solutions in the present, which both prefigure and prepare for an end to austerity politics. Katy adds that it’s about ‘a more inclusive kind of politics’, engaging ‘people who aren’t usually involved’.

This is essential if we are to build the popular self-confidence to elect a Labour-led government. I say ‘Labour-led’ because only with a progressive alliance – not a coalition (see page 18) – will we overthrow the Tories. But such an alliance cannot concern itself simply with electoral politics alone. It too would be in danger of succumbing to the ‘parliamentarism’ that exudes from every routine, every ritual, every ambition cultivated in the Palace of Westminster. It will need, like Momentum, to be driven by popular struggle: a people-powered politics.

Thanks to Santiago Bell-Bradford for his help.

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