It’s a lonely world these days for an anti-parliamentary socialist with all politics seeming to have taken a back seat to the current Labour Party shenanigans. While the deluge of establishment groupthink currently arrayed on Corbyn is as disgusting as it is cynical, we're still not pinning any hopes on him in the (now quite likely) event he comes out on top in the next leadership election.
Look, it could well happen that the left may, against all odds, take control of the Labour Party NEC and make the party more member-led. That’s something I would have given very long odds on a year or so ago (but then again, the same is true of Leicester City winning the Prem so maybe 2016 is the year for long odds!).
That said, if you think the Labour Right play dirty, wait til you see the CBI, the City of London and the IMF join in while the media dial up the smears to 11. As sneaky and disingenuous as individuals like Tristram Hunt, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are, they’re all also largely inept and charmless, as their botched coup and embarrassing public appearances demonstrate. They’re like The Orphans in The Warriors, easily rolled over at the start but not nearly as fearsome as the other opponents on the journey back to Coney Island.
The same will not be true as we draw up to General Election time, and even less so if Corbyn were to win; the likelihood he'd be able to pass reforms that harmed the interests of big business, without massive pressure from a disruptive extra-parliamentary social movement, is very slim… all the slimmer for the fact it won’t be Tom Watson playing ‘Good Cop’ to Chuka Umunna’s ‘Bad Cop’; it will be the Murdochs and other ‘captains of industry’ hamstringing even mild social democratic reform through non-cooperation, sabotage and public smears.
Without such a movement, a Corbyn (or any other social democratic) government would not have a leg to stand on. Yet with such a social movement, the role of such a government becomes different: the role will be to mediate and to limit; to separate ‘responsible’ representatives from ‘unruly’ elements and give carrots to the first while doling out sticks to the latter.
Ultimately, extra-parliamentary forces largely determine parliamentary possibilities so even if you want parliamentary reform, it necessitates building grassroots power and a capacity to take disruptive action - strikes, occupations, demonstrations that block transport hubs etc - that such reform will become realisable. And, of course, when such extra-parliamentary forces are forcing reforms, parliamentarism ceases to appear as a ray of hope and becomes an obstacle.
It’s at this point that the usual response is “can’t we do both?”. “Can’t we build an autonomous grassroots working-class direct action movement AND fight to reform the Labour Party into a left-wing electable vote-winning machine?” And the answer to this is: theoretically, yes. But practically there are only 24 hours in a day, two-thirds of which are usually spent either sleeping or working. What has become clear with the recent coup (if it wasn’t already) is that reforming the Labour Party won’t be as easy as paying £3 to vote Corbyn as leader. It means getting involved in your Constituency Labour Party, pressuring your MP, possibly deselecting them, which, as Novara’s recent guide to deselection makes clear, could potentially involve “years of hard work in branches and constituencies across the country”. Which is fine; as the old cliché goes, ‘they wouldn’t call it a struggle if it was easy’. The point is whether the Labour Party is the best place to expend all that energy in struggle.
From our point of view, there can be no ‘UKIP of the left’; pro- and anti-systemic politics just don’t work in the same way like that. But it is worth thinking about how the extra-parliamentary left in Britain could use similar resources to what's currently being chucked into the Labour Party and, in that sense, it's oddly useful looking at the US extra-parliamentary right, with its vast media infrastructure of talk shows, blogs and ecology of organisations. Sure, they’re financed by millionaire/billionaire capitalists and we’re not (nor should we be). But working-class people collectively pay millions into unions, £4.6 million into the Labour Party in 48 hours and donate thousands of hours of voluntary labour into similar organisations. So the resources are there and it’s worth thinking about how an extra-parliamentary social movement could make use of them.
Money isn’t always a limiting factor but it often helps, certainly with media infrastructure, training, equipment and organising events.
In terms of action, it’s all about finding points of leverage:
- Sisters Uncut have been doing fantastic work around domestic violence and housing. Their recent occupation of an empty council house in Hackney has highlighted cuts to both and created a base for organisation far more quickly than involvement in the Labour Party ever could.
- Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth have been doing excellent work around housing and building their eviction phone tree. Similar could be said of the recent UCL rent strikers
- IWW, Solfed and IWGB have all had some decent industrial organising, particularly Solfed amongst hospitality workers in Brighton and the IWGB amongst cleaners and couriers in London (the IWGB have also organised a London Courier Emergency Fund to help ‘self-employed’ couriers when they have accidents and can’t work)
- There’s also a Black Lives Matter UK group in the works which promises to be very exciting
So what is to be done?
The fact is that outside of a lot of major cities, there isn’t a whole lot of extra-parliamentary direct action organising going on and often it’s the Labour Party/Momentum or nothing. And it’s also obviously a lot easier to get involved or support existing groups than start one from scratch. Given all that, a potential strategy to help isolated groups could look something like this:
1) Build alt-media and social networks; Novara are doing very well at this (despite becoming a bit too Labour-centric for our tastes) as are Media Diversified. The Occupied Times also produce a very high quality print publication. And, er, obviously us at Libcom.org..
2) Utilise contacts built through alt-media networks to organise a loose tour of direct action groups around the country aiming not merely to hold meetings but to seed new direct action groups. Would require organisations to put up a few people willing to travel and talk within a given area, pool resources etc.
3) Focus shouldn’t be on building particular organisations but supporting people to organise in a locally appropriate model: if they want to form an IWW branch/Solfed local/Sisters Uncut chapter, then fine. If they want to organise a non-affiliated Solidarity Network or housing action group, also fine
The same concerted effort over years that would go into the Labour Party could instead be used to grow direct action groups in localities across the country.
Obviously, there aren’t 180,000 people itching to get involved in extra-parliamentary direct action; what’s being sketched out here is how a few million quid and thousands of activist hours could help develop a movement separate from the Labour Party, and lamenting all that’s gone into that party (and scepticism over Corbyn more generally) does not mean passively accepting Tory rule. It just means we prefer barking up the right (tall and difficult to climb) tree than the wrong (accessible, appealing) one.
For more tips on how to get involved/start different kinds of organisation, check out:
- Building a solidarity network guide
- Workplace organising guide (also get in touch with either Solfed or the IWW to try and attend or host one of their workplace organiser trainings)
- Community organising guide
But more importantly, check out some of the great groups mentioned in this blog post!
This blog post is a padded out version of a thread on Joseph Kay's twitter.