Here’s a collection of shorter writings (well, shorter than 10,000 word journal articles) and other bits and pieces. If you’re looking at this on my website www.jeremygilbert.org then you can go to the full collection of shorter pieces, on the main wordpress site where the blog is hosted, by clicking on ‘profile’.
All politics is about building coalitions and building power: if Labour cannot understand this truth and grasp its implications, then it is doomed.
A quick preface
This was written as a short contribution to a Pluto Press book that was supposed to be published last year, but never finally happened. I think it’s still pretty relevant to everything so I’m posting it now.
(If you’re one of the several people who are waiting for me to finish writing something – don’t worry – I did this ages ago…it hasn’t been distracting me from what I was supposed to be writing for you)
My aim in this short essay is to explain how a particular way of understanding politics and social change can illuminate our current situation. But first a disclaimer. I won’t be saying anything new here. The ideas I will be using are very familiar to those who are trained in a particular intellectual tradition. I present them here because they remain invaluable and useful, and because lots of people have had no access to that tradition; but not because I claim any originality for them.
I am going to be explaining in very basic terms how an approach derived from the ideas of the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, who died in ta fascist prison in the late 1930s, can help us understand current British politics. It seems particularly appropriate to to do this right now, because the past month has seen the launch of Stuart Hall’s Selected Political Writings [https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/stuart-hall-event]. Hall was one of the giant’s of British public and intellectual life of recent decades (https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/stuart-hall; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/tribute-to-stuart-hall). One of Hall’s great contributions to British intellectual culture was to bring to Gramsci’s ideas to on the analysis of British politics, in a number of key essays, several of which can be found in his key 1980s collection, The Hard Road to Renewal.
At the present time, Gramsci and his ideas seem to be undergoing yet another one of their periodic revivals, having been dismissed by many commentators as hopelessly outdated a few years ago. Many introductions to Gramsci are available, but one of the best has been recently updates: Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/gramscis-political-thought). Many scholarly expositions of Gramsci’s work have been produced, but Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment (2009) set a new benchmark in English-language scholarship. I don’t know much about the state of Gramsci scholarship outside the English-speaking world, but I do know that the popular French radio show and podcast Les Chemins de La Philosophie (https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-chemins-de-la-philosophie) recently produced an episode on Gramsci simply because he is so widely cited by so many people. Radical publishers Verso have just published a historical study of Gramsci’s key concept – ‘hegemony’ (if you don’t know what this means don’t worry, I will explain in simple terms shortly) – by one of its most prominent writers, Perry Anderson. In fact Alex Williams and I are currently writing a book for the same publishers on the subject of hegemony in the 21st century, which due to be completed before the summer. (We are considering presenting initial arguments in a series of public seminars and videos, so if you think you might be interested in that then do follow us at @lemonbloodycola and @jemgilbert).
Here are two versions of basically the same tribute to my departed friend Mark Fisher, who took his own life in January.
There are two versions, a very long and a quite long one.
The first is my own very very long tribute. It is as much as anything about me and my thoughts, obviously – as it is basically a kind of intellectual history of Marks’ own conceptual journey and my personal and political relationship to it. If you have been dying to find out exactly what I thought of the CCRU in the early 2000s, then this is for you. If not then maybe don’t bother. To be fair if you are interested in a very detailed account of Mark’s intellectual and political development then I think , I hope, you will find this genuinely useful.
Here it is in a pdf: My Friend Mark
The second is a rather shorter edited version, which is posted along with a number of other tributes on the LARB website HERE
The eulogies from Mark’s memorial service (including an Acid Communist translation of the Internationale) are HERE
• The case for radical modernity: Why the left should embrace technological innovation and new class alliances as part of a strategy for 21st-century socialism
(Also, in case anyone ever missed it, see the pamphlet I wrote with Mark Fisher – Reclaim Modernity)
Over the past year I’ve written several times on political context and implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party. I have been very gratified by how well they’ve ben received – by the people who have actually understood them…
The links are below but first here are some prefatory thoughts:
This has been a time of unprecedented turmoil in the party. Pro and anti Corbyn positions have been taken up by a number of public figures and commentators.
In a nutshell my own position is that I am a supporter of Corbyn but, as Neal Lawson puts it, one ‘without illusions’ as to Corbyn’s shortcomings as a political leader. He is not a very good leader in any conventional sense. But all of the currently available alternatives are much worse. He also has shown a singular ability to get people to join the party, which is frankly very impressive, whatever you think of his debating style.
One of the key problems here, which very few people on either side of the debate want to admit, is that the existing Parliamentary Labour Party is made up mostly of people who are just not suited in any way to the task of representing even a mildly left-wing political party in the early 21st century. This means that however bad a leader Corbyn may be, he will at least not be as obstructive to the renewal of the party and the labour movement as almost any of his colleagues would be, even if some of them would perform better in TV interviews.
I am more passionately a supporter and active member of Momentum (in fact I am currently a member of the Momentum national committee), the democratic activist organisation which has so terrified the Labour Right over the past year by, you know, actually mobilising Labour members in support of an actual political programme (the fact that it happened to be Corbyn’s programme was largely secondary to the fact that the Labour Right mostly don’t think party members should really get involved in politics at all). In particular the prejudice demonstrated against this organisation by members of the wealthy London media elite (including people who don’t think of themselves as members of that elite, because they didn’t go to private school, but who clearly now are) has been extraordinary. I think it really shows what contempt they have for anything like real democracy. They think the country should be run by people like them – and they simply cannot abide the thought that anyone sane might disagree with that.
I come to my position having been a member of the party since the 1980s, having lived for several years in my teens on one of the roughest council estates in the UK (I make this point to refute the claim that all Corbynites are just pampered metropolitan elitists who don’t understand the real working class), and having always been sympathetic to arguments in favour of political pragmatism.
As I try to explain quite carefully in a number of these articles, I think that any sober and informed assessment of the situation must conclude that the strategies proposed and followed by both the ‘soft left’ and the Blairite tendencies in the party in recent decades have all ended in such dismal failure that almost anything else is worth a try. And if that ‘anything else’ should not involve the building of Labour into a democratic member-led mass party for the first time in its history, as some on the Labour right seem to believe, then I have yet to hear any suggestion from them as to what it should actually imvolve.
While both the pro-Corbyn and the anti-Corbyn camps have problems in their arguments and their perspectives, I really do think that they are of a different order. The pro-Corbyn camp does include people who think that Jeremy is actually a brilliant leader, and who think that the fact that Labour did not get annihilated in local elections and by-elections over the past year demonstrates that he can win a general election. This is a problem because he isn’t and it doesn’t. The Corbynite Left has yet to fully face up to the fact that there IS, as our critics keep reminding us, an enormous cultural gap between the metropolitan Left in which we have our base, and the working class voters of the post-industrial ‘heartlands’, at least some of whom we must win over if we are to make any real progress. But that is a problem that could be addressed.
The anti-Corbynites, by contrast, simply demonstrate no grasp whatsoever of what the hell is actually going on. They do not understand where the support for Corbyn has come from, or what kind of organisation Momentum is, or that British parliamentary democracy has been in deep crisis for many years. They respond with caricatures, clichés, and furious trolling, but never ever ever with anything like a reasoned argument. The PLP’s totallybotched coup attempt against Corbyn’s leadership has demonstrated how redundant their whole conception of politics is. Their supporters are mostly people who learned how to do politics in the 1990s and seem to be furious at the fact that the world is changing in such a way that their way of doing it no longer works. They are also generally in total denial about what a disaster New Labour turned out to be. I have noticed in particular that they do not tend to include many people who had any real contact with the public sector during the New Labour years, and so do not have any apparent grasp of the huge ideological price which the sector was forced to pay, in terms of the imposition of neoliberal norms and practices, for the admittedly high levels of investment which the New Labour government oversaw.( If these are words you’re not familiar with then I’m sorry – I suggest you have a look for my little essay on what ‘neoliberalism’ means elsewhere on this blog.)
Anyway that’s enough of that. Here are the links in the order that I would suggest anyone interested reads the pieces:
(Most of these were published on open Democracy UK – if you find them useful and can afford it, please do consider making a donation)
This is 2000 words and probably the best summary of where I think things are at to date.
(It appears on the Labour Pains website, for which it was specially commissioned. This is part of a unique ongoing collaboration between the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. It is intended as a new type of political and educational resource, incorporating an expanding online catalogue of material drawn from the Labour Party’s Official Archives; original scholarship, commentary and discussion, as well as interactive timeline plotting the key developments in Labour Party history from its foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.)
Paul Mason cited ‘Labour Pains’ in an article a few days after it was posted. This was my response.
This is the big one – over 13000 words – but if you want a good introduction to the general political context for people who might now know much about UK politics then this is it. This was written for Near Futures Online, a web-magazine produced by Zone Books, whose first edition was a fascinating collection on European politics.
This is a short piece on the competing conceptions of leadership which the debate over Corbyn has implicitly put into contention with each other.
This is a response to the constant claims being made by the Labour Right that the left is somehow acting in a way which contravenes the traditions of the party or its aims as sated in its constitution. In particular it is notable that all of this commentary directly misquotes or misattributes a particular position to Clause One of the party constitution. In this piece I actually cite in full that clause so we can see what it actually says. It is not what Tristram Hunt, Chukka Umunna, the Progress people or Helen Lewis have claimed it says.
Another short piece – defending Momentum from the reactionaries.
This was my latest contribution to the ‘Progressive Alliance’ debate – which has finally taken off after being advocated by a handful of people for many years (including me, ever since my motion to Labour Student conference supporting the idea in 1991 was defeated by the massed ranks of the Scottish Labour Students, who were all convinced that we should have Proportional Representation, but that Labour would definitely one day soon achieve over 50% of the national popular vote, so would never need to be part of a progressive alliance. How’s that working out for you, Scottish Labour?). As I admitted in the comments, it should have been called ‘an electoral tactic for 2020’ really. It’s not a full-blown strategy – that will have to involve mobilising a mass party to challenge the influence of the right-wing press especially in working class communities. But a full blown strategy will also have to involve electoral deals and alliances of the kind that I describe here. Yes, it will. Even with a million members and a full blown national community-activism assault, Labour will not be able to reach the point of actually getting a parliamentary majority, especially once the coming changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries (expected to lose us around 40 seats) have been implemented.
This will be especially important if the majority of the PLP split from Labour, forming a new party which will become the official opposition and will have billionaire money behind it and the BBC and Guardian effectively backing it. In fact if that happens (which it probably will, and probably quite soon), then we (Labour, who will be left with about 80 MPs, almost a million members, and the backing of the trade unions) will probably end up having to do a deal with their new party as well as all the others, if we are to avoid them forming a permanently-hegemonic bloc with the liberal tories. But that’s all to come. And maybe it won’t happen… Yeah right…
Pancho Lewis was kind enough to interview me for the Open Labour website about Labour strategies. Most of what I said here I would stick by. But I think was a bit too dismissive of the particular strand of ‘Blue Labour’ thinking which thinks that Labour must have something to say to the ‘settlers'(if you don’t know what that means, read the interview and / or google Jon Cruddas’ report into why Labour the 2015 General Election)…I still think that the Blue Labour answer to that problem is wrong, and I stand by everything Mark Fisher and I wrote in our pamphlet ‘Reclaim Modernity‘, a few years ago, but I do think that in the interview I may have given the impression that we can do without large numbers of working class voters who may well feel mainly like ‘settlers’. The Brexit vote (which I wrote about briefly HERE ) made clear that that we do need to find ways to connect with them (I will write about how I think that could happen at some later dates). I think that people like Jon Cruddas have been right to point out the rise of a kind of latent English nationalism and to argue that Labour must engage with it. I regret not listening to Jon when he suggested some years ago that I, as a Cultural Studies scholars, ought to be able to make some contribution to that effort.
This was intended as a light-hearted, if not particularly friendly comment on the politics of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was reacted to furiously by Blairite commentators as a call for a purge. It was basically a joke- because I would never be arrogant enough to think that any Blairite MP would actually give a damn what I have to say about anything. But it also makes a serious point, which frankly I think has been thoroughly borne out by subsequent events. I honestly do think that the best thing that most of the current PLP could do for themselves, the party the movement and the country is just to quietly slip off into some other career. They are not going to get the Labour Party back. Many of them will now face deselection, even if they wouldn’t have done before they tried to unseat Corbyn. They will probably split and form a new party which will end up being a massive obstacle to any kind of real political progress while actually, on its own terms, achieving nothing. Come on guys – you could all be earning more money in the City anyway. Why not just do us all a favour?
This was written in July 2015 and was my first big piece on the subject. It’s 5000 words long and much of it was incorporated into the Near Futures Online essay. But there is more in here about the internal politics of Labour and the actual leadership election that Corbyn eventually won. I think now this is an interesting historical document because it was probably one of the first instances of somebody (me) historically associated with the ‘soft left’ coming out – with reservations – for Corbyn. It was actually initially written in response to my student Jack Manton asking me if I thought Corbyn was worth supporting.
This was a short piece written for the Global Justice Now magazine
Newly added preface August 3rd:
If you linked here from Helen Lewis’ article on the New Statesman, then please note that this is a blogpost which was written for the benefit of people I’m engaged in ongoing political conversations with. It was never intended for a mass readership. If it had been, I’d have pitched it to one of the websites I write for regularly.
It was a long reply to a blogpost by Paul Mason who was taking issue with some points I made in a much more concise article published last week and republished today on Jacobin.
If you’re actually interested in anything I have to say (and there is no reason why you should be), then I suggest you read this original article – which is a proper, shortish, tightly argued article. If you like it, then feel free to come back here and see what I’m on about in this blogpost.
Of course If you just want to troll me then naturally you are at liberty to read this, not read the original article, mock the writing style (which is different because it’s a blogpost, see?), express incomprehension, and tweet to all your right-wing mates about how you’d like to punch me (which is what various right-wingers were doing yesterday). Either way – have fun.
So Paul Mason has just published a piece proposing a general strategy for Labour in which he cites me. I think it’s me. He refers to Jeremy Gilbert twice, and then to ‘Galbraith’. By which he seems to still mean me.
The following comments assume that the reader has read Mason’s piece, which is to be found here https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/labour-the-way-ahead-78d49d513a9f#.fth6i5s7a
If you haven’t read it then you really should because it basically sets out the strategy for Labour which I think is the only one worth pursuing right now, touching on a number of key issues which hardly anyone else has properly addressed. I’m writing this almost entirely to add more weight to support Mason’s general case. Initially there are a couple of points of his that I am going to respond to defensively. But the rest is just an extension of his arguments.
This also won’t make much sense unless you’re read the original piece which Mason is referring to. Which is here. That piece is much shorter and tighter than what follows. That is an article. What follows is along blogpost.
It is about 3.5 k words long, and Mason’s piece is about 5k long. It has become customary to apologise for writing quite long pieces. This is part of the anti-intellectual legacy of English bourgeois culture, reinforced by neoliberal ideology with its obsession with short-term gratification, both of which we should all be trying to liberate ourselves from. So I do not apologise for it.
(And nobody is making you read it, after all.)
So, responses to Paul Mason…
Cultural Studies Till I Die
Firstly I would like to take this opportunity to refute his description of me as a‘Politics Professor’. My official title is ‘Professor of Cultural and Political Theory’. I write a lot about cultural theory, and political philosophy. But my disciplinary home is Cultural Studies, in the classic tradition of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. I’m a cultural studies professor, not a politics professor. I’m cultural studies – do you hear? I’m cultural studies till I die…
(Actually this is a slightly important point because I think that most of what I write for a more general audience about UK politics is informed by a sent of concepts and approaches which come from Cultural Studies and which have almost no place at all in the vast majority of UK university Politics departments, at which much – not all, but much – of what is taught leaves students unable to make any kind of substantial analysis of contemporary power relations and social change, which is one reason why all those PPE graduates in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the mainstream media haven’t got a f-ing clue what is happening around them right now. )
So what is the point of this response? Basically the point is that I think Paul M’s proposals are spot-on, except where he disagrees with me (naturally). I am going to sketch out some additional points later here in order to contribute to the general effort of developing a strategy for Labour. But naturally, this being blog-land I will respond to his disagreements with me first.
Why Paul Mason is Wrong About Me Being Wrong
Mason thinks I overstate the case in terms of how useless the current PLP are likely to prove as agents of any radical Labour politics. I think he is quite wrong in that judgement and that the evidence he cites for it is flawed.
Frankly I think it is dream-land stuff to think that most of the PLP will comply with the strategy he proposes, and when I read him saying that I am overstating that case, I hear the voices of the senior Labour advisers who were saying exactly the same thing to me 3 weeks before the coup attempt. I kept saying there was no chance of the PLP playing ball with the Corbyn leadership past this September. They kept telling me I was overstating the case.
To be honest, I suspect that, through no fault of his own, a former Trotskyist like Mason who only joined Labour recently may not fully understand the internal visceral politics of the Labour Party, and the fact that he seems to believe the hype from people like Stella Creasy, to me seems to betray that fact*. I don’t say this out of any disrespect for Mason’s intelligence, and as I will acknowledge in a moment, I could just be wrong. But reading Mason and talking to various comrades who have come into Labour recently from the far left often reminds me of people I knew who were in the Communist Party, around 25 years ago, who just would not believe me when I told them how right-wing some of the emerging generation of Labour apparatchiks were – they simply couldn’t fully imagine that someone would be a member of a nominally left-wing organisation and be so totally un-left-wing in every actual respect. I fear that some of this kind of far-left naivety has informed the attitude of the Labour leader’s office until recently and is still echoed in Mason’s remarks. I realise how ironic it sounds for someone from the soft left, like me, to be accusing former Trots and lifelong Bennites of having insufficient contempt for the Labour Right. But yes, that basically is what I’m saying. It’s not that these MPs are bad people – but they are ideologically opposed to any form of genuinely socialistic or radical democratic project, and that ideological opposition defines them to their cores, in my view; and I don’t think you really understand that unless you have really tried to work politically with some of these people.
So, from this perspective, I just don’t see the PLP sitting around waiting for us to do all of what Mason proposes and I don’t think that after their antics over the past month, the membership will be dissuaded from mass deselections to the extent that would be required for Paul M’s ideas about how to hold the PLP together to be viable.
Also – I have noticed that many people don’t seem to fully grasp what the implications will be if there is a split. I’m not saying that this applies to Mason but it is worth making these points anyway. If the splitters succeed in taking the majority of the PLP with them, then their new party will have the advantage of becoming the official opposition, and it will have the almost unqualified backing of the BBC and the Guardian and will have billionaire backing. They will also be under no legal obligation to resign their seats and fight by-elections. It is important to remember that most of the PLP have been schooled in a style of politics which believes that those are the key advantages for any political party, and that the unions and the membership have been a historic encumbrance for the Labour Party. So many of them will be able to convince themselves that they will be glad to be rid of them.
Of course there are elements who will probably not split. The traditional old Right of the party has a particular internal mythology, and a big part of that mythology is the belief that their historic destiny is to save the party from the unilateralist Left every 30 years or so. They think that Gaitskell facing down CND in the Labour Party in the lats 50s was a precondition for Wilson’s election victory in 1964 and that they (the old Labour Right) also had to pick up the pieces after Labour’s disastrous adoption of unilateral nuclear disarmament in the early 80s, paving the way for New Labour. That faction will think that once again it is their task to remain in the party and keep it safe for future generations. But this faction is small (but I also think Mason is probably right that there is no point continuing to alienate them by making a big issue of Trident).
But most of the rest of them will have very little motivation not to split. I think.
But I could be wrong – and what difference would it make?
BUT I could be wrong. Mason is a political journalist with years of experience and probably knows more Labour M.P.s personally than I do – so I could be wrong about all this. Arguably my belief that these people are anti-socialist ‘to the core’ is itself based on a problematic set of assumptions about the nature of human identity that I wouldn’t normally want to defend. And so in fact I don’t think that either my hunch or his should be exclusively dictating strategy.
Because our disagreement has only one practical implication, which is that I think there probably should be some contingency planning for a split. I think the Labour leadership and Momentum should have a strategy in place to some extent for what we do if, as I’m afraid I think is still very likely, there is a major split very soon.
Not that such a strategy is particularly difficult to figure out. In the event of a split I think the strategy will basically be to make the split the occasion for a third round of major membership-building (look what we’re up against! – join us to build the fight! etc.) while identifying those now-ex-Labour MPs who are most likely to be vulnerable to local campaigns demanding that they fight by-elections against us, and launching those campaigns.
And having such a strategy sketched out does not at all preclude the Labour leadership from proceeding as Mason recommends. Until the split actually happens then we might as well act like it is not going to and try to prevent it. And Mason seems to have the right idea about how to do that. Mason’s strategy here includes building a list of the next 100 Labour MPs to be adopted, whether that’s following the retirement of sitting MPs or a split and I think that’s a really good idea. Obviously at the end of the day if we can avoid a split and can re-make the PLP peacefully over 5-10 years then that is preferable to a split.
Mason’s Gramscian Strategy
One thing I would say about Mason’s broad social strategy is that I think he is exactly right except that I think there are sections of the ‘suburban middle classes’ who are much softer in their conservatism than he allows for and who could be brought into any successful coalition. This is something that Jon Trickett MP and I have had some conversations about – Trickett has made the very important point to me that even the suburban middle classes are now divided between a traditional socially conservative group who are forever Tory, and a group who are quite libertarian and modernist in their instincts and who could conceivably be won over to a radical programme if they were persuaded that it didn’t threaten their interests (which it wouldn’t need to).
In terms of that broad social project, I think Mason is bang-on in his (properly Gramscian) understanding that we have to accept that the metropolitan left will be the leading element of this coalition and have to stop apologising for the fact all the time. As I have argued several times over the past year, the metropolitan left is much larger than mainstream commentary still wants to admit (20-25% of the population I reckon), and is not all privileged professionals – it includes many radical unionised manual workers and public sector workers (firefighters, for example), and it is as entitled to representation as anyone else. He is exactly right, I think, that the aim must be for this group to win over the post-industrial working class, moving them away from supporting various sections of the capitalist class who will continue to try to secure their loyalty through appeals to racism, xenophobia and myths about welfare-claimants, and that the metropolitan left cannot win this fight if it is apologetic about its own identity.
Further more there are historic precedents for such social groupings successfully forming alliances with the broader working classes and thereby challenging residual racism and xenophobia in those contexts. The experience of Ken Livingstone’s radical Greater London Council administration in the early 80s shows how working class communities can be won over to anti-racist perspectives when they are clearly linked to their economic interests. In addition to all this, it is important to remember that classical racism (which actually believes in genetic differences and racial superiorities or in irreconcilable cultural difference) is historically weak in the UK, and all the evidence suggests that most xenophobia is based on a belief in the economic threat which foreigners are seen to pose. This means that in many cases (not all, but many) such xenophobia is vulnerable to a challenge from an alternative economic narrative, just as Mason proposes.
Stop Talking About Austerity
I would suggest that in terms of this effort, however, there is one important tactical shift required for the Labour Party. We should stop talking about ‘austerity’. Many commentators (including me) have always thought that ‘austerity’ was too abstract a concept to make the basis for a political critique and also has a particular problem in the English context, where the long legacy of puritanism means that for many people ‘austerity’ sounds like desirable self-discipline rather than something to be opposed.
But there is a far more important reason to shut the fuck up about ‘austerity’. ‘Austerity’ is used as a shorthand for the failed economic response to the post-2008 crisis which focussed on cuts and reducing government spending and real wages. The trouble with attacking this particular programme is that doing so completely ignores the plight of people who have ben suffering continually since the 1970s. The fact is that ‘austerity’ is mainly a problem for the metropolitan left who, before 2008, were mainly having a pretty good time of it, although those of us working in the public sector resented New Labour’s imposition of neoliberal norms on schools, the NHS, etc. The post-industrial working classes, the people who just swung the vote in favour of Brexit and are the prime targets for UKIP, have not seen their prospects drastically reduced since 2008 – they are suffering the effects of a continual undermining of their communities and their economic infrastructure since the late 1970s.
From this perspective, what Labour should be opposing is not simply ‘austerity’, but forty years of failure (which is how we should define the epoch of neoliberalism). That should be our slogan – we will end Forty Years of Failure. What we should be promising is not just an end to austerity, but Real Jobs for Real People (ie not bullshit jobs that would be better done by robots and artificial intelligence, not call-centre jobs, but jobs which, be they in manufacturing, or the creative industries, or in any other context, feel fulfilling and are materially rewarding, and which don’t take over your whole life). This is a demand which would unite the concerns of the metropolitan left (increasingly anxious about either the precarious life of young professionals and the extent to which they are forced to undertake meaningless work), or their inability to achieve ‘work-life balance’) and the post-industrial communities who are still in mourning for the loss of meaningful work in the manufacturing sector.
Beyond the Fragments
This is my hunch anyway. In terms of finding a narrative that will unite these constituencies, I actually think that the first thing we need is a large-scale exercise whereby the metropolitan left tries actively to find out what is going on in the post-industrial communities and, as various commentators have suggested recently, start ‘listening to them’, in order to figure out what policies and narratives might actually resonate between the different constituencies we need to mobilise. By this what I do NOT mean is going around making patronising videos where the most desperate and depoliticised members of our society are put on display so we can all gawp at how desperate and depoliticised they are. I mean figuring out some way actually to create meaningful relays of experience and information between the different parts of our putative coalition. I’ve suggested to several people recently that Momentum should hold an event or multiple events next year at which supporters and activists in Tory-held marginals and in the kind of localities that we are at risk of losing to UKIP come and make presentations to the rest of us about what is going on in their areas and what they think it would take to connect with wider communities there. I think the key thing is not to fantasise that somehow we can directly mobilise the most desperate and depoliticised straight away, but to activate those members of our networks who already share our vision but who are also closest to the coalface, the frontline, or whatever other macho metaphor we want to use. We won’t reach the youth on the council estates in Sunderland immediately. But if we start giving due prominence in our political conversations to the trade-unionists, the community workers, the teachers and the social workers who know them then we might be able to figure out how to connect with them eventually.
The only other thing I would say is that I think Momentum specifically should be trying to do a bit more to promote the idea that all this could take longer than 4 years to get sorted. If we hang everything on a 2020 victory then we are taking a very big risk of massive demoralisation very quickly (if it’s clear that we are trailing in the polls then that demoralisation will set in by some time 2019). It’s in the nature of things that the Labour leadership cannot say ‘fuck off of course we can’t win the next election – we’re building something that will take 15 years’. Obviously there’s a limit to how far even Momentum can say that. But I think we should be able to say something like – realistically historical change on the scale we are looking for takes time, and we shouldn’t focus on the next election to the exclusion of building a movement that can last.’ I think a real problem with the perspective taken by people like Owen Jones (see https://medium.com/@OwenJones84/questions-all-jeremy-corbyn-supporters-need-to-answer-b3e82ace7ed3#.bmam8ho06), for all that everything he says is materially correct, is that it was just very naive to imagine that this new movement even had the capacity actually to act on the kind of advice he was dishing out to them over the past year – it was always likely to take 2-3 years to get to the point where we even had the ability to do the kinds of things he keeps saying we should have been doing. And I think it will take longer than 4 years for us to be in a position to win an election, in all honesty. None of the relevant precedents from places like Greece and Spain, none of the precedents from earlier historical epochs, suggests otherwise. Of course we should keep trying and give it a go – we might get lucky – we should aim to win in 2020. But if we kid ourselves that our chances of doing so are high, then we will fail to take the perspective that really might lead us to eventual success.
If I’d thought a lot of people were going to read this, I’d have edited a lot more carefully – the responses have been pretty extreme. Labour right trolls have tweeted about wanting to punch me (apparently grown up adults with academic posts, no less) because they didn’t like the opening quip about the length, which they both took far too seriously and didn’t get the context for at all; the context being that this was a long, spontaneous response to a blog-post defending a position I had taken in a much shorter, more carefully-argued article which they hadn’t read or didn’t mention and made no effort actually to engage with the argument in. Other people have really liked it. Honestly if this is the first piece of mine you’ve ever read then I hope you like it but I feel a bit guilty cos it was really written written with the assumption that the only interested would be people who’d read some of the other stuff HERE.
The aside about patronising videos has been interpreted as a direct dig at at least two completely different people, neither of whom it was aimed at. I am really sorry if anyone thought that was aimed at them because it wasn’t – it was genuinely an expression of an anxiety about a certain kind of dead-end that a politics of ‘listening’ could lead us to…but I wasn’t meaning to imply that any current film-makers were in any way guilty of this.
*Creasy has not run any ‘exemplary social-movement type campaigns’ in her local community, where I happen to live. She has run some quite successful exercises in community organising that have done at least as much to raise her national profile as to achieve any lasting social change in Walthamstow. These were not inspired by any kind of social movement politics, but were directly inspired by the project of David Miliband and James Purnell to appropriate the London Citizens community organising model as a template for a wholly de-politicised form of activist mobilisation which would be compatible with the neo-Blairite politics of Progress, of which Creasy is one of the PLP’s most active supporters. What they have absolutely nothing to do with is the politics of social movement building (despite the ironic, almost deliberately parodic adoption of the title ‘Movement for Change’ by Miliband’s ill-fated organisation). Creasy would not even claim that they do have anything to do with social movement politics as classically understood, being quite explicit that what she believes in is a novel articulation of professionalised post-democratic politics which issue-based community organising, which is resolutely opposed to any notion whatsoever of systemic social change, regarding the latter as a dangerous distraction from achieving localised moral victories. The idea is that you can run a local campaign against Wonga, but what you must never do is challenge the power of the City; in this context, anyone who tries to ask why, for example, so many people were using payday lenders after 13 years of Labour government , is definitely not welcome in the organising meeting. I know because I asked that question at a ‘Movement for Change’ organising meeting in Walthamstow which had been called by Stella Creasy, and it was made clear that this was not a welcome question). Oh, and incidentally, I can confirm that at no meeting of Waltham Forest momentum has the possible deselection of Stella Creasy ever been so much as mentioned. The claim that it has been has been circulated entirely be supporters of Creasy in the press, presumably with the encouragement of her office, for reasons I leave the reader to determine for themselves.