This was written by Rida Vaquas and me, and was originally published on Left Futures on August 24th 2015.
On 12 September we will find out whether Jeremy Corbyn is the next leader of the Labour Party. There is, of course, an increased reluctance to accept opinion polls at face value, so any optimism is still cautious. But whatever the result it is already clear that the Labour Party has changed. There has been a mass influx of 400,000 new members and supporters, of which 60% are thought to be ‘youth’. An unprecedented momentum has come behind the previously ailing Labour left, bringing with it great potential. But at the same time the situation is precarious: we urgently need to come together to ensure that these hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters do not vanish as quickly as they appeared.
If Corbyn loses on 12 September, platitudes will be given about how valuable his contributions have been, but behind the scenes the party machine will have already sprang into action. The Parliamentary Labour Party has already learned its lesson and now knows the danger of allowing members any power. Proposals to make future elections ‘fairer’ and ‘more transparent’ will come forward while left-wingers are publicly expelled and made examples. The right-wing will try to compensate for the Party’s ‘summer of madness’ by posturing more rightwards still. In response, the sectarians in organisations like the Socialist Workers Party will say ‘I told you so’ and claim their point proven: there is no future in the Labour Party.
Corbyn supporters will be demoralised. A few will leave and many more will simply lose enthusiasm.
If Corbyn wins it will be better but still not without problems. He will hopefully move quickly to politically reposition the Party on the left and to introduce long-needed internal democratic reforms to empower members. However, while the Party rulebook gives plenty of authority to the Leader, the Parliamentary Labour Party will still wield a number of significant weapons. As has already been announced in the press, some MPs will launch a public coup against the new leader. Others will undermine him in more subtle ways: leaking criticism to the press and finding excuses to not co-operate.
Even with a huge mandate behind him, the balance of power will be against Corbyn. He will only be able to drive through his policies and reforms, and maintain control of the party, if the membership is sufficiently mobilised. Huge pressure will be put on him to capitulate or to resign. No matter how principled, he will only avoid this fate if there is sufficient counter-pressure.
But what about us?
Both of these scenarios share a common assumption: the Labour left does not change. The Labour left is, as it stands, weak. There are plenty of existing groups – Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Red Labour, Labour Representative Committee, Campaign for Socialism, Labour Campaign for Free Education – and many more talented individuals. But on their own they are not enough. We do not currently have the infrastructure to support and channel the momentum and huge numbers that the Corbyn campaign has created.
The Labour left must be relaunched, bringing together the different groups, activists and strengths that already exist to create something bigger. All the relevant groups should come together to launch a new Left. Exactly how this is done, or what it looks like, is up for debate.
However we can start with two broad principles:
It must be democratic. This does not just mean policy conferences, elections and rules – although these are important. It means a culture of inclusiveness and accessibility where everyone shares responsibility and no one individual or group is in charge, where disagreements are had out in the open, and where everyone is prepared, on occasion, to lose the argument.
It must be outward facing and campaigning. We do not need just another left-wing Labour Party faction. It is necessary but not enough to get left-wingers elected onto Party committees, or even into Parliament. We need a mobilised membership which campaigns on the issues that matter: education, the environment, housing, pay and working conditions, trade union rights, migration, discrimination and oppression. This will help us to build the Party and the left within it. But more importantly, if we want to implement the policies for which we have spent the past months arguing, then we will need to go up against powerful vested interests. We can only take on these interests with an active and mobilised population behind us.
There is one area of the Labour left where I am confident that the move for improved organisation can proceed quickly.
Throughout history, youth and students have often played a transformative role in times of social upheaval. Today we must play this role in transforming the Labour Party and the Labour left. We must lead by example, in a spirit of co-operation and comradeship, and relaunch the left in Young Labour and Labour Students. In Scotland this is already happening with the launch of Scottish Labour Young Socialists. Hopefully we can do the same for the youth and students across the UK and contribute to a reinvigoration of the left in the Party in general.
The Labour Campaign for Free Education is calling a meeting in London of youth and students for the 20 September – a week after the election result – to begin discussions for a new youth and student Labour left on the basis of the two principles above. LCFE does not pretend to represent everyone. Other groups like Red Labour Youth, LRC Youth, Scottish Labour Young Socialists and the Labour Young Trade Unionist Network should co-sponsor and throw their organisational strength behind it.
I hope that the moves being made by left-wing Labour youth will have a positive effect on the wider Labour left too.
There is great potential ahead of us. Let’s not squander it.