A few months ago, I was a parliamentary candidate in Glasgow South West, one of the most marginal seats in the United Kingdom. Sadly, and despite the best efforts of everyone on the campaign, we didn’t take it. Similar tales can be told around the country. From the question of Europe, the savage media hostility and disgruntled party careerists undermining our every move, better writers than I have delved into the reasons why we lost so dramatically. But there are more fundamental problems, too.
In 2015 we elected an unequivocally Left leader and boosted our membership by hundreds of thousands in the space of weeks. There was much hope in the years that followed. We now know that winning the leadership – and winning the argument, as Jeremy put it – wasn’t enough. Why was it that a series of popular policies backed by a mass membership didn’t get us over the line?
Over a century ago the myriad strands of the left and trade union movement pulled themselves together, managing to coalesce around the idea that working people needed genuine representation in parliament. The Labour Party was not simply conjured out of thin air — it was the next rational step for organised labour to realise their goals after centuries of struggle. The party went from zero to government in a generation, and did it standing on the shoulders of a movement that stretched to every corner of the land. It was able to do this because — like it or lump it — people knew what it was for.
My father likes to remind me that I was born in the “winter of discontent”. Labour lost office just as I was learning to walk, and couldn’t regain it until the first time I was able to vote in 1997. I do not need, I am sure, to point out the enormous changes that occurred over those eighteen years, but something struck me in the aftermath of the Labour’s 2015 wipeout in Scotland. Another eighteen years had passed, and two political generations had gone by with working people knowing nothing but defeat and retreat. Through all of that time, the concept of class became more remote by the day, a flame guarded by a few rather than a torch carried by the many.
In my teens, I recall John Major talking of a “classless society.” Then Tony Blair got elected and told us “the class war is over.” Discussion of class was derided as a crank pursuit — even within many trade unions. Slowly but surely, collective ideas of class were replaced with more individual notions of equality within our movement. This political understanding, which was forged over generations as the foundations on which workers fought to improve their lot, was allowed to wither. The working class never went away, but it was discouraged from seeing itself as a class.
The trouble with a society that lacks class consciousness is that something else is likely to fill the void. That void has been filled throughout the UK by various nationalisms. They’ve come along in different shapes and sizes, and some appear more cuddly than others. But when it comes right down to it, if the national question (and there are several throughout these islands) has become the defining issue, then by definition, class is not.
In Scotland, that void has been filled by Scottish nationalism, exemplified by the dominance of the SNP, a party which has the remarkable ability to house left and right without any great public dissent. It manages to look left while governing firmly from the centre — Blairism without the bombs. It says a lot about the desperation many people feel that this is considered a ‘progressive’ alternative among many segments of the Left in England.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The last few years have certainly shown me that there is hope. When just a few days ago, the SNP rejected the merest hint of rent control legislation and rejected the principle of collective bargaining in the private care sector, they exposed the reality that distinct class interests lie underneath every nationalist project. Even though Labour lost December’s election, I feel that more and more people are aware of that.
There was a backlash to the SNP’s manoeuvring. And much to their apparent surprise, it was organised. On the streets of my constituency in Govan, the organisers of Living Rent are winning victory after victory for their members. Their membership seems to grow by the day and it grows not only because of their excellent organisation and mobilisation, but because success breeds success.
Organisations like Living Rent are now leading the charge for real protection for renters and is fighting for the change that usual parliamentary politics is incapable of delivering. In 1915, on those same streets, rent strikes were led by members of the Labour Housing Association amongst others. Constituency Labour Parties rarely have the inclination for such activities today — but those in the Labour Party who are determined to fight for workers can find capable partners in wider society.
Momentum has been much maligned, but at its best it brought an energy, enthusiasm and an outward-looking ethos that is too often lacking or stifled in the formal structures of the Labour Party. At its worst, it has appeared London-centric, and been far too wrapped-up in the “game” at the top and in simply protecting the leadership at the expense of broader political ambitions.
Up here in Glasgow, I’ve had glimpses of both sides. The enormous mobilisation put in place through Momentum at the general election brought dozens of activists to my campaign, which is something I will be eternally grateful for. But the flipside was a consistent lack of understanding of the situation in Scotland in its social media output, and in dealing with Campaign for Socialism, its sister organisation in Scotland.
At this crossroads for the Left in the Labour Party, Momentum’s future is uncertain and contested. If it is to have a role, and I believe it should, then things need to change rapidly. It must break out of the intrigues of the M25 and take up the challenge of rebuilding class politics across the country. It is crucial that we provide Labour activists, especially newer members enthused by a renewed socialist project, with avenues of activity beyond simply door-knocking in the coming years.
This means an outward-facing Momentum, one which organises locally to engage with campaigns and movements. It means a Momentum that has ambitions to have a foot in every working class community in Britain — and one that understands the history of how the Left built in these places, not only through trade unions like my own CWU, but through social institutions like Labour and Socialist Clubs which played a role in working people’s daily lives. And it means taking up the challenge of political education which has been neglected all too often in recent years.
This isn’t about parachuting into a community and telling people what’s good for them, but using the apparatus to support communities all over the country to win the campaigns that will benefit the lives of working people. It means having a relationship with the trade union movement that runs deeper than a meeting of minds at leadership level, but instead can be relevant in every union branch and workplace in the land.
I want to see a Momentum that is working as partners in practice from trade union schools to the picket line. I want to see us work with unions to undertake the task of organising the thousands of young people sympathetic to our politics into our unions. That is how we revitalise the labour movement and begin to turn the tide after decades of defeat.
Too many working-class people have grown up knowing that nothing will change, and that in politics as in life, the new boss is the same as the old one. Too many of us, even when we get involved in our movement, still suffer from imposter syndrome, deferring to mediocrity, or have our spirits crushed by the apparatus. If the Labour Party is to aspire to anything more than good management, it must be both educator and agitator; providing a space to learn, to argue, and to learn to argue.
What took Aneurin Bevan from the pit to the cabinet table was an education and the confidence that came with it, which told him he didn’t need to bow down to anyone. At a time when too many socialists have let their heads drop, we must become standard-bearers for class confidence – to raise our heads and our hearts once more.