The left is entering the most serious political war in a generation – and the Tories need to know the scale of the public fight that they will face if they try to close hospitals, libraries and schools, writes LIZ DAVIES
LABOUR Party conference saw Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s hugely successful riposte to their critics.
It was wonderful to see a potential prime minister who is not prepared to push the nuclear button and commit mass destruction.
After 14 years, I find myself back in the Labour Party and I feel like I’ve come home. But now anti-austerity politics are in the political mainstream, what can we do to keep building the anti-austerity movement, inside and outside the Labour Party and articulating an alternative to neoliberalism?
Although the Corbyn surge appeared to come out of the blue, it has deep roots. Both Jeremy and John are known for their participation in anti-austerity, pro-peace and justice campaigns.
For years, they have been there on picket lines, addressing demonstrations, speaking up in Parliament.
They never once drew a distinction between campaigns organised within the Labour Party and campaigns operating outside of Labour Party structures. If a cause was worth supporting, they supported it.
As a result, the Corbyn surge contained very disparate groups of people — direct action activists, often radicalised by the Iraq war or by the 2010 student protests; trade unionists; former Labour Party members who had left in disgust over Blair; and those Labour Party members who had stayed in through gritted teeth.
What they had in common was not only respect and admiration for Jeremy — that personal loyalty was helpful but not sufficient to create the political excitement that we’ve seen. They recognised that Jeremy’s bid for leadership represented anti-austerity, socialist politics coming into the mainstream.
So that, come 2020, the public will have a clear choice — a vote for neoliberal politics or a vote for a public spending, anti-austerity alternative.
Our job on the left is to make sure that those alternatives are being shouted out, not just by the leader of the Labour Party and shadow chancellor but by a loud, vibrant and active movement.
First, for those of us in the Labour Party, we need to organise to make sure that Jeremy and John have mandates for specific commitments, immediately and urgently for the cancellation of Trident.
Jeremy’s election gave him and John a general mandate, from all sections of the Labour Party, for their politics of anti-austerity and against knee-jerk military intervention.
But the forces of Blairism in the Parliamentary Labour Party will do whatever they can to undermine that mandate.
So Jeremy and John need to bypass the PLP and reach out to the party members, supporters and trade union members who voted for Jeremy. We need to be organising at constituency level to win votes to commit the party to cancel Trident, invest in public services, take a generous, humanitarian approach towards migration and redistribute wealth.
Second, the issues on which Jeremy was elected — principally anti-austerity and peace — need to be kept in the public mind through extra-parliamentary campaigning.
Whether it is organising letters, Twitter storms or petitions, marches or demonstrations, or non-violent direct action used by UK Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts, radical housing campaigners and others, our political priorities have to be shouted out.
We need to make it clear to the Tories (and Blairites watching in the wings) that public spending cuts and job losses will be opposed, that our current welfare system of punishing the poor is wrong and that there is no public support for military intervention abroad.
The Tories need to know the scale of the public fight that they will face if they try to close hospitals, libraries and schools.
Third, the left should take seriously the concept of political solidarity with those needing support. Owen Jones argued in the Guardian on September 30 that the left should learn from Syriza and its record of setting up kitchens, legal aid centres, foodbanks, soup kitchens and free education classes.
He goes on to call for Labour Party activists to help organise private tenants’ associations — fighting back against exorbitant rents and poor housing conditions — or foodbanks or even football matches. He says that this is not charity, but effective social movements. I agree.
The Labour Party and Communist Party in this country before 1945 were rooted in impoverished communities. Their activists were part of those communities and they organised practical measures to help alleviate poverty.
In the absence of an effective welfare state — and side by side with campaigning for a welfare state — party activists would help organise children’s clubs, health and legal advice, and even run what we would today call foodbanks.
As we see our welfare state — principally the creation of the 1945 Labour government — being cut to pieces, we have a responsibility to help to provide practical solidarity to people who may quite literally be starving or homeless.
We should be part of tenants’ movements and housing campaigns, helping to organise breakfast clubs or free lunches for children.
This is absolutely not charity — but it is a recognition that if someone is sick with worry about how to feed her children, she’s unlikely to come on a demonstration.
We’ve seen real, practical solidarity in action very recently, as the public reacted to the horrific refugee crisis. The tide of public opinion seemed to shift from hostility to asylum-seekers to a sense of humanitarian responsibility. Or maybe it didn’t shift — maybe the humanitarian, generous voices have always been there, but were previously drowned out by Ukip-type rhetoric. Either way, progressive views on migration started to be heard. And the collection of clothing, bedding, etc to take to migrants outside Calais by CalAid and others represented real, practical and political solidarity.
Those concrete gestures are part of saying another world is possible.
The left has won an extraordinary battle, in unprecedented circumstances. I still pinch myself when I see Corbyn described as “leader of the Labour Party.”
But this is the most serious political war that I have seen in my lifetime. The conflict between forces of the neoliberalism against the forces of anti-austerity is a class battle, conducted inside and outside the Labour Party.
Neoliberalism in the Labour Party has not gone away. It will bide its time until it calculates that Corbyn and McDonnell don’t have grassroots support. Our job — as the left both inside and outside the Labour Party — is to make it clear that Corbyn and McDonnell have the vociferous, highly visible and committed support of the grassroots.
Liz Davies was a member of the Labour Party until 2001 and an elected member of its national executive committee between 1998-2000. She is a barrister specialising in homelessness and housing rights.