20 January 2021
The former Labour leader has just launched a new political movement. Does it have legs?
Dave Kellaway takes a look.
I tuned in yesterday to the YouTube feed along with 7,500 others to hear Jeremy Corbyn and his political allies put some flesh on the political project announced a month ago. The project is best summarised in a piece Corbyn wrote for general release:
We also launched four exciting new projects within the scope of our four areas of work, and invite supporters to get involved. The first is an economic security project which will organise direct support for communities across the UK hit by the triple crisis of austerity, the pandemic, and the new recession. The second, our international justice project, will campaign for a Covid-19 vaccine available to all, and affordable everywhere.
Our democratic society project will campaign for a more just, free, and accountable media; supporting public interest journalism and challenging corporate monopolies. And our climate justice project will build a network with environmental campaigners to develop bold and concrete plans for a Green New Deal, shaping debate ahead of the COP26 climate conference in November.
We are working across these different areas because the ongoing pandemic is intensifying the three deep, connected, and global crises we face: the climate emergency, an economy that produces inequality and insecurity faster than prosperity and freedom, and a global political order that holds back the vast majority of our planet’s people and is dangerously breaking down.
Speakers included Jeremy Corbyn, Scarlett Westbrook, a student climate campaigner, Ronnie Kasrils, a former minister under Nelson Mandela, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, Noam Chomsky, Zara Sultana MP, and Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister.
Kasrils was particularly good in raising the issue of Palestine and Black Lives Matter. Varoufakis introduced his idea of techno-feudalism to describe a new form of capitalism where Big Tech is dominant and where capital and the Right are much more internationally organised than the labour movement and the Left. He was on the button here: ‘Democracy ends at the gates of the factory and at the gates of Google and Facebook.’
Chomsky was excellent on the existential threat to humanity posed by the ecological crisis and the dead-end of any national solutions to this threat. Scarlett Westbrook was passionate and inspiring. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, was very much in elder statesman role. He looked like a Labour leader in exile surrounded by his international allies.
What is positive about the project?
Its internationalism could not come at a better time with Keir Starmer wrapping himself in as many flags as he can find – though the Tories always seem to find more for their videos, a metaphor perhaps for the hopelessness of Labour trying to ‘out-patriot’ them. The regular appearance of Guardian articles by Labour ‘intellectuals’ imploring Labour to adopt some sort of ‘progressive’ Englishness is another reason for embracing the internationalism shown at this rally. The call made for no property rights on vaccines for Global South countries was a good one.
Activism and campaigning were the bywords of the rally, with viewers urged to sign up to the four campaigning areas outlined by Corbyn. You got the impression that the project sees itself as a super coordinator of existing campaigns, standing above, within, and a bit to the side of them. Mention was made at several points of bringing in ‘experts’ and ‘specialists’. People in the chat identified as both Labour members and as people who had left as a result of the shift away from Corbynism. If the broad campaigning process helps to keep them involved in left politics, this is all to the good.
The mainstream press has picked up on the fact that the project is committed to campaigning against the new Murdoch and other right-wing news media shortly to be established here. Again, this is a pointed rejoinder to Starmer’s eager scramble to get a weekly slot in the Tory Telegraph.
But serious weaknesses …
On the other hand, Corbyn was careful not to square up too directly to the Labour leadership. Len McCluskey did raise the scandalous issue of the whip being removed, but he did not denounce all the suspensions. At one point, there was a coded criticism of Starmer when Corbyn said that if you do not confront the Tories hard enough you will end up weakening the strength of the resistance on your side.
Although he said that ideas for progressive change have come from thinkers in and around the Labour Party, the rally itself placed itself at a distance from the fight inside Labour. There were no specific references to the degeneration of inner-party democracy, nor any clear calling out of the ditching or dilution of the ‘ten pledges’ on which Starmer was elected to the leadership. Nothing really strong to counterpose to the leadership line on keeping schools open, either. It all worked as a bit of a nod and a wink amid broad-left mood music.
Following the thousands of messages in the chat was illuminating. An extraordinary number were like evangelical or gospel refrains back to the speakers, saying simply how much they agreed or how wonderful the speakers were. Of course, this was a much broader audience than for, say, the Zero Covid conference the day before. People needed a boost after the general-election defeat. These are very much the people who had signed up when Corbyn was campaigning for the leadership and then joined Labour when he won, but usually without getting too involved in the party structures.
The project is signing people up for campaigning, but there is no indication that it will become a membership organisation like Momentum. It is not clear how the thousands will participate in the decisions or direction of the project.
The overall political framework is more a top-down Stop the War/Morning Star type set-up. McCluskey, for example, was outraged at the much-publicised reports that the Tories are going to deregulate workers rights following Brexit. But he was very much a Lexit supporter who refused to accept that Brexit was a right-wing project from the start. Another weak point was the absence of disabled people either speaking or in any visuals.
Nevertheless, the Left should be open to this project, and look to work with the thousands of activists it may well keep together.
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.