Thursday, 22 September 2022 10:12

Right Red Reads for Labour Party Conference 2022

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Right Red Reads for Labour Party Conference 2022

The Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci described his ambition for a political party as the party itself becoming an 'organic intellectual.'  This was no elitist project, I have my own home-made Gramscian maxim: 'not all intellectuals are academics, not all academics are intellectuals.' Ouch!

Could Labour or Labourism ever fulfil Gramsci's ambition? Mmm. This requires both a party culture that is bottom-up, drawing on ideas and experiences every bit as much from below as from above – the world of special advisers and thinktanks. But it also requires critical thinking, a willingness to question the status quo. A willingness which is notably absent from any Labour discourse in the last ten days of ‘national mourning’ – period to be topped off by Labour opening conference not belting out the words of The Red Flag, The Internationale or Jerusalem but 'long to reign over us, happy and glorious’.

Two lines that express English (I use the term advisedly) subjecthood and are accepted uncritically by Labourism. So is all hope lost? On the fringes of conference The World Transformed Festival and the launch of the Compass Win as One campaign suggests there are at least some signs that Gramsci's concept of the party as an 'organic intellectual' isn't entirely dead.

To help nourish this hope, a heap of books are published every September, or thereabouts. They are mostly of a broadly Labour orientation, looking forward to the Labour version of 'what is to be done' (with apologies to Lenin) rather than as in previous years’ themes of 'what did we do wrong'. Agree or disagree with the conclusions, these are books designed to set readers thinking.

a murray

A kind of companion volume to his last book The Fall and Rise of  the British Left (published for the 2019 Labour Conference, after which 'rise' most definitely changed to 'fall') Andrew Murray's Is Socialism Possible in Britain? Reflections on the Corbyn Years is a critical read. Murray loses patience with Corbyn's indecision and caution, most of all on Brexit. He sees the backing of a second referendum as central to the 2019 defeat.

Murray was one of a triumvirate of key advisers to Corbyn, alongside Seumas Milne and Steve Howell, with a political background connected to traditions like the Communist Party, and his wide-ranging critique displays a thoughtfulness and openness to alternative views that this tradition wasn't exactly renowned for. However, since the overwhelming majority of Labour members were and are anti-Brexit, and in 2019 backed the second referendum option, this suggests that a 'politics from below' still has some way to go. As for answering the question 'Is socialism possible in Britain' most readers will surely answer, for good or ill, that's one 'ism' which is unlikely to be promised in the next Labour manifesto.

The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right by Oliver Eagleton attempts to explain the meaning for the shift from Corbynism to Starmerism via a potted political biography of Sir Keir. The book is certainly rich in well-researched detail, much of it previously unpublished and with the kind of details that Sir Keir would probably prefer remained unpublished. But the narrative is framed by a politics that borders on the conspiracist - there's this bloke called Starmer, he's not what he seems, he's fooled a lot of people and this needs to be exposed. Such a narrative writes off the reasons he won the leadership election, why so many who'd backed Jeremy - 60% is one reliable estimate - switched to Keir. The relative acquiescence by Labour to the shift to the right cannot be explained by a conspiracy. And Labour's prospects at the next General Election can't be accounted either simply by a yearning for the return of Corbynism.

b schneider

With Our Bloc: How We Win James Schneider attempts, via an extended polemic, something different. Citing Gramsci, Stuart Hall and Chantal Mouffe on hegemony and populism is a good start. However, the link between theory and practice tends to get lost in establishing the correctness of James' argument. A 'bloc' that extends beyond, but doesn't reject parliamentary socialism is absolutely correct. But I lost count of the number of times James said X, Y, Z  could do this, or that, for such a bloc to materialise but not much about either 'how'  or 'why' in the past initiatives such as Enough is Enough haven't become the kind of bloc of James describes. Perhaps this time it will be different? 

c chessum

Though the points of disagreement may be marginal to all but those most immersed in the marginalia of the left, Michael Chessum comes to the subject of the Labour Party with a different approach to Andrew Murray, Oliver Eagleton and James Schneider, who broadly share the same perspective on the Corbyn-Starmer shift. This is Only The Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to The Fall of Corbyn is Michael's hugely impressive testament to the point of this disagreement. 

In the first half of his argument, he locates the core of Corbynism's support generationally in the anti-tuition fees movement of 2010-11 and after, the period when Paul Mason famously declared Whyit’s all kicking off everywhere. In the second half Michael connects this ferment to both the rise, and fall, of Corbynism. Shorn of conspiracism, full of depth and an understanding why the fact Labour members, including the 'kicking off' generation, are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit but not Remain dupes either, this is a must-read. What a shame then that it’s not a mass-market cheap paperback, and instead an expensive £20 hardback: a massive missed opportunity by the publisher.

d phipps

Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn  by Mike Phipps can almost be read as a companion, 'oldie version' to This is Only the Beginning. Mike's book deals in greater depth with the 'what happens next' which is the shortest section in Michael's, and all the better for it. No wild-eyed party romantic, Mike is in it for the long haul, with a powerful indictment of the flunking-out position. This is the politics that Murray, Eagleton and Schneider reject, personified by John McDonnell. Whether the space remains for such a left is an open question but Mike Phipps gives us the grounds for its possibility. And as an added bonus, the publisher chose a cheap(ish) paperback price of £13.   

Two books take a very different, and most compelling, approach to exploring the current state of Labour, both written by Labour candidates in the 2019 General Election (spoiler alert: neither won. Ali Milani The Unlikely Candidate: What Losing an Election Taught Me about How to Change Politics is Ali's account of his campaign to unseat  Boris Johnson in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Targeted by Momentum as a winnable seat, the campaign was both high profile and enjoyed considerable activist support. Winnable? If only! Defeated but unbowed, Ali weaves his experience into a portrayal of what the transformation of Labour into a community based, practical activism-led Labour Party would look like.

e durose

If Uxbridge might have seemed winnable Brentwood and Ongar was off the scale, a safe and solid Tory seat. Oly Durose came a very distant, second for Labour in 2019 but it spurred him to write a fascinatingly original book, Suburban Socialism (or Barbarism). 'Blue Wall' seats are where Labour and the Liberal Democrats, despite losing, did proportionately better than elsewhere. Oly has unearthed a new battle ground – suburbia. Too late for his own campaign, yet much informed by it, he mixes national identity, economic unrealities, Mark Fisher's 'capitalist realism' and more to summon 'suburban socialism' into existence. 

f poblet burnham

Both books draw on the Bernie Sanders campaign for inspiration. To win Democrat primaries against all odds house by house, street by street, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood all the way up to the Democrat Presidential nomination, almost. Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum and Maria Poblet examines this model of highly localised organising with hugely radical purpose that has a rootedness in the US left which is mostly absent over here. 

Disruption and transformation

But to effect change, from the local to the global, means Labour needs policies that disrupt and transform the current consensus, which has been constructed by policing the boundaries of possibility. The growing plight of 'Generation Rent' exists outside of that consensus. Vicky Spratt's Tenants puts that right.

h hassan

The current basis of the British state, the Union, is an absolute pillar of consensus politics. Yet independence is a huge issue in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales too. But in England, by far the most populous of the three nations on this island, it scarcely figures except as a 'coalition of chaos' scare story. Labour, outside of parts of the Welsh party, supports the consensus, often through the politics of wilful omission. Thus, when Labour chooses to 'wrap itself in the flag' it is the Union Jack – England's St George, the Scottish Saltire, and the Welsh Dragon remain unwrapped, and the party doesn’t care what impact this has in Scotland, Wales and indeed England. To help correct Labour Unionism, Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence from the Scottish political commentator Gerry Hassan should be required reading for every Labour conference delegate and a major session at The World Transformed – but we all know it won't be, as a result Unionist Labour in Scotland trundles on towards self-destruction.

Debate at conference is as carefully stage-managed as the leadership can get away with. Meanwhile the fringe strictly divides itself into the right and the left, dialogue next to non-existent, with pluralism a dirty word for both sides. It’s an unhealthy political culture. Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy provides a portent of what a Labour Party rooted in dialogue and pluralism might look and feel like. Despite being under-resourced and with a bog-standard design, Renewal is full of heterodox and original writing on Labour's identity. This year alone the politics of coalition and the Conservatives' political economy were treated with a depth and rigour unheard of in the rest of Labour's left media. It’s published quarterly, with much of it free to download too and supplemented by a blog. Subscribe here.  

Bit by bit an alternative to Starmerism is emerging, and any optimism lies with this coming almost entirely from a new generation of the left. The Labour Right have the numbers – and don't they know it – but for ideas all eyes swing leftwards.

i buller

Two very different books absolutely prove my point. Owning The Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis, co-authored by Adrienne Buller and Matthew Lawrence (respectively Director of Research and Director at the Common Wealth thinktank) could pretty much be the basis for the next Labour manifesto of our dreams. Beveridge, Keynes and Cripps are rewritten, updated, and transformed, with a bit of 21st century Bevan thrown in. Vital, because without Labour addressing the role of the state and public ownership in reversing four and a half decades worth of neoliberalism triumphant, what would a Labour victory amount to in 2024? A very welcome defeat of the Tories on the basis of the lowest expectations imaginable?

j gilbert

If Adrienne and Matthew raise our expectations to the policies of the possible, Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams' Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (and How We Win It Back) do the same with the politics of the possible. Power and agency, a strategy towards effecting radical change via the broadest coalition of support imaginable, the breadth of support being an organic part of that process – this is what Jeremy and Alex describe.  

I started with Gramsci and so it seems fitting to finish with Gramsci too. It was in the 1980s, via Stuart Hall and the magazine Marxism Today in particular, that Gramsci’s ideas about the war of position and hegemony achieved a purchase on parts of the Left. It is the measure of Jeremy and Alex's achievement that they have managed to reinvent this most creative of left intellectual legacies for an entirely new generation, scarred by the consequences of the failure of these ideas to become a majoritarian left tendency the last time. Better luck next time?

Whether in Liverpool for Labour Conference or observing with interest, Owning the Future and Hegemony Now provide the signposts for a Left equipped to help shift despair to hope, and in the process prepare ourselves for the two years until the 2024 General Election.

Note No links in this review are to Amazon. Please avoid buying from corporate tax dodgersMark Perryman is an events organiser for Lewes CLP. Their next event, with Adrienne Buller and Gerry Hassan, is Building Blocs: A Day of Ideas to Dismantle the Blue Wall. Details and tickets here.

Read 1319 times Last modified on Thursday, 22 September 2022 10:41