Selma James: On Winning with Corbyn

When Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was anti-austerity, overnight he began to attract thousands who then joined Labour to vote for him as leader of the party. Some who had left in disgust at Blair’s deadly wars rejoined. Membership doubled, becoming a political force. This was entirely unexpected, like an earthquake. It upset the whole structure of the party hierarchy and alarmed the Parliamentary Labour Party who had never experienced such pressure from the public. Labour MPs, like every three-year-old, had to learn to share – in this case share power with the membership. It was a first. Most hadn’t become MPs for that!

That was the beginning of the end of credibility for MPs who had been careful not to go ‘too far’ that is, from the Tories: against cuts, privatisation and war. They had been trained by Tony Blair to make policy on the basis of what the media, and Murdoch in particular, would find acceptable. If we bear this in mind, we may be shocked to realise that Murdoch and the 1% he speaks for were governing through Blair-led MPs. Who in fact was involved in making the decisions on policy we don’t know but it was not ad hoc.

Our movement has thrown a wrench into the Blair legacy which had never been fully confronted til now.

Corbyn’s principled policies are based on an updated welfare state properly funded and workers’ and other human rights defended internationally. All of this we have been told is outdated and a throwback practically to cave men. But in fact we never stopped believing in it, the proof is that people came running when it was offered. It was new only to a generation which has never experienced the welfare state as it was before Thatcher. That welfare state had given us the right not to starve and never to have to beg. You were not demonised as a scrounger if you asked for help, it was your right. Despite many injustices, it was better than what we had known and have known since. It was won by the post-war working class movement, people who had defeated Hitler and would not settle for less.

What is really new in what Corbyn proposes is how the public and the party should relate. The leadership that came forward from the campaign to get Corbyn elected created Momentum, a kind of transmission belt between the party and the wider movement, an attempt to begin to involve the public in decision-making.

Not all the MPs who oppose Corbyn are Blairites, but they and their backers (who are they?) prioritise making policies that win elections for themselves and their outside interests, rather than for their constituents. So 172 MPs, without ever mentioning what Corbyn stands for or what they think of it, opposed him with a secret vote of no confidence (one later rejoined the shadow cabinet and was welcomed back). They say he can’t win elections, despite him having won a number which they had tried to sabotage (including with wild charges of widespread anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – they are beholden to Israeli help, but this is another story). They failed to distract voters, and Labour mayors were elected in Bristol, Liverpool, London and Salford. Corbyn & co were particularly proud of a Black mayor in Bristol, which had been a major slave trade port.

On 10 July, Andrew Marr asked Jeremy Corbyn “Is the victory of the left inside the Labour Party more important than winning the next general election?” Corbyn answered “What’s most important is to change how politics is done in this country.”

Marr’s question assumed that Corbyn had to choose between his principles and winning elections. But principles and winning are one with the Corbyn movement. That’s what that movement has glimpsed and is excited by.

Corbyn and McDonnell have told us over and over that the population must be involved in making policy otherwise nothing can change. There is a way in which we always knew that but it seemed a fantasy when you looked at our reality. What Corbyn calls “the new politics” has now brought membership of the Labour Party to half a million, and growing every day. The MPs are frantically trying to destroy this movement which they take as their enemy.

We have been trained, especially in the last four decades, to believe that we cannot change the economic and political framework, that we have to accept it no matter how blatant the lies and the life-threatening policies based on them. This has damaged us in ways we’ll be discovering as we reclaim our own experience – it is not only the policies which attack us; we also lose the habit of insisting on the truth about our own reality. We hold back from spelling out what we know best because it has been so much work to go against the official tide.

We have been divided on gender, on race, on nationality, on age, on disability, on sexual preference, on income, on immigration status, on parenting, on religion, on prison record, on every conceivable aspect of our lives. Our education system teaches us from the earliest age to compete with each other. Building a movement we find out what power we can generate together. We finally begin to grasp that nobody wants less, needs less, or deserves less than anybody else. We can refuse to compete.

Since we have come together even this far, we have brought on our movement the wrath of the whole establishment. Those professing democracy are appalled when they finally see it coming into action. Can this democracy win? It had better.