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On Paul Mason’s ‘Labour’s way ahead’

MasonIn his recent response on Owen Jones’ article ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer‘, James Elliott, while critical of Jones’ approach, took his questions seriously and undertook to address them. He also referred to an essay by Paul Mason (Labour: the way ahead) which is discussed briefly in the notes below. Much ground is covered in this 5000 word piece so this short commentary will only touch on some of the key points.

Mason is trying to help Labour to develop analyses and strategies which, by implication, he sees as missing. The essay is therefore an implicit but positive criticism of the point to which Labour has come in the first year of the new leadership. Mason is clearly not an apologist for the Labour leadership. He disagrees with some of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and even describes the Corbyn leadership as “at times shambolic”. But these criticisms are made in passing and are not at all the focus of the essay.

Overall Mason argues that Labour:

  1. Has now reached a critical mass in terms of membership enabling it to become a social movement which can operate politically in a new way, discarding much of the forms and icons of recent Labour tradition;
  2. Should take the big city educated salariat as its core and work with that to recover the leakage of small-town traditional Labour to UKIP and the Tories;
  3. Must give up tacking to the centre and advance an unambiguously left programme. It can do so because neo-liberalism is a busted flush so that there is no mileage in trying to work according to its nostrums;
  4. Should, following the re-election of Corbyn, make an offer to the PLP of a new modus vivendi including a formal recognition of representation of different wings of the Party in the Shadow Cabinet. The quid pro quo would be a requirement of commitment to Party unity and to policies determined by the members;
  5. Should adopt the politics of progressive alliances and use this to win back former Labour voters who either felt forgotten by Labour or who rejected its conservative stance on a wide range of issues.

He says at the outset that the challenge:

… is to make this leadership campaign the springboard for winning a general election …
[requiring] …an alternative political strategy to the one inherited from Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband.

The real fear of those opposed to Corbyn, Mason says, is that Labour will become

… the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power.

My view is that ditching neo-liberalism is easier said than done and that a real rejection will only have been accomplished when a range of policies, covering all the main policy areas, has been put in place on an alternative basis. But let’s not kid ourselves, these ideas are deeply embedded and so far Labour lacks both the analyses and policies required to present a convincing alternative. Rejecting neoliberalism cannot be reduced to a slogan. It is a massive task still for the most part waiting to be done. However, sometimes Mason seems to confuse statements of intent with detailed policies:

… nobody close to power in Britain actually proposes to break with the economic model of the past 30 years except Corbyn and his shadow chancellor McDonnell.

I think that Mason is right to say of Corbyn’s election “Last year’s victory was too easy: it felt like a bloodless revolution. But they’re never bloodless”. Left-wingers promoted to leadership positions they never expected to hold were caught unawares and ill-prepared. That major problems ensued is hardly surprising.

A “social movement”

Mason believes that Labour becoming a “social movement” is the basis for a new style of politics.

Labour has suddenly become a mass party. It can become, as Corbyn says, a social movement. But this would be something new in Labour politics and therefore difficult to achieve and hold together.

This is now possible he says because anecdotally at least the new activists are young and networked and:

with the double influx of June/July 2016 it also looks like significant numbers are working class, often community activists or trade unionists, people whose voice has authority in their local milieu

and that:

As with Syriza at its height; as with Podemos in some Spanish cities, as with the Bolivian MST before Evo Morales came to power; Labour is close to having an identifiable face in every milieu, in every pub conversation, every workplace, every college lecture, every group of mums with toddlers

Others will say how this looks from their experience. From mine this seems to be in danger of confusing wishful thinking with reality. Mason’s estimate of the potential resistance of the established order also suffers from excessive optimism. He speaks of the Teresa May’s “reincarnation as a zombie Thatcher” and says that faced with any serious opposition May’s government will implode, just as the Cameron administration did after the 2016 Budget fiasco.

Mason should recall his comment about victories that are too easy. If the forces of the left became a real threat to the established order it would be naïve to imagine that ranks would not be closed in its defence.

Alliances

Paul Mason proposes both that Labour should become a more formal alliance of its left and centre components and that Labour should embrace the politics of external alliances which may often, as he says “write their own story” rather than being directed in the traditional party manner. I am sure that there are valid criticisms to be made of those traditions but I missed any careful attempt to evaluate them.

When we say Labour has to become a social movement, it is precisely because 600,000 people cannot be gainfully employed going to ward meetings several hundreds strong, nor properly represented in a CLP delegate structure designed to put 50 people into a room once per month.

To the extent that these old structures remain, the activism will need to happen often beyond them. It could involve Labour members getting involved in campaigns and occupations to save local libraries; or in support of strikes like those of the junior doctors …

Mason praises Podemos for not focussing on Spain’s old left “badge of honour issues” and instead campaigning around issues such as evictions, inequality, and corruption. There is probably something in this but at the same time much of what he recommends (e.g. “fairness, equal rights, anti-racism, a commitment to publicly owned services, to workers rights, … to taxing the rich to pay for services”) sound pretty much like old left “badge of honour” issues to me, and none the worse for that.

There is also an extended discussion on how apparently “unwinnable” constituencies could be won on the basis the changes proposed but space (and lack of expertise) precludes dealing with them here. I hope that others will take such issues up in further discussion articles.

The PLP

What of the current problems of the Parliamentary Labour Party? Mason rejects the idea that all those who signed the motion of no confidence are hopeless backstabbing right-wingers. He says that Gilbert’s view that “the vast majority of the current parliamentary party are just not personally, socially or intellectually suited to the task of representing even a moderately left-wing party” is an “overstatement”.

He says that after the leadership vote it will be vital to reimpose party discipline. All MPs, he says, should be asked if they are prepared to take the Labour whip and to declare their confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. But this, in turn, seems to me to be an overstatement of what is required.

A demand for preparedness to take the whip might seem particularly incongruous coming from Jeremy Corbyn and a statement of confidence in the leader, the like of which Corbyn would probably have been unable to give to previous leaders, also seems misconceived. I take Mason’s general point but suggest that it would be a better tactic to ask the MPs if they will join in a collective effort with the leadership to oppose the Tories and if they accept that policies approved by the membership must provide their framework.

The latter point would, of course make more urgent than ever that the policy process gets underway to have interim policies put in place through the National Policy Forum which itself should become a focus of activity and eventually to have a raft of policies ready for a approval by Annual Conference 2017. Angela Eagle has demonstrated her incompetence as chair of the NPF and should be replaced by someone committed leading a genuine debate among the members on the basis of the provision of high-quality information about the alternative views current in the Party.

MPs unwilling to sign up to a clear commitment to Party unity and to acceptance of a policy framework determined by the members (this goes slightly beyond Mason but is, I think, in the spirit of his proposals) should be deselected using trigger ballots. The Party should draw up an A-list of candidates to replace them.

More discussion required

Mason’s approach is both critical and positive. He believes that the left can secure the direction of Labour and that a left-led Labour can win elections: he says “The Corbyn movement is an expression of hope: that a left-led Labour party can form a government”.

For me Mason covers too much ground too quickly. All the same he puts down a series of stimulating proposals for developing clear strategies and policies. His contribution merits careful attention. I hope that that his ideas (both those I have touched on and those that I have passed over) will get the attention they deserve.

16 Comments

  1. John Walsh says:

    In the Afterword to the piece Mason touches on what could be a very sensitive issue for old left stalwarts – that there are, among the left, opposing conceptions of what constitutes meaningful political activity …

    “Corbyn is a placeholder for creating a different kind of politics, a new strategy and a more radical Labour Party. Possibly the most relevant criticism would be that Corbyn comes from a wing of the left that sees social movements as adjuncts to radical leaders. And there is certainly a danger that in the enthusiasm of mass recruitment Corbyn’s supporters try to win using the classic, old left rhetoric that parties like Podemos and Syriza represent a break from”.

    There might be opposing conception but they’re hardly in competition given the dominance of the top-down (top-table), hierarchical, the leader leads, door knocking and leaflets model. It’s difficult enough to even get people to acknowledge there might be an alternative, never mind actually thinking about it.

  2. John Penney says:

    The key issue, whether considering Mason’s suggestion for a way forward, or indeed David Pavett’s , ie.

    “I take Mason’s general point but suggest that it would be a better tactic to ask the MPs if they will join in a collective effort with the leadership to oppose the Tories and if they accept that policies approved by the membership must provide their framework.

    The latter point would, of course make more urgent than ever that the policy process gets underway to have interim policies put in place through the National Policy Forum ……”

    is what can we expect as the next destructive manoeuver from the hard core Labour Right and their billionaire puppet masters once Jeremy is affirmed as leader on an even bigger mandate.

    To serious imagine that the hard core of the Labour Right will actually settle constructively down to attack the Tories – whilst we all collectively get down to a root and branch reconstruction, significantly to the Left , of Labour’s policy offer, is fantasy .

    There is obviously a large element, possibly a majority, of the PLP, who could be persuaded, coddled and even coerced , grudgingly or willingly, into accepting both Jeremy’s Leadership and the new Left orientation of the Party. Particularly if a newly unified Party continues to secure electoral success.

    A hard core of the Right, however will never settle down to fighting the Tories. They will fight both Jeremy and the new Left direction of the Party to the end. Unless Jeremy and his team, and the CLP memberships seriously take the fight to this hard core of, certainly no more than 30 or so “irreconcileables”, their influence will continue to corrupt and mislead the “soft Left” stooges within the PLP they persuaded to participate in the Coup. Expulsion and deselection by any means possible must be employed against the hard core rebels ASAP. The turmoil caused by a decisive confrontation needs to be brought to the boil as soon after Jeremy’s forthcoming victory as possible – and then the Party can finally move on in a unified way.

    Forever seeking ways to compromise with the hard core of the Right – and buying time via a long policy formulation process – which is actually, stripping away much of the surrounding verbiage, the tactical core of David Pavett’s proposal – is a recipe for permanent destructive sabotage and electoral decline for the Party.

    1. David Pavett says:

      John, if you responded to what I actually wrote rather than to what you think I want to say you might have avoided coming to the ridiculous conclusion that my views (and Paul Mason’s) are “what can we expect as the next destructive manoeuver from the hard core Labour Right and their billionaire puppet masters”. I would have thought that if you stopped even just to listen to yourself before posting you might get a sense of just how daft this is.

      You say “To serious[ly] imagine that the hard core of the Labour Right will actually settle constructively down to attack the Tories – whilst we all collectively get down to a root and branch reconstruction, significantly to the Left , of Labour’s policy offer, is fantasy”. Yes it would be a fantasy. That is why I neither imagined it nor wrote it.

      You suggest that, by contrast, “There is obviously a large element, possibly a majority, of the PLP, who could be persuaded, coddled and even coerced, grudgingly or willingly, into accepting both Jeremy’s Leadership and the new Left orientation of the Party”. That was of course exactly the point Paul Mason made and which I supported in my piece.

      Finally, you say “A hard core of the Right, however will never settle down to fighting the Tories” and that it will be necessary to “take the fight to this hard core of, certainly no more than 30 or so ‘irreconcileables'”. That is exactly my view and I have said so many times.

      It would clear a lot of air and avoid unnecessary arguments, accusations and suspicions if we all judged each other by what we actually say rather than by interpreting what is said on the basis of assumed positions held by the other person. A basic assumption of good faith on the part of those we disagree with would also go a long way.

  3. It would be helpful if colleagues spelt out who they are writing about. Owen Jones we can read in the Guardian. Alas I do not know who Mason or Elliott are, and something of the coterie of insiders exists in this debate which doesn’t bode well for reaching out to ordinary people.

    Trevor Fisher

    1. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, links have been provided to the relevant materials, just click on them. Paul Mason also has frequent articles in the Guardian and elsewhere.

      1. Its not the links that is needed David but who they are. There are few things more offputting in any walk of life than people discussing their inside knowledge. Writing for a journal doesn’t help as they don’t give biographies. There is an elitism of knowing the inside track which in every field makes people who don’t have inside knowledge walk away. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. E P Thompson, the new left historian, is perfectly adequate to describe my old teacher. Nothing less than a phrase though.

        Trevor Fisher

        Trevor FIsher.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Trevor, Paul Mason is a very well known TV and newspaper journalist so I didn’t feel I was appealed to any form of unexplained inside knowledge (which I object to as much as you). There is a Wikipedia article on him.

          James Elliott is Editor of Left Futures (Jon Lansman is said to be busy with other things). He was and perhaps is still a history student at Oxford unuversity. My reference to James required no more than an awareness of the article to which a link was provided.

          I didn’t feel that I needed to provide an explanatory phrase of the sort you suggest but I will consider doing that in future.

  4. Bazza says:

    My faith I think is perhaps with empowering the grassroots to develop policy from our ideas and life experiences and to push these upwards.
    As a left wing democratic socialist I would also argue grassroots left wing democratic socialist members should select left wing democratic socialist Parliamentary candidates next time!
    Every CLP should organise a Saturday Policy Conference in their town or city where members can discuss and agree, amend, or add to ideas and we should harness new technology to involve those who can’t physically get to these events.
    We should explore ideas on housing, the economy, education, environment, defence & international, equality etc. and perhaps JCs 10 policy statements could be the bones on which to perhaps begin to build this process.
    I also believe our policies should be simple, brief (10-12 bullet points each), and written in straightforward language so we communicate with millions.
    Our messages also need to be accessible – to the deaf, blind, carers, all BME groups, LGBT, working class, men and women, Disabled, people with learning disabilities etc.
    It is a skill to say so much in so few words plus perhaps images.
    Perhaps something for the new NEC, Momentum etc. to lead on or perhaps members from below.
    I support JC because I believe he will be an effective anti-Neo Liberal leader and does what many of us feel we would do, and also because I believe he is in tune with being a facilitator for such a process.
    But perhaps some of the “so certain” old left may also have to embrace left wing, grassroots, bottom up, participatory, democratic socialist practice and once they get it they will be fine as I believe we all will be.
    Yours in solidarity!

  5. Richard MacKinnon says:

    The Labour Party used to have a healthy disrespect for the British press and rightly so. It is fascinating therefore to see that within the Labour movement at the present time there are certain journalists, their articles and speeches which are held in such high regard.
    I would recommend a more cautious approach to the 4th estate.
    Journalists such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason may proclaim their Labour roots and strong affiliations but their first priority is always going to be selling newspapers and books. That is what they are measured by.
    Journalists all like the money that comes with the job but there is another reward that only certain of their profession seek, that is the cult of celebrity.
    How do you achieve celebrity status? It suits a successful journalist to be seen as radical or controversial. Controversy leads to well paid gigs on TV. An appearance on Sunday Politics or The Daily Politics show pays very well, it may even offer the chance to push a new book.
    Labour should look out for controversial journalists. Beware the preferred tool for the creation of controversy ‘the change of opinion’, as, for example, I used to support C but I have ‘changed my opinion’ and now I support S. This trick can give a journalist a great opportunity to wring every last ounce out of a story that many other journalists thought was dead last week. It can start a dead story running again. The journalist that has a ‘change of opinion’ can write miles of copy about why they changed their mind. Why C has become a liability or why S is clearly better than C in so many important ways which will be explained by said journalist on Newsnight at 1030 on BBC2.
    Honest party members and supporters might feel betrayed when this kind of professional hypocrisy is eventually realised but to the journalist this matters not one bit because as I say their measurement of success is sales figures and the being a bit of a cult.

    1. John Walsh says:

      I wonder if it’s possible to file your comment under ‘conspiracy theorists’? A number of commenters here have been trained in the art of reading, comprehending and evaluating, for example through the medium of a PhD. That’s not to be elitist as some are very much working class people who happen to have had the opportunity to interrogate their interests through an (admittedly, free) university education. The point is that someone like Jones or Mason may not have any power over readers, who may simply read some of what they write and sometimes feel that it warrants criticism. As such, ‘honest party members’ will not necessarily feel ‘betrayed’ when/if Jones or Mason write something they don’t agree with – they could simply not agree with it. The ‘cult’ claim is interesting and feels a little like being called a cultist by right wingers at Branch meetings (for the crime of supporting Corbyn) – i.e. the ‘cult’ allegation is clearly based in misunderstanding. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, please, can we be allowed a little more respect?

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        John,
        You can file me any where you want. I have you filed under double I ‘ incomprehensible and incoherent’.
        And no, there will be no respect shown until you start and try at a decent attempt to reply to plain honest questions.

        1. John Walsh says:

          … that seems very harsh. I’m trying to be decent and voted leave – could you file me under double o (either ‘gauge’ or ‘7’)?

          1. Richard MacKinnon says:

            OK

  6. Karl Stewart says:

    “…and the being a bit of a cult.”

    Spot on in the case of the boy Jones!

  7. john Reid says:

    I’ve heard this wally wants to contest Burnhams seat, have mercy!

  8. John P Reid says:

    Take control of what exactly, an old folks home

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