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What might Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘social movement’ look like?

Jeremy CorbynTime and again, as interviewers repeatedly thrust the issue of Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent unelectability in his face like a pet owner forcing their dog to keep looking at the mess it’s just made on the carpet, he has insisted that Labour “must become a social movement again”.

To most Corbynites, this is an obvious truth. Labour’s link with the trade unions must be re-strengthened, its neoliberal leaders changed, and the hierarchical structures that encourage career politics smashed into the dust.

This is OK, so far as it goes, but it is a mistake to believe that Labour can simply return to a nostalgic vision of its former glory, with the trade unions providing legions of working people to fight collectively for a socialist future. The unions are numerically weak, and they could be even weaker before the year is out. Not only that, but the recent Tube strike seems to have proved that they’re mildly despised by a lot of the country.

While the link with trade unions will always be important to the Labour Party, becoming a social movement in the 21st century is about far more than that. For Corbyn’s Labour to win in 2020, it would have to mobilize large numbers of non-voters across the country. How can it accomplish this? Fortunately, there’s a political party just north of Hadrian’s Wall, which, in the recent General Election, did just that.

There was a combination of factors behind the recent surge in political engagement in Scotland, and from a growing sense of Scottish identity to a widespread opposition to austerity to the development of grassroots campaigning, they all seem to stem from an essential disillusionment with a Westminster elite that eventually came overwhelmingly to be perceived as acting in its own interests and in the interests of England, at the expense of the Scots.

This disillusionment led many in Scotland to reject both the offers coming out of London and opt for the SNP. Will there be the same scale of disillusionment with politics in England in 2020? And if there is, can Labour escape it, and even exploit it?

It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to suggest that there is already a groundswell of anger at mainstream politics and politicians in England. If any evidence is needed for what is anecdotally an undeniable phenomenon, just look at the incredible success of UKIP, the only credible anti-establishment party in England. One would like to suppose that such a powerful anti-establishment political movement would have done even better than 3.9m votes had it not a) been filled with members of the establishment and b) been widely perceived as unapologetically racist. Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who can draw on the support of the increasingly numerous politician-haters.

As the public sector is further stripped back, disillusionment with the Westminster elite cannot help but grow. But the first crucial factor will be the potentially explosive EU referendum. If the way the Tories (and Labour) treated Yes voters in Scotland is anything to go by, anyone with concerns about the EU will be patronized, criticized, and terrified into voting the way David Cameron wants them to. If Labour has learned anything, it will not reprise its ‘Red Tories’ rôle; if not, it will lose even more votes to nationalism and UKIP.

The Scottish referendum engaged so many people because it had the potential to affect everyone in the country in a fairly clear-cut way (if you ignore the various untruths being spun by both campaigns in the lead-up to voting). Exactly the same could be said of the upcoming European referendum. The Scottish referendum brought up questions of sovereignty and national identity, and linked them to the austerity politics being peddled by both major Westminster parties. Similarly, there is a widespread feeling in Britain that our laws should not be influenced by Brussels, and after the Greek crisis the EU is now inextricably associated with the imposition of austerity.

There is an opportunity here for Labour to tie together the Conservatives and the EU as anti-democratic cutters, and paint themselves as the party that listens to people’s concerns, and fights for them. That doesn’t mean throwing its weight behind the Out campaign, but it does mean that the Labour Party should entertain the notion that anti-EU sentiment could stem from genuine fears about our democratic sovereignty. The British are, after all, democrats at heart, and hate the thought that their future might be out of their own hands.

Corbyn’s Labour could use the EU referendum as part of a wider five-year campaign to build the kind of grassroots support that would enable a left-wing party to defeat the right-wing press. With the referendum, and Corbyn’s other populist policies, Labour could again become a social movement. That would mean stimulating debate – on the streets of Lincoln, Ipswich, and Wolverhampton, not just in Islington and Holborn – not about the economic viability of spending cuts, or the true source of wealth creation, but about cornerstone issues like sovereignty, fairness, and equality.

By connecting with people up and down the country, online and in person, Labour can start a national conversation that asks bigger and better questions than “how will you pay for that?” such as “what is government for?”, “where ought power to reside?”, and “what kind of society do we want to create?” These are 21st century politics, for an increasingly clued-in and plugged in population.

Let the Conservatives keep the politics of fear and division. The next ten years will see those strategies slip into irrelevance if the country is offered a genuine alternative. The people of Britain have almost had enough. We’re ready for something different.


  1. swatantra says:

    That ‘link’ with the Unions is an albatross around the neck of Labour; they have a role to play but it must not be exaggerated

    1. John P Reid says:

      I’m all for getting rid of left right labels, but if they pay money,and even that should be only if they obey the rules, top hen they have a right to influence

  2. Verity says:

    The Labour Party in general seemed to have missed this central point about opposition to the EU as being a basis for a social (and civil force across Europe). The Labour establishment were so blinded by the ‘EU’ (by which they curiously called the ‘Europe’) as if it was some sought of liberating force for workers’ rights. Unfortunately there is still some Labour party residue belief that the UK contribution has any prospect of real reform to this 28 nation consortium. One effect of creating a 28 nation block is that you can average out any real prospect for change. A remaining detachment of Labour from further working class support remains its ambiguity about the EU.

  3. Ric Euteneuer says:

    I think it is somewhat generous to refer to the SNP and co. as a ‘social movement’, rather a coalition of convenience.

    It’s also unduly generous to the Scottish independence campaign which, whilst exhibiting *some* of the characteristics outlined above, also displayed (not outlined here) petty nationalism of the worse kind, including threats of violence and vandalism. Did the “No” campaign carry out any of the latter ? No.

    Critics of the union link miss the point of the party entirely. If you want a centre left party with no union links, by all means go and join the Lib Dems. Meanwhile I (and thousands of others like me) are happy and proud to be a union members and Labour Party members and see no contradiction or conflict of interests in being so.

  4. Mervyn Hyde says:

    People are looking for answers to the problems facing all of us, why should we be diverted to answer question the public are not raising, Unions must be defended, whilst acknowledging that Unions are not in the forefront of peoples minds?

    the Union bogy man is quite simple to put down, Thatcher has held back union activism and continued with the following governments, but the unions did not cause the crash, neither did they cause the so called deficit problem, so why is it necessary to crush them further?

    We have five more years to counter the lies and propaganda of the right and the more the right challenge the more exposed they become.

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