2016 05 – Life of a Labour Activist

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

by Michael Murray 

A dictionary definition of “foot soldier” “…a dedicated low level follower… one who performs necessary, mundane tasks…”

We are watching history in the making, or, at the very least, a substantial footnote in the story of the British Labour movement is in the process of being written.

And that is what has inspired me to start this diary just six months into the Corbyn-led Labour Party. I rejoined the party during the joyously cathartic political summer of 2015, in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for reclaiming the Labour Party as the change agent it was intended to be by its founders. But, more than that: what really changed my mind about the Labour Party was following on the social media the response of the hundreds of thousands up and down the country to the Corbyn message. The wonderful, celebratory, pageant staged by the north of England city of Newcastle in what looked like a sumptuous late Victorian music hall, or theatre, especially grabbed me, ending, as it did, in a mass rendition of Labour’s old anthem, the Red Flag.  At that moment, I thought, if the Corbynist Labour Party is good enough for those people, it ought to be good enough for me.

I had left London at an historic moment in Labour’s history, to take up a post in the Irish Congress of Trades Unions:  that was the emergence of the “Gang of Four” who at the end of 1981 had split away from the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party (the SDP).

Forgotten now, perhaps, all three sitting Islington MPs came out in support of the SDP. One of them, John Grant, was our MP in Islington Central. Indeed, I was one of his 10 Statutory Sponsors – not that he came to me, the other Sponsors, or the local Party, to tell us about his change of heart. We had to read that in the papers. But, what’s new ?  Most MPs (or Irish TDs) see the members, yes, as “foot soldiers,” a mixture of electioneering fodder and admiration society. But I know Jeremy Corbyn is better than that.

My last political action in the Labour Party before returning to Ireland was helping to distribute a leaflet explaining the Party’s reaction to the SDP and John Grant’s defection. Grant is mentioned here, because, after a redrawing of constituency boundaries in 1983  which dissolved Islington Central constituency, he stood in the newly constituted Islington North for the SDP and was soundly beaten. Also well beaten was the Tory candidate  – and the original Islington North Labour MP, London’s own “Tammany Hall” operator, Michael O’Halloran, who stood in the 1983 election as Independent Labour. And the poll-topper in that bitterly fought three-way contest was – Jeremy Corbyn. And the rest, as they say, is history. (1)

 

Harriet Harman sent me a letter welcoming me as a returning member, which came as a surprise given that I had been out of the party since 1982, though having been an active member in the Islington Central Canonbury Branch for a number of years before that. Of course, tens of thousands of those letters were sent out to people who had exited the party in the previous decades, increasingly disillusioned with Blairite neo-liberal politics “lite” and Labour’s role in the Iraq war.

I returned to London less than three years ago, after 27 years as a trade union official, having lived through the sometimes frustrating, mostly exhilarating, always fulfilling roller coaster ride that was the history of modern Ireland from 1982 to 2009, when I retired.

I never saw myself rejoining the Labour Party – because I believe the party, after Iraq especially, has blood on its hands. And since returning to London, I’m like a child in a sweetshop, frankly. The scale of London offers so much to meet my interests in theatre, photography, music – and languages, including Irish, the more indulgent pleasures of cooking and eating out offered by a multi-ethnic city – not forgetting England’s crowning glory a revived brewing tradition offering a limitless range of great beers.

But there was a hole in my life, a vacuum, after the intense experience of living through the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger as part of the Irish trade union movement that was central to it. Two ICTU officials, Paul Sweeney and David Beggs, both majorly involved, have written about that period. (2a.2b) So, I joined the “Stop the War “movement.(3)  And the Cooperative Party.(4)

In  “Stop the War” I crossed paths with Jeremy Corbyn, then Chairman. At a distance I admired his combination of work rate, dedication, leadership style  – and modesty.

The word “trust” is the one that comes to mind when I’m asked my opinion of him. And I do trust him to do the best job he can, or that he’s allowed to. I can see people around him in the party that may be more clever or experienced, but not many I’d invest my trust in as confidently.

I had my first one-to-one conversation with Jeremy since rejoining the Labour Party at a fund raising breakfast in a local Kurdish restaurant. It was a purely social chat, a bit of banter around his curiosity at coming across a Paddy in the middle of all the Kurds, many in traditional costume. I explained I had been invited by a long term Kurdish friend and Labour Party activist, the event organizer. For the crack (and attention seeking, I suppose) I hit him with some colloquial Mexican Spanish, knowing he was married to a Mexican woman. My Spanish, the “cupla focail,” as we say in Irish, “the few words” to pass yourself off in a language, comes from having a son living in Mexico and three Irish-Mexican grandchildren.

The next time we met he’d taken over as Labour Party Leader. We discovered our paths had crossed before – in the Institute for Workers’ Control (5) in the 1970s. We were immediately involved in talking about people from the IWC we both knew. We talked about the demise of the movement for industrial democracy after the rejection of the Bullock Report (6), about Coates and Topham, the IWC founders. And we talked about Mike Cooley, another prominent IWC member, a recent reprint of whose book “The Architect and the Bee,” with foreword by TUC’s Frances O’Grady (7) I was carrying at the time.

I had it with me because I’d just attended a “Stop the War” meeting earlier preparing for an anti-Trident demonstration and wanted people to be aware of the book and its author. Mike Cooley, a world renowned pioneering Software Engineer, was the Convenor at arms manufacturers Lucas Aerospace and fought for skilled workers to put their talents to use making socially useful products and services, not death-dealing weaponry. The book’s importance, I felt, was that certain union leaders had been arguing against Jeremy’s anti-Trident stand on the grounds that it would reduce employment and they ought to be reminded there was an alternative. Of course, I’d met Mike Cooley in England but meeting him in Dublin, in the company of two former fellow apprentices from the Tuam-based semi-state Irish Sugar Co was special. (8)

To go back to Jeremy: those brief encounters with him mentioned above reassure me my trust in him will not be abused and my modest contribution as a willing foot-soldier not wasted. I am not the only one who thinks like that.

Within four months of Jeremy’s election and after sustained Labour MPs’ unpreparedness to accept the democratic mandate over that time, making life difficult for the leader and seriously threatening a split, The Guardian published the results of an extensive survey of Labour’s grass roots membership. (9)

It found: “overwhelming support for him (Corbyn), a decisive shift to the left and unhappiness with squabbling amongst MPs. Almost every constituency party… reported  a doubling, trebling, quadrupling or even quintupling membership, and a revival of branches that had been moribund for years and close to folding.”  

According to Labour Party head office figures, the total full membership almost doubled between May 2015 and January 2016 – the period covering Jeremy’s election campaign and his fraught early days in office. And, in the light of accusations that Jeremy does not appeal to the wider society, and is “unelectable” for the job of PM, the Guardian survey showed the burgeoning of membership to have also occurred in the more traditional non-Labour constituencies.

To my mind the most significant stat of all is that between the12th September election of Jeremy and Christmas Eve, 87,158 had joined and 8,567 left (including ‘natural turnover’ with only 3,875 recorded resignations). If that isn’t a ringing endorsement of Corbyn’s leadership, what is? The increased revenue from new member subscriptions is also something for which Corbyn should get the credit.

The Guardian notes an up to now commonplace assessment of Corbyn in his new role: “He’s a wonderful individual but not a potential Prime Minister.”  We’ve all heard that one, inside and outside the Labour Party. I can’t help feeling there’s an element of recidivist deference in that attitude. He’s not a potential PM because the main line media and its rich backers say so. But that has the potential to change as he grows into the job of Labour Party Leader– as he seems to be doing.

The Guardian concludes: “Overall…support for Corbyn at grass roots level suggests he will eventually prevail in his battle with the Parliamentary Labour Party or if there was to be an attempted coup.”  How does that tally with my experience of the “Corbyn factor” at local Labour Party  level?

My branch is in Hackney and Stoke Newington. It’s a neighbouring constituency to Jeremy’s Islington North with a Jeremy supporter, Diane Abbott, as the MP. The branch grew by about 300 members in the period under discussion. There have been some resignations directly attributable to Jeremy’s electoral success. Others are clearly staying on in the hope that Jeremy comes a cropper and things can revert to “normal,” whatever that might be. Only a handful of the new membership have appeared at the branch or taken an active interest in the canvassing and leafleting that’s taken place over the time I’ve been a member. The branch see this as a challenge and accept it may be a reflection on how much we need to change to hold on to these new members and fully engage with them.

Though the Branch is caught up at the moment in the London Mayoral and Assembly elections, thought is being put into better use of social media for organizational purposes. The branch’s ongoing political educational programme is, likewise, suspended until after the elections.

This was initiated separate from, but is in line with, the Labour Party’s “New Economics” educational programme launched last January by John McDonnell with left-leading economists, like Nobel Prizewinner, Joseph Stiglitz, kicking off. Details of this ground-breaking initiative, and how to access it free via YouTube is at note(10). Of course, the work of the councillors, in consultation with the branch,  goes on too.

Taking on board the “attitudinal,” or qualitative aspect of The Guardian survey as well as my own gut feeling, I’d say the Branch level activism I’ve described is generally true for Labour Party branch life elsewhere.

We have to see ourselves as at the beginning of a long learning curve if we are to get beyond Labour’s identity crisis, post-Blairism and develop a socialist alternative that is relevant, viable and electable.

In the meantime, a branch colleague, neighbour and local Labour councillor has just dropped off another box of London Mayoral election leaflets to distribute. Ah, the life of the put-upon foot soldier. I suppose I could get excused boots. But then I’d only be depriving myself of access to a free exercise machine. And participating in history.

Facebook address: Michael Murray  (London)

 

References:

(1) 1983 Islington North election results: Corbyn, Labour 14,951. Coleman, Conservative 9,344. Grant SDP 8,268. O’Halloran, Ind Labour 4,091 (two other candidates only scraped 300 odd votes between them)

(2a) Paul Sweeney  (SIPTU/ICTU official):“The Celtic Tiger: Irish Economic Miracle Explained,” 1999.

(2b) David Begg (Irish Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary, former GS of (Irish) Communication Workers’ Union: “Small Open Economies and European Integration,” 2016.

(3) For more information/events/publications: www.stopwar.org.uk

(4) The Cooperative Party works in partnership with the Labour Party .There are 25 Labour & Coop MPs and other reps operating at local government level: www.party.coop

(5) Ken Coates and Tony Topham founded the Institute for Workers’ Control in 1968 to promote the idea of industrial democracy in the trade union movement. They published lots of stuff and in 2005 an earlier encyclopedic work was reprinted: “Readings and Witnesses for Workers’ Control,” Spokesman Books.

(6) Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Industrial Democracy, 1977

(7) “Architect or Bee?” The human Price of Technology,” 1980, 2016. This book has been translated into 5 languages and is currently being translated in Chinese.

 “A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of its cells; but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is namely this.

“The architect will construct in his imagination that which he will ultimately erect in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get that which existed in the consciousness of the labourer at its commencement.”  Marx, Capital.

(8) Mike Cooley began his working life as an apprentice in the Irish Sugar Company, Tuam plant, Galway. Two of his fellow apprentices were Mick Brennan, General Secretary of the Plumbers’ Union, and later the TEEU, the world renowned playwright, Tom Murphy was another colleague in Irish Sugar. The three met on a regular basis in Dublin and it was my privilege and pleasure to be present at one of those get-togethers.  And what mighty crack they were together. Like characters from one of Tom Murphy’s own plays –  but not the dark “Whistle in the Dark,” his best known play.

(8) The Guardian: “Revealed: How Jeremy Corbyn has reshaped the Labour Party” 13th January, 2016.

(9) “The New Economics,”  www.labour.org.uk   a full set of videos varying in length from around 25 minutes to an hour and half.  Ideal for individual or labour local branch viewing and discussion. They were taped at public, Labour sponsored meetings, around the country from January of this year.

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