2017 02 – Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier  (No 8)

By Michael Murray 

A dictionary definition of “foot soldier” “…a dedicated low level follower.”

In this issue:

  • “Pity the land”
  • “The Sound of Silence”
  • Business as usual

(1)“Pity the land”

Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” is one of my all-time favourite plays. Most readers will know the historical context: the Catholic Church’s “Compliance Unit,” out to force Galileo, under pain of death, to recant his scientific views held to be in direct conflict with the Church’s teachings. There is a scene where Galileo’s “Momentum” supporters are gathered outside the Court in a Rome square to witness an historic victory of reason over faith, of science over received scriptural teachings, of the individual intellect and conscience over the Institution of the Holy Roman Church. A column of white smoke, at a given hour, will signal that Galileo has recanted.  The hour arrives and no smoke issues. They begin to celebrate, in a hesitant, restrained way at first, but, as time passes gradually reaching a frenzy. And then comes the white smoke. Galileo, their hero, to save his own life, has recanted. In the silence that follows one character emerges from the silent assembly and says: “Pity the land that has no heroes.”  Then, after a long, charged pause another character is heard to say: “Pity the land that needs heroes.”

So it feels in the Labour Party at this juncture. Owen Smith’s constant refrain in the second leadership contest was, I’m paraphrasing: “It’s not that I disagree with Jeremy’s socialism. I just don’t think he’s the person to lead us to achieving it.”  In this dissembling way he, and other Corbyn challengers and critics attempt to evade spelling out a political vision as comprehensive and coherent as the one Corbyn, with the helping hand of John McDonnell – let’s give due credit – put before us in the hustings. And let me say again here: all the  elaboration of a new anti-austerity policy are still up on Facebook for those to see who have been led to believe Corbyn hasn’t two coherent thoughts to rub together.

But for me the epitome of the dearth of an alternative political vision in the Labour Party was the late, un-lamented Tristram Hunt’s verdict on Labour’s loss in the 2015 General Election. He said, in a radio interview, the party had failed to appeal to the Waitrose and John Lewis customer, and the aspiring customer, making his attempted populist “analysis” sound even more pathetic. I thought: this from the man, who, as an historian, wrote so eloquently of the politics of the English Civil War and the Levellers – a high point in English radicalism and its achievements still relevant – as we saw in the  Supreme Court judgement on the Article 50 appeal last week.

(2) “The Sound of Silence”

The foot soldier’s experience of warfare has been described as long boring periods of nothing happening – and then all hell breaks out. From the announcement of Corbyn’s second, even more conclusive, Labour Party leadership election victory there was the discernible “Sound of Silence,” as the Guardian depicted the two month-long apparent media truce in internal party infighting that followed that result and the subsequent Annual Conference. But the Guardian advised its readers not to be misled. Under cover of this faux ceasefire a quiet reorganization and rethink was taking place. The old guard concentrating on what it does better than the new, more in-experienced left – securing positions at the shop floor level of the Party across the organization.

Next, was a refocusing on developing party policy – but from an individual backbench position, which, thus, would not reflect favourably on the Shadow Frontbench, or Corbyn . The decision was also taken not to openly criticize or confront Corbyn, no matter the temptation to put the boot in and no matter how bad the opinion polls became – for which the divisiveness of the Parliamentary Labour Party was getting blamed (unfairly in its view, rightly, in mine).

The “attrition” strategy of openly challenging Corbyn was dropped after the miserable failure of the moderates’ champion, Owen Smith. Smith’s constant refrain was “support” for Corbyn’s socialist politics but doubts about his leadership “qualities.”  His supporters talked about Corbyn’s “cult of the personality” – and then went on to argue the case for a more “charismatic” leader with greater media appeal and presence, not, apparently, seeing the contradiction.

Instead a different strategy, part of a new so-called  “lifeboat” strategy was to be tried. To quote a Guardian (unidentified) MP: “The ownership of failure has to be hung around the necks of Corbyn and McDonnell.”  The individual PLP members hope to be able to disassociate themselves from the leadership in this way, and avoid, they think, the opprobrium of their constituents. The huge assumption here is that the Labour Party members, who elected Corbyn to the leadership, not once but twice, will be available as election fodder for them. I don’t think so. Foot soldiers are only as good as their Officers, it’s said. And Officers are judged, and followed,  by the foot soldiers, when they lead from the front, not from behind.

Richard Seymour, in his Corbyn biography: “Corbyn, The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics,’ concludes that “..unless the wider social and economic  terrain changes dramatically … before 2020 it is unlikely to recoup enough of Labour’s electoral losses to carry a general election.  He goes on: “Even if it does, there is little in the way of a wider international climate … or the surrounding institutional framework, let alone in the business status quo, that would support and sustain an experimental radical-left form of government.”  (p218,  Verso, 2016)  And that was before the supreme game-changer: Brexit – and Trump. Taking the latter two factors into account makes his final point even more depressingly portentous: “Corbyn, backed by a few allies, but otherwise surrounded by a surprisingly resilient and bellicose old guard, can’t keep the right wing attack dogs on the back foot for too long. The political space for left wing activists to operate effectively is likely to be closed before too long. There will be backlashes and disappointments, election setbacks and even in the event of government, continual energy-sapping crises. In the final analysis, Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism. And it is those limits above all which have brought us to this impasse.” (ibid, p218)

The tragedy of Corbyn – tragedy in the political not the theatrical sense- is that Seymour may have got it spot on. This realization is not good for the morale of the foot soldier – certainly not this one.

(3) Business as usual

I have to say the Branch, or Ward monthly meetings have improved markedly over the past three months in process and content. They’ve been more purposeful and better attended, with new faces showing up and immediately engaging. The numbers remain small in proportion to the paid-up membership, however, and that continues to exercise our organizational development minds.  In the run-up to the selection of candidates for next year’s council elections the councillors have been explaining their role and organization and we are reminded of the mass of invisible nitty gritty work that’s done by Councillors.  We’re involved in week-end canvassing to consolidate, and raise labour support, also  campaigning on centrally decided national issues like the defence of the NHS, the development of Housing and Education. But, again, the numbers involved are smaller than we’d like, which, it must be acknowledged, may be a reflection of the morale of the Labour Party generally.

I remember.  I’ve got the first Hackney North constituency party meeting of the new year tonight. One of the emergency motions is that this constituency calls on Diane Abbot, our MP, Shadow Home Secretary, to vote against triggering Article 50, despite and/or because of Jeremy Corbyn’s stated intention to apply a “three line” whip (they love their whips, the political classes).  So, I head off to the venue, the historic “Unitarian Church,” on Newington Green, home to one of the many radical 17th century “Dissenting Academies,”also  linked to Cromwell, John Stuart Mill – and Mary Wollstonecraft, to name but a few.

Another line from Brecht’s “Galileo,” is forming in my already troubled little head: “Galileo,” a character says, “I see you embarking on a frightful road.“  I find it hard to banish the defeatist thought. But the Brecht character  in my head insists:  “What kind of person is said to go into things with his eyes open?”  The character answers his own question:  “One who is going to his doom.”