One of the current obsessions of the British establishment from the Labour Party grandees, the Tories and the press is the idea that power and protest are two distinct things. In relation to Corbyn we are told that he risks turning the Labour Party into a party purely of protest. The Labour big wigs use this to point out that only with electoral power can the party start to put into operation policies that will help implement social justice. The Tories initially watched with glee as people flocked to Corbyn’s side as they also fell into this narrative. The press just trot it out like a paradigm that is so obviously true all things must flow through it.
The latest example was a really poorly written piece in the Telegraph that starts from that basis and makes a number of bizarre assertions about what the ‘hard left’ are up to. The piece does though point out that the Tories aren’t quite so gleeful anymore. The reason the narrative is so mindblowingly stupid is it supposes that a Corbyn led Labour Party can’t win a general election. These are the same people who were just a few weeks ago telling us he couldn’t win the leadership contest which he looks like winning. One of the arts of winning political power in a liberal democracy is surely the convincing of people that your policies are correct. After a generation of trying to fit policies into a perceived vision of what might be popular the Labour Party might be about to embark on a period of something different, where they attempt to offer an alternative vision and encourage others to follow them. This isn’t Old Labour; it’s Old School politics.
The Labour tops are indeed worried about losing the next election. That’s because for a generation they’ve been following the Tories as they’re rivals called the shots. They’ve been shifting ever rightwards in the clamour for votes rather than attempting to set a left wing stall out that people might find attractive. In the process the Party’s MP base has steadily moved towards the right and many of them must fear a party no longer run by ‘their’ wing. They fear deselection from the potential new party rulers as much as rejection from the electorate.
The Telegraph article supposes at length what the hell the ‘hard left’ are up to. Where to start with that? I’m not sure what is meant by the term ‘hard left’ in this case. Is it Team Corbyn? Is it all the people infiltrating the party in order to vote? The anecdotal evidence I have on the people registered to vote as a supporter is that they are a mix of trade unionists and people brand new to party politics. I’ve heard stories of people in their 20s, 30s and above attending their first ever political meetings in large numbers and actually enjoying the experience. Hardly the hard left.
The term is used to suggest that the narrative of choosing protest over power is correct, even though that narrative starts from a nonsensical position. It suggests that the hard lefties want protest – mass protest, mass strikes, civil disobedience and direct action. Well, yes, I bet they do but they also want power. They desperately want power – if we’re talking about the old British socialists (or social democrats in the great scheme of things) then we’re talking about people who fiercely believe in the welfare state, public spending to eliminate poverty, a good standard of living for all and a more humane capitalism. We’re talking about people who used to run the Labour Party but were kicked out along with their ideas, on the whole, when the right hijacked it in the 1980s. What they wouldn’t want is any of that protest stuff if they actually got into government but they will then rely on the idea that the unions and social movements will toe the line as they have the government they hoped for. Power is exactly what they want and they think they can convince people to vote for them to have it. Don’t panic, children of the establishment.
The other problem with the narrative is that it assumes that power is one thing and protest is another. Actually, protest is a form of power. Grassroots power, employed via civil disobedience and direct action can be extremely effective. It doesn’t run countries or the state but then some of us don’t want countries or the state. Those of us who are socialists but also libertarians don’t believe in parties. We believe in the non-hierarchical organisation of groups which cut across political issues. We don’t want Corbyn in power because we don’t want any party in power but at the same time we recognise that some governments are less terrible than others.
Power should be shared and protest is one way we can do that. We can help prevent people being evicted via direct action and civil disobedience, we can organise and agitate workers to strike, we can protest racism and misogyny, we can campaign against the dreadful harm to our planet caused by capitalism. By so doing we share power, we spread it and we learn from it. I’m not sure if anarchists fit into this establishment paradigm of the ‘hard left’ but what we want is both protest and power. In fact, one could very well be gained by the use of the other.
And so this summer of madness continues. I feel totally and utterly bored and yet fascinated by the whole thing. That’s the Corbyn effect for you.