What stops Open Labour becoming another Judean People’s Front? We have Momentum, Progress, Labour First, Labour Together, Labour for the Common Good, Tribune and others. The one thing all these groups share is that they seem to be defined at the moment by their position on the leadership. Open Labour should seek to represent the left across this divide and resist this polarisation between unwavering opposition to or support for Jeremy Corbyn, as moving beyond this will be a precondition for the eventual success of the party.
There are talented and inspired people on either side of the current divide and if we are to succeed as a party their energies must not be absorbed in an unconstructive interminable debate over leadership. Ultimately those who think that the leadership is the fundamental question the Labour party faces today are engaged in a displacement activity. It is easier to produce sound and fury at the mistakes of Corbyn or of his opponents than it is to pull yourself out of that quagmire and focus on the existential question we face. What is the point of the Labour party? Open Labour’s task is to bring people on the left together to begin to give a detailed answer to this question.
What must the core of our policy platform be, what is our narrative and how do we communicate this to the public through the medium of a perennially hostile media?
My view is that the Labour party exists to transform society in the interests of working people and to dismantle all forms of oppression. The most constructive role Open Labour could perform in this respect is fleshing out radical ideas into the solid policy that can form the foundation of a united Labour platform, as the NHS once did. This must be led by members, in conversation with the public as much as possible and with the assistance of progressive think tanks and thinkers. Open Labour could then lead a campaign within and without the party for these key policies.
It is worth noting that many who want Corbyn gone know they do not have a clear plan of what to do in this regard were they actually to regain control of the party. No clear alternative programme based on substantive principals has been put forward. Even if it were possible to recreate 1997, it is not clear it would be desirable. To say nothing of the mistakes, it is clear that for all the significant achievements of the last Labour government, most did not remain in place for any period of time after the loss of power, as was achieved after 1945. So it is important to bear in mind in this fleshing out that while the aim is to win power, winning with an incoherent and timid programme in the short term may in the long term be as pointless as having the perfect socialist programme and never winning power.
Taunton Deane Young Labour, the group in Tory dominated Somerset I organise, is flourishing despite the hostile electoral terrain. While there are many different views on the leadership, we focus our meetings on the discussion of issues, policy and campaigns, rather than leadership. We coordinated a recent campaign to save 2BU, the only LGBT support group in the county and you can find our many recent policy contributions on Education, Health, the Environment and Proportional Representation on the policy forum website. On this, the substance of policy and what the government is doing, there is far more unity in the Labour party than is displayed to the public. Open Labour needs to build on and harness this unity around concrete proposals.
One key pillar of such a progressive programme could be radical democratic reform, a promise to “Take Back Control” in the economic and political sphere.
In our most recent defeat, this slogan, its emotional resonance, and the populism of the Leave campaign were decisive. The focus group named “Britain Stronger In Europe” campaign, reluctant to make any non-economic arguments, couldn’t match it. Ugly as the Leave campaign was, this was a brilliant slogan, it struck a chord with millions that feel they have lost control over a distant political elite and over their lives and livelihoods.
In the United States, Bernie Sanders ran a populist and issue-focused campaign that tapped into this sentiment, clearly identifying the “billionaire class” and “political establishment” as an alternative culprit for people’s insecurities to migrants and minorities. Polling has shown repeatedly that Sanders would have defeated Trump by a wide margin.
These campaigns are instructive. We should rediscover the tradition of industrial democracy and constitutional radicalism that runs from Guild Socialism and the Cooperative movement, on the one hand, Chartism and Suffragism on the other, through to the distrust and resentment of the elite that simmers throughout the country today. Because this is precisely the sentiment we need to win. Take back control is a slogan we should appropriate as boldly as the right appropriates ours with such success. A narrative of democratic control and anti-establishmentarianism should be at the heart of our message.
Radical measures such as powers of recall, a citizens’ jury in place of the House of Lords, Proportional Representation and a commitment to get money out of politics would secure our anti-establishment credentials and offer people much greater control over their elected representatives.
Giving workers a majority of seats on company boards, government support for co-operative ownership, the re-establishment of Trade Union rights and a right, and support for, employees to buy-out of their companies would offer people control over their workplace.
If a Hard Brexit comes to pass, the responsibility to issue low-skilled work visas could be passed to local authorities. Moving an often ugly immigration debate from national politics to local communities, would give people a sense of control over immigration and perhaps allow greater clear-sightedness over local labour needs.
A refugee programme that admitted as many refugees to a local area as there are volunteers agreeing to support and welcome them, accompanied by a campaign with incentives, could allow a humanitarian refugee policy that people feel ownership over.
All part of an insistent narrative that we are on the side of workers and our mission is to take back control from the political and economic elite. This message is one that has a hope of reaching across the Brexit divide.
Whether or not this direction is one we want to pursue, it is the kind of thing we must consider if we are to synthesise some kind of renewal of purpose out of this moment of crisis.
Bringing the left together to achieve this renewal is what the purpose of Open Labour must be and why I am standing for election to its Management Committee.