Sunday, 21 August 2016

Back to the Future: Part Two

In the second section of my two-part blog, I trace the origins of Corbyn’s political antics today right back to their source: the 1980s.

As a teenager back in 1985, I spent a summer as a volunteer, helping to organise a peace camp in the unlikely setting of Clapham Common, south London. It was a project of Youth CND and the idea was to bring together a team of activists, who would then fan out around the local area and get involved in various small-scale demonstrations and meetings.

The bizarre plan was all made possible by the agreement of Lambeth Council, which consented to the erection of what must have been dozens of tents and a fairly sizeable marquee for the best part of a week.  I remember the Mayor rolling up in a posh car and the Leader of Lambeth – one ‘Red’ Ted Knight – hosting a reception for us at which he made a speech about the importance of ‘fighting for peace’.

No doubt many local residents would have felt Lambeth’s time, money and resources might have been better spent on, say, collecting rubbish or improving the quality of its housing stock. But thirty years ago, it was quite normal for authorities to be involved in a great deal of grandiose political posturing way beyond the remit of their statutory responsibilities.

Boroughs were declared ‘nuclear free zones’, striking miners were welcomed into council buildings and visiting dignitaries from the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua were invited to compare the plight of the people of Managua with that of their counterparts in, say, West Norwood.

Our peace camp was just one of thousands of weird projects which sprung up during the 1980s, often thanks to the largesse of the so-called ‘loony left’ councillors who had seized control of town halls.  It was a time when it was thought legitimate to spend public money on political propaganda – a phenomenon taken to the ultimate extreme by Ken Livingstone’s GLC, which produced truck loads of glossy brochures and splashed out extravagantly on advertising.

Another reason I remember the Clapham Common escapade quite vividly was that it epitomised the divisions among socialists at the time. I was young and idealistic, but was becoming increasingly exposed to the shrill, uncompromising stance of the ultra-left.  Trotskyist infiltration was not only a problem in the Labour Party back then, but also in large social and political movements, student politics and other arenas.

So amid the well-meaning young activists who descended on south London, there was a hard-core of revolutionary socialists who saw Youth CND as a potential recruiting ground. They disliked the rather sedate agenda of activities that the full-time CND staff had devised and planned with my support.  Their aim was to gather the merry band of campers together in the marquee for tedious debates on political themes and to agitate for more direct and confrontational action.

At an ideological level, the argument they advanced was that we needed to ‘make the link’ between the campaign against nuclear weapons and the plethora of other protests against the policy agenda of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing government.

In their eyes, CND’s political objectives were connected to everything from the printers' dispute at Wapping against media mogul Rupert Murdoch, through to the British army presence in Northern Ireland and the support of the US government for right-wing rebels in Central America. We needed to find common cause with students, trade unionists and Labour Party activists. Their battle was our battle. Our rallying cry was theirs.

Of course, for a broad movement such as CND, such an approach would have been suicidal. Its mass popular appeal went way beyond the socialist and trade union movement and extended to Liberals, Greens and the politically non-aligned.  Its most familiar figurehead was Bruce Kent – an ordained Catholic Monsignor – who was not only a great speaker, but also someone who brought a huge degree of respectability to a pressure group that might otherwise be seen as a fringe left-wing cause.

In short, there was a clash between those, on the one hand, who wanted the widest possible base of support and mainstream credibility, and others who hoped the anti-nuclear movement would be subsumed into a wider struggle for socialist transformation.

The parallels with today’s Labour Party are stark.

Opponents of Jeremy Corbyn know that Labour will only win if it reaches out beyond the traditional left and appeals to former Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP voters. They want mainstream, centre-ground appeal and a focus on winning power.  London Mayor Sadiq Khan provides the most tangible focus  for this strategy today.  He won from the centre with an inclusive campaign and was not deterred by a hostile media.

Fans of the beleaguered Jez, meanwhile, who coalesce around groups such as Momentum, argue that Labour should embrace a hotch-potch of left-wing causes and become a champion of extra-parliamentary social change. They whine that their beloved Jeremy is being undermined by the press and ‘traitors’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

These rancorous divisions were absolutely at the heart of socialist politics in the 1980s too, but were losing their resonance by the latter part of the decade. Once we reached the early 1990s, the debate seemed to be almost buried as the centrists finally prevailed.  History demonstrates that the moderates’ strategy was 100% correct, as four consecutive election defeats were turned into three consecutive victories under Tony Blair.

It seems extraordinary that in the summer of 2015, we should turn the clock back. But that’s effectively what happened.  In electing Corbyn, many well-meaning people felt that they were embracing a fresh start and a new direction for Labour. In reality, they were clambering in to a battered time machine, with a dial pointing towards 1985 – an era when many young Corbynistas were not even born.

As I’ve already argued, this is the period in which Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and other relics of London Labour politics feel most comfortable. It provides a temporal anchor for their Weltanschauung and makes them go misty-eyed. While most people tapped their feet to Spandau Ballet, these left-wing political activists danced to a different tune.  It was one of dogma, demonstrations and defiance. But also marked by defeat.

Much of what is going on today is an attempt to replay the 1980s, with the idea that the result will somehow be different this time around. If you want to understand Corbynism, you need to understand this milieu from which his politics stems.

Earlier on, I mentioned Ted Knight’s visit to my peculiar peace camp three decades ago. In February this year, the veteran firebrand was brought out of retirement for a Momentum meeting at the Karibu Centre in Brixton, south London.  The 82-year-old leftwinger understands exactly the connection between his battles in the 1980s and Corbyn’s agenda today.  

“A Labour cut,” Ted reportedly proclaimed, “is no better than a Tory cut. Any cut is wrong.”
With this remark, he shows us the thread which links Corbyn’s agenda today with the ultra-left policies of a generation ago.

No cuts. No financial prudence or management. Just constant borrowing, spending and taxation.

For the record, Momentum was welcoming a man who was barred from sitting on the council for five years in the 1980s after a district auditor’s report found that he, and over 30 other Lambeth members, had engaged in ‘wilful misconduct’ in refusing to set a budget.

The craziness and confusion continued in Lambeth for some years – first under Linda Bellos, whose association with the Labour Party Black Sections movement brought her into conflict with Neil Kinnock, and then under the leadership of Joan Twelves.

As late as the start of the 1990s, Twelves and a dozen other councillors were suspended from the Labour Group for advocating non-payment of the Thatcher poll tax.  (They also revived the tradition of Lambeth having its own foreign policy by holding a council meeting to oppose the eviction of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.)

Twelves tried to rejoin the Labour Party last year, but received a rejection letter. Presumably she sensed that the clock had moved back some 25 years as a result of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. Bizarrely, her maverick local MP Kate Hoey – best known for her support of Brexit – backed the radical leftwinger’s case for readmission.

It’s important to connect up the dots and to explain to the current generation of Labour activists that the policy agenda offered by Corbyn is in no way new. From the belief in endless and unlimited spending through to support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, the roots can all be traced back in time.  Not to the successful Labour governments of Attlee and Wilson though.  Back to the eccentric and failed experiments of the decade in which I camped on Clapham Common.

No comments:

Post a Comment