Losing in a landslide is bewildering for those at the heart of a political campaign. Everything is possible, until the hammer blow of the exit poll falls. Then, with relentless predictability, members of the party that has lost first blame the voters, and then start to blame each other. James Schneider was a co-founder of Momentum, the political movement formed off the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, and was later the party’s head of strategic communications.
In his new book, he takes a different approach. Opening boldly and promisingly, his first words are “defeatism plagues the British left”, and his introduction sketches his ambition: “To keep the possibilities open and turn winning from a distant hope into a reality, we must use the coming years to build power, weaken our opponents, and prepare ourselves for the next surge.”
At its best, the book is urgent and engaging. At just over 100 pages it is more of a pamphlet and the footnotes are vital, linking to books, blogs and articles, and pointing the reader towards a wide range of debates. The intellectual parenthood of the book is obvious – the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, and in particular her For a Left Populism, Antonio Gramsci’s Modern Prince in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, and the work of Stuart Hall. Such influences set severe standards, though, and Schneider fails to meet them.
There is, at times, a slapdash feel to the work. A reference to the influential 1979 pamphlet “In and Against the State” fails to refer to Seth Wheeler’s new edition, published last year. For example, a claim that “Labour last polled at 40% … in April 2019” has been out of date since at least June 2020 (and, at the time of writing, Labour has led the Conservatives in the last 200 national polls).
The broader problem is that of all the “opponents” Schneider most wants to weaken, the one that looms largest in his mind is the Labour party, which his chapter “Capital’s A and B Teams” paints as indistinguishable from the Conservatives. Historically, there is a rich debate about the role of Labour in leading the reform of the UK, but it is the only political organisation that has ever delivered lasting social democratic change to this country. After the bleakest electoral defeats, as in 1935, 1983 and 2019, it can seem that Labour is too weak to win, but too big to die. Yet it has twice bounced back from the dead to create the radical governments of Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, both of whom wrought irreversible social, economic and institutional changes.
It is true that there has been a burst of radical energy in Britain over the last few years – Schneider correctly cites Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion, along with successful union organising. But simply grouping independent organisations together doesn’t make a new social movement, and the heart sinks when he discusses how to build a new force: “[A] campaign for public ownership of water could teach people about neoliberalism through reading, videos and shareholder stunts at the AGMs of privatised utilities.” Equally uninspiring is the suggestion that “we can learn from cutting-edge examples of progressive municipal government, such as Barcelona’s public management of data”. As Orwell nearly said: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine attending a political education meeting – for ever.”
Where is the joy? Where is the flair? The striking thing about The World Transformed – the groundbreaking, Corbyn-supporting fringe festival at the 2016 Labour conference in Liverpool – was the sheer sense of fun. Changing the world is a serious business, but it needn’t be dull. This is the missing heart of Our Bloc. For most of the last decade, the most interesting thinking on the British left has come from its left – from New Socialist and Novara Media to the sharp insights and brutal humour of podcasts such as Trashfuture. The intellectual energy that powered the rise of Corbyn was real, and it puts Labour party moderates to shame that the centrist intellectual touchstone Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is nearly 70 years old. Yes, the Labour manifesto was soundly rejected by voters in 2019, but it was enthusiastically endorsed by the same electorate in 2017. The UK left has to internalise the fact that both general elections were equally consequential: currently moderates focus on the landslide in 2019, and the left celebrate successfully destroying a Tory majority in 2017. Both sides are right – and both sides need each other.
I only broke the first lockdown once, to attend the BLM demonstration in central London. My politics took me and my family there. Yet, there is no place in Our Bloc for a Blairite supporter of BLM. The key to living, and thriving, together is for both sides in the Labour party to accept that in 2017 and 2019 Corbynism asked many of the right questions but very often got the wrong answers. If you want to see change in the UK, the Labour party is like the landscape in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, got to go through it!”
• John McTernan was Tony Blair’s director of political operations, 2005-07 Our Bloc: How We Win by James Schneider is published by Verso (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.