Labour members built networks. Now Corbyn must too | Zoe Williams

The Labour leader needs to reimagine his party and embrace the different strands that support him

Jeremy Corbyn may be as popular, but will never be more popular than he is at this moment. I say that with such certainty not because I can see into the future, but because it’s not functionally possible. Anyone who’s seen him at Grenfell Tower and failed to be moved by his compassion, anyone still banging on about the terrorist sympathies of the only politician with a beating human heart, is simply beyond the reach of his appeal. Without being unseemly, he’s riding something bigger than triumph, the powerful moment that we all understand but only athletes, warriors and saxophonists have experienced, when every second of your experience, all your training, your values and your idiosyncrasies come together.

This is the time to make the decisions that, later, when challenges and hurdles make long-term thinking a luxury, he won’t want to make. He needs to reimagine the Labour party not with its old goals of unity and dominance, but as a place that can accommodate the misfits, the rebels, the people who are greener than they are red, the people who aren’t red enough, the critical, the awkward. He needs to build a party that doesn’t just acknowledge all its talents, but knows how to use them.

Ed Miliband rewrote the rules of Labour’s membership, and for a long time that was held as his greatest error, destroying not just his own vision for palatable leftism but also the party he cherished. Now that Corbyn has gone from Labour’s high sparrow to its saviour, the decision to give the members real power over the leadership, power to defy the parliamentary party and laugh while doing it, is suddenly Miliband’s great legacy. In fact that decision – effectively, the party went open source – won’t mean anything unless it’s followed through.

It was far more radical than anyone allowed at the time, far more meaningful than simply inviting the naive and the Trotskyists to make decisions that their youth or extremism made them unqualified to make. It opened up the possibility of politics as a co-creation, one in which the members were more than just a beard-army ready to deliver leaflets for you, then moan about your centrism in the pub.

The members took this seriously: repeated attempts to evaluate Momentum along binary and adversarial lines – are they loony lefties, and if so, how loony? – missed the really interesting bit of what was going on. This was an intellectual movement as much as an activists’ one. At their conference, The World Transformed, held alongside the Labour conference last year but so different in atmosphere it could have been another decade, another continent, they asked searching and difficult questions.

Was it time to embrace proportional representation? Should they be working with the Greens, and if so, how? Was a progressive alliance realistic and how would it work? These discussions had precisely no impact on the party’s high command, but they changed the experience of being a member. You only need to look at the way activists fought this election to see that they built networks and communities that were explicitly banned by the party’s rules. Three Labour members in Surrey were actually expelled for trying to unseat Jeremy Hunt. Granted, they were trying to do that with a non-Labour candidate – Louise Irvine, for the National Health Action party – but it’s the rules that need to change, not the activists.

The same energy, sense of possibility, openness and clear articulation of ambition and values that delivered the decision to unite behind Irvine, delivered the leadership to Corbyn. If you’re going to open source the party, you can’t then retreat back into early 20th century tribalism, obedience and unity at all costs.

When the Labour party was developing its digital democracy manifesto last year, it looked as though the new thinking was effortlessly entering the party’s mindset: it was looking to crowdsource the 2020 manifesto using a platform (pol. is) that the Taiwanese government has developed successfully to consult its citizens in real time.

It didn’t get much attention at the time, because it seemed academic: nobody was talking about Labour’s policies, only how vast were the impediments to implementing them. In the triumphant mood that has followed the election, the impetus to change the way politics is done has dissolved. All the talk is of consolidation, doing exactly the same, only louder, better. John McDonnell’s call for a million people on the streets is not wrong per se – he’s no lord of misrule, bent on civil disorder. There is nothing wrong with taking to the streets in the pursuit of a better government. Yet such a march would effectively convey that Labour’s agenda is set, and all it needs now is to fight for it. In fact, it was in its openness to the members that it came this far, and it should be in openness it proceeds.

This goes beyond the relationship with the grassroots. The Fabian Society has always existed as a group thinking independently of the party, but not an existential threat to it: this needs to be replicated for other voices. Greens and green-sympathisers, who effectively committed electoral hara-kiri for the sake of opposing the Conservatives, need structures and organisations within Labour, from which to pursue their agenda. Even without the Greens, Labour is de facto a multiparty party: it should embrace that rather than try to quash it. It should be possible to stand as a joint candidate, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equality party and Labour: this isn’t unprecedented. It’s been done by the Co-operative party for years. But it would be extremely difficult in the  current mood of Corbyn or bust.

The leader existed for years as a thorn in the side of his party. He was essentially ignored for most of those years, and has now managed to upend all its verities, remake it in his own image. It is an extraordinary achievement, but will not bring the change and the modernity he promises unless he can finish what he started, turn crowdsourced leadership into crowdsourced politics.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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