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From Protest to Power

27th August 2015

From Protest to Power

By John McDonnell MP for Hayes and Harlington,
Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee

NOBODY PREDICTED THE ENORMOUS SCALE OF SUPPORT AND ENTHUSIASM for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign. In one of the very few interviews I have given about the campaign, I said that we would shock the establishment with the level of support we would generate but not even I thought we would be seeing rallies of 1,000 to 2,000 people overflowing into the streets.

Let’s try to understand where this support has come from. In a recent very astute article Selma James and Nina Lopez Jones from Global Women’s Strike explained that for some time now there have been numerous individual campaigns organised by local communities and specific groups within our society, often led by women on a massive range of issues – ranging from hospital unit closures, benefit cuts for disabled people, cuts and increased charges in child care, detention of asylum seekers, and the degradation of our environment through fracking. A high level of anger and determination has been present and suddenly has found itself a voice in Jeremy’s campaign and a single campaign to focus around.

In addition a new generation of young people has come through which isn’t saddled with the disillusioning lack of confidence of many of those who went through the hopes of getting rid of the Tories in 1997, only to have those hopes smashed by Blair and New Labour on the rocks of the Iraq war, the introduction of tuition fees and the PFI privatisation of our NHS. When we discussed the nature of our campaign I said our overriding theme must be to give people hope. I suggested that if we were to develop into a wider movement one name for that movement could be simply “Hope.” Nearly a decade ago we argued that another world was possible. We now have a mass movement in prospect that comprises people who are shaking off their lack of confidence that another world is achievable and others, many of them very young, who have no fear of trying for that world.

The potential of a new mass movement for radical change has put fear into every element of the establishment. The Labour establishment has gone into virtual meltdown. The succession of ex-Labour leaders and cabinet ministers, from Blair through Brown to Kinnock, denouncing a Corbyn leadership, has been aimed at sowing doubt among party members and supporters as they vote. The media establishment has thrown every trick in the gutter press book at the Corbyn campaign – from pure invention to targeting his family and friends. The smear campaigning techniques of the media are increasingly taken by people with total scepticism. The coverage in the press has opened up the opportunity for live media coverage on TV and radio, which has given Jeremy the opportunity of successfully speaking more directly to people. The inventive use of social media has been an effective countervailing force against the traditional media bias.

But we haven’t seen anything yet. If we win the leadership election, the whole force of the establishment will be thrown at us to undermine the incoming left Labour leadership and the movement that is currently being born. The argument that has been put forward by our opponents is that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be a protest movement rather than a party capable of being elected and capable of governing. This completely misunderstands how a radical movement of the left can come to power and be sustained in government. For a radical left movement to win and sustain democratic power it needs to be both a protest movement mobilising people’s demand for change and a party with a coherent policy programme that is readily implementable in government.

The creativity needed to articulate and mobilise the demand for change that engenders the support of millions has to be combined with a professional expertise in administering change in government at all levels. We have to be more efficient, more effective and more pragmatic than the capitalist establishment in the arts of governance and economic management.

Whether or not Jeremy wins the leadership election we now must address how we take the enthusiastic support mobilised by the Corbyn campaign and create that movement of both protest and government. The campaign has shown what immense potential and talent there is in our communities. It is that talent and determination that we now have to bring together in the organisational form of a new movement, building on the creativity that has been unleashed and eschewing many of the old forms of centralised control politics of some elements on the left. This has to be an immediate task of the left. Especially it means determining how we come together immediately after the election result is announced and decide our first mobilisation at local grassroots as well as at national levels of campaigning to demonstrate the ongoing nature of our campaign. The message is straightforward. We are not going back!

This is John’s monthly column in Labour Briefing, the magazine of the LRC.

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