Labour’s reinvention needs to come from the bottom up
Replacing Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t solve Labour’s long-term problems. What the party needs is cultural renewal in areas neglected for decades
Originally posted in the Guardian, see here
Labour is one of the biggest political parties in Europe, and yet it is struggling to maintain support in its heartlands. While the party’s ground game, with considerable support from Momentum, was key in seeing off Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent Central, such an obviously inept politician should have never posed a threat in the first place. And the loss in Copeland to a party overseeing the Brexit debacle can only be described as a failure.
Neither result, however, means Jeremy Corbyn’s head should roll. Not only do many of Labour’s problems predate Corbyn – the loss of Scotland and the decline in working class support due to their abandonment during the years in government – but such a call betrays a deep misunderstanding of the current state of British politics and the task facing Labour.
Amid the chaos of constant political crisis, plummeting living standards and the pervading sense that a certain section of people are gaming the system, rightwing populists have successfully spread a virulent message of fear, hatred and xenophobia. The old certainties are crumbling while nothing positive is being built in their place.
Significantly, the regional, often small-town, areas in which these populists prosper share an experience of slow collapse over the last four decades (although Copeland is a different case, with a variety of specific, local issues that caused Labour problems). A decline in investment, industry and employment has not only devastated these communities economically but made impossible the community spaces and cultural institutions that created the space for positive, regional political identities to emerge. In many parts of the UK, there is a lack of collective identity that people can be proud of. In this vacuum, the hatred and fear peddled by the right has spread.
London, Manchester, Bristol and other major cities are the exceptions that prove the rule. Here a cosmopolitan, tolerant identity has emerged based on place and choice. Being a “Londoner” has little to do with your accent, colour of your skin or where you were born, but whether you identify with the fast and fluid nature of big-city living. Such open and elastic identities are reliant on a heady, diverse melting pot of cultural and political opportunities. Without the DIY spaces, social centres, theatres, political talks, vast array of community initiatives and many different shades of late-night hedonism, they would never have emerged.
While we must not venerate imperfect identities anchored to big cities also defined by precarity and inequality, or ignore the funding difficulties that such projects often face, it is true that the identities they help create have made many cities much less susceptible to fear, xenophobia and racism. Thankfully, the idea that Ukip could build a presence in, say, London or Bristol is absurd.
The task for Labour, then, is to encourage bottom-up cultural renewal in areas neglected since the Thatcher era. It is to support and build community institutions – social spaces, cinema clubs, food banks and sports centres – that provide the space and security people need to build their own, unique political and cultural identities.
For this we don’t have a blueprint, but we can take inspiration. The rise of Syriza was partly down to Solidarity4All – its associated network of cooperative healthcare centres, food banks called “Solidarity Clubs”, social centres and language classes. The logic was simple. Where cuts to public services and the collapse of cultural institutions meant the destruction of community, volunteers and activists would step in to fill the hole. In the words of one activist: “We go out and help people. When they tell us something, we listen. When they ask for help, we are here.”
Activity of this sort is already happening. I’m an organiser for Take Back Control, a series of community events organised by local residents in locations such as Sunderland, Barnsley, Plymouth and Bradford that are often left out of the political conversation. While we play host to political heavyweights, the events will be community and cultural spaces first and foremost, with food and sport in the day and music in the evening.
Momentum, too, is making an effort to build community. Dozens of local groups across the country screened Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake in halls and community centres and then donated the proceeds to local food banks and homeless shelters. Nationally, they plan to launch Momentum Solidarity, which will amplify the community work done by local groups and share knowledge and resources in an attempt to roll out a solidarity network across the country.
While this work is essential, it is often done on a shoestring budget and a limited scale. Corbyn’s Labour, with thousands of branches across the country, millions of pounds in its coffers and a membership of more than half a million, could flood key areas with resources, ideas and activists to support and get projects going that actually help out the community.
While this may be derided as a distraction from the important task of winning elections, in reality it is essential to doing so. Labour cannot rely on a flurry of activity a few weeks before ballots are cast to show its commitment to communities left behind economically and politically for decades. Much like the labour movement once did, it must embed itself in these communities and give serious material and cultural force to the often abstract “Labour values” we talk about. Through encouraging new social and cultural institutions and identities, the possibility of political power becomes that much more attainable.