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On Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum, and the socialism of the Green New Deal

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Visitors to this year's The World Transformed Festival were left with little doubt as to the event's long-term goals.

Although it may feel like just yesterday to some, it has now been over four years since Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing backbencher MP from Islington North and long-time stalwart of the British anti-war movement, was elected Leader of the Labour Party and with it Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom. Reviled by most of the mainstream media and political establishment, Corbyn has managed to hold on to and consolidate power within the party by basing himself on an unprecedented outpouring of youth enthusiasm and revival of the Labour Party’s democratic socialist wing, which had been heavily marginalized since the ascendancy of New Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s.

Since Corbyn came to power, the Labour Party has recruited hundreds of thousands of new members and become a rallying point for progressive activists from across the country’s political spectrum, despite the majority of elected MPs remaining firmly in the moderate camp. In this sense, Labour is unique on the European Left—while left-wing forces across the continent struggle to remain relevant, Labour appears to be, despite the problems and divisions posed by Brexit, on the advance.

The revival of the Labour Left has also meant the revival of campaigning organizations in- and outside of the party, most notably Momentum, which under the slogan “Let’s build a Britain for the many” has catalysed the Labour Left to take over local party life in many areas while also holding political events, sponsoring discussions, and generally advancing a left-social-democratic platform in the party and across British society. One of the most noteworthy and impressive expressions of this revival has been the impressive growth of The World Transformed, or "TWT", a four-day political festival held to coincide with Labour Party conference where thousands of campaigners, activists, and scholars come together to discuss, strategize, and make plans for the socialist world they hope to achieve, with a Labour government being the first step on the way there.

This year’s festival took place from 21–24 September in Brighton, UK, and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung joined as a partner for the first time, sponsoring a number of events and sending its own delegation of organizers from Germany and across Europe. During TWT, Loren Balhorn sat down with Labour Party activist and movement scholar Callum Cant to learn more about the revival of the Labour Left, the relationship between Momentum and the wider party, and what prospects he sees for a democratic socialist transformation of the United Kingdom under Jeremy Corbyn.

Callum Cant is an active member of the Labour Party and editor at the socialist journal Notes From Below. His most recent book is Riding for Deliveroo. Resistance in the New Economy (Polity, 2019).

LB: One group I've seen all over TWT is Momentum, which is mostly known as a pro-Corbyn faction inside the Labour Party. Momentum is fairly new, only founded in 2015, and it hasn’t been free of controversy. How would you describe it?

CC: Momentum is best understood as a concretized version of Corbyn’s initial leadership campaign. In 2015, when Corbyn shocked everyone by winning, you saw a huge flood of people coming into the party. Momentum was the only vehicle that cohered that flood into something more permanent. It brought the institutional know-how of people like Jon Lansman and those around the long-standing Bennite wing of the party, and combined it with the enthusiasm of new members and the new movement. But what exactly Momentum was for still remained to be defined. Was it a party-orientated faction supporting Corbyn’s leadership, or a wider organization with broader aspirations?

This controversy has now settled down and Momentum exists primarily as a party-orientated faction—its role is to dominate internal elections and democratic processes, and push a “new left” line within the party. It’s been very successful at doing so—the Left now dominates basically every committee in the Labour Party. Wherever there are open and democratic elections, we win. 

Only one bastion remains for the right: the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), where the lack of open selection makes it impossible for us to elect our own representatives.

Can you say a bit more about the debate around open selection in the party? It sounds like it’s been very controversial at this year’s conference.

As it stands, once you’ve been elected as an MP you are automatically reselected as the Labour candidate for that constituency until you either lose the seat, stand down, or lose a negative “trigger ballot” campaign through which the local membership can force you to stand for democratic reselection against alternative candidates.

For now, the left-wing membership is represented by a relatively right-wing PLP, meaning that many members want a different parliamentary candidate. But the only way to get that is to run a negative campaign against the current MP, which is very destructive—you have to be willing to put a gun to the head of your local party, because you end up setting two sides of the membership against one another. This means that most MPs, unless they really mess up, are safe from trigger ballots most of the time. As a result, they are insulated from the changing composition of the membership, kept safe from democratic processes which would see them replaced by more left-wing candidates, and the representatives of the party continue to take positions far to the right of the rest of the party.

Recent party conferences have changed the rules to make triggering easier, but they haven’t introduced an open democratic selection process as the norm. This is a really significant weakness of the project. The apparent explanation for this weakness is that the balance of forces doesn’t allow it right now. People are worried about upsetting the PLP and provoking a mass defection of MPs. Nobody wants a SDP 2.0—a split-off from Labour in the 1980s that seriously weakened the party’s ability to oppose Margaret Thatcher.

So Momentum has the “momentum” on the ground, so to speak, but the parliamentary group remains a bastion of the centrists?

Well, four years in the project has been very successful. Look at the policy programme we passed this week: a 32-hour working week, net zero carbon by 2030, closing down private schools and expropriating their funds! On almost every terrain we’ve made serious advances, but there remains a very specific problem, which is that the most powerful bastion, parliamentary representation, is not in the hands of the membership.

Would you say that Momentum functions as a bridge into the party for young people? And is there a clear distinction between Momentum and the Labour Party?

Most people will be primarily active in the Labour Party, not Momentum. If you’re an engaged member you’ll likely go to branch meetings and act primarily through branch mechanisms. There are distinct Momentum local groups, but they don’t operate with nearly the same intensity. So most of our 40,000 members’ political identity is first and foremost the Labour Party—they’re in Momentum because they support what the organization does in the party and they want to continue the direction of travel, but as part of Labour.

This isn’t always uncontested. Some people wanted a much stronger sense of local Momentum membership and more power for parallel structures, but over time that’s where things ended up. Now, most of the time, a Momentum group in the city—like in Brighton, for instance—will host local events to discuss politics, or support demonstrations, or we’ll operate within the party as Momentum to push certain councillor candidates, but we don’t replace wholesale existing party structures. They still remain primary.

You said that you focus mostly on the relationship between electoralism and social movements, and that you yourself came out of the 2010 student movement. I’ve been struck while attending The World Transformed that the revival of the Left in this country seems to be occurring primarily through electoral politics, more so than in most of Europe. Given your own background, where do you see the limits and strengths of this shift?

If you had told me in 2014 that I would be here in five years’ time, I would have been horrified. That said, the development has been satisfying because there’s been a wholesale recomposition of the Left in Britain. That’s what’s fascinating about TWT—you meet people from trade union politics, housing politics, movement politics, they’re all here and they’re all in the Labour Party now. It’s serving as a mass ground for political recomposition, where veterans from all kinds of movements are sharing their experiences and articulating them through the Labour Party.

That unity is, I think, a real strength of Corbynism, but there are also problems that come with it. The critiques of electoralism we used to have aren’t necessarily invalid, but I think we’ve realized we have limited strategic options and so we need to push participation in classically bourgeois politics to its limits.

I think the most dominant strategy now amongst most of the Left, give or take, is that we see the Labour Party as a way of approaching points of tension. It operates as a mechanism that allows us to concentrate our forces, take the initiative, and confront the crisis we face.  As much as this project could succeed on its own terms—I genuinely think we could see a reformist Corbyn government that could win real victories—its real potential lies in what happens after it exceeds those terms, and ends up in more fundamental confrontations. In our context, where there is no room for manoeuvre and compromise, even modest reformism can lead to a head-on collision with capital and our movement is actively preparing for that, and sees that process as one of development.

Here at the festival we have a strategy game called “The First 100 Days”. It simulates what the first 100 days in government would be like, role-playing it with other comrades. We’re thinking through what happens when we take government. But this reveals a second problem facing the project, which is the low level of class power outside parliament. Strikes are at historic lows, there has been a measurable decrease in the intensity of social movement mobilizations, and the rank-and-file of the party doesn’t necessarily have the experience or the education necessary to prepare it for exercising power through the state.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has this great line: “When we go into government, we’ll go into government together.” The whole strategy is hinged upon this idea—that a working-class movement challenges and exceeds the party, challenges and exceeds the state, comes up with demands and pushes us to fight for them. The idea is that the movement is the catalyst driving us beyond electoral politics as usual. But does that movement really exist? How can we lay the groundwork for it?  Everyone who is really thinking about Corbynism right now is thinking about that question. The party can’t only be a terrain for recomposition, it also needs to be a base from which we can expand.

Could you say a little bit about the Labour Party conference itself? How do you evaluate it and what are some policies you are particularly excited about?

Increasingly, the Left is not only dominating internal forums but actually starting to implement a serious programme. So the crucial takeaway from this conference is: look at the programme we are going to implement! A 32-hour week with no reduction in pay—that’s leading globally in terms of a progressive post-work politics. Carbon neutrality by 2030—only Norway has a target that aggressive. And it’s not just a carbon target; it’s built into a Green New Deal that seeks to take this process of transition as an opportunity to transform the economy. The abolition of private schooling! To understand Britain you have to understand that our ruling class has basically been based out of the same institutions for one thousand years, and they’re finally being targeted as fundamental supporters of social inequality.

That is the positive case. The negative is that Tom Watson, the right-wing deputy leader, should have been gotten rid of before conference even started. A motion was put forward and the National Executive Committee botched it. It’s a symptom of the Left’s political cowardice that we refuse to deal with our enemies the way they deal with us, that we refuse to use our strength to force through changes in the party, be that with the deputy leader or open selections. And that cowardice doesn’t come from the rank-and-file of the party or the unions.

But it’s clear from the results on the floor that we are dominant. As much as the centrists attempt to manufacture a narrative of crisis, there is no risk of Corbynism ending in the short term.

Everybody seems to be talking about the Green New Deal at this festival, which I found very impressive as it’s the only plausible solution to the climate crisis currently on offer. Could you say a few words about what the Green New Deal means to Labour today?

The Green New Deal means the most radical process of economic transformation that Britain has ever seen. This is more ambitious than the post-war nationalizations—this is about reshaping the entire economy over the course of ten years. We’re talking about transforming every single industry and the way we live in both urban and rural areas. It’s hard to understand how we aim to get to socialism, a process of systemic transformation, without the framework of the Green New Deal as a guiding light. Everything will be catalysed by the desire to transform the economy and society so that it serves that end goal. The Green New Deal is not just an environmental policy—it’s a properly socialist policy in its ambition, it’s the overarching framework into which everything fits.

It gets to the heart about what’s actually revolutionary about Corbynism: this use of reformism, taking hold of reformism to put forward entirely rational, sensible, and plausible demands to the ruling class, and if they oppose them, being able to win mass support to fight back.