Pete Firmin, Political Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), speaking in a personal capacity.
What are the main lessons of the Corbyn campaign so far?
That the existing left doesn’t have to control everything — the reason the campaign has surged is because it’s got out of control and in the positive sense. Nobody has controlled it or been able to control it top down. It’s flourished in ways nobody’s expected. That has been incredibly positive.
In addition lots of people new to politics or at least Labour Party politics have come around it; there’s a big layer of people who are long-term members of the party but have been frustrated over the years by New Labour policies and attacks on democracy. They’re coming out to support the campaign too. I don’t think the party establishment understand that at all. When people like Blair and Clarke and Mandelson come out and say anyone but Corbyn, the more reaction there is against them and they just reinforce us.
The other thing is how politically mixed the support has been. It’s not a firm left support, it’s much looser and more heterogenous. Of course that doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t be firmly involved and try to influence things, but we won’t do that if we assume everyone is fully paid up to all the things the left is for. That will just turn people off.
What have you and other LRCers focused on?
I organised in my constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn, for getting people along to the nominating meeting — we lost to Yvette Cooper by one vote. Interestingly our MP, Tulip Siddiq, was backing Andy Burnham but he came fourth. To give her credit we persuaded her to nominate Jeremy and, though she was not supporting him, she defended the decision publicly when it was attacked.
Our Labour Party branches have been doing a weekly stall on the local High Road for the last two years and in the last two months it’s noticeable that everyone who stops wants to speak about the leadership election and a clear majority support Corbyn.
I’ve been active in the social media stuff, encouraging long-standing political contacts and friends to sign up as members or supporters — some of whom have been purged.
The LRC did a public leaflet early on encouraging people to sign up and vote, and LRC members in lots of places have been doing stalls, or been involved as organisers for some of the big meetings, as well as doing phone banks and so on. We’ve generally helped to build the campaign. Also, and I think this is very important, LRC members played a good role in winning union support, particularly in Unison.
What are the main tasks for the left?
I’d argue that we need a new organisation bringing together the whole of the Labour left, and that’s the only way we’ll attract significant numbers to get on board, a significant chunk of the tens of thousands who volunteered to actively support Corbyn. Obviously people are already joining existing organisations in small numbers, but only small numbers. Those organisations don’t have strong roots in most of the places where there is strong Corbyn supporter — either where it’s not that organised formally or where there’s a strong local group.
I don’t think the right will be stupid enough to try to kick Corbyn out in the next few months, but they will try to undermine him in any way they can, and unless we have strong, organised support inside and outside the party he won’t be able to do things, even opposing austerity.
What demands should the left raise?
On structures and democracy the main thing is to reinstate conference as a proper decision making, binding body, which also means scrapping the National Policy Forum, which was only put together to take away power from conference. We need to encourage democracy at every level. Branches feel they might be able to put a resolution to their GC [CLP General Committee] once in a while if they’re lucky; we’ve got to create a situation where those resolutions have some meaning.
Jeremy has been talking about a dedicated consultation on party democracy quite quickly, which could get round the fact that otherwise we won’t be able to make rule changes until next year and implement them even later.
The debate about reselection is a tactical thing. Reselection is already there, and if people have support it can be done. I would favour introducing proper, much stronger, mandatory reselection, but it’s a question of how fast you proceed, as the next election isn’t until 2020. The Tories’ boundary changes also throw everything up in the air as there won’t be many sitting MPs whose constituencies remain unchanged. In some ways it’s red herring: the right are using it as a way to say they don’t want to be accountable. On councillors too, we’ve got to get through the idea that representatives are accountable.
The immediate issue is the Trade Union Bill, and the party throwing its weight behind opposition to it, not just in Parliament — though it’s not impossible we could win there — but also giving support to the lobbies and protests and actions that unions and campaigners take. Corbyn will give that commitment. We need to make sure it’s real in practice.
Beyond this, we need to put opposition to the existing anti-union laws back on the table; I’m sure John McDonnell will be keen to raise this as he did under the last Labour government. More generally we need to make unions central to the party again.
The other things are anti-austerity, reversing cuts, wages in the public sector as well as private, but of course there will be a fight in the party about that too.
What Corbyn’s campaign has been saying is quite moderate, not really socialist at all. How should socialists respond to that?
Yes, especially on economic policy, a lot of it is quite moderate, and I think there may well be a pressure for that from within the core of the campaign. There’s a lot of stuff said, for instance in terms of “tax justice”, which is absolutely right, but quite moderate in terms of what you do with the economy. Some of it has been better, for instance on the railways, where Jeremy went beyond nationalisation to talk about it being run by workers and service-users.
There’s whole swathes of issues which haven’t been raised, particularly on the politics of the workplace — zero hours contracts or how companies like Amazon treat their workers. All that needs to become a very big deal if we’re going to build the organisation and support that’s necessary in the unions, I don’t mean at the top level, but at the workplace level.
What we mustn’t do is rest on the fact that national unions have given support. We know that some of them were more solid but many very shaky, and doing it partly for opportunistic reasons or reluctantly, for internal union reasons. That’s certainly true in Unite and Unison. Unless we take the political fight through to branches and into the workplace, it will remain shaky and general secretaries may well try to rein things in and, far from promoting left policies and party democracy, insist on compromises with the right. Also, unless the unions are much more militant in their opposition to austerity, the whole thing will lack legs.
The left shouldn’t just act as cheerleaders for Jeremy; if possible we should avoid conflict with him, but we also need an independent socialist assessment of what to push. There needs to be a whole debate about priorities, but also a recognition that for many of the new supporters and activists, a lot of this is new ground, for instance in terms of workplace struggles. There’s an educational process needed.
How can we get a new united Labour left?
What’s on the table at the moment is the existing Labour left groups working together on various things. In my view that falls far short of what is necessary. But perhaps unsurprisingly there’s a reluctance to dissolve into something bigger and more dynamic. In the short term that coalition is what we’ll have, I think, but in the longer term things are up in the air. Certainly the LRC will continue to push that we need more.
Where there are strong groups on the ground, where people have really started to organise locally, they need to discuss this and put pressure on the national left organisations, to say it’s not good enough to just work together, we need more than that. If that pressure comes from below that could shift things. The moves in the youth section towards a more united organisation could help there too.