Labour Must Become A Mass Social Movement Again


The UKIP Performance in Clacton and Heywood has shown the scale of disillusionment with all the main parties.

In Scotland the No campaign may have won, but the reason the Yes campaign picked up such momentum, especially in working class, usually Labour voting, areas was that the Labour Party is now seen as part of the Westminster establishment.

Most who voted UKIP or in Scotland to set up a new country were rejecting the politics that had brought them unemployment, inequality, the Bedroom Tax, privatisation and poverty. The reason UKIP can opportunistically exploit every grievance of many working class people and target migrants is because Labour has been so feeble in putting forward solutions to the real issues people are burdened with on a daily basis.

It’s easy to forget that the Labour Party and trade unions were once an exciting mass social movement for radical change and were set up to tear down the established order – not to become part of it.

If Labour is ever to return to power, it has to become a real social movement again, motivated by anger at the injustices of our corrupt, unfair and incompetent system and a passion for the vision of a new society.

If the Labour leadership is too hindered by self-doubt or by fear of the establishment to take on the role of leading that transformation of the Party into a social movement, then the left, including the LRC, must do so.

How do we do it? It’s by reversing the role of leadership. When leaders don’t lead, we all have to become leaders. When the formal structures of an organisation become so sclerotic that they can no longer respond, or move effectively, then we will have to bypass them with more spontaneous and efficient ways to mobilise.

In practice it means we seize on the issues that have to be addressed and tackle them with issue based, grassroots campaigning. Our campaigns need to be rooted in the hardships and anger of our people.

The track record of the current Labour leadership is that they will come on board when a public campaign has made it safe to do so. UK Uncut have proved this on tax justice and DPAC and Black Triangle on Atos and the WCA.

Here is a selection of a few key issues where a social movement campaign could shift opinion.

  • Economic Justice
    The economic crisis was caused by the corrupt workings of finance capital, with a major contribution from the City of London, represented by the City of London Corporation. Initially there was popular anger against the bankers but the City finance houses have walked away virtually scot free with the renewal of bonuses and share pay-outs. They are literally laughing all the way to the bank. A new campaign against the City, combining policy ideas and direct action to demand pay back from the City for the crisis they caused, could prove popular. The easiest and readily implementable demand could be the introduction of a Tobin Tax, plus the abolition of the undemocratic, secretive City Corporation.
  • NHS
    In addition to justifiable anxiety about the privatisation of the NHS, a financial crisis is hitting the service. Part of that crisis has been caused by the rip-offs involved in the Private Financial Initiatives (PFIs) forced on hospitals and health bodies. A short sharp direct action and publicity campaign against the firms who made, and are still making, such profits from PFIs could catch the public mood. If it’s good enough for Wonga to be forced to pay back and write off the debts of the people who were exploited, why not the same for the NHS.
  • Housing
    What has contributed to our housing crisis has been the property speculation by large landowners and developers. If any progressive government is to build the council homes we need, we have to tackle the supply of sites. A campaign against the main developers sitting on unused land, calling for compulsory purchase of empty properties and landholdings, combined with the call for rent controls and a Land Value Tax would set the housing debate alight.
  • Poverty
    Poverty pay has been forced on the political agenda by so many being unable to afford even to feed themselves and their families on their poverty wages. The fantastic Fast Food Campaign that we launched with the Bakers Union and the demand for a £10 an hour living wage is taking off. We need to throw our full resources into its direct action and trade union recruitment campaign – and look to extend it to other sectors.

These are just a few ideas of how we get back to our roots to rebuild our movement as a modern social movement from the timid, rudderless, bureaucratised, and largely failing project that it is today.

Photo: Louise Whittle
Hear more at the LRC Annual Conference : LRC Conference

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

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