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How Jeremy Corbyn can beat the establishment

Ian Sinclair talks to George Lakey, Matt Kennard and Alex Nunns

ImageIan Sinclair writes: My new Peace News article ‘The biggest fight of our lives’ includes comments from George Lakey, Matt Kennard and Alex Nunns. Due to space considerations I could only include a small portion of the commentary each of them sent me in the article itself. Below are their full comments.

Why is Jeremy Corbyn seen as such a threat to the British establishment?

Matt Kennard, author of The Racket: Corbyn is seen as such a threat to the British elite and establishment because he is a major threat to their interests. They are not stupid. They understand when a political figure and movement endangers their ability to retain domination of the economy and political system. Never in the history of Britain has an anti-imperialist socialist ascended to the position of leading any of the major parties. It's huge moment in British history - and arguably world history. If he becomes Prime Minister it will be the first core capital country ruled by an anti-imperialist socialist. They have every right to be fearful. Corbyn is the real deal, he can't be assimilated into the state-capitalist elite's framework on either end of their spectrum. Because of that they have to turn to unconventional warfare, which we've seen over the past two years every day.

The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that Another World Is Possible. His vision is optimistic about what we can achieve as a species and upends all the useful ideology that has been built up over the neoliberal period that says we have to cut public spending and to eliminate any idea of collectivism. Corbyn has shown that it doesn't have to be like that, and not only that, but these policies are popular amongst the electorate. He has put to bed for generations the idea that left ideas can't win elections, the idea they've been beating us with ever since 1983 and Michael Foot's 'longest suicide note in history'. Now, we find out that actually it was the policies themselves that the Labour right didn't like, not that they won't win elections. The 2017 elections changed everything.

ImageAlex Nunns author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power: There was a period when Labour under Corbyn was accused of being no more radical than under Ed Miliband, but those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto. It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail, for example. The difference is shown by the two leaders’ tuition fees proposals. Miliband’s offer to reduce tuition fees by £3,000 to £6,000 was a neat encapsulation of his entire leadership strategy: well-intentioned but timid. Corbyn had a no-nonsense approach: Labour will abolish fees all together.

There’s clearly been a fundamental shift in Labour policy. If you look at the policy papers Corbyn released in the 2015 leadership contest, which were pulled together in a rush by his policy advisor Andrew Fisher, so many of them appear in the 2017 manifesto, also authored by Andrew Fisher. A National Education Service, rent controls, a National Investment Bank—it’s remarkable the extent to which Labour ran a general election on Corbyn’s leadership contest platform. That programme was such an astonishing success in 2015 precisely because it was such a break from Labour under Blair, Brown and Miliband, so I don’t think it’s possible any more to argue that Corbyn offers reheated Milibandism.

Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for more than three decades. Extracted from its political context, Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be seen as quite mild compared to historic socialist and social democratic programmes. But politics is all about context, and while the manifesto was not perfect, it represented a bold challenge to the status quo. It unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements.

Of course what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance, which wasn’t so clearly represented in the manifesto—for example the continuation of Trident was in there because it is Labour Party policy, but it’s obviously not Corbyn’s preference. But I think the British state fears that he means what he says on foreign policy, and if he was prime minister he would have an enormous opportunity to transform Britain’s role in the world. That would meet fierce resistance.

If Corbyn's Labour Party is elected into government at the next general election, how do you think the British establishment will try to undermine it?

AN: In every way possible! We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected. They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run. We’ve already seen threats of a military coup against Corbyn.

There is one caveat though: how vociferous these efforts are depends on the circumstances. We don’t know when the next election will be, but it’s possible that the instability of Brexit will present a unique historical opportunity for a radical Labour government. The forces of capital are not onside with the Conservative Party’s version of Brexit. It’s possible to imagine circumstances where tolerating a Corbyn government, at least in the short term, becomes an option for them. It was very interesting in the 2017 general election that business and the state did not intervene in any major way on the side of Theresa May. No doubt that was largely because they all expected a Tory landslide anyway, but what didn’t happen in the election was almost as interesting as what did. There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time. But Brexit throws a unique variable into the equation.

ImageMK: Well, the method of choice in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations. I'm thinking of people like Allende in Chile or Lumumba in the Congo. I wouldn't expect that to happen in the UK, but the establishment has never been tested properly in this way for centuries (we never had a revolution in the French sense so the social relations and the aristocracy are literally centuries old).

But there's other ways to do it. And actually what is happening to Donald Trump in the US is instructive. I despite everything he stands for and worry for the future of humanity while he is president, but it's still clear that the overt imposition of the deep state into the political life of the US is hugely worrying. If they do this to a far-right oligarch who threatens what the establishment wants, they will do the same, probably worse to a left-wing version who doesn't accede to bombing the designated enemy of the day.

George Lakey author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can: They will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose! If they are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence.

Military generals agree with Gandhi about the importance of staying on the offensive. Even folk wisdom has an appropriate saying: “The best defence is an offensive.” So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains. Even when Corbyn himself is attacked, an obvious thing for them to do, don't meet them on their terms but instead borrow the old civil rights expression and “keep your eye on the prize:” escalate your efforts to make new demands and new gains.

How can activists, grassroots groups and concerned citizens support Corbyn's Labour Party in office?

AN: The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else—it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done. Corbyn was leader of a party he did not control. When there was an emergency, such as the coup in 2016 or the general election in 2017, the movement that propelled Corbyn to the fore showed how powerful it was. But in between times, when the action receded to Westminster, there were lulls in the movement and Corbyn struggled as a result. The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government. For this whole project to achieve success, it won’t be enough to have Corbyn as prime minister. He will face resistance. Only the political strength of a movement embedded in society will be able to push him through it. It will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far, not even in the general election. This pressure will need to be exerted not only in the Labour Party, but in the broader social movements. How can Corbyn change foreign policy without a powerful anti-war movement? How can he overturn the economic orthodoxy of decades without the anti-austerity movement buttressing him? It has been an exhilarating two years since Corbyn emerged, but the work of campaigners and activists has only just begun.

MK: I think it's clear that just getting out on the streets and talking with people and telling [them] what Corbyn's Labour is about is powerful. The Momentum mobilisation during the general election was amazing. I door knocked for the first time and I'll do it a lot more. It's really important. Also, making sure the Labour Party is democratised in this period is so important. This is our chance to open the party up and make it a mass social movement rather than a plaything for elite liberals who want power. The numbers are on our side which is why the Labour establishment is trying so hard to stop the many efforts to democratise the party and give more power to members. I would give up if I were them, it's never going to be stopped now, there are too many of us who have been galvanised and involved. Every member vote is won overwhelming now by Corbyn-affiliated candidates. So everyone should join Labour and Momentum. This is a unique historic moment and chance and we have to grab the opportunity.

The other thing is become active on social media. I was initially resistant to social media because I think it plays on some of the worst aspects of human nature, especially narcissism. But the general election proved how important it is now. The Sun and The Daily Mail no longer have the power to sway elections through doing PR for establishment. When they spout lies and nonsense, they will be shamed online, it happens all the time. It's powerful and we should continue doing it.

ImageGL: What puts us on the offensive, where we can win, is (1) to identify just demands that are in alignment with widely-shared values and can be expressed in common-sense terms. Then (2) to identify a target that can deliver that demand, which might be governmental but could instead be an economic entity like a bank or corporation. Then (3) to launch (or reinforce) a nonviolent direct action campaign that (a) uses a series of escalated actions and (b) attracts a growing series of allies.

A cluster of campaigns around a particular issue becomes a movement. One advantage of a movement is that any particular campaign can succeed or fail in achieving its particular demand but the movement as a whole can nevertheless succeed. Another advantage of a grassroots movement is that it stimulates campaigns around other issues, which in turn can cluster into movements. In the process of all this it’s wise to do intentional leadership development and empowerment at the grassroots, without which the one percent continues to hold too much power no matter how much drama we create with our campaigns.

As the number of movements grows, it becomes possible to create a “movement of movements.” In that stage we become a decisive force on the macro-level and provide openings for Corbyn and other party political leaders to do their part in the arena of state power and, so to speak, “seal the deal.”

Fortunately, we have nearby examples of successful strategy in 1920s and ‘30s Norway and Sweden, especially in their understanding of the role of political parties in making fundamental change. They understood the difference between the tail and the dog. The dog was the animating power of social movements -- mobilized grassroots coercive power for change. The tail was the political parties that represented the grassroots in Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments.

The movements’ mobilizations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the parties. The movements strategized independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society. They saw the political party as the tail of the dog, expressive and useful, but not the same as the animating force, which is the heart and mind of the dog. Jeremy Corbyn’s career has shown how much he understands how fundamental the movements are; the question is whether his new young followers understand that.

I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on Parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has out-performed Britain and the U.S. for over 60 years. From the perspective of power, Parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.

If Jeremy Corbyn is somehow elected Prime Minister, the great temptation in Britain will be to repeat what I call the Obama Syndrome. In the U.S. progressives saw Obama’s election as placing our ally in the White House. What most forgot is that the priority duty of the state’s leader in the U.S. (and UK) is to govern, that is, to hold the state together while managing it. Most progressives fantasized that Obama could instead lead the country into a disruptive period of major change.

I knew that Obama wanted to do so: he’d already acknowledged the correctness of a single payer health plan like Canada’s, and the primacy of avoiding austerity, making peace, and even dealing with climate change. Like the UK, however, the U.S. remains dominated by its one percent no matter who is elected president. Changing that power dynamic cannot happen via the electoral arena, especially when the leader’s party base (the Democrats in the U.S., the Labour Party in the UK) is already owned by the elite.

The way to use an ally in the position of President or Prime Minister is not to fantasize that “they can lead us” but to create the conditions under which they can use their limited power in a one percent-dominated system to tip the balance in struggles between the majority and the one percent.

I knew that Obama would need militant mass movements using direct action to enable him to manoeuvre for major policy changes. Americans were befuddled, however, about which was the dog and which was the tail, and somehow expected Obama to deliver outcomes even though the masses of people were not demanding them through direct action.

The good news if Corbyn is elected is that progressives can do what grassroots movements do best: people power. We can give up one-off protests (rarely worth the time and effort) and organize direct action campaigns with specific demands that can be formulated as common sense and gain wide support, then implement a strategy of escalation in which, to use Dr Martin Luther King’s phrase, a “crisis is created” that forces a response on the state level.

The bad news if Corbyn is elected is the temptation to repeat the Obama Syndrome: an electorate that believes it delivered a “mandate” for change and is disappointed that the valiant leader didn’t somehow “deliver.” A “mandate” is a concept in search of legs; it has no power on its own. Progressive power comes from the collective, disruptive nonviolent action of the people.

One way to use the Corbyn political moment is to allow the freshness that he represents to spread to our own movement actions and organizing methods. For example, progressives could experiment with “taking the pledge” at the outset of each campaign, agreeing never to organize a march or rally.

Why? The pledge empowers the creativity that is too often suppressed at the grassroots. I’ve found that campaigners taking the pledge come up with a marvellous diversity of actions that energize them and motivate others to join them. Their creativity itself breaks through the disempowerment that keeps so many on the sidelines. Nearly 200 different methods of campaigning are on a website, documented in over 1400 campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/). You need never march or organize a rally again!