For regular readers of this website, you’ll know a significant part of my transition from rebellious angry young man to pro-active protester came with 2003’s attack on Iraq and our unprecedented global movement in opposition to it. It’s almost a cliché – millions of us were radicalised by this, and it linked over from marches, demonstrations, and protests into public meetings and an appetite for anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism.
As the illegal invasion of Iraq and the “War on Terror” became an attack on civil liberties that complemented Tony Blair’s obsession with the police state and its CCTV cameras and ID cards, in 2005 a Brazilian electrician by the name of Jean Charles de Menezes was pumped full of bullets on a London Underground train in a horrific case of mistaken identity driven by a particularly ugly strain of racial ignorance. In the midst of my activism, I visited the memorial at Stockwell tube station and was haunted by the prospect that no one was going to be held to account for taking the life of this poor innocent person, and what the implications of this were for many of us.
Still ignored by the powers that be, thousands of us protested the G20 Summit in London in 2009, where I witnessed first-hand the further brute force of the police protecting powerful interests, attacking peaceful protests, kicking old women in the face, then bragging about it later, and – yards from me – assaulting a newspaper vendor named Ian Tomlinson, who died from his injuries. I was there. I was horrified. And again, they got away with it.
My political activism continued, only galvanised by the deep feelings of injustice brought about by such travesties as these. But a lot of the “movement” had lost momentum, and there was simply not enough preparation for arguments in favour of clear alternatives to capitalism; the 2008/09 economic crisis was, quite incredibly, used by those in power to actually make the poor poorer and the rich richer as Britain struggled to recover from Thatcherism and Thatcher’s “greatest achievement” that was indeed Blair’s New Labour. As a young man, I was able to vote in general elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005, and not one of those times did I vote for Labour. But in 2010, with the threat of a Conservative government very real and very frightening, I voted Labour for the first time. I even made a few friends in the party.
The remote chance of a departure from Blairism was represented by Ed Miliband, whose win over his brother David and others to become party leader in 2010 influenced me to actually join a political party for the first time and get involved. But over the years, despite defending Ed’s more “progressive” policies, I found it difficult to argue with other staunch anti-capitalist socialist members who felt he wasn’t strong enough on issues from migrants’ rights to redistribution of wealth and power. After the electoral defeat of 2015, mine was one of the 251,417 votes cast as we resoundingly chose Jeremy Corbyn to represent us in a leadership election that saw him beat Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall. Suddenly, we had a voice, for real, and ideas were heard: from strengthening our public services and nationalising the railways to universal basic income and shorter working weeks – anything was possible, and Corbyn’s own position nurtured a culture of anti-capitalist conversation and policy creation; we were now actively developing a vision of what the world can be post-capitalism. This obviously pissed off a fair few people in powerful positions.
Right off the bat, I wrote about the instant campaign to stop Jeremy Corbyn, and suggested it’d be a minor miracle if he was even able to get as far as a general election as Labour leader. Sure enough, careerist MPs – who had no care for what their party members and minions wanted – mounted a challenge to Corbyn’s position as leader, settling on a former Pfizer lobbyist, Owen Smith, as the one chosen to make the bid, or possibly even chosen to be the fall guy, depending on who you ask, as it may well have been less about actually toppling Corbyn’s status than just simply destabilising his leadership and undermining him (as Peter Mandelson worked hard every day to indeed do). Nonetheless, in their re-match, the establishment lost to Corbyn again – who this time gained an even bigger win, with 313,209 votes this time. The party, as a result, was bigger and stronger than ever before as an activist base – and it showed.
In 2017, we actually came close to having a Corbyn-led Labour government, with the biggest swing since just after the Second World War. (Some reckoned another couple of weeks of campaigning, and Britain would have had its first-ever anti-imperialist in Number 10.)
This was Corbyn’s moment. His leadership had encouraged engagement with party members in communities across the country, but what he wasn’t doing was letting them deep into the party to drive it forward – no, it was the “PLP” that stood firmly in power. There was no way of us deciding to have a different person represent us as an MP unless we went about aggressive, toxic, negative campaigns to oust them. Even the Americans were ahead of us on this in many ways.
MPs of the metropolitan elites were standing firm, and being a party member for these years I saw the process clearly with my own eyes: if you kissed ass, joined some trade union, perhaps sat on the board of a local charity, took on a particular vote-winning issue as your own, and had maybe been a councillor for a time, you knew you’d become an MP – and if you were particularly privileged, they’d just send you somewhere there was a “safe” seat to sit in to ensure you’d look strong in, say, a shadow cabinet role. Yes, you could spot the careerists a mile away, and those few that were just encouraged to stand as candidates to genuinely represent the members of their community choosing them rarely succeeded. This was Labour. And it stayed the same throughout Corbyn’s leadership. The power structures largely remained unchanged, and Labour was still disconnected from the communities it lost in the post-industrial years.
With such a disconnect, and such a massive presence in the party for the capitalist careerists and Centrist Dads, the Labour Party – rather than respecting the results of the referendum – made one key, crucial (and ultimately fatal) change to their position in the very next general election: they provided a possibility for a reversal of Brexit. Amongst those who pushed for this ultimately disastrous shift were Sir Keir Starmer and others Corbyn kept close.
Sir Keir Starmer: his name may have sounded familiar. You may remember him from such documentaries as McLibel, or it may be that when you looked into the horrific tragedies of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson that you realised that it was Sir Keir Starmer who – as Director of Public Prosecutions – decided not to prosecute the police that killed these innocent men who were minding their own business. In fact, you might recollect Sir Keir Starmer being an obstacle to our right to assembly, which I’m sure was just a coincidence. Or perhaps it was that you recall Sir Keir Starmer being the one who wanted to utilise the Fraud Act against the tiny minority who wrongly claimed social security payments so that they could be thrown in prison for ten years. Or hey, it may just be that you remember seeing Sir Keir Starmer’s letter of resignation to Jeremy Corbyn as part of the coordinated assault on Corbyn’s leadership, Starmer reasoning that he didn’t really want to, but a load of other careerists were doing it, so that’s all the rationale he needed. Now that’s strong leadership! It explains why, then – when new-but-not-improved Labour (now with Brexit-reversing powers!) were suddenly destroyed – that not only were the Owen Smith gang behind Starmer’s recent campaign to become leader, but that he was the only contender dragging his feet on revealing where his money was coming from. Probably Pfizer or someone, you’d be forgiven for thinking!
Ultimately, this weekend, Sir Keir Starmer became Labour leader. With Jeremy Corbyn going quietly, there was now no competition for the establishment; no resistance; nothing standing in their way of getting one of their own back in a position of power, and the party power structures are still intact. There was no one left to inspire. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir Starmer didn’t actually win the Labour leadership – he came second. While, as cited above, Corbyn got 251,417 votes the first time (with 131,350 not voting) and the second time 313,209 (with 146,188 not voting), Starmer got 275,780…and a staggering 293,420 weren’t even inspired enough to bother to vote. Starmer voters came second to non-voters. So despite odious political commentators like Paul Waugh calling it “a hell of a grassroots mandate,” in fact the opposite is true. Turnout was lower – in 2015, it was 73.3%, in 2016 it was 77.6% with Corbyn’s mass movement gaining momentum; this time it was 62.6%. This is the antithesis of a grassroots mandate. But establishment media pundits do their job.
The establishment media now, then, will adapt accordingly. Expect them to attempt to reinforce their “impartial” gimmick by happily switching between establishment Labour and Conservative commentary – with occasional “dissenting” voices from the likes of Nadia Whittome, Zarah Sultana, and even Jeremy Corbyn himself, still aired as lone voices framed in a larger establishment narrative, which always works a treat as they can claim they’re giving them airtime, yet by juxtaposition make them look zany in contrast to the near-24/7 barrage of establishment consensus on business as usual.
Yes, Jeremy Corbyn himself didn’t do enough to enact Nye Bevan’s purpose – to have power in order to be able to give it away. He was an incredible representation of socialism’s popularity in a country sick to death of the same old capitalist establishment, but ultimately while failing to carve open his party to welcome the members’ deep involvement or to re-engage with the party’s so-called “heartlands” in a post-industrial era, he also allowed the establishment to retain its grip on power in the party. Again, the only significant change from 2017 to 2019 was Corbyn’s respect for the EU referendum result. John McDonnell enabled this cabal, and in turn Corbyn buckled, and it would be his undoing.
People sometimes say “nice guys finish last,” but there’s nothing mutually exclusive about being nice as well as doing what’s right; in fact, to me they’re the same thing – and the right thing to do was to genuinely build on the given mandate in 2017, use that momentum to get back into the communities, have open selections, remove the iron grip of the careerist PLP, and to stand strong on democracy. Party politics ain’t pretty for goodness sake. But this is where we should still go easy on Corbyn: we chose him; he was arguably the first party leader who wasn’t a careerist – he was quite content to be a back-bencher, maintaining a near-impeccable voting history and track record of activism, but was the party’s latest chosen pick as token “looney lefty” which they like to include on ballots to maintain the lie of the “broad church.” Corbyn’s lack of ambition is why we chose him – and, in turn, in many ways the reason why he was doomed to fail. As first and foremost a democrat, he wanted to listen. But if you give a voice to everyone, even those who wish to crush democracy and dissent itself, you end up betraying the principles of democracy. You cannot do that. You have to be tough.
It’s fitting that – in the midst of a global pandemic – Sir Keir Starmer becomes Labour leader with no embraces, no fanfare, no rallies (his gang hated rallies, anyway, remember?); it’s an office desk signature on an envelope sealing the party’s fate. If Labour’s only failure in the general election of just a few months ago was betraying its “heartlands” who voted for Brexit, rightly or wrongly, and who railed against the establishment, then it’s a twisted, cruel joke to choose a knighted lawyer from the prawn cocktail circuit who campaigned to remain in the European Union. But the establishment wins either way whether Sir Keir Starmer gets into Downing Street or not – as with Jeremy Corbyn’s American counterpart, Bernie Sanders, the establishment seated comfortably in the thrones of capitalism’s kingdom would prefer a fascist in power than any attempt at overhauling the corrupt system altogether. It’s why Elizabeth Warren, a woman who stood and applauded Donald Trump when he claimed “America will never be a socialist country,” refused to support Bernie Sanders recently: capitalists would rather do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo than let us “trots” and “dogs” and “commies” into power. Back in 1982, Tony Benn is believed to have said:
If the Labour Party could be bullied or persuaded to denounce its Marxists, the media – having tasted blood – would demand next that it expelled all its socialists and reunited the remaining Labour Party with the SDP to form a harmless alternative to the Conservatives, which could then be allowed to take office now and then when the Conservatives fell out of favour with the public. Thus British capitalism, it is argued, will be made safe forever, and socialism would be squeezed off the national agenda.
As I suggested when I quit the Labour party a year ago in the midst of vile smears, it’s still worth voting. It’s worth being outside a party and leaving those careerist MPs in their supposedly safe seats wondering exactly what you’ll do. It’s fun. You get a sense of control back. This last year, I’ve felt more free than I probably ever have politically. It’s like neurons have reconnected; my world view has felt broader, and I’ve realised I was almost self-censoring in so many ways, as I began to even accept certain norms of party politics, as though we wanted to court favour with establishment media, or “wealth creators.” Ha. I now see more clearly than ever before that the ones creating the wealth are the workers whose labour value is exploited for the benefit of the capitalist class. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently stated, “You don’t make a billion dollars, you take a billion dollars.” I’ve also realised that hierarchical structures are a key part of the establishment – pitting people against each other based on their differences, rather than genuinely valuing diversity. I could go on. But trust me, you don’t have to be paying the little money you have into a political party that doesn’t give a shit about you. They treat you like a useful idiot. You deserve better. Get the F out, then go cast your vote with no illusions. But most important of all, stay active. Get involved in your community. Have conversations; get shit done. And the wonderful thing is, people listen to you more when you’re not wearing a political party pin badge or rosette; when you ain’t representing something that carries with it a burden of assumptions about who you are. Trust me, you’ll enjoy the freedom.
As the old 1980s anarchist sticker said, “life can be magic when we start to break free.”