Weekend Round-Up -- 8 September 2008

Following Charles Clarke's intervention in the New Statesman last week, the commentariat turned up t

Alastair Campbell used an appearance on Newsnight to call on Charles Clarke to stop acting like a newspaper pundit and rally to the cause of the Labour Party. It may be the case that the former Home Secretary's intervention did not lead to open insurrection, but it certainly led to a flurry of further commentary.

Matthew Parris was devastating in The Times on Saturday. For those of us on the centre-left this is his most cutting paragraph:

And yet even outside the formal confines of the Labour movement - in the universities, in the newspapers, in the broadcast media - where are the voices raised from the Left, prepared to acknowledge this spasm, and distinguish between the failure of an individual, and the failure of an ideology? Is Polly Toynbee almost on her own? Has the whole centre left project lost its self-belief, taking refuge only in days, hours and minutes left profitlessly in office?

Actually those voices are everywhere. As a Tory, I wouldn't expect him to hear them. Perhaps Polly Toynbee is the only person on the left Mr Parris listens to or reads. However, this is an article that everyone on the left should read because it is a challenge to us to help save the Labour Party from the impending cataclysm.
Parris could not have known that Polly Toynbee was preparing another broadside, but she chose Saturday for another full-frontal attack on the Prime Minister. From a woman who treated Gordon Brown as a god when he took over a year ago, this is terribly damaging. The title, "Unseating Gordon Brown may be Labour's last hope", pretty much says it all. This is her killer paragraph:

Soon Cameron's lead will be gold-plated, his succession virtually inevitable. Another year effectively unchallenged by Labour, his contradictions and vacuities unridiculed and unexposed, will gift him an almost unopposed victory. Already at conferences the lobby groups and voluntary organisations hang on every word of shadow ministers, yawning through mere ministers on their way out. Already power, money, glamour, foreign interest and attention flock to Cameron in a political tide whose undertow knocks Labour off its feet with every wave.

On Sunday, Matthew d'Ancona was on form in the Telegraph. He has identified the dangerous return of sectarianism in Labour politics:

In the spirit of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Tony Blair is becoming the Emmanuel Goldstein of today's Labour party, the fabricated enemy, and his followers - or imagined followers - the seditious "Brotherhood". Can it be long before huge tele-screens appear in public places to beam out pictures of the grinning former Prime Minister for the daily "Two Minutes Hate"?

John Rentoul was saying the opposite of what you'd expect (as ever) in calling for a show of loyalty from Charles Clarke and other Labour Party critics.
Today Jackie Ashley couldn't bring herself to call for the Prime Minister to go again. Instead, she suggests the beginnings of a way forward, not just for the Labour Party, but for politics in general:

What is needed is the arrival in the Commons of people who have not learned professional politics, have never served as advisers and have no idea what Populus means. Local parties need to start taking risks - I'm not talking about quotas but about sparky individuals, with the odd skeleton, the occasional surprising view. The media has to celebrate different voices and faces where they appear, and not pick on every unexpected remark as a "gaffe". For all that the mainstream media seized on Alastair Darling's pessimistic assessment of the economy as a stupendous own goal, the general public seem to like the fact he "told the truth".

Perhaps not quite the reassessment Matthew Parris is calling for, but hats off to Jackie Ashley for trying.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.