A new division on the British left is emerging which could shape Labour’s future. The old campaigning left, which underpins Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and position, is being diluted by a new wave of activists who are less committed to Labour’s hard left.
This split has emerged as Britain’s protest culture is having a renaissance following Donald Trump’s election and the EU referendum result. Those running anti-Trump and anti-Brexit protests are becoming increasingly estranged from the Labour party. They tend to be younger, newer to campaigning and less tribal about party politics than what one protester calls “the usual suspects”. These include the Socialist Workers Party and Stop the War, established and (some would say, discredited) movements associated with Labour’s hard left.
Divide and protest
This split is being referred to by party insiders as “Stop the War versus Stop Trump”. There is a divide between the tone and politics of the former – which was chaired by Jeremy Corbyn for four years – and the new campaign coalition started by columnist Owen Jones and several Momentum organisers in response to the new US President.
“There’s definitely a difference in approach going on,” says Michael Chessum, a Momentum activist and Stop Trump organiser. “What you’ve got in Stop Trump is a huge, broad church coalition, with people ranging from a long way from my left to a long way to my right. On the one hand, Unison [the UK’s second biggest trade union, which has a soft-left reputation] was very supportive – right over to people from radical direct action groups, and everything in between.”
Chessum tells me Stop Trump is “trying to build a coalition that’s a genuine coalition, rather than a coalition that’s run by a central core”, using a variety of tactics to pursue its cause. These include acts of civil disobedience and big, well-funded marches.
“That does contrast with the conventional, institutional politics of the left that has grown up through the Stop the War coalition and all the rest of it,” he adds. “It’s not a left/right question, it’s a new/old question . . . It’s a question of how one generation hands over to the next generation.”
What does this mean for Labour?
Jeremy Corbyn has long been involved in the left’s campaigning history. But many within the movement which propelled him to power are changing their approach.
Some Momentum members – and other related campaigns – are frustrated by the hierarchical, centralised nature of the old-school hard left. Some feel that Momentum should be acting as a bridge between the Labour party and apolitical social movements, rather than simply acting as a “permanent standing leadership campaign” for Corbyn.
“There are people involved whose instincts and comfort zone are very much counting up your delegates at conference and all the rest,” Chessum tells me. “And that’s essential – you can’t do without that.
“The old Labour left really did not ever have a proper social movement perspective. It never really focused on any of that. It’s weird now it has to cope with the role of bridging [the party and social movements], which, for a lot of people on the old Labour left, really is not their natural instinct. Their natural instinct is the permanent standing leadership campaign.”
With Momentum’s “purity” being diluted, the party’s hard left could be weakened – its standing army hollowed out by less tribal forces. This could, in turn, make Corbyn’s support base more precarious.
A senior Green party source familiar with left-wing campaigning calls new movements like Stop Trump “vaguely Laboury, Greeny, people into issue-based campaigning. People are maybe a little bit more fluid about it . . . a general sense that, in these kind of times, being non-partisan’s useful. Obviously a lot of people who are any way involved in the left and Labour, they voted for Jeremy – there’s been a definite flaking off of that [support].”
Those on the campaign scene note that the signatories on letters sent to the Guardian ahead of the demonstration against Donald Trump’s state visit and the founding of the Stop Trump coalition “excluded the SWP”.
“A lot of those old left voices aren’t there anymore,” says a source close to the campaign. “That seems to be quite a conscious thing; I think it’s probably a positive thing. It used to be that there were about six different SWP fronts, and there seems to be a general move away from that . . . My impression is it was definitely not going for those same old voices.”
Indeed, the Bridges Not Walls protest following Trump’s inauguration included a greater proportion of people who were participating in their first ever action than usual. A survey shown to the New Statesman by its organisers finds that half the people who turned up to each of the bridge protests “didn’t know any or most of the people at their banner drop”, and 17 per cent said they, “have not been involved in similar events before”.
The new split on the left can’t simply be seen as a generational divide. Some 56 per cent of those who participated in Bridges Not Walls were over 40. “A lot of people are becoming a lot more engaged in community politics – young and older,” remarks one figure who was involved.
The Stop the War versus Stop Trump divide is not simply a case of young people campaigning differently from their predecessors – it marks a shift from the hard left of the Labour party using social movements as a political tool.
“The demographics are different,” says a senior Green party source. “Very young, very mixed, not your classic bearded activist types. People are jumping around looking for stuff to be involved in. And I do wonder if, because of what’s happened with Corbyn’s Labour – whoever you blame for it – people feel that it’s not quite working and are now searching for different things.”