10 September 2019

How Labour can win from below

Mark Perryman, editor of our new book, Corbynism from Below, makes the case for bottom-up tactical campaigning.

For the past two years I’ve been touring Constituency Labour Parties talking about my previous book The Corbyn Effect. The most depressing part of what are otherwise always brilliant discussions has invariably been my own firm insistence that there-will-be-no-early-general-election, in which I advise instead that we put May 2022 in our diaries…Ah well, what do I know?

My insistence was based on the fact that the core ambition of the Conservative Party is to stay in power – the clue is in the name. Theresa May’s personal ambition was precisely this, to force through her Brexit deal at almost any cost, just so long as it kept her in Number Ten, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Labour rebels in tow if required. The Brexiteers, hardened by decades of backbench rebellion against all matters European, weren’t numerous enough to eject May, only to oppose her deal – with Labour and the opposition also opposing, for entirely different reasons. The Brexiteers’ desire to get rid of May could only translate into change once Boris Johnson turned his naked lust for power into a serious leadership bid and the promise that he would win them the next election.   

Despite the left’s well-founded loathing for Johnson and his sidekick Dominic Cummings, it would be foolhardy to underestimate either man. Their aim is to cobble together an ambush, in and out of Parliament, in which the Tories’ pitch is for – don’t laugh – ‘we the people’, versus an Establishment led by Jeremy Corbyn.

The almost unprecedented co-operation between the opposition parties, and Tory rebels too, in response to this gambit, lends some credence to this ‘Establishment’ charge, aka ‘all politicians are the same’. Though such a charge is a tad more difficult to sustain when ‘the people’ amounts to Rees-Mogg being dispatched to Balmoral, cap – or, more likely, top hat – in hand to ask the queen to close down Parliament in order to allow Johnson and Cummings to proceed towards Brexit unimpeded by such democratic niceties as parliamentary scrutiny.  

What all this has done is both electrify and unify an opposition. But can such a united opposition last? If it doesn’t, there’s no doubt Johnson and Cummings will have the last laugh. Tens of thousands protesting in Whitehall, hundreds in town squares up and down the country, is an entirely different matter to winning the popular vote.

General-election campaigns are run top-down. The fixation is on the party leaders and the so-called ‘national picture’. But our rotten electoral system unwittingly affords the opportunity for the result to be determined in large measure from the bottom up. A generational Corbynism has been shaped by social movements, framed by networking, and organised primarily via digital politics. The ‘my party, right or wrong’ ethos of the Labour left (ironically shared by the Labour right) sits uneasily with this culture. This newer culture, in which loyalties are more circumspect, also appeals to an older generation who are attracted to Corbynism, but whose politics has never formed a part of Labour’s organised left.

In 2017, it was this emerging political culture that helped spark Momentum’s My Nearest Marginal campaign. In this, a bottom-up Labour membership, and friends and supporters, chose to campaign in places where Labour could actually win, not where a respectable third place was the best that could be hoped for. I call this ‘tactical campaigning’; working for a victory for the party you believe in, where it has a realistic prospect of winning – political action both practical and principled.

Of course, tactical voting will persist, and in key marginals will result in the defeat of the Tories – all to the good. But an electoral pact between the opposition parties would be top down; a corporatist politics that treats blocs of voters as pieces on an electoral chessboard. And, in any case, there remains no sign that parties are committing to it.

But the good news is that we can secure the same result ourselves – from below. We can go to wherever our party is best placed to beat the Tories, while scaling down activities in both no-hope and safe seats. We can reshape the electoral map through our own individual and collective action. If that’s not a politics from below, I don’t know what is. 

But in 2019 there is, of course, the added dimension of Brexit. Tactical campaigning needs to open up co-operation across the Remain parties, of which Labour is now irreversibly one. Of course there are differences among these parties, and Labour must feel free to articulate its own politics – to fail to do so would be disastrous. But where either Labour, Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru or the Greens cannot defeat the Tory incumbent, we must go to wherever one our respective parties can. This much, at least, we have in common, and we lose nothing by being honest in sharing that endeavour.

Of course, under our electoral system, no party leader goes into a campaign proclaiming their willingness to go into coalition. But blanket denial of this possibility fools no one, and entirely fails to win votes. There is space for greater honesty here. We know there are seats where gains can be made, and others where there will be losses. As we campaign in our localities, we encounter a changing electoral map that is more likely to end up with Labour leading a coalition than forming a government on its own, so why not embrace that possibility, rather than seek to deny its likelihood?   

What we need is a ‘Corbynism from below’, because ‘Corbynism from above’ is not, and never has been, sufficient. This is about a body of ideas – a movement – not one individual. And now, campaigning ‘from below’, we are uniquely well placed to contribute to removing Johnson and Cummings from Number Ten. And not just putting Jeremy Corbyn there in their place, but causing an almighty shock to a political system where power resides in corridors, not localities. Now that’s what I would call a result.