A new generation
After Saturday’s inspiring demonstration, Peter Manson asks what the next steps should be
The July 1 demonstration, organised by the People’s Assembly on the basis of “Tories out - not one day more”, was a huge success in terms of the numbers mobilised (although, of course, it did not quite manage to drive the “Tories out”).
It was certainly the biggest gathering I have seen in Parliament Square - far bigger than the equivalent mobilisation back in June 2015, when the PA claimed a grossly exaggerated “quarter million” had attended. This time, however, the more ‘modest’ 100,000 declared by the organisers might well have been accurate - the square was absolutely crammed and many more stood on the surrounding roads and footpaths.
The difference this time can be summed up in a single word - Corbynism. After the brilliantly successful general election campaign, it was clear that tens of thousands would come along just to see and hear Jeremy Corbyn, who has definitely become a phenomenon. Usually at such events people begin to drift away even before the first couple of speeches, but on Saturday almost everyone stayed put right until the end - the Labour leader was the very last speaker, mounting the platform around two hours after the rally began.
But in the intervening time there were continuous chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” every time a speaker made reference to the Labour Party, let alone its leader. It was the youth who were the most enthusiastic and, when Corbyn actually appeared, some of what he said was drowned out by the same ecstatic chants.
As most readers will know, he himself does nothing at all to encourage this hero-worship, never referring to ‘I’ or ‘me’, but to ‘we’ and ‘us’. And, in truth, his speeches nowadays are usually very short on substance - on detailed policies, for example. This time he said: “The Tories are in retreat, austerity is in retreat, the economic arguments of austerity are in retreat.” By contrast, it is the ideas “of social justice, of unity, of people coming together to oppose racism and all those that would divide us that are the ones that are moving forward”. For “This is the age of imagination, this is the age in which we will achieve that decency and social justice that we all crave.”
So, yes, we are against austerity, but the alternative is, by and large, summed up by the totally vague “decency and social justice”. True, Corbyn, constantly demands greater funding for the national health service, for education, for housing, but the precise policies - let alone any vision of an alternative form ofsociety - are absent. Nevertheless, the mere posing of the possibility of something different, something totally opposed to the politics of austerity, is right now a message that has inspired a whole new generation.
So on July 1 it was very difficult to move very far in Parliament Square, such was the crush. Many of those present wore T shirts or badges with pro-Corbyn or pro-Labour slogans, and a large section of them were more than prepared to engage with those of us pushing a political message. A comrade from Labour Party Marxists told me that people were more than prepared to engage with him, when asked, “Are you a Labour Party member?” Half were and half were not. However, those who were not were more than open to the idea of joining in order to defend Corbyn and defeat the right. The party is, after all, still dominated by the ‘old politics’ when it comes to MPs, councillors and those who run it - from general secretary Iain McNicol down to many regional and local organisations. Not that the ‘new’ politics, as currently espoused by Corbyn, is sufficient, of course - that is what is meant by the need to “transform” Labour: into a genuinely pro-worker formation, open to all working class groups and individuals, but where there is no place for the pro-capitalists and warmongers.
This is the message we need to hammer home to the young Corbynistas - the need to focus their anger, their resentment, their sense of injustice into the Labour Party - with organisation we are everything, without organisation we are nothing.
But what is proposed by the movementist left? For example, this is what the PA organisers, led by the Counterfire comrades around John Rees and Lindsey German, say: “This Saturday we served Theresa May notice ... it’s time for her to step aside. Her coalition of chaos must end now.”
The July 3 circular celebrated the 100,000-strong demonstration and thanked all who helped in its organisation, all those who spoke and performed in Parliament Square. But, when it came to “What is next?”, the answer was:
We now have to shift our attention on to the Conservative Party conference Saturday September 30 - Wednesday October 4 in Manchester. We’re planning on a week of politics, culture and protest like nothing we’ve ever done before, including a massive national demonstration on Sunday October 1, the day the Tory Party conference starts.
So we have to wait for three months and then just do the same thing again? So the Counterfire comrades merely serve as event organisers for the trade union and labour movement. The same is true of the Socialist Workers Party too. Its internal Party Notes stated: “As some of the speakers said at the end - it was good to see so many people out marching, but the next one needs to be even bigger if we are to drive out the Tories” (July 3).
How big does it need to be then? Does the SWP seriously think that even a massive demonstration of a million or more - or, in the words of Socialist Worker, “serious mass mobilisation” -could in and of itself “drive out the Tories”?1
The same online article continues: “The mood for change needs to fuel action in the streets and the workplaces, not just inside the Labour Party or in elections.” Well, at least the comrades seem to be recognising that the political struggle inside Labour has some role to play. But, as they say, the main thing is “action in the streets and the workplaces”:
If Jeremy Corbyn and the union leaders call now for a mass turnout at a demonstration outside the Tory conference in Manchester in October, it will be massive. And everyone needs to press union leaders for strikes to smash the pay cap, win pay rises in the private sector, stop the cuts and hit back at the bosses everywhere.
You get the idea? A combination of huge demonstrations and trade union action is the answer, not winning the battle in the Labour Party. This matters. Demonstrations are a great way of showing ourselves and others how strong we are. But when they are over everyone goes home. Their power is by definition transitory. Parties are another matter. They have history, they have social roots, they have organised structures, they have permanence. They alone can transform society.
As for the Morning Star, at least it put class politics centre-stage in its post-demonstration editorial, saying of the tens of thousands gathered in Parliament Square: “What united them all, whether consciously or not, was their opposition to the realities of a class-divided society based on exploitation and oppression - and their support for the progressive and left alternative represented by the current leftwing leadership of the Labour Party” (July 3).
Yes, it is true that those tens of thousands were opposed to “the realities” of a “society based on exploitation” and have placed their hopes in “the current leftwing leadership of the Labour Party” - or, more precisely, in Corbyn as an individual. However, it is also true that, consciously or not, they are well to the left of For the many, not the few. In other words, for socialists hope has returned.