Being in the minority does not mean you are wrong, but that your time may come again
If there is one lesson from the extraordinary rise of Jeremy Corbyn, it is not that we progressives should bend before his altar in the name of unity; it is the exact opposite. Corbyn’s career since the 1970s has been characterised by single-minded adherence to a world view, regardless of its relative popularity to other ideas, irrespective of the objective circumstances, and deaf to all criticism.
For most of the past 40 years, this has meant glorious isolation within the Labour party. As Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair refashioned Labour into a modern social democratic force, attuned to modernity, Corbyn and his friends in the Socialist Campaign Group stuck to their guns. Corbyn was never the leading light, but was always the willing helper. Opposition to expelling Militant. Rejection of the European project. Fierce anti-Americanism. The coup against Labour leader Kinnock: his house was the mailing address, his name was the campaign contact. No campaign, demo, front organisation conference or rally was complete without Corbyn and his single transferable speech.
And now, thanks to a confluence of global recession, the internet, and individual parliamentary members’ self-confessed stupidity, Corbyn and his friends are in charge. Like an ageing 1970s rock star who inexplicably finds himself at the top of the download charts, Corbyn’s brand of politics is in vogue. A 10 point rise in the share of the vote, especially amongst the salaried middle class, cannot be dismissed.
Progressives, then, have some choices. One is to believe that a two per cent swing to Labour and a return to 2010 levels of parliamentary representation means that we have been wrong all along, and Corbyn has been right. This position means that we should simply shut up, reject all our previously-held convictions, renounce our former leaders, and rewrite our own personal histories. Like Winston Smith, we should believe that two plus two equals five. We should believe that defeat on 8 June was in fact victory. But wait. What would Corbyn do? Would he bend to fashion and acquiesce to the powerful majority? Not on your nelly.
So there is a second choice: to follow in the footsteps of Corbyn and learn from his example. Unite and organise around our beliefs. Build our networks. Organise our campaigns. Explain our position. Win over new recruits.
We are clear in our convictions: we believe in parliamentary democracy, not revolution, insurrection or ‘days of rage’, as expressed in Clause One of our constitution. We believe in a mixed economy, with some activities conducted in the private sector and some in the public sector, and a vast space for other sectors such as mutual, co-ops and voluntary organisations.
We believe in the post-war international institutions which secure our political and economic freedoms: Nato, the European Union, the United Nations, and international law. We support Britain’s nuclear deterrent. We oppose antisemitism, and commit ourselves to making the Labour Party an inhospitable environment for antisemites. There are no democratic members of the United Nations that we wish to see eradicated. We love Labour, and want to see its representatives elected. And we want to see the Conservative party defeated at the polls. Surely that is enough to keep us busy?
This vital political work can be conducted without sectarianism. It can be conducted based on policies not personalities, on the power of our ideas, and on our patient persistence. As Vladimir Lenin explained in his April Theses, the task ahead is one of ‘comradely persuasion’ to ‘set ourselves free from the prevailing orgy of revolutionary phrase-mongering’.
When Corbyn’s outriders call for ‘unity’ they mean uniformity, submission, servility and silence. They mean an end to our party’s tradition of lively debate, dissent and dialogue. They mean a kind of unthinking, blind loyalty to our leaders. They may want a monocultural Labour party, but we are not going to give them one. Like all radicals and reformers down the centuries, we should be prepared to speak up for policies and values which run counter to the mainstream majority view within the party.
We should take our inspiration from Tony Benn, when he quoted the lovely nonconformist hymn ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, and be prepared to walk into the lion’s den of our local party meetings or Labour conference, and speak out on the issues that we care about.
Like Corbyn for most of the past four decades, we may find ourselves in the minority on some issues. But that doesn’t mean we are wrong. It does not mean – as Paul Mason wants – we should leave, despite the provocation, goading and insults. It does not mean we are Tories. It does not mean we should stifle our convictions for fear of retribution, like secret Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth, or some of the current frontbench.
A unity forced upon dissenters is not unity. A false unity, imposed by the majority on the minority would be the unity of the graveyard. As Corbyn showed, it is better to stand by your conviction, even if it means being a minority of one. It will not always be that way.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.