Labour mem­bers built net­works. Now Cor­byn must too Zoe Wil­liams

The leader needs to reimag­ine his party and open up to the dif­fer­ent strands that sup­port him

The Guardian - - OPINION -

Jeremy Cor­byn may be as pop­u­lar, but will never be more pop­u­lar than he is at this mo­ment. I say that with such cer­tainty not be­cause I can see into the fu­ture, but be­cause it’s not func­tion­ally pos­si­ble. Any­one who’s seen him at Gren­fell Tower and failed to be moved by his com­pas­sion, any­one still bang­ing on about the ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thies of the only politi­cian with a beat­ing hu­man heart, is sim­ply be­yond the reach of his ap­peal. With­out be­ing un­seemly, he’s rid­ing some­thing big­ger than tri­umph, the pow­er­ful mo­ment that we all un­der­stand but only ath­letes, war­riors and sax­o­phon­ists have ex­pe­ri­enced, when ev­ery sec­ond of your ex­pe­ri­ence, all your train­ing, your val­ues and your idio­syn­cra­sies come to­gether.

This is the time to make the de­ci­sions that, later, when chal­lenges and hur­dles make long-term think­ing a lux­ury, he won’t want to make. He needs to reimag­ine the Labour party not with its old goals of unity and dom­i­nance, but as a place that can ac­com­mo­date the mis­fits, the rebels, the peo­ple who are greener than they are red, the peo­ple who aren’t red enough, the crit­i­cal, the awk­ward. He needs to build a party that doesn’t just ac­knowl­edge all its tal­ents, but knows how to use them.

Ed Miliband rewrote the rules of Labour’s mem­ber­ship, and for a long time that was held as his great­est er­ror. Now that Cor­byn has gone from Labour’s high sparrow to its saviour, the de­ci­sion to give the mem­bers real power over the lead­er­ship, power to defy the par­lia­men­tary party and laugh while do­ing it, is sud­denly Miliband’s great legacy. In fact that de­ci­sion – ef­fec­tively, the party went open source – won’t mean any­thing un­less it’s fol­lowed through.

It was far more rad­i­cal than any­one al­lowed at the time, far more mean­ing­ful than sim­ply invit­ing the naive and the Trot­sky­ists to make de­ci­sions that their youth or ex­trem­ism made them un­qual­i­fied to make. It opened up the pos­si­bil­ity of pol­i­tics as a co-cre­ation, one in which the mem­bers were more than just a beard-army ready to de­liver leaflets for you, then moan about your cen­trism in the pub.

The mem­bers took this se­ri­ously: re­peated at­tempts to eval­u­ate Mo­men­tum along bi­nary and ad­ver­sar­ial lines – are they loony left­ies, and if so, how loony? – missed the re­ally in­ter­est­ing bit of what was go­ing on. This was an in­tel­lec­tual move­ment as much as an ac­tivists’ one. At their con­fer­ence, The World Trans­formed, held along­side the Labour con­fer­ence last year they asked search­ing and dif­fi­cult ques­tions.

Was it time to em­brace pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion? Should they be work­ing with the Greens? Was a pro­gres­sive al­liance re­al­is­tic and how would it work? Th­ese dis­cus­sions had pre­cisely no im­pact on the party’s high com­mand, but they changed the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a mem­ber. You only need to look at the way ac­tivists fought this elec­tion to see that they built net­works and com­mu­ni­ties that were ex­plic­itly banned by the party’s rules.

The same en­ergy, sense of pos­si­bil­ity, open­ness and clear ar­tic­u­la­tion of am­bi­tion and val­ues de­liv­ered the lead­er­ship to Cor­byn. If you’re go­ing to open source the party, you can’t then re­treat back into early 20th cen­tury trib­al­ism, obe­di­ence and unity at all costs.

When the Labour party was de­vel­op­ing its dig­i­tal democ­racy man­i­festo last year, it looked as though the new think­ing was ef­fort­lessly en­ter­ing the party’s mind­set: it was look­ing to crowd­source the 2020 man­i­festo us­ing a plat­form (pol. is) that the Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment has de­vel­oped suc­cess­fully to con­sult its cit­i­zens in real time.

It didn’t get much at­ten­tion at the time, be­cause it seemed aca­demic. In the tri­umphant mood that has fol­lowed the elec­tion, the im­pe­tus to change the way pol­i­tics is done has dis­solved. All the talk is of con­sol­i­da­tion, do­ing ex­actly the same, only louder, bet­ter. John McDon­nell’s call for a mil­lion peo­ple on the streets is not wrong per se – he’s no lord of mis­rule, bent on civil disor­der. There is noth­ing wrong with tak­ing to the streets in the pur­suit of a bet­ter gov­ern­ment. Yet such a march would ef­fec­tively con­vey that Labour’s agenda is set, and all it needs now is to fight for it. In fact, it was in its open­ness to the mem­bers that it came this far, and it should be in open­ness it pro­ceeds.

This goes be­yond the re­la­tion­ship with the grass­roots. Greens and green-sym­pa­this­ers need struc­tures and or­gan­i­sa­tions within Labour, from which to pur­sue their agenda. Even with­out the Greens, Labour is de facto a mul­ti­party party: it should em­brace that rather than try to quash it. It should be pos­si­ble to stand as a joint can­di­date, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equal­ity party and Labour: this isn’t un­prece­dented. It’s been done by the Co-op­er­a­tive party for years. But it would be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult in the cur­rent mood of Cor­byn or bust.

The leader ex­isted for years as a thorn in the side of his party. He was es­sen­tially ig­nored for most of those years, and has now man­aged to up­end all its ver­i­ties, re­make it in his own im­age. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment, but will not bring the change and the moder­nity he prom­ises un­less he can fin­ish what he started, turn crowd­sourced lead­er­ship into crowd­sourced pol­i­tics.

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