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This is Only the Beginning. The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn. Michael Chessum. An Internationalist Review.

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This is Only the Beginning. The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn. Michael Chessum. Bloomsbury.

(This review appears in the latest issue of Chartist Magazine No 318. September/October 2022)

It’s only a Beginning, Let us Continue the Combat. The title of Michael Chessum’s account of “how the left came back to life in the 2010s” echoes a celebrated declaration of the French Mouvement du 22 mars in 1968.  This account of the rise of a new left in British politics, from a leading figure in the anti-Brexit Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), is not a Court History of the Corbyn Project. It offers a valuable picture of the movements and “politics from below”, with conflicts and controversies, that propelled the left to leadership of the Labour Party.

Chessum came of political age after the 2008 financial crash during the student movement of 2010. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition had announced big rises in tuition fees, the abolition of maintenance allowances for 16- to 19-year-olds in England, and cuts. There were campus occupations and demonstrations, and a tumultuous occupation of the Tories’ Milbank HQ. Anger mixed with left politics. General Assemblies used “consensus decision making”. Critics in the Occupy! Movements would call it the “tyranny of the individual”. They argued that this model stifles democratic disagreement.

Students were amongst the first to react to politics of austerity. David Cameron and Nick Clegg extended their measures across the public sector. The Coalition of Resistance held a founding conference in 2010. This brought together community anti-cuts groups, many not just “broad non-sectarian and action-orientated” but co-ordinated by the pre ‘new social movement’ local bodies of the TUC, Trades Councils. When these campaigns took off with the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in 2013, the small SWP breakaway Counterfire played a key role. Union support, from UNITE onwards, and backing from Labour councillors, gave the Assembly greater weight than loosely organised campaigns.

Were veterans of these social movements at the heart of the “Corbyn surge” of 2015? UNITE and other unions had encouraged anti-austerity activists to become “registered supporters” of the Labour Party. This boosted the numbers backing Jeremy Corbyn and many soon became full members. But the 59,5% victory came from the existing left, “keeping the flame alive” and, backing from a wider section of the party. A popular leader, plucked from the backbenches, who spoke at mass rallies across the country, offered the prospect of winning elections. Left social movements that supported Corbyn and campaigns like the People’s Assembly got involved. Many would say that this offered a better prospect for change than tents on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Aware of the hostility of the Parliamentary Party to this result, and recalling the weakness of previous lefts, Momentum launched as the grassroots wing of the Corbyn movement. Concern about the potential influence of left factions led founder Jon Lansman closing its structures to potential division. The machine and most MPs stayed hostile. The gulf that opened between the pro-Corbyn membership, and the apparatus led to “tub-thumping” loyalty, activists willing to defend the “leadership against its internal opponents at all costs.”  It “was all about Jeremy – expecting him to deliver everything that everybody wanted.” One could add that, unable to agree with this take, visible from the start, some on the left stayed away from Momentum.

This is Only the Beginning, speaks about Brexit. Momentum showed “relative apathy” during the 2016 Referendum, the Party leadership, despite formal commitment to Remain, and appearance at a few rallies, took “little interest in shaping a radical case against Brexit”. When Leave won it was an “inconvenience” to be worked around. Corbyn’s close advisers, Andrew Murray and Seamus Mine were pro-Leave. The left campaign for a People’s Vote, Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), which put forward a programme for a transformed EU, was a threat to the “iron discipline” of the Corbyn wing. The present book offers the insights of a AEIP activist intimately involved in the movement who attempted to bring its politics to bear on Labour policy. Successful motions on the issue to local parties and a left bloc on People’s Vote marches, met with hostility, including to Michael personally. At the 2019 Conference “speakers bellowed ‘back your leader’” The Leader decided on a “New Brexit deal” “a “credible Leave option” or Remain” to be put to popular vote.

The Brexit policy fudge neither appealed to the sovereigntist pro-Brexit wing, nor the internationalists of Another Europe, and failed to convince the voters. Michael Chessum argues that  Labour’s politics of bureaucracy and triangulation had won out over promises to democratise the party. The opposite of the social movement politics he engaged with this  stifling politics of top-down decision-making has grown worse under Keir Starmer,

It’s only a Beginning, concludes, that Labour needs to split, and to find a new way of doing politics. He floats the idea that this requires the end to the First Past the Post Electoral system. Does this mean a New left party emerging from Labour under Proportional Representation ? That reminds us that the radical left in France also had high hopes after the May events.

Andrew Coates.

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Written by Andrew Coates

September 23, 2022 at 3:44 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I can’t quite recall when these pulp politics books started having such extremely long titles. The only thing this one is missing is the annoyingly American style of having a a few “hows” in there.

    DBB

    September 23, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    • I can’t tell you when I first heard of ‘new social movements’ either, but I can say I have read and heard the expression used by Cde Hilary Wainwright many many, if not many, times since the 1980s.

      Which must make them not very new.

      Hilary was active – and it was good to see her – in Another Europe is Possible.

      Andrew Coates

      September 23, 2022 at 8:43 pm

  2. As a Starmerist internationalist, did you sing God Save the King at the conference?

    Eric

    September 25, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    • No I was in rural East Anglia, engaged in this,

      Introducing pinking and eyelet-holing among the humble folk in the village, as a nice evening employment, and I had got them to sing the lines,

      “O let us love our occupations,
      Bless the squire and his relations,
      Live upon our daily rations,
      And always know our proper stations”

      It is set to music on the new system.

      https://www.thecircumlocutionoffice.com/o-let-us-love-our-occupations/

      Andrew Coates

      September 25, 2022 at 4:24 pm


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