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Why struggle is more important than parliament

This article is over 2 years, 7 months old
For the Labour left the movements outside of parliament are important but always secondary. Nick Clark explains why the party holds even its most militant members back
Issue 2774
Protests in the run up to the 2019 general election
Protests in the run up to the 2019 general election (Pic: Guy Smallman)

One thing the left still inside the Labour Party appear to agree with socialists outside about is that we need more ­struggle outside parliament.

Whether it’s the ­climate change movement, the anti‑racist struggle, or strikes and industrial disputes, Labour left group Momentum says it wants to be there.

Great—so do we. The ­difference is why.

We both want to see ­victories wherever people fight back. For us at Socialist Worker, every strike that wins is an example of the power workers have against the ravages of the system.

We want every struggle to be a building block in a bigger, angrier, more militant movement, capable of ending that system once and for all.

But for many Labour ­members, those struggles can only get so far without some sympathetic force in parliament.

As one activist at the recent The World Transformed ­festival put it to Socialist Worker, “Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Kill the Bill are all great. But they need those MPs in parliament to change things.”

That’s why Momentum sees itself as a movement that connects the struggles outside Labour with the battles of the left within.

Its handbook, Socialist Organising in a New Era, puts this neatly.

“Momentum will act as a bridge between extra-party struggle and Labour,” it says. “Helping to channel the demands of social movements and working class communities into the party’s policy platform, while encouraging our members to get involved in trade unions and community struggles.

“This is the long-term work needed to build a democratic movement for socialism.”

Behind this is a political ­theory that says if Labour activists can “open up” its’ structures to movements outside parliament it can overcome the dominance of the right.

Momentum’s organisers look to the work of theorist Leo Panitch, who argued that Corbynism failed because it didn’t manage to do this.

The question is, why.

It’s time to leave Labour
It’s time to leave Labour
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Even at the height of Corbyn’s strength, activists talked about using Momentum to build movements and strengthen the party’s leadership. But it never really happened.

For one thing, Corbyn’s ­leadership after 2017 became preoccupied with behaving more like a government in ­waiting, and trapped in parliamentary manoeuvring. The realities of what it means to operate in parliament pulled them away from struggles ­outside and isolated them.

This same pull was reflected in Momentum. It never disavowed the idea that it would build and support ­extra‑­parliamentary struggle. But in practice, its focus was on becoming an extremely ­effective canvassing machine.

This conditioned its ­attitude to the movements that did arise outside the Labour Party. Everything had to be funnelled towards pushing left wing politics inside the party and ­electing a Labour government.

The problem wasn’t simply to do with the tactical or personal mistakes of the leadership of the time.

And it’s not that Labour’s structures hadn’t been opened up or “democratised” enough either.

It’s to do with a much more fundamental question that faces every political project seeking to marry parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action—which one’s more important?

Is activity in parliament directed towards encouraging and strengthening the mass action of the struggles ­outside? Or are those ­movements ­subordinated to a ­supporting role, propping up and ­defending left wing MPs?

Answering “both” will only take you so far. The problems that comes with trying to work within the parliamentary system will force you to choose.

And if getting elected and being in government is the core of your strategy, parliament comes before all else.


Here’s a small example. In 2019, the school climate strike movement in Britain found common cause with the Labour left over the demand for a Green New Deal.

This is a set of policies and reforms designed to create new green industries and jobs. Implementation in parliament by a progressive government is the lynchpin of its strategy.

While the organisers of the climate strikes adopted it as a central demand, activists linked to Momentum pushed to make it official Labour Party policy.

And when Labour’s ­conference that year did just that, school strikers were invited on stage to speak.

Yet just months later, the movement’s most radical demands had either been dropped from Labour’s election manifesto or had been watered down.

The same went for other left wing conference resolutions, such as free movement for migrants, and the abolition of private schools.

Partly this was to appease the union leaders who fund Labour, and the right wing MPs who could sabotage the whole thing.

Partly it was to make Labour appear “electable,” and its programme “workable” in parliament.

Either way, the demands of parliament had trumped the hopes of the movement once again.

Just to show that this isn’t only a Labour Party problem, look at two of Europe’s more successful radical left electoral parties.

Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in the Spanish state both had much stronger connections with movements of struggle outside their ­parliamentary systems.

Syriza rose to prominence on the back of several general strikes against some of the most vicious austerity measures in Europe.

Yet even in 2012—three years before its election and betrayal—its leaders helped to call off strikes, as they tried to appear as a “government in waiting.”

For its part, Podemos was born out of a movement of mass occupations of city squares. It too began to water down its radicalism and distance itself from the left following electoral success.

Its leader Pablo Iglesias soon changed his tune on the ­movements. “That idiocy that we used to say when we were on the extreme left that things change in the street and not in institutions, is a lie,” he said in 2016.

Podemos abandoned ­movements for parliament—and formed a coalition with a party of austerity, PSOE.


No rule change inside the Labour Party, no amount of committee positions occupied, and no set number of left wing MPs, can solve this problem.

For Panitch, the answer was to return to “democratising” the Labour Party so the pull of the movements is stronger than that of parliament.

The left has to complete this arduous task before it can even begin to think of electing another left wing leader and trying again in government.

But even Panitch knew this approach is flawed, as he described what happened to supporters of Tony Benn who tried it decades ago.

Shortly before he died, Panitch wrote that the left, “In concentrating on trying to change the Labour Party, it became trapped in that struggle. It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committees and conferences without becoming absorbed by them.

“Almost an entire political generation were committed in this way.”

Those ­activists didn’t strengthen Labour’s connection with extra‑­parliamentary movements—the Labour Party severed them from it.

That’s why alarm bells should ring at John McDonnell’s call on Labour activists to encourage people leading struggle to enter Labour and take part in its internal wars.

Things are too urgent for that. The world is in the teeth of the climate crisis and the rich are waging war on ordinary people to save their crumbling system.

Do we have another five or even ten years to spare to ­transform the Labour party, get them into power and make transformative social reform? The answer is no.

It would be a catastrophe if the people who fight back are swallowed up by bureaucratic struggles inside a party that leads nowhere.

The main problem in trade unions isn’t that they need more officials who vote the right way at Labour Party conferences.

It’s that those same ­officials have failed consistently to encourage and lead their members into strikes that can defend their jobs, pay and living conditions.

And the movements over ­climate change, racism and police violence don’t need motions and manifesto pledges. They need to be much bigger, even more militant, and more working class.

They do need political organisation.

Not one that tries to ­represent them in the confines of parliament, but one that works to link them all together, draws them into the workplace and trade unions and builds the confidence of everyone who wants to fight.

It’s not the Labour Party.

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