We need to talk about Paul Mason
Kenneth Fleming takes a closer look at recent, apparently bizarre, commentary from the former journalist Paul Mason, and sees something considerably more strategic, and clever, than first appears. This article was first published on Kenny’s own highly recommended blog.
Over the last few weeks, I like many others have been watching with increasing incredulity as Paul Mason has been describing events in the Labour Party as a ‘Blairite Coup.’ For a while, I thought a respected journalist was evolving into a pontificating polemicist, as a sort of intellectual midlife crisis. It looks bizarre, and on one level it is. But I actually think there is far more strategic thought behind this than appearances suggest.
I think Mason understands something about the Labour Party that is so easily forgotten. Being a Labour Party member and being a Labour Party activist is not the same thing. Lots of Labour Party members join the way they do with Greenpeace. They’re happy to make a contribution to a cause they broadly care about, but they don’t obsess about the party on twitter, or pore over Stephen Bush’s latest offering like a Franciscan monk with the Scriptures.
Painting Angela Eagle as a Blairite is absurd. Trying to define her as being on the party right is scarcely less credible. But how many party members understand this fully. They might have heard of her, but they don’t know her politics in detail. They are defining Eagle before her campaign has barely gotten off the ground. The label doesn’t even need to stick that firmly, as long as it helps to frame the parameters of the wider debate.
In his latest blogs, Mason has frequently talked about movement politics. In a broader sense this is part of framing the choice as between a coup by a “Blairite wing” and a wider broad based social movement type of politics. The response to this has been a sneering piss take. ‘Political parties not movements become Governments, and it is Governments that make things better.’ This is only partly true.
Firstly, a functioning Labour Party is not about choosing between the PLP and the wider Labour movement. It is about recognising that this is a false choice. Labour only works when the leader, the PLP, the membership, wider affiliates and most importantly, the electorate are in some sort of alignment. Not in perfect sync, but with the various components coherent enough to allow the party to win an election. We may never see this alignment again. Deselections in the PLP, a severing of the ties with the Trade Unions, or a permanent fracture with the wider electorate may result. The traditional Labour movement as we know it may be finished, or about to undergo painful reconstructive surgery.
But it doesn’t mean that movement based politics is redundant as a vehicle for mainstream progressive political parties. Labour centrists know this. Gordon Brown understood when he spoke to Citizens UK in 2010. He knew that a Democratic President signed the Civil Rights Bill, but only because of the pressure exerted by Dr King’s movement. David Miliband understood this when he established Movement for Change, in order to strengthen community based politics.
The Labour movement as we know it probably won’t make it to the autumn intact, but the only future that a credible and alternative UK centre left party has is one that builds its foundations on movement politics, instead of erecting walls against it. (As Anthony Painter describes far better than I can here.) This is why the approach by Mason could be quite so devastating. Not only does it stop Labour centrists winning a leadership election, it potentially lures them into fighting on a platform that impedes the possibility of a ‘Next Labour’ Party ever emerging. Mason and other Corbyn supporters don’t just want to win the vehicle that is the Labour Party, they want to win the left in a broader sense.
This leadership election is about what happens next. Mason and many Corbyn supporters understand this. They know that is about the future. Appeals to history by Party grandees didn’t work a year ago and they won’t work now. Lord Kinnock’s speech to the PLP had my hairs standing up. But here is the rub, I already agreed with Lord Kinnock, and it was a speech rooted in the feelings and thoughts of those who already agree with him.
Regurgitating Bennite battles or belittling the New Labour era is fertile ground for Project Corbyn. They undermine the achievements of the last Labour Government because they want Labour centrists rattling off its achievements. We know it did it great things. The Minimum Wage. Tax Credits. Sure Start. The list goes on. But as great as these things are, they are in the past. We can’t re-introduce the minimum wage, just like we can’t re-establish the Welfare State. But this is the Labour Party, and we incontrovertibly find a way of turning our history, our greatest strength, into our greatest weakness.
The intellectual energy of those who want to defeat Jeremy Corbyn has to be about defining and articulating a vision for the future. Corbyn won because his leadership campaign didn’t replay the 2010 leadership contest and so was not rooted around a dry focus on electability. One more heave won’t work. It never does.
There will be a narrow sliver of persuadable voters within the Labour selectorate who could conceivably change their minds, and deliver a victory to an Eagle or a Smith. While we’ve been taking the piss on twitter, Paul Mason is at the vanguard of a Corbynist strategy deciding the terms of the next leadership election before it has barely begun. Do you embrace elites or movements? Do you want to own the past or define the future?
The Labour centrists are about to get pushed off the Mosquito Ridge.