To win the future, change the movement

Submitted by AWL on 10 November, 2020 - 9:19 Author: Sacha Ismail
Winning the Future cover

The Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs, which relaunched itself at the start of 2020, has published a pamphlet, Winning the Future, on “Socialist Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis”.

At a time when drive and radicalism are desperately needed, but Labour’s left is depressed and in retreat, the attempt to rally and raise ambitions is welcome. The pamphlet’s focus on developing and fighting for left-wing policies hopefully indicates a shift from previous Labour left reticence there. Its call for discussion of its proposals throughout the labour movement is encouraging.

After an introduction by SCG Secretary Richard Burgon, Winning the Future comprises 18 articles, each by an SCG-supporting MP.

There is lots of value in most of them. They assert important socialist — or at least left-wing social democratic — values and demands against the blandly technocratic politics of the Starmer leadership. Some of them nod towards going further than reforming capitalism.

With the current average of debate and radicalism in the Labour Party, the SCG’s proposals undoubtedly raise the level. However, they have major weaknesses, and the pamphlet suggests little in the way of a strategy to win them.

Winning the Future rightly foregrounds the jobs and climate crises, with demands for public ownership, social provision and workers’ rights. But there are very big gaps.

Despite its subtitle, the pamphlet says little about demands for the pandemic. It calls for increased NHS funding and reversing privatisation, and briefly mentions isolation pay. It airily advocates “Zero Covid” like New Zealand, without addressing the fact that New Zealand is two remote islands with rigidly closed borders and has not kept infections to zero (though it has kept them low).

It is weak on the right to strike. Articles by John McDonnell and Claudia Webbe call to repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act, but are vague on all the other restrictions (and say nothing about ways to defy the law). This has huge implications for everything from workplace safety in the pandemic to action on wider issues like racism and climate change — and in fact our movement’s ability to win all its demands.

There is plenty about public ownership, but the demands are not always clear or radical. Paula Barker’s article on social care has been given the title “For public ownership...”, but the text does not actually make this pivotal demand. Lloyd Russell-Moyle rightly emphasises the question of who controls and runs publicly-owned industry, but also seems to equivocate on full public ownership of water and energy.

The pamphlet contains virtually nothing about the banking and financial system — certainly no call for public ownership and democratic control. Without that, the effectiveness and viability of the rest of program is doubtful.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Diane Abbott make important demands on migrants’ rights: but both present Labour’s policy under Corbyn as better than it was. Abbot calls for all detention centres to be closed, without addressing why the party she led did not advocate this. Ribeiro-Addy blurs back and forth between what she wants and what Corbyn’s Labour actually proposed.

The pamphlet does not call to defend and extend free movement.

All these are not small gaps but important structural flaws.

There’s an issue about how this was written, and whether it will be effective fixing ideas in people’s heads, or providing a clear focus for debate. The demands are not presented distinctly, but often “lost” in pretty meandering text. Compressing it from 90 pages would have made it punchier and increased its impact.

The weakest section is the final three articles, on “Building the movements to win change”. How to build our movements is not straightforward, but Winning the Future doesn’t really engage with the challenges.

Jon Trickett begins by declaring that winning the next election “ought to be our sole preoccupation”. Sole? And while he does not state it openly, Trickett strongly implies that the party has been insufficiently enthusiastic about Brexit.

Ian Lavery discusses the miners’ strike and the working-class organisation, ideas and capacities it helped develop. He says almost nothing about working-class struggles today. He talks about “community organising”, but does not explain how Labour’s “community organising unit” has actually helped people “build power and win”.

Beth Winter presents Wales’ Labour government as a model. She doesn’t suggest there has been any significant revival of the labour movement in Wales.

Winning the Future also says little about fighting to change Labour. There are references to the 2019 manifesto — but none at all to policy passed by Labour conference, or to the fight for party democracy. The authors might respond that the pamphlet is supposed to be outward-looking. But it does, rightly, also look inward, to the party. The absence of proposals to organise to change it is thus all the more striking.

The SCG should print Winning the Future as a physical pamphlet. Labour Party and labour movement activists should read and discuss it.

• Download the pamphlet here.

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