Why I am standing to be Chair of Cambridge Constituency Labour Party

A statement by Steven Watson, July 2017

After a general election result that shocked supporters as well as pundits, British politics is in an unprecedented period of change. In Cambridge, we increased Daniel Zeichner’s majority to nearly 15,000 and this in itself is representative of that change. We are on the edge of achieving something great for the Labour Party and to do this we have to keep the initiative of the last election alive and ensure that all factions of the party start to work together. In short, we have to adapt and to do so in such a way that members do not feel excluded as we adapt to the changes that have taken place. This includes selling our manifesto and to do this by keeping the thousands of activists and even more of our new members active. It is against this backdrop that I have decided to stand for election as Chair of Cambridge Constituency Labour Party.

Ralph Miliband, in Parliamentary Socialism (1961), recognised that an effective Labour Party had to be an alliance of parliamentarians with grassroots movement politics. Indeed our first MP and party founder recognised this too.

“People want more picturesqueness, more of the embodiment of the old rebellious spirit of revolt, more fighting which will quicken the pulse in connection with the work of the Party in Parliament.” This was a feeling with which he could “most heartily sympathize.” But the Party needed more than this; it must prove to the nation that its members could be “statesman as well as agitators.” (Hardie, My Confession of the Faith in the Labour Alliance, 1910, cited in Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 1961. p. 28).

This challenge has never really gone away from the Labour Party. We now have a passionate mass movement. We now must be statespeople and agitators. And we can work at this challenge locally and pragmatically.

I want to see Cambridge CLP respond to the challenge and opportunities of a growing membership while maintaining and sustaining existing knowledge and skills. In these unpredictable times, the Labour party must provide a platform for deliberative democracy, allowing as broad a group as is possible to discuss and debate politics, economics, social issues and policy. While we must respect the work and contribution of members who have sustained the party locally and nationally in past years, it is imperative that we reach out and motivate new members to get involved and participate. But, most of all, we must build on our existing capacities as an effective campaigning organisation. My role as chair will, therefore, involve two major tasks

  1. The re-election of our MP Daniel Zeichner and our city and county councillors. I know our campaigning machine is well honed and effective, and I would not want to change that but I pledge to work with the campaign committee to maintain that situation.
  2. Bringing our party together to represent the wishes of the members.

I have always been a labour voter but never been inspired to join the Labour Party until in June 2015 Jeremy Corbyn arrived. As such I represent a new group of members but I am also aware of the need to maintain and respect the huge number of members who have been in the party for most of their adult lives.

By day I work as a Lecturer in Education at Cambridge University. I live in Cherry Hinton where I am currently Chair of Cherry Hinton Labour Party and delegate on the CLP Executive Committee. I am also active in the University and College Union, Unite Community and Cambridge Area Momentum. My Curriculum Vitae is here, you can contact me via email here.

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More than a stalemate: reasons to be cheerful

I was contacted by a comrade in a neighbouring constituency about the conditions within his local branch. Things sounded toxic. A familiar story which I have heard from people across the country. Existing members, frequently from the right of the party, are in control, holding key positions in the branch or constituency party. New members and existing members on the left becoming frustrated and in danger of becoming disillusioned.

New members, mostly Corbyn supporters, are keen to get involved and participate, but their progress is being hampered. Their participation is limited. They are actively being discouraged, little is being done to engage with and utilise the new energy and invigoration. It is almost as if there is a perceived apprenticeship: when you have done x years of leaflet delivery and canvassing then you can hold office and talk politics. 

New members were expecting a democratic party, one that responds to their ideas and whose structures and rules would respond to the new political context. However, existing members and officers are being dogmatic, with a preoccupation with rules and hierarchy. Any interpretation or ambiguity is referred up through a mysterious hierarchy of regional officials and governance. It is incredible that the local membership cannot deliberate on their local organisation and make decisions about how things happen in their local community. This I have seen over the most trivial of issues.

There are lots of young people who want to get involved. They want involvement in a party that allows them to discuss politics (local and national), they want to learn and they want to make a difference. When they approach the local party, too often they find an unresponsive, dogmatic, bureaucratic organisation that is unwilling to respond to them. They want a vibrant, engaging, active, democratic, transparent and empowering organisation. This is not what they experience in many cases.

I am aware that groups like Labour First are organising behind the scenes in a number of constituencies to try and limit the influence of the Corbynistas. A friend explained to me that he felt they were winning, that they are so much more organised than the left. I don’t agree. It can feel like a stalemate, as the left get themselves organised (many of us are new to this sort of thing).

But I am more positive.

I don’t feel that the left are trying to win, in the sense of taking over the party. What we are trying to ‘win’ is greater democracy, more effective deliberation and action and more transparency. We want, I believe, more localism. This is a moral purpose and reflects an antidote to the toxicity of society, one in which inequality and democratic deficit has created an environment that fuels the far right. The Labour party, with its mass membership, has the chance to oppose this. And it is evident that it can, based on the result in Stoke on Trent.

The local party has to be a place for people to engage with politics, at the local and national levels, and not to accept the simple answers of the far right. The Labour Party must stop being a closed bureaucracy and become an open and engaged organisation. This is also the best strategy for future election victory.

To people on the left, new and existing members, do not lose heart, there is energy, there are a growing number of people looking for a change in society and a new economics. The answers are not simple, they are not soundbites. But the processes and the way we work together to solve problems and find answers are essential. We need a healthy public sphere. Shakespeare said, “truth will out”, by the same moral force, democracy and transparency will out. These forces are on our side.

To the folk on the right. Far more unites us than divides us. Put your organisational skills and energy into fighting the Tories. We are in extraordinary times and what may have worked in the past is no longer relevant. For the sake of humanity we need to move on. Let us work together to do this and not resort to petty feuding.

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The real problem with the Labour Party: false politics

The real problem with the Labour Party is not its policy or the leadership, and it’s not its members. The real problem is was what the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as false politics. I will explain what this means, what it looks like in the Labour Party, why it is necessary to address it and what can be done.

Arendt’s conceptualisation of false politics is where there are public institutions which are seemingly political but their processes and mechanisms suppress vibrant political activity, discussion and debate. The focus of institutions engaged in false politics is maintaining the machinery and bureaucracy of politics, with a facade of political engagement, but without opportunity for real debate, deliberation or indeed real politics. There is a strong disciplining regime within these organisations, using symbolic violence to ensure that rules and practices of false politics are sustained.

In the first constituency Labour Party Annual General Meeting I attended, I witnessed a member being publicly admonished as he attempted to raise an issue. The meeting chair furiously suppressed the speaker in an authoritarian way, with breathtaking fluency in the party rules, drawing support from the floor he silenced the member. This is an example of false politics. As is the case of the suppression of constituency Labour Party meetings during the last leadership campaign on the unsubstantiated and spurious claim that there would be hostility and abuse if meetings went ahead. There a number of examples of false politics that I have witnessed in the Labour Party since I have been a member. Principally the objective has been to sustain rule and dogma at the expense of debate and engagement.

Initially I thought this was a power struggle between the left and right of the party: between pro and anti-Corbyn supporters. However, looking at as a manifestation of false politics reveals a more fundamental issue that goes beyond factional in-fighting but may also suggest how the party proceeds to become more effective.

I regularly listen to Aaron Bastani on Novaramedia. He has repeatedly observed the lack of innovation in the Labour Party in the last 18 months. There is a radical alternative in politics characterised by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a huge influx of members and a real enthusiasm for politics. However, he says, the Labour Party has not shifted a fraction of a per cent in terms of doing anything new or innovative. He goes on to say, it is the same expectation that members should just knock on doors or deliver leaflets. Where, he says, we should be thinking about how the Labour Party could be reaching out to 1000s. This is an example of false politics, where the mechanisms and subordination to dogma kill vibrant activity and political progress.

Arendt made her observations during the rise of fascism in Germany between the wars. She observed that institutions were powerless in the face of totalitarianism, the real antidote to authoritarianism was public politics. That is, people having the opportunity to think and discuss their politics, to build solidarity against fascism; not based on false politics, but based on the mobilisation and commitment of the masses.

The Labour Party, throughout its organisation needs to urgently address the domination of false politics. It needs to encourage broad activity, participation, political debate and education. It needs to improve on the functioning of its own democracy and transparency. Make meetings open, facilitate discussion and debate, have the courage to find out what new members can do and how they can contribute. This has got to be an open organisation to build a mass politicised movement.

I wish I were just saying this in order to make winning elections more likely. But with the ominous rise of the authoritarian right in the US, there is so much more at stake. We can only fight fascism by fighting the fascist within ourselves that is manifest in institutional false politics.

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Labour, the European Union and the curious situation of the centre ground

First to say, I voted remain. I followed the line taken by Jeremy Corbyn and Yanis Varoufakis, the EU is not perfect but the risks of leaving were greater, we simply didn’t and do not know what life will be life outside of the EU. The orthodox economic models are complex and economists disagree over whether leaving is a good or bad thing for the UK economy. For me, a successful brexit will depend on protecting workers’ rights, human rights, the protection of the rights of EU immigrants in the UK, environmental protection, how progressive or regressive taxation will be and finally our trade relationship with the rest of the world. The situation is undoubtedly complex.

Yet last June’s referendum gave the result it did, and it is right we accept it. Sure, the reasons for having a referendum were flawed and it was evident that there was hyperbole and misinformation on either side of the remain or leave debate. But the referendum was constitutional and the process fair. Referendum campaigning instigated division, the outcome has exacerbated it and resulted in bitterness. I have heard brexiters caricatured as uneducated or as xenophobic and the remainer, a member of the (privileged) liberal elite. The reality is that people voted to remain or leave for different reasons. Probably the only unifying issue underpinning the leave vote was that it was anti-status quo or anti-establishment.

I have imagined what would happen if I surveyed the opinions of people on the EU referendum. I would use a single question: to what extent do you agree that leaving the EU is a good thing? Give your answer on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is totally disagree and 9 is totally agree. Now if I were to collate responses, I expect I would find the majority of answers in the centre, 4, 5 and 6. In other words the majority of people would be unsure whether it would be a good or bad, or would agree or disagree marginally. It might be that since people identified with a particular position, remain or leave, there might be substantial numbers responding 2 or 3, or, 7 or 8. However, statistically it is most likely that the results would form a normal distribution or bell curve, as shown below, with ‘5’ at the centre and ‘9’ at the right extreme and ‘1’ on the left. The majority is in the centre.

Normal distribution or ‘bell’ curve

In terms of Labour’s strategy for brexit, the centre ground strategy is the best strategy. I’ll come back to this, but let me make the distinction between political centrism and centrism in respect to a single issue such as membership of the EU. Political centrism, on a left-right continuum, has come to mean a moderate economic and socially liberal position. With the centre left subscribing to neoliberalism but with some measures for social justice and some commitment to public spending. The centre right is perhaps almost indistinguishable. This political centrism has become moribund because in the UK it has focussed on appealing to a small number of swing voters to maintain power. But meanwhile the constituency that are expected to vote for the Labour Party, for example, are largely ignored. Centrist politics excludes them. It is not unsurprising that when given the chance, these people revolt – at least in election terms – by voting for UKIP or coalescing around an anti-establishment anti-Westminster brexit vote.

In terms of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ the centre ground is different to political centrism. It is the acknowledgment of the statistical likelihood of a normal distribution – that most views on leaving and remaining are not at the extremes, many people are equivocal. Even though it doesn’t always seem that way because the extremes are more vocal. The centre ground is a vulnerable position, but I believe it is the right choice: to accept and not frustrate the passage of Article 50 through parliament, to fight for maximum access to the single market and, additionally, to defend migration. It is vulnerable because commentators who are hostile to Corbyn – of whom there seem to be many – use it to say that Labour do no have a position. But they have a position, though it is not reducible to a pro-leave or pro-remain soundbite. It is leaving with a deal that is best for the 99%, for ordinary people who have not had a wage increase, who have insecure work, for young people who can’t get a house or go to university without taking on unacceptable levels of debt. For our public services – health and education; for our industry (what’s left of it).

While critics say that Labour are divided, in disarray and have not got a clear position, the reality is the Corbyn’s labour is steering a course where they can act and negotiate for the majority and importantly the more vulnerable in our society. They are trying to find a middle ground. The continued argument over who was right and who was wrong in the EU referendum, and even who ‘really’ won is just creating further division. I heard Jacob Rees-Mogg, on BBC Radio 4 Any Questions, in arrogant splendour, last night publically attacking ‘bremoaoners’ as unpatriotic. I have faced people who are unrelentingly pro remain: the vote was wrong, the information was wrong, brexiters were misled. Yet in all this division, neither staying in the EU or leaving it is a solution to the economic and social problems in the UK. But our relationship with the EU is important. And at least as important are economic reforms: government investment that gets to communities, tackling poverty and inequality, progressive taxation, a green and sustainable industrial strategy, investment in health and education. This is demonstrably the aim of Labour at the moment, to make sure Brexit is for all.

Meanwhile in the polls Labour are struggling. And there is good reason for this, the polls reflect the divisions – the debates over remain and leave continue. The government, if it can be described as popular, is taking an unequivocable leave position, on the other hand the Lib Dems are unequivocally remain. Labour have to navigate the middle ground and as a result are misrepresented in the press as being ‘unclear’ and ‘uncertain’. The fact is the party is demonstrating greater clarity, it is driven by the long term interest of the country. It’s bold and it is the right thing to do.

When Article 50 is triggered, the leave-remain dichotomy will subside and there will have to be focus on the ‘how’ of brexit. In this Labour are ahead of the curve.

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“Antisemitism in the United Kingdom” House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, HC 136. A Critique

The Home Affairs Committee is a select committee of the House of Commons. In October it published a report of its inquiry titled “Antisemitism in the United Kingdom” which has received a deal of publicity unfavourable to the Labour Party in general and to Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti in particular. As a former specialist adviser to a select Committee, I was dismayed when reading it.

The Committee’s Report falls way below acceptable standards and needs to be exposed for the partisan party political polemic which it is. It does a disservice to the honourable cause of combating antisemitism in our country and fuels the fires of misunderstanding and ill feeling which dog its discussion rather than fostering the understanding and constructive debate the public has every right to expect of its elected representatives.  This is why I felt impelled to write the critique below.

The Critique has just been sent to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, now Yvette Cooper (previously Keith Vaz) and Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Liaison Committee which has overall responsibility for select committees. I have asked that their Committees address the serious concerns and recommendations stated at the beginning of the Critique supported by the detail it lays out subsequently. A recommendation is also made to the Labour Party.

There is a deal of criticism of the Committee’s Report, for example in “Crying Wolf” by Richard Kuper who was a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and its chair for many years. This can be found on Open Democracy at:
https://www.opendemocracy.net/richard-kuper/crying-wolf

But our voices are not being heard in the face of a hostile right wing press and apparent lack of understanding elsewhere – including at the BBC.

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The importance of a National Education Service: a necessary and realisable dream

Jeremy Corbyn has been floating the idea of a National Education Service since his Labour leadership campaign last year. The idea is breathtakingly simple and, in fact, blindingly obvious. The formation of a fully-funded, cradle-to-grave education service is the antithesis of the outsourced fragmented and anti-democratic reforms that have been creeping in since the 1970s. These are a few of my initial thoughts on the idea.

The National Education Service would provide a coordinated high-quality education service that supports learning from early years, through schools, sixth form, further education, undergraduate, postgraduate to adult and lifelong learning.

Schools would no longer be in a position where they are artificially competing with each other, but they would coordinate their strategies and maximise the use of their resources to better serve local communities and regions. It would mean a change from the current fetishisation of leadership to promote mutual and cooperatively run services, where teachers, parents, pupils and communities are recognised as stakeholders and have a greater say in how schools function.

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The divisive Mr Smith: reflections on his visit to Cambridge

I fear that Owen Smith’s leadership rally in Cambridge, last night, furthers division rather than promotes reconciliation and party unity. I did not attend but I watched most of his speech online. Smith’s message was that Jeremy Corbyn has good policies but he is a weak and incompetent leader and that Smith will be competent and will lead the party to power.

This message glosses over the underlying fault line in the Labour Party. The fault line marks a division between centralised parliamentary control of the party and having a devolved movement with a greater active role for the grassroots. So, on one on hand, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is supreme, leading on policy to ensure that it is attractive enough to the majority of voters to get elected. Party members do the groundwork, they are the foot soldiers in the process. On the other side of the divide is a vision for a more democratic party, with the grassroots having a much greater say in policy and that they work with, rather than for the PLP. The electoral strategy is for the grassroots to reach out to and mobilise disaffected voters in their locality through meaningful participation.

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