Dave Stockton reviews Our Bloc: How We Win by James Schneider, Verso, 2022, 144pp.
IN Our Bloc: How We Win, James Schneider, co-founder of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn’s former Director of Strategic Communications, sets out a strategy for the recovery of the reformist left after the disaster it suffered after the 2019 general election.
This included Corbyn’s suspension in October 2020, the purge of the left, the loss of 130,000 members, and the demoralisation of those who remain.
Despite Keir Starmer’s revival of Blairism and the silence of the dwindling handful of left MPs, Schneider is determined to look on the bright side. His ambition is to ‘use the coming years to build power, weaken our opponents, and prepare ourselves for the next surge’.
The cause of his optimism is his belief, correct enough, that the current ascendency of the Labour right does not represent a major rightward turn in the views of either Labour voters or trade union members, let alone the activists.
However, despite mobilising young activists to get out the vote for Corbyn, the movement left no permanent organisation. Corbyn’s refusal to provoke a decisive confrontation with the right and Jon Lansman’s control of Momentum kept the rank and file as auxiliaries.
The fact that the Corbyn movement, in contrast to the Bennite and Labour Party Democracy movements of the 1970–80s, failed to seriously challenge the centres of power in the Party (the MPs, the bureaucracy, local government apparatus) was due to the delusion that they had captured the inner citadel of the leadership and a Labour government was within reach.
The leader could simply lay their hands on the extensive powers created by Blair. Despite hundreds of thousands joining the party, the constituencies were given no leadership to challenge to the right.
Schneider sees no prospect for a rapid recovery of the Labour left, ousting the right from power or even the formation of a new party. Instead he is content to promote a bloc of the social movements, trade unions, and what is left of the Socialist Campaign Group:
‘We need an entity that can unite the remaining labour left with movements; an interlocking structure of alliances equipped with a shared secretariat to coordinate between groups, mount campaigns, wield a parliamentary voice and form a pole of attraction in popular struggle.’
Ducking hard questions
Rather than offer new policies or question old ones, he chooses to demagogically brush aside the disputes over Brexit and antisemitism which vexed Team Corbyn:
‘Within the party, those who both supported Corbyn and wished to overturn the referendum result acted as the establishment’s dupes. They wanted Corbyn to make the anti-democratic, Europhile argument that he never convincingly could.’
Except these issues were unavoidable and the attempts to evade them contributed to Corbyn’s downfall. Johnson’s Get Brexit Done resonated with the public out of sheer irritation with three years of parliamentary games and a parallel obfuscation by Corbyn and Starmer.
Likewise, Schneider parrots the view that those on the left, who pushed back against the bogus antisemitism witch-hunt by the Labour right, the media and the Israel lobby, did so to the detriment of Corbyn’s electoral chances.
Instead the leadership’s strategy was a combination of half apologies and concessions which made the innocent look guilty. The result was to prevent Labour unequivocally supporting the Palestinian resistance and to damage the Party in the eyes of its most militant supporters.
Above all, Schneider’s book pays little or no attention to the political programme, i.e. the combined series of objectives that focus on winning political power for the working class —not just winning an election. Instead we get a slim selection of issues already taken up by the social movements and the trade unions, such as a green new deal and nationalisation of utilities.
He envisages neither local organisations nor a democratic national conference. His unifying element of the struggle is ‘a properly resourced and empowered secretariat staffed by some of the most capable organisers and communicators from across our movements… a well-resourced and empowered team with the combined weight of progressive assets, people, platforms, organisations’. In other words a team of James Schneiders.
Against this bureaucratic utopia, revolutionaries emphasise the following key points.
The Corbyn project failed because its enemies always held the real centres of power both within the party (the PLP and the bureaucracy) and in society at large (the media and political establishment) and could use them to destabilise it.
Its allies in the trade unions, despite funding the party, were unwilling to ‘interfere in politics’, i.e. take open responsibility for clearing the right wing out of its positions of power.
On critical issues like Brexit and Israel/Palestine, the left reformist leaders were themselves deeply divided and therefore clamped down on discussion. In fact they knew that the rank and file of the party held internationalist views on both questions.
The mirage of an election victory and an imminent left wing Labour Government created the delusion that this required them to share power with the right wing majority of the PLP who were repeatedly included in the shadow cabinet.
Underlying it all, for Schneider, is the left reformist illusion in the parliamentary road to socialism—a road which inevitably necessitates watering down policies to win elections and thus ultimately evades the questions of state power and workers’ ownership of the means of production, questions which must be solved in order for truly ‘transformative’ policies to be carried through.