It is a strange thing, to be a Marxist in the Labour Party. I joined around eighteen months ago, when I woke up one morning, checked my phone, and saw that deputy leader Tom Watson had said that no Trotskyist rabble belonged in the party. I, who largely grew up among the Trotskyist rabble, said to my husband, “We’re joining the Labour Party.”
I wrote an article in the New Statesman. Largely, I wrote it to make sure I wouldn’t take the coward’s way out and quit. Looking back today, I can clearly remember my sense of trepidation. My husband and I were coming into a party that was hostile to the Corbynist tide swelling the membership ranks. But now, as the secretary of my constituency’s Labour Party, I reflect on my successes and errors, and hope to offer a bit of advice to new activists coming into the party from the Marxist left.
1. Know what you’re there for.
I had a clear understanding of why I was joining Labour: because the Labour Party was founded explicitly as a party of the working class, and I had every right to be there. I wasn’t coming in as a part of some resurrected Militant Tendency rising again from the grave, but as part of a movement – catalysed by Jeremy Corbyn – to restore Labour to its original values after a 25 year centrist shift. I wasn’t there to recruit people to a Trotskyist groupuscule or to sell newspapers, but to strengthen left wing viewpoints within the party, to strengthen the position of Jeremy Corbyn within the party, and to help the party win.
2. Get involved in your party structures.
Make time to go to branch meetings and to attend the meetings of your entire constituency, if they’re all member meetings. News reports might make a newly joined member worry about a reluctant welcome, but that is rarely the case. Most long term Labour activists welcome anyone willing to get involved. There are, of course, some who mistrust new members, particularly those who are openly Marxists, but the way to deal with them is the same as the way one would deal with those with a more open mind – with patient equanimity.
Those who oppose Corbynism as a matter of principle have sometimes accused us of abusive behaviour, and so new members, although these presuppositions are unfair, are well advised to maintain calm and respectful communications at meetings, in writing, and on social media. Even if one is under unfair personal attack it is wise never to get personal or to lose one’s temper. Even if opponents have treated a new member with disrespect, sticking to matters of policy and politics has the benefit of winning the respect of those members who take no side, and of exposing the irrationality of opponents.
3. Knock doors.
One of the mainstays of political activity in constituencies across the UK is canvassing. This is the process of identifying Labour voters and getting them out to vote during elections. During the period between elections, Labour activists take part in what is called the “long campaign”. This involves regular canvassing of a different sort – instead of merely identifying our voters, we are listening to people on the doorstep. We’re talking about the value of voting with those who are too angry or despairing to vote. We’re taking up casework, making sure our officials write letters and make phone calls to schools, the NHS, the DWP – to advocate for those whose children are excluded, whose surgeries are delayed, whose benefits are sanctioned. And we’re doing persuasive canvassing, listening to people’s viewpoints and offering arguments and information to bring them around to Labour, and to socialism.
It is in these individual conversations that a Marxist might have great effect. We are not there to teach, but in respectful conversation, we might help counteract many of the lies told about Corbyn, Labour, and socialism. Poverty and public service degradation are not caused by an influx of immigrants who, according to the press, manage to take both our jobs and our benefits – they’re caused by the cuts of austerity, giveaways to banks, and the decimation of unions. But in our conversations, we can use facts and personal stories to reconnect people with the fact that as workers, power and choice are rightfully ours – and they have been stolen from us.
Knocking doors is also the road to respect for a new activist within Labour. For everyone opposed to the influx of new members, there are many old hands within Labour that will be grateful for our energy. Gaining that respect with consistency and activity makes it much easier to negotiate the necessary shifts within an old fashioned constituency – whether those shifts involve reaching out to young people, having street stalls in addition to canvassing, campaigning on social media, or welcoming leftists onto constituency executives and as candidates.
Marxists who join Labour face another tension; although we may wish to collaborate and debate, any organised way of doing so may elicit mistrust. Fortunately, leftists within Labour have coalesced around groups like Momentum, which, although its leadership is as suspicious of Marxists as Labour itself, is organised around the goal of strengthening socialist values within the party. Facebook pages like Red Labour, news sites like Novara, and countless social media groups with a variety of names offer opportunities to organise. But it is essential to remember that right now, the goals of all Corbyn supporters in the party are similar – to pass socialist motions and rules at party conference, to select left wing candidates, and to elect reliable left wing party officers. In these, much more can be gained through unity and negotiation with those who differ from us than through divisive actions that destroy a working sense of trust.