Paul Thompson on parties and movements

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Excellent analysis by Paul Thompson over at Renewal:

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither ‘wing’ adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of ‘people all round the country’ does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. And, as Matt Bolton notes, ‘The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism’. Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited, party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years. A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the broader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the ‘voice’ of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group ‘in struggle’. But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘support anyone/all demands in struggle’.  Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

Read the full thing here: Corbynism isn’t a social movement, and Labour shouldn’t be one

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