From its earliest years, Labour has been divided between those who wanted socialism to be a radical vision of a new, moral way of life, and those who saw Labour politics as about maximising votes to win power and enact practical social and economic reform. Sometimes, social movements and electioneering were successfully yoked together – as George Lansbury did in Bow in London’s East End in the early twentieth century. In this case and others, it worked because local people understood local issues and the coalitions that could be stitched together between the electioneering machine of the party and the local social movements and campaigns. But Labour has flourished best when it has worked with and developed organic connections to social movements, rather than attempting to be one.
Jeremy Corbyn established the centrality of social movements to his vision for Labour early on, telling LabourList in June 2015, “Labour is a social movement or it is nothing”. Momentum now aims, as its three national organisers recently wrote in Renewal, to develop and support a “grassroots network to unite people in their Labour parties, communities and workplaces to win victories on the issues that matter to them”, and “link this network with other movements and campaigns to build a diverse, united, mass movement for political change”. Social movements can be a resource, a network, an inspiration for, and a check on the Labour party. They are also a social good in their own right: usually progressive in nature, they have achieved huge cultural and political changes, and championed grassroots empowerment – important in our increasingly anti-deferential, anti-elitist, even anti-statist culture.
To understand why Labour has worked best when it has worked with rather than as a social movement, we need to examine the history and characteristics of social movements: they are (or aspire to be) less hierarchical than other forms of politics; involve large-scale collective activity and campaigning; are at least partially extra or anti-institutional; aim to alter one broad area of the politics, institutions or cultural norms of society; and pursue targeted campaigns at the micro-level.
The ‘new social movements’ which sprang up from the late 1950s, in which activists like Corbyn were politically socialised, were identified as ‘new’ because they focused on issues outside class or material distribution – like gender, race, or peace – and because their politics often seemed to be driven more by the desire to express and embody individual identity and morality, than by the desire to bring about specific practical changes. As early as 1968, in one of the first studies of CND, sociologist Frank Parkin concluded that for many participants, “the rewards of personal involvement are almost wholly of an emotional or psychological kind”; their politics was one of “the making of gestures which stress moral absolutes, but which tend to have little practical effect on outcomes”. Parkin did not suggest that the movement was therefore not worthwhile – far from it. But its achievements were primarily in the realm of cultural change, rather than in policy shifts at state level.
Social movements usually have more focused and limited aims than political parties. Remaining outside the political institutions which they want to change, social movements and their participants can criticize as much as they want; they can remain ideologically and ethically pure; they can avoid compromise; they can embody their identity and values. It is harder to do this as an internal part of an organisation attempting to win and exercise political power. Fighting elections involves compromise and the balancing of different interests and identities. The exercise of political power is often about priorities and compromises. The Labour party as social movement runs a real risk of being stymied by the unwillingness of social movement participants to make pragmatic and sometimes unpalatable compromises. Political leaders must balance morality with pragmatism.
This is now one of the defining divisions within the party: should Labour be above all a political party and an electioneering machine, or should it be a social movement? But the question is based on a false premise. As Lea Ypi and Jonathan White recently wrote in Renewal, much contemporary writing on parties reduces them to mere electioneering machines, entirely missing the “transformative aspirations that define partisanship”. The Labour party defines itself by long-term and developing goals and ideological commitments – to equality, justice, progress, collectivism. What defines the scope of those goals at any moment is history and tradition. Activists are motivated by the knowledge that we are contributing to a project with a past and future, and “owe a duty of fidelity to the commitments of [our] predecessors”. A recognition that partisanship has always been about more than winning elections provides a route out of the impasse over the electioneering/social movement divide.
A commitment to working closely with social movements can infuse Labour with some of their moral purity, vitality, and organisational reach. We also need partisanship. Above all, we need a realistic assessment of what parties are and what social movements are, if they are to be tied together effectively into a transformative left project.
Image: Sherri Lynn Wood