Last night Compass and Equality West Midlands held a well-attended meeting on movement building, with Guardian journalist and writer Zoe Williams as keynote speaker. It was, like so many ‘non-sectarian’ gatherings on the left, a meeting of hearts, but not always of minds.
Williams is, as her writing might suggest, a subtle and intelligent speaker. She’s made a few appearances recently on programmes like The Daily Politics, where her straight talking and humour can make her more effective than other figures on the left, who get too exasperated with any departure from seriousness to make a successful transition from print to TV punditry. She was also happy to let the meeting have a dual function, of celebrity talk plus a locally based activist agenda. There was a slight awkwardness in this – were we there to hear Williams, or were we there to get on with building a movement?
Let’s attend to the former first. Zoe Williams took certain things as read. That New Labour was not the election-winning triumph of ‘modernisers’ whose legacy was squandered by Ed Miliband, but rather was the final abasement of the Labour Party in the face of the neoliberal ascendency. That neoliberalism had gained that ascendency in part by the clarity of its vision and the capacity of its adherents to cast all their actions in the furtherance of their central tenets. That Jeremy Corbyn was a good guy, but with limited vision and a doubtful capacity for transformational leadership, whose triumph as Labour leader was a necessary but not sufficient step towards realigning progressive politics more closely with today’s social cleavages.
Williams was explicit about the need for radical constitution change – something that Labour has always been reluctant to embrace, even though it has been clear for the last thirty years that such change is needed. There was a touch of Charter 88 redux about aspects of the analysis. But that is good. What Charter 88 did so well was to find a wide intellectual consensus for constitutional change which crossed parties and social movements. But Williams’ implicit message was that such change, particularly electoral reform, needed to be embedded in less abstract, more concrete demands, such as those around access to secure and affordable housing.
She also made telling points about the urgency to use even apparently dry or dull mechanisms as vehicles for popular engagement. In Williams view, the rather boring question of Scottish independence was seized by broad currents on the left in Scotland to ask transformative and optimistic questions about what the future could look like. I’m not sure that this is wholly true. The debate in Scotland around constitutional change, which led to devolution, but also included the prospect of independence, was a long-standing project. But it is fair to say that the popular mood was galvanised around the independence referendum, and that this does suggest that we should seize all available opportunities – such as the EU referendum – to posit a new and optimistic vision of what could be.
Williams’ view seems to be that the nascent movement for change is there already, but needs to be mobilised, given a clear set of ideas and principles, and understood not as a disciplined party, but as a messy and often nebulous set of relationships. She was also of the view that when things really started to change, they would change quickly.
One of the most arresting images of the evening was when Zoe Williams compared Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. Miliband, she suggested, had been like a surfer poised for the wave that never came. Corbyn, conversely, was no surfer, but had merely found himself, to his surprise, borne aloft on that unexpected wave. She didn’t have to say it to last night’s audience, but that’s why dark mutterings about reliving the eighties, Trots, entryists, and the ‘politically motivated men’ of nightmares past are such nonsense. There are no organised plots, only disorganised, un-organised, sometimes mobilised, sometimes latent forces for change. Their motivating factors are likely to be specific and material. The task is to hear and amplify those voices, and to link them as a movement.
I’m conscious of having left out a lot of what was spoken of last night. Central to the whole evening, both in terms of Williams’ talk, and of contributions from the floor, was a need to change the terms of the economic debate, to challenge notions of ‘free markets’, the meaning of ‘value’, to question the narrow limits that have been set on what is deemed ‘possible’. I’ve also glossed over some of the frictions in the room, which, to be fair, Zoe Williams did acknowledge (how left, how liberal, how green, how radical?)
In the midst of all this was our own ongoing project of finding the language and the means to address these tasks on the ground in our own region. For if we are to move beyond rousing words in meeting halls, we are going to have to get back to what has always been the task of the progressive left – to educate, agitate and organise.