“The characterisation of Tory strategy (and dilemmas) is exemplary, as too limitations of the Corbyn Project that can nonetheless be learned from”
Larry O’Hara reviews Our Bloc: How We Win by James Schneider
This short book raises important questions the left should be asking, providing interesting, albeit controversial, answers. Schneider, as Seumas Milne’s Deputy in Jeremy Corbyn’s media team, and Momentum co-founder, really was ‘in the room’ when important issues were discussed. This makes his comments on the Corbyn Project’s strategic mis-steps and good points especially useful (p.85-9), albeit tantalisingly brief, as too observations on Momentum’s structure (p.84-5).
The book argues it is a false choice between staying inside Labour, building a new party or building movement struggles. Rather, we should organise “progressive social forces — the movements and potential movements that wrestle with power — under a common banner” (p.5). This ‘Left bloc’ should be “a formal, explicit alliance of social movements, trade unions, the Labour grassroots and socialists in Parliament” — ie. the Socialist Campaign Group.
It will be “a federated organisation where there is no compulsion on members of the alliance” (p.54), which would make it a confederation, something rather different. It requires “a properly resourced and empowered secretariat… charged with co-ordinating across the federated forces, advancing collective campaigns… and securing maximum attention for progressive positions” (54-55). The range of potential bloc members is vast: Trade Unions, Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut, Extinction Rebellion, Disabled People Against Cuts, CND to name but a few.
The ambition is palpable: “an entity that can unite the remaining Labour Left with movements — an interlocking structure of alliances equipped with a shared secretariat to co-ordinate between groups, mount campaigns, wield a parliamentary voice and form a pole of attraction in popular struggle… to form a counter-hegemonic bloc to contest the ruling historic bloc” (p.46).
Using terminology derived from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci is acknowledged. However, Gramsci saw the (revolutionary!) party as helping assemble the historic bloc, not arising afterwards. Schneider’s view (not necessarily wrong) is that “at some stage we will need an electoral vehicle that can win and take office to enact wide-ranging reforms. But first we need an entity that can begin to unite and mobilise towards a social majority” (p.5).
While mentioning the First Past the Post system as an electoral obstacle once (p.40) he does not return to it. Others (like myself) regard that discussion as essential but that is another debate! There is (sort of) a place for Momentum (though no extra-parliamentary groups) —“our bloc wouldn’t seek to replace Momentum, but rather would build on it. No other Labour Left organisation can mobilise as many people or communicate so effectively” (p.47).
This does sound like they are to be the foot-soldiers not General Staff! What might hold the bloc together? Agitating for a Green New Deal is suggested (p.59) though Starmer’s recent attempt to appropriate the form (not substance) of GND might limit the efficacy of such a unifying motif. Then there is the question of disagreement within the bloc. Schneider concedes some direct actions, eg. shutting down motorways, may be “misguided” (p.61) but the (con)federation wouldn’t be able to prevent it.
The above might indicate I am critical of the book but not so: the characterisation of Tory strategy (and dilemmas) is exemplary, as too limitations of the Corbyn Project that can nonetheless be learned from. His description of Starmer is priceless: “content to play second fiddle to the Conservatives, his strategy for victory scarcely extends beyond praying for the first violin to break a finger” (p.30) — and to continue the analogy, Liz Truss has smashed her violin on the conductor’s head.
Furthermore, Schneider makes very useful suggestions about the three phases of reform a left Government might enact: ameliorative, strong and (finally) non-reformist reforms. He credits this last type to the late French socialist, Andre Gorz, which underlines a crucial strength of this book. Schneider is not afraid to cite non-British theorists where useful (even if Chantal Mouffe is probably not one of them) and explicitly accepts the state is no mere neutral instrument, but a site of struggle (p.71). The book ends with four fascinating alternative scenarios for future left advance: that like much of the book they are debatable is a strength, not weakness.
- You can grab your copy of Our Bloc: How We Win by James Schneider from Verso books.
- Larry O’Hara is currently writing a book on future Left Government strategy.
- This article originally appeared in Labour Briefing (Co-operative) magazine and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe by sending a £20 cheque with your address to ‘Labour Briefing Co-op, PO Box 78639, London N16 1LA