A speech by Sonali Bhattacharyya at the recent launch of Don’t Stop Talking about Tomorrow: the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn, by Mike Phipps, published by OR Books
The coalition that formed around Corbyn’s leadership has inevitably fractured, but we still have much to build on. The connection between a newly militant grassroots movement with the labour movement and the Labour left showed our power and for a few years threatened the foundations of the rigged system this country is built on.
But there is no room for nostalgia or what ifs. I believe there’s a clear reason why there was a movement-wide consensus post-General Election that we must build socialism from the ground up, in the Labour Party and beyond. There is no short term or direct electoral route to power. The scale of the challenge we face requires a movement-wide effort to shift power in favour of the working class.
Right now, a reinvigorated labour movement is growing apace, alongside a street movement demanding racial and climate justice, a movement increasingly rooted in an understanding of the entwined nature of these struggles with economic justice. That understanding is precisely because we’re seeing these structures collapse in real time. Looking forward to feeling that 40 degree heat in London in the next couple of weeks? I’m not.
In the past two years, we’ve seen the inequality of our society dramatically exposed, with the pandemic allowed to wreak disproportionate havoc upon disabled people and Black and Asian communities, with the inequality of the vaccine rollout and the pronounced and deadly impact of climate collapse in the global South and the disproportionate impact on working class communities of colour here.
Far right politics has been absorbed into the platform of mainstream parties. The Tories’ plans to deport people to Rwanda would have been the stuff of dreams for the BNP when I was growing up. Now each prospective Tory leadership candidate is vying to demonstrate their cruelty and inhumanity in enacting such plans.
The question of equality and liberation has for too long been seen as an afterthought by much of the left in this country. There has been too much distance between the movement for racial justice and the wider left. This is clearly seen within the Labour Party itself, which has unfortunately long been mistrusted by black, brown and migrant communities for complicity in state racism, with our votes very much taken for granted, and which we’re seeing quite viscerally right now with the outrageous treatment of Apsana Begum, the first ever hijabi MP and one of the finest parliamentarians we have.
It has been disconcerting to see this disconnect within the Labour left as well, and I believe this has created a vacuum for a liberal anti-racist framework to take hold. There’s a lack of rigour around what solidarity with minoritised groups entails, a lack of scrutiny and a lack of accountability of those we look to for leadership.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the departure of some of the most visible and hard-working sisters of colour from the Party and we should be asking ourselves in all honesty why that is. We’re seeing how attacks on migrant rights, and trans rights, and reproductive rights are absolutely central to fomenting hard right authoritarianism. It’s time we recognised that a movement rooted in equality and liberation for all minoritised groups is not just a nice afterthought, it’s central to how we build a socialist alternative.
This is becoming ever more urgent, and be in no doubt, the resistance is already starting to happen. We see it in the incredible scenes of communities coming together to stop their neighbours being deported in Glasgow and in Peckham, in people joining the struggle of food couriers against police harassment and violence in Dalston. These were not spontaneous instances of rebellion – they were just the most visible manifestation of the slow, dedicated work of comrades organising in their communities, to foster solidarity, political education and activist training to build effective resistance.
Over the past two years we have been working to root Momentum more firmly in issues of racial justice, supporting the work of migrant organisers and helping to resist the Nationality and Borders Bill. As the impact of housing policies and social cleansing in our cities disproportionately impacts upon migrants and people of colour, it’s important to note that our work against evictions is a racial justice issue too. Our climate justice course centres on the question of imperialism and its legacy and the intrinsic relationship between white supremacy and climate collapse. This is also slow, dedicated work, but it’s been vital in order for Momentum to remain relevant and to retain socialists disgusted by the capitulation to the Tories under Starmer’s leadership within the movement.
The cost of living crisis is set to create devastating levels of hunger and immiseration in the coming months. We will need a militant labour movement to combat it. It’s also vital that we work to create local networks of confident activists to resist this onslaught on the working class, and that means turning our mass membership towards these struggles now.
We’ve also spent the last two years working to bring greater democracy and accountability to Momentum. Democracy is important, not just to engage and empower our mass membership, but also as one tool to create a more egalitarian and open left culture. None of us benefit from playing the same zero-sum games the right engage in. We believe in collectivity and equality and that means instilling our own movement and organisations with those principles.
Momentum is one of the most visible legacies of Corbyn’s leadership, and our mass membership is our greatest asset. We’re uniquely placed to create a bridge between the parliamentary left and this movement, and it is crucial we support our members to help create these networks. This is the short term resistance badly needed that will also create the foundation for the long-term goal of a democratic movement for socialism that leaves no one behind.
Sonali Bhattacharyya is a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group.
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