It’s highly confusing being a Labour leftist these days. I wake up each day to find that some senior member of another of the party has dropped me into a category of some kind I spent most of last week making a banner with the words “I’d pick Trotsky,” (perhaps not the best choice of words) while working on my armlocks, only to find out that I’m also, perplexingly, a Nazi stormtrooper. I’m not clear on whether this means I’m a member of the Waffen SS (I started young, man and boy, joined up at the tender age of negative seventy-six) or a particularly right-wing Imperial Stormtrooper, and given my luck I have a horrible feeling I’m meant to be both, which means I have to both annex to Sudentenland and, the presumably, wander around asking if anyone’s seen these droids. I presume I’m also meant to be a Trotskyist, so being either one or both forms of Nazi Stormtrooper is made more complex that Nazis and Trotskyists don’t really get on, ergo that arm twisting I’m meant to be doing has suddenly got a lot more aggressive. This is a lot to put on my plate. Stop it. I’m busy. I’m a PhD student, a high functioning alcoholic and need to set aside at least some of my evenings to hang around the ghost of my own dignity. Also, I don’t have any of right costumes. When Oscar Wilde said that the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings, I presume he meant cosplay.
If that paragraph made absolutely no sense to you, then buckle up. I’ll explain.
eAs Labour continues its long road towards socialism/barbarism/irrelevance – which it is astoundingly still calling a leadership contest – various barbs have been aimed at both those of us on the Labour left, and also new members of the party. Tom Watson, a man whom I do still respect to a certain degree (he’s done some stellar work on tackling historic child sex abuse), has claimed there is considerable evidence of Trotskyists infiltrating the party. A few days later, Labour donor Michael Foster compared members of Momentum to Nazi Stormtroopers (the link is to Another Angry Voice’s post about the article, rather than the original, since that exists on the website of The Daily Mail, and we do no go there, Simba). This all comes at a time when Labour spent members money on overturning a verdict which would have allowed over 130,000 new members of the party to vote in the upcoming leadership election. More absurdly, Labour is expecting the five members of the party who sued to get their voting rights – you know, the ones which are clearly stated as being yours when you join the party – must pay £30,000 in legal fees, following the court verdict. Part of the rationale, it seemed, for excluding new members, was the fear of entryism from far left elements hoping to lock Jeremy Corbyn into power as leader. Various media commentators and Labour MPs have talked darkly about the return of Militant, the far left faction expelled from the party in the 80s. It’s all a bloody mess, frankly. And more to the point, this reasoning is really rather absurd from where I’m sitting (as I’ll explain, below), and leads me to speculate that there must be another reason for Labour’s apparent existential terror about its new membership. Presumably, Labour is worried about their being more people in the party because they didn’t get enough food in, the corner shop is now closed, and at this rate all everything’s going to get to eat at the party is two twiglets and an onion, which is coincidentally all the food I have in my flat, currently. Go into academia, kids. There be the dollar.
This whole situation is immeasurably depressing, and darkly fascinating to me as someone who is a Labour leftist, but also who’s academic career is built on studying leftist social movements and parties. Since about 2013, I’ve spent most of my time documenting and studying far left groups in the UK, first as a Masters student, then as an independent researcher, and now as a PhD student in the Center for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. In other words, when I write about the Left, I know what I’m talking about. I won’t go into my own research in too much detail now, but if you are feeling sufficiently bored or just want something to talk to me about on Tinder, you can read some of my work here and here, and if you’re really ambitious, you can go to Cambridge University Library and read my thesis.
Let’s address, first off, the claims of entryism. It’s a sad fact to any of us who are involved in the Left that, frankly, there isn’t much of it. Most academic researchers estimate that there are no more than forty to fifty thousand or more people across the United Kingdom who are, politically, revolutionary socialists, or Marxists, or Trotskyists. This figure has been arrived at via membership of far left groups, data from YouGov and Ipsos Mori and from individual academic publications. There are some wonderful articles on the subject, which sadly only exist behind University logins, but if I find any in the public domain, I’ll be sure to link them in this post, or in the Resources page on ClassWaugh.Wordpress.Com. Fifty thousand sounds like a lot of people, but when taken as a percentage of the UK population as a whole, it’s not very much. Furthermore, my own research (Waugh, 2014) suggests that many of those who regard themselves as being on the radical left are not active in parliamentary politics. For some, this comes from a political standpoint (parliamentary politics are the prevail of the establishment, as opposed to direct action initiatives and street based movements), and for others this is a result of a semi-retirement from politics. Activists, in generally, tend to withdraw from or reduce their engagement with politics during specific points in their lives. This could be due to personal reasons, political alienation, and so on. In other words, we can safely assume that the number of actual radical leftists who are actively engaging in political praxis and also within the Labour Party, is fairly small. And it is certainly not the 300,000 odd people who have joined the Party since September 2015, when Corbyn was elected as Leader of the Opposition.
Many of these factions now no longer exist, or cling onto existence. The often cited Militant, which was a fairly formidable force in the 80s, is now the Socialist Party of England and Wales, and has, according to recent data, around seven hundred members, which is fewer people than some Constituency Labour Parties. The Socialist Workers Party, once the biggest force in far left politics, is now a shell of its former self, with maybe three hundred members at a push, down from the thousands it used to command. Once we start getting into the various offshoots of the old Communist Party of Great Britain, we’re looking at fairly measly figures. For example, the Communist Party of Great Britain – Marxist Leninist (you say the “hyphen” in the name, I’m told, by a very pedantic party member who I interviewed for my research) has ninety-six members as of January 2015. Of course, a lot has happened since January 2015, but I highly doubt the impressionable youth of Britain have flocked to a party which self publishes leaflets with such titles as “The People’s Assembly Against Austerity Must Beware The Grand Old Duke Of York,” which is a splendid title for a document, and reminds us, comrades, that we must truly consider whether it is the case that ten thousand men is a mass movement and what this says about the gender politics of the radical left.
Tom Watson cited a few examples of far left entryism, and rather helpfully has put them in a Facebook post, which at time of writing, can be found here. Specifically, he suggests that radical leftist are entering the party, and “twisting the arms” of young members, in order to ensure support for Corbyn. The group he mentions is the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), a group I know a fair amount about by virtue of being an ex member, having joined in 2011 and left in 2012. It’s certainly true that the AWL does encourage its members to join Labour, with the express aim of guiding the party leftward. It does the same for trade unions, as well, and in fact the reason I originally joined my union – UCU – was because the AWL suggested it. Joining Labour to exert a political influence over it, however, is not a uniform policy across the radical left. The SWP, for example, believed that it, not Labour, should be the party of the workers. The AWL, when I was a member, counted approximately one hundred and thirty members, mostly students, and a few older trade unionists involved with GMB and the RMT. As far as I am aware, most, if not all, were already Labour members by the time I first encountered the group – well before Corbyn stood for the leadership. Watson cites a document by the AWL which say Corbyn’s election as a real opportunity for socialism, and thus encouraged members to join the party. To my mind, this is fair enough. Corbyn’s election does (or, perhaps did) offer the best chance of parliamentary socialism, and you didn’t need to be in a left faction to see that, or want to support that. But what differs this, in my mind, from the nightmarish entryism that Watson and other envisage is that the AWL never tried to hide their true colours from Labour. Indeed, I recall an early AWL meeting, discussing membership of Labour, where we were encouraged to be honest and upfront about our affiliation to the AWL and our commitment to socialism. Furthermore, we were encouraged to try to win people around to the AWL’s ideas, sure, but this was to be done in a comradely manner. Bring someone to a meeting. Give them a leaflet. Have a chat over a cup of coffee. Do not touch their arms unless they’re into that sort of thing. Entryism, as I understand it, is infiltration, subterfuge, underhand tactics to hijack political groups. That’s certainly not what I saw in the AWL.
Radical left factions are not the only groups that encourage members to join parliamentary parties. The first real political organisation I joined was Amnesty International. In the first Amnesty meeting I went to at Cambridge, I was encouraged to lobby out local MP, write to our MEP, and “if I felt it was right,” join a party to campaign for human rights. On the other end of the political scale, the Pro-Life group, Society for Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) has for years encouraged its members to join the Conservative, or indeed, Labour Party, to campaign for anti-choice initiatives. My parents are members of SPUC, and I believe the only reason they joined the Tory Party was because SPUC suggested they should.
So, a brief recap – while (some) radical left factions do encourage members to join Labour, this cannot account for the hundreds of thousands who have flocked to the party in the last year. While it is impossible to say for certain what motivated everyone to join, quantitative analysis suggests Corbyn (or, perhaps, what Corbyn embodies) holds the support of a majority of new members (you can read news and survey reports on this here and here). And while we’re taking this brief recap, a few things that I am not saying: I am not saying that there aren’t some radical leftists who are entering the party for nefarious purposes. I am also not going to claim that there aren’t elements in the Corbyn supporters in the party who are vile, abusive people. It would be wrong of me to dispute this, especially since what I study is abuse (specifically, sexist and sexual abuse) within radical left movements. I am also not going to claim that Corbyn himself is perfect. He isn’t. I am still supporting him, and unless something radically changes, I will vote for him in the leadership election. I do have my concerns about Corbyn, and I will, eventually, write a post about what these are, but for now I direct your attention to Owen Jones’s excellent blog post on the topic.
What I am saying is that claims of mass entryism is, to my mind, being hugely overblown to fit into a fear provoking narrative. And this links into Foster’s Nazi stormtroopers claim, and also, Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse whereby a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception and sanity. The term originates from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light, where the main character (played by Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film adaptation) is subjected to systemic psychological manipulation by her husband. Gaslighting, at a very basic level, is denial that abuse took place. It can also take the form of blaming the victim for the abuse (“Look what you made me do!”). The result of gaslighting is that the victim feels unable to trust their own perceptions, and thus the abuser is able to control their reality. I’ve spent much of the last year as a victim of gaslighting (which you can read about here, if you really want) and I can tell you it fuck you up. I still don’t trust myself, my take on the world, my feelings, and am afflicted by terrible paranoia and anxiety.
What’s this got to do with Labour? Let me continue.
Psychiatrists see a further step in the gaslighting process, an escalation if you will. If the abuser cannot affect the way the victim sees themselves, they will try to affect the way everyone else sees the victim. This takes the form of character assassination, lying, mud-slinging, or even fabrication of events, so that the abuser might claim that they were the one abused. Pejorative terms are often used to justify treatment and ward others off – the victim is “needy,” they are “toxic,” they are “dishonest” and so on. The ultimate aim of this is a form of control. The victim feels that people will not see them for themselves, but will instead see only the misinformation that has been spread about them, and thus they withdraw from the world for fear of further abuse from friends, family members, and their wider community. There have been documented cases of victims of such abuse being attacked by people in their community as a result of effective gaslighting. I should know. I was one of them.
Let’s bring this back to Labour. By branding its new members as “thugs”, “a mob,” “Trotskyists” (worth noting that being a Trotskyist is no bad thing. Loosely, I’m one. But the context makes it pejorative), or “Nazi stormtroopers,” there is a linguistic attempt to sideline them, and justify negative behaviour. If, as some within the party suggest, the membership are all nasty people, intent on the downfall of the party or the British state, then it is entirely fair and legitimate to deny them voting rights, to view them with contempt, and so on. I should say, firmly, that I do not for one moment believe that Tom Watson, or John Mann, are setting out on a deliberate programme of psychological manipulation. What I am saying is that by constantly undermining the new members, branding them with names, slotting them into antagonistic categories, the Labour Party is doing itself no favours, and could, indeed, be spreading the seeds of its own demise.
Going out on a limb here, I’d suggest that many of the new Labour members joined for the “right” reasons. The prospect for post-Brexit Britain is frightening for progressives, so we get involved in politics. We’ve had a Tory government in one form of another for nearly seven years now, thus, we get involved in politics. We, perhaps, see Corbyn (for all his considerable faults) as an antidote to the neo-liberal consensus, so we get involved in politics. My experience of going to Momentum meeting is very different from my experience with other far left groups. I recently went to a meeting of Leeds Momentum. About seventy-odd people of various creeds, colours, ages, sexualities, gender identities and ages discussed the local issues, talked about the leadership campaign, mapped out our ideas for building effective opposition, and then went to the local pub.
Somehow we did all of this with our arms intact, and not one of us invaded Poland.