‘For the first time, I’m optimistic’, young English socialist says

Jeremy Corbyn with young supporters.
Saturday, September 9, 2017

Nathan is a young London-based activist who has joined the British Labour Party as a supporter of the platform of socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn. A student who is part of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and a member of Socialist Resistance, Roberts was recently in Australia for the Radical Ideas conference in Melbourne organised by Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance over August 18-20.

He spoke to Jacob Andrewartha from Green Left Radio, which can be heard on Melbourne community radio station 3CR on Friday’s from 7am-8:30am. An abridged version of the interview is below.

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What has been the impact of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s unexpectedly strong vote on a left platform in the June elections? 

This is probably the first time in my life that I’m slightly optimistic about politics in my country. 

We’ve gone through 20 years of neoliberalism in the Labour Party, with a completely Tory-lite program. But what Corbyn did was swing the party significantly to the left.

He has faced challenges from within the party and in the press. But his brand of left democratic socialist politics has really ignited young people who have faced seven years of austerity. People have been drawn into the party because they see a platform that reflects their interests.

So Labour Party membership has gone from 130,000 members two years ago to 600,000 members today and a lot of those new members are young.

The left has also been growing and on June 15, 40% of the electorate voted for a socialist program. How could you not be excited by that?

As a young person, do you feel there is a youth radicalisation underway?

Electoral turnout among young people has been dropping off quite steadily since 1997, when Tony Blair first got elected. You can put this down to there being no difference between the two parties with Labour moving rightwards.

Now, we have gone from a turnout of people aged between 18-24 of about 44% in 2015 to about 60% in June. About 65% of these voted Labour because they found a program that that will provide material improvements in their lives — with policies like building 500,000 social housing units and abolishing tuition fees.

What’s been particularly encouraging is that the youth mobilisation and politicisation has not slowed down since the election.

After the Grenfell fire disaster, a horrific event in which a huge block of social housing caught fire because it was poorly maintained by the local Conservative council, there were big mobilisations of young people and local residents.

What was different from previous mobilisations was this was recognised as a class issue — that people died because the Conservative council did not care about working-class lives. It's that rearticulation of class among youth that I think the Corbyn campaign has produced.

What can you say about the rise of Corbyn and Labour’s relationship with grassroots social movements?

One of the unfortunate by-products of Labour moving radically leftwards is that a lot of activist who would have been organisers in social movements have actually moved away from that into party politics. So the general level of social movements has maybe tapered off a little bit in Britain.

Since Corbyn and his close ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell came to the forefront of Labour, they have been consistent in supporting protests. The leadership does quite a lot: they support strikes and demonstrations, which is a great departure from the previous leader Ed Miliband, who would condemn strikes.

But I think Labour is sometimes too cautious about getting involved in social movements. So the left is actively encouraging our local MPs to support strikes and demos.

In my area, cinema workers have been on strike and left activists and local Labour members have been encouraging the local MP to go down to the strike and help raise awareness about it.

So it’s often grassroots activists who are trying to turn the Labour Party outwards. 

What about the contradiction between right-wing Labour MPs who oppose Corbyn, but had their vote share rise in the elections due to support for Corbyn’s platform?

There is a core of Blairites who still criticise Corbyn, but a lot of Labour MPs are opportunists. So when they see which way the wind is blowing, they go with it.

It’s pretty funny to see MPs who have spent the last two years slagging off Corbyn have their vote share go from 40% to 70% because of him.

My local MP is a bit of a centrist, but after the elections she has been moving left, at least in her rhetoric and in the fact she’s been going down to these strikes.

A lot of MPs have been speaking out after the Grenfell fire and have been more outwardly supportive of Corbyn because they know he is the reason they still have their jobs.

Could you tell us a bit about Momentum, a grassroots group set up to support Corbyn’s project, and its relationships to the Labour Party?

Momentum was founded soon after Corbyn became leader in 2015 and its overall project is to support the Jeremy Corbyn leadership and, at least nominally, democratise the Labour Party, make it more open. It is not an affiliated organisation; it acts like a faction within the party.

I think Momentum played a pretty good role in the general election campaign. It produced a lot of impressive videos that pushed Labour’s message of class politics. Momentum activists also did a lot of work in mobilising people to campaign.

Where I would be more critical of Momentum is how it has adopted a top-down approach to doing politics. Instead of building the grassroots movements, it is very much been the central office dictating where activists go and how activists vote.

I don't think they have done particularly well in developing the grassroots of their own organisation. This is a waste because if they did, I think the project of democratising the Labour Party, which is nominally Momentum’s project, would be more successful.

What do you think the prospects are for the far left in Britain in light of everything happening?

There is definitely an opportunity to start talking to people about more revolutionary and Marxist ideas, especially when you raise the possibility of a Corbyn government.

If there was an election tomorrow, chances are that Corbyn would become prime minister, which is an incredibly exciting prospect.

But of course he wouldn’t be able to put forward all of his programs and policies just like that, because the institutions of capitalism — the banks, the state and media — would come down on him like a ton of bricks.

So you have to start talking to people about how we need independent social movements that can fight back against the institutions of capital.

What are some of the challenges the left has to contend with?

I think winning the elections is going to be one. Even though we did incredibly well, we still didn’t win. The Conservatives still have 50 more seats than us in parliament.

But if there is a Corbyn government, we will need to defend that government, criticising it from the left when necessary, and building the mobilisations so that we can implement its platform and ultimately strengthen the balance of class forces in our favour.