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I TALKED to Joe Guinan on the morning of May 21, just before leaving the house to vote in European elections that were never supposed to have been held.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom had resigned the previous night and the headlines were full of descriptions of a besieged Theresa May, sofas upended against the doors of No 10.
It was a real-time study in the fluid, surreal, accelerating dimensions of 2019 politics and a good backdrop to discuss Joe Guinan and Christine Berry’s new book, People Get Ready.
Put together at breakneck speed, the book attempts a goal that far too few have aimed at since Jeremy Corbyn’s election — to outline in broad, and broadly accessible while intellectually rigorous terms, a political strategy for the new democratic socialism.
“I was quite concerned about missing this opportunity,” says Guinan. “There’s a paradox at the heart of Corbynism which is that we are where we are almost by accident historically and we’ve seized the commanding heights of the Labour Party at the moment of the left’s relative weakness historically.”
In this account, the movement had to be reverse engineered. It lacked political experience, political education and a sense of itself.
“These questions [of strategy] were starting to worry me,” Guinan adds, explaining his decision to write the book.
“The only person I could imagine writing this book was Christine so I approached her straight away and she was interested. We wrote it in three months. We agreed that we would have to write it very very quickly partly because the risk was we’d be blown out of the water by events.”
Since my interview Theresa May has announced her resignation and 12 leadership candidates have declared.
At under 200 pages, People Get Ready is a breath of fresh air compared to most socialist theory and strategy, but regardless manages to alight on contexts as wide as the pitfalls of the left Mitterrand government in 1980s France, the Swedish Meidner Plan to transition away from capitalism, Syriza in contemporary Greece and the genesis of Thatcherism. It’s not a book for people entirely new to politics, but grassroots activists without an academic background should be able to engage with it.
Grassroots activists and the communities they organise in take centre stage for Guinan and Berry’s conception of the movement. They are not merely footsoldiers but the sensory apparatus that can see, hear and collectively interpret what is happening around it and feed those experiences into policy and practice. The “people” in People Get Ready seems to refer both to the movement as it is at the moment, and to the movement the authors want to see — a broad ecology of empowered communities and organisations working in concert and braced for the challenges that will accompany any significant breakthrough the left makes.
The tasks we have are broken down accordingly. Guinan and Berry ask us to get ready for “change” — the radical rebalancing of power that left success is capable of bringing out, “government” — the physical act of holding power, “reaction” — the orchestrated undermining attempts that dog all mildly reforming governments and to “organise” — to build the institutions and capacities outside of Parliament that can buttress a left government as well as go beyond it.
They focus intensely on the need for independent movements and community empowerment projects that can outlast a left Labour government, a project to rebalance society as much as the economy. This, in their account, involves creating tools for localised movements to understand and shape their environments.
“The more of things like Preston [the left-wing council that has embarked on a programme of community wealth building] happen, the more people can understand at a local level new ownership strategies, the more these places can be laboratories of democracy. We need a new local politics that opens doors and makes people feel much greater ownership over their councils and their spaces,” says Guinan.
“Neoliberalism has been de-territorialising, there is no recognition for particular needs of communities. Corbyn has been clear there’s a decentralising agenda. Of course it would be tempting to use the levers when there’s a centralised state but there’s no shortcut to decentralising power, to rebalancing the economy and democracy.”
While Guinan and Berry value movement-led politics, they are equally clear that developing a sense of tactical nous is vital for this to work. The movement needs both political independence and the ability to accept that some retreats and deferred confrontations are inevitable rather than falling into automatic denunciation. “We need to see more engagement but we don’t want to see ultra-left purism,” Guinan says.
“But on the other hand too few people are making too many important decisions because there isn’t a broader sophisticated conversation.”
We touch, unavoidably, on Brexit — where Guinan speaks in a personal capacity because he and his co-author differ. “I’ve always seen [the Corbyn moment] as possible partly because of the huge wrecking ball taken to the establishment by that referendum, with sections of capital in disarray. This may be the end of the longest-running most successful party in modern history.”
“On the other hand there’s pretty frightening prospects that could be thrown up so there’s still all to play for. I’ve got mixed views on what I think is wrong with the EU but my position on what we should be doing is tactical. We need to make sure we’re not consumed by Brexit.”
Does Brexit tell us anything about a broader crisis in British politics and institutions?
“Neoliberalism is responsible for long-running crises in various forms, and as the neoliberal settlement unravels some of these longer-running problems resurface,” says Guinan, pointing to “antiquated British institutional arrangements, a crisis of regional disparities and one of the most centralised states in Europe.”
Guinan is keen to remind us that it is important to go on the offensive. Radicalism is popular, and as it stands Corbyn’s opponents seem flat-footed, either unwilling or unable to contest the Labour left on policy and ideas.
“There’s been a huge dereliction of duty on the part of the media to scrutinise and criticise the Corbyn project on its own terms, rather than just a centrist dad sneer. There’s a lack of talent in second generation Blairism and no-one on the actual right has done any real serious thinking for ages.
“Some of it is incapability and incapacity to understand it and some of it is just that they don’t take the project seriously. So we can smuggle through quite radical policy, which will also actually be popular.”
Guinan points to polls showing people strongly in favour of workers’ dividends both here and in the US, and significantly more so than they are of public spending in general. The idea of a workers’ stake is behind inclusive ownership models being discussed in both the US and British institutional left.
And he also believes it is possible to achieve a rapprochement with smaller sections of capital in order to isolate more aggressive elites. “Small and medium enterprises are easier to accommodate with public banks versus big firms, where you’re also getting into financialised arrangements.” He points to the US, which has a much more diverse banking sector before the right mobilised small local banks around deregulation.
“They said you are being drowned in red tape, appealed to their material interests without ideological buy-in.” In the US case the large banks promptly gobbled up the small ones. But the underlying point — that a left government can bring sections of business into its plans for national renewal and investment by mirroring its opponents’ tactics — is worth exploring.
In a necessarily short piece of work, there is a considerable amount of ground left untapped and space for others to build on. One example we touched on was the confluence of the grime scene and the Labour Party in the 2017 general election which seemed to have more potential than has so far been realised, and the role of the left in generating cultural output. There are other open-ended areas where People Get Ready generates topics for discussion that it does not have time to resolve on its own.
“Part of what we were trying to do with the book was create questions,” Guinan says. “It’s got to be organic, with people deciding what to do themselves.”
The book is an argument for a specific approach to strategy. If you don’t agree with it, the authors want you to say so — because it’s also a contribution to developing a broader culture of discussing strategy on the left.
The global, highly technical networks of neoliberalism and the changes they have wrought; the crisis of representation, trust, communication and institutions; and the diversity of issues and diversity of experience within the left makes this movement-based approach to strategy essential. The socialist project is too important to be left to a narrow layer of thinkers.
People Get Ready is not a blueprint for Corbynism’s next steps, nor are Guinan and Berry the only writers thinking about the challenges ahead for a project relying on both electoral and movement politics.
In a period where it’s easy to become disoriented by the ongoing twists and turns of the Brexit process, the book is a timely reminder to, in the words of former Liberal leader David Steel, “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”
The book is out now, available at www.orbooks.com/catalog/people-get-ready
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