Is Labour 'Open'? An Interview with Tom Miller

By: Stephane Savary, Labour Party activist in Altrincham South of Manchester. Altrincham and Broadheath branch secretary. Also writes for @sciscomedia

I have interviewed Tom Miller for Scicomedia (pictured above with group) Councillor for Willesden Green, London, about the Labour Party and his political forum, Open Labour: a group that advocates for a modern and socialist Labour Party.

Stephane Savary: “Why “Open Labour”? Do you think that the Labour Party isn’t open to the world? How different is your group compared to any other tendency?”

Tom Miller: “We do think that out of government there is a closing occurring, yes. There are a lot of criticisms which can be made of New Labour, but fundamentally, it was trying to respond to a world where there was, for instance, a lot less large-scale manufacturing or primary industry than there was in the 1970s; understanding a changing economy and trying to change with it.

“In the age of Uber, our party, but also our Trade Union movement, need that understanding more than ever. We also chose ‘open’ because we think a lot of polarisation is occurring within the party which is leading to a kind of closed-mindedness: a closed attitude to whatever the ‘other’ strands and traditions are. We are firmly on the left in terms of our analysis of society and our conclusions, but we also believe in a Labour Party with lots of different voices within: a culture which welcomes the new, and is happy to be collaborative. So we are all about bringing a more open-minded attitude to the Labour left as well as the wider party.”

Stephane Savary: “Soft left, hard left, Blairites, you believe that the Labour Party can be unified and become a credible alternative to the Conservative government?”

Tom Miller: “It has done before, and it can again. But it needs people to want it, and it needs structures which support that urge. There are many political parties, not least liberal ones, which allow multiple ‘factions’ if you like, to have power and influence. In some countries, like Australia, that’s so normal it’s actually become institutionalised. You have a shared base of legitimacy in member decision making and conferences. But for that to work you have to have a shared understanding that it is the people and bodies which make up the party who own its progress and take responsibility ability for its failure, not just leaders. In the 1950s the whole party believed this, but I think it broke down a little in the 80s and totally collapsed in the 90s. And since then, people have started to forget that they need to use their member power effectively, because they themselves are forgetting that they have a part in being accountable for what we do. You now also have a minority of the left that see the party through the lense of ‘leader first’ and are only happy with member power if they think members will agree with them. Both of these trends are bad. We stand for open debate and a shared source of legitimacy for all parts of the party — the people who make it up.”

Stephane Savary: “Let’s talk about the EU referendum. What is Open Labour’s position on the EU referendum?”

Tom Miller: “We don’t have one yet! If we’re serious about democratic policy making we need to finalise our membership structure before we can run around taking positions. On my best guess though, I would say that our membership will be overwhelmingly pro-EU, albeit critically. It’s hard to make the case for institutions run by Conservatives, sometimes in quite shady ways. But you could say that about Westminster. Europe has meant peace, jobs, civil rights, culture and leisure, common work on policing, counter-terrorism and environmental protection — all very positive things. We worry that its best days are past, so I’d expect that we are likely to come out for some sort of ‘Social Europe’ position similar to that of much of the radical left.”

Stephane Savary: “Jeremy Corbyn was at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration on Saturday and is well-known for his views on Trident. What are your views on Trident? Do you think that the Labour Party should review its policy?”

Tom Miller: “Again I’d say most of our members probably oppose replacement, but we don’t have official policies yet, and a substantial number will also want to see it replaced. For our part of the party this is quite a divisive issue. Because our part of the left is the most focussed on how we win and apply power, it’s largely driven to that by domestic need, so it tends to be less motivated by foreign policy. We’re happy to admit that!”

Stephane Savary: “In your opinion, what are the strongest and weakest points of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party?”

Tom Miller: “It’s good to have a reconnection with the idea of Labour as a party which challenges consensus. There was some of this with Ed Miliband, but the people carrying that out always used to be able to turn it into a fudge and let the habits of Brownism obscure what he was trying to do. The enthusiasm which Corbyn has inspired in terms of getting people involved is also really useful, and hopefully the idea of democratising the party — though we would want that to be something that conference and our affiliates have a strong voice in, rather than email polling. I also think that there is some really good, open-minded work going on from John McDonnell’s office, who I think has been a bit of a revelation in office — not something that many of the less dogmatic people on the party left would have expected, and is to the credit of both men.”

“Ideas like challenging the market with democratic alternatives should be common ideas to our whole party, including ‘moderates’. It’s a big part of what we are here for, because we know markets without direction or limits stop people from being free. As well as (hopefully) making internal democracy more real and full, Jeremy’s victory shows that this is where party members want us to be, and a lot of that agenda polls well as well. If it forces Labour’s right to adapt towards a more consensus position in the party, that’s good news for the party in the long term.

“There are quite a few downsides. Are we too far from the prevailing consensus or model of leadership to challenge it effectively? This would be a contradiction at the heart of the project. We seem a little adrift in terms of having a strategy. Who do we want to convince. What for? Who do we need to speak to if we are to win in 2020?

“This is a more general issue and also speaks to Labour’s apparent unwillingness to try to ‘insulate’ itself from political attack, by either the Tories directly or their press friends. The thinking at present is very gung-ho: ‘We will be attacked anyway, why bother protecting ourselves?’. This is like casting aside our armour because there will be arrows, and our thinking could do with being a bit more sober and realistic. Is our strategy genuinely aimed at succeeding?

“Quite a lot of people on what was traditionally the ‘hard’/Bennite left have made statements for years which they never expected to have held to account or put to the test of mainstream opinion and support. There needs to be a concerted show of effort in putting this kind of ‘non-seriousness’ aside, which would be much more successful than relying on ‘straight talking’ alone. Simply saying what we think when we like is not a strategy, is not supported as one by any kind of evidence, and won’t win the change we need.

“The last downside is not Jeremy’s fault, but comes with the package. The UK political left as a whole seems to be moving away from a collective and democratic way of thinking towards one focussed heavily on short-term fads: ‘take the product I like’ political consumerism, and ‘leader’ figures. Jeremy is more substantive than this, but elements of all of those things went towards his support, and people are applying them to internal politics now — for example by making support for Jeremy the person the ‘test’ of leftism. This should be rejected.

“Open Labour argue that we are actually more about ideas, values and collective input than we are about leaders, and that what we need is long-term plans and institution building based on these. And if we are to do that, we need internal pluralism to build towards an internal consensus, not ‘leftism tests’, especially ones based around personalities rather than beliefs. Jeremy is a good man, but he is one of a great many. Let’s focus less on ‘leader’ and more on ‘party’ and ‘movement’.”

Stephane Savary: “What about the Young Labour Conference in Scarborough? Overall, it was a PR disaster with accusations of racism and smearing campaigns against young labour activists. During the Conference, Mo Ahmed said that the Labour Party was taking BAMEs for granted. Do you agree with him?

Tom Miller: “Yes. As ever with the youth movement there is a lot of work to be done, and you really shouldn’t end up either with elections during caucuses, or people being smeared in the first place. There needs to be clear complaints and safeguarding procedures. People should actually follow them instead of spreading rumours about each other. There seems to be a need for better BAME representation. It seems like London Young Labour sets the standard on that. As a general principle, I think the party should be taking the lead from the young people themselves. Young Labour needs to be fully democratic and subject to some safeguarding support, have the final say on its own affairs. Among our sister parties, that’s the norm, and they mostly work with less inherent drama.”

Stephane Savary: “There was an accusation of a “smearing campaign” organised by Jasmine Beckett. Do you think that this is acceptable behaviour from young labour activist to use such tactics?”

Tom Miller: “Our Management Committee know a lot of the people themselves and I think there’s an internal investigation, so best to leave that here I think…”

Stephane Savary: “There were also accusations of anti-semitism against Young Labour activists at the Oxford Labour Club. Jon Lansman wrote an article in the Jewish Chronicleand disagreed with the accusations of anti-semitism. Do you think that the Labour Party and the left have a problem with anti-semitism?”

Tom Miller: “I’ve actually seen very few, if any examples on the Labour left, but I’ve seen a lot of ‘pro-Palestine/anti-Israel’ activism outside Labour and I’ve seen plenty. Therefore there is definitely a risk of that kind of attitude ‘seeping in’ and I think we need to do more to guard against it — it’s not taken sufficiently seriously because for now the infection seems to be limited to the far left outside the party.

“There are basic things that activists need educating on. How many young activists with an interest in the issue accurately understand what ‘Zionism’ is for example, and that it includes peace activists who have rocks thrown at them by Israeli expansionists? How many have an understanding of very basic anti-racism, for example that Jews are not accountable for Israel’s actions? How many can compute that whilst this is true, Israel is important to many people’s Jewish identity, and that’s not really to question?

“As well as these gaps in understanding, many younger people now see anti-semitism as a ‘rare’ prejudice, which gets in the way of tackling it. Education is sadly now required.”

Stephane Savary: “US elections: I am sure that you follow the presidential elections. Between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which candidate is politically closer to Open Labour?

Tom Miller: “Probably Bernie. Most of us have been pretty enthusiastic about an upswing in democratic socialist identity in the States, and it is encouraging to see social class finally become an issue in a country with a huge material divide but where a lot of the cultural history of class in politics is suppressed. He’s also speaking to white working class voters for the centre-left, which is something we could perhaps learn from. That said, his chances are looking slim, and Hillary has strong experience and will be a million times better for working people than any Republican. The divide these days is huge.”

Stephane Savary: “You’re organising a meeting in Manchester on Saturday 5th March with Labour MP Kate Green which has generated lots of positive feedback already. What are your plans for the coming months? Where is Open Labour going?”

Tom Miller: ”Yes, it’s going well! We’ve also made a press splash and gained over a thousand supporters across the country who seem to be highly engaged. We have a first meeting of our steering group in Birmingham which has now become an official ‘Management Committee’. We have some startup things to do first, but eventually this body will be elected. We’ve also recruited a team of voluntary regional organisers, so we have another meeting organised with Jon Trickett in Sheffield. There will be a range of others to follow these, with some initial thinking going on for South Wales, the West Midlands and the North East.

“These meetings will all feed towards a set of working groups we are setting up around the theme of ‘renewing the democratic left. The plan is to give the organisation an idea of where it thinks the context for the left is, what the challenges it will have to deal with will be, how we can win power for a more equal settlement in this county, and what needs to change in our party to make these things viable. We’re hoping to get a lot of people involved in this and build towards a national meeting in London.”

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