That the number of our Members be unlimited

NPG D8548; Thomas Hardy after Unknown artist

“That the number of our Members be unlimited.”  This was the first rule of the London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 to debate the necessity of parliamentary reform. The main test of membership was agreement that “the welfare of these kingdoms requires that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament”.  Within six months, the Society claimed more than 2000 members. In 1794, Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker, the founder of the Society, was arrested with 11 other members; he was committed to the Tower and later to Newgate.  When he was acquitted on a charge of high treason, the London crowd went wild with delight and dragged him in triumph through the streets.  But by the end of the decade the London Corresponding Society had been outlawed. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was banned; meetings were prohibited; and Hardy was running a shoe shop near Covent Garden.

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E.P.Thompson, from whom I take the above account, suggests that the London Corresponding Society should be thought of as “popular radical” organisation rather than as “working-class”.  At one end, it reached out to the coffee houses, taverns and dissenting churches of Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand; at the other, it touched the older working-class communities of Wapping, Spitalfields and Southwark. Its first organiser lived in Piccadilly, but its secretary was a working man, there was a low weekly subscription, and meetings were both a social occasion and a centre of political activity.  Most importantly, there was the democratic determination embodied in the leading rule: “That the number of our members be unlimited.”

Thompson comments that to throw open the doors to propaganda and agitation in this “unlimited” way implied a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common people.  The comparison with the currently burgeoning Labour Party membership is striking.   It may be, as Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has recently claimed, that a number of revolutionary socialists have found a home in Momentum, the group that supports a popular movement to sustain Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.  But the sheer number of members makes clear that this is a genuinely radical movement. The meetings of Momentum that I have attended in Bristol have been social as well as political, and characterised by a collaborative enthusiasm for genuine change. The efforts of the National Executive Council of the Parliamentary Labour Party to disenfranchise 130,000 recently joined members will only fuel this afflatus.

The hopes and aims of this popular movement, at the beginning of the 21st century, are not quite the same as those of the London Corresponding Society and other similar societies (such as those in Sheffield, Derby and Manchester) that arose at the beginning of the 19th century.  The desire is not for parliamentary reform per se but for attention to structural social inequalities that have been exacerbated by globalisation.  Many of those who voted to leave the EU have said that they wanted to “get their country back”.  They were expressing a natural wish for ownership and control.  Unfortunately, Brexit itself will not achieve this.   Only last week the death was reported of the sixth Duke of Westminster, whose property holdings spread across the world are worth £13 billion but will not be liable to inheritance tax.

Corbyn is clearly an egalitarian who desires social justice, and the great majority of his supporters share his belief in the possibility of a better world.  Thomas Hardy and the London Corresponding Society failed in the short-term, but they initiated a radical social movement that, in a different context, is currently enjoying a renaissance.

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Open letter (2) to Thangam Debbonaire 

Terryl Bacon has written to Thangam following her Facebook post explaining her decision to resign from the shadow front bench.


Dear Thangam,

Thank you for your open letter explaining why you resigned and the unhappy circumstance in which you found yourself as regards Corbyn. I regret the unnecessary stress you have undergone. I respect the values you espouse and I sincerely hope your treatment will be fully successful.

I trust that the poor communications which created your stress were not aimed at you personally but were the result of lack of political nous and the almost inevitable crossed wires which happen far too easily in complex organisations. As a former chair of a large union branch, I understand that, with the best will in the world, mistakes are sometimes made which might feel personal to the recipient.

That said, I would like to address some of the comments you made in your letter.

Unless one is happy to say, “my party right or wrong” or “my leader right or wrong”, it is important to be critical as you have been. However, when I look at what the Labour Party did Not do during its long term in office which started with a large majority in the Commons: The PLP did Not repeal any of the Thatcherite anti-union legislation. The PLP did Not stop the privatisation of the railways or the selling off of other National assets. Although some good things were done with the NHS and with the schools, during the period to which you referred, the gap between the richest and the poorest in this country grew. Meanwhile, a war was started and continued which brought millions of pounds to Britain’s arms manufacturers and made millions of innocent people suffer terribly to this day.

One could characterise the difference between the PLP and the Tories over the last two decades as neo-liberal lite and neo-liberal heavy. This difference has done little to address the real life situation of the most marginalised in our society. Those who blame Corbyn for the disaffection of the working class show a lack of historical understanding. The PLP could have made a huge difference for the good of the people under Blair but instead it largely continued the iniquitous status quo. That is why I have not wanted to be in Labour since Blair.

The PLP which you champion continues to be a figleaf for anti-humanist policies. I, and many other people, were appalled when the majority of the PLP members voted last week to spend £30+ billion on Trident instead of on the NHS. And it is instead. I think austerity is largely a myth in service of the elite but clearly there is a finite budget as we live on a finite planet.

Until Corbyn’s voice was heard, I had despaired of politics. He is different. He does have an agenda which inspires hundreds of thousands of people; especially the young. Yes, Corbyn lacks social graces and he has been clumsy but he has remained calm and steadfast and, as his popularity shows, for those of us who do not want more of the same, Corbyn is definitely electable!

I certainly think he owes you an apology for what you experienced under his leadership and I shall write and tell him. As important as that is, his apology for Labour’s war mongering meant a lot to several million of us.

I know that you have been too unwell to attend Parliament and I regret that you were not allowed to do so via email. Surely, that should be changed? But I wonder if you would publish what you would have voted during your time in office had you been able to do so. I ask, because I have checked Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record over the years and I agree with him; most especially so when he has Not voted the neo-liberal party line.

I am keeping an open mind on the split within the PLP; but I am looking for an honest leader. One who respects people’s ability to think for themselves; not a cheer leader for the PLP establishment.

Yours sincerely,

Terryl Bacon

15 times when Jeremy Corbyn was on the right side of history

Leadership – what are the qualities we want from a political leader? The capacity to make the right moral and political choices seems a good start …

The World Turned Upside Down

jezza aparted1. Apartheid: Jeremy was a staunch opponent of the Apartheid regime and a supporter of Nelson Mandela and the ANC. He was even arrested for protesting outside the South African embassy in 1984.
2. Chile: Jeremy was an opponent of the brutal dictator Pinochet (an ally of the British government under Thatcher) and was a leading campaigner in the quest to bring him to justice. In 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London.
3. LGBT rights: As noted in Pink News, Jeremy was an early champion of LGBT rights. At a time when the Tories decried supporting LGBT rights as ‘loony left’, Jeremy voted against section 28 which sought to demonise same-sex relationships.
4. The Miners’ Strike: Jeremy went against the Labour leadership and fully supported the miners in their effort to prevent the total destruction of their industry and communities. Cabinet papers released last year prove that the NUM…

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Scenes from Parliament Square, 27 June 2016

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn (10,000 according to a police estimate) gathered on Parliament Square yesterday evening (27 June) to demonstrate that Corbyn is at present the only plausible leader of the Labour Party.

Many Labour politicians don’t seem to understand that the grassroots of the Labour party want a genuinely socialist programme to deal with the issues that precipitated Brexit.

If the Parliamentary Labour Party can provide another leader who will provide a genuine alternative to the politics of division and austerity, bring her/him on.   If not, they must unite under Jeremy Corbyn and fight a general election to reject Brexit and preserve the United Kingdom.

Why people have voted for Jeremy Corbyn

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2m_noI’m writing just before the announcement of the result of the Labour Party leadership election.  Press and politicians continue to express astonishment that the Blair project is so strenuously rejected by the many people who are voting for Jeremy Corbyn. One of the attractive features of Corbyn is that he proposes to listen to the wishes and concerns of those whom he represents. Six years after coming into power, Blair led the UK into a war which was patently unlawful and unjustified. Two million people – approaching 2% of the population – protested outside the Houses of Parliament. I was one of them and I wrote this poem at the time. Just as the unwarranted attack on Iraq has led to unprecedented strife, chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East, Blair’s collusion with George W. Bush, in the face of all plausible evidence, is now reaping the whirlwind for the Labour Party. We want an administration that will respect the needs and wishes of the people of the UK and the wider world.

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Why I am voting for Jeremy Corbyn

The tone of political utterance matters.

Mainstream Labour politicians express astonishment that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership is gaining so much support. Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others have expressed apocalyptic fears of the effect on a Corbyn leadership on the electability of the party. His popularity, some say, must be the result of infiltration. Private Eye have an amusing take on this:

PE_Corbyn1I have just received an email from one of the candidates for deputy leadership. It begins:

Your ballot paper to decide who you want to be Labour’s next leadership team is already on its way to you. It’s an important decision.

This message is sent to people who have already joined the Labour Party or become registered Labour supporters. Do they need to be persuaded or patronised? It ends with a PS after the candidate’s signature: “Your vote is important. Please use it.” This repetition of a call to act is, of course, a technique used by charity and other marketeers when writing to prospective supporters or customers.

I left the Labour Party in 1997 when I heard Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell speaking in a knowing way about the Labour brand. The marketing metaphor seemed inappropriate as it positioned the electorate as consumers to be manipulated. The neoliberal omens were not good.

After eighteen years of Labour and coalition administration, we are imbued in market culture in education, health and other public services. The situation has not reached quite the point I encountered recently in the USA, where I had to listen to an advertisement before making a domestic phone call. Yet the overall spirit of our culture is that everything has to be sold. In a strange application of post-modern philosophy, reality has disappeared. All that matters is advertising and appearance. Political candidates present themselves rather than their policies.  Again, Private Eye catches the zeitgeist:

PE_Corbyn2Corbyn doesn’t present himself as having particular qualities or capacities, as is the tendency of the other candidates’ manifestos.  His prose is more impersonal as he calls for “a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services”.  “Kinder” and “decent” are not part of the current political lexicon. Corbyn draws on a long socialist tradition of critiquing the influence of a market economy. Writing in 1817 about the effect on human life of the new manufacturing system, Robert Owen argued:

All are sedulously trained to buy cheap and to sell dear … and thus a spirit is generated … destructive of that open, honest sincerity, without which man cannot make others happy, nor enjoy happiness himself.

Writing in the current London Review of Books, David Runciman distinguishes between expressive and instrumental theories of voting. The former is based upon voters’ signalling who they are and what they value. Most of Corbyn’s supporters will be expressive voters, whereas those on the left who oppose him may be instrumental voters who fear that, under his leadership, and following his philosophy, Labour will never regain power.

But they may be wrong. Recent history in Scotland, Greece and elsewhere speaks of the power of popular movements and radical (yet long-established) ideas of social change. The Corbyn phenomenon is much larger than the charisma of one quietly spoken man.