After much buzz on social media, Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project finally launched on Sunday 17 January. And while everyone involved managed to ‘talk the talk’ – will they, and it, be able to ‘walk the walk’? Overall, the launch left me concerned – but the project itself leaves me more hopeful.
Brilliant and superb…
Let’s start with the project itself. There is a lot of good content on the website. For example, its approach to Rupert Murdoch, the other billionaire media barons and the BBC is absolutely brilliant. Its website says:
We will commission research, support grassroots actions and campaign to bring about a media system that is fit for the 21st Century, one that nourishes rather than distorts democratic debate; one that supports rather than constrains journalistic freedom; and, above all, one that speaks truth to power and gives voice to the voiceless.
All this is sorely needed. What also stands out is the collective language. Everything is “we”, “us” and so on. This is refreshing in terms of a big organisation – although the public needs to know who the “we” in terms of the project actually is, moving forward. The International Justice area is superb – and completely in line with Corbyn’s own values. Also, the idea of community networking for immediate action is strong and potentially needed. The website says:
We are organising solidarity in communities across the UK as the impact of austerity, the pandemic, and the new recession bites. We are asking Peace and Justice Project supporters to link up locally and address this economic emergency together.
But sadly, I didn’t feel all these positives were necessarily represented on 17 January.
But… middle class?
I watched the launch live and in full. My first, gut reaction? Middle-class lefties telling the rest of us what’s wrong with society and what we need to do about it – but only under their supervision, of course. It didn’t help that a member of the unelected, ‘£300 a day for just turning up’ House of Lords was chairing the meeting. Not exactly grassroots, was it? No disrespect to all involved, but this ‘top-down’ theme continued with every speaker. I began to wonder just where the working class voices actually were – apart from at home, watching on their devices.
Having said that, each speaker spoke with passion. And most of them talked sense: from former ANC MP Ronnie Kasrils’ furious speech on US imperialism and Israel’s apartheid policies, to Yanis Varoufakis’ brilliant summing up of the state of what was capitalism. Corbyn was his usual humble yet pointed self. Labour MP Zarah Sultana is clearly a leader of the party in waiting. And Noam Chomsky showed that he’s still got it, even after all these years. Meanwhile, Len McCluskey put the cat among the pigeons – calling for Keir Starmer to give Corbyn the party whip back. My chronically ill, disabled partner and I were also really pleased to see that the countless deaf and disabled people, who’ve been asking for BSL interpretation as standard, had been heard by the project. Because interpreters were present throughout.
I also got a feeling of insipidness. The cries of “for the many”, “hope” and so on ring somewhat hollow after we’ve heard little else for the past few years – and while life is still such a struggle for so many people.
To this end, and what McCluskey also did, was sum up several of the major challenges facing the Peace and Justice Project. Firstly, McCluskey’s barbed comment about Corbyn and the whip. McCluskey clearly thinks Corbyn needs to be back in the party. It also wasn’t lost on me that there were references, notably from Corbyn, about how much of the Peace and Justice Project’s thinking came from the Labour manifestos he helped devise.
The ‘Labour Problem’
Labour as a movement for democratic socialism is dead for at least a generation. It’s over. Gone. Done. If the past five-or-so years have shown us anything, it is that the party machinery and those operating it will never allow something vaguely socialist to take charge long-term. This is unless the membership elects a socialist leader with the mindset of Keir Starmer; that is – someone who’ll purge the party of centrists. So, for the time being the Peace and Justice Project having anything directly to do with the party has to be a non-starter.
The Peace and Justice Project basing much of its thinking on Labour manifestos under Corbyn is also worrying. Bear in mind, these policies failed to inspire people in the lowest socioeconomic statuses at the 2019 election. But moreover, the previous 2017 manifesto didn’t exactly do that either.
It’s not the manifestos that were directly at fault. As I previously wrote, the poorest voters have been moving away from Labour since the Tony Blair years. Even at the 2017 general election, the Tories’ increased their vote share of the lowest socioeconomic statuses more than Labour did. And by 2019, more poor people voted Tory than Labour.
Both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos failed to win over the poorest voters sufficiently to give Labour victories. So, basing the project on policies that working class people didn’t fully buy into seems odd. But this is where McCluskey comes back in. Because understanding why the poorest people rejected Labour’s manifestos in terms of voting for them, will be crucial for the Peace and Justice Project.
Unseating the corporate media
As he said:
The issue of media bias has always been something that we have to tackle and deal with. And it’s become more and more difficult as more of the mainstream media of course are anti-socialist, even those liberal newspapers who are not in the back pockets of the Tories, even they can always be relied upon to come and throw cold water on any group who are fighting back and challenging the establishment.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you how the establishment corporate media has forever and a day manipulated the working classes. If you’re reading The Canary, you’re probably acutely aware of it already. but if you’re not, then watch Chomksy school the BBC‘s Andrew Marr:
What of course drives the media to protect its own interests and those of the powerful, is corporate capitalism. It played no small part in convincing poorer communities not to vote for Labour. And what they use to keep poor people unconsciously subservient, is aspiration.
As I previously wrote for The Canary:
‘Aspiration’, the key driver of the system that serves as the carrot on the end of the stick the 1% dangle, is embedded in our lives. From Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, via the perpetual new versions of the iPhone, we’re all encouraged to want more; aim for higher, and we’re told we damn well deserve it too…
For some, aspiration can manifest – from foreign holidays, to owning your own home and having a new car. But for many… it remains elusive. So eventually, you’re left wondering why your aspirations are constantly crushed by a system that paradoxically tells you aspiration is good and achievable. It was this, in part, which drove Brexit. The poorest people know the system doesn’t work for them. They also know that the system is under strain – they see it in their everyday lives. A change, no matter what it was, seemed good.
Overall, Labour has never properly managed to counter this capitalist sermon. For most of the past 40 years, it’s played into it. Corbyn’s somewhat radical agenda was different. But clearly it didn’t seep through to the poorest people in the UK. And so, we’re in the almighty mess we’re in now.
This corporate capitalist aspiration also nullifies the kind of aspiration we should be aiming for: equality, security and, of course, ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ But with that false aspiration also comes hopelessness.
My friend and working class academic Lisa McKenzie summed it up well. She tweeted that:
Do you know what kills working class people? Hopelessness. And hope is used as a weapon in the #ClassWar everything about working class lives is built around managing and insulating that weapon of mass destruction – hopelessness.
This is important to understand – and the project needs to.
When daily life is a constant struggle, when your world revolves around battling the system, when you’re worrying about money 24/7, when unreachable ‘aspiration’ is rammed down your throat at every turn and when you’re acutely aware no-one is coming to save you except yourself and hopefully the people closest to you – then your main fight becomes not giving up. You get so consumed with just surviving that politics and philosophical thinking are just background noise. Middle-class groups parachuting middle-class people in, telling you they’re “for the many” and that they come bearing gifts of ‘hope’ won’t cut it.
So, for me, the Peace and Justice Project’s launch left me with concerns: the references to the now-broken Labour Party and the clear lack of understanding of the communities it aims to support being the main ones. If it’s going to learn from the mistakes of Labour’s election defeats, then it needs to listen quickly to the communities it claims to want to support.
But, putting aside the live event and some of the insipidness of what was said – the project could have the tools, and the thinking, to start to change things.
The main area of this is the networking that could emerge. Corbyn said during the launch:
We’re asking our supporters… to link up locally and address this economic emergency together. That may involve working with foodbanks, mutual aid groups, social organisations, trade unions… to support communities in this difficult period; whilst campaigning for a more decent and just economy… In the coming days we’ll put you in touch with other supporters in your area, with concrete actions you can take together to help people get through this difficult… time.
Now, as I said above, what the poorest communities don’t need is middle-class people parachuting in to sort them out. We need to organise ourselves, bottom up – as I believe that’s the only way things will change. So, why do I think that the top-down Peace and Justice Project should be involved in organising communities? Because with the best will in the world, it’s needed.
As I also said above, those of us who are at the bottom of society’s socioeconomic pecking order are just surviving day in, day out. And with the best class conscious will in the world, let’s be real: most of us don’t have the financial means or time to do community organising. Take my estate as a prime example, one of the poorest in England – in the top 5% of over 32,000 postcode areas for child poverty, top 4% for older people poverty and top 10% for overall income poverty. All of us struggle, including my family. Me, a fairly well-known journalist, and my partner, a fairly well-known disability rights activist. We don’t have the time to organise in our own community the way we would like to – and that’s coming from a family supercharged with politics day in, day out.
So, there needs to be an acceptance that we need some support. If the project can deliver that – then maybe that’s how it needs to be.
Bringing us together
Back to Chomsky, and during his interview with Marr he also made a very good point about why he used to give talks up and down the US:
One of my main purposes… is to bring… people together, people in that area, who are working on the same things and don’t know of each other’s existence, because the resources are so scattered, and the means of communication are so marginal, there… isn’t much they can do about it.
During the first lockdown, I saw a woman in one of the blocks of flats on my estate dropping leaflets through her neighbour’s doors. She was effectively offering mutual aid: extending a personal offer of help but also asking others to join in. I don’t know this person. I don’t know what flat she lives in. But she’s a 30 second walk away from me. Yet I’d have to hang around all day outside the block of flats in the hope of getting in touch with her.
So maybe, the networking the project is trying to create could be a good thing for communities like mine. But I would like to know how the project is going to get around the issue of time and financial poverty for the people who might want to organise in these communities.
For example, I’d love to see organised food mutual aid in my community: serving hot meals every day which anyone can help themselves to. But it’d need a group of us cooking, in our rather small social housing kitchens. We’d need equipment. Then we’d need financial and practical support with the time it would take to do this, whilst leaving the decision making to those in the community. And we’d need the food, as well. If the Peace and Justice Project can address these and other issues – then we can talk.
So, for me the project is a mixed bag with quite a lot of positives to take away.
But to deny that I have concerns would be the kind of sycophancy we see the establishment corporate media do daily, with their chums in the corporate capitalist world. I am genuinely concerned that the project is going to be yet another top-down vehicle for middle class people whose hearts are in the right place. There’s no denying that everyone at the launch cares about the world, is egalitarian in their approach and wants better lives for everyone on the planet. But when that manifests as people in positions of socioeconomic comfort helping and supporting those of us at the bottom – it is on their explicit terms. The launch did nothing to persuade me otherwise.
However, the structures the project is putting in place could allow it to break that mould. If Corbyn and his organisation gives us the tools, hands-off, to let us organise ourselves – then he and it could be onto something. I truly hope it does, and I’ve already signed up. And I wait with anticipation for the hallowed phrase “for the many” to finally manifest as the collective cry for bottom-up action it should be.
Featured image via the Peace and Justice Project – YouTube
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