From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)
Jeremy Corbyn -Reviving some of the best traditions of the labour movement
There is a link between newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the world’s first working class party, the Chartists. Both are closely connected with ideas of political democracy.
Much of the rhetoric used by the Chartists, frequently Biblical in origin, would easily be enough to provoke a condemnatory Guardian editorial, never mind the Telegraph or Mail. It is not the kind of language that Corbyn uses to describe the ills of capitalism. He tends to be quite a bit lower key. That of course has not stopped an almost uniform media attack on Corbyn’s leadership.
There is another link, perhaps less obvious. Many Chartist meetings were held in the open air. It was not a movement with money to hire meeting halls, even if they had existed and been open to the Chartists using them. Moreover Chartist meetings were often huge and not easily contained in a hall anyway.
These practical considerations aside there was also a political strategy known as the mass platform at work. The idea of the mass platform was to push political democracy to its limits — thanks to the efforts of the labour movement in the intervening 175 years the limits are now quite a bit wider — and to challenge capital by mass and militant gatherings.
The state was far from happy at this idea and waves of repression and jailings took place, often for the use of inflammatory language as the authorities saw it.
By the 1860s the authorities had managed to begin to curtail the use of the mass platform. The new police forces developing from the late 1830s harassed outdoor gatherings in some places. In addition areas of open space were enclosed and meetings prevented from taking place.
Meetings moved to indoor halls and attendance was controlled by ticketing them. This was certainly a device used by the newly formed Liberal Party (formed 1858) but it was also adopted in part by the early post-Chartist, labour and radical movements. Open air mass meetings and demonstrations did not go away but the balance of democratic practice shifted away from them. On 7th August this year Corbyn did hold a large open air rally in Bradford. Purposefully designed or not, it was a reminder of some of the earliest and best traditions of the labour movement. Pictures show a large number of people gathered to hear Corbyn address them in a field, much as they would have come together to hear Chartist leaders 175 years ago.
There was an element of the Corbyn campaign reminiscent of a time before the age of machine politics, which started as early as the 1860s in Britain. It is about enthusiasm and an open politics where people themselves as much as politicians are the important thing.
That could be seen too at the fund raising rally held at the Union Chapel in Islington on 21st August. Speakers like Owen Jones, music from Robb Johnson and Thee Faction and magic from Ian Saville was an echo of when the labour movement spoke to people’s lives with dinners and celebrations, not just speakers in suits.
The event was packed with the best part of a thousand people. When Corbyn addressed the crowd after 10pm on a Friday night prior to a singing of the Red Flag it was a reminder of traditions lost that can be regained. The practice of the mass platform and large open air political meetings (albeit unlike the Chartist ones, with amplified sound so people can actually hear the speaker) is one well worth reviving, as is that of events beyond just talking heads.