Paul Mason, Please Stop It

British journalist Paul Mason has announced plans to run for election in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency. It’s the culmination of Mason’s war with his former comrades — and it’s important that he is defeated.

Paul Mason during a protest on August 28, 2019, in London, England. (Guy Smallman / Getty Images)

“If you don’t think [Keir Starmer] will advance the class struggle, you’re possibly not understanding social democracy correctly from a Marxist viewpoint.” Tweeting about Labour’s new leader on April 8, 2020, Paul Mason seemed optimistic about the Left’s prospects, despite its recent defeats. The former BBC journalist had begun this thread a mere twelve minutes after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the US presidential race, and four days since Sir Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership. For Mason, “the political revolution [Sanders] started will continue . . . *IF* the left stops expecting socialism to be achieved without class struggle — and *IF* we learn to build a broad alliance for democracy/rule of law like we did in 1930s.”

At face value, it sounded like Mason thought that the campaigns led by Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn were a good start but needed to be deeper and more radical. The author of Postcapitalism, who admirably chronicled the Greek revolt against austerity in the mid-2010s, often cast himself as a leading Corbyn supporter but expressed frustration at the “bureaucratic left” and its grip on the project. For Mason, it was missing the insights of the “anti-authoritarian left” and such ’68er thinkers as Antonio Negri, whose “anti-work” ideology could answer the needs of a “networked” postmodern society and more “horizontal” forms of organizing. In one New Statesman piece, he claimed that the “three Tonis” (Negri, Benn, Gramsci) needed to be combined in a radically democratic politics.

In Mason’s writings, it often sounded like the Corbyn project was doomed by the people who made it happen — Stop the War, the Unite union leadership, figures from the Communist tradition like Andrew Murray, even Corbyn himself. Old “anti-imperialists” and “economic nationalists” led the project along with the “effective but hierarchical unions” and the “networked anti-capitalism” of the youth. But tragically, these latter had been stifled; if only they, or their spokesman, had run the show. Mason wrote as the champion of grassroots “social movements,” even if this meant little more than small circles in the world of media and NGOs. Mason’s declared project, after Corbyn’s defeat, was to push for a realignment, a “million-member party” that could overcome Corbynism’s limits.

Claims to represent the ignored grassroots against the “bureaucrats” are themselves old — the stuff of most minoritarian and dissident-left currents over the last century. Mid-2010s left populists offered something a little different in that they hoped to take over the Labour Party, and then the national government, and then go about rebuilding the bases of workers’ organization; Mason suggested that in practice, the latent energies from below were sidelined. He insisted after Corbyn’s defeat that grassroots efforts could build their forces and pressure for change, even under Starmer.

But what was to be done when the social movements didn’t make their mark? Or if the protest movements that did emerge were directly hostile to Starmer’s creed of austerian penny-pinching and flag-waving British nationalism? No matter. Mason was already well along a crusade against his enemies on the Left.

Perennial Candidate

This Wednesday, Mason announced plans to stand as Labour candidate in Islington North — that is, unseating Corbyn, the current most left-wing member of the House of Commons. As he stuck the knife in, the former broadcaster was sure to pat Corbyn on the head: “I worked hard for Jeremy Corbyn while he was leader, and I hope to build on the decades of tireless work he’s done for local people.”

It sounded almost like Corbyn is retiring (he isn’t) or doesn’t plan to stand for reelection (he does). Do others who worked hard for Corbyn also hope that he is kicked out of Parliament? Still, for Mason, “Islington North needs an MP who can help set Labour’s agenda in government.” Corbyn, suspended from the parliamentary Labour Party since 2020 and banned from standing again for it, cannot do that, at least under Starmer’s leadership.

Still, it is hard to see what influence Mason really has on the Starmer project, or why it needs his talents. In a certain moment, perhaps during the 2020 leadership campaign, he could have served as a useful idiot. Mason is a public figure and it can be imagined that he could have helped sell the mildly green and redistributionist parts of Starmer’s agenda to Corbyn’s former activist base. Yet even insofar as Mason promotes such messages, he is in no position to act as a mender of fences, instead routinely presenting his own new gospel of defense, security, and fighting crime in harsh counterposition to his former comrades. He appears like a poor man’s George Orwell, taking the posture of a lone voice for decency faced with the moral wickedness of the Left.

In all fairness, we can hardly say that Mason always planned Islington North to be the particular stage where he would renege on Corbynism. This is already the fourth constituency where he has sought nomination as a Labour candidate, following failed recent attempts in Stretford and Urmston, Sheffield Central, and Mid and South Pembrokeshire. Often candidates claim some personal tie to the area where they hope to stand; during Mason’s Pembrokeshire bid he added Welsh-language words to his Twitter bio (his wife, he noted, also has a caravan in the area). With Islington North, he can claim to have “lived in London since 1988.” This normally safe Labour seat’s significance is, rather, that it is represented by Corbyn, a locally popular MP who seems likely to run as an independent. If Corbyn does hold the seat, it would be a rare thorn in the eye of Starmer’s march to electoral triumph.

Mason will perhaps be unbothered that Twitter comments on his Islington North announcement mostly mocked him, and even sarcastically encouraged him to run in the expectation that he will lose. As he has become a figure of fun on the post-Corbyn left in recent years, he has seemed ever more alienated from his former comrades. In summer 2022, a diagram of the Left allegedly created by Mason bizarrely mapped lines of connection between CHINA, tiny Leninist groups, the meme page Red London, various media outlets, young Labour officials, Muslims, and “the Black Community.” Alleged leaked emails from Mason suggested that this “Network of Influence” graphic had been forwarded to the head of the British Foreign Office’s Counter-Disinformation Unit.

Rallying Point

The establishment attacks on Corbyn were never just about one man, or his particular comments or missteps, but about neutralizing the political challenge he represented. A veteran antiwar campaigner, opponent of Britain’s nuclear weapons, and supporter of Palestinian liberation and Irish unity, he could never have been allowed to become prime minister. Even his good score in the 2017 election was too close for comfort. Starmer ran for the leadership in 2020 promising Labour members that he could be a more “competent” face for Corbyn’s welfarist policies. This was, quite simply, fraudulent, and many of us pointed it out at the time. He has, as leader, enacted a witch hunt against the Left more extreme even than the Tony Blair–era party, but with only sporadic internal pushback.

Kicking out Corbyn has a wider effect: Labour activists who campaign for him against the official Labour candidate will know that this will be grounds for their automatic expulsion from the party. By this point, many will take that as a badge of honor. Corbyn’s defense of his seat will provide a rallying point for the many who have chosen to leave anyway, and there seems to be a strong chance that he will defeat any contender.

This may be small comfort, given what seemed possible only a few years ago, and a minor win given how many tens of thousands of activists were first mobilized in the Corbyn-era Labour Party. But faced with an incoming Starmer government, basic political hygiene demands that we resist this latest effort to produce a defanged, harmless “left” — and, if Mason is the Labour candidate, defeat his effort to push himself as one of its faces.

If today we are in a quite different political moment to Corbyn’s initial leadership bid, some patterns are recognizable. In 2015, when the Tory government announced plans to limit families’ benefits to the first two children, Corbyn was the only Labour leadership candidate to oppose the bill. It was a lightning-rod moment for his campaign, catapulting him into first place in polls as Labour supporters revolted against austerity. But Labour is under new management, and this Thursday, Starmer announced that he will not reverse this Tory policy.

So, let’s admit Paul Mason has got one thing right. From a Marxist perspective, Sir Keir Starmer is indeed advancing the class struggle — just not from our side.