Meet the 'Wargamer' Preparing to Defend Corbyn from the Establishment
Richard Barbrook is helping John McDonnell prepare for power.
Richard Barbrook with John McDonnell
It's fair to say that a few ranting shire colonels are losing some sleep over the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in government. A few years ago, a British general told the Sunday Times that the armed forces would use "whatever means, fair or foul" to take down a Corbyn administration. If the reaction to socialist governments in the past is anything to go by, it's likely that a victorious Corbyn would – before long – be making some sort of heroic final address before CIA-backed paramilitaries stormed Downing Street.
Richard Barbrook is a politics lecturer at Westminster University and the creator of Class Wargames. He's also a longtime friend of Labour's shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Together, they are "wargaming" the aftermath of a Labour election victory, plotting out the different scenarios the party might face in power. Their hope is to have a battle plan that will stave off the attacks it will face.
I caught up with Richard at Labour's fringe conference The World Transformed to talk about his relationship with McDonnell, the history of wargaming and its relevance to today's divisive political landscape.
VICE: So what’s your connection with the Labour Party?
Richard: I joined the party in 1980 and never left. It was good because I knew people like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. Diane Abbott was my MP and is the kind of person who holds my son at local Labour Party barbecues. As long as there were those on the left, I was happy to stay. But a lot of people were really hostile to us staying in the party. I was at this book launch in the 2000s and these two middle-aged men who couldn’t handle their cocaine and alcohol tried to beat me up for staying.
Considering the political direction the party went in, why did you stay?
I've always thought it was the only game in town. There were lots of people who set up these other parties: people in the Green Party, Left Unity. But I thought that if they were really successful and became a mass party they would just reproduce the problems of the Labour Party. Look at Syriza in Greece. Replace Pasok with Syriza and you’re faced with the same problem: how do you govern for the working class, how do you extend internal democracy?
You’re helping John McDonnell war game a potential Labour government. What’s your relationship with him?
I first met John in 1982, when he was elected deputy leader of the Greater London Council (GLC). But I really got to know him in 1983 because he was standing as the candidate for Hampstead and Highgate when I was living in Swiss Cottage. I did lots of canvassing for him because I really admired him. He’s very good politically, but he has the ability to change his mind. I always remembers a guy who got up at one of these meetings and made a passionate speech about legalising marijuana. In the beginning he’d asked John what he thought and John said he didn’t like the idea, as it was a bit of a standard Labour thing to do at the time. But after the speech he said, "Oh, this is really good, I think we should seriously think about this." It was great to see a politician responding to a very good argument – especially when there was no political advantage in supporting the position – and being willing to take it on board. After that, I thought, 'Oh, this guy is really cool. He’s smart.'
Then we worked together. He set up this community radio project at the GLC and I was involved in pirate radio at the time. He provided us with some money to get a licence at this station I was involved in, Spectrum Radio. I had to leave it in the end because the Tories wouldn’t give them a licence, but I worked quite closely with him with that project, and then we just stayed in touch.
Years down the line, I started to take students every year around parliament. Even the Tory students I took liked him. But it was just a way of staying in touch with him, basically. He was just a backbencher then. And then, of course, the leadership race happened, and here we are.
What got you interested in wargaming?
I’m a punk rocker by origin. I saw the Sex Pistols in 1976 at an impressionable age and was told in a concert I should go and read the Situationists, so I ran off to this book shop in Camden and started reading Guy Debord and thought, 'This is fantastic.' The best thing was our teachers didn’t know about him so you could shock them with these crazy ideas. He wrote "The Society of the Spectacle" in 1967, which we rediscovered in ’76, which was pretty esoteric knowledge back then.
But then we discovered Guy Debord had made a war game, and years down the line I decided I wanted to do a book where you could situate his ideas today. So we made a large size copy of it and we toured it round Europe and Russia and Brazil, and made a film, and then I wrote the book and from that we got interested in why he wanted to invent a war game. It’s not very politically correct, because we’re meant to be pacifists. But the actual nitty-gritty of defeating your opponents is never going to be politically correct.
The reason why Debord wanted to create a game was because after the May ’68 revolution they were beaten by general de Gaulle. So they thought rather than creating a new ideology they should get themselves mentally trained strategically and tactically. He said it was his greatest invention, which is rather odd because it’s usually dismissed as a kind of retirement folly. But it actually has a serious purpose.
John McDonnell likes to use the word "wargaming" just to annoy the Labour press office, I think. But it really is a serious thing, and is otherwise known as scenario planning. It originated in the military. You can’t fight a war to learn how to fight a war, so one of the things you can do if you’re a staff officer is what’s called call manoeuvres.
Why is wargaming important?
The civil service will be wargaming a Labour government, so why shouldn't we? A good example of why this stuff is important is 2010. Before the election that year, the civil service had been wargaming a hung parliament. The Liberal Democrats clearly had not. So they got shafted as the civil service made them into the junior partners of the Tory party. They panicked them into signing a coalition agreement.
We did a role playing exercise with my students that simulated a hung parliament, and if you play it you realise the Lib Dems were actually in a very strong position. They could have held out for a better deal and they failed because they didn’t plan. If they had, they would have known firstly that all the scaremongering about the pound collapsing was nonsense. Then they would have been able to play off both sides against the other.
You could tell Nick Clegg hadn’t got it and became too chummy with Cameron. The Lib Dems could have held out for proportional representation without having a referendum if they’d have war-gamed. This is why Labour need to prepare.
And how does wargaming actually work?
I'll explain the game we played at the fringe Labour conference, The World Transformed.
We couldn’t do a Corbyn 2020 game because that would be too much of a hostage to fortune, but we thought we could set it in the 1980s.
We had seven factions: two hard left, three soft left, two right. And they all start off being told they want different things, which is true. In any large party, there are different ideologies and people want different outcomes. They started off in the government, and the first two rounds it was completely disastrous: in the second round they got no policies passed whatsoever.
Much of the media picked up we'd had the "deep state" involved in the game, partly because we used Chris Mullins' book A Very British Coup as a sort of gloss on it. But the good thing about having the Tory Party, the Tory press and the deep state as part of the game was that it eventually led to the different factions of the party caucusing together before deciding which policies to choose. By the end they were passing every policy. So actually, the game works because it incentivises collaboration.
What do you want people to learn from the game?
One of the interesting things was that one of the right factions said, "Well, we won because we blocked all the policies we didn’t want and got all the policies we wanted by doing deals with the deep state." I suppose it's a lesson for Labour.
Partly, the game is a fun social thing. People get to meet each other, and by setting it in the 1980s you create a distance between the politics of now and then. We also encourage people to play as factions different from what they believe in, as it’s always good to put yourself in your adversaries’ shoes. It’s quite interesting how many lefties like playing the Murdoch press [laughs]. It’s good if you’re a member of Progress to play the Militant Tendency, or if you’re in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty to play the Fabian Society, so then you get to understand where they’re coming from.
But it also makes you more aware of what you’re doing inside a large party, that you are having to stand firm on some things and compromise on others. The problem is people do take a rather moralistic attitude to politics, when much of it involves being pragmatic. That’s hopefully what the game is teaching people.