Labour activists are an important part of the anti-cuts movement in many areas. Reuben Bard-Rosenberg argues for a united anti-cuts movement involving those inside and outside the Labour Party

Ed Miliband

Like it or not, Labour has re-emerged as a force within the politics of the left. Any serious attempt to construct a united front against austerity must be capable of engaging activists inside and outside of the Labour Party. For this reason and others, the upcoming People’s Assembly will be crucial for building the kind of mass movement that we need.

Labour activists and the movement

“Join Labour to help fight the cuts”. So read the hastily printed sign-up sheets that were recently handed out at the Bread and Roses in Clapham. A good 70 people had squeezed into the back room to kick off a campaign, initiated by the local Labour Party, to save Clapham Fire Station.

One might well have wondered how these specially-customized membership forms could be reconciled with the pro-austerity politics that continues to be advanced by Labour’s front bench. Yet the fact that such material was being given out is nonetheless instructive. Labour’s official strategists may assert that, above all else, the party should appear “tough on the deficit”. Yet, at a local level – at least in some places – the party is increasingly being drawn to engage with growing popular outrage against the cuts.

The public meeting itself is worth remarking upon. During its thirteen years in office, the Labour Party was virtually non-existent in the extra-parliamentary sphere – and for obvious reasons. To campaign against that which was dissatisfactory with the status quo meant drawing attention to the inadequacies of the Labour government. Since the coalition came to power, the party has, with varying degrees of competence and clunkiness, re-emerged somewhat as a force outside Westminster.

On the one hand, we have cringed while David Miliband promoted his Movement for Change – an attempt to construct a “grassroots movement” from Labour Party HQ, inspired by Barack Obama’s rhetoric about community organizers, and just as politically vacuous. On the other hand, we have, in recent weeks, seen local Labour parties play an important role – in some places a leading role – in demonstrations across Britain against the bedroom tax.

Labourism is not at its lowest ebb

In his discussion of the strategic opportunities facing the left, Ed Rooksby argues that recent months have witnessed a “pronounced acceleration of a longer term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base”. Indeed he states that it now “must be obvious to all but the most blind that Labour is just a lost cause for the left” (emphasis added). If so I must confess to having spent a fair amount, of late, amongst the “most blind” – at activist meetings and local demonstrations.

Undoubtedly the picture across the country is uneven. In various parts of the country the Labour Party barely exists except as an electoral machine, while in others it seems to function primarily as a network for professionals and the ambitious. But the battles being waged across the country against austerity – in trade unions and in communities – typically depend upon a mixture of people inside and outside of Labour.

This should not entirely surprise us. In the very immediate aftermath of the May 2010 general election Labour experienced a minor surge of new recruits, as people looked for ways to kick back against the coalition – and did so at a moment when the radical left was relatively weak. Though opinion polls can be a rather blunt instrument for assessing the political landscape, Labour at the moment is perhaps more popular than it has been at virtually any moment in the past decade – and its support is concentrated amongst those who self-identify as working class.

Meanwhile, despite his lamentable failure to oppose the politics of austerity, Ed Miliband nonetheless continues to promise limited egalitarian reforms – the 50p tax rate and the 10p rate, and policies to “normalize” the living wage. This is not to suggest that Labour – whose front bench continues to collude with the coalition over austerity – will be the key vehicle for bringing about the changes that we as a society need.

But it is to recognise that, for not wholly illogical reasons, a fair number of those who are active against the cuts identify, officially or unofficially with Labour, and have more than a passing interest in Ed Miliband emerging victorious at the next election.

Britain is not Greece

This, of course, matters. Under the present circumstances, any serious attempt to construct a broad united front – one big enough to properly fight for an alternative to the cuts – must be able to win the enthusiastic support of activists inside and outside Labour.

Certainly, on the continent we have seen broad fronts against austerity built outside of, and in opposition to, official social democratic parties – most obviously SYRIZA, whose phenomenal success tends to loom large over any discussion of left wing strategy . Events over the next few years may well facilitate (and necessitate) the construction of a similar kind of coalition in the UK. Yet excitement over what SYRIZA has managed to achieve, should not obscure the huge gulf between the political conditions in which it emerged as a popular force, and those that currently pertain in Britain.

Most importantly, while the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) presided over the most savage austerity programme to have taken place in Europe, the British Labour Party, has not (yet) presided over a programme of austerity itself. In its final period in office, Labour sought (albeit in a very limited way) to stimulate demand by cutting regressive taxation and modestly increase spending, against the backdrop of economic crisis.

Shifting Labour to the left, or forcing government to change course?

Historically, the idea of pulling Labour leftwards has motivated not only left-wing entryists – who have sought to alter Labour from the inside – but also some (though not all) of those who have supported left-of-Labour coalitions. The underlying problem with this approach to achieving progressive change is that it implicitly treats the state, and the process of government, as though it were politically neutral. In office, the Labour leadership is no longer simply the executive of a political party, but is also the executive of the state, charged with the task of governing a capitalist society.

The behaviour of any Labour government, therefore, is not simply determined at the level of party politics – whether that is pressure within Labour or electoral pressure from elsewhere. Its actions depend also upon the conditions under which it is able to govern.

From this perspective, our crucial task right now is to build the struggle within society at large. What matters is that the British government – whoever leads it, now and after 2015 – is faced with a united mass movement that is genuinely capable of stopping the traffic from moving and the wheels from turning.

In other words, a movement that can back up its demands for an alternative to austerity with the capacity to act, in a popular and co-ordinated fashion, across workplaces and communities. This in turn depends upon militancy but also upon breadth.

The radical left and the anti-cuts movement

The ongoing attacks on wages and living standards, the persistence of mass unemployment, and the seemingly endless rounds of cuts have drawn many into opposition to the current order. Certainly this has the potential to develop into a very serious challenge to the existing social and political order. Whether this happens will depend, partly, upon the ability of the radical left to play a leading role in the movement.

Those of us who know, from the outset, that austerity cannot be simply reversed at the ballot box, need to be actively involved in organising and developing the movement against the cuts – at least if it is to stand a chance of shifting Britain from its current economic and political course.

At the same time, what is needed is a deliberate political effort to construct a broad united front, capable of engaging the great majority of those who are actively opposed to austerity economics. Right now, it is unimaginable that any such movement can emerge except with the enthusiastic support of activists inside and outside of the Labour Party.

It is equally fantastical to imagine that those who are currently embedded within the Labour left will defect en masse to whichever more radical organisation shouts the most loudly about the treachery of the two Eds. The starting point for constructing a proper united front must be a realistic and respectful recognition of where our allies stand.

It is this, amongst many other things, that makes the upcoming People’s Assembly Against Austerity a particularly important instrument for building the kind of oppositional movement Britain needs. The conference has already won the support of an incredible number of union branches, campaign groups and community organisations. Yet one of its particular strengths is that it will bring together the best activists inside of and outside of Labour .

On the 22 June we will be together in one hall, deciding collectively how to move the anti-austerity movement forward. We hope that you will join us and help us to build the resistance.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.