Accountable leadership is a core component of democracy. The alternative, in radical movements, is that things get decided behind the scenes, without transparency or accountability.

I share Laurie Penny’s enthusiasm for the current student protest movement and the exciting possibilities it opens up. However, I don’t agree with some of the political conclusions she reaches in this Comment is Free article. For the sake of focus I’ll largely leave her points about the Labour Party and the unions, but pick up on her comments about organisation, leadership and the left.

Laurie writes: ‘The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.’

Anti-leadership rhetoric has an appealing ring to it. It seems anti-authority and democratic. But there are radically different kinds of leadership. Particular versions of political leadership are understandably treated with cynicism. The parliamentary betrayal by the Lib Dems has created huge distrust of politicians’ promises (against a background of expenses crisis, betrayals by the last Labour government, etc).

But every protest movement will involve some people particularly giving a lead and coming to the fore as ‘leaders’. Indeed, it might be argued Laurie is one of them in the current movement.

This is an inevitable process. There’s nothing corrupt or undemocratic about it. One of the strengths of many radical movements is they way they generate leaders who are democratically accountable in a way you perhaps won’t find in the mainstream. They are accountable to activists or delegates meetings, are continually tested in practice, and will fail to flourish if they retard the movement instead of advancing it.

Accountable leadership is a core component of democracy. The alternative, in radical movements, is that things get decided behind the scenes, without transparency or accountability. Where there are officially ‘no leaders’ what actually happens is the most active, or most confident, take it on themselves to run everything. But that’s not as democratic as electing people and holding them accountable.

UK Uncut is hugely inspiring. Together with the student protests, the nationally co-ordinated days of action against tax avoidance have shattered the myth that people won’t resist the cuts. They have given fresh hope to everyone who wants to see a fightback. They are particularly powerful because they draw attention to the alternatives, i.e. pursuing unpaid taxes rather than imposing cuts.

The protests are celebrated for their dynamic DIY quality, for the way they depend upon no prior organisation. As Laurie writes, about current protests more generally, ‘Their energy and creativity is disseminated via networks rather than organisations’.

The obvious strength is that yes, anyone can do it. This has led to protests happening in unlikely places, in towns where there’s little recent history of either political protest or left-wing organisation. The tactic of having national days of action, together with a central website, has ensured a degree of co-ordination. (Incidentally, the existence of a central website, Facebook page and Twitter account is in contradiction to the fashionable rhetoric of ‘decentralisation’).

But there’s also a problem. In an online network there’s no way of arriving at decisions democratically. All sorts of ideas can be circulated, via Facebook, Twitter, etc, but there’s no way of pooling experiences and ideas then using that as the basis for collectively deciding what steps to take next. That requires such old-fashioned things as meetings and conferences.

It may also require electing people to co-ordinate things in between meetings. Someone, somewhere, must have decided that 18 December (for example) should be a UK Uncut national day of action. Fine. But wouldn’t it be better if a co-ordinating meeting, or representatives elected to oversee co-ordination between meetings, made that decision?

When does a ‘network’ become an ‘organisation’? It seems to me an artificial distinction. The case for such things as democratic assemblies, a high-level of co-ordination and elected representatives – which are possibly deemed to define an ‘organisation’ – arises spontaneously from the movement’s development.

The lack of democratic structures is an understandable flaw in the early days, but as the UK Uncut movement progresses it will become more relevant. That’s not just because democracy is A Good Thing. It matters because detailed face-to-face discussion is sometimes necessary if we’re going to arrive at an informed and correct decision about what practical steps to take.

Inevitably differences over tactics will arise – often underpinned by differing political standpoints – and these need to be discussed and resolved.

Differences are bound to come up. Laurie seems to suggest the left is riven with factionalism and division, endlessly debating differences instead of just getting on with uniting and taking action. Of course there’s some truth here, but don’t anyone deceive themselves that argument can be avoided – or that when it happens it’s because of those pesky far left types who just can’t stop themselves bickering.

The same can all be said about the student protest movement too. It’s good to see student assemblies emerging as a democratic and organising forum, with a National Assembly for Education lined up for 30 January. However, it’s also important that we’ve already had a number of student bodies helping co-ordinate the protests NUS has distanced itself from.

Laurie is dismissive of the organised far left, but it is precisely the organised far left that has given a lead in both the campaigning groups – National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees and Education Activist Network – and in University of London Union, which has become an alternative centre of organisation in the capital.

Furthermore, it is simply wrong to characterise left-wing organisations as inevitably operating outside the movement but seeking to leech off it. The organised left has always been at its best when it unites with others and reaches out to the newly radicalised, building alliances from the Anti Nazi League in the 70s to Stop the War over the last decade to Coalition of Resistance now. Sections of it may at times operate according to Laurie’s caricature, but that involves selective vision.

Laurie’s critique gains authority, it should be acknowledged, from the established left’s weaknesses since around the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in September 2008. Laurie has a point when she observes: ‘this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.’

I agree the left could, and should, have done more. It goes without saying the same is true of the unions. But that doesn’t justify dismissing the established left as irrelevant.

Every movement produces a range of debates – political, strategic, tactical – where there will be differences as well as agreement. All the issues that emerged in previous movements and struggles are now re-emerging in a new context. Nothing is truly ‘new’ – and nothing should be dismissed as ‘old’ and thus no longer relevant – and therefore the lessons learnt by the left from accumulated historical experience need to be taken seriously.

Socialists, including those in ‘far left’ organisations, have plenty to say about what kind of organisation and leadership we need, the unions, how we should relate to the Labour Party, how to respond to police violence, and much else. There will be differences among these socialists and they might not always get it right. But their voices ought to be listened to rather more than Laurie seems to think.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).