Keir Starmer Union Jack Keir Starmer Union Jack. Photos: Public Domain / Edited by Shabbir Lakha

Rather than Starmer’s bland patriotic appeal, Kevin Ovenden argues for the revolutionary tradition of winning broad support for socialists through building mass movements

There is a lot of strong criticism in the labour movement of Keir Starmer’sflag-waving turn. It ranges from Sean Ledwith’s article in Counterfire to this by Clive Lewis MP, who had been strongly with Keir Starmer in the continuity-Remain People’s Vote campaign.

Some debate also reveals a deeply held false dichotomy. It goes like this:

The radical left may be good at purist politics and giving sermons about principles. But it is only the centrist left that is capable of talking to the fabled ‘middle ground’.

More rudely – the far left is comfortable in a sectarian ghetto; it is the centre that can align with normal people rather than alienating them. That is connected to the claim that you may put progressive, anti-racist and pro-peace politics to young people in big cities or at university, but you have to drop all that to win support in small towns and among older working people.

For all sorts of reasons, that is wrong and is also a caricature of the anti-capitalist left. I’m going to choose just two mass movement examples to illustrate why.

The Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s was an extremely successful mass anti-fascist movement on an anti-racist basis in Britain.

In conjunction with Rock Against Racism it pulled together in activity of all kinds an extraordinary popular coalition that not only defeated the fascist National Front but also shifted popular opinion in an anti-racist direction. It encouraged militant black self-organisation alongside a wider commitment to a multicultural society. Its effects meant that inner-city frustrations in the early 1980s led to multiracial youth uprisings, not to race riots.

It wasn’t only young, radical people. Erupting just 30 years after the Second World War, the ANL was able to tap anti-fascist sentiments among an older generation. Many of those saw the war in a fusion of patriotic and anti-fascist terms. That reflected the reality of the war and how it was remembered in popular-national culture.

So, there was Skateborders Against the Nazis. There was also Veterans Against the Nazis. This meant a range of views and many arguments about more general questions of racism, immigration and ‘nation’. Different groupings, different generations, and different experiences of post-war Britain.

There have been some criticisms of the ANL for having this breadth and focus. I think the ones by Paul Gilroy in his book, Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, over a decade later are the most off-beam.

He argued that, in focusing upon ‘the Nazis’, the whole operation was largely an extension of ‘white Britishness’ that adapted to national chauvinist nostalgia. That doesn’t bear serious scrutiny.

It was important to be clear that the leaders of the NF were actual Nazis. The publication of a picture of one of them dressed like a stormtrooper with a swastika had a huge impact as it was reproduced on millions of ANL leaflets distributed across Britain. Millions.

Were there temptations to cross a line into foolishly pretending you could claim the whole British national ‘tradition’– Churchill and all – in that confrontation with fascism in the 1970s? Of course there were. But they were resisted and balanced, above all by drawing in the militantly anti-racist and internationalist forces in practice. Not to denounce ‘patriotic anti-fascism’ ideology, but to unite people in a movement and thus transform it. The first time most white people heard reggae live was from a RAR sound system at an ANL event.

Whatever you make of all of that, and there are important debates to have about it and later experiences, this much is certainly true. That mass, broad and militant campaign did bite into a part of the ‘national story’ and contest it to great effect. The ANL was launched by the revolutionary left, with initial opposition from most of the Labour Party, including its ‘patriotic left’.

Lions led by donkeys

A second example is the mass and militant Stop the War campaign around Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of this century. People will know it was mass. It was also militant. By that I mean that it continued to oppose the occupations once the first phases of the wars were over. Stop the War Coalition (StWC)was clear about withdrawing the troops and that the occupied peoples had a right to resist.

That was not an automatically popular argument when resisting occupation meant fighting British soldiers.

At the same time, a component part of StWC was Military Families Against the War. It increased in profile as the British body count rose (nothing like that of the occupied, of course). It involved usually working class families whose kids had been, in effect, economically conscripted. It also comprised some multi-generation military families.

I remember one rally where a father spoke. He had been a career soldier and was extravagantly proud of the Scottish regiment he had served in. His son had signed up too and had been killed in Iraq. He was, by any definition, patriotic. He was also enraged at the British army for the lack of supplies and proper equipment that he held as cause of his son’s death.

But he went further. Asked about what he would like to say to Tony Blair if he were to meet him, he answered: ‘I’d slit his throat.’ Needless to say, this went a lot further than the most revolutionary among us in the room.

He and other families spoke with a range of representatives, including Iraqi revolutionaries, making the case for the liberation of their country.  Even though that obviously meant confrontation with the occupying armies.

Crosscurrents, tensions, and potential frictions? Naturally, there were all of those. There is much to learn about how that held and unified.

But it simply isn’t true that an anti-war movement with a firm anti-imperialist commitment was incapable of speaking to ‘the middle ground’, including those with a strongly held attachment to what they understood by patriotism. It was done through winning that ground, not chasing it.

It is because that happened that Blair was in such trouble, even as the British state tried to use British dead in Iraq to shroud the monumental blunder of going to war.

Again, crucial to the launch of StWC and its continuation was the radical and anti-imperialist left.

Permanent persuasion, not opportunism

I select these examples from many to make this point. Engaging the ‘middle ground’ is not the preserve of gradualist electoralists, with all their fake opportunism and consultancy agencies. Winning the middle ground – or ‘counter-hegemony’, to use a term from the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci– is in fact bread and butter for anti-capitalists.

Think about your own experience. It might be at a union or campaign meeting. More often, a group discussion at work or socially. You probably constantly find yourself trying to persuade people, not by pretending to agree but drawing out the points of agreement and arguing against the rest. Drawing on their ‘good sense’ against the national ‘common sense’, as Gramsci put it.

All great movements and change depend upon this happing on a mass scale. Socialism is the ‘party of permanent persuasion’ not flying under false colours.

So we shouldn’t allow this false idea that it is only a rightward moving ‘centre’ that can talk at a mass level. Nor should we lapse into what’s called in psychoanalysis ‘projective identification’ – adopting the caricature of the radical left others thrust upon us: talking to ourselves and being dismissive of others. Many socialist ideas are popular. Socialists should not behave like we are in a siloed echo chamber.

There is a practical conclusion. Alongside all the good criticisms of Starmer-Labour’s horrible turn, we need to present in practice a mass movement alternative that shows how you really do shift the whole balance of the society and politics.

We have our faults and all sorts of weaknesses. But at our best the radical left can do that as I’ve tried to illustrate.

We should come together urgently to achieve it. It is an approach that can reach the parts Keir Starmer evidently isn’t and, more importantly, encourage working people to come out with the better side of their thinking and collective activity. Not bury it under red, white and blue bunting.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.