If the left fails to make headway in the coming ten weeks, it will be because we fail to be as radical as reality itself, writes Kevin Ovenden
It is very good of David Cameron to highlight the central political dynamic of the referendum campaign. That’s what he has just done by seeking to divert attention from his and the Tories’ latest crisis through announcing £9 million of government money to be spent on sending pro-Remain propaganda to every household in Britain.
Good of him, but extremely risky. The more the link between Cameron’s and the Tory government’s survival with the outcome of the referendum is established in the public mind, the more the chance of people voting to Leave on an anti-Tory basis.
That’s why simultaneously there is pressure from the right of the labour movement and from pro-Europe big business for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to do more to avert that possibility.
That push, though, faces a problem – as recognised by one of its chief journalistic advocates: Polly Toynbee on the Guardian.
In a column this week she acknowledged in passing that Labour councillors, MPs and activists she had spoken to “of all hues” were disinclined to take up her advice to make fighting for a Remain vote central to the elections in London, Wales, Scotland and council areas in England in four weeks time.
The Remainers’ problem is not just the left of the labour movement. Across the Labour Party, Toynbee found, people are recognising that pushing the Remain cause blunts fighting the Tory government. For the traditional Labour right or centrists, fighting the Tories may not mean much more than winning elections.
But they do want to win elections. Sadiq Khan wants to win the mayoralty of London. He would like to do it in a way which could enhance his status as a powerful counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party and in any future manoeuvres to unseat the left.
He does, nevertheless, need to win London in order to do that. And Khan is not talking Europe in the London election. He is talking the outrageous cost of ticket prices on London transport. He is talking housing. He is talking being the son of a bus driver.
He has in the last couple of weeks toned down some of his anti-Corbyn rhetoric. While we should anticipate further outbursts designed to show he is hostile to the left – such as his new found love of Israel – one thing Khan is not doing is hitching his bid for City Hall on a pro-Remain wager.
There are some Blairite ultras who would indeed rather lose elections in order to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn, or if that cannot be achieved, to prevent him forming a government.
But they cannot run that line openly. They cannot seek to organise inside the Labour Party, with its mass membership, its trade union base, its councillors firmly attached to their seats and even among MPs on that line. They have at least to appear as if they have the interests of thousands of council and regional assembly candidates to heart.
And it seems that those candidates are saying that they want to keep the EU question at arms length and get on with beating the Tories electorally – at least until May.
The reason in most cases is largely pragmatic: pushing hard for the same referendum outcome as Cameron does not sit well with pushing hard to beat the Tories in the May elections.
From the point of view of the left, this clarification of what the political dynamics of the referendum campaign are is extremely helpful.
The same is true, if of secondary importance, of the emergence of the character of the Greens’ election campaign. I am pleased to see that a number of people this morning share the assessment that the Green election broadcast is pure Lib Dem and that it attacks Jeremy Corbyn from the right. (It is also cringeworthy.)
One need only add to this that the Green Party is the central political force behind the Another Europe is Possible attempt to have a progressive Remain campaign.
Its video, too, is very much Lib Dem. It does not, for example, talk of ending austerity. Instead it talks vaguely of democracy and of a social Europe.
The Fabian Society this week published a report urging a stronger Remain campaign from the Labour Party (and, interestingly, from the trade unions). It noted that blather about a social Europe meant nothing to those it surveyed. I am sure that’s true. It was a term coined by Jacques Delors and social democratic inclined EU officials 30 years ago. And it is in those gilded confines where it largely remains today.
It’s four weeks to the May elections and ten to the referendum vote in June. Much can happen in the meantime. But at this stage it is clear that as the campaigns pick up and begin to enter wider public consciousness then the logic of mass politics is asserting itself – that is politics beyond the conjectures of the minority of people who generally think a deal about such matters outside of election periods.
At a mass, popular level it can be very easily understood that in order to avoid pressure over his personal role in salting away millions of pounds in offshore tax havens, David Cameron is prepared to announce £9 million of public money on a diversion to keep his own affairs “private”.
Labour canvassers out this week have a very good one-liner to give on that. Why should they try to wrap it up with a convoluted argument which then tries to conclude “and that’s why we are asking you to vote to get these Tories out in May and vote together with Cameron in June”?
Sophists can doubtless find a form of words, polished with a lacquer of “social Europe”. But political campaigning at a mass level does not work like that. It’s a doorstep conversation – not an hour an half meeting, with a 30 minute introduction followed by….
It is simple not because people can grasp only the simplistic. It’s because when politics is at a mass level its underlying class poles are more readily exposed. It becomes more simple – reflecting the straightforward class truth: them and us.
Now, for the left, that elementary class consciousness – expressed still in a propensity to vote Labour – is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
But it is a necessary beginning. And it is powerful. Because it is social and of the mass of people. It is not the property of what is still a very small political left.
Left wing activists are rightly encouraged by the numbers of people in surveys on both sides of the Atlantic who say they either identify with socialism or regard it as a better system than capitalism.
Less remarked upon, but of at least equal import, is the proportion of people who continue to identify as working class. On many figures, that is going up. That matters a lot for any politics which bases itself on the working class as a potential political actor in its own right.
So we on the left face a choice at the beginning of this ten week period. It is going to be politically intense. It is not just that the succession of issues from the doctors, to education, to steel and the refugees is leading to major focuses for resistance to the Tories, reinforcing the argument that they can be toppled.
It is also that politics in the official sense – parliament, elections and referendums – is going to be very sharp. The more it hots up, the more the basic class lines are emerging. And the more that logic is opening up space for the labour movement, and therefore for the left.
We already know that one of the sharpest demographic divisions over the referendum is on class lines: working class people are much more likely to vote Leave; the professional middle class, to vote Remain.
Of course, that does not mean that all the reasons working class voters cite for opposing the EU are left wing. Opposition to immigration features in both the mainstream Leave and Remain campaigns.
But it is a self-defeating, evidence-averse and circular argument to say “it’s all about immigration”.
What is the popular position – as revealed in opinion polling – in response to the steel crisis? Nationalisation – backed by 62 percent of the population.
The economy and George Osborne’s spectacular incompetence, combined with his anti-working-class policies, is climbing up the index of public concern.
There is overwhelming support for the junior doctors – even when they are set to withdraw A&E cover. The scale of the revolt over the asset-stripping of education has little precedent in the last 20 years.
There is a growing class polarisation. The Google tax scam and now Cameron’s embarrassment over the Panama revelations show it.
It predates the latest tax avoidance scandal. Activists in those areas of Britain hit – often serially now – by floods reported a strong class feeling against the government of millionaires which has cut flood defences, particularly in the north of England.
I sometimes wonder whether the outlook of an English left which is still focused on London in many ways might be different if the Thames Flood Barrier failed and the basic class stratification of society was revealed by retreating, sewage-contaminated flood waters.
The left in England and in Britain faces a choice: whether to position itself within this class polarisation – to base itself upon the labour movement and its potential to become its own agent of change – or outside of it, which is pretty much what the Greens’ Lib Dem redux campaign is doing.
Those who ask – about the referendum campaign or anything else – in the first instance, “what is the balance of opinion on the left”, are starting from the wrong question.
The starting point is: what is happening in the working class and in its organised expressions? (That is, if your politics is about working class struggle.)
There, it is far from true that the left is marginalised in the current political debates. But the left can marginalise itself by failing to engage with the thinking, moods and actions of millions of working people.
Of course, all of that is contested. There is a battle of ideas. But there is every reason – and the response to the shock of the steel crisis shows it above all – to believe that the left can contest that battle forcefully.
A crisis for the Tories most definitely is equivalent to an opportunity for the left. It is possible to claim otherwise only by detaching the left from the basic wisdom of the working class movement upon which the left has claimed to base itself. That’s fine for the Greens and those leftists whose conclusion from the defeat of the working class movement in the 1980s was precisely to pursue a déclassé progressivism.
It is not a good move for socialists, whose claim to relevance rests upon the objectivity of class relations and class politics.
As radical as reality itself
Eleven months ago there was an understandable mood of despondency across the British labour movement at the return of a Tory government with a small majority. For some of us, it felt a bit like 1992. Out of that defeat came the acceleration of Labour’s shift to the right, consummated and taken to a whole new level with Tony Blair’s seizure of the party following the death two years later of John Smith.
In early summer of last year there were many impressionistic claims that Labour, on account of the breakup of class politics in Britain and its own embrace of neoliberalism, would simply go the way of its Greek equivalent, Pasok. But this time, without a radical left force to supplant it. Instead, it would be new forces of the right, certainly in England. Tribalist Scottish Nationalists proclaimed that while Scotland had the SNP, England had the racist chauvinists of UKIP.
Look what happened instead. Within weeks of the Tory victory there was a very large anti-austerity demonstration called by the People’s Assembly. For some, it was not large enough. For others, it was merely another demonstration – a prelude to things getting much worse politically, and just a habitual response from an anachronistic, activist far left.
Then Corbyn won the Labour leadership and 200,000 people joined the party. Far from UKIP dominating, it lost heavily in by-elections where it was talked up to be the potential victor. An attempt over the Syria bombing to decouple Corbyn and the left of the Labour Party from the anti-war movement was vicious and sustained. But it failed.
And within 12 months the Tories have become consumed in a crisis every bit as deep as in 1992 – which was the last time there was a confluence of the systemic Tory division on Europe, an industrial crisis and the implosion of a government’s economic strategy. But it is not the nationalist Farage who dominates opposition to the Tories. It is the socialist Corbyn.
The political forces which have gained a fillip are not those of Blairite modernisation, based upon liquidating the class component of Labourism and – as he put it 20 years ago – reversing the historic split which gave birth to the Labour Party as distinct from the Liberals. In one form or another it is arguments and initiatives from the left which are gaining ground.
For sure, there are huge debates about the strategy for the left in these circumstances. Paul Mason’s intervention this week over Trident stakes out a kind of “new centre” position arguing for triangulation inside the parameters of the Parliamentary Labour Party aimed at achieving some truce between its left and right in order the better to pursue a quite conventional campaign to win the general election in four years time.
Others of us – drawing not least upon the experience of both the rise and the fall, as a radical force, of Syriza in Greece – argue for maintaining the kind of focus on an insurgent, new politics which not only won Jeremy the Labour leadership, but which offers the prospect of bringing down the Tories well before 2020. But in the heat of clarifying argument we should not lose sight of something remarkable: major public political debate in Britain is taking place on the left and about the left.
This is not the mid-1990s, when Blair’s import of the thinking of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats was hegemonic in the labour movement. (Does anyone else remember the cottage industry in publishing about the “Third Way”, the “Stakeholder Society”, “Globalisation” and all the rest of the ephemera?)
It is not the 1970s into the 1980s, when the ideologues of the New Right pumped out not only endless research papers and think tank reports, but also popular editorials and comments in the tabloid and broadsheet media.
There is neither a Reagan-Thatcher, nor a Clinton-Blair prevailing wind to the right (though even then, we should not overlook that fact that at a mass level the shift away from the Republicans and from the Tories in the 1990s was largely a shift leftwards). If you doubt that, just mention Bernie Sanders to any of Hillary Clinton’s campaign managers, stand back, and watch the reaction.
Cameron’s tactical purpose in calling the EU referendum was to undermine UKIP and to unite the Tory party on its hard Thatcherite course of class confrontation at home. He has succeeded only in dividing the Tory party from top to bottom – but without boosting Farage either.
It is an extraordinary turn of events, which makes it all the more remarkable that those campaigning for a progressive Remain position in the referendum should do so this weekend under the rubric “prepare to fight Farage”. Where is Nigel Farage? – would be a more illuminating question to ask.
If in these circumstances the activist left in Britain fails to make headway in the coming ten weeks, it will not be due to all-powerful objective circumstances. It will be because we fail to be as radical as reality itself.
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.
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