Six practical and theoretical suggestions to build a broad, united and fighting left, by David McAllister
The last six weeks or so have been a period of much-needed reflection, debate, and analysis on the left. However, in spite of the crushing election defeat in December, the first month of 2020 has shown a few signs of hope which can help to bring into focus what the left’s priorities should be as it rebuilds over the following weeks and months.
Demonstrations against the ramping up of tensions with Iran, which was not in the Tories’ manifesto, show that anti-war politics remains both popular and central. The CWU, disgracefully blocked from taking strike action by the courts, is now re-balloting its members, while the UCU is planning two weeks of strike action in February and March. Meanwhile, the fanfare around ‘Brexit day’ was relatively small-scale, revealing that Brexit is not the main issue that concerns people's day-to-day lives.
But as the left looks to regroup and rebuild, it is important to remember that these are not automatic processes. Like with any other activity, it depends on arguments and action to shape it. This involves, among other things, making the case that politics is not restricted to what happens in Parliament. The direction the Labour Party takes, while still important, is only one small part of the project of building a broad, united and fighting left which can take on the Tories. What follows are some suggestions, both practical and theoretical, which I hope can contribute to discussions about what that fighting left should look like.
1Look beyond Labour
The contest for the Labour leadership has been painful to watch, as various mistaken solutions to election defeat are rolled out. Corbyn’s impact is such that even the right has to pay lip service to at least some of his domestic politics. Nevertheless, the Labour tradition of stampeding to the right in response to election defeat is re-establishing itself, where even the most left-wing candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has shown serious capitulations over issues like Trident and the weaponising of antisemitism.
One of the main reasons Corbyn’s rise to the leadership bucked this trend of a rightward shift in 2015 was the long-term impact of the extra-parliamentary left and street protests, particularly the anti-war movement and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, both of which Corbyn played leading roles in. Indeed, it was from these movements that Labour drew a large number of its new members.
It is also important to remember that the high points of Corbynism – both leadership elections and the 2017 election – were characterised by mass rallies and a sense of popular insurgency. The line between insurgency and establishment, however, runs through the Labour Party rather than in front of it. Any insurgent politics, therefore, can only survive if there is a re-emphasis on where it originated, which is in community organisation and street protest.
The thousands of Labour activists inspired by Corbyn are right to try and keep Labour as left as possible, but the future of the left should not be subordinated to the question of who replaces him. Everyone who participated in the People’s Assembly and Stop the War knows that there was a radical left before Corbynism. Re-energising these movements will be central priorities in ensuring there is one after.
2Build fighting unions
This is arguably a much longer battle since we are dealing with a trend of decline in workplace organisation and militancy which has lasted for a generation and has persisted through the current decade of Tory austerity. It is, however, no less urgent. For all of us, these means not only finding ways to strengthen the level of organisation and campaign work in our unions but also to recruit. There are 30 million workers in the UK, yet only 6 million are in unions.
The brutality of neoliberalism and austerity means that there is a myriad of grievances which could be the focus of campaigns in various sectors. But it also means that confidence is very low. Rebuilding the union movement is, therefore, a massive task, but there are still key strengths to draw on. Involving unions in wider movements, such as we have seen around climate change, will continue to be important.
It is also important to widely share news of victories wherever they occur – such as the firefighters’ pensions victory last year. This, along with other extra-parliamentary movements, will also be crucial in confronting the legal offensive used against the CWU, which effectively makes strike action illegal. The level of organisation they and the UCU have both shown recently ought to serve as sources of inspiration as well as examples of how to build.
3Ditch the culture war
Whether dealing with matters of race, age, region, sex or sexuality, this is a framing of politics that essentially punches sideways rather than upwards. With recent trends such as ‘ok boomer’ and ‘gammon’, this has tended to find its most nauseating expressions on social media, which can just as easily be a breeding ground for isolated bitterness as it can be a vehicle for building movements. Rather than seeing the concrete reality of class as the main driving force in society, various demographic categories are put forward as signifiers of a certain type of politics or social position.
Take age, for example. It’s one thing to recognise, indeed champion, the central role played by young people in the radical upswing over issues such as climate change, but this sometimes diverts towards a view which situates older generations as the problem. We have to be clear that climate change is not something that older people are doing to younger people. It is something that capitalism is doing to the planet and everyone on it. More generally, the left is in a situation where it needs to reach out and mobilise active support like never before.
This means building on the basis of class, which cuts through all other categories. Tackling various oppressions will continue to be crucial and socialists are centrally involved in campaigns against all forms of oppression. Finding common cause on a class basis is how reactionary ideas within the working class can be challenged, and dismissing entire sections of the population as ‘gammons’ or ‘brainwashed’ is not helpful.
4Build alliances in every community
As devastating as the election defeat was, that is all it was – an election defeat. It was not a defeat for left-wing ideas, or socialist politics generally. In some ways, this follows on from the previous point about not dismissing people. It is important to recognise that disillusionment or rejection of a particular left-wing project does not automatically equate with an actual increase in support for right-wing ideas.
Very few people in Blyth Valley, Durham North West or Workington celebrated a Tory victory. The Tory victories in these, and other, areas are best explained by a loss of faith in Labour than anything else. Despite this, Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos returned more votes for Labour than in any of the three previous elections.
Community campaigning on specific issues has huge potential to resonate and inspire, as we have seen with certain local campaigns over housing and healthcare over the last decade. In North Tyneside, a film showing on NHS privatisation attracted over 100 people from the local area. There is widespread anger and anxiety over what awaits us from a new Tory government. The specific issues in the foreground may differ depending on your region, but by building local groups as openly and broadly as possible, organisations such as People’s Assembly can play a central role in linking up with other campaigns to generate a revival in community-based anti-austerity work.
Two specific events to focus on this month will be the student climate protests by UKSCN on 14th February and the NHS day of action planned by Keep the NHS Public on the 15th. Local People’s Assembly groups should also consider putting on a public event in their area to build some momentum from these events. Such an event would be able to draw a number of issues together and provide a space for robust socialist arguments to raise the level of politics.
5Place anti-war politics front and centre
The War on Terror has been a disaster. Yet already in this new decade, we have been faced with the threat of yet another war, this time with Iran. The endless drive to militarism and war is a central feature of modern capitalism. This only increased since the end of the Cold War, as US dominance came to rely more and more on its military might to assert its global interests while its economic dominance decreased.
As a junior partner in the ‘Special Relationship’, the British State has been unremittingly wedded to this war-mongering agenda, through its participation in the disastrous War on Terror, its determination to maintaining nuclear weapons, and its commitment to an increasingly aggressive NATO. This commitment to pro-war orthodoxy runs right through the British establishment, including the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as the Tories.
This is partly why the Corbyn project was at its most vulnerable on these questions. Despite Corbyn’s impeccable record of opposing war and imperialism, and the many anti-war activists in Labour, this had virtually no impact on the official Labour Party policy, and none of the candidates for Labour leader are showing any interest in changing it either. The 2 million who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 is only the most impressive example of how a clear, consistent anti-war politics, therefore, has to come from outside Parliament.
This is also a matter of international solidarity, as Johnson’s government is seriously considering moving the British embassy in Israel to Jerusalem while also pushing a legal clampdown on BDS, both of which will be hugely damaging to the Palestinian cause.
But the establishment has been out of step with majority public opinion on these questions for years. This is tied to domestic matters as well. Why on earth are we spending over £200 billion on nuclear weapons when over 4 million children are in poverty? Any socialist politics with a commitment to addressing the backwards priorities of the status quo are, therefore, inseparable from the need to mount a serious challenge to the militaristic agenda of the British state through organisations such as Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
As demoralising as things look for the left on the domestic front right now, and as triumphant as they look for the Tories, there is no escaping the fact that neoliberalism is being rejected in virtually every corner of the globe. Away from the Parliamentary paralysis in Westminster, 2019 saw the biggest wave of global revolt since the Arab Spring in 2011. An Autumn of resistance saw protests in Lebanon, initially triggered by a new tax on WhatsApp, which resulted in the Prime Minister offering his resignation, while movements in Sudan and Algeria toppled their presidents.
In Latin America, protests in Chile over transport fares fused with longer-term anger at political and financial elites, further intensified by police brutality where organised workers have taken action in support of the movement. In Hong Kong, a mass movement against the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China forced a retreat from the government and has developed into demands for universal suffrage. The movement in Catalonia also continued, as thousands took to the streets of Barcelona against the jailing of separatist leaders and in mass protests have erupted in India against Modi and his Islamophobic citizenship law.
These revolts, as with most such uprisings, have their origins in specific economic and political grievances but have generalised from there into demands which pose full-scale challenges to governments. These all point to an ongoing social crisis which has been incubated by neoliberalism for a generation, as inequality and corruption have risen, public services have been stripped and democratic accountability has been eroded. Crucially, movements have identified with and took inspiration from each other, in a pattern similar to the global revolts of 1968. Catalan protesters were reported as chanting ‘we’re going to do a Hong Kong’.
Finally, France is in the grip of mass protests and strikes by multiple sections of workers which is now forcing some concessions from the Macron government over retirement and pensions. The social and labour movements in Britain ought to find plenty to relate to here after a decade of attacks on our own living standards. Whether we take inspiration from these movements or find opportunities to go further in the form of direct solidarity, activists need to see our movement as a global struggle against a global system.
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