Left Unity after the election: Our own agenda

We couldn’t have won this election. We couldn’t have won it for at least two reasons. The first is that the rules of the game in British elections are stacked against us, and there are two aspects of that problem of the rules of the game. One is that the first past the post constituency system clearly shuts out smaller parties, so votes go to those parties that have a realistic chance of winning, that’s something we saw in the panic Labour vote. The other is that elections take place between periods when it seems like nothing can be done, so real political change is defined for most people by ‘elections’, and when the candidates appear every five years or so they seem opportunist. There was a reason why the Chartists in Manchester made annual parliaments one of the main demands. It’s something we could take up again today.

The second reason we couldn’t have won is because of the depth of the divisions between those who lost and those who benefitted from the austerity agenda. So, on the one hand there is the powerlessness and hopelessness of those at the sharp end of the cuts, and they resent, quite rightly, the ‘political class’ who want power. And that political class, we should remember, includes the Labour politicians and the Trades Union bureaucrats. On the other hand there is the mixture of smugness mixed with anxiety of those benefitting from recovery, or at least cushioning themselves from austerity, and they are keen to defend what they can hold on to. So, we need to put those two reasons together – the rules of electoral game and the divisions intensified by austerity – to explain how a 24% vote for the Tories could put them in power.

There are, of course, magic trick solutions. The magic trick solutions to this situation for the past five years rest on two partial truths: One is that you need to keep plugging away at the message that capitalism is corrupt and we need united action in the struggle; The other is to repeat the complaint that different leaderships of the main organisations betrayed us and will betray us again. Yes, there is some truth in both of those lines, but it isn’t enough, and there are serious limits to those old tried and tested approaches. They have been tested, repeatedly, and they have failed.

There is also something else going on here that we should notice, which is that political activity is seen by most of the old left as a duty. It’s seen as something that should be a slog, which is usually a routine of pointless business meetings or listening to speakers saying the same thing over and over again. If anyone questions whether we need to carry on doing something that is not enjoyable, then the little leaders look at you as if you are somehow betraying the struggle. But the paradox is that at the very moment they tell us that it shouldn’t be enjoyable, some of them actually do enjoy doing things in the ways they are so used to. And that’s one of the reasons we seem to go round in circles.

We need to ‘do politics differently’, which is why Left Unity has taken that phrase ‘doing politics differently’ as its tagline, and we should now think about what that means. So, let’s focus on four problems, taking an example of each and suggesting a way of breaking the deadlock in each case. This will mean that we need to exaggerate bit, and these can be seen as provocations. But unless we do things differently, we’re in danger of just sleep-walking our way to the next disaster in five years time.

These suggestions come from political alternatives that bring new theoretical ideas to bear on our old ways of doing things. We need to draw on these ideas to think about this disaster we are living through, and they are ideas that have been around for a while in feminist politics and in autonomous and anarchist traditions in different places. They are theories as practices, and a first starting point is to at least break open the enclosed world of the left in Britain, to let them in and shake us up.

The first problem is that we let our enemies define what the agenda is. Then we jump to it. The mainstream political parties and their friends in the media define what the agenda is, and we then imagine that we must give an answer in their terms of debate. Think of the ‘brain freeze’ suffered by Natalie Bennett when she was asked to spell out the economics of the Green Party housing policy. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage can say stupid and contradictory things all the time, and it is indicative of something in British politics that it was when a woman on the left couldn’t speak like a proper politician is expected to that she was made fun of. The ‘controls on immigration’ pledge of the Labour Party was another worse example, and showed how political ‘discourse’ set the terms in which we talk about a problem.

Let’s take a bigger example which is looming now, the referendum on Europe. This sets us a classic trap: if you say yes you are with Cameron, if you say no you are with UKIP. To say no to the EU in the referendum falls straight into the trap of a false choice, but we are caught in that trap every time we weigh up whether we would really like to stay in Europe or not.

But we can actively refuse, and then the question is what we say as an active refusal. One suggestion in order to break this deadlock, even if we do vote ‘yes’, is a slogan something like ‘Rule from Brussels or Westminster, no thanks’. A lot of people didn’t vote in the election, so why should we try and persuade them to vote in a referendum? There are other things going on at the edge of the EU, like the success of the HDP in Turkey for example, that should be more important to us, and we should make it clear that those things are more important to us, to change the discourse.

The second problem is that we often don’t realise how boring and predictable we are, especially as we try to be loyal to what we see as ‘traditions’ of struggle. It takes new movements to come along and challenge us and speak in a different way to draw attention to that. The worst aspect of this problem is that we blot out those things that don’t fit with our way of doing things. We do our own version of what capitalism does all the time, which is to ‘recuperate’, to absorb and neutralise the new things that are critical of us. We turn the critique into something that will just reinforce what we were doing before, into the ‘spectacle’ of politics that keeps us busy doing the same thing.

Here is an example. The left encountered Podemos supporters here in Manchester, members of a political movement in Spain that really are doing things differently. Left Unity organised some meetings with them. There was some puzzlement that they didn’t make paper leaflets for the joint meeting, but they designed a nice leaflet for Left Unity, which we then printed ourselves. Our puzzlement at the way they do things is matched by their frustration with our old political language. One of them looked very tired and fed up when he was asked if Podemos would send a speaker to the Trades Council Mayday meeting. This would just put them in the old line-up as an addition, recuperate them, make them speak our language. They didn’t turn up, and the comrades wonder why.

What should we do to break that deadlock? What about an open discussion on the way the Trades Unions are organised around paid work, and why they find it difficult to deal with precarity, the lives of the precarious and unorganised, and of those who are disabled, disabled by the way work is organised under capitalism. What about learning from different ways of organising in new conditions of work that are not modelled on the factory? This would open a space for those who are active politically but for whom trades unions seem irrelevant, instead of squashing them into the old frameworks, making them part of the old bureaucratic spectacle.

The third problem is the way we tend to treat every situation as an urgent threat that demands an urgent response. This is an old tradition of the British far left which guides their activity as they leap from one issue to the next without thinking of what they are doing, turning up to meetings and urging people to build bigger and better demonstrations. The old left groups lurch from deadening routine one moment to urgent action the next. This is part of what we can see as the general ‘acceleration’ of life under capitalism. That’s why political activity feels so much like work. Work is speeding up, and the left is doing the same thing outside work, with frenetic activity that does nothing. It doesn’t solve things just to ratchet up activity to prove that we are seriously against austerity or capitalism.

One example is the way that the left was kept busy turning up every time the English Defence League showed its face, jumping to their agenda, and there was a reason for that, an attempt to enforce a no platform position. The limits of that can be seen when sections of the left couldn’t seem to face the thought that things were changing with the rise of UKIP. Yes, it’s true that some of the old EDL support went to UKIP, but to respond by switching target so that UKIP were treated as if they were fascists simply misunderstood what was going on. The point is that they became the object cause of the old urgent way of doing politics.

So, what should we do to break that deadlock? What about putting more energy into building a culture of left debate that includes things that don’t immediately cash out in action? The annual Spring conference in Manchester has been trying to do that, and this would include films, music, free-flowing discussion outside a ‘business agenda’, outside the busyness agenda. This surely is crucial for making the left something that ‘prefigures’, that is anticipates in its very activities the kind of world we want to live in as an alternative to capitalism instead of accelerating the speed of this bad life.

The fourth problem is a version of the call for ‘unity’ as part of the magic solution. This boils down to joining something bigger than we are as if that would break our isolation. Many on the left, a bit unbelievably, are joining the Labour Party, and the fact that there is a new group of Labour MPs who might oppose cuts and ally with the Green Party and Plaid Cymru on key votes in the House of Commons feeds the idea that there is something worth joining. Many are joining the Green Party, with a huge increase in membership before and after the election, and that might shift the party a bit to the left, and it’s not a bad thing to link the left with green politics. And, of course, many on the left in Scotland are joining the SNP.

But let’s take an example closer to home. We want Left Unity to be a party that would include different existing left groups and individuals who are sick of the old left groups, and we deliberately tried to make it a level-playing field for the non-aligned individual members by saying that we debate in the party as a whole, with no privilege given to the groups. It would be a real backward step to fit our politics in line with the agenda of groups that enforce a political line on all their members and stitch together agreements or a ‘coalition’ based on the strength of each group.

What should we do to break that deadlock, one which just reinforces all the old centralist parties? We could shift emphasis to the irreconcilable ‘antagonisms’ in politics, treating them as valuable rather than as a problem. This is a way of working at the ‘intersection’ of different kinds of resistance to different kinds of oppression. This might lead us to deal with the different parties that got the joke vote of less than a few percent in the last election on a quite different basis. Instead of pouring our energies into ‘unity’ initiatives, why not say that we need more rather than fewer alternatives, the more the merrier. We could claim it as Left Disunity. The votes for alternatives could be counted in this way with the non-votes in a pluralistic anti-capitalist resistance.

We could work more effectively by finding ways to link with a revolt against the Tories than by ‘uniting’ on a terrain of debate that we didn’t choose, on the basis of old style politics that many people quite rightly distrust. These might be some ways of starting to think about our own agenda instead of being locked into the agendas that have failed us so far.