After May, Labour and Left Unity

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in breaking the hold of the Conservatives on British politics. It is Corbyn who has brought the Labour vote up to the highest level – in percentage and total vote – for twenty years, and the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. The question now is not if May will go, but when. The result also puts obstacles in the way of a ‘hard Brexit’. This victory for Corbyn, to be clear, is still within the limits of an electoral system geared toward the right, and internal Labour bureaucratic procedures geared to protecting sitting MPs who are rewarded by various competing reactionary lobby groups. This success is also within the limits set by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the weird alliances and manoeuvres of the unionist parties in Scotland – Scottish Labour and the Conservatives – which meant that Corbyn would always have been deprived of a working parliamentary majority at Westminster.

The election campaign has put the political project of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and the majority of tory-lite MPs into question, legitimating radical policies and energising a new generation of activists. Corbyn was hobbled by the restrictions placed on the content of the Labour manifesto and by the stubborn refusal of many MPs to include elements of the manifesto they disagreed with in their own local publicity, by exclusion of Corbyn’s image from many local Labour campaign leaflets, and even, in some cases, outright sabotage of the national Labour Party campaign. The manifesto could not include, for example, the decommissioning of Trident nuclear missiles and the conversion of nuclear-military jobs into socially-useful production, and this fault-line in the LP was seized on by the media and exploited by some anti-Corbyn MPs.

Corbyn was still, against all these odds, able to lead a radical campaign and, more important, to energise a new generation of voters, some of whom will continue the campaign for jobs, for the NHS and for human rights beyond 8 June. A majority of voters under 50 supported Corbyn, and a sizeable proportion of the over 50s voters were also won to his politics, or won back to LP politics after their defection during the treacherous Blair years. Many of those who joined Labour to back Corbyn during the two internal party elections for leader came out during the campaign not only to vote but also to leaflet and canvas, and for many of those who did get involved it was their first involvement in party politics.

However, most of the foot-soldiers in the Labour campaign were long-standing members of the party, doggedly carrying on in the face of the media-barrage against Corbyn, and pitching in behind their local MP. This hard work by the local Labour campaign teams and the flying visits to marginal constituencies understandably led to more recrimination against the ‘Corbynistas’ during the election. The absence of the new members was noted, and the price will be paid for this in the months after the election as the right-wing Labour MPs regroup and local activists suspicious of Corbyn will regroup behind them. This sizeable vote was for Corbyn but we should take care not to exaggerate what it means for the composition and politics of the Labour Party. It has not changed the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and we have seen an influx of some unpleasant new right-wing Labour MPs who pose a serious danger to the so-called Corbyn revolution. Every vote we gathered for the left during the campaign will also strengthen the party apparatus and its reduction of politics to an electoral machinery, and this success will be used, as always, against the left.

The ‘new’ members and other supporters of Corbyn working with Labour on the doorstep were mainly existing activists from Left Unity or from other left groups who had thrown themselves into the campaign knowing full well that this election was a make and break moment, that it could be the making of a new left and it could break the Conservatives. There are consequences of the way this campaign was conducted on the ground now, both for the way that Labour activists in local wards and constituency parties will relate to the new left, and the way that Left Unity can relate to the mass movement for Corbyn.

From inside Labour we can reasonably expect that, given the political composition of most of the local party wards, there will not be the warm gratitude coming our way that we might wish for. We can, instead, expect a degree of caution towards us and even measured hostility; we will still be perceived as those who are rocking the boat. Corbyn’s victory – a massive increase in the vote and number of Labour MPs – will not lead to eager acceptance of Corbyn’s politics, rather a closing of ranks around the apparatus on the rationale that now is the time to consolidate Labour’s gains and heal the wounds of the splits that began to open up in the party. We saw grudging acceptance of Corbyn’s contribution during the campaign, and the Labour Party apparatus knows that it will need to bide its time before attempting to remove him. Their thanks for his help will turn into a complaint that the result could have been better, and the loyalty of new members will be impugned, systematically side-lined. The attempt by different left groups to join Labour and intervene in the internal debates will, in most cases, be viewed as ‘entrist’ dishonest interference – in the case of some groups, let’s face it, it will be entrist and dishonest – and that will intensify the problem. Corbyn supporters will balance political challenge with pragmatic expressions of loyalty to the party. Electoral success will not, for sure, lead to a questioning of electoral politics. Instead, the ‘long hard journey’ narrative will, for many long-standing Labour members, be reinforced by this success.

Just as participation by ‘outsiders’ was only tolerated on the basis that we gave out Labour’s own leaflets and nothing more, said nothing different, so Labour party meetings will, in most parts of the country, continue to be deadening to radical politics after the election. Seasoned activists in Left Unity or other left groups might be able to tolerate this and sustain themselves under this pressure, but it would be disastrous to encourage activists in the new Corbyn movement to actually join the party and suffocate inside it. We will not win people to our politics by encouraging them sign up to Labour, but will lead them instead into the labyrinthine machinery of the party, if they are not repelled altogether from politics by the experience.

Left Unity members need to be clear with the Labour activists they worked with during the campaign that they have no intention of colluding in this internal party apparatus politics, and that we actively participated in the election campaign alongside them, not so we could all carry on with business as usual, but precisely because we wanted to create the conditions for something different. We stayed outside the Labour Party because that meant that we had more room for manoeuvre, and that, more than ever, we must have that room for manoeuvre to be a critical friend of the few left Labour MPs, to campaign against cuts carried out by Labour councils and to build a real mass movement for Corbyn that works across the limits that are imposed by Labour membership and restrictive ‘loyalty’ to the party as such.

Any continued success for Corbyn and the new revived Labour movement that he has made possible will depend on a radical break with some of the old assumptions about British politics made by the party. We need to say to our new Labour Party friends that we need freedom of movement to be able to really build something out of this electoral success, and that means that we, and they with us, must begin to reshape the political terrain.

A crucial part of this reshaping of the terrain that the Corbyn movement must engage with, with serious implications for mainstream Labour politics, is what we do with Scottish Labour. The success of Corbyn south of the border is intimately connected with the success of the independence movement north of the border, a movement that must break with the Scottish National Party which it is too-closely associated with. Scottish Labour ran a brave campaign, and, as was the case for many old Labour MPs across Britain who knew they had to pull together to save their jobs, they were, during the campaign period, relatively loyal to the Corbyn leadership. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour worked with the other unionist party in Scotland, the Conservatives, to try and block the SNP. They, the unionists, also succeeded, reducing the SNP vote by 13%, and taking 21 seats from them (12 to the Tories, 6 to Labour and 3 to the Lib Dems). This unionist success takes the edge off Corbyn’s victory, making a tactical alliance with the SNP to form an anti-austerity government impossible. This, along with the increase of seats by the appalling reactionary Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland (from 8 to 10 seats), and the refusal of Sinn Fein to take up the 7 seats it won, will make ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government, in the short term at least, possible. Left Unity must now speak out for Scottish independence – this is one of the breaking points that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for its members to join the Labour Party – and argue for Corbyn to build tactical alliances against the Conservatives.

Left Unity should also, as part of this sustained pressure on the Labour Party from the outside, explicitly argue for the right to affiliate to Labour. This declared open policy of Left Unity – that we see ourselves as part of the Corbyn mass movement – should be the basis for any possible meetings and campaigns with allies inside the party. We worked together across the party boundaries during the election campaign, and we must work together across those boundaries now. The Greens too maintained themselves as a credible force, not only by retaining the one seat in parliament but also by standing aside in some constituencies and campaigning for Labour, functioning as one of the models of independent left politics in the Corbyn movement. Left greens are our comrades in this struggle, in this new phase of struggle opened up by Corbyn.

A strong left presence inside the Labour Party is in our interests if it is to be open to action for change beyond election time, and we believe that this left presence will be better able to connect with the mass movement by explicitly connecting with us. Some of our comrades in different left organisations, including comrades who were once active in Left Unity, will be working inside Labour on this basis. Perhaps it is possible to turn some local Labour Party wards outwards, to make them bases of the movement that Corbyn inspired. Good luck to those working inside the Labour Party to do that, and we must do all we can to support them. But, we will only have the strength to maintain and build this independent left political profile if we organise outside Labour and win as many as possible of the new activists to Left Unity now, to build that independent left political profile with us.


You can read and comment on this article on the Left Unity site here




Left Unity

Looking for Eric, a Ken Loach film from 2009, sees Manchester postal worker Eric Bishop (played by ex-Fall bass guitar player and palindrome Steve Evets) at the end of his tether. He is messing up his job and his life, and it will be the collective mobilisation of his fellow postal workers that finally brings him back to reality. There are two kinds of reality in this film. The first is a fuzzy cannabis-induced dream state, false solutions to his problems in which his work comrades mix some stupid therapeutic self-help encouragement for Eric with time chilling out on pot. It is then, from this safe space, that Eric first encounters his hero, one-time Manchester United philosophical poetic footballer Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona becomes a kind of super-charged ideal of Eric Bishop, his spirit-guide mentor, and big footballer Eric gives little postal-worker Eric the advice and strength to trust himself and his mates. Ken Loach uses a cinematic directorial device in the film that has marked a number of his films, one in which he springs a surprise on the actor to get a more authentic reaction, in this case on Steve Evets who never imagined that he would actually meet big Eric. The turning point is in little Eric’s bedroom when he appeals to a life-size poster asking big Eric for advice, turns around, and finds your man standing there in the room. Loach aims to dissolve boundaries between cinema and reality, for the actors and for viewers who he clearly hopes will also become actors on the stage of life.

The second reality is one that little real-world Eric is now ready to confront, the grim reality of harder drug-gangs, gun-violence and YouTube blackmail. Now he is ready, with the big hallucinatory Eric’s advice, to take on the gang leader, and does this by mobilising his worker-comrades and other Manchester United supporters in ‘Operation Cantona’; in a glorious collective rebellion, they all descend on the house of the gang leader wearing Eric Cantona face-masks, trash the place and make it clear that they won’t take any more shit, forcing the baddies to pull the incriminating clips from social media. Solidarity is the watchword of this film, and Eric Cantona, who approached Loach and part-funded the film, is but a mediating fiction, something that will galvanise our Eric into action, to take control of his life again. It’s a great political comedy through which Ken Loach makes use of the big screen to re-energise non-celebrities, making use of figures like Cantona to build something different from the base up. But the rebellion is still cinematic rather than realistic; staged and feel-good, it is unclear how this dream-mobilisation will play out after the fun is over, giving us an inspiring moral tale in which we don’t know what will happen when big Eric leaves the field, no pointers to what to do next. Could the next step be to form a political party?

We had to wait for Loach’s 2013 The Spirit of ’45 about the formation and erosion of the National Health Service to spark an alliance of left groups and individuals pissed off with mainstream politics to try to build something different. Loach’s call for a new party to the left of the Labour Party led to the founding of Left Unity (LU) later that year after his call was signed by over 10,000 people. The Eric Cantona figure in the history of LU, and Cantona should be first-choice to play our hero in any future bio-pic, our hero who is, of course, Ken Loach. Ken was the inspiration and guide of LU, attending the founding conference and other key events, until, that is, the nucleus of a new party to the left of Labour started to appear in a most unexpected place, inside the Labour Party itself with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Then Ken had done his work for all the little Erics in LU, marched them up the hill and down again to leave them to it, up the creek without a paddle, without a strategy, the fun and the party all but over.

As a result, LU is now suspended somewhere between two dream-worlds, between the optimistic heights of its influence with over 2000 members in the two years between 2013 and 2015 and a harsher more disappointing time of plummeting membership as people have drifted, along with Ken Loach himself, into the new Jeremy fan-club and old-style party-political bureaucratic hell. The first dream-world was bad enough, and in some LU branch meetings a good deal worse than staggering through a smoky weed-garden. Would-be ‘policy-makers’ seized control of different commissions in the new party, spending months hammering out pie-in-the-sky proposals which would, everyone involved knew, never be put into practice. These folks jostled alongside individuals who had either been burnt once by the far-left and who, understandably, never really wanted to be in a left party ever again and hardened apparatchiks of some of the worst of the existing revolutionary organisations who piled in, either to raid LU for new members or to steer it to a full revolutionary programme (that is, theirs).

In the middle of all this for these two years, the hey-day of LU, were individuals who really did, in the words of the tag-line of the party, want to ‘do politics differently’, and that included feminist and anti-racist activists who also wanted this to be a different kind of space, safe to talk, to share ideas and organise without being shouted down. This argument for much-parodied therapeutic ‘safe spaces’ in LU became one of the bug-bears of the hard-faced old left, particularly the little robotic battalions of the sects who used their paper to name and shame anyone they disagreed with. LU as a consequence became very unsafe for a lot of people, a bit like coming down after a bad trip. Social media spaces for LU rapidly degenerated from being opportunities for debate into arenas for recrimination and threat, lurching from one ridiculous topic to the next (with one notorious Facebook discussion thread devoted to whether we should have the right to masturbate at work). It looked like we would be dragged back into the first fuzzy reality when nothing really happened, waiting hopelessly for the call to action, for the breakthrough into the second reality of collective resistance.

Presiding uneasily over these different kinds of politico-head very keen to give stupid and misleading advice about the way forward were Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson; now the captains of the ship trying to keep it afloat. Helping them in the first two years was Socialist Resistance (SR), a group reluctant to lead and spending most of its energies trying to stop LU going too far to the left, to keep it functioning as a broad left alternative to Labour. This was a group that eventually jumped ship and many of its members found what they thought would be a safer home in the Labour Party, along with mentor spirit-guide Ken. So loyal were SR to Ken that members of rival groups accused him of being a member of SR. He was not, and, if anything, was viewed by many in SR as being ‘ultra-left’.

LU was waiting for ‘Operation Ken’, but Corbyn’s election did for that hope, and now the dwindling party is left on the rocks, still ‘Looking for Ken’. Perhaps he was no more than a dream, evoking no more than the ‘spirit’ of free health care and a welfare state, welfare that is efficiently being demolished. The brute reality is that the Labour Party apparatus seems unable or unwilling to build a campaign against austerity, hobbled by its loyalty to local Labour-led councils that are implementing the cuts, even when Corbyn himself built up the Labour vote on a radical vote during the election campaign. LU is still an alternative, the best alternative in complex times, but now struggling to find the plot, and will have to do it on its own, a diminished but necessary force outside the Labour Party. The nasty surprise now is that, when members of Left Unity appeal to their posters of Ken Loach for advice on their bedroom walls today they then turn around and, they find that he is not there.


This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.




Wages: Helen Archer as slave

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Structurelessness: Organisation in organisation

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

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.

Syriza on the edge of power

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work over the past two years. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in a new book ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ which will be published in 2017 with a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.