Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In pinpointing the mounting crisis of political representation, Hilary Wainwright is echoing themes raised by former Labour Party national executive committee member Liz Davies already in Red Pepper (‘Why Stay?\’). Elsewhere, the leading left Labour MP, John McDonnell, has indicated the pressing need to look beyond his own party to locate routes out of this crisis: ‘A new dynamism is needed to deal with the new political environment where the traditional routes have been so narrowed. The left needs to open itself to co-operation with progressive campaigns within our community, learning from them, treating them with mutual respect, rejecting any patronising or sectarian approach.’
This is a recognition in large part shared by fellow Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who has expressed the consequences of a party in denial: ‘The question remains as to whether the policy mix developed to dominate a specific part of the British electoral map actually compounds problems in other communities with different histories and contemporary economic and social profiles.’
Outside of Labour, the Respect party’s Salma Yaqoob has outlined the kind of politics needed to form an effective electoral pressure on Labour from the left: ‘We have to be part, and almost certainly a minority part, of a much wider network of alliances. Our willingness to be open and flexible in co-operating and sharing ideas and experiences is vital for the future of us all. In building Respect we have to act in a way that strengthens this broad progressive constituency and does not divide it.’
Different voices, but they reflect the same argument Hilary is raising here. However, there remains a lack of urgency.
When I first came into politics at the start of 18 years of Tory government the question of agency was relatively simple. Despite any leftist misgivings, we always imagined the alternative to Thatcher and Major would be a Labour government. Eleven years of Blair and Brown is enough for anyone under 30 years of age with even the mildest commitment to radical change to regard Labour as a source of disappointment at best, betrayal at worst. The alternative it once seemed to offer lies buried beneath the legacy of the Iraq war, neoliberal economics, never-ending attempts to curtail civil liberties and more. Of course, Labour has been better than the Tories, but not much and improving on the legacy of Thatcher and Major is surely the very least we could expect. This is the context and urgency that Hilary’s argument lacks.
Her essay points to the uniqueness of the British left: inward looking, happy to engage with the Latin America revolt yet almost entirely incapable of learning anything from our near European neighbours, not a single one of which lacks a sizeable, broad left-of-Labour party. And it’s not good enough to blame this any more simply on our archaically undemocratic electoral system. Even with PR for European elections and the Greater London Assembly, the British left still cannot find the means to make a breakthrough. In Scotland and Wales there have been successes, but only partial and temporary, with nothing to match them in England.
The scale of the outside left’s failure is perhaps summed up by the aftermath of what it likes to assure itself was its greatest triumph – the two million-strong march against war in February 2003. If that number marched, the percentage who subsequently chose not to sign up as members of its supposed electoral expression, Respect, was in the region of 99.8 per cent. That’s some rejection rate!
The scale of the failure, the depth of the defeat, the entirely changed circumstances to answering the need for political agency need to be recorded in order to give a much-needed context to a debate that has been going on for decades.
The recent fallout in Respect (see \’Car Crash on the Left‘) is indicative of a culture clash much broader than the split in one small party. When the left-of-Labour space is treated as the preserve of tiny far-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), we have a ready reckoner for their limited political imagination and ambition. An organisation of scarcely 2,000 members with absolutely no purchase on the working class communities it would claim to represent, the SWP can nevertheless be a hub of well-targeted campaigning organisation.
Without the SWP, the Stop the War Coalition would not have been founded, nor sustained protests and demonstrations have taken place. The SWP’s culture of activism out of party discipline is well suited to such a single-minded task.
But when this is applied to building a broad left-of-Labour party the flaws quickly become apparent. The SWP policy of the ‘united front of a special type’ was dependent on maintaining control of Respect’s staffing, management and rate of growth. The development of a party culture of debate, membership involvement, a collective organisation consisting of many different centres, democracy-from-below in place of leadership from above – these are all threats that central committee diktat politics cannot bear. It is the strong power of enforced party loyalty pitched against the weak power of shared values.
Without a recognition of the conservatism of such left organisational practices, by no means limited to the SWP, Hilary’s outlining of an alternative loses its sense of purchase.
It is time the conservative left faced an effective challenge from a plural left. Nobody is being asked to abandon their parties. Those who aren’t members of a political party – who, if this process towards a plural left is successful, are likely to form the overwhelming majority of those identifying with it – don’t face such a loyalty test. Instead there is a mixing and matching of support for a campaigning left-wing Labour MP, voting Green in some elections, for Respect, the Socialist Party or an independent candidate in others, becoming an activist in a single-issue campaign, adopting a political identity defined by a particular social movement, and so on.
A plural left must first of all find ways to reflect this fluidity of individual choices that identify with the left and principles that can both inspire and organise. Principles that operate inside parties, across parties and have a significant purchase in social movements too. None of these should aim to be the exclusive property of one single organisation. If they are, then in fact they have failed.
So what might these fundamental principles be?
1. Pluralism: A recognition that our differences can make us dynamic. Broad principles and values, rather than party discipline and loyalty to leaders, will bind together those of different backgrounds, faiths and cultures. We have to be flexible enough to learn from each other, and willing to search for what unites us. A politics that presumes to know all the answers before any questions are asked will stagnate and develop a conservatism despite its apparent radical credentials.
2. Participative democracy: Utilising the widest possible forms of involvement, sensitive to exclusionary practices, and favouring those that maximise inclusion. Taking part in processes founded on listening and an equal exchange of views and experiences.
3. Prefigurative practice: How we do our politics must be shaped by why we do our politics. Neither a recipe for abstract puritanism nor an orientation towards individual action at the expense of collective effort, prefigurative practice instead should be the practical outcome of our politics.
4. Politics as pleasure: If we always expect politics to be a chore, is it any surprise it has such limited appeal and excludes far more than it ever attracts? Of course duty and sacrifice have their place, and commitment and solidarity are to be applauded not rubbished. But without the opportunity of celebration and inspiration how will we ever generalise these values? Our political forms remain centred almost exclusively on the spoken word. Music, film, visual arts, sport, food and much more are treated as the froth, never the core of political expression and engagement.
The organisational conservatism of the outside left, including tendencies within my own party of choice, Respect-Renewal, is neatly summarised by its triple obsession with selling papers, rousing rallies and marches around the empty streets of London – a politics whose sum total of alliance building seems to stretch as far as the Morning Star and Bob Crow of the RMT union instead of the huge political space, social democracy, that New Labour purposely chose to vacate.
There is an urgent need to break out of this ghetto of unimagination. Starting with a local turn, we need a politics that is entirely based on change from below, immersed in communities, engineering a practical idealism and human solidarity. Framed most potently by engaging with the different experiences of multicultural urban Britain, it must be a politics that doesn’t simply reflect these communities but is physically determined by their contribution.
This is the legacy of the best of what Respect has achieved. If Respect-Renewal emerges to be part of a plural left it could help ignite a process that will break up the Blairist-Brownite privatisation of idealism and restore the power to change politics into public ownership.
Respect-Renewal member Mark Perryman was a member of the Communist Party from 1979 to 1991, closely involved with the magazine Marxism Today. His new book Imagined Nation: England after Britain is published in April 2008
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it