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Agency for change

Mark Perryman argues the need for a plural politics to confront the conservative left

February 5, 2008
8 min read

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

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