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In 1988 a leader in the Independent declared that if there was a party representing the left politics of those gathering at that October’s Socialist Conference in Chesterfield (the movement that was eventually to give birth to Red Pepper) it could gain up to 15 per cent of the vote, writes Hilary Wainwright. Some of us involved in the Socialist Conference, including Ralph Miliband, father of current cabinet members David and Ed, strongly believed in the need for such a party and for the electoral reform that would enable it to thrive.
But we also understood that its emergence was not a matter of political will: it depended on factors we could nether predict nor engineer. In the meantime it was important that like-minded socialists campaign, think and debate together across organisational boundaries. As Labour moved steadily to the right, however, seeking persistently to marginalise the left, we had a growing sense of the disenfranchisement of all those who resisted the Thatcherite consensus.
What was to be done? We needed a voice, independent of any political party, for the socialist, green, feminist politics shared by people from a wide range of political backgrounds – though interpreted in a variety of ways. From this need Red Pepper was born.
In this way Red Pepper has always been more than a magazine. However, being effective as a magazine – attractive, readable, provocative and truthful, using the best techniques of effective communication that we could afford – has always been necessary to our political goal of taking the left outside the ghetto in which our enemies try so hard to confine us.
Nearly two decades on from the Socialist Conferences and 13 years since the first Red Pepper, our political goals have developed and our means of communication have leapt ahead qualitatively (in the first years of Red Pepper, I was delivering my copy to Denise Searle, our founding editor, by hand or post). [Hilary now delivers it by email, which has slowed down the editorial process so much that the magazine has been forced to go bimonthly.]
Experiences of radical left parties in government, whether Brazil’s Workers Party, Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista or Germany’s Greens focused my thinking on something I knew but hadn’t thought through: that social movements (including labour movements) plus a political voice don’t of themselves bring about change. The constraining weight of state institutions with all their bonds with economic power – national and international – and the tendency of political parties, however historically radical, to tie their future to an unconditional presence in these institutions – directed my attention beyond questions of voice to those of how to strengthen a political sphere autonomous from the state.
An independent means of communication such as Red Pepper is one obvious, if modest, tool for such a purpose. After all, autonomy depends on there being the means of developing common values, understandings and organisational, creative and solidaristic bonds across the variety of movements and struggles against injustice.We are attempting to achieve this in circumstances in which the dominant political cultures suck all political energies upwards into the maelstrom of institutional and vertical politics. But Red Pepper itself needs a bit of retooling to be really useful in such a complex process.
So let me clarify this autonomy business a little. From the trade unions, through the women’s movement to the alter-globalisation networks, there has always been an insistence on autonomy. Autonomy from the state and from other ruling institutions is a condition for resistance and struggle. It is a condition, too, for imagining, illustrating and creating alternatives. In contexts such as our own in the UK, where the vote has been struggled for and won – however weakened and blunted its power – autonomy must also be the basis of engagement with the state as well as opposition: a source of deeper forms of democratic power and simultaneously a protection against institutional blandishments and repression. It must be a basis for being both ‘in and against the state’.
The difficulty and counter-conventional character of developing such horizontally bonded political life cannot be over emphasised.The effective destruction of the emerging movement that the left created in France around the European ‘no’ is but the latest example of the destructive weight of national, vertical politics.The history of the left in the UK is littered with the skeletons of movements or would-be movements drawn away from their potential base by the institutional pulling power of national parliamentary politics. (The democratic left pressure group Compass is in danger of being the latest victim.)
The new communication technologies provide us with hugely important tools for strengthening and deepening our criss-crossing forms of politics, though with many risks and ambiguities. But of course technological tools are never sufficient.
There are sometimes mind-sets that can hold back the potential for political innovation. One such has been the over-polarisation of the notions of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’: the source of many a political muddle. Since 1967 I’ve seen myself as a revolutionary in the sense of committing myself to work for the end of an iniquitous economic system in which the few profit from the labour and, on a global scale, the destitution of the many. But in the past 40 years I’ve also learnt that the way people struggle against this system and all its ramifications doesn’t easily fit into the dichotomy of reform versus revolution.
There is, as Paul Mason puts it, ‘a political space between reform and revolution – so pesky to the ideologists of social democracy and communism’. It involves the constant struggle for control ‘either in the workplace or the community or even in [people’s] own personal lives: less than revolution, more than top-down reform’. For me, Red Pepper is in that political space, supporting struggles for popular control, helping them interconnect and develop their own perspectives and their capacity to develop alternative social institutions and to be able to defend and advance these alternatives in the face of the vicious attacks they will face.An alternative to capitalism can only emerge from such a process.
What does that mean for the here and now?
This requires a quick take on whether Brown’s premiership creates more favourable conditions for this struggle for popular control. (Let us agree that he is not of his own accord going to offer anything significant by way of progressive change.) My take goes back to 1997.This was a moment that contained the potential for real change.
The majority of the people who voted that new government into office thought they were putting an end to nearly two decades of Thatcherism – we don’t need to rehearse what that meant. But New Labour was courting the centre and centre right with Blatcherism and was so focused on exorcising the left from the image and reality of the Labour Party that its proponents had no understanding of the strength of the desire for real change. We all know that story, spelt out in all its arrogant thuggery in the ubiquitous diaries of spin.
The hidden story, though, is of what happened to those expectations. They’ve never gone away. But their expression has been dispersed and uncertain. It includes the election of a series of left trade union leaders, in some cases completely unexpectedly, and now the emergence of entirely new forms of labour organising (see Jane Wills). The election of Ken Livingstone, which Tony Blair pulled out every stop to try to prevent, is another example. The many hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, who poured on to the streets in protest against war in Iraq is another. So too are the numerous refusals of council tenants to vote for the transfer of their houses.
There’s also the popularity of radical films, music and art; the beneath-the-radar struggles against privatisation of local government services, the health service and education that are also often linked to struggles for the democratisation of those services and local government; the growing support for radical constitutional reform; the bold actions inspired by the alter-globalisation movement on environmental issues and issues of direct international solidarity; the anti-corporate sentiment emerging around many aspects of daily consumption. And so on.
They do not add up to a coherent movement and it is not Red Pepper’s job to corral them to do so. But neither does all this indicate that people are inclined to knock meekly on the doors of the government. They have learnt mistrust the hard way.
The new Red Pepper as magazine aims to provide a space for sharing and debating the alternative strategies that are emerging from those unfulfilled hopes for change, and for drawing on international experience to nourish these debates. It will give a platform for campaigns that lack media outlets over which they have control, a gallery and a stage for artistic endeavours in all media that open up new questions and refresh our sense of possibility.
The new Red Pepper as a website will provide tools for activist networking and debate to help produce the powerful sense of common purpose that we need to keep our nerve, occupy any new spaces opened up by the uncertainty of the Brown government and above all build our autonomy to resist and to propose.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee