Who will speak for us?

There is a deepening crisis of political representation in the UK. As the main parties narrow the electoral contest to a diminishing patch of ‘centre-ground’, who will give voice to those whose views are unrepresented? Hilary Wainwright considers the political challenge facing the left

March 1, 2006
10 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

There is something slightly phoney about Blair versus Cameron, or even Brown versus Osborne. It’s not just the stage-managed character of parliamentary question time, with all the guffaws or ‘hear hears’ on cue. The problem is that the frenetic competition for the centre-ground bears so little relation to majority opinion, which is well to the left of both of them on key issue such as relations with the US and the future of public services. The limited radicalism of the Lib Dems seems unlikely to give voice to this progressive opinion. So there is a huge responsibility for the left to get its scattered act together.

Elsewhere in Europe, in Norway and Italy, for example, there are interesting alliances in which parties of the radical left, rooted in social movements, are building direct bridges to political power and punching well above their electoral strength. In the UK, we have the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), working in alliiance with the Scottish Greens and what is left of the Labour left, showing how movements and elected political representatives can create a more effective instrument than either could on their own. In England, however, for Respect, the Socialist Party, the Greens and the Labour left, it has been too much a case of ‘you in your small corner, and me in mine (which of course is bigger)’.

A low key but overcrowded event convened last month in London by the RMT union to address ‘the crisis of working class representation’ promised to put an end to that. Such an initiative by a union (albeit one of the smaller ones) is unprecedented since the formation of the Labour Party itself. Another notable feature was that of John MacDonnell, a leading member of the Labour left (he is chair of both the Labour Representation Committee and of the Socialist Campaign Group), speaking not to bury the initiative but rather to report on developments on the Labour left as if part of a common movement. He nimbly straddled the historically spiky boundary between those inside and outside the Labour party to illustrate that shared values and policies meant the possibility of people from different starting points converging to create something new.

In composition, however, the event was too similar to meetings held in the same Quaker hall 15 years ago. It was mainly white, male and middle aged, and there was an air of exclusivity in some of the speeches. As I walked away, a phrase from T S Elliott’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock came to mind: ‘Will I measure out my life in coffee spoons?’ Will I measure out my life in initiatives towards a new left party, I wondered? I’m afraid my answer was yes – though I guess there will be a point when my masochism will finally break – unless we make sure that the follow-up process to the RMT’s timely initiative achieves something that past endeavours have not. This will require us to learn some sobering lessons from past electoral initiatives of the left. To kick off an urgent debate, let me suggest a few.

First, our electoral system gives us a massive problem. And this is not some unfortunate unfinished business of 20th-century liberal democracy. The first-past-the-post-system (FPTP) has been favoured by the establishment as a means of protecting the British state from the more direct popular challenge that a proportional electoral system would allow. FPTP forces a degree of mediation and behind the scenes negotiation that, as we have seen throughout the history of the Labour party, makes the left a prisoner of more conservative institutions. Only electoral reform in favour of a more proportional system has made it possible for the SSP, the Scottish Greens and Forward Wales to gain an electoral base.

Inevitably then, the radical and green left in England is going to come late to effective electoral politics. But we can turn this into an advantage and learn from the ease with which radical parties such as the German Greens have been incorporated and weakened by their participation in the political system. We can use our exclusion to strengthen forms of cooperation and voices independent of the political institutions, so that when we are able to achieve an effective electoral voice, we will have built strong autonomous movements that have the capacity to open up and transform parliamentary politics. Too often in the past ten years or so, the left has thrown scarce resources at election campaigns with the zeal of a new convert and neglected grassroots. Organising, rather than thinking creatively how to enable each to strengthen the other.

This means recognising – without romanticising – the ways in which radical social movements exemplify a wholly new kind of politics. It does not eliminate the need for political parties, but it does change their character. For example, most of the movements of recent years are a great deal more than single-issue campaigns. From the women’s movements in the 1970s to the alter-globalisation movement of the 21st century, their protests also hold out the values and social relations for a different kind of society. They have invented different ways of doing many of the things that parties have done: connecting general ideas about society to particular campaigns or issues; generating the knowledge necessary for strategic thinking, policies, and building an organisation; and producing cultural initiatives – publications, films, music, art – that reach out to a wider public.

While any movement needs a foundation of agreed principles and policies, there must be open debate about everything else – including strategy, tactics, contentious policies and ideas. As Milton said, ‘Argument is knowledge in the making.’

Their ways of building up an alternative view of society and of connecting different struggles have tended to be horizontal, based on the idea of networks as a form of unity that respects the autonomy of participating groups. Their approach to knowledge incorporates practical and experience-based knowledge as sources of understanding and policy. And they have produced (in practice, even if not yet theorised) distinct approaches to leadership, emphasising cooperation, self-management and the importance of realising the capacities of all.

It would be no bad thing systematically to strengthen these innovations, so that when opportunities arise for engaging with the political institutions we can do so more on our own terms. Immediately, for example, in the run up to the local elections in May, we could do more to build connections across campaigns against privatisation, developing strategies for democratising public services, and linking them to campaigns on environmental issues, employment, alternative economic strategies and asylum seekers and immigrants.

The point here is the importance of building a structured movement as a foundation for electoral initiatives. The Scottish Socialist Party, after all, was built on the rock of such a structured movement. Four years of the Scottish Socialist Movement and then the Socialist Alliance preceded and prepared for the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party and has no doubt given it the resilience to overcome recent problems in its leadership. A further lesson from the past is the uneven nature of local resistance and political alternatives and the importance of building and learning from this rather than pursuing a single national strategy from London. The left in the UK has always varied enormously, according to the history of local political economies, traditions and personalities. The Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford, not London. The centralised nature of the British state, mirrored in the power structures of the Labour Party, has disguised this uneven reality and national alliances of the left have not sufficiently nurtured innovative local initiatives. What is needed is a form of organisation that can allow for autonomy, co-ordination and learning from experience.

Another peculiarity of the British labour movement is the hybrid movement/party, character of the Labour Party and the varying reasons people have for remaining in it, however reactionary its leadership and however closed the space for debate. The party’s links to the unions means that there remain (to a point, as yet not tested to their limits) spaces for dissidents with an independent source of power. For such people, like John MacDonnell, there is no point in leaving unless they are stopped from doing their work. They are in a position to contribute to building a wider movement in a context in which the future of the Labour Party and the different lefts within it remains unpredictable. The need for a new kind of political representation for the left does not automatically mean calling for a new political party. Rather, it is a matter of working in an experimental way from many different angles to create the conditions for enhanced representation of the green and radical left. This will be an uneven process that implies on the one hand striving for an increasingly co-ordinated, densely networked movement independent of the existing political structures and on the other hand a mosaic of electoral alliances varying according to the best local opportunties.

The kind of structured, federal movement we need should be based on a participatory form of democracy guided by several principles. First, there can be no short cuts. Of course, charismatic individuals can help to build a movement. Our electoral system makes us especially reliant on such double-edged talent. Respect needed George Galloway to win Bethnal Green; the SSP needed Tommy Sheridan to win a popular appeal. But to build a movement around individuals is ultimately a dead end – quite apart from requiring too much of the individuals concerned. Second, while any movement needs a foundation of agreed principles and policies, there must be open debate about everything else – including strategy, tactics, contentious policies and ideas. As Milton said, ‘Argument is knowledge in the making.’ Unless there is a real appreciation of argument we will never develop the knowledge we need of a rapidly changing world and of new solutions to injustice and indignity. Third, the left cannot go it alone. The potential strength of unrepresented progressive public opinion is a force for change far stronger than any organisation of the green and radical left. But it is likely to remain marginalised unless we manage to build alliances that reach out to new constituencies well beyond those of the traditional left.

Finally, the lessons from international experiences are vital here, especially where more proportional electoral systems enable and require the left to address the question of what alliances are necessary to gain access to political power. One possibility here might be for leftists in the UK, as individuals or organisations, to form a loose association with the European Left Party which left parties across Europe initiated in 2004, building on the convergences and cross-fertilisation of the European Social Forum. As the RMT-convened meeting recognised, there is a deepening crisis of representation and exclusion in our political system. If the left cannot come up with the means to combat it, make no mistake that there will be others waiting in the wings who will try to do so.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.


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