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A party to dream of

When the left alternative goes unvoiced, the real choices unposed, democracy is drained of content, writes Mike Marqusee. That's why we need a new party of the left
September 2013


I’m one of the thousands who signed up to the Left Unity appeal issued by Ken Loach in March to discuss the formation of a new party of the left. I did so because I believe the continued absence of an effective left alternative to Labour hampers our resistance to austerity, racism, war and environmental degradation.

Left Unity has no shortage of doubters. There are many who reject electoral politics altogether and others who remain committed to working in the Labour Party. And not a few who simply doubt the left’s capacity to measure up to the challenge.

For me, the starting point is the franchise, won through generations of struggle in the teeth of opposition from the ruling class. Universal suffrage was never a free gift from a benevolent power; capital has always sought to tame and manage the public will. In our own day, capital’s great political triumph has been the conversion of social democratic parties (across Europe and beyond) to the neoliberal consensus. This realignment of the centre-left is a historic phenomenon, inseparable from other developments: the decline of union power; media saturation, changes in the workforce and workplace, and perhaps most of all the widespread loss of belief in the possibility of an alternative.

The political hallmark of the neoliberal era is a drastic hollowing out of the franchise. With economic policy dictated by capital, ‘politics’ becomes a shadow play, a media spectacle addressed to an atomised public. If those who fought for the franchise could see us now, they’d be shocked at how the right they esteemed so highly, for which they sacrificed so much, had been degraded.

No ‘reclaiming’ Labour

This is the context of Labour’s evolution, which is neither temporary nor superficial. I was a Labour Party member for 20 years (1980–2000) and an intensely active one for most of that time. I have no regrets but my experience leads me to believe that we are long past the stage at which the party might have been ‘reclaimed’. Step by step, its structure, ideology and personnel were re-cast. It was an incremental process that resulted in a qualitative change.

Prior to 1997, I argued that the Labour left would re-emerge as a force when the long-awaited Labour government failed to live up to expectations; we would then be able to exert significant pressure on that government from the left. That did not happen. Not through 13 years of New Labour rottenness. There’s no reason to think it will be different the next time around.

Labour activists argue that there is no realistic alternative to the long haul in the party. But this is now a project without a projected outcome, or a discernible measure of progress, no matter how long the haul. Meanwhile, the left alternative goes unvoiced, the real choices unposed, the franchise rendered ever more hollow and democracy drained of content. Only our rulers benefit from that.

Is there really a scenario for radical change in this country in which the electoral process will not play a critical role?

For me, there is no alternative to a long haul of a different kind: the creation of a new left electoral force as a complement to grassroots movements and campaigns. The longer we postpone undertaking this task, the greater the costs – to the unrepresented and to democracy itself.

In the absence of a left alternative, UKIP drags the mainstream in its wake. Myths on immigration, welfare, taxes, terror go unchallenged. The next general election (in England at least) will be a pantomime competition between three parties broadly committed to fiscal austerity, privatisation, welfare ‘reform’, immigration restriction and an imperial foreign policy. We’ll be treated to the tired search for gaffes, scrutiny of soundbites, button-pressing and dog‑whistling. Meanwhile, searing realities go unacknowledged, vital questions unasked. There’ll be little or nothing said about drones or fracking or surveillance by the secret state.

Abstention not the answer

One response is to abstain from the whole process, and large numbers will do just that. The problem is that a rejection of the electoral process as an empty charade is indistinguishable – in the eyes of elites – from the rejection of all forms of political engagement. Abstention is a message our rulers can live with.

 An electoral organisation that is only an electoral organisation, only a seeker of votes, will never succeed in filling the gap to the left of Labour. It has to be an active part of a broad social movement. At the same time, in the absence of an electoral alternative, social movements lack a vital lever. In Latin America, social movements found or created political vehicles to contest and win elections, and went on to form governments that broke with the neoliberal consensus to deliver real improvements in the lives of millions.

Is there really a scenario for radical change in this country in which the electoral process will not play a critical role? This is an arena that cannot be by‑passed.

Green Party advocates will say there already is a left alternative and no need to invent another. Caroline Lucas has an exemplary record in and out of the Commons and everyone on the left should support her. But there remain deep tensions within the Greens, some of them reflected in their mixed record in local government. Green parties in Europe have generally evolved towards the right; in power they have supported the insupportable, including public spending cuts and NATO’s Afghan war. For these and other reasons, it seems unlikely the Green Party here can ever grow into the clear-cut left alternative we need.

Can the left achieve that ‘Unity’ promised in the new party’s name? Past misadventures (Socialist Alliance, Respect) give grounds for doubt. But it does not automatically follow that other efforts will fail (they have succeeded in varying degrees in other countries). The question is whether we can learn from mistakes and move beyond flawed, familiar models.

I’m well aware of how daunting this challenge is. I wish I could convince myself that the whole task was avoidable. But I can’t. The continuing and mounting costs of not having a viable electoral instrument are too great.

The objective obstacles are awkward enough: the first-past-the-post system, media exclusion, lack of resources and name recognition. But what’s really demanding is tackling the subjective ones: popular depoliticisation, disbelief in collective action, deeply ingrained neoliberalism that still masquerades as ‘common sense’, despite a recession. For me, these obstacles are also the very reasons why we need to undertake the task.

Laying the foundations

To begin with, the priority is laying the foundations for an organisation that can be a welcoming home for those squeezed out by the three-party consensus. Early on, Left Unity took the vital decision to be an organisation of individual members, with no group affiliations. This is the only way to assure a real voice and equal participation to the many people who do not belong to a group.

Left Unity has to stand out in dramatic contrast to the mainstream parties not only in its policies and aspirations but also in its way of practising politics.

In the new party I want to see and to be a member of, democracy will not be counterposed to effectiveness, or pluralism to unity in action. Discussion will be open-ended and ongoing, with means for all members to take part. It will be a place where we learn from each other, collectively and continuously developing our political alternative. A place where members can define their own politics, without having to subscribe to a pre-existing school of thought.

I’d hope to be part of a Left Unity that campaigns vigorously on potentially popular (but unvoiced) demands such as cancelling the PFI debt (at a stroke easing the financial burden on the NHS) and at the same time takes upfront principled positions on more ‘unpopular’ issues, including immigration and sexuality.

I want to be a member of a party whose priority is always solidarity with those struggling against oppression, and which can place those struggles in a wider context, knitting together resistance to austerity, racism, war and environmental degradation. A party that dispenses with jargon and searches out effective ways of communicating with large numbers of people. That addresses the ‘crisis of representation’ by redefining what we mean by representation, creating over time a vehicle for self-representation.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one...

Measurable success in the short term will be elusive. Patience will be required. A patience driven by a continually burning impatience with our narrow political spectrum and the horrors it perpetuates.

Left Unity’s founding conference will be held in London on 30 November. See www.leftunity.org



About the writer ▾



Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee writes a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and is the author of a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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