Editorial: A place for the left

Hilary Wainwright says that the pull of national and local identities away from Westminster is a vital clue to understanding and preparing for the unravelling of New Labour

September 20, 2008
5 min read


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

Turn on the news in the past few weeks and it’s like reading Trotsky: capitalism in profound crisis; Labour leaders and their ‘epigones’ (a favourite Trotsky word) locked in internal battle. But where are we, the left? In its party forms the English left is divided both inside parliament (with some, disastrously, voting through 42-day detention) and outside (the Respect debacle). In its movement form, it is fragmented and, apart from the occasional creative initiative such as the climate camp, barely visible.

We have, no doubt, contributed to the loss of legitimacy neoliberalism has suffered over the past decade or so. But as Walden Bello, a radical intellectual from the Philippines, has put it: ‘Neoliberalism is like the train conductor who gets shot in an old western and dies with his hand on the accelerator. He’s dead but speeding the passengers inexorably towards total disaster.’

It’s as if we know the alternative direction in which the train should go, but are powerless to take action. Powerless because the millions of people who feel estranged from ‘mainstream’ politics do not consider the left to be any different.

Where the left is having an impact is where it is part of – and has helped to create – initiatives that reach beyond itself, to challenge the political class with a vision of a radical and egalitarian democracy. This is invariably a vision that is not explicitly socialist. Look at the Convention for Scottish Independence, Plaid Cymru’s coalition-building work in Wales or the broad-based coalition to save democracy in the NUS. Look too at the movements in support of Barack Obama in the US.

In the UK, Europe’s most centralised and executive-dominated of political systems, the loyalties and sense of rights associated with place are an important base of this democratic challenge. This is obvious in the nations of the UK but it applies also to English cities. Here are two modest examples.

The first is an eight-year-long experience in Newcastle of a successful trade union-led struggle against privatisation leading to a collaboration between unions and public managers completely to transform the management of the council’s IT-related services – back office and frontline. It might sound mundane and a speck in the ocean of privatisation, but what these public service workers, unions and managers have done is to give a practical and convincing answer to the pervasive notion that only the competitive pressures of the market can produce innovation and change. Here in Newcastle is a demonstration of the innovative dynamics of the public sector itself. Crucial to its success has been the activation of a powerful ethic of public service rooted in a strong city identity, an ethic that had been dormant, stifled by the old hierarchies of local government and the constant attacks from Whitehall.

Another example of a completely different kind, too new to be sure of its success, is an experiment in the left pooling its resources to create the Convention of the Left, a locally-rooted challenge to New Labour’s annual rally in Manchester. At the time of writing it has certainly achieved a creative cross-party, cross-movements collaboration impossible at a national level.

The pull of these national and local identities away from Westminster is a vital clue to understanding and preparing for the unravelling of New Labour. Although the Labour Party can trace an important component of its origins back to a convergence of local labour alliances, the party’s structural alliance between the trade unions and the parliamentary leadership tied it to the British state before anything else. New Labour has taken this to extremes and ended up as a caricature of a party: no roots, no means of feedback, no loyalty, no trust. When this implodes there will be few local parties left with any life, but what there are will be an important part of any attempt to recreate a left that is based on a recognition of national and regional autonomy and creativity.

As national political structures crack and lose their authority, initiatives from Scotland, Wales and the English cities and regions will have the chance to break through, setting a new kind of example, stimulating a new direction for debate and developing their own international links.

The importance of place is not as a romantic retreat for the left. On the contrary, it offers a base for creating a left that is sufficiently rooted to be effective and a source of autonomy from the Westminster/Whitehall rootless elite. More immediately it provides the basis for the cross-party kind of left politics that must surely be the way to avoid the Tory dystopia that hovers ominously on the horizon (see Patrick Dunleavy and Alex Nunns in the October/November issue of Red Pepper).

The Public Sector But Not As You Know It, about the Newcastle alternative to privatisation, will be published by Compass and Unison in October 2008

See Red Pepper’s blog from the Convention of the Left

Visit the Convention of the Left


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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’