Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


‘Don’t mourn, organise’ – OK, but how?

The left must re-think its strategy and methods of organisation after the election, writes Michael Calderbank – not just throw ourselves back into the same schemes that aren't working

May 9, 2015
6 min read

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

  share     tweet  

As the gloom descended following the news that the Tories have a parliamentary majority, a well-intentioned social media meme recycled the old quote from US Wobbly militant Joe Hill: ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ Well, fine. But nothing would be more self-defeating than just working even more furiously on the same doomed projects without critically interrogating them, and asking why they have failed to come to fruition thus far.

What the left lacks – in England and Wales at least – is critical self-awareness, imagination, strategy and organisation. Oh, and deep-rooted relevance to working class communities. It’s no good just saying ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party, or build a new workers’ party, or build a mass Green Party, without giving any real thought to how to build the kind of movement which would be needed to breathe real life into any such project.

The Labour left is certainly not immune from such fundamental reappraisal, and prospects for doing the kind of hard thinking necessary are not at all good. Already Blairite outriders like Lord Hutton and John Rentoul are putting it about that Labour lost because they picked the wrong Miliband in Ed, who supposedly fought the most left wing campaign since Michael Foot in 1983, with similarly disastrous results. They say Labour weren’t trusted with the economy, lost the confidence of business and finance, and lost touch with the ‘aspirational middle classes’ by concentrating on the core vote.

The Scottish contrast

This manifestly fails to account for the sweeping success of the SNP, whose support was built on an anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform, a pledge to take democratic power back from Westminster. That is rather inconvenient for the Blairites, so they have to resort to attributing its success to a mythical tide of poisonous, aggressive nationalism that has taken hold north of the border – a position which will only further fuel Labour’s sectarianism and isolation from a Scottish working class it may have irretrievably alienated.

The SNP was carried to the left because of the mass movement that had emerged around the independence referendum. The Yes campaign mobilised and radicalised a whole generation who were rightly contemptuous of blow-in politicians imploring them to accept the status quo.

scotlandtree2At a rally for independence, people wrote what they wanted to see from an independent Scotland and put in on a ‘wish tree’. Photo: David Officer, National Collective

Just think for a second about what Labour was in fact offering people: year-on-year cuts, a public sector pay freeze, a cap on overall benefits spending, a freeze in child benefit, wasting billions on nuclear weapons, a workfare-lite programme for young people, and no commitment to scrapping sanctions, among other things. And for any Scots still not convinced that the SNP were a better bet, Miliband effectively said he’d prefer a Tory government if the alternative was entering into a coalition with Nicola Sturgeon’s party. The idea that this was ‘an old-school socialist menu’, as Hutton told Newsnight, is either deeply dishonest or downright lunacy.

Sadly, however, what exists of the Labour left is likely to throw itself straight into organising around the best available, or at any rate least-worst, candidate for the leadership. The fact that this looks like being Andy Burnham – a figure who sat comfortably in the centre of New Labour cabinets under Blair and Brown – is itself telling. Promoting such a candidate, in order to block a leader backed by Blairite faction Progress, is not a strategy for left revival – it is a strategy for at best limiting the extent of a further rightward drift.

A viable left?

Whatever else we do, we can’t just throw ourselves into more and more organising around schemes that are doomed to defeat. But it’s not as if there’s a viable left alternative waiting in the wings for the left in England and Wales.

Most Greens seem pretty satisfied with their electoral campaign, even though they failed to add to their lone MP, the impressive Caroline Lucas. Unfortunately, in the absence of long-overdue electoral reform, their votes in seats like Brighton Kemptown and Derby North had the effect of stopping pro-union Labour candidates like Nancy Platts and Chris Williamson from being elected.

Similarly, the likes of TUSC and Left Unity appear to feel vindicated by Labour’s disastrous performance, yet their own electoral support – which covers a spectrum from meagre to derisory – hardly suggests their message has been particularly resonant. That isn’t to say the ambition of building an alternative electoral vehicle capable of building mass support for left ideas is inherently wrong. But just as with what’s left of the Labour left, it is incumbent on such forces to reflect on their own failure to build even modest levels of support, and to develop a credible strategy for doing so going forward.

We need a Copernican turn in left thinking – away from the idea we begin by establishing (or inheriting) a party, developing a programme, and then trying to get an audience for our (pre-conceived) ideas. This to put the cart before the horse.

The first step must be involving ourselves integrally in the political struggles taking root in our communities around real social needs. We need a common platform where diverse grassroots struggles and social movements can coalesce and develop for themselves, on their own terms, the sense of a struggle in common.

And we need to suspend judgement at the outset about the particular course such a movement which will take towards finding electoral expression. If any of our parties genuinely advance the agenda of the movements, they will be taken up and made-over into something useful. If they don’t they’ll be thrown aside, and new formations will develop – not at the instigation of a minority of left activists, but under their own steam.

There’s lots of hard thinking for all of us to do, and hopefully we can be more creative and imaginative in our responses this time around.

Michael Calderbank is a co-editor of Red Pepper and author of The Cost of Living Crisis: Time to End Economic Injustice (2015, Radical Read).

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.