Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
There is an unseemly break in Pat Devine and David Purdy\’s argument between their masterful sweeping narrative of Britain’s post-war political economy and their recommendations for the future of the left.
At the heart of their analysis is the contention that the neoliberal right was able to seize control of Britain at the end of the 1970s largely because the left had no alternative hegemonic project, no compelling vision of how society should be ordered to offer a way out of Britain’s crisis. Thirty years later, as neoliberal hegemony collapses, they argue the left must develop a new hegemonic project if it hopes to influence the future. Yet the mechanism they advocate for achieving this, a new party of the left, doesn’t follow.
If the left lacks a hegemonic project, it is not short on parties. Indeed, until recently it made up a large chunk of the Labour Party. Yet according to Devine and Purdy its lack of vision allowed the right to triumph.
So if the absence of a hegemonic project is the root of the problem, why do we need another party? Is a new party, with its meetings and conferences, really the missing element that will crystallise our vision? A hegemonic project, as Gramsci explained and Devine and Purdy know, has a much wider scope than a single party. It is something that must be developed, extended and expanded by a broad range of intellectuals and activists, ultimately seeping into every crevice of society.
The British branch of the neoliberal hegemonic project (for it was a global phenomenon) did not depend on a party. It gathered pace from the works of disparate economists and thinkers who were on the right but not necessarily Conservative (Milton Friedman, who unfortunately died in 2006 just two years before being proved wrong, was American), and was implemented politically by a small group around Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Most Tory MPs and many members of Thatcher’s first cabinet were not neoliberals, or “one of us” as Thatcher expressed it. In fact the ideological flavour of neoliberalism was distasteful to genuine Conservatives.
Devine and Purdy might counter that even if a new party isn’t a prerequisite to establishing a new hegemonic project, it is still necessary for responding to events in the short term and positioning for the longer term. But this raises practical issues. Who will put in the enormous time and energy to build a new party? Why will it work now when it hasn’t worked before?
Aside from sectarian wrangling, the common explanations for the British left not getting it together are the first-past-the-post electoral system and (as a consequence) the dominance of Labour. The problem of first past the post raises the question of whether a new party is the best use of resources when it would only have a chance in local and European elections (except in Scotland and Wales).
As for Labour’s dominance, this excuse shouldn’t hold weight anymore. New Labour has long since ceased to have anything to do with the left. While some may still have the residual notion of the Labour Party as a limb of the wider labour movement or as a rainbow coalition, for younger people the party is just not seen like that. As the annual Labour conference shows, there is neither room for the left nor democratic avenues open to it.
Despite this, attempts at electoral coordination in the form of the Socialist Alliance and Respect have not broken through nationally (excepting George Galloway’s individual success). First past the post and the dominance of Labour cannot fully explain this.
Perhaps there is a deeper factor, rather painful to admit. Many European socialist parties were initially formed as loose electoral alliances and their success was phenomenally quick. Even in Britain, with its specific electoral rules, Labour was able to form a government just a quarter-century after its foundation.
This was because socialist parties had a ready-made constituency – the industrial working class. In 2009, the working class has less awareness of itself as an entity. This makes the job of forging a new political base ten times harder than it was for early socialists and demands fresh methods.
Given these bleak conditions, to present a new party of the left as the only option is somewhat demoralising. It may be true that climate change will focus minds and bridge the gaps between greens and socialists and between the generations. But part of Devine and Purdy’s purpose is to break with what they see as the failed tactics of the 1970s. It seems strange, then, to advocate the organisational form of that time – the political party – for the future of the left, especially when faith in political parties is at rock bottom (see David Beetham, Red Pepper June/July issue).
Of course the left must know its history and never forsake the painstaking work of previous generations. But just as the internal combustion engine must give way to hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars, so it must be worth trying to innovate a more appropriate vehicle for political representation.
Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright