If you decided to draw a family tree of the British left, you’d have a bit of a job on your hands. There have been so many splits and splinters that we’ve all ended up as ideological half-sisters or second cousins, surrounded by immediate family who warn us off having anything to do with our scatterbrained relatives.
You could see the Convention of the Left, then, as a sort of family get-together – one thrown by a well-meaning aunt to encourage us all to ‘get along better’. It has the potential to be the most important event for socialists for many years, which is why I’m going to be blogging from it for Red Pepper over the next five days. But can it really work?
Its organisers have certainly picked a good time and place. Setting it up as a counter-conference to the Labour Party’s debate-free rally is a great way to pull in some of ‘Old Labour’, and having the opening session right after Saturday’s Stop the War protest will draw in some activists who might not otherwise have made the journey.
And the convention is not a rushed response to the wipeout the left faced in the May elections, or even to the escalating economic crisis. It was announced more than six months ago: before London elected a Thatcherite buffoon for mayor and a full-fledged fascist to its assembly, and the rest of the country appeared to take a shine to David Cameron; before the consternation about whether British politics was ‘moving to the right’; and before certain over-eager lefties started declaring that the collapse of a few banks means ‘the end of capitalism’ (again).
The immediate issue it plans to tackle is not the rise of the right or the twilight days of that system we all love to hate – it is the collapse of the left, in the broadest sense. Labour’s support is a fraction of what it was even in Blair’s day, with the ‘core’ voters and the diehard members finally pushed over the edge by Brown’s head-in-the-sand tricks, and yet the left-of-Labour parties have somehow spectacularly failed to grow. Without going into the controversial details (we all know them anyway), it seems clear at least that we never managed to harness the energy of the anti-war protests five years ago into anything long-term.
Today, the left has another chance. It is only the Westminster system that makes it look as if the public somehow desire woolly centrism tied to fetishes for privatisation and war – in poll after poll, voters support the parties on the basis of ‘lesser of two (or three) evils’ politics while roundly rejecting their actual policies. The economic crisis has exposed the absurdity of having three neoliberal parties and no alternative: no-one can seriously maintain that the City is an ‘engine of growth’ when people are losing their homes because some speculators decided they’d make good casino chips in their game of roulette.
You don’t have to think very hard about bankers getting multi-million pound rewards for failure while food prices and energy bills go through the roof to come to some notion of nationalisation or ‘production for need’ (even if you don’t necessarily call it that). In an age when an economic crisis can get halfway around the world before the central bankers have even got their boots on, anyone can see that the problem is the system – the economic Wizards of Oz have suddenly found their curtains drawn back, exposed as the selfish frauds they always have been. The free market has stopped being simply unpleasant and started actually not working on its own terms. New Labour, the New Tories and the Cameron-lite New Lib Dems have no answer to that.
I’m not saying that ‘the revolution is upon us, comrade’, but it certainly seems that people are casting around for an alternative. The point of the convention is to organise a forum where we can see what unites us and how we can make tentative steps towards unity that will really work – the broad support the convention already has is an encouraging sign. I just hope the left will use its convention as a chance to bury the hatchet, not as a venue for that most destructive of socialist sports: sectarian point-scoring.