Avoiding myopia and embracing militancy

As 2021 grinds on, we should evade the pull of parliamentary politics and focus our energies elsewhere, argues Liam Kennedy

January 25, 2021 · 6 min read
A black lives matter protestor by Nelson Mandela’s statue, CC by 2.0

Before becoming an editor, my first real contact with Red Pepper came in the dark days following the 2019 General Election. Reflecting on recent events, founder Hilary Wainwright commented that she wasn’t overly concerned about the electoral picture but wanted to highlight the strength of the movement that had emerged around Corbynism. Off the back of some truly miserable days of canvassing and still coming to terms with the ‘stonking’ Tory majority, to put it bluntly, I thought she’d lost the plot.

And yet, there’s been nothing like a year or so of enforced quarantine for some solid introspection. Out with the old and in with the New Leadership™, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what we’ve lost with the removal of Corbyn and co. from the public sphere. That’s not to say I don’t have some sympathy with those who believe Starmerism to be the ‘respectable face of radical policy’. But you do have to wonder at what point the face is so respectable, the constructive opposition so obliging, that this supposed radicalism is just an illusion. On reflection, it’s probably the hope that Corbynism embodied that feels most absent. The electoral road to economic, social and environmental renewal which was fleetingly on display in 2017, maybe less so in 2019, now seems very much non-existent.

So where now do we turn? Alongside the death toll of Covid-19, we should bear in mind that the pandemic has also had political casualties. The momentum behind Extinction Rebellion (for all their flaws) and the climate movement in general has stalled at precisely the wrong time. With Biden taking office in the US and the imminent publication of China’s 14th five-year plan, 2021 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in the fight to avoid ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’ This is not to downplay climate efforts made elsewhere but, whether we like it or not, the trajectory of the globe’s two biggest emitters will set the stage on which everything else plays out.

But just as Covid-19 has stalled the movement, it has also shown us that a complete re-organisation of our economy is possible with the right amount of political will. If we are truly to ‘Build Back Better’, the time is now and action cannot be left to the corporate stooges of the UK government’s task force. The recent refusal to intervene in the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria is evidence enough of the Government’s inability to meet already inadequate decarbonisation targets. It is high time the climate movement discovered some militancy.

Fortunately, inspiration is never lacking. While the climate movement stuttered, the movement for race equality and #BlackLivesMatter demanded centre stage. Pressure from the streets forced important concessions from a number of police departments. These developments will have to be followed with interest. Recent examples of ‘police reform’ in the US have failed to live up to the hype but the lesson is clear – the route to progress is often propelled through the strength of movements.

One central area of focus should undoubtedly be the workplace. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics this week show that the mortality rate for those working in elementary occupations is more than twice that of professional occupations. Stripped of resources, both the Health and Safety Executive and Labour Market Enforcement (operating out of HMRC, the GLAA and EAS) are now essentially toothless bodies. Trade unions remain the vehicle for change. The new leadership of the giants, UNISON and (at some point this year) Unite, would do well to look at the likes of UVW and the IWGB who have paved the way for greater workplace militancy and effective organising in recent months. Outside of the EU’s scant regulatory provisions, UK workers are vulnerable to further erosion of their hard-earned rights and cannot expect external protection.

It is through these struggles, and others, that we can replace the extinguished hope of Corbynism. Thus as 2021 moves on and the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel becomes clearer, perhaps Hilary was right. Maybe less time spent on the political minutiae of Westminster and more on extra-parliamentary forces would in fact be time well spent.

Liam Kennedy is a Red Pepper Editor. Follow him on Twitter @liamkennedy92.

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