‘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

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).

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