If the 2010s witnessed the rise of the left as a powerful electoral force in multiple countries, the 2020s have so far seen its diminishment. Labour has moved sharply right; Bernie Sanders will not run for US president; the far right is resurgent in Greece and Spain. In the UK this left electoral downturn has coincided with an explosion of industrial struggle, as rocketing inflation has wreaked havoc on a population crushed under the twin pressures of wage stagnation and rising housing costs. Yet this economic and social contestation remains shut out from national politics.
This dynamic – along with the difficulty faced by a reduced Labour left in shaping the direction of their party – has given new impetus to an old debate on whether Labour is the best vehicle for socialists to achieve change through government, as well as a reckoning with the value of electoral politics more generally. In this context, a number of new but small left political parties have emerged. The latest initiative, Transform, is an attempt to unite a few of these in a new party ‘seeking to redistribute wealth and power from the elite to the people’, among other principles.
While these questions can be useful, much of this debate and the strategic propositions that have followed tend to be categorised by binary thinking and a sense that we wouldn’t be in such a mess if people focused their energies on the same thing. Either we all need to be organising in Labour as the best way to deliver transformational economic or social change, or we all need to start a new party free from Labour’s constraints. Either the workplace is where we build and exercise the only power that matters, or there is no lasting change without legislative change.
Yet while attractive for its decisiveness, this way of thinking tends to limit creative discussion in a moment that demands experimentation and even the pursuit of multiple strategies simultaneously.
Any such strategic discussion has to be grounded in a recognition of where people are. There are and will continue to be those who identify as socialists or progressives organising across multiple terrains (social, cultural, economic, political), inside and outside political parties and trade unions, and connected by overlapping social networks and communities. This level of complexity doesn’t sit easily with the binary thinking described above, but it does encourage discussion of more strategically useful questions.
Binary thinking limits creative discussion in a moment that demands experimentation
What different forms of power and resources can this varied movement deploy? What mechanisms of coordination do we need across multiple terrains, struggles and organisations (including political parties)? How can successes and power-building in one terrain, struggle or organisation create openings for people in others? And what is our space for experimentation, and the cost and benefit of pursuing different strategies?
A new and old electoral politics
It is beyond the scope of this article to explore each of these questions, but the last is worth focusing on when it comes to electoral politics. While the Labour left still includes hundreds of councillors and around 25 MPs, many providing solid representation for their constituents, they are unable to have a meaningful impact on national politics. While a continued Labour left is important, the current limitations necessitate a strategic rethinking as well as experiments beyond Labour.
In imagining what this could look like, we might turn to inspiring examples abroad, such as the recent success of the United Working Families in Chicago. The election of former teacher and trade unionist Brandon Johnson as mayor has its roots in the Chicago teachers’ strike and a conscious decision by the teachers’ union and an array of progressive organisations to leverage social power and grassroots organising in the electoral sphere, culminating in a victory that smashed open the politics of a city that was a by-word for machine politics. This electoral strategy from below may have gone through (and against) the Democratic Party, but its key feature was a commitment to a deeper movement politics anchored in place, trade unions and a web of community and progressive networks built over many years.
The candidacy of Jamie Driscoll for North East mayor is a good example of a place-based opportunity to open up the political system here in the UK. In this instance, a well-known independent candidate has a genuine chance to break the traditional two-party domination of electoral politics, while running a popular campaign that foregrounds tackling climate change and building economic security, responding to the needs of local people and placing leftwards pressure on Labour nationally.
A digital-heavy left insurgency (a ‘UKIP of the left’) could in the future do enough to show up in polling and pressure Labour
This should be seen as a chance to make the most of an exciting opportunity in a specific set of circumstances, not as a basis for a left electoral politics nationally. It doesn’t preclude experimentation on a national level, but we should be realistic about what can be achieved now, especially under first-past-the-post elections. Despite this, it’s not inconceivable that a digital-heavy left insurgency (a ‘UKIP of the left’) could do enough to show up in polling, pressuring Labour. Such a project will not emerge before the next election, though, and while Transform may gain some traction, the past failures of similar projects suggest it is unlikely to make considerable gains.
For those wanting to build a new left electoral initiative, it may be better to focus first on base-building through community organising and regional campaigns rather than by attempting to unify small parts of the left and immediately establish party structures, which is no substitute for a strategy. Irrespective of which way this goes, for many activists it will remain a more productive use of time to help elect or re-elect socialist Labour councillors or MPs (and this will require not publicly supporting any independent electoral initiatives).
For this and for historic reasons, participation in Labour and electoral politics more generally must be accompanied by ongoing critical reflection. A Starmer government may mean some improvements but it will offer no prospect of system change and possibly empower the far right. We only have to look at the rise of New Democracy in Greece to see the dangers of centrist governments capitulating and collapsing.
But how we resist and build something new is the key question. It will likely require organising inside Labour and other political parties, as well as outside them, as part of a strategy of maximising all available resources and every point of leverage and influence, and recognising that different sources of power can only be realised through different forms of organisation. It is precisely because the stakes are so high that we need to be open to multiple strategies, the broadest possible alliances and testing every opportunity that presents itself.
This in turn requires shared forums for collective reflection and debate, from which the seeds of something more sustainable and impactful may emerge.