Friday, 31 December 2010

Labourism, the movement and the 'new left'

Ken Livingstone joined the Labour Party in 1968. I've always found this a rather baffling bit of trivia. In that year of mass street protest at home and revolution abroad, why would any self-respecting young socialist want to join the Labour Party? Wasn't the action happening elsewhere? I wonder if Ken had a poster of Harold Wilson on his wall, where other left-wingers of his generation had Che Guevara or the Black Panthers.

The last 2 months may seem rather similar. With tens of thousands of students and school students taking to the streets, many of them protesting for the first time in their lives, why would anyone who is young, angry and radical look to the Labour Party?

Just as a 'new left' emerged from the events of '68, we may (or we, admittedly, may not) be seeing a new left emerging now. But what shape will it take, and what is its relationship to the 'old left'? Amongst other things that requires wrestling with the question of the Labour Party.

The turn to Labour: in perspective

What's clear is that a distinct 'turn to Labour' phase, starting immediately after the general election defeat in May, faltered in the wake of the large national student demo on 10 November. The left's increased orientation on the Labour Party had happened precisely in the absence of resistance. When resistance emerged, as it did very rapidly from 10 November onwards, it was inevitable that Labour would be left behind and a lot of socialists' attention would shift elsewhere.

During the six months from May's election to the emergence of a new street-based protest movement there was an influx of tens of thousands of new members to the Labour Party. But the renewal of Labourism can be measured in other ways too. For example, I was very struck by how much left-wing blogging output was devoted to the Labour leadership race, despite there being (to my mind) almost nothing of interest to say about it!

This told me something about where many left-wingers were focusing their attention and what they were interested in. I also noticed increased involvement of Labour Party members locally (in Tyneside) in campaigning activity, specifically in response to cuts. Furthermore, a number of people told me they were joining or re-joining the Labour Party. One re-joiner said she had low expectations of the leadership candidates but at least there was now the possibility of pushing the party in a better direction than in the New Labour years.

There hasn't been a full-scale turn to Labourism on the scale of the early 1980s, when Tony Benn led an assertive left wing inside the party. The attractions of Labour membership then were symbolised by the fact that even Tariq Ali, the most prominent revolutionary of the 1968 generation, joined.

But we're not currently seeing anything comparable for the left. The Labour left is still weak, marginal and, whatever the commendable efforts of the Labour Representation Committee (led by John McDonnell MP), lacking in organisational weight. There isn't, for example, a serious left-wing base in local government like there was for much of the 1980s.

What is happening is that the Tory hurricane is forcing people to find shelter, however flimsy and inadequate. When a storm's coming, any protection is better than nothing.

Socialists' interest in Labour - despite the party continuing to be well to their right in policy and leadership - is also influenced by the collapse of any electoral initiatives of the radical left (although some socialists have found a home in the Green Party). As a blogger this was summed up for me by Phil BC, who blogs at A Very Public Sociologist, leaving the Socialist Party to join Labour and, later in the year, Andy Newman of Socialist Unity jumping ship from Respect to Labour.

After the student protests

But does the rise of a new protest movement mark the end of radicals' interest in Labourism? What about the young protestors walking out of their sixth forms, occupying their colleges or shutting down Top Shop? Will any young activist who joins the Labour Party now appear as out-of-step as Ken Livingstone seems because he signed up in '68?

Laurie Penny seemed to suggest this in her recent Guardian article on the movement, casually juxtaposing the 'new politics' of militant youth protest to the bankrupt 'old politics' of Labour.

The truth, I think, is more complex. Ed Miliband has thus far been utterly dismal, notable for failing to connect with the new mood of resistance and for his strenuous efforts to distance himself from anything vaguely militant or radical. See, for example, his implacable opposition to Len McCluskey's call for co-ordinated strikes. Yet, in the absence of an electoral alternative, many people will still look to Labour.

Among the young there is raw anger and disgust with the Lib Dems. To a large extent Labour picks up on that disillusionment without actually having to do anything. It is likely to gain a boost from spring's local elections, which will probably mark a decisive breakthrough after the general election defeat.

The coalition government is not, alas, on the verge of collapse, but the tensions and fragility are real. Its approval ratings have fallen dramatically and I suspect the Lib Dems' poor polling is now a permanent feature, with most of its lost voters deserting to Labour.

We should also recall what deep roots Labourism has inside this country's working class. Its sheer size and profile makes it the first port of call for many who want to see opposition to Tory cuts. The party's still strong links with the unions are also important in giving it social weight and working class roots. However weak Miliband and his front bench may be, they at least offer some token anti-cuts rhetoric, for example Miliband's firm opposition to cutting the Bookstart free books scheme.

This example illustrates another point: New Labour 1997-2010 was largely 'reformism without reforms' but not entirely. Bookstart is one of those positive, egalitarian reforms - EMA is another - that is now under attack. Such reforms, however meagre, combine with Labour's working class base and trade union links to remind us that Labour is far from identical to the Tories.

What next?

I predict that in 2011 Labour will be largely left behind by growing resistance to the cuts, a dim echo of the movement. Miliband will on occasions specifically place himself in opposition to trade unions and student protestors, and this will create tensions between the Labour leadership and millions of Labour supporters. But it's also likely that Labour will continue to be a reservoir of anti-Tory feeling and a focus for many on the left.

It's therefore premature of Laurie Penny, or anyone else, to dismiss the Labour Party as an irrelevance in the new age of protest. However, it remains the case that the party is a dead-end. Not even the most optimistic Labour leftwinger would seriously claim it can be 'reclaimed' for socialist politics. Miliband's record thus far reminds us of the lesson that, when resistance grows, Labour leaders will either follow (at best) or become an obstacle (at worst), but they will certainly never lead.

That means socialists and anti-cuts activists will need to create alternatives. As a revolutionary socialist I naturally think that, at one level, this means revolutionary organisation (in my case this means helping build Counterfire).

In the longer term it is likely to involve, as one strand of what we do, returning to the project of building electoral alliances, but the circumstances aren't exactly favourable at present. This is partly subjective - the far left is a fragmented shambles - and partly because you don't launch a left-wing electoral challenge when even most left-wing people are looking hopefully towards Labour.

What's really crucial is movements, organisations and forums which pose a political challenge to the status quo. The largely defensive struggles of the unions will be essential - indeed we desperately need far more of them - but it's never enough to oraganise purely on the industrial front or merely defensively.

The Coalition of Resistance conference in November, attended by over 1000 people, indicated the potential for a serious, broad-based yet militant movement to stop the cuts. The beginnings of a network of student assemblies, building on the recent wave of university occupations, is another hopeful sign.

It's difficult to imagine the left making progress in 2011 without building successfully on these developments. Actually, it's impossible. The exact shape and direction are up for debate, but new formations like Coalition of Resistance and the student assemblies seem to me crucial.

They will naturally involve Labour Party members and supporters, but can offer a more fruitful means than Labourism of both challenging Tory cuts and creating space for radical alternatives.



  1. Very interesting piece.

    I am more optimistic about the prospects for socialism in Labour. This isn't so much in changing the party structures or policy stance toward more social democratic positions, but rather rank and file activists' receptivity to socialist ideas. Since joining I've noticed two things going on:

    1) Older lapsed activists coming out the wood work.
    2) Fresh, angry, and young people joining.

    These older activists tend, in my experience, to be on the left of the party. The Tory government, Ed Miliband's partial break with New Labourism, and the movement on the streets has drawn them back.

    The younger ones tend not to have been involved in politics before but are being radicalised by events. One new local councillor springs to mind - he defines himself as a Blairite, extolls the virtues of David Miliband, but since knowing him these past few months he's visibly radicalising under the impact of events and the cuts. Similarly a group of 17 year olds who've joined up (one of which is from a Socialist Party-supporting family!) feel Labour is the best way to fight the government and get involved in anti-cuts activity. I can go on with half a dozen other stories.

    But what to do? After all I'm just part of a loose informal network of like minded comrades in Stoke. I haven't got an undercover Leninist organisation to recruit people to (not that I think that's the way forward, nor that the space exists for such outfits in Labour). What I try and do is encourage them to get involved in activity - standard party work, protest activity, and trade unions - and keep abreast of what's happening via the alternative media.

  2. Wasn't Ali refused membership on the grounds he was a prominent member of the IMG, and it was a proscribed organisation? Meh, it's history. But let's not forget that Tony Cliff and the International Socialists were already in Labour when Ken joined...

    A criticism of your approach here, Alex, is that it focuses a lot on the policy and positioning of Labour, not enough on its function and the structures in which it operates. I'd say Miliband's comments are not at all surprising. But given the wealthy donors that backed New Labour during its compromise with capital during the past two decades, in the end, any Labour leader is going to need the unions more than they need a Labour leader.

    Labour works within the capitalist state and therefore it's leaders have to observe the absurd rules of the game if they are allowed to compete - this means the shadow cabinet have to be lukewarm on extraparliamentary action.

  3. Phil

    Your experiences certainly reinforce the impression that I've had lately, i.e. lots of broadly left-wing people joining or re-joining the Labour Party, many members being sympathetic to radical and left-wing ideas regardless of the leadership's conservatism, etc.

    It's undoubtedly true that the Labour Party is where you will find many socialists, of whatever generation. The decline in membership has been reversed, and many of those joining are essentially on the left. Also, Labour being in opposition has led to many party members becoming involved in oppositional activity in a way you simply didn't get on anything like the same scale before.

    The trickier questions concern whether there's any, or much space, in the Labour Party for strengthening left-wing politics and making a difference as a socialist. Obviously I'm not convinced. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is the on-going marginalisation of the left, as symbolised by McDonnell not even coming close to being a leadership candidate.


    I'm not sure of the specifics in Tariq Ali's case, though many IMG members drifted into the Labour Party. This was part of a wider trend of people on the far left joining the party. It was completely different to the situation in the 60s with the International Socialists - a tactical decision was taken collectively to enter the Labour Party, then a few years later a tactical decision was taken collectively to leave.

    That was due to it changing from being a place which offered a good milieu for a small revolutionary group to becoming a place that had little to offer. The withdrawal actually took place before '68 - and a good thing too, as it would have surely been the wrong place to be in that year.

    On the issue of Labour leaders and the unions, it has to be said that union funding has had little discernible influence on successive party leaderships over the last 30 years. They have felt confident in ignoring the unions. That might change, but it's as likely to be due to huge pressure through strikes and mass movements as a direct result of holding the purse strings.