Saturday, 7 January 2012

The 'Left' and the anti-cuts movement

Liberal Conspiracy posts are sometimes both interesting and irritating (and sometimes they are just irritating). Here's an example of this combo from a couple of days ago: an article by Chaminda Jayanetti called 'How the last year shaped up for left-wing activism'.

Potential contributors to the site appear to know that calling for 'lefties' to do something differently is guaranteed to get you published. 'Lefties', it seems, is editor Sunny Hundal's favourite word. But even when that word (which nobody on the Left actually uses) isn't deployed, there's still an injunction for the Left - which appears to cover eveyone from revolutionaries to Alan Milburn - to change its ways.
The author writes:

'If the Welfare Reform Bill makes it through Parliament this month, it will set the seal on a terrible twelve months in which – sporadic successes aside – ‘the Left’ has failed to provide effective leadership and representation for those bearing the brunt of public funding cuts and austerity economics. There have been massive shortcomings in how the Left has handled the public funding cuts in 2011, especially in two of the worst-affected areas – benefits and adult care. Much of this revolves around the fact that, from the militants to the wets, the leadership of the Left is not drawn from the ranks of those it claims to represent, and is therefore not much cop at representing them.'
The thrust, therefore, is as follows:
1. The Left has failed utterly to resist cuts: last year was disastrous all round.
2. It has been particularly bad at opposing cuts which target the more economically vulnerable, e.g. benefits claimants.
3. This is because it is led and dominated by people are socially removed from those who are victims of such cuts.
The first point has an element of truth - we are getting very few victories - but overstates the case. Describing a year which included one of the biggest union-led demonstrations in British history as a disaster is stretching it.
The second point also has some truth, considering the lack of effective resistance in this area. But the final point is very problematic and means there's generally a lack of perspective in the argument.
The Left, however exactly we define it, is extremely varied, including in respect of social background. But the left is primarily rooted in the working class. It isn't some sort of detached middle class elite. Socialists are a varied bunch and live and work alongside all sorts of different people. The caricature in this post merely feeds the right-wing rhetoric about 'liberal elites' and similar nonsense.
There are other oddities in the article. Since when were library users a middle class network? Libraries are a class issue - by which I mean a working class issue - if ever there was one. We're talking about free access to knowledge and literature, not to mention places that are often integral to a working class community.
The claim that 'the Left' has also only focused on cuts that disproportionately affect women belatedly, half-heartedly and for opportunistic reasons is plain bizarre. No evidence is offered to support the claim.
The real problem when it comes to campaigning by largely unorganised groups is, well, to do with them being largely unorganised. Workers have trade unions to fight over issues which affect them in the workplace. These are mass collective organsiations.
But workers don't have such organsiations in relation to other aspects of their life. e.g. if they are disabled, a carer or any other role which relates to the impact of cuts. People who aren't in work also don't have such collective organisation. There are often groups of one sort or another, but not with the mass membership, cohesion and mobilising capacity of trade unions.
That is the real difficulty here - and, to be fair, it's something that Jayanetti pretty much grasps, but the wilder and less grounded claims elsewhere in the post could obscure this. There's ultimately no substitute for building organisations in these other areas of life and society that provide strong collective organisation. Or, at the very least, creating coalitions that reach out beyond the unions and connect different social groups.
It isn't simply a matter of urging 'the Left' to do more: self-organisation, admittedly including those who identify themselves with the Left, is required. This is a challenge, to say the least.
Jayanetti is absolutely justified in attacking the Labour leadership's right-wing attitudes and rhetoric in realtion to welfare. It also has to be acknowledged that the criticism of the student left gets dangerously close to the mark, highlighting its weaknesses quite in early 2011 quite accurately.
What is also true is that trade unions really must do more to link up with other organisations, and the communities and social groups they represent. So must the left, whether inside or outside Labour, though a little realism about the limited reach of the organised Left is necessary here.
Getting beyond sectionalism - different groups or unions focusing on their own patch, fighting austerity alone - is vital. We need sustained co-ordination and maximum unity in action, in fighting specific cuts and in offering a general challenge to the government.



  1. There's not a lot here I'd disagree with - though far from thinking my article was guaranteed to get published, I was actually slightly surprised that it was given that most of it is directed at the same liberal Left whose online home is LibCon.

    Yes there have been successfully organised trade union strikes and demonstrations in 2011, but let's be clear here - for those who have lost their jobs, their homes, their income, or their care services, the fact that there was a big demo and two big strikes does not stop 2011 being a disaster for them. The long view of history and subtle shifts in working class consciousness don't pay the rent.

    In terms of the social make-up of the Left. I wasn't saying the entire Left is middle class - the liberal Left most definitely is, but the socialist Left is not. Perhaps I should have made that clearer in my article. But the socialist Left is distant from most of the people it seeks to represent in terms of its mindset and approach - it is often heavily ideological, indulges in often archaic rhetoric, and tends towards a very inflexible view of how change (both big and small) can be brought about.

    Some of that isn't too problematic - the trouble is the inflexibility in how small change can be achieved. There is no textbook specifying how a service- or workplace-specific or single-issue campaign can be won. But many on the socialist Left are very wary, or at least sceptical, of any campaign that doesn't fit its copybook. This is why some local anti-cuts groups were resistant to user-led campaigns that didn't sign up to a 'no cuts' line. This made it harder for those user-led campaigns to tap into the experience and resources of the anti-cuts groups, but also made it impossible for the anti-cuts groups to sink real roots into their communities. Which is why a lot of local anti-cuts groups have struggled in 2011 when they should have been the forefront of the anti-cuts movement.

    Going beyond what I said on LibCon, I think another problem for the socialist Left is that, being very firmly based in the unions (no bad thing), they do see things in a very workplace-based way. So, if there's a cut that takes effect in a workplace - job cuts, closure of an adult care centre or library - they know how to react: engage the union, mobilise the workforce, canvass service users. But other kinds of cuts, such as welfare cuts or changes to adult care eligibility, do not have the same workplace template. This requires a different approach, and I don't think the socialist Left has cracked it yet.

    Oh, and a quick final word on libraries. Of course they are steeped in working class history and they are not *just* middle class. But I repeat that they have a larger middle class user-base than a lot of other local government services, and this (and the workplace template I mentioned above) help explain why they received more attention than some of the other serious cuts that have gone through. I absolutely do not support library cuts and there are local campaigns that have been very effective here. But this dynamic has to be recognised.

  2. Thanks for replying - and for clarifying a number of things, Chaminda. Being published on LibCon can cause difficulties - I recall occasions when left-wingers have been unhappy with their argument has been framed, especially by choice of headline, or edited. But even if these things remain under the author's control, the context - i.e. a blog notorious for attacking the radical left - can slant the way something is intepreted. I think a difficulty in the original post as the way it lumped together so many different strands of the movement and 'the Left' - it would actually be interesting to explore the issues over a few posts.

    I agree that 'the long view of history and subtle shifts in class consciousness don't pay the rent' (I'm currently unemployed, relying on housing benefit etc myself), but when it comes to socialist analysis and strategy these things are fantastically important. They are the basis on which we make tactical decisions and plan ahead.

    The long view of history and a recognition of the need for patience is also crucial for sustaining motivation. All movements in history - from Chartists to suffragettes to US black civil rights to anti-apartheid - have all been bleak if you simply looked at one year during the movement. But they all won serious change in the long run. We need to clearly grasp the positive elements in what's already happened.

    I agree there are problems with the way much of the Left, including its more radical elements, operate. My post is partly an implied critique of much of the radical left, which I think is guilty of a syndicalist focus on the unions at the expense of all else, while I'm also being critical of the opposite tendencies. It's essential the radical left engages properly with what's happening now, and changes in society, not just recycling the past. Part of that is an ability to move beyond a narrow workplace focus, as you suggest.

    Libraries: they certainly cut across class lines, that's true. But I don't think it's actually true they have received special focus from the left (the opposite could be argued) and I also don't see much evidence of powerful and effective middle-class networks here. Forests is a different story - I think you're basicially on the mark there!

  3. You refer to 'different groups'which apperently includes the unions and then go on to accuse much of the radical left of being guilty of a syndicalist focus on the unions.
    Diminished though the numbers in the trade union movement are at the last count there was something like 7 million trade union members,perhaps you can direct us to the other 'groups' you seem to think exist which have even a fraction of the social weight or power of the unions.
    Incidently are you a union member and are you at all active or is that just syndicalism ?