Sunday 20 January 2013

The movement we need, the Left we need - a response to Owen Jones

Gateshead College students support UCU strike
There's an article up on the Independent site by Owen Jones today, with the intriguing headline 'British politics is in urgent need of a new force: a UKIP of the Left to counter the crisis of capitalism'

[Update on Monday morning: the 2nd part of that headline has now been changed, presumably at the author's request].

Owen addresses the central paradox of contemporary left-wing politics, the same one that I explored recently in this article - there is a profound crisis of capitalism combined with widespread rejection of the policies and ideas which accompany it, yet the Left is not growing (or benefiting from that to the extent we'd possibly expect).  

The headline - which I imagine a sub-editor is responsible for - is of course misleading. None of us are likely to be inspired by the notion of 'a UKIP of the Left' - though it captures the idea of a popular left politics that resonates with a section of society beyond the organised left - and it's unfortunate because Owen unambiguously rejects an electoral alternative to Labour, instead emphasising extra-parliamentary activity.

It is perhaps unfortunate, too, that Owen uses the crisis in the SWP as the starting point - this is significant, but the starting point for considering the shape of a new left should be what possibilities do exist and not the inadequacies of what we already have (though these possibilities are eloquently expressed later). There have - lest we forget - been two very large national anti-cuts demonstrations (on 26 March 2011 and 20 October 2012) as well as countless local protests and nationally co-ordinated strike action, peaking on 30 November 2011 with 1-2 million public sector workers striking.

Also, I think Owen either misfires (e.g. attacking 'Leninism') or exaggerates (with a couple of his comments on the SWP) in a few places. And of course I don't share his continued commitment to working in the Labour Party.

A united anti-cuts movement and a popular Left

But we should all be able to agree on the central arguments. I interpret these as being that we desperately need a united and assertive anti-cuts movement, and  that the Left needs to engage seriously with large numbers of people who are angry, fearful and want an alternative to deeper and deeper cuts. These two things go together. The building of a bigger, broader, coherent and more unified anti-austerity movement is not only vital and necessary in its own right. It is fundamental to shaping a new left.
It's one of those articles that raises as many questions as answers, and it may prove to be an opening salvo in an on-going dialogue or debate about the central issues. What I think is most important here is the simple recognition that we need, more than anything else, a united left-led movement to oppose austerity - one that unites a variety of groups and individuals involved in the Left, but also reaches out to many with little or no experience of organised left-wing politics. This should be obvious - and there's a tone of exasperation to the piece precisely because it should be obvious yet it hasn't yet happened on a sufficient scale. Owen writes:

'What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.'

Owen makes it crystal clear that he is not talking about a new left-of-Labour electoral formation. While I would like to see a political alternative to Labour, I don't think it is a credible option in the immediate future. Our energies need to be directed elsewhere.

Where they need to be focused, above all, is on creating a broad-based movement against austerity that can, in the process, popularise left-wing demands, exert pressure on the terms of mainstream political debate, and create a space for a new left to emerge. We can popularise left-wing slogans and demands, make an impact on mainstream political debate, and affect millions of people primarily through building a mass movement.

This is precisely what those of us involved in Coalition of Resistance have aspired to achieve. It has had some notable success and is, in my view, a model for what is needed. It is greatly preferable to any of alternatives which are in fact little more than extensions of particular left-wing organisations. 

What we need and what we have

Where we have struggled is in numbers. The SWP, with thousands of members, was central to initiating and developing Stop the War Coalition in cities up and down the country over a decade ago. This time it has been different. Without a relatively large socialist organisation providing a nucleus of activists in every area, it has been difficult to develop an equivalent coalition over austerity.

It is refreshing that Owen cites Stop the War's mobilisations around a decade ago as positive example of how organised socialists can connect with millions beyond their ranks and make an impact on wider society. Stop the War remains invaluable today (regardless of the inevitable difference in the scale we now operate at, compared to 2001-03) and may well be responsible for future mass mobilisations (if you're in any doubt read this article).

But it is also essential as a reference point for what we now need in response to austerity: not because we need an exact replica, or because the parallels are precise, but because of its breadth, non-sectarianism and unity combined with a radicalism that largely derived from the organised Left's key role in it. (I've previously assessed the anti-war movement's achievements here).

Owen's article grasps the centrality of politics - in a broader sense than parliamentary politics - to the question of austerity, and to how we oppose the government. He is aware that it isn't enough to advocate a purely trade union response through strike action - desperately needed though this is - and it isn't enough to simply have a sectional or single-issue response. We need to join the dots, pull the different strands of a disparate movement together, and articulate political demands and ideas. Doing this can lift the movement to a higher level, give it a stronger punch.

Newcastle's experience

In my own area of Tyneside we have succeeded with building a dynamic Coalition of Resistance with an impressive track record. I think it provides a rough and imperfect model, but we need the same in every local area and we need everything to be linked up in a national (and indeed international) movement. No group can defeat austerity alone.

Owen spoke at our Coalition of Resistance public meeting in Newcastle last March, helping attract 160 people. As I recently remarked in this post:

'On the night it occurred to me: 'This is the Left'. It wasn't just a successful anti-cuts meeting; it was one of the biggest left-wing meetings we've had in Newcastle in many years. There were plenty of members of various radical-left groups in attendance, and also some left-wing Labour members, but also many non-aligned but politically conscious and left-wing people. Left-wing trade unionists turned up, but so did many who have no experience of unions.

The same thing happened again last week, but on an even bigger scale: over 300 attended the Save Newcastle Libraries public meeting, with 'Billy Elliot' writer Lee Hall giving a radical speech and getting a great reception for it. The old institutions of the working class - the Labour Party and trade unions most importantly, but also the organised Communist and Trotskyist lefts - have declined. There is a gap between that wider left-wing audience and three things: the politics of today's Labour Party, the confidence of workers to resist through strike action, and the size of the revolutionary left.'

I should also mention, in this context, a major anti-cuts march and rally lined up for Saturday 16 February in Newcastle. Initiated by the local Coalition of Resistance, the process of organising it immediately pulled in a range of people and groups on the left and community campaigns like Save Newcastle Libraries, and it has in the last week been formally backed by Newcastle trades council, northern region Unison and northern region TUC. The omens are good for a breakthrough demo on the big day.

We need more of this and we need to make the connections so we shape a more coherent, united national movement out of the many promising local and single-issue examples. The most important event on the horizon in this respect is the People's Assembly Against Austerity, a national event initiated by Coalition of Resistance and scheduled for 1 June (I believe details will be out next month). It can be a turning point in enhancing co-ordination and building a truly national movement.

Finally, I should note that while I disagree with Owen on Leninism, I have previously said quite enough on that in this article - and won't add to it here.



  1. I'm in fairly broad agreement with both yourself and Owen Jones; and, although I feel my Party, the Green Party, is distinct in several ways from the traditional Left, I also agree we must be a part of this growing concensus.
    When Shaffield Anti-Cuts Alliance was formed, I represented the Greens there; I had previously been a member of a TU, but never attended meetings. Likewise, I have never been a member of the Labour Party, or any other Left party. So I was shocked to discover the infighting and point-scoring that seemed to push any substantive discussions out almost entirely. For others like me - and there were many to begin with - this is a dead hand, it turns us off, we feel we're getting nowhere. So my advice is to do away with such behaviour, accept open democracy, and you will find many more people willing to take an active part in this movement.
    Owen Jones suggested we need to agree a common set of principles, and it is here we may find ourselves in the mire if we fail to adopt an open mind on entering these negotiations.
    Like you, Alex, I admire the work of the Coalition of Resistance. Perhaps it can form the nexus around which other groups can coalesce.

    Peter Garbutt

  2. Alex - Andy Newman asked a similar question a month or two back, and many of the responses were in the vein of "what kind of Left do we need?". There were even a few people who tried to answer this question.

    But all questions of left organisation and reform, in the face of the massive objective disadvantages that workers face today (which I touched on in a previous post), boil down to the solution of poor old Boxer in Animal Farm.

    "I must work harder !"

    (I'm just listening to Analysis on R4, about the changing balance of power between workers and employers.

    "If you ask someone to show restraint, you imply that they hold the power, and that the decision is in their hands. Now, it is the top executives who are urged to show restraint in their pay awards. Forty years ago, it was the workers who were asked to show restraint.")