Friday, 2 October 2015

We (still) need to talk about class

My review of 'Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes', eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2014), was originally published on Counterfire.

The 2015 volume of Socialist Register, the annual journal of left-wing theory dating back to the 1960s, continues the same broad theme as last year’s volume (which I also reviewed for Counterfire). Both issues of the journal are concerned with contemporary changes in class structure and class politics.

Taken together, these two volumes are a concerted reassertion of the centrality of class to understanding society and to mapping the future of radical and left politics. This is at a time when class is an unfashionable concept and the working class is widely viewed as no longer a collective agent of social change.

At times it feels like the contributions are so diverse that the theme - transforming classes - is rather too loose. The ruling class, the middle class and the working class are all covered, with the last of these receiving the lion’s share of attention. There is truly global coverage, with the eighteen essays (mostly by left-wing academics with an intellectual background in Marxism) including contributions on China, India, South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and Chile. This year there is very little specifically on Britain – or in fact anywhere in Europe – while there is a lively series of four interlinked essays devoted to working-class politics, resistance and organisation in the US.

The collection is very disparate, but there are a number of basic political ideas that are just about universally shared among the contributors. They still regard class as a relevant concept; indeed, they typically see it as the fundamental division and relationship in society. The volume as a whole asserts the continuing centrality of class to making sense of the world we live in, through tracing the specific changes taking place in class composition or in the balance of forces between classes. This combination of fidelity to viewing class as the dominant social relationship and flexibility in relating that to evolving conditions is a great strength.

It is also the case that contributors, as might be expected in a socialist journal, adopt a partisan standpoint of support for working-class interests and for various forms of working-class resistance and organisation. For me, probably the most interesting and useful dimension of the volume is precisely the analysis of concrete examples of working-class politics, resistance and organisation, which comes through strongly in several contributions. The backdrop here is the impact of 35 years of neoliberalism, a sustained effort to shift the balance between capital and labour in favour of the former.

As the editors, Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, note in their preface: inequality has grown ‘in the political conditions and social struggles allowing the spread and deepening of capitalist social relations’ (Preface, p.x). The 2014 and 2015 volumes combined should, I think, be seen as a major project in charting the impact of neoliberalism on class relations and class politics globally, with special attention paid to those hopeful developments in working-class organisation that point to a different future.

A substantial essay by Susan Ferguson and David McNally is especially pertinent at the time of writing, as it explores the role of migration in contemporary working-class formation. It is a sophisticated analysis which weaves together different elements within a ‘social reproduction’ framework, doing an excellent job of highlighting the centrality of migrant labour to global capitalism and exploring what that means for migrant workers and their families.

There is a little too much academic jargon, but the arguments and ideas are valuable. The authors thoughtfully consider the intersections of class, gender and race in a broadly Marxist framework, always alert to the fundamental role of the economy in shaping society – and to the experience of work as integral to working-class experience – without being reductive.

The politics of the ruling class

The re-shaping of the ruling class is an important theme in a number of essays, most dramatically in Lin Chun’s piece on China. The topic is hugely important considering the remarkable economic growth of China in recent years, and very topical as I write this because of the financial turmoil in the country. The essay examines how China has been transformed as it has opened up to capitalist globalisation.

Alongside this there has been a shift in Chinese ruling-class discourse, balancing precariously between the supposed benefits of an increasingly neoliberal model and the old rhetoric of state Communism. An intriguing aspect of the shifting discourse is the complete invisibility of any reference to class, which would of course point towards the social inequalities in China and, even more dangerously, to the notion that a collective force may exist that can change society.

Achin Vanaik, writing on India, is also perceptive about the shifts in ruling-class and dominant politics, including the ideas and language deployed to sustain ruling-class power.  It is an excellent attempt at explaining how the reactionary BJP has come to replace the traditionally dominant Indian National Congress as the country’s most successful political party. It analyses the political crisis of the old order, and its roots, while looking at the social base of the BJP. The growth of the middle class is indispensable to understanding this, though Vanaik avoids any simplistic reductionism.

The other key reference point is something dating back to the late 1980s: ‘a neoliberal turn in the economy being accompanied by the rise of a Hindutava-influenced consolidation of ‘common sense’ socially and a stronger authoritarian inflection politically’ (p.57).

Developments in the working class

Two very different contributions focus on the middle class in particular: John McCullough writes about Hollywood representations of the middle class over time, while Randy Martin asks ‘what happened to the professional middle class?’

However, it is those which focus on the working class that really form the main body of this volume. These essays allow much greater scope for discussing class struggle and political action, as well as tracing developments in work and in the material composition of the working class. Two essays especially are fascinating on the complex developments in working-class movements in recent years: one on South Africa, the other on Egypt.

Sam Ashman and Nicolas Pons-Vignon assess the problems with successive ANC governments in South Africa and how the once mighty movement, which united many behind its banner in fighting to end apartheid, has been deeply compromised by administering cuts and privatisations in office. However, what is most interesting is the focus on developing alternatives: in the union movement, in the social movements, and in the field of electoral politics, with some valuable insight into how these interact with each other.

The great trade-union federation COSATU has suffered a crisis precisely because of its relationship to the ANC government, leading to some hopeful fresh developments. The metalworkers’ union NUMSA has moved to the left and been in repeated conflict with the ANC. The authors conclude:
‘The fact that the current contestation in South Africa, driven by a radical union and involving a growing number of workers, combines a powerful counter-movement to neoliberalism with a socialist political vision is of global significance’ (p.108).
Joel Beinin and Marie Duboc focus on workers’ struggles in Egypt since the revolution overthrew Mubarak in early 2011. It is refreshing to see such close attention to this vital dimension of Egypt’s upheavals in recent years. The essay charts the long-term development of labour movement struggles over some years – before and after the revolution – and identifies pre-2011 strikes as a major stream flowing into the revolutionary events.

It also draws attention to the role of the long-term neoliberal restructuring of the Egyptian economy in fuelling working-class revolt. It ends with a sober assessment of Egyptian politics, as of 2014, acknowledging that the left’s failure to develop a coherent and organised political alternative to mainstream political forces has been (and remains) a huge obstacle to positive social and economic change.

Class in the 21st century

Perhaps the most wide-ranging contribution is by Hugo Radice; his ‘Class theory and class politics today’ is as sweeping as its title suggests. Radice’s starting point is the BBC survey in 2013 which posited seven different classes in modern British society. He recognises that this model reflects genuine fragmentation in society, but is also critical of it, not least because it fails to identify how social classes interact with each other and it doesn’t involve any sense of class struggle.

He suggests that we need class analysis that wrestles with both increased polarisation and increased fragmentation, and which grasps social conflict between classes (and the significance of it for how we evolve as a society).

This leads him on to direct engagement with Marx’s writings, and their relevance today, and an interesting discussion of the middle class, its composition and relationship to other classes. He is sensitive to different to Marxist interpretations of the middle class and provides a thought-provoking summary of how the middle class has evolved.

Radice concludes with some welcome observations on the continuing importance of work as central to how class divisions are created and reproduced, also identifying a few important trends in the world of work under the impact of neoliberalism. His comments on resistance and organisation at work, though, are rather vaguer and very much under-developed.

The American working class

The volume concludes with a series of four pieces on the American working class, its politics and organisations, which taken together are referred to as a ‘symposium’ on Labour and the left in the USA. I found these fascinating, especially when read in conjunction with each other. Although there’s no direct dialogue between them, there is a sense of coherence and of different contributions adding up to an overall understanding of the topic.

Kim Moody and Charles Post, in a jointly authored piece, provide a useful overview of the long-term decline of the power of labour in American society, tracing the numerical decline, bureaucratisation and hollowing out of unions. They analyse the relationship between this and major economic changes and policies during the last few decades.

However, they also – more hopefully – summarise some strategies for renewal, referring to concrete examples of what has already been done and indicating what might be worth generalising. Campaigning by fast-food workers and their supporters is one good example; the movement of Chicago teachers is another. These are examples of struggles that have incorporated social movement tactics and been tied up with union recruitment and capacity building.

It is the concrete struggles and forms of organising that provide most of the material for the other three contributions to the symposium. One called ‘New working-class organization and the social-movement left’ develops the theme of the interaction between traditional workers’ organisations and methods of struggles with social movements and the issues they champion. The range of examples is tremendously insightful and provides a powerful sense of how the labour movement might potentially be built anew.

Another piece takes a long view, examining the evolution of working-class struggle and organisation from the post-war boom onwards, concluding that stronger and more combative trade unions remain indispensable to any project of left-wing renewal, while also grasping that this will take forms that reflect changed realities.

Jane McAlevey’s contribution, meanwhile, is a compelling case study about union building among hospital workers, which shares important successes from which we can learn and be inspired, while also being soberly realistic about the limitations.

Wealth of material on social changes

Overall, this volume is a very worthwhile complement to last year’s first instalment in the journal’s project of analysing class society and class politics in today’s world. It simultaneously restates the centrality of class and traces the most important changes in work, class composition and the balance of forces between capital and labour. It is truly global, which is both a strength and a minor weakness: to my mind, it doesn’t have sufficient focus.

Some contributions are regrettably too academic in style, though others are fairly lucid. Above all, however, there is a wealth of material on concrete struggles, political debates and ways of organising, exemplifying the general commitment not only to class analysis but the role of the working class in social transformation.


Sunday, 30 August 2015

5 points where I disagree with Owen Jones about Labour's future

Owen Jones, the Labour left's most prominent writer and commentator, has written a very useful piece called 'My honest thoughts on the Corbyn campaign - and overcoming formidable obstacles' .
It includes a lot of very interesting material and helpfully draws attention to the challenges the left will face should Jeremy Corbyn be elected leader of the Labour Party on 12 September. There is a great deal for me to agree with. I won't recount the lines of agreement in a short blog post like this one - my lengthy article 'Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and the left' overlaps heavily with much of what Owen writes, so you can refer to that if you wish.

So, let's cut to the quick. Here - in a spirit of comradely and constructive criticism, aiming for maximum clarity - is where I disagree:
1) Owen is wrong to say that 'bread and butter' issues must be the overwhelming emphasis for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, implicitly pushing for foreign policy issues to be downgraded as priorities. The big foreign policy issues are important in their own right. I'm thinking here of Trident replacement (and the wider issues of nuclear weapons and arms spending), the legacy of Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the threat of Western bombing of Syria, Israeli apartheid and the Palestinian struggle, this country's relationship with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia (which Owen does, commendably, write about), and more besides. 
It is on these issues that Corbyn has a strong record as a campaigner (and considerable expertise) through being Chair of Stop the War, a vice chair of CND and a patron of Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Iraq was the single greatest driver of disaffection with 'New Labour' in the first place. The anti-war protests of 2002/03 constituted this country's largest ever mass movement, and helped shape a long-term shift in public opinion on wider issues of war and militarism. This trend has not been reversed, while the massive demonstrations for Gaza last summer indicate the continuing potential for popular mobilisations on major international issues. 
Furthermore these issues will be the main source of attack by the right wing, both inside Labour and beyond, so they can't be ducked. They need to be a central part of Corbyn's whole agenda. This will become immediately apparent this autumn if David Cameron pushes for a Commons vote on attacking Syria. 

2) It is incorrect to say that Labour, led by Corbyn, should reject adopting NATO withdrawal as policy. Why? Because NATO membership (and Britain's role in it) is tied up with all the other foreign policy problems - with nuclear weapons (including Trident replacement), with military interventions, with excessive arms spending, with tensions in Ukraine, and so on. Withdrawing from NATO would in fact be an excellent overarching perspective that gives cohesion to much of the foreign policy detail. 
Corbyn needs to assert a totally different kind of 'internationalism' to that championed by the Blairites - one that involves opposing, not propping up, international institutions (NATO, EU) that are geared towards elite interests at the expense of the working class. Only a coherent socialist vision of internationalism can tie together various left-wing policies on international issues, and also link them with an anti-racist perspective on migration and the refugees crisis. When you consider the role of Western military interventions in creating refugees, and also the EU's 'Fortress Europe' policy, that means advocating that we get out of both NATO and the EU. 

3) Forget any forlorn attempts to 'reframe national identity'. Let the Right have their nationalism. It can only be countered by principled class-based politics.
This is the Left's duty: to translate an understanding that society is divided into classes, in constant struggle with each other, into concrete policies geared towards reducing inequality and improving the lives of the great majority. No version or form of 'national identity' will aid that project. 
The Labour Party is historically geared towards being one branch of the British state, ultimately putting (when in office) the interests of the nation state ahead of the working class. Labour is traditionally one of this country's two parties of government. The pressure on Corbyn to adopt the language of 'the national interest', and adapt his policies accordingly, will thus be massive. The left needs to resist this uncompromisingly, and develop a totally different class-based narrative that gives no ground to British nationalism. This is inextricably linked to any project to make a Corbyn-led Labour Party genuinely anti-war and anti-racist.  

4) There's not enough about democracy in Owen's contribution. The Corbyn insurgency has happened against the backdrop a long-term hollowing out of democracy and mass disaffection with Westminster. The desire for greater democracy, among millions of people, is profoundly political and linked to a range of social and economic issues. Look, for example, at how the mass political engagement (and to an extent radicalisation) of the Scottish independence campaign, and indeed its aftermath, revealed the yearning for greater democracy, precisely to improve economic conditions and create a better society. 
Corbyn should, if elected leader, open up a comprehensive, far-reaching and long-term process of discussing what kind of democracy we want, and what reforms are required. This should cover all sorts of things: local government funding and powers, Scottish independence, regional devolution, House of Lords, monarchy, EU membership, electoral reform, economic democracy, and more. 
Transforming internal Labour Party democracy is essential, but won't in itself be a vote-winner or make a difference to people's lives. It's the broader democratic vision for society that really matters. 

5) We need an approach more firmly oriented on broad movements beyond the Labour Party. While I agree about Labour needing to be a social movement, and going beyond the conservative limits of the PLP, there still seems to be an assumption that this is solely about the Labour Party (that's my impression, anyway).

But the Labour lefts, like Owen, need to consider the role of broad-based, non-party political movements and their relationship to a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Corralling everyone and everything into the Labour Party won't work, not least because it means fighting largely on the terrain of electoral (and internal Labour Party) politics, which is not where we are strongest. We need serious thinking about how mass movements can be further developed and how they can both support a Corbyn leadership and operate independently in ways that are effective.

The starting point for this will be the TUC national demonstration, at Tory Conference in Manchester, on 4 October. The massed ranks of new Labour Party members and supporters, enthused by Corbyn's campaign, should be encouraged to be there, to build it, and to be part of an ongoing broad movement against austerity afterwards. I'm sure Owen agrees about that. The point is that the left, inside and outside Labour, needs to explicitly focus on this and make it central to the strategy for left renewal beyond 12 September. 


Owen's reply (via Facebook) is as follows:

1) Here's where we'll strongly disagree. Issues like jobs, housing, education, living standards, healthcare, childcare, general opposition to austerity, and so on, obviously have to be at the absolute centre of Jeremy's leadership if he is to win mass support. That does not mean other issues are not important (like, as I mention, our support for the Saudi dictatorship).

2) I'd leave NATO in a heartbeat, but he has a million fights to fight if he wins - austerity, nukes, opposition to unjust and disastrous wars like Iraq - that opening up a fight on this issue makes no sense to me whatsoever. If you're a campaigner where you can just choose whatever issues you want to focus on without running the second biggest party in the country with much of the mass media and PLP going for your throat, then you can afford to do this, in my view.

3) Why the left should somehow not emphasise traditions and values based on the long history of people in this country struggling for justice - like the Chartists, suffragettes, trade unionists and so on - and make people feel proud of it and the rights and freedoms won is beyond me.

4) I mentioned PR, which I support, and a federalism with devolution that keeps redistribution. I was however emphasising key hurdles in this piece that need to be overcome, rather than a policy programme.

5) At the centre of this piece was the need to build a mass movement in every community without which a Corbyn-led Labour party would be dead in the water.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party and the left

Jeremy Corbyn and hundreds of supporters in Newcastle. Picture: the Mirror.


New Labour orthodoxies, dominant in the Labour Party for at least two decades, are crumbling.
Political figures from the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - those former prime ministers themselves and Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Alastair Campbell - have shrieked their disapproval of Jeremy Corbyn. Alongside numerous centre-left commentators and columnists, these political grandees have warned that his victory in the Labour leadership contest would be a disaster, a lurch to the unelectable left and a throwback to the 1980s.
But all the evidence is that their pleas are going unanswered, as Labour Party members and registered supporters look set to elect an uncompromisingly left wing candidate as leader. The panic and fear of the New Labour establishment have been matched by remarkable popular enthusiasm for Corbyn.
There have been huge rallies nationwide.  The surge in numbers of members and supporters for Labour has been primarily driven by enthusiasm for Corbyn. It looks likely that even the exclusion of some members and supporters will not prevent him being declared the victor on 12 September.

The success of Corbyn’s campaign has taken everyone by surprise, including the man himself and those around him. The idea was to put across left wing policies and shift the debate to the left, but as momentum has developed Corbyn has become the clear frontrunner.
The Tories are divided over how to respond, but the shrewder Tories recognise that Corbyn can pull the whole of British politics to the left. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, by her own reckoning, was Tony Blair and New Labour. Getting the main opposition party to adopt the same neoliberal doctrines was the mark of ideological victory. That centre left is now in apparent meltdown, being increasingly challenged by a growing and assertive left wing.

The decay of the old orthodoxy is most obvious in the popularity of Corbyn’s rejection of cuts and privatisation. Policies like restoring free university education, renationalising rail and energy industries, a public investment bank, increasing taxes on the rich, a major programme of house building and rent controls are outside the accepted terms of official political debate.  

Many of the most virulent responses, though, have focused on foreign policy issues like withdrawing from the US-led NATO alliance, scrapping Trident replacement , solidarity with Palestine, and refusing participation in further military assaults on the Middle East. The adoption of a foreign policy firmly tied to the US has for a long time been a core part of the Westminster consensus. That is now under threat.

Predictions and reality
Most people agreed on a number of predictions prior to May’s general election, should there be a Tory government. One prediction was that there would be widespread demoralisation and passivity among opponents of austerity. This has turned out to be broadly wrong.

The shock and upset at the election outcome swiftly gave way to anger and a determination to stop the Tories. The greatest expression of this was the People’s Assembly national demonstration on 20 June, and there have been scores of local protests expressing the same mood.
Another prediction was that Labour would shift to the right, with a Blairite takeover on the back of the dominant interpretation being that Labour had – under Ed Miliband – steered too far to the left. This was indeed the initial response, with Blairite politicians and commentators responsible for a deluge of calls for Labour to become ‘more credible’, to promote ‘economic competence’, and to obsess over the supposed ‘centre ground’. Yet that initial dominant response has swiftly been overtaken by more left-wing interpretations and proposals.

Finally, it was assumed that – with another five years until another general election – the focus would naturally shift, for the left, from electoral politics to the movements and trade unions. This has proved partially true. The People’s Assembly demonstration and numerous local protests testify to a shift towards extra-parliamentary action. Nobody is simply hanging on for 2020, aware that it is a distant horizon and conscious of how much damage the Tories can do well before then.
Unexpectedly, though, the anti-austerity and anti-Westminster mood has found an expression in UK-wide electoral politics. This goes much further than the ‘Green Surge’ which saw a mushrooming Green Party membership in the months prior to the general election.

It accompanies the social movements, rather than supplanting them. Indeed the fact that a general election is so distant means there is thankfully little pressure to simply channel everything into parliamentary politics. Here is what Corbyn himself has written:

'We need a Labour government in 2020, but we cannot wait until then. Labour has to be a strong and constructive opposition in the next five years. If we can win the argument in the country, then perhaps we can force this government to change course.
Our opposition cannot be limited to the parliamentary chambers and TV studios of Westminster. Labour is best when it is a movement, and that movement has swelled to an enthusiastic 600,000 who will decide this leadership election. Once that is over, we face a bigger task: to force this government to abandon its free-market dogma'.

The left is back
The left has long been written out of official politics. The march to the right began after the infamous election defeat of 1983, widely and largely inaccurately interpreted as a result of Labour being too left wing. Blair’s ascendancy to the leadership in 1994 marked an acceleration of the process. The Labour Right loves to accuse the left of being stuck in the 1980s, yet it appears trapped in an everlasting mid-1990s moment.

The rightwards shift was given impetus by the 1983 defeat and by the rise of the SDP, the breakaway from Labour that subsequently merged with the Liberals to form the centrist Liberal Democrats in 1988. But it was also shaped by two other historic developments of great consequence.
One was the series of defeats for the organised working class, with the Tory government and employers defeating the unions in a series of battles. This was symbolised by the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985 and the outcome has been a prolonged period, since the early 1990s, of strike levels being at historically low levels.

The second historic change was the end of the Cold War, with the eastern European revolutions of 1989 followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was typically interpreted as at the very least an ideological blow for anyone advocating socialism; more grandly, it was dubbed ‘The End of History’, the end of any significant ideological conflicts and the triumph of neoliberalism internationally.
The current renewal of the left was completely unexpected from the perspective of those in Westminster bubble and the legion of Guardian, Observer and New Statesman commentators so dismayed by Corbynmania. For many of us on the left, the particular manifestation – i.e. the mushrooming support for a left wing Labour leadership candidate – is not something we predicted, but in a deeper sense it’s not such a great shock.

The crisis of New Labour
Labour’s right wing no longer has any answers. Disillusionment with New Labour grew during its time in government. Those who trumpet Blair’s supposed electoral magnificence forget that between 1997 and 2001 – even before the invasion of Iraq – millions of voters deserted the party. Labour Party membership fell from 400,000 in 1997 to 190,000 in 2004.

It was during the years of Blair’s premiership that support for the party was eroded. For example, it was this period that laid the basis for the later collapse of Scottish Labour. Much media commentary has focused on its role in the independence referendum, but the roots go deeper. Iraq was the biggest single source of alienation for the party’s traditional supporters throughout Britain, but a wide range of domestic issues played their part too. 
Labour’s right wing is now divided, with 3 candidates for leader. Pure Blairism – in the form of Liz Kendall – is proving unpopular in this leadership election. The Blairite wing remains strong in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but ideological Blairites are a tiny proportion of ordinary members. Blairism never embedded itself the party membership – during New Labour’s years in office the hardline Blairites always relied on a broader right wing in the party falling in line behind them.

But even traditional right wing Labour has failed to rally behind a single candidate, split instead between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Both of them are damaged by association with the old order – in office before 2010 and in opposition after it – and have been made to look like comfortable Westminster insiders, and thus part of the problem, by the rise of a left wing backbencher like Corbyn. Their decision to abstain in the Commons vote on the welfare bill scuppered any chances of appealing to those on the soft left of the party.
Labour’s right wing has nothing distinctive to offer. Why opt for ‘austerity lite’ when you can have the real thing with the Tories? Labour leaders’ acceptance of the Tories’ narrative on austerity, of their framing of the whole debate, has guaranteed it is in a weak position. It has appeared incoherent and vacillating.

This was true in the general election campaign. It could be seen in acting leader Harriet Harman instructing MPs to abstain on billions of pounds of cuts. It is there in the constant flip-flopping of Burnham and Cooper, who (let’s not forget) began their campaigns with an insistent message that Labour must tack to the right.

Discontent in search of an outlet
Political discontent is a long term phenomenon, but it has struggled to find an outlet. It is an international trend. In various European countries, parties to the left of the traditional social democratic parties have had varying degrees of success: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany and so on. In the US, Bernie Sanders is standing on a broadly left-wing ticket for the Democratic presidential nomination and picking up enthusiastic popular support comparable to what we are seeing with Corbyn here.

In the UK this desire for an alternative to social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberalism has not found any outlet in a new left party. In Scotland the SNP has come to largely occupy the political space the Labour Party might have been expected to fill. The independence referendum saw an explosion of political engagement, then the defeat of the Yes camp transformed into a surge in membership for the SNP – to over 100,000 members in a country of under 6 million people. Adopting an anti-austerity, anti-Trident stance helped propel the SNP to a sweeping landslide in May’s general election, taking 56 of Scotland's 59 seats. 
The Green Party witnessed a remarkable growth in membership, with many of its new recruits firmly on the left (though we will probably soon see how Green membership and support is damaged by Labour electing a left wing leader). However, the conservatism of our First Past the Post electoral system has prevented either substantial Green breakthroughs or the emergence of an unambiguously left-wing party. We may have a much more fragmented political landscape than that which had become familiar, but there still hasn’t been anything approaching a coherent left force in electoral politics.
Two other factors have limited the scope for new left challenges on the electoral field. It is when Labour is in office – and disappointing its natural supporters – that people are most likely to seek an alternative. But in conditions of Tory or Tory-led government there remains the powerful pull of sticking with Labour, whatever its weaknesses.

The other key factor is the continuing allegiance of major trade unions to Labour. This is a major part of why British politics has never had an electoral alternative to Labour on a serious scale, unlike in many other European countries.

It has been surprising to see Unite, CWU and especially Unison get behind an authentically left-wing candidate like Jeremy Corbyn, but it partly reflects how alienated the unions (and their members) have become from Labour’s dominant ideas and its direction over the last two decades. Trade unions were ripe for rebellion, having become fed up with not only many Labour policies but the obsession with disavowing any relationship with trade unions to appease the Tories and their newspapers. The unions looking to a Corbyn leadership also, it must be said, reflects weaknesses when it comes to the unions taking collective action: there is an element of looking to a political solution to the problems they face. 
It is almost as if both Pasok and Syriza co-exist in the same party. Labour’s degeneration has not been nearly so acute as that of Pasok – after all, it hasn’t implemented profoundly deep cuts on the working class like its Greek equivalent has. But there has been a long-term process of it becoming a party that fails to offer any real alternative to Tory policies.

The lack of favourable conditions for the creation of a credible alternative means that the thirst for a different kind of politics has – in a way that is unique in European politics – found almost all its electoral expression through the established party of the centre left.  

An unexpected phenomenon
It is worth briefly tracing the chain of events that got us here. The fact that Corbyn got on the ballot paper was unexpected because only a tiny minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party support him – a graphic illustration of how utterly the left has been marginalised in the PLP. A further batch of MP nominations was required to get on the ballot.

The nominations came (following grassroots pressure) from right-wing or centrist MPs who agreed to ‘widen the debate’ in the leadership contest. They were undoubtedly conscious of how bad it would look if the leadership contest was unremittingly right wing, with nobody offering a different viewpoint. What they didn’t expect was for Corbyn’s arguments to find any great resonance – a revealing sign of the disconnect between Labour MPs and the wider Party, never mind many people beyond its ranks. 
The Collins Review has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The changes to Labour's procedures for internal elections were meant - from the point of view of the right-wing Labour machine - to do 3 things: weaken the role of trade unions, marginalise the left, and present an image of being fresh, modern and forward-looking with the participation of wider layers of people. These new supporters would presumably be 'centre ground' types (because isn't everyone?) and therefore vote the right (and indeed right-wing) way.

All in all, it would make Labour more like the US Democrats. Yet it has - for them - been a disaster.
They didn't realise just how much the PLP has operated as a conservative bulwark, so getting rid of its one-third vote share was reckless. They underestimated the mood among many people - inside and outside Labour - for something better than the austerity-lite politics of recent years. And they failed to realise their own political exhaustion and shrivelling social base.

Now they are desperately trying everything to undermine what they themselves facilitated: even if it makes their party a laughing stock, prompts widespread references to a 'purge', and undermines their own party's growth. This is all in order to stop a victory for the left – or, considering Corbyn will almost certainly win, to stall the growth of the left which will strengthen Corbyn’s position beyond 12 September.
So, the fact that Corbyn succeeded in getting on the ballot was a turning point and, subsequently, the changes heralded by Collins have proved beneficial to the left. This has enabled the prospect of victory for a left-wing candidate – something which nobody predicted back in May, especially in light of the chronic weaknesses of a marginal, fragmented and disorganised Labour left.

How will Labour’s right wing respond to a Corbyn win?
An article by Luke Akehurst, a leading light in the broadly right-wing Labour First faction, is probably the best exposition I've yet seen of how Labour's right wing will seek to undermine Corbyn and the Labour left after 12 September. It is polite and respectful in tone, elegantly masking the determined ruthlessness of the content.

The key motif is 'party unity'. This will be presented as commendable duty, generosity and sacrifice on the part of Labour's right-wingers, emphasising how they are sticking with Labour and being loyal despite hating the leader's policies.
But its real purpose will be to discipline the left, urging insistently that if the left really wants to hold the party together it will recognise that most MPs (and many members)profoundly disagree with Corbyn, so he and his supporters must inevitably compromise.

This will take a number of forms, such as right wing MPs being willing to vote against the whip on issues like NATO and Trident, should it be necessary, because collective responsibility must be balanced with individual principle (and how could Corbyn disagree when he has rebelled hundreds of times?). It will mean thoroughly contesting every proposed policy change because, after all, Corbyn wants grassroots party democracy and debate doesn't he? And so on.
All of this, of course, goes to the heart of the contradictions and problems involved in seeking to 'reclaim Labour' and use the Labour Party as a vehicle for social change. Changing the leadership won't - however radically different that leader's policies to the status quo may be - bring about a sea change in the Labour Party. There are many obstacles, especially in the PLP.

But the obstacles are ultimately rooted in the nature of the Labour Party as a broad church stretching from socialists to social neoliberals (the latter having only modest differences from the Tories). It is a party that seeks governmental office to make modifications - whether tiny or major - to the running of the capitalist system.
The conservative nature of our electoral system has continually guaranteed that it has no serious challenges either to its left or to its right, meaning that it is a very broad church indeed (as neither socialists or its most right-wing elements can succeed with creating an alternative). A split to the right may well happen in the longer term - in the event of a Corbyn victory - but the omens aren't good when we consider the fate of the centrist Liberal Democrats, reduced to a miserable rump of just 8 MPs after participation in a Tory-led coalition government.  

So, what will the Labour left do? It is likely be torn between accepting 'party unity' (and all its concessions) and taking a more radical route which involves mobilising much of the grassroots against the conservatism of the PLP. The latter approach would also be strengthened by an orientation on wider social movements, recognising that what happens beyond parliament (and to a large degree beyond the Labour Party) can boost the left.
It was a little worrying when Corbyn said that he would welcome those from the Right of the Labour Party, even Blairites, into his shadow cabinet. 'Unity' is meaningless if it with those who have fundamentally different politics. How can socialists 'unite' with those who want cuts to welfare, to waste tens of billions on Trident, to make students pay extortionate fees for education, to bomb Syria, and so on?

It was also interesting to note Corbyn’s agreement to rally behind the ‘Yes’ camp in the prospective referendum on British membership of the European Union, despite his well-known reservations. This is hardly surprising in the circumstances - Corbyn has of course come under serious pressure to prove his pro-EU credentials and rule out campaigning for 'Brexit'. EU support is a vitally important priority for Labour's right wing and an issue where the Labour left is sadly rather weak and inconsistent. Nonetheless, it should serve as a reminder of the constraints on left-wing politics to be expected in the event of a Corbyn victory.

Corbyn and the wider left

There is a tendency in the media commentary to suggest that Corbynmania has come from nowhere, without any sort of precedent or groundwork. What tends to be forgotten is the wave of protests and campaigning since the election of a majority Tory government in May. The longer-term trends of mass protest, especially against austerity, also tend to be downplayed. But in many ways the Corbyn insurgency is the 20 June national demonstration carried over into official politics, amplified by going to the heart of mainstream politics and challenging the old order in Westminster.

The left and the labour movement have achieved a great deal over recent years through protests and campaigns, from the anti-war protests onwards. Since 2010 there have been the student revolts, mass TUC demonstrations, co-ordinated public sector strikes, the mass social movement around Scottish independence, and much more. Yet the field of electoral politics has remained – Scotland aside – largely immune from these trends. That is now changing, in dramatic fashion, and it is long overdue.
Normally there is nothing so divisive on the left as electoral politics. It is a strange experience, therefore, that Corbyn’s candidacy has largely united the left, not just the Labour left. One reason is the widespread recognition that any left-of-Labour alternatives are not currently going anywhere, so a Corbyn victory is widely seen as the best chance for a left-wing breakthrough. The backing of major unions like Unite and Unison has played a part too.

A big part of the explanation, though, lies in Corbyn’s status as a campaigner and movement figurehead: over three decades of serious campaigning has built him a base, of thousands of activists, that stretches well beyond the Labour left. The late Tony Benn was perhaps the only Labour politician who could be considered comparable in this regard. 
The campaign is bringing left-wing policies and arguments to the front pages of newspapers in a way unknown for generations. It has already shifted not only this leadership contest, but the whole of British political debate, somewhat to the left. If he wins – as looks likely – the consequences will be explosive. It will deepen the political crisis and open up space for developing a much bigger and more influential left pole in British politics.  
The Labour Party, however, will retain all the limitations that come with parliamentary politics. You only have to glance over its long history of timid opposition to Tory governments and disappointing failures in office to be reminded that electing the best person to be Labour leader is insufficient. When we look at developments in Greece this year we are made starkly aware that contemporary capitalism and its institutions are hugely resistant even to reducing the scale of austerity, never mind socialism.  

Socialists, mass movements and Labour
The social movements that have played a part in getting Corbyn this far will be vital for supporting him against the Right. It is going to be Corbyn vs the entire political establishment, with huge pressure on him from inside and outside the Labour Party.

Mass movements are a crucial lever of support for Corbyn’s left-wing policies, and just as importantly they provide the basis for how we can defeat austerity and achieve real social change. If we are to stop a new bombing campaign in Syria, for example, we will be stronger because we have an anti-war Labour leader, but we will still need a movement. In opposing austerity, the protests at Tory Conference in Manchester – especially the TUC national demonstration on 4 October – will be crucial.
Building powerful protest movements matters more than ever. In that context, and in a political climate being re-defined by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, we can build a bigger, more organised and coherent left. We need socialist organisation that isn’t tied to parliamentary politics, with activists focused on mass movement struggles not internal wranglings inside the Labour Party.

I will conclude with the words of Paul Foot, towards the end of his book ‘The Vote’ which documented the working class struggles that won the vote but also the disappointing record of a Labour Party that has failed to deliver. Foot wrote:

‘The main job of socialists is to relegate Parliament to the sidelines it has chosen for itself and to concentrate on politics where it matters, among and on behalf of the dispossessed. Above all, this requires, more than ever before, the coordination of socialists and revolutionaries in an organisation dedicated and resolved enough to confront the organised capitalist state with the only force capable of defeating it, the organised working class movement, and of forging the huge disparate mass of opposition into a combined revolutionary unity’
That is a tall order indeed - and certainly our existing organised forces are far too weak.  But it remains the only solution to the problems we are confronted with. It remains, too, a guide to how socialists should organise and to where we should direct our energies in the here and now.


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Debating the working class in the 21st century

Here's the video recording of a forum I spoke in alongside Guy Standing and Susan Newman at the Dangerous Times festival, held at the Richmix centre in east London in late June. The session was titled 'Hero to zero(hours)? The worker in the 21st century'.

My main contribution to debate is from 32 minutes until 43 minutes in. My summing up is from 1 hour and 9 minutes until 1 hour and 14 minutes in.

You can watch the video of the whole session here.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Love Newcastle, Hate Racism: 6 observations on the #NewcastleUnites demonstration

Yesterday's anti-racist demonstration in Newcastle was successful beyond the hopes of all of us involved in organising and promoting it. Now for some reflection.

1) It was a huge local demo. Vera Baird, police and crime commissioner, tweeted that we had 3000 while the Pegida rally was only 200. Even if some media reports (putting the racists at 400) are correct, the ratio in favour of anti-racists is massive. This is especially significant for Newcastle because just two years ago 2000 EDL supporters marched through our streets (greatly outnumbering us) a few days after the killing of Lee Rigby.
With the exception of 30 November 2011 - when we had a demo of nearly 10,000 by striking public sector workers - that makes it Tyneside's biggest local demonstration (on any issue) for decades. I am informed by Nigel Todd - a historian of Tyneside anti-fascism in the 1930s as well as a local councillor - that it was the biggest anti-racist or anti-fascist protest in Tyneside since 1934, possibly ever. It also received vastly more media coverage than any Newcastle protest I recall.

2) The turnout was also magnificently diverse. Hundreds of Geordie Muslims turned out, but the great majority on the demo were non-Muslims. It became a spectacular gesture of solidarity with Muslims facing racist hatred and Islamophobia, while also asserting our collective pride in being a multi-cultural city and a multi-cultural society.
The symbolism of starting the march outside the Tyneside Irish Centre end of Chinatown - nodding towards two historically immigrant communities in Newcastle simultaneously - was beautiful. The fact that St James' Park, home of the club that wears black and white and currently fields a number of Muslim players, was in the background made it perfect. And Muslim player Papiss Cisse scoring the winner for NUFC in the home game which took place later the same day was a fitting bonus.

3) The fact that it was Pegida's first attempt at demonstrating anywhere in the UK gave yesterday considerable significance. I was co-chairing the rally and I announced at the start that our primary aim for the day was to make sure this would be Pegida's last demonstration anywhere in the UK. It was Newcastle's responsibility to show that Pegida was isolated and stop it before it got started.
Pegida had deliberately chosen Newcastle because the group viewed it - from afar - as a soft target where they would meet little opposition. That was an insult and regarded as such by people in Newcastle. Pegida thought that the city having a small Muslim population compared to some British cities would give it a free pass, then the group - emboldened - would move on to Birmingham and London.
Our counter-demonstration was important because Pegida has (or had, prior to yesterday) the potential to become a 'respectable' vehicle for anti-Muslim street protest. To a certain extent the EDL succeeded with that project in its early days - when it could mobilise on a much greater scale than today - but it didn't achieve what Pegida managed with its huge Dresden rally. In the north east, the EDL and similar groups can mobilise their own hooligans but have been reduced to a very small and narrow base incapable of appealing to a wider constituency. So the stakes were high yesterday.

4) It is crucial that the demonstration was built on a much broader basis, however, than simply opposing the far right. The issue is racism. The issue is Islamophobia.
The demonstration was promoted with that in mind. The likes of Pegida and the EDL feed off mainstream Islamophobia in politics, media and the British state. The demonization of Muslims, with a whole set of apparently 'respectable' prejudices and stereotypes, has flourished since 2001, when the 'war on terror' (and British participation in it) began.
At the same time, anti-immigrant rhetoric poisons establishment politics, often diverting popular anger away from the real enemies: the bankers, their politicians, and the savage cuts those politicians continue to impose on millions of working class people. The Newcastle Unites demonstration was an expression of opposition to all of that, and reflected the widespread yearning for a principled anti-racist political culture.
5) Unity always has to be fought for. It doesn't happen naturally. In the run up to the day there were in fact more arguments and problems than you would normally expect - a sign that we were doing something right, pushing out into new ground and taking on arguments rather than shying away from them.
For example, Dipu Ahad (at the centre of organising the demo) had to persuade some of his fellow Labour councillors that George Galloway speaking shouldn't deter them, while also arguing with some in the Muslim community that local Labour politicians have a place on the platform despite the war in Iraq (and much else besides).
There were meetings with various Asian groups in Newcastle to persuade them to support and participate - almost none of which previously backed counter-demonstrations against the EDL, due to fear and insecurity or because they were cowed by the endless media and political rhetoric about Muslim communities. There was a concerted effort in the mosques, but also invitations to other faith groups to be part of it. An unprecedented number of trade unions got on board too, while groups not normally associated with protest (like Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service) pledged support. 
The coalition we built in the short period building up to the day was thus truly remarkable - and it was reflected in the diverse array of (22) speakers given space in the rally. Even the Lord Mayor of Newcastle turned up - and was added to the list of speakers. 
6) No such coalition can, however, be built in just a few weeks. It reflected a long-term process of co-operation among a number of political and campaigning groups, crossing several boundaries.
Above all, it built on the legacy of anti-war and pro-Palestine campaigning. The majority of those involved in organising the demo worked together in organising last summer's series of local protests, marches and vigils for Gaza. There has been joint campaigning over war and Palestine on an on-going basis for some years.
What was true of the organisational core was also true more widely. I recognised a great many faces from last summer's protests against Israel's war on Gaza, or from other protests and public meetings organised by our local Stop the War Coalition or Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Such long-term activity has been especially important for building relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially those of us on the organised left.
This is a precious coalition. We will need it again - whether against war, in opposition to racism, or in solidarity with Palestine.
Also see: my Counterfire article in the build-up to the demonstration


Friday, 16 January 2015

15 things worth reading in aftermath of Paris attacks

Last weekend I collated '12 illuminating contributions to debate in wake of Paris killings'. Since then there has been more and more commentary and analysis about the various contentious issues arising from the recent events. So, here is a further selection of writings on Islamophobia, secularism, free speech and the contexts shaping the terror attacks in Paris, all of which I strongly recommend reading.
A letter to liberals - Mehdi Hasan responds to the hypocrisy of the 'free speech fundamentalists'
What a perfect tribute to satire the Paris march turned out to be - Mark Steel exposes political leaders' double standards
The limits of secularism - Giles Fraser on the bullying of France's stigmatised and disenfranchised Muslims  
Who are they laughing at? A former employee of Charlie Hebdo lambasts the magazine's racist trajectory  
There's no insulation from the West's wars - Seumas Milne explains how the 'war on terror' bred more terror
Palestinian journalists targeted as Netanyahu and Abbas march for 'free speech' - Electronic Intifada highlights a few troubling inconsistencies
The limits of liberalism - John Rees explores the debates around freedom of speech 
From anti-Semitism to Islamophobia - Michael Rosen recalls some pertinent history
What should anti-capitalists say? - John Mullen offers some thoughts from Paris
Unmournable bodies - Teju Cole on the different values placed on different lives 
Don't mention the war - Lindsey German points out what is missing from media narratives about the Charlie Hebdo murders
Making sense of the horror - Tariq Ali on how Islamophobia and Islamist terror feed each other
I'm going to kill a cow - Anindya Bhattacharyya provides an illuminating analogy
Discussing Charlie Hebdo - Gavan Titley puts a few things straight
Why many French Muslims are not impressed by Je Suis Charlie - the Washington Post shares the voices of those suffering the backlash


Saturday, 10 January 2015

12 illuminating contributions to debate in wake of Paris killings

Joe Sacco.
If you want thoughtful reflection, context and a refreshing alternative to banal or racist responses to the killings in Paris this week, I recommend the following...

Satire is not meant to be a weapon against the powerless - Will Self on satire, free speech and racism

Was it really an attack on European values? - Myriam Francois-Cerrah punctures a few lazy myths

Why this was no attack on humour - Des Freedman examines the context surrounding the debate about free speech

The bitter fruit of imperialism - Lindsey German on lessons to be learned by the West's war-making governments

Western liberalism? Abdullah Al-Arian on the Enlightenment, empire and the contradictions of 'Western values'

What is the purpose of satire? - Cartoonist Joe Sacco on the politics of his art

There is a difference between being brave and being funny - Hugo Rifkind offers a thoughtful response

Moral clarity - Adam Shatz dismantles the 'clash of civilisations' thesis

The Iraq connection - Juan Cole draws attention to how the 'war on terror' influenced the latest terrorist atrocity

Algeria is the post-colonial wound that still bleeds in France - Robert Fisk on French imperialism and the legacy of the Algerian war for independence

The problem with drawings that fuel sectarian tensions - Alain Gresh sketches the recent evolution of Charlie Hebdo

How exactly would we like Muslims to condemn these attacks? Mark Steel lampoons the hypocrisy and absurdity of some responses to the killings


Thursday, 1 January 2015

My predictions for 2015

On New Year's Day 2014 I made a set of predictions for politics (both global and domestic) in the year ahead. Read: My predictions for 2014

Here I am doing the same exercise again, but for 2015. I should point out that the purpose of the exercise is prediction, not an expression of what I want to happen. I've done this for the last two years and have aimed to be soberly realistic.

Glancing back at my 2014 predictions, I found that a few of them were well wide of the mark but many were entirely or largely correct. British politics is currently rather volatile and it's widely agreed that the outcomes of May's general election are highly unpredictable, so I may end up getting things badly wrong this time. We will have to wait and see.

There are 20 predictions. The first 6 are to do with the general election, then there are several others focused on British politics, and finally some predictions concerning global politics. Feel free to wildly disagree with any of them!

1. Labour will win most seats in May's general election, with 305 seats in total. It will form a minority government, relying heavily on a large degree of SNP and Lib Dem support.

2. In Scotland the SNP will win 35 seats, with Labour on 17, the Lib Dems on 6 and the Tories on 1. Alex Salmond will become SNP group leader in the Commons and Jim Murphy will continue as Scottish Labour leader despite his party's humiliation (losing over half of its current Scottish seats). By the end of 2015 there will be have been substantial progress in developing a new Scottish left party, ready to stand in its first elections the following spring (for the Scottish parliament at Holyrood).  

3. The Lib Dems will win 25-30 seats, followed by Nick Clegg resigning as party leader.

4. Ukip will make no gains in the general election, simply retaining the 2 seats it recently won in by-elections (Clacton; Rochester and Strood). In general 2015 will see Ukip decline slightly and its vote share in opinion polls fall to below 15%, as the perception of the party as racist becomes more widely accepted.

5. The Greens will hold Brighton Pavilion (where Caroline Lucas is MP), winning by a whisker, but make no gains. The Green Surge - the remarkable growth in the party's membership in 2014 - will to a large extent continue until spring, but stall after May's election.

6. The various fragments of the electoral left will make zero impact on the general election, get derisory votes and (more generally) make no progress in 2015. Respect's George Galloway will lose his Bradford West seat to Labour.

7. Theresa May will succeed David Cameron as Conservative Party leader, following a hotly - contested leadership election which she will win narrowly against a more stridently Eurosceptic challenger. The party will nonetheless tilt somewhat further to the right, especially on Europe.

8. The new Labour minority government will fulfil a number of its promises - including scrapping the bedroom tax and freezing energy price rises - but it will be extremely slow and partial in reversing Tory reforms in the NHS, leaving recent changes largely untouched. Its continuance of austerity, with very little modification compared to the current government, will be the biggest source of discontent among current or former Labour supporters - and there will be significant anti-cuts protests against the new government before the end of 2015.

9. The Westminster child abuse scandal will become one of the year's biggest stories in British politics, with a whole set of devastating allegations turning out to be accurate.

10. The Chilcot inquiry will be more damaging for Tony Blair and various other former senior figures - in politics, the civil service and the military - than many people have tended to assume.  

11. There will be no major co-ordinated strikes by British trade unions, though several public sector unions will take sectional action over pay claims. Unison, Unite and GMB leaders will strongly discourage strikes in the light of there being a weak Labour government.

12. Housing will become a huge political and campaigning issue in London - and to a lesser extent elsewhere - with several further campaigns similar to the recent New Era and Focus E15 campaigns and a number of victories. As with the recent campaigns, working class women will be the main organisers of these campaigns.

13. Trident replacement will become a major issue in British politics, especially after May's election, and a source of large-scale campaigning, but the new government will nonetheless strongly (and, as of the end of 2015, successfully) resist pressures for its cancellation.

14. There will be further tensions involving North Korea and the US, again centred on questions of surveillance or cyber-security.

15. Syriza will win the forthcoming Greek election, but extremely narrowly, and a major political crisis will follow. Defence of the left-wing Greek government will become a major rallying point for the left and working class movements across Europe. Greece will still be in the Eurozone at the end of 2015.

16. Palestinian resistance will grow, giving real substance to claims of a Third Intifada, forcing Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (and his Fatah party) to give tacit support to fresh protests. Efforts at Palestinian unity will be stuttering but gain impetus from grassroots pressure, while the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement will score significant victories.

17. Hillary Clinton will emerge as clear frontrunner in the race to be Democrat nominee for US president, with an emphasis in her rhetoric on being more hawk-ish in foreign policy than President Obama.

18. ISIS will suffer serious setbacks, largely due to its own internal contradictions and limits, and make no further territorial gains. There will be no escalation of US-led military operations in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East.

19. The Eurozone will continue to stagnate and the UK economic recovery will continue being very weak, but another slump will be deferred for now. Russia's recession will deepen.

20. Widespread protests against police racism in the US will continue, periodically flaring up in response to specific police killings of black victims. Federal, state and civic authorities will remain resistant to any police reform and lose a great deal of legitimacy in the process.