Friday, 19 September 2014

The Scottish referendum and the English Left

This was first published on Counterfire.

Mark Perryman’s 2 recent articles, published as opinion pieces by Counterfire, offer an interesting perspective on some of the issues arising from the Scottish independence debate.

I have some disagreements, but I certainly welcome the focus he puts on rediscovering some key left-wing thinkers and writers on issues of nationalism, democracy and the British state, and more importantly the recognition that such issues are integral to contemporary left-wing politics and require some fresh analysis.

The break-up of Britain is something that both Mark and I advocate and see as a progressive blow against British nationalism and a highly centralised, conservative and unaccountable British state. There are some on the left who see this question as simply irrelevant – underestimating the importance of the British state both ideologically and as a facilitator of capital – or who broadly defend the British state on spurious grounds of ‘class solidarity’. In truth, solidarity is not defined by national boundaries and the ‘socialist internationalism’ which many left-ish advocates of a ‘No’ vote advocated is a weak cover for making concessions to British nationalism.

Mark also grasps, as some on the left sadly do not, that democracy is a major battleground in contemporary politics. This is bound up with a set of social and economic grievances. The struggles over democracy do not necessarily take a straightforward ‘class’ form, which has confused elements of the left. In Scotland what’s happened is that struggles over austerity, inequality, etc, have increasingly become refracted through ‘the national question’.

This is not, as some suggest, a betrayal of class politics, but a version of it. The movement for independence became an expression of working class hostility to the neoliberal consensus and a means of fighting for an alternative to it. And that won’t go away: the aspiration to independence will continue to figure in Scottish struggles over a range of issues.

The ‘break up of Britain’ is therefore about democracy as something inextricably tied up with a cluster of issues affecting people’s lives. It is shaped by the experience of neoliberalism and by disaffection with its effects. The struggle for Scottish independence is a particular, distinctive, version of something broader – the campaign became a chance to break free from a neoliberal model that affects all of us. It is not primarily, or indeed to any real extent, about ‘national identity’ or ‘nationalism’.

The growth of working class support for independence, especially among traditional Labour supporters and most striking in places like Glasgow and Dundee, reveals something about the severe weakening of Labour hegemony over working class politics in Scotland. The same process is at work in England and Wales, but at a slower pace and in not quite such an acute form. This process is shaped by Labour’s ‘social neoliberalism’, its embrace of a set of orthodoxies pioneered by Thatcher but with some modifications which make it more palatable to working class voters.

The increasingly distinctive nature of Scottish politics post-devolution, with Holyrood as a significant dimension of Scottish politics and the SNP positioning itself as a social democratic party, has affected Labour’s place in the political landscape. Its alliance with Tories and Lib Dems in Better Together has further eroded it. It is now likely that the SNP will play a dominant role in Holyrood for some years to come, with potential for any new left-wing formation (emerging from radical independence campaigning) to eat into Labour’s vote.

Mark acknowledges that the ‘national question’ cannot be the same in English politics as in Scottish politics, but he underestimates just how different it is – and how significant this difference is. We have, frankly, no experience of a distinctively English politics that is progressive and beneficial to the left. Billy Bragg has, like Mark, often championed a ‘progressive Englishness’, yet Bragg recently acknowledged that while Scottish nationalism is ‘civic’, the English variety is ‘ethnic’; where the former (in its contemporary form) is welcoming to migrants and is multi-cultural, the latter defines itself according to xenophobia, parochialism and anti-European paranoia.

And, of course, many supporters of independence in Scotland don’t identify with any kind of nationalism – the two things are far from synonymous, and the big story of the referendum results is how ‘Yes’ won majorities in important traditionally Labour, working class territory, while failing to do so in ‘SNP strongholds’. It was in many ways a class vote, motivated by a set of class-based issues.

I use the term ‘English left’ because I have for some time recognised that a distinctive dynamic to Scottish politics – with a major focus on fighting for an independent Scotland – means there is no longer a ‘British left’ in the traditional sense. I think Mark is right to say that such a view has been rather unfashionable on the left: Labour (including its left wing) remains staunchly Unionist, while much of the radical left has been slow to register these developments, shaped as it is by an earlier era.

But – and this is important – such a designation does not mean advocating a focus on English identity or emphasising any sort of distinctively English politics. This simply isn’t feasible in anything like the way it’s been possible for the Scottish radical left, through things like Radical Independence Campaign, to locate itself in a distinctively Scottish context, as a result of there being a referendum campaign to fight.

English nationalism, like the British nationalism to which it is closely related, is generally a reactionary force. In the current climate there is a strong trend on the right – among Tories and Ukip – to exploit people’s grievances in a way that encourages anti-Scottish hostility and deploys a degree of English nationalism. Calls for an English parliament will of course do nothing for the left – we already have a largely English parliament at Westminster and it would be no kind of democratic advance. It is an issue beloved of a parochial, xenophobic section of the Right which feels nostalgic, socially conservative and embittered.

We need to be putting forward a series of demands for regional devolution (with real teeth), the strengthening and better funding of local government, an end to the cult-of-personality directly elected mayors, an elected second chamber, and so on. The new wave of discussion and debate about the future of democracy and the political geography of the UK can potentially be shaped by various different political forces. It will take considerable effort, and striving for co-operation across a fairly broad spectrum, to move the debate emphatically in a positive direction for the left.

We want to weaken the power of a highly centralised state and make advances for democracy. Celebrating any version (however seemingly progressive) of Englishness won’t help us here. What does need further investigation and debate is a whole cluster of issues around the economic and political geography of the UK: regional imbalances economically, the distinctive place of London in our economy, and so on.

In current circumstances, we are right to take constitutional politics seriously to an extent the left has rarely done so before. It isn’t some distraction from ‘the class struggle’, but rather a site of contestation. The big issues around democracy, devolution and the constitution are a mediating of deeper conflicts to do with wealth and power in our society. They are, bluntly, class issues.

Finally, it should be stressed that we do indeed have things to learn from the Radical Independence Campaign – a remarkable success story for the best elements of the left – but we need to clear they’re not lessons to do with distinctive national identity. In England we should strive to emulate their ambition, commitment to broad unity and dedication to reaching layers of society not normally involved in politics. We also need to grasp, as they have done, the centrality of democracy to contemporary struggles for social change, the importance of advocating alternatives as well as fiercely critiquing the status quo, and their tactical inventiveness.

Just as a new Scottish left has developed in the last two or three years, so there are indications of what is possible in England. We need to take the process much further in the months and years ahead.

Share

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Scotland's vote, Britain's crisis - lessons from the independence referendum

Buchanan Street, Glasgow, 13 September. Photo: Suki Sangha
Here are 10 important things to consider, regardless of the outcome of this Thursday's referendum.

1. There is a democratic upsurge in Scotland. 97% of potential voters are registered for the referendum, with a very high turnout predicted. 'Yes' campaigners relish the prospect of a high turnout; 'No' campaigners are nervous of it. There has been large-scale electoral registration in recent weeks, much of it thanks to  registration drives by Radical Independence and other 'Yes' campaigners, especially among the young and the poor.

Just as importantly, mass meetings have taken place in every corner of Scotland attracting people who don't normally regard themselves as 'political'. There have been mass canvasses, flash mobs and astonishing scenes in Glasgow on Saturday. Thousands have become political activists for the first time, with a thriving grassroots movement for 'Yes'. This will have a permanent effect - the new activists and the newly politicised won't be 'put back in their box'.

2. The greatest hope comes from the radical grassroots. The official Yes campaign has had its strengths and weaknesses, but there has also been a vibrant unofficial campaign of activist groups, Green campaigners, socialists, websites and cultural networks which has frequently moved beyond the limits and moderation of the official campaign. It has expressed the politics of 'Yes, and...', seeing a Yes vote as merely the beginning in moving towards a more socially just future, a way of opening up greater space for contesting neoliberalism, renewing radical working class politics and articulating alternatives to a status quo of inequality, austerity and war.

It has been dynamic, creative and frequently young; both diverse and inclusive. The 'No' camp, by contrast, is tightly controlled and looks, sounds and feels rather stale. The Radical Independence Campaign (key slogan: Britain is for the rich - Scotland can be ours) especially has linked independence to a bigger vision of social, political and economic transformation, treating independence as a starting point for more far-reaching change.

3. Apathy is a myth. The widespread illusion that people - particularly young people - are uninterested in politics has been exposed as hollow. When offered real alternatives, and when engaged on matters of real substance, there is an appetite for political engagement. Normally marginal topics - from Trident to the constitution- can become matters of serious scrutiny and intense debate. There is no reason to believe this can only happen in Scotland.

Lowering the voting age to 16 made a contribution to engaging the young, though it has been about much more than that. And the independence debate has reached into deprived communities normally alienated by politics, in large part due to the efforts of left-wing and radical currents.

4. Westminster is broken. One recent poll asked Yes voters what motivates them. 'Westminster's style of politics' was the most popular from a list of options, chosen by 51% of Yes voters surveyed. It isn't simply about hating the Tories, though that is visceral, but about a (justified) lack of faith in a post-May 2015 Labour government reversing Tory attacks and making real reforms.

The deep popular disaffection with Westminster's hollowed-out democracy and its political orthodoxies can go in different directions. It can boost UKIP. But the referendum also indicates it can be channelled in a positive direction. Again: this is not something that must be an exclusively Scottish phenomenon.

5. The British ruling class is more scared than at any time in 30 years. The Miners' Strike of 1984-85 is the last time that establishment panic and hysteria reached the fever pitch levels we are currently witnessing, as politicians, banks and big business fear the threat posed by a victory for independence.

The British state remains firmly linked to British capital, and the bulk of the ruling class is strongly opposed to an independent Scotland. The markets are very jittery and will be much more than that on Friday if the vote goes the way they fear. The lack of preparation for a Yes victory - by government, civil service and the foreign policy and military establishment - speaks eloquently of the state of denial these institutions have been in. It reveals how unthinkable and appalling the prospect of independence is to them.

6. The British ruling class will do all it can to crush opposition when it is threatened. It may just be facing its gravest defeat since 1974, when the trade union movement brought down a Tory government. The hysteria of much of the British and Scottish press has been something to behold. We've even had front pages telling us that Deutsche Bank predicts a Second Great Depression as a result of independence, despite us having already had a Second Great Depression, for which banks like Deutsche Bank were largely responsible.

The BBC - a publicly funded broadcaster tied into the ideology of the British state - has generated a fierce backlash because of its shameless bias. No wonder thousands of people protested about bias and slander outside BBC Scotland. We have also seen banks, major corporations and supermarket chains threatening to leave Scotland and issuing dire warnings of rising prices or economic meltdown. The nastiness of the British state and elite institutions has been revealed for all to see. We could still see much more of this if there is indeed a 'Yes' victory, as the political, financial and business leaders of the defeated 'No' camp struggle to minimise the damage and obstruct the process of moving towards an independent Scotland in 2016.

7. British nationalism is both toxic and fragile. This is exemplified by the Sunday Telegraph's grotesque front page suggesting that independence will be a betrayal of Scottish soldiers have been killed as part of the British armed forces. This is a repellent piece of nationalist emotional blackmail - originating with former armed forces chief Lord Dannatt - but it also has a rather pathetic quality of nostalgia and decay.

British nationalism doesn't have quite the hold it once did, the institutions which once gave it some material substance are now discredited (like the BBC) or being dismantled (like the NHS), and its modern character is very post-empire, fragile rather than swaggering. This is not to deny its still considerable ideological power - nor is it to overlook the serious problems of racism and scapegoating in our society - but to note that it lacks the depth of social base it one possessed (and if there is a 'Yes' victory on Thursday its force will be eroded significantly).

8. Democracy is now a major battleground in British politics. Much of the left really doesn't get this: advocating an abstract ideal of future socialist democracy while blind to areas of current contention, from the House of Lords to the lack of regional devolution, from the slashing of funding for local government to the growth of corporate influence at Westminster. The more perceptive elements of the left grasp that democracy is important in the here and now, that people care about it, and that it is bound up with all sorts of social and economic issues. We should also be aware that if Scots vote for independence, there will be an almighty battle - south of the border as much as north of it - over the negotiation process, with Westminster and the British state putting numerous obstacles in the way. This means we could very soon face a prolonged struggle over a big democratic question.

35 years of neoliberalism have hollowed out democracy. The gaps between the mainstream parties have narrowed, politics has become technocratic and managerial, and our elected representatives are less likely than ever to come from working class backgrounds. Local government has been gutted, due to a combination of cuts, reorganisation and the preposterous craze for 'executive mayors', and anti-union laws have eroded workers' rights and weakened their resistance. This referendum campaign has offered a glimpse of something better - for Scots, yes, but also for the rest of us if we fight for it.

9. Independence is a ticking time bomb. 'No' has a substantial lead among those aged 65 or over. If it is a very narrow defeat for independence on Thursday, the long-term prospect - 10 or 15 years from now - is likely to be a victory in any fresh referendum.

The 25-34 age group - the Iraq war generation, we might say, as that was such a politically formative event for many of them - is notably more pro-independence than most. This generation, too, has provided many of the 'Yes' activists and the backbone of the Radical Independence Campaign. They learnt from Iraq how destructive the British nation state can be. They also learnt what a democratic deficit looks like.

10. The left can be rebuilt. The Scottish left, which had been so fractious and stagnant a few years ago, has emerged strengthened, with a new generation of socialist activists developing and new alliances formed (of course some have been left behind, but the more active, astute and outward-looking have seized the opportunities). This new left still has some way to go, but the direction of travel is the right one. It has proven how it is possible for socialists to make their politics relevant and to connect with wider layers of working class people, including on housing schemes (neglected by politicians) where poverty is rife.

The English left, too, can be relevant and effective - if the lessons are learnt and the fatalistic miserabilism is ignored. A left that shapes struggles against austerity, war and racism, builds broad coalitions and communicates alternatives clearly can make an impact and grow. Alternative political directions are possible.

Share

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Guardian's 7 reasons why Scotland should vote NO in the independence referendum

 
Radical Independence Campaign activists
Key points from the Guardian's editorial opposing Scottish independence:
 
1. Scottish nationalism is a bad thing. What's that you say? Did someone mention British nationalism? Sorry - we only recognise one kind of nationalism.
 
2. Alex Salmond is anti-English, but don't ask us for any evidence because then things might get awkward.
 
3. Yes, there are elements other than the SNP campaigning for independence, but they don't matter.
 
4. The Bank of England's governor says independence is a bad idea. So there.
 
5. Westminster can deliver social and economic justice... no, really... stop laughing!
 
6. It's bad that the SNP want to cut corporation tax, but let's not talk about how Westminster governments since 1979 have cut taxes on the rich and allowed inequality to grow.
 
7. We think independence should be rejected in favour of an elected second chamber and greater devolution, even though these things are not actually on offer (and, in any case, British democracy and political institutions are weak and deeply conservative).
 

Share

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Newcastle opposition leader complains about show of solidarity with Gaza

Anita Lower, leader of the Lib Dem opposition group on Newcastle Council, has attacked David Stockdale, a fellow councillor, for raising the Palestinian flag above Newcastle Civic Centre. The flag flew very briefly as a gesture of solidarity with those under attack in Gaza.

Lower boasted to local paper, the Chronicle, that she had made an official complaint to the council's legal department about the Labour councillor who has been active in recent protests against Israel's war on Gaza, demanding disciplinary action.

The raising of the flag was the symbolically powerful climax of a vigil and 'die-in' called by Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other local groups, to commemorate those killed in Gaza and to demand an end to the killing.

It was one of several protests in Newcastle, including a march and rally of around 1000 people on 26 July, calling for an end to Israel's assault on Gaza, which has resulted in around 2000 deaths, much higher numbers of wounded and displaced people, and the destruction of vital infrastructure.

The vigil and 'die-in' attracted around 100 people and took place on Tuesday 5 August. Lower has falsely claimed that it was on 4 August, the centenary of Britain entering World War One, and said that "the day on which it happened too was disrespectful.”

David Stockdale has said he stands by his action. He has pointed out that nobody has complained to him in person.

David Stockdale recently visited the occupied West Bank himself, together with other local councillors, and is returning there next month. He and other councillors are developing supportive practical links with Palestinians suffering in conditions of occupation, discrimination and violence.

The 'die-in' and the raising of the flag were a small, but symbolic, part of a proud Newcastle tradition of expressing opposition to injustices elsewhere in the world. Newcastle University was famously the only British university to honour Martin Luther King while the great civil rights leader was still alive. Newcastle Council gave Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city in 1986, when he was still in jail and Margaret Thatcher regarded him as a 'terrorist'.

David Faulkner, a Lib Dem councillor and former council leader, spoke at the vigil on 5 August himself. Like all the recent protests, it was entirely non-party political. It is deeply regrettable that the Lib Dem opposition leader should have associated her party with attacks on those who have stood in solidarity with Gaza and opposed Israel's war.

The Chronicle article comes just a few days after the same paper used its front page to smear Dipu Ahad, another councillor who has been active in the wave of local protests against Israel's war. The source of that story was local members of the hardline racist English Defence League members, who had attempted to whip up an online campaign against Dipu Ahad. The EDL had previously gathered at a vigil (on 13 August) where they shouted abuse at people reading aloud the names of children killed in Gaza.

It is to be hoped that Lib Dem councillors in Newcastle will distance themselves from their leader's attacks on councillors who show solidarity with Palestine and on the wider anti-war and solidarity movement.

UPDATE ON THURSDAY: The Chronicle has responded to complaints and agreed to publish a correction and apology on page 2 of tomorrow's edition, clarifying that the vigil was not on 4 August and did not coincide with the World War One centenary. I am not yet aware of any apology for this slander from Anita Lower or her party.

Share

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Islamophobia and the Chronicle: no to smears and scare stories

Newcastle: standing together for Palestine
I have submitted the following letter to the Newcastle Chronicle's letters page in response to this article

 
I was deeply disappointed by Saturday's front page smear on Newcastle councillor Dipu Ahad. The Chronicle turned a jokey tweet Dipu Ahad sent into a front page story implying that he may have sympathies with Islamic State jihadists. It is obvious that isn't the case at all, just from looking at the tweet. It is even more obvious when you consider Councillor Ahad's formidable track record of anti-war, anti-racist and Palestine solidarity campaigning in Newcastle, his role as chair of Newcastle's Holocaust Memorial Day committee, and his work in representing people from all backgrounds in his area as a councillor.

This is not simply a personal attack, but an Islamophobic scare story that can only encourage racist attitudes towards Muslims locally. It is therefore deeply irresponsible. It offers encouragement to the English Defence League thugs who were responsible for making an issue out of the tweet in the first place.

If a non-Muslim councillor or campaigner had done it, of course there wouldn't be a story in the paper, never mind on the front page. Such a ludicrous media response can therefore only discourage Muslims from getting involved in politics, as they are held to standards that do not apply to anyone else.

It is also a smear on the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements in Newcastle. Dipu Ahad has been one of the main organisers of recent protests and vigils in opposition to Israel's assault on Gaza. I know I speak for everyone involved in organising the protests in saying that we defend Dipu Ahad utterly and condemn such sensationalism. He has consistently worked with people of all backgrounds which has, in the process, undermined precisely the kind of fundamentalist ideology he is disgracefully associated with by the Chronicle.

Alex Snowdon,
Chair, Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Share

Monday, 11 August 2014

10 points on Palestine, Islamophobia and anti-semitism

Glyn Secker, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, in Hyde Park.
 
1. Anti-semitism, like all forms of racism, is wrong, divisive and should be condemned. It has no place in the movement for Palestine, just as it has no place in wider society. Opposition to Israel is not in any way opposition to Judaism or Jewish people.

We build a diverse movement, including Jews, united by opposition to Israel's vicious inhumanity, and in support of justice for Palestine. For many of us, who support a one-state solution, our aim is a single, secular state in which everyone - Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of other faith groups or none at all - can live together peacefully. This is a vision entirely opposed to Israel's apartheid state: built around discrimination and exclusion, it breeds extreme racism.

2. The terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001 in New York and 7 July 2005 in London, and also Lee Rigby's murder in 2012, led to a sharp rise in attacks on Muslims here (these incidents were also used by the state as a pretext for harassment, increased surveillance and abuses of civil liberties, accompanied by lurid media demonisation). However, there is no evidence to suggest a rise in attacks on Jewish people - in the wake of Israel's assault on Gaza - which is comparable in scale, either here or elsewhere in Europe.

All racist attacks - whatever the target group - are abhorrent, but we should avoid exaggeration about the scale. Anti-Semitic attacks happen, here in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. However, they are not on the scale of anti-Muslim attacks. Suggesting that they are is a distortion of reality that denies the centrality of Islamophobia to modern racism.

3. The claims that there is now a 'surge' or 'wave' of anti-semitism in Europe are not backed up by evidence. It is of course central to pro-Israeli propaganda to demonise opponents of Israeli violence as anti-Semitic. The equation of 'pro Palestine' with 'anti-Semitic' is one of the two main ideological props for Israel and its cheerleaders - the other is Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

Israel's supporters aim to de-legitimise critics and protesters by tarring them with the brush of anti-Semitism. The tactic is as old as Israel itself. The left should completely reject joining the chorus of claims there is a 'surge' in anti-Semitism, retaining a sense of perspective on the scale of what is happening. Across Europe, Palestine solidarity movements emphasise that their opposition to Israel is political and humanitarian, and has nothing to do with attitudes to Jewish people.

4. Anti-Semitic voices can occasionally be found supporting Palestine, in protests or elsewhere. Yet one of the striking things about the movement of recent weeks has been the marginalisation of such voices. There have been extremely few reported instances of anti-Semitic conduct - placards, chants, intimidation etc - in the movement. When such incidents have happened they have justifiably been greeted by condemnation, with a re-iteration that all forms of racism are not welcome in a united movement for peace and justice.

The extremely marginal and small-scale nature of such behaviour refutes the neo-conservative and pro-Israel myths about our movement. It is also testament to long-term campaigning and political work.

5. It is also grossly inaccurate for commentators to assume that any problems of anti-Semitism in Europe are associated with opposition to Israel. In countries like Hungary and Ukraine the phenomenon of anti-Semitic abuse is not linked to Israel or the Middle East, but is instead part of a long tradition of European anti-Semitism and far-right politics, given new vitality in conditions of economic crisis and often encouraged by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of mainstream politicians.

Historically, anti-Semitism has been an overwhelmingly European phenomenon - with extreme and terrible consequences. It is now an integral part of pro-Israeli rhetoric to characterise it, without justification, as an Arab phenomenon.

6. Racism is not only about physical attacks and harassment. That is one aspect - a particularly nasty one for the victims. It is also systemic and institutional. In this broader sense, there is a marked difference between contemporary Islamophobia and contemporary anti-semitism.

Islamophobia is part of the ideology of the British state. It is expressed through media scare stories, police harassment and discrimination in the jobs market. Islamophobia today has more in common with the anti-Semitism of the 1930s (though not, thankfully, reaching the most extreme stage of Nazi Germany) than the anti-semitism of today: a domestic accompaniment to imperialist adventures and the drive to war. Traditional features of anti-Semitic prejudice - like characterising Jews as 'other' or 'alien', or seeing 'their' culture as incompatible with 'ours' - are now applied to Muslims with equal virulence.

7. Islamophobia today is linked to imperialism and war. Muslims at home and Muslims abroad are both demonised. The enemy without is also the enemy within.

Racism towards Muslims remains central to the British state and to British society, precisely because it has been (and will continue to be) necessary as justification for waging wars on Muslim countries, for clamping down on civil liberties at home, and as a convenient scapegoat for economic crisis and permanent austerity.

8. The anti-war movement - including but not limited to Palestine solidarity - has for over a decade provided a vital counterweight to Islamophobia in British society. The movement has provided the framework for many British Muslims becoming politically active and assertive.

Joint work between Muslim communities and the wider movement has been a powerful vehicle for unity and solidarity, breaking down barriers. Anti-war mobilisations have in effect served as anti-racist mobilisations. This is one of the movement's great contributions and it continues to be the case.

9. The current wave of protests is the best way of building alliances between different communities, including British Jews, and overcoming all kinds of racist division. Our movement has been, remains, and always will be anti-racist at its core.

This is not merely because of the principled opposition to anti-Semitism which unites the various organisations working for peace and justice in Palestine. It is because Israel is a violent settler-colonial state which gains ideological coherence from its commitment to anti-Arab racism. Ethnic cleansing - and all the vile attitudes and rhetoric which accompany it - is integral to Israeli history and politics. The struggle for Palestine - by the Palestinians themselves and by the global solidarity movement - is a simultaneously anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-apartheid struggle.

10. Campaigning against Israel's war on Gaza is also crucial for anti-racism here in Britain because, as I noted above, it involves Muslims - who are on the frontline of the effects of racism - working with non-Muslims in a united movement. The EDL and other far-right elements have, unsurprisingly, hated the latest wave of protests, which embody everything they despise.

But, more broadly too, the movement is an antidote to racist divisions in British society. Building such a movement isolates Islamophobic racists, anti-Semites and the tiny separatist or fundamentalist elements in the Muslim community all at the same time. It is primarily necessary because we need to stop Israel's killing in Gaza and provide on-going solidarity with Palestinians, but it also helps create a stronger anti-racist pole in British society.

Share

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The #NoMoreAusterity demonstration and the anti-austerity movement

NHS activists from north-east England marching on 21 June
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the generally very positive post-21 June No More Austerity demo aftermath is the appearance of this article offering 'reflections' on the demonstration. It struck me as odd when I first read it. Not because I disagreed with it - although I did - but because there was nothing in it to suggest the author had actually participated in the demonstration.
 
It occurred to me that there was a huge dislocation between his commentary on the demo and the demo I had actually been part of. Numerous errors indicated that if he had been there he certainly hadn't been paying attention.
 
So I looked at the author's twitter timeline and, sure enough, he wasn't there. In fact he spent Saturday attending the Sussex Phenomenology conference and watching World Cup football on TV. Is this a 'thing' now? Writing 'reflections' on events you didn't actually attend?
 
Now it might be considered an insult to the tens of thousands of people who did participate - especially to those of us who spent a great deal of time mobilising for it - for someone who wasn't there to pontificate about what they did wrong, and what they should do differently next time. It is certainly an intriguing stance for a phenomenologist.
 
Let's turn to the substance, such as it is. The author makes 4 points. I will briefly take them in turn.
 
1. 'It’s difficult to find anything special about the most recent march,' he claims. In fact the demo was very significant. It was a big, diverse and vibrant demo - with politically radical speeches in the rally - organised by a left-led coalition. It was organised and built independently of the TUC but with good participation from several unions. It was the biggest protest NOT organised primarily by the unions since the student protests in 2010.
 
It was therefore a serious breakthrough for anyone committed to building an effective broad anti-cuts coalition. It wasn't just a one-off demo, but is part of a process. It reflected the growth of the People's Assembly as a genuinely national movement. Banners included many local PA groups, and those groups put serious work into making it a success. Let's also remember that such mobilisations put pressure on the 'official' bodies, notably the TUC and some union leaderships, to deliver more action, whether demonstrations or strikes.

The involvement of unions like NUT, PCS, Unite and FBU is especially important ahead of the 10 July strikes. It holds out the possibility of the left shaping a more combative movement, with strong connections between trade unions and other social groups.
 
As for the demo itself, it is obvious from the article that the author wasn't there. The rally at the huge March 2011 TUC national demo was dominated by union general secretaries (and Ed Miliband spoke) but even Tony Benn - then the movement's most high-profile extra-parliamentary figure - wasn't invited on to the platform. Saturday's rally was a world away from that: a great range of campaigners, trade unionists and political figures speaking, with radical and militant speeches dominating.
 
2. 'Yes the BBC is biased, but ‘media blackout’ is self-indulgent.' The author argues that the BBC did in fact report on the demo and provides a link, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this meagre coverage followed a great many complaints from people who had marched. He also overlooks the fact that anger at BBC non-coverage - on this occasion and on others - is driven by the awareness that it is a public broadcaster funded by the people. It is therefore reasonable for protesters to expect a modicum of coverage. Going on a demonstration and finding that it isn't covered is, for first-time protesters, often something that feeds a more critical view of the media.
 
The author also argues: 'Unfortunately – and it is unfortunate – there was little about this demonstration or its message to offer anything new or provocative to either journalists or the public.' Anyone who actually participated in the demo is aware of at least one major 'news angle' here: the fact that it previews the likely mass co-ordinated strike action on 10 July.

That is something all the media are interested in and will report. The 10th July isn't mentioned once in the article, which perhaps says something about its author's own indifference to trade union struggle and indeed ignorance about what is actually happening in the anti-cuts movement.
 
3. 'The message needs to change and demands need to be made.' Here the author is suggesting that alternatives were not put forward in the demo. He wasn't there so he has no idea whether they were or not. I was there and I know that they were.
 
The People's Assembly links blanket opposition to austerity - see the No Cuts placards, for example - with the articulation of alternative demands. This is a radical stance, at least in relation to the Westminster mainstream, and there were countless examples of demands being made in the speeches on Saturday - from building social housing to implementing a living wage, from investing in green jobs to scrapping Trident in order to fund public services, from dealing properly with tax evasion to ending the erosion of pay, pensions and social security. 

A key theme of the day was opposition to the divide-and-rule scapegoating - of benefit claimants and immigrants - peddled by the main political parties and exploited by Ukip. Shouting back against this scapegoating - and instead targeting the rich - is a vital part of offering an alternative. There is something rather offensive about an online 'commentator' telling the people who are actually building a movement what alternatives they should be advocating, when they are already doing it.


 
4. 'There is no going back to the welfare state,' we are informed. As anyone on Saturday's demonstration could tell you, we need to mobilise to defend the welfare state we already have. It is under massive assault from this government. That assault is wrong and we are right to defend past gains in relation to the NHS, education, social security and public services.
 
It is not 'nostalgia' to defend the NHS, insist on a decent social security system, or call for investment to create jobs. It is about confronting the current austerity drive which is having a devastating impact on people's lives, and the fabric of our society, today. The author suggests that the impact of neoliberalism means that such struggles are futile and worthless. Those who marched for an alternative to austerity are right to disagree.
 
Building the movement
 
So, to conclude. There are really two issues in all this. One is the whole phenomenon of a layer of people on 'the left' retreating into lazy online commentary instead of contributing actively to the building of a movement. This is something I already find an irritant, but someone going so far as to write an entire piece critiquing something he didn't attend illustrates this phenomenon with brutal clarity.

The author offers no alternative suggestions - for what activists should actually be doing - whatsoever, and there's no evidence of the 'autonomist' milieu (from which he appears to come) providing anything that vaguely resembles an alternative approach. If you disagree with a strategy, stop moaning and instead outline an alternative and implement it in practice.
 
The second issue is to do with a) the significance of the demo (and the People's Assembly more generally) and b) the question of how we advance the movement. These two things are inextricably combined because the demo indicates a way forward for the movement, especially through building a bigger, (even) more locally-rooted and powerful People's Assembly.

In the coming months our movement will be participating in, and mobilising for, the following: joint strike action on 10 July, the Jarrow-to-Westminster March for the NHS, demonstrations at Nato's summit (30 Aug-5 Sept), Ukip conference (27 Sept) and Tory conference (28 Sept), a massive TUC demo in October, and possibly further national strikes in the autumn.
 
All of that, even taken together, isn't enough to defeat austerity. But it is what needs to be done in the months ahead, and it can take the movement forward. It can expand the movement and make it more radical and combative.
 
Everyone has a choice to make. They can either be part of it or they can moan from the sidelines, making ill-informed comments about what's being done already (and talking vaguely about an alternative approach but delivering nothing). It shouldn't be a difficult choice to make.
 

Share

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Inequality and the working class today

Cartoon: Martin Rowson
Today I spoke at the Dangerous Times festival in London alongside Selina Todd, author of ‘The People: the rise and fall of the working class’. This article is based on the talk I gave.

There is a strange paradox in contemporary politics. On the one hand inequality has grown over the last three decades or so, with spiralling wealth for the very richest in stark contrast to the reality of unemployment, food banks, zero hour contracts, insecurity and low pay for millions of people.
 
On the other hand the subject of class is deeply unfashionable in mainstream politics and media, the working class rarely referred to in anything other than the past tense. Class is often seen as no longer relevant – a throwback to a lost era – but even when the concept is applied to contemporary society it is to suggest a declining or disappearing working class, perhaps replaced by a division between a burgeoning middle class and a smaller underclass.

Social conditions cry out for class analysis, therefore, yet politicians deny the existence of a working class and instead talk of a ‘squeezed middle’, the media demonise the poor, and academics and researchers of every stripe search for alternative categories to those of traditional class-based analysis. The Occupy movement skilfully drew attention to the chasm between the rich and the rest, with popular slogans juxtaposing the 1% to 99%, yet an awareness of growing inequality has not been matched by an understanding of how class relationships continue to shape society.

Still less is there any discussion of class struggle, of the clash between classes, despite the massive inequality being a consequence of a largely successful ruling class offensive against the working class for the last 35 years. After decades of either defeats for the organised working class or low levels of workplace resistance, the notion of class struggle by the working class is derided as an irrelevant throwback to the 1970s – while class struggle by the rich and powerful is treated as entirely natural and in the ‘national interest’.

The rich and the rest

The Sunday Times’ annual Rich List – begun in the Thatcher era as a celebration of apparent prosperity, but now an index of truly obscene levels of wealth – indicates that there are now 104 billionaires in the UK. 72 of them live in London – more than any other city in the world.

In 1979 the top 1% took 6% of the national income, but now it takes 14%. In 2012 the 100 top chief executives were awarded £425 million between them. This is at the same time as the majority experience a squeeze on living standards, shaped by a period of economic crisis since 2008 and the current government’s project of austerity since 2010. A long-term process of neoliberalism, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, has been further accentuated by austerity policies that in the long term will impact disproportionately on the poorer sections of society.

Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed book ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ has focused attention on neoliberal capitalism’s trend of growing inequality, predicting a continuation of the trend. In ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated the disastrous social and human effects of inequality, showing that the most unequal societies are those with the most severe social problems, for example mental illness. Yet most people are actually quite unaware of how profoundly unequal our society is: surveys have shown a strong tendency to underestimate how massive the gulf is between the rich and the rest.

The growth in inequality is no accident, but a consequence of political choices imposed on us through an assertive ruling class offensive designed to increasingly concentrate wealth and power among those who already possess lots of those very things.
 
This has been accompanied by an ideological struggle to marginalise and ridicule the very concept of class - and certainly the concept of a working class and of class struggle between the classes. The working class is tied, in many mainstream accounts, to particular workplaces or groups of workers – miners, factory workers, shipyard workers, etc – which have suffered sharp decline. It is frequently , in such accounts, limited exclusively to manual work.

Class: myth and reality

A common myth is that of a growing, and affluent (if now somewhat squeezed), middle class, with a smaller underclass, or rump working class, left behind. This underclass may be feral and feared or it may be weak and pitied; it may consist of ‘scroungers’ or the deserving poor. But it is invariably characterised as a minority and as something quite distinct from any traditional notion of the working class. Channel 4’s controversial ‘Benefits Street’ captures the stigmatisation of the modern poor, who are increasingly blamed for their own predicament and viewed as separate from the vast majority of society.

The truth about class remains the same as it has long been: it is a social relationship based on power. The working class consists of those who have to work in exchange for pay, subordinate to the power of employers (private or public), dependent on their own labour to survive. 
 
Class is about exploitation – the exploitation of the vast majority by a tiny, wealthy and powerful elite. Workers under capitalism are inherently exploited. Class is not a matter of lifestyle or identity; it is not limited to particular occupations or types of work.



Globally the working class has in fact got bigger and bigger, a process of class formation closely connected to urbanisation. In this country there continues to be little social mobility, with class background largely determining a whole set of experiences and outcomes for people. For all the academic, media or political attempts to reconceptualise thinking about class – from the ‘multitude’ to the ‘squeezed middle’ to the ‘precariat’ – the reality of a working class, constituted of the great majority of people, is unmistakeable.

This is not to say that nothing has changed. The economy has changed and the composition of the working class has changed with it. As well as the decline of some sectors and the growth of others, we can note the centrality of women workers to the economy more than ever before, the role of migrant workers, and the spread of casualization and precarity. In the last few years there has been a marked deterioration in pay and conditions for many groups of workers, with unemployment or the threat of unemployment often used as a method for disciplining those in work.

It is sometimes suggested that the working class has declined because working class identity and consciousness have largely disappeared. The reality is more complex. In fact surveys suggest large numbers of people still identifying themselves as working class, however unfashionable and supposedly irrelevant and outmoded this might be. And working class consciousness has always been mixed and contradictory, a constant tussle between identifying as part of a social collective and conservative ideas like racism and nationalism.

Class struggle

In the current context, the left urgently needs to reinstate class to political discourse and to articulate a set of class-based arguments, slogans and demands. We need to express powerful, class-based arguments against austerity. We face a government in thrall to bankers and the City of London, headed by a cabinet of millionaires led by an Old Etonian, reeking of privilege and the arrogance of those ‘born to rule’. The Tories and their media relentlessly stigmatise and attack those who require social security to keep their head above water, while allowing tax dodgers to evade serious scrutiny, ripping us off to the tune of tens of billions of pounds.

Trade unions have suffered a historic decline: shackled by anti-union laws, demoralised by defeats in the 1980s, weakened by successive periods of unemployment and the decline of old industries, shaped by a long period of low levels of strike action. Yet they retain millions of members and a capacity for action; we have had glimpses of the potential in mass mobilisations on street protests and in national strikes, sometimes co-ordinated across unions, in response to cuts.
 
The more far-sighted union leaders and activists realise that ‘social movement unionism’ – forging links with communities and campaigning groups, fighting over a range of political issues, using protests and campaigning methods alongside strike action -  while striving to recruit to the unions and develop new layers of activists can reinvigorate the movement. A number of disputes have indicated that groups previously unorganised, or viewed as precarious, can be active in trade union struggle.

At the same time, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity illustrates the scope for co-ordination and coalition-building to oppose cuts, while creating a space for left-wing renewal. A new class-based politics, reflecting and involving the contemporary working class in its diversity, can be developed through renewing the trade unions, building a more powerful People’s Assembly movement, and shaping a new left that is rooted in the various struggles and movements of the class.

 

Share

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dangerous Times festival - a weekend of subversive ideas

I will be at the Dangerous Times festival in London next weekend. Speakers at the political festival, organised primarily by Counterfire and now in its third year, will include Carole Duggan (justice campaigner and aunt of Mark Duggan), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lindsey German, Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright and Tariq Ali.

Also speaking will be Tansy Hoskins (author of 'Stitched Up: the anti-capitalist book of fashion'), playwright David Edgar, radical historian Louise Raw, Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson and feminist blogger Jess McCabe.

Dangerous Times takes place at an excellent venue, the Rich Mix centre in east London, over two days. The timetable ranges from a political undressing of the fashion industry to the resistible rise of Ukip. Danielle Obono is coming from France and Boris Kagarlitsky is visiting from Russia; Kagarlitsky should be fascinating on what's happening in Ukraine. 

Panel discussions include 'Feminism yesterday and today', 'iRevolt: social movements and social media' and 'Brazil 2014: the end of the beautiful game?' A session on trade unions and the anti-cuts movement will discuss how the forthcoming No More Austerity demonstration can become a launchpad for sustained resistance to cuts.

There are talks by James Meadway, senior economist at new economics foundations, on prospects for the British economy, Sylvia Pankhurst biographer Kate Connelly on the women who campaigned against World War One, and Dave Randall providing a brief people's history of music. Meadway will also be joined by fellow nef researcher Faiza Shaheen to discuss the topic 'London v the rest: regions, inequality and resistance'.

There will be a number of special sessions linked to newly-published books, including Chris Bambery's 'The Second World War: a Marxist history', John Rees introducing his reissued 'The ABC of Socialism', Owen Jones previewing his forthcoming book on the British establishment, and a discussion of Selina Todd's acclaimed 'The People: the rise and fall of the working class' for which I will be joining the author on the platform.

There will be discussion forums on the future of the left, women and austerity, organising in precarious Britain, and the police, power and racism. There is also some comedy, spoken word and film alongside the talks, debates and discussions, including Jeremy Hardy performing on Saturday night.

Check out the Dangerous Times website, have a look at the full timetable, and register your place at the event.


Share

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Registering Class: neoliberalism and the working class

Chicago teachers strike back
This was written for the Counterfire website.

This year’s Socialist Register, marking fifty years of the intellectual journal, is about class. Part One of this review essay focused on two contributions to Registering Class that concern the nature and composition of today’s ruling class. This is Part Two of the review. Here I examine a number of essays which look at the working class: its changing composition and conditions, its forms of organisation, and debates about such issues as whether there is now a distinct ‘precariat’.

Precariousness as proletarianization

Bryan D. Palmer’s ‘Reconsiderations of class: precariousness as proletarianization’ is a highly effective rebuttal of claims, by Guy Standing and others, that there is now a distinct precariat which has increasingly come to supplant an older proletariat. However, this is not achieved by downplaying the tendencies to precarity and insecurity in neoliberal capitalism. These are acknowledged by Palmer as all-too-real. Rather, these tendencies are viewed as an integral part of an ongoing process in the composition of the working class, which is never static but always evolving and being re-made.

Palmer demonstrates that precarity has in fact historically been a core component of the making and re-making of the working class, not a novel or distinctive phenomenon, and is indeed one of the things that has defined and characterised what it means to be proletarian for two centuries. In the age of neoliberal capitalism this is a more global phenomenon than ever, and in the advanced capitalist countries there are neoliberal stresses and strains that mean a revival of those features, broadly termed precarity, associated with an earlier phase of capitalist development. The job security (‘a job for life’) and full employment of post-war Britain, as in most other major capitalist countries during the same period, was more the exception than the rule in capitalist society.

Since the mid-1970s the return of capitalist crisis, and the neoliberal offensive, has restructured the economy and recomposed the working class. Palmer writes that the consequences in the advanced West are ‘declining material standards of the working class as a whole; the domestication of a once combative trade unionism to a machinery of concession bargaining; a generation of young workers robbed of a sense of class place, its future marked by insecurity, with employment prospects understood to be precarious’ (p.41).

Precariousness is a global phenomenon. One point four billion workers are ‘totally dependent on waged labour for their subsistence’ but the International Labour Organization designates a larger number – 1.7 billion people – as ‘vulnerably employed’ (p.42). That is today’s global army of reserve labour. It is, as Palmer argues, part of the proletariat, not separate from it.

Palmer interrogates the fashionable arguments of Guy Standing, the latest commentator to posit an alternative force for social change to the working class. The precariat, asserts Standing, has ‘a distinctive bundle of insecurities and will have an equally distinctive set of demands’ (p.42). This separate youth-led precariat – the ‘new dangerous class’ – will be responsible for the social struggles of the coming age. Palmer responds that ‘the end result of being drawn into this ideology will be to fragment the potential power of an amalgamation of the dispossessed by hiving off a sector of this class from all other components with whom this contingent might ally, thereby weakening the forces of anti-capitalism’ (p.44).

Palmer traces the theorisation of a new ‘precariat’ as emerging from the postmodernism of the 1980s and beyond, which revelled in the fragmented and the marginal, repudiating any attempts to either understand the world as a totality or to change it through collective class struggle. He also restores a sense of broad historical perspective by reminding us that precarity has historically been a core feature of working-class experience. It is not the basis for some new class formation, but part of what characterises the current working class as a whole, after forty years of recurring capitalist crises and neoliberal policies, and as the working class expands globally along with capitalism.

The working class of western Europe was originally formed out of dispossession and characterised by insecurity of work. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was ‘a torrential river of class formation, fed by underground currents of enclosures, wars, technological displacements of handicraft labours and other forces of expropriation and displacement’ (p.47). This is the huge historical process charted by the great Marxist historian EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Thompson’s writings, including The Making of the English Working Class, provide a key reference point in the penultimate essay in the volume, ‘Rethinking class: the lineage of Socialist Register’, in which Madeleine Davis traces Socialist Register’s theorising about class over half a century. Thompson’s masterpiece is still a touchstone for understanding the emergence of capitalism and the working class in this country, but it is also an exemplar of a way of conceptualising class formation as a contested and active process; an approach that has previously been a subject of debate in the journal’s pages, stretching back to the 1960s.

Palmer observes: ‘Class has always embodied differentiation, insecurity and precariousness’ (p.49). Thompson argued that, however stratified and differentiated the resulting working class might have been, it was nonetheless a single class with an identity of interests and the capacity to be, in Marx’s phrase, the gravedigger of capitalism. In analysing today’s working class (and its prospects for resistance and self-emancipation), it is necessary to understand its diversity and breadth: much of it, especially when we take a global perspective, is vulnerably employed, not in secure, full-time employment.

What about the prospects for class struggle and organisation in a stratified working class characterised by fragmentation and insecurity? Palmer cites what Engels wrote about the New Unionism in east London, around 1889-90, to indicate the potential for working-class layers once dismissed as precarious and unorganisable to become a collective social force. In a new 1892 Preface to his classic The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels wrote of London’s East End:

‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool of misery that it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism” … that is to say the great mass of “unskilled” workers’ (p.54)

At times in history it has been unskilled, precarious or unorganised workers who have taken the lead in struggle; or even, as with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 1930s, the out-of-work. It may well be so again. Palmer concludes by stating that ‘it is indeed class struggle – rooted in expropriation and forged in the increasingly agitated crises of capitalism – that remains the ultimate basis for changing the world through a transformative politics’ (p.57).

Unions and the city

In many countries (nowhere more than in the US, but to a great extent in the UK too) trade unions have been severely weakened by over three decades of neoliberal offensive. Two essays in Registering Class engage with the question of how working-class organisation can be reconstituted in the wake of the largely successful neo-liberal counter-revolution. One of these, by Ian Macdonald, concerns efforts at union building in the US. The other, by Andrew Murray, examines Britain, not just for the prospects for trade union organisation but for the Left and, in the widest sense, the movement.

Macdonald’s essay is called ‘Beyond the labour of Sisyphus: unions and the city’. Intriguingly, Murray also deploys the Sisyphus analogy, which reminds us of the reversible nature of trade-union victories and the limits of union organisation. Macdonald’s concern is with labour organisation renewal in the United States, a country with private-sector union density at the shockingly low level of 6.9%.

Macdonald’s starting point is the nature of the resistance that already takes place:

‘A great many of the social struggles we see today – and are sure to see more of in the future – do not arise from the workplace or from the wage relation narrowly conceived. They are sparked by the destruction of a park, a rise in transit fares, racist policing strategies, and the dismantling of public education’ (p.247).

I take this to be a global observation as well as one that applies to the US – his four examples of triggers for revolt might be linked, in the last few years, to particular cases in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, London and Chicago respectively.

This is nothing new. It was Rosa Luxemburg, in The Mass Strike (1906), who first cited the labours of Sisyphus as trade union metaphor. A key theme of her classic text was the fusing of political and economic issues in workers’ struggles. She noted that positive reforms won by trade-union struggles had often been counter-balanced by setbacks in spheres of working-class experience beyond the sectional focus of the unions. She bemoaned how ‘the simultaneous and immense reduction of the proletarian standard of life by land usury, by the whole tax and customs policy, by landlord rapacity which has increased house rents to such an exorbitant extent, in short, by all the objective tendencies of bourgeois policy which have largely neutralised the advantages of the fifteen years of trade-union struggle’ (p.248).

Luxemburg was commenting on a time of frequent trade-union victories. We now live in an age characterised by a sustained ruling-class offensive in the world of work, and of weak trade unions, as well as the kind of ‘bourgeois policy’ Luxemburg refers to in other aspects of working-class life. Macdonald urges a broad social and political trade unionism as the means to rebuild union power:

‘In order to shift the struggle from the economic to the political level – and to be at the political level – unions must mobilize their members and the broader working class around issues that link demands from the workplace to the nature of what is being produced and to social reproduction’ (p.249).

A political trade unionism is especially suited to a context characterised by weakness at the level of individual workplaces, and a lack of confidence among workers to take strike action. It can go a long way to compensating for such weaknesses and, in the process, begin to rebuild workplace confidence. In Britain it is worth recalling that the powerful and combative unions of the 1970s had been built on the back of full employment, boom conditions and sectional union strength in the post-war period. These conditions no longer apply, so the shape of trade unions is very different. A fresh strategy for trade-union renewal is needed.

Macdonald comments on community struggles over issues like social housing and public education, for example in Chicago, where there has been a neoliberal agenda of entrenching class and racial divisions and privileges. In Chicago it has been overwhelmingly schools attended almost entirely by African Americans that have been subjected to closure or ‘consolidation’. Urban space is often a battleground: ‘State-led gentrification constantly redistributes wealth upwards and expels workers outwards, only to then selectively reintegrate them ‘depending on the needs of production and consumption’ (p.252). Macdonald points out a number of campaigns, from Occupy Wall Street to Stop School Closings that address such issues as these, remarking that this is ‘where the real movement is’: in militant community campaigns, sometimes involving the occupation of public space, over day care, housing, libraries and education programmes.

Trade unions can play a part in these struggles, though they often do not. Such participation requires grasping that the issues affecting working-class people, including union members, are often outside the workplace. Unions are more effective when building coalitions and taking action in communities, and such campaigns outside the workplaces are frequently more fertile territory than inside the workplaces, precisely because of problems of low union density, insecurity of working conditions and a lack of recent militant traditions among workers. Trade unions can play a substantial role because, notwithstanding low density, they are still sizeable organisations with membership and finance, and they are organised.

Two concrete examples, noted by Macdonald, are worth mentioning here. Chicago teachers in 2012 had a successful city-wide strike, which rested upon building coalitions against school closures with parents, and on articulating a set of political arguments around class, race and inequality. Teachers and their allies repeatedly took to the streets as well as taking strike action. I am active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in Britain and I am aware that the Chicago example is a source of inspiration for some left activists in my union. The other example, again a source of inspiration for some socialist activists here, is that of fast-food workers’ unionisation campaigns in many American cities. These campaigns have involved community organising and street actions, feeding into greater workplace organisation.

Macdonald remarks that the unions are at their most successful and relevant when they assume ‘the mantle of popular tribune’. He concludes with these words:

‘The memberships of urban-based unions do not respect a separation between workplace and social needs when they look to union staff for help with landlords, accessing public assistance or any number of personal or family crises. The most active and conscious layers of the union membership do not respect these separations when they choose to direct their political activism as workers towards community struggles, rather than union politics. A labour left can be rebuilt by drawing these elements behind a clear strategic vision’ (p.261).

The future of the British labour movement

Andrew Murray’s essay, ‘Left unity or class unity? Working class politics in Britain’, is particularly excellent and, certainly from a British perspective, an invaluable part of the volume. An earlier version of it caused some considerable online debate and controversy due to its polemical critique of the nascent Left Unity organisational project. Although I share most of Murray’s criticisms of Left Unity, this is not in fact the most important feature of his essay.

Murray is justifiably gloomy about electoral politics for the British left, noting that ‘the post-Blair/Brown Labour Party is taking only the most timorous steps away from its luridly neoliberal past’ while ‘the left-of-Labour scene is a wilderness of wrecked or aborted initiatives’ (p.266). The medium-term alternative, in Murray’s view, is a focus on developing broad unity on major political and social issues, especially opposition to austerity. This is the ‘class unity’ he refers to in his title: essentially a project of re-building the trade unions, but on a rather different model to previous eras, and linking that project to the power of social movements.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – broad, combative and backed by major unions - is a signal case here. Indeed both the People’s Assembly and Unite Community, a major initiative by the union in which Murray is a senior national official, can be regarded as efforts to broaden the social and political reach of unions and link them to community campaigns, as advocated by Macdonald in the American context, in the process reinvigorating workers’ struggles and developing a stronger left labour (with a small ‘l’) politics.

Murray observes that on-going disenchantment with Labour co-exists with the Labour Party’s continuing domination of left-wing space in electoral politics: ‘Electorally, the space to the left of Labour is filled by … the Labour Party. That is, many people whose views are to the left of the Labour leadership still vote for the Labour Party’ (p.269).

A number of further factors militate against the growth of effective left-of-Labour electoral vehicles: the first-past-the-post system for many elections, which is hostile to smaller parties; the continuing allegiance of many trade unions to Labour (including Unite); the divisions on the Left among a range of competing initiatives; and, perhaps most importantly, the difficulties of mounting a challenge to Labour this side of the 2015 general election. As the official Opposition, Labour is a repository for anti-austerity sentiment, however feeble its own policies may be. Of course some of these conditions will change after the next election – and I think Murray may somewhat under-estimate this – but the essay is undoubtedly correct in its extremely sober assessment of the current prospects for ‘left unity’ in electoral politics.

The weight of Labourism in the British movement means that socialists outside Labour must, if they are to build a successful anti-cuts movement, work with the more left-wing elements of Labour and appeal to many of the party’s members and supporters. The other vital constituency for any anti-cuts movement is the trade unions: Murray acknowledges the profound long-term decay in union strength, but also highlights their continuing potential as mass organisations of the working class with around seven million members between them.

The unions’ response to austerity has been uneven and ultimately inadequate, but they have still provided the bulk of numbers for mass mobilisations like the huge national demonstrations in March 2011 and October 2012, and the co-ordinated national strikes of 2011 indicated of what they are capable.

Murray was Chair of the Stop the War Coalition for a decade and he, with much justification, draws on the record of the anti-war movement to suggest how the left can make itself relevant, and be renewed, through a focus on building a mass movement. He contrasts a Left which has been passive and abstentionist in response to a far-reaching economic crisis, and subsequently the imposition of austerity, with those elements of the Left that have proved non-sectarian and outward-looking, dedicated to broad unity and the reconstitution of a broad left-wing culture through meaningful joint activity. The experience of Stop the War suggests that the left can indeed play a dynamic leading role – politically, strategically, and organisationally – in a mass movement.

Murray regrets the marginalisation of the Left: the separation between most of the existing Left and ‘the working class it seeks to speak for’. He argues: ‘What left politics today lacks is that union of socialism with the mass movement which can be the only real foundation of social transformation’ (p.279). The People’s Assembly is one part of the solution; re-building the trade unions on a ‘social movement’ model, reflecting the working class as it really is, with a broad campaigning reach beyond the workplaces, is the other vital ingredient. He writes:

‘Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of the working class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, needs to be seen as the main task for socialists to address’ (p.280).

This question of working-class agency is a minor theme of the volume and could perhaps have been given greater prominence, although it may be developed in next year’s volume, but Murray provides a stimulating starting point by insisting that discussion of agency must be shaped by analysis of developments in the economy and the recomposition of the working class under the impact of neoliberalism. In mainstream political and academic discourses class remains unfashionable, but class struggle is positively taboo.

The potential, and the challenge, for the working class to become a serious collective actor in shaping the next stage of history seems an appropriate note on which to end. If class, however much the classes may be re-structured, remains as relevant as ever, as demonstrated by many of this volume’s essays, then class struggle, too, must remain a live subject.


Share