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Owen Jones’ Five Point Plan and our Left New Media project

Owen Jones emailed me last week to ask if I’d look at his article, “Left out of the picture”, which is over at Socialist Unity. Owen describes a basic plan for left-wing reorientation, another Future of the Left-type article, and I figured that the least I could do was to examine what Owen’s suggesting and see how I think it measures up.

Let me begin with this, though. Since the mid-1980s, the Left has been having a debate about why we were beaten. That should emphasize just how traumatic our defeat was, how utterly routed we all were in the face of aggressive neo-liberal reforms, backed by state sanctioned stong arming.

Twenty five years later, the Left is still pretty disorganised but both over- and under-estimating the extent to which this is the case have real dangers. The only way to correct such over- and under-estimation is a hard, historical look at the state of class struggle in the 20th Century UK.

Whilst I understand the dangers of seeming like the pub bore, earnestly wittering on about the same few topics, I cannot overstate how important a sense of proportion is. For example, we might speak of the death of the Labour Party from the grassroots upwards – but we can’t know that this is the case without looking back to see how many people were meeting in constituencies ten, thirty or fifty years ago.

How many workers are on strike, year on year? How have patterns of unionisation and union density shifted and why? What are the dominant types of work and how might this affect our organisational plans? What do full time union staff spend their days doing, while on the union payroll and what might they otherwise be doing, or what are they doing wrong, to leave trades unionism numerically stagnant?

What goes on at Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party and Labour Party branches? What are the dominant forms of activity and how might these be better orientated so as to improve organisation? What do the ‘leaders’ of the Labour Left, like John McDonnell, or the union Left, like Bob Crow, do with the time and resources they have by virtue of their positions?

There is an empirical element of all of our pontifications, on the Left, that is often lacking. I am as guilty of this as anyone – but it can be rectified. It must be rectified if the endless debate on the ‘future of the left’ is ever to bear fruit. So here is my first proposal, which I think runs concurrently with some of the things Owen has suggested. We must have this empirical information and it must be accessible to everyone.

That was the space, as I conceived it, for our attempt at the Left New Media idea under the auspices of John McDonnell MP. Coupled to that, the impressive number of academics tied to socialist political parties, from Professor Callinicos right down the line, must help by directing their time, skill and energy to creating a picture intelligible to the evidence and the theory of socialism, of where we stand and where we might go. All too often it does not feel that this is what is going on.

For it is all very well to say “We need more trades unionists” or “We need more party members” or “Recruit to support X against the Labour bureaucracy!” but we’ve been doing the same thing for years and it evidently hasn’t got us anywhere. Why? Is it because our attempts to organise are isolated and uneven? Are they unsystematic? Basically, what is the problem?

Any Leftist could come up with these questions, which are important. And a facility should exist to help us draw together evidence from all around the UK and synthesize it. This facility does not exist. The knowledge and institutional memory of the organisations of the Left is partial only. This is not step one, a prerequisite. It must be done continually alongside everything else we do, conditioned by our experience of class struggle, or it is useless.

Now, on to Owen’s points, of which there are five.

[1]…All too often the left is preoccupied with issues that appeal to middle class and student activists. Generally speaking, these are things happening thousands of miles away or abstract theoretical questions. We shall never win mass support if these continue to be our obsessions at the expense of issues that actually concern our base. We need to establish a presence in working class communities.

This is something I say all the time. Most recently I said it with regard to the Kent Socialist Students’ meeting on Afghanistan. The working class are concerned about Afghanistan and Iraq. That is pretty clear. Here in the south east, no few people are parents or relatives of soldiers who have been sent to fight. So it’s wrong to proscribe all anti-war work, for example, as something which is happening thousands of miles away and about which only students and the middle class are concerned. There is a clear class element to the war.

However, equally, since we only have a limited number of activists in a given area and a limited amount of time to spend on given campaigns, we must choose carefully what to organise on. Plenty of shops – even those employing several dozen people – are completely un-unionized in Canterbury, for example. Jobs are being threatened by the council, not to mention our posties are out on strike but our student group is not making the argument that, if workers don’t oppose cuts, their jobs are likely next. This demonstrates a disconnect.

This is the trade-off which Owen describes, though again I would emphasize that it’s not so stark as that. A strong anti-war movement has provided support to workers and influenced consciousness – as during the FBU strike, where soldiers had to man the Green Goddesses. I would simply contend, as Owen does, that we need to push both issues of national import, like the war, and issues of local import, like unionization – because these apparent opposites are actually the same thing and will feed off each other if we work them both.

Coming back to my earlier point, however, are we not doing this? We only have sporadic reports from individuals who choose to publish their activities online and our own experience to use as evidence on which to judge. Insufficient data.

Second, we have to start talking about issues of concern to working people that we have not traditionally been comfortable with. Take immigration: it regularly tops opinion polls as one of people’s main worries. We can’t just dismiss this as primitive racism that simply needs to be fought. [...]

Third, the left has ceased trying to appeal to the working class as a whole. All too often we focus almost exclusively on small minorities instead. Part of this is the legacy of the New Left of the 1960s, a movement which essentially felt that the working class had lost its revolutionary potential. They replaced it with oppressed minority groups like ethnic minorities, gays, or even students

Owen is right in that we need to talk about immigration. Yet I don’t really think that we ignore it. The problem is that the proposals of the Left are not simple, and are based off a radical critique of the State and capitalism that is not self-evident. Indeed terms such as “capitalism” have fallen off the radar of Joe Public to the point where leaflets handed out by Socialist groups, which may have been easily intelligible in the 1970s, are not quite so intelligible now.

Here is another issue over which understanding the practice of groups across the UK would be useful. Do we have sites sharing a selection of socialist leaflets, details of what type of activities produce our desired ends? Not really. We simply print stuff off, guillotine it into A5 and hope for the best. Which is fine and dandy, but we need to know that if we put out a message blaming the bosses for trying to import cheap labour, and damage the lives of ALL workers, immigrant or indigenous, that it hits home.

Additionally, an issue like immigration is hard to organise over. We’re not calling for it to be banned, we’re calling for workers to be paid decent wages – all workers. So maybe the problem isn’t at all that our explanations go over the heads of a lot of people, but that standing on the street handing out leaflets is a shitty way to organise. Instead, perhaps, we should be going into workplaces and handing out leaflets to workers directly, with the goal of organising for local negotiations and potentially strikes to improve wages etc.

That way, when somebody says “I want to get those fucking nogs out of here”, we can say “Actually they’re treated shit too, and if they work while you’re on strike, you’re fucked, so why not bring them on board and we’ll all help each other?” We may not convince the most outspoken of anti-immigrationists or win every battle every time, but we’ll make sense to some people – and having some people in each workplace is vital. These are the questions we need to address when talking about how we approach immigration as an issue.

It is my belief that the soft Left shows its true colours over issues like this, where it prefers a touchy-feely approach to simply pointing a metaphorical gun at the head of bosses and demanding money and concessions with menaces, which in turn is likely to bind together all ‘races’ better than all the multicultural guff in the world. Which links to Owen’s third point; we explode the question of focussing on minorities by focussing on issues that confront the whole working class – dissolving identity politics into broader struggle, whilst still recognizing the importance of anti-homophobia battles and so forth.

Fourth, when the left does talk about working class issues, our target audience is generally unionised public sector workers.

Owen is bang on here too. The problem, of course, is that a vast number of private sector workers are not unionised. And they need to be. One of the greatest tricks by General Motors in the US was to declare bankruptcy and then sue to void all the collective bargaining agreements made with unions about things like pensions, wages and so forth. So essentially the company escaped its obligations to the workers who were the lifeblood of the company, both then and for generations past. This is what private companies do to workers.

So why aren’t we pushing for unionisation? Buggered if I know. I don’t understand the inertia. Is it because workers don’t want to listen? Is it because the existing union bureaucracies aren’t actually trying? A lack of information kills this debate dead – and whilst we have a lot of promising trades union sites growing up on the web, and while we have our own experience, and while we can try ourselves to see what works, we’re overstretched as it is trying to fight fifteen other campaigns. So we need to find out what works and target our efforts.

Finally (and perhaps at the root of the problem), the people who make up the left are simply not representative of today’s working class. Most British workers are employed in the service sector. To say these workers are under-represented among the left’s ranks is an understatement to say the least. Put simply: the left has too many people like me.

I feel this problem keenly. Whilst I am technically working class in that I sell my labour for wages, I’ve been to Oxford and it’s like a disfiguring disease – you can really tell. Not to say I’m not personable and good at recruiting, because actually I am. And I don’t talk about Habermasian public spheres and dialectical negations of the negation when I’m knocking on people’s doors. But I’m hardly representative of the concerns of the broader working class – essentially I have to guess what might work.

Owen is right that we need to correct that. Sometimes, actually, I think that the SWP had the correct approach when it ordered some of its cadres to enter certain occupations in order to organise them all the better. This requires a supreme dedication, to give up whatever job you really want to do, in favour of a revolutionary activity in a job you may not be all that bothered about. But maybe this is the sort of thing we need, because full time union organisers and lecturing people on the high street evidently aren’t getting the job done.

Yet to conclude on a key note, I do not know nor can I guess whether these five points make up the primary problems with socialist organisation in the UK. I can see ways to address each of them, and I can see how doing so would improve socialist activism across the country. I can see how doing so would improve our chances of actually emerging victorious from a few fights, or at least being defeated but through each defeat laying the organisational basis for future success. No doubt there are other things beyond Owen’s five point plan.

Personally I feel a bit let down by the Labour Representation Committee, of which Owen is a member, that an organisation with such radical potential to appeal to a large chunk of the socialist Left, not to mention to engage a lot of unionised workers, has been such a dismal failure hitherto. Besides having the only decent parliamentarians in the country, and doing some really good work when it comes to immigrant workers and youth wages and so forth, the LRC is no further on now than it was when I first joined back in 2006/7.

It is entirely possible that this feeling is as a result of not living in London, where the LRC, like most socialist groups, tends to have its strongest base – but the isolation of the regions in British politics is something else that the Left will simply have to overcome – and while people likeVice Chair Susan Press do good works, it’s not nearly enough. Truthfully Owen’s five points should have been in operation years ago, and someone like John McDonnell and his sterling team of assistants should have been holding people’s feet to the fire to get every available individual involved in organising.

I’ll be happy if that is what comes of Owen’s proposals, made as they are a few weeks in advance of the LRC national conference.

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  1. John A
    October 30, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    It’s numbers, Dave. One thing Owen missed out is that 2,500 people scattered around Britain and mostly not even thinking about their LRC membership (face it, most of our MPs seem not to think about it, either) cannot a groundswell of change make. The quickest thing to do would be a coup, but failing that, we’ll need to recruit and evangelise. Trot fallacy #1 is “if I can just figure out the right alignment of revolutionary policies, the working classes will unquestioningly and wholeheartedly come together to sweep me to power.”

  2. October 30, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Well, speaking as a Trotskyist – always preferred being a plain Marxist you know but ho-hum – I think you are part right and part wrong. Initially, when building a movement, the question is less about ‘revolutionary policies’ in the sense of what people will do once in power so much as a revolutionary orientation to the struggles that go on whether there’s a Trotskyist around to see it or not.

    Thus, numbers are important – but don’t numbers come from having the correct orientation? I mean literally every charismatic twit and his dog can get a following, but the numbers then have to be doing something. If they’re not the problem isn’t with the laziness inherent to the human character, it could be to do with how activity is organised and initiative delegated amongst the group. Or it could be due to the type of people the group attracts, which in turn is commentary on the policies of the group.

    These are questions of political orientation and, yes, revolutionary policy.

    I’d be very interested to know, however a) what the average LRC member does in terms of political activity and b) what effort is made to stimulate activity, to decentre heirarchy and so on.

  3. October 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Hi Dave,

    Good article (yours and Owen’s).

    It’s worth looking as part of this analysis not just at the traditional left – political parties and trade unions, but also at what community groups are doing. e.g., Gellideg Foundation was started by four working-class women in Merthyr Tydfil a decade ago and now employs 45 people + loads more volunteers providing a whole range of services and a powerful community voice.

    I also think that the successes of London Citizens are worth noting – they have won several successes in increasing wages for non-unionised workers in the private sector and got 20,000 to a ‘strangers into citizens’ demo earlier this year. They also spend far more time on training and developing their activists to be effective leaders and organisers than any leftie group that I’ve known.

    If there were a community-led group like Gellideg on every estate and a broadbased community organisation like London Citizens in every town, then I think it would definitely help.

  4. October 30, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Hey Don, thanks for your tuppennyworth. I agree that we should look at community groups, because they’re the sort of organisation which will pull together the working class irrespective of political opinion. Community centres and creating a nexus to any locality are important prerequisites to the political organisation of such community.

    What I definitely wouldn’t want to do (and I don’t think you suggest this, so I’m just being clear) is build a political movement on the back of a full-time employed bureaucracy.

  5. October 31, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I think Owen’s piece is good as far as it goes, and it may certainly be a step forward if some of it can be taken forward as the principles for a minium progamme, initially by the LRC.

    I’ll leave the immigration issue for another time as i’n still trying to work this through myself.

    The problem with parts of Owens’ recommendations though are that in places they slip into the Compass style of ‘we shoul have such and such a policy e.g. around housing. That presumes a level of power the left does not have.

    What we need is a ‘manual’ of what to do on day 1, then day 2. Not to be slavishly followed, of course, but something to get us started on the five points (or however many there end up being). This though needs to be rooted in a more detailed analysis than I’ve seen of how and why the Left got it wrong last time – an by that I mean the 1980s, not the New Left of the 1960s that Owen mentions. for the British left of today the key reference point is not the end of Stalinisms, or the end of the USSR, but the the rise of Thatcherism.

    On data collection etc., I agree there is a need for academic engagement to establish some kind of accurate baseline of where we stand, though I’m not convinced this needs to be quantified. I’ll come back to that.

    On Dan’s point about community activism, I agree, but it has to be tied into an active process of conscientisation/politicisation. Nor can it be a confortabe subsitute for union engagement/unionisation, which is what it has been for much of the Left (this ties into Owen’s point about the relative importance of minority groupings in a strategic struggle (and back to your earlier typology).

  6. October 31, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I would actually disagree about the end of Stalinism and the USSR. The Rise of Thatcher is only part of the story – it’s the story of the Right. But it is connected to, and not necessarily a direct cause of, perhaps more a mutual symptom with, the fragmentation and collapse of the Left. The key example of which was, of course, the fall of the Soviet Union, however far from the ideal that was. The real triumphalism of Fukuyama and the rest wasn’t following Reagan or the Miners’ Strike: it was the death of really-existing-socialism.

    As for a manual of what to do, couldn’t agree more. Any manual must outline how the centre, the full-timers, are going to render support to recruit and build to the rest of us who are amateurs. That is something I don’t think the LRC has come close to grasping yet, either with its regional LRCs or with the Left New Media or with its other ventures.

  7. November 1, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for asking me to chip in, Dave.
    Owen’s piece appeared in Labour Briefing and attracted much criticism from some people at the Editorial Board- moat of whom have been around forever – or at least since the 1980’s when it all went pear-shaped for the Left.
    I thought it was a pretty good analysis myself.
    I get increasingly exasperated by the in-fighting of the left and the fact so many just want to endlessly theorize and speculate and join committees and do in practise very little when push comes to shove.
    I’m not brilliant on theory. I’m a Cambridge Eng Lit graduate but to be honest much of the debates I find on Sovialist Unity- and I must be honest also on this blog – go way above my head.Which is fine because actually I think there is room for that kind of intellectual stuff. It’s vital.
    But what is far more important is building links with ordinary working-class communities and being prepared to engage in a real way which, as Owen says, does not always fit nicely with the lines taken by small left groups. Owen is spot on on the BNP.
    I found Nick Griffin’s abhorrent rantings on QT very offensive. The reality is we have to tackle their arguments with those you put forward on decent pay, conditions, for all workers.Not demonise groups, as the Labour leadership has done
    Re the LRC. I think it’s unfair to say it’s been a dismal failure. But I also think some of the criticisms are fair.
    In the past couple of years I’ve worked extremely hard to extend its remit beyond London – with some success.
    There are regional groups in Cambridge, Leeds, Newcastle, Greater Manchester , West Yorkshire. But broad swathes of the country where the LRC is an unknown acronym.
    I hope to be re-elected as Vice-Chair, not because I’m on a power trip, but because I’m seriously prepared to carry on that work . But we need thousands more and we cannot spout the same old line of “re-claiom the Labour Party” while most workers are disgusted with much the Labour Party has done at the top levels.
    On Saturday I’m speaking at the RMT Conference on political representation.
    I will be saying that we face the imminent prospect of a Tory Government, that we have to take a reality check, salvage who we can from electoral Armageddon, and get 100 per cent behind workers in struggle whoever is in Government.
    As far as Parliament goes, John McDonnell told us yesterday he was up at 5.30am the other morning to join a CWU picket line. Without indulging in a cult of personality, I wonder how many other Mps would do that? Bloody few.
    After the next election, we will be lucky to have a dozen left Labour MPs. So the old ways of working will have to change.
    I know Owen gets frustrated at the number of armchair socialists who are happy to meet up every month or so for a cosy chinwag – and then do little inbetween. Or just organise for the next demo, where increasingly we see the same old people albeit in steadily dwindling numbers.
    The good news is that what I have seen at a local level is younger people prepared to get stuck in and join the LRC to move it forward but, yes, the results are often slow and disappointing.
    In some ways, I think we’re just going to have to do what we can, take on board the unsexy issues like pay, housing and trade union rights, and see where we are after the General Election. It IS a shame about the failure of the Left New Media group. But there is no substitute for old-fashioned activism and solidarity on what we used to call “bread and butter” issues.

  8. November 1, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Susan, I’ll come back to the major points in your reply – but I’d really appreciate it if you could outline (and no names need be mentioned) what the theme of criticism was about Owen’s piece?

  9. November 1, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Basically that “where next for the Left” pieces don’t belong in Briefing. I disagree…….

  10. November 2, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Right, on with the show. I agree that building real links with working class communities is vital, Susan, but I haven’t seen that approach from the LRC. And this is what makes me think it has been a dismal failure. This failure to connect is surely what keeps the committee-joining chatterbox do-nothings in place? If real people were circulating through the organisation, the do-nothings would soon find themselves ousted by those who can see what we need to be doing?

  11. November 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Obviously I would disagree. I’ve seen plenty of “real people” from trade unions, picket lines, and various campaigns in my last 12 months of LRC activity.
    My own union the NUJ joined an LRC-led Parliamentary lobby with plenty of “real” journalsts from all over the country who like me are facing unemployment due to the receession and wanted to make their voices heard.
    The sick, disabled and low-paid were at another PCS-led lobby which the LRC backed on Welfare Reform Bill in the spring. “REal people” in the Leeds LRC are working on solidarity with the binmen and railway workets, in Cambridge the LRC had a speaker from a local union branch where aerospace workers are facing redundancy. And LRC members there plan to get stuck in with activity. Buikding the LRC in the regions was the reason I got involved in the first place – with a small measure of success.
    But yes, there are still plenty in the LRC who belong more to the armchair school of socialism. There are some who can’t even be bothered to turn up and do that. Which is why I hope our new National Committee will have more “real people” than the “do nothings” .

  12. November 5, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Although I had read Owen’s article some time ago I have just picked up on this discussion on your site Dave.

    I think Owen’s focus on real world activity is exactly right.

    In Hayes if something moves in the community that we haven’t either started or been a part of we get worried. There isn’t a local community organisation, residents and tenants association, or environmental group that hasn’t either been set up by us or which isn’t organised by sympathisers.

    The BNP and in the past the NF have always stood against me but we have managed to box them in because we are ahead of them in tackling community issus and concerns. The main problem we encounter on issues like housing shortages which can open up the opportunity for BNP scapegoating campaigns, is that the problem does directly result from New Labour’s appalling housing policy record. Nevertheless having a Labour MP and local community activists addressing the issue and leading the campaigns denies the BNP the space to organise.

    We call this community socialism and I always describe myself as a community MP and our local councillors describe themselves as community councillors.

    This is fine at the local level but the question is how do you translate this real world campaigning into co-ordinated national activity. This is what the LRC should now discuss at the forthcoming AGM and then get on with an agreed programme of realistic concrete activity and stick to it.

    This is the type of politics that should distinguish us as socialists from those organisations for whom a media presence and jumping on policy bandwagons is more important than supporting real struggles.

    Dave’s criticisms of the LRC’s lack of progress on developing this type of engagement nationally are dead right. I share alot of responsibility for this.

    In mitigation I admit that the threat of the third runway at Heathrow demolishing the homes of anything up to 10,000 of my constituents and as a result the threat to my seat has meant that I have had to naturally focus even more on my constituency. Also there are such a limited number of us fighting on so many fronts in Parliamemt as wave after wave of reactionary policies still gush out of New Labour under Brown from welfare cuts to a new wave of privatisations and attacks on civil liberties.

    However, excuses over, we now have 6 months to an election. If the LRC can determine at its AGM a clear focus for its campaigning activities over this period based upon a limited number of specific grassroots campaigns within target constituencies with an element of national co-ordination we might just convince enough people that there are some socialists within the Labout party worth fighting for and make the LRC a credible force for people to associate themselves with again.

    So – see you at the LRC AGM.

  13. November 5, 2009 at 12:29 am

    “This is the type of politics that should distinguish us as socialists from those organisations for whom a media presence and jumping on policy bandwagons is more important than supporting real struggles.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself John.

  1. November 1, 2009 at 12:28 am

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