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.
…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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