Left Futures and Left renewal
Jon Lansman contacted me about a week before Election Day, to ask whether or not I’d be interested in getting involved with a new website, Left Futures. This website has now gone live, and Jon has asked if I’d express the thoughts I shared with him in our email correspondence, where I cast doubt on the idea of a new ‘internet hub’ for ‘those who have no sustainable political vehicle for their aspirations’, but nevertheless agreed to be involved.
Last year, TCF was part of an effort – led by John McDonnell and other LRC figures – to try and make the web work for us. The work both Paul and I have done, as regards issues like “Tory” co-ops, or Tory plans for local government in the aftermath of an election victory, have been the sort of thing that initial effort was meant to bring together on the web. This is the space into which Left Foot Forward (and to some extent, Next Left and LibCon) stepped, as we moved too slowly.
Thus, I’m not certain what another aggregating website can achieve in this regard. Labourhome and Labourlist have brought out a great deal of comment – but to the best of my knowledge have had absolutely zero impact when it comes to re-energising the grassroots of the Party in a left direction, and plenty of those on such sites are left wing. LibCon, further left and bigger than either, despite key interventions on things like abortion rights, has been unable to do much except speak at the odd conference.
These are environments completely removed from those of the average person, the average voter. Basically a lot of this is political activists talking to an audience of political anoraks, most of whom have long since made up their mind where they stand. It’s still useful, for Labour Party members, as it can educate them against the gushing well of platitudes the leadership uses to cover itself, but the actual renewal of the Party – which is far from begun, never mind accomplished – is something that must take place offline.
It can still be reported on, and can still use the web for discussions of direction etc – but someone needs to pick out the course of that renewal first, before seeking out the accoutrements like a website, and then get on with it. If it begins to get traction, its members will quickly set up their own websites and these can then be brought together, if there is a demand for that. That’s down to you and the other members of the LRC National Committee, and to the institutional support that can be provided by MPs like Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, who are prepared to use their full-time staff as lieutenants in such a movement.
Perhaps my problem is in failing, as Paul and I have been accused of, to correctly identify the methods of Web 2.0. The point, on such a reading, is merely to provide the form, while users provide endless amounts of content. This has been the achievement of websites like Comment is Free, LabourList and, much more selectively, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward. And these sites are phenomenally successful, from the point of view of gaining readers.
If that is the only goal of the blogosphere, then it seems relatively easy to generate the sort of community which will sustain high viewing figures. It’s merely a question of diversifying in content and contributors. From the point of view of ‘the Left’, however, actually having an effect seems qualitatively different. Blogs can command the same sort of (relatively) passive outrage as the mainstream media, but is that all that can be done?
In short, I think so. Blogs and communities of blogs are sustained ultimately by self-referentiality, of developing one’s own opinions elsewhere and enjoying batting them around with others of similar and different mindsets. Bloggers end up having long running conversations with one another, as can be seen from any of the comments threads on TCF where LibCon editor Sunny Hundal intervenes (see also: Paul Kingsnorth, Susan Press, Paul Cotterill, Tom Miller etc). Names become well known because of these arguments. All you really need to be able to do is string a coherent sentence together.
When it comes to actually wielding power however, a necessary prerequisite of Left regroupment, then I suspect blogs come up somewhat short. Of necessity, power exists in the offline world, and must be wielded there. The key tactical question is, where does this power reside? Thirty years ago, most people in our position would have said it exists at CLP meetings (especially selection meetings) or in their union branches. What about now?
There’s a plethora of think-tanks, pressure groups and professional politicos (almost all based in London) telling us about the myriad ways we can ‘get involved’. Who hasn’t had emails pestering them from 38 Degrees, Compass, Pam Giddy of Power 2010 and so on? But the recipients of such emails are the political activists and anoraks like yours truly, or the politically literate who enjoy the spectacle, like a number of our thread-inhabitants.
When all the chaff is blown away, of course, precious little of this involvement remains. As recently witnessed with the Lib-Dem move into a Tory-led coalition, despite all the protests that a hung parliament would deliver electoral reform and that voting Lib-Dem would help, under the current system, if you don’t directly wield power, then expect to be left out in the cold. This disfranchisement may result on Lib-Dem members moving back to Labour – but likely they will find a similar disjoint between their formal rights as voting members and the reality once someone is in power.
These leaves us back with CLPs and union branches – the direct, organisational elements where we can exert pressure on our not-entirely-self-contained-however-much-it-gives-that-impression political class. As I’m not a Labour Party member – and for good reason as I see it – my view of CLPs is not unclouded by the belief that Labour’s machinery is indefatigably and (shy of some unforeseen event) forever set against the Left, and that the Right-ward direction of this machinery makes Labour’s connection to the working class tenuous and residual.
For this reason, when the Convention of the Left was set up a few years ago, I had high hopes that it could bring together the best of Labour and the far Left for the purposes of establishing a critical mass that would attract new people into the activist circle(jerk?) and would actually have the clout to mobilise far beyond that small group. Instead, much like the blogosphere, it seemed to be little more than talking shop. Fun, but not the point.
Despite the knocks delivered to unions over the last few years, the unabashedly activist role played by union branches – inside and outside Labour – demonstrates how key engagement with unions still is. When it comes to resisting public sector cuts, political pressure groups won’t be the force mobilising hundreds of thousands of people on strike – it’ll be the PCS, RMT or the other unions, if we can ever convince them to get off their ass, as they have skin in the game.
As the poll tax federations, and various smaller scale campaigns since then, have showed us, there is also always room for community-orientated campaigns, which can be explicitly socialist in tenor, especially bearing in mind the ramifications an unchained capitalism has for the built environment, and thus for the context in which our social and community cohesion must exist.
But what role in any of this for so-called new media? New media may have a role in persuading people, but if it does, then that doesn’t say much for the strength of the Left in the real world. People are not rootless just because they’re online. They exist in definite contexts: they have workplaces and communities. If we haven’t already snaffled their support through such arenas, then we’re focused too much on presentation and not enough on organising.
Consider the recent straw poll done by Alex Smith over at LabourList of Labour leadership candidates. John McDonnell, who wasn’t one of the original options in the poll, came fifth on the basis of write-in votes. That’s encouraging – but it’s not a win, and it’s never going to be a win on the basis of the internet. What it does show, however, is the lamentably backward political consciousness of the Labour Party, where David Miliband is wildly popular.
Miliband, as we know, is a dyed-in-the-wool New Labourite. His leadership, much like the transition between Blair and Brown, represents hardly any change at all – and yet Twitterers already see him as the ‘change’ candidate. This is reminiscent of David Cameron lining himself up as the British Obama. It flies because the Left has not succeeded in challenging the context of people’s lives. Information – getting our knowledge and arguments out there – undeniably has a role to play, but mere information does not positively identify a political alternative.
Hence the limits to Cameron’s attempt at identifying himself as an Obama figure. He came up against the lived experience of Tory policies, still extant amongst the working class of this country. Labour may not be a party for the working class any longer, but policies like the minimum wage and investment in the NHS (ignoring the privatisation for a moment) are a far cry from the state of schools and hospitals by 1997. The problem for the socialist Left is that there is very little ‘lived experience’ of the type of political alternative we advocate, and too many groups – like Compass – aren’t especially bothered by it, sustained as they are by a revolving door of those who believe in the pressure group approach.
Where it does exist, there’s the ever present danger of fatigue setting in, of it being isolated to a particular sector of the workforce, and of it thus falling to contradictory demands by different political factions. Nevertheless, this experience, and its concomitant political education, is what we’ve got to establish. When public servants inevitably come under attack from the Cameron-Clegg love-in, the opening will be there. Setting up a website which will report material from the strike lines is good and useful, but it will not complete the political education of workers.
You need to be on the pickets. You need to be pulling together threads from disparate struggles and tying them.
Even that isn’t going far enough. Sooner or later, purely economic – for the sake of our bread and butter – strikes have to cross the line into politics. If we’re to stop Cameron, Clegg and whoever Labour next elects as leader in those elements of the agenda they share, then the debates at the front line need to expand beyond what we’re paid to encompass who controls the economy, in whose interest it is run, and how we can best intervene to shape it in a manner favourable to the millions who are about to have tax rises, wage freezes and service cuts slapped on them.
These debates happen in the real world, and even there, they don’t stand alone, and aren’t merely academic, as many online debates can often become. They happen in the context of a struggle won here or lost there. A strike successful, or an exhausted workplace not turning out and working on as usual. Sustaining this type of activism is physically exhausting; leafleting, meetings, trips to hotspots, knocking on doors, more meetings, stalls and petition gathering and did I mention the meetings? The potential for none of which exists online.
Online is merely where we can compare notes and strategies, and perhaps butt heads over what our long term goals are. But the ‘we’ in the real world is the whole of the working class, the ‘we’ online is merely a self-selecting group no more representative of those we aim to devolve power to than that bunch of twits sitting in the House of Commons.
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