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The problem with “the problem with the Left”-style articles

Sunny tweeted an article at me this morning (the blog-equivalent of being flipped the bird?) entitled “The problem with the Left and their political parties“. It makes a variety of assertions – that the Left blame of leaders is leading to despair, that the Right is more pragmatic and inclined to think strategically than the Left. There’s an assertion that really the Left can’t fix that much, so why bother trying?

The conclusion of the article is that Lefties are too focused / aren’t focused enough on parliament, and that we’re all infighting-happy. Truthfully, if the people’s front of Judea had been mentioned, I think we’d be on track for highest number of clichés in the one article. So allow me to make the case for the defence.

First contention; the Right are not more pragmatic nor inclined to think strategically. A whole host of elections in 2008 were won by the Democrats in the USA (and the US is the example Sunny employs to make his case) because of bitter Republican Primaries, which were divided between Tea Party people and other wings of the Republican Party. Following the primaries, the winner could not always motivate the activist base of the Party, even in some seats which the Republicans had held since Barry Goldwater.

If the scales are about to be rebalanced in favour of the Republicans this November, it’s because the Democrats are divided and have failed to deliver on key pledges, while the Republicans have attempted to shed the legacy (and through the Tea Party movement, the personnel) of a ballooning deficit, a failed war and higher taxation. It’s a false premise to assume that the Right are more pragmatic etc, therefore.

Two other factors deserve consideration. Large numbers of the Republican activist base are less ideologically diverse than their equivalent on the Left. Whether it’s the Tea Party libertarians or the values voters, the same candidates can fill both bills; small business owners who promise reduce the deficit, shrink the liberty-hating federal government and to inscribe the Ten Commandments where the Bill of Rights used to be.

The other factor is the role of business. If someone can’t appeal to the money, they can’t get elected. This helps to simplify things for the Republicans, as it does for the Democrats, but the difference is in the attitudes of the activist base to business. Whereas for Democrats, support from business usually means someone unwilling to support labor unions and other policies the activist base wants, for the Republicans, extreme religion, libertarianism and business can walk together.

There are contradictions between the various strands of Republican ideology, but they are much less pronounced than the wider contradiction that makes itself felt within Democratic politics – the attempt to bridge the divide between labour and capital. It’s this contradiction that is so poisonous to the link between movement and leadership on the Left – not a failure to be pragmatic, on the part of the wider Left movements.

It bears saying that Republican leaders suffer the same phenomenon; disconnection from their movement, once they are faced with the reality of governing a capitalist economy. Their movement doesn’t react any better to this than the Democrats do – and this was easily visible at the last election, where McCain failed to win more than half the States at primary level which Republicans went on to win in the General.

If there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats in this respect, it’s simply that Republicans can get their base motivated by social issues, and still pursue their economic agenda, while Democrats can’t. There are few social issues left to fight, with homophobia, institutional racism and sexism all in retreat – the majority of the key Democratic issues (including race) are ultimately on an economic footing.

Sunny concludes his article with a dig at the ‘liberal movement’ which assumed its job was done when Obama was elected. Having made my case about the problematic link between leaders and movements in Left politics, I’d like to flip that. It was the Democratic leadership which assumed the job of its entailed popular movement was done, not the movement itself – and the answer is to make politicians more accountable to their party.

Second contention; approaching  the electorate to tell them that actually we can’t really change all that much is not a recipe for success either at the ballot box or with Left-wing activists. A large part of this country feels profoundly disconnected from its government. The need for great change hasn’t been this obvious since the 1960s.

Unfortunately that disconnection often translates into bargain-basement libertarianism or even survivalism (witness the outpouring of sympathy for Moat online). We need to change that – and we do so through organisations that have inscribed at their core the need for comprehensive change.

Our political parties and our unions are on the front line there.

Third contention; the degree to which Lefties are focused on Parliament is a problem. A small minority (all in leadership positions and think-wank jobs, and this should tell us something) believe  that asking our political class very politely for the things we want will eventually pay dividends if we present the right argument, with the right evidence. A very British revolution indeed. The only problem I see here is that people like this tend to be go-to figures for the mainstream media and also tend to have a strong presence on the web.

The degree to which Lefties aren’t focused on Parliament is also a problem. I don’t know whether or not the people at Democracy Village are members of political parties, but I agree that their ideas are woolly in the extreme. That said, it’s my view that the only meaningful form of engagement with politics is to be a member of a Party (and a union). The sort of thinking that goes on in DemocracyVillage and elsewhere is really just think-wankery inverted, for a non-professional class of idealists.

We can correct this. The Left has specific parties and people should be members of them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Party, the SWP or even the Greens that matches your particular Left view, parties are the key to Parliament, and democratic organising is the key to any given political party.

Fourth contention; that we Lefties are in-fighting happy, while the Tea Party movement is tightly focused on destroying the Democrats. This is a misrepresentation, again. The professional politicos attached to the Tea Party movement, and the serious degree of corporate finance which backs them, are serious about destroying the Dems. The average Tea Party punter is as howl-at-the-moon crazy and unfocused as anyone else in the general population, who hasn’t descended to the level of blogoland anorak.

The Left does fight within itself, a lot, and so does the Right. It’s the nature of people with strong beliefs to fight with others of strong beliefs. The British Right and British Left both have splits; the BNP, UKIP, Tories and Lib-Dems all occupy overlapping political territory. Thus Lib-Dems, Labour, Greens and TUSC occupy overlapping territory. Within the Tories, groups like Cornerstone are the equivalent of the LRC, though the organising principles are different. And no one who watched the nonsense about Speaker Bercow can contend that the Left is more self-righteous in denunciation than our opponents across the aisle.

All of this is by way of saying what? The Left should celebrate the freedom to criticise and tenacity shown by those investigating the leadership contenders and those others who haven’t run for leader but clearly think of themselves as being political minds worthy of shaping the debate (thus Cruddas, Purnell, etc).

We should bemoan not some inherent tendency to split but contingent problems with our democratic organisations.

We should agree with Sunny that politics is a fight – but simultaneously while fighting people who are clearly ‘the enemy’, you have to be able to articulate your own vision in contrast to others who are or present themselves as being on ‘our’ side. Government allows for one answer to the questions that confront us – not the number of competing answers that exist within the same political party.

Finally we should allow that it’s not this competition even among nominal friends which weakens our movement. That competition is inevitable. What weakens the movement is an inability to reach a collective decision and then implement it; it is the separation between those who implement and those who feel it their right to decide.

A propensity to ignore this is the problem with “the problem with the Left” articles.

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  1. July 13, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Re the Ed M discussion, I thought that shifting the debate from the political issue — looking at a politician’s actions while in power — to ascribing some neurosis to the person making the argument against him, is flawed and a bit desperate. It just doesn’t help.

  2. boilermaker
    July 13, 2010 at 10:10 am

    I generally ignore any “telling thard truths to the left” type articles. They rarely include anything other than rehashed clichés, truisms or rightwing ideas disguised in leftwing language.

    See also: Nick Cohen, the ex-RCP, modernityblog, et cetera ad nauseam.

  3. July 13, 2010 at 10:24 am

    @1 Madam Miaow – who ascribed a neurosis to opponents of Ed M?

    • July 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm

      It was in that Iraq thread on Twitter. I don’t want to be unfair to Sunny — and you’d have to trawl through the whole thread at his over the last 16 hours — but I thought we were making valid criticisms of Ed M and Sunny read it as a “about in-fighting and need to find ppl to disagree”. Again in a discussion, the points slip out of focus and we’re left arguing over style. This isn’t productive when you only have 140 characterst.

  4. July 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    “If the scales are about to be rebalanced in favour of the Republicans this November, it’s because the Democrats are divided and have failed to deliver on key pledges, while the Republicans have attempted to shed the legacy (and through the Tea Party movement, the personnel) 0f a ballooning deficit, a failed war and higher taxation. It’s a false premise to assume that the Right are more pragmatic etc, therefore.”

    Sounds pretty pragmatic to me…

  5. July 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    It’s not pragmatic; there’s no need to strike a balance between principle and the best way to win power. The Tea Party people are working inside Republican caucuses and primaries and taking over Congressional campaigns.

  6. Jacob Richter
    July 13, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    1) There needs to be as much proportional representation as possible.
    2) There needs to be a Left party.
    3) Such party must be comprised of working-class elements only, from the youth precariat to manual and clerical and professional workers to pensioners.
    4) To “the degree to which Lefties are focused on Parliament is a problem,” such Left party must build a new alternative culture of party schools, cultural societies, sports clubs, funeral homes, and so on – all starting with the embryo of food banks.
    5) Such party should be led by charismatic yet programmatically literate people, such as Oskar Lafontaine.

    [In short, the British left needs the model presented by the pre-war SPD and inter-war USPD.]

  7. Jacob Richter
    July 13, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I forgot to include the need for explicitly red union breakaways from the current yellow ones: something like the IWW but branded with more international appeal beyond the US with more political content (such that it in fact becomes a de facto political party in its own right).

  8. July 14, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Dave,

    I had the same tweet from Sunny, which rather suggests that his article was always intended as a provocation. Foolishly I tried responding via Twitter, which at one in the morning is never a great idea.

    The implication within Sunny’s argument, that there is nothing of value between Westminster politics or the type of fluffy and incoherent activism that might be characterised by the Democracy Village campaigners, is an incredibly lazy and simplistic one, He knows perfectly well that there is a range of other opinion that rejects tribal party politics but doesn’t believe in dropping out of society to spend time in a sleeping bag in Parliament Square in what is little more than a symbolic protest. Sunny isn’t alone in this of course: I seem to remember you writing in a recent post, “of course there were also the anti-party crowd, but they’ll never amount to much and can be ignored.”

    Some, like me, have instead favoured a focus on local campaigning, particularly because this is where politics has its most immediate impact on people’s lives (and will do so even more as local councils become the standard-bearers for cutting services) and because activists of differing perspectives seem better able to work with each other without acrimony. In part this reflects the need to do a whole lot more than sit on the sidelines and complain when there is little prospect of a national, genuinely leftwing movement prepared to fundamentally challenge the balance of power between the rich and the rest of us. Instead we have the Trotskyist left that seems to prefer sectarian bickering with other tiny groups and seeking to impose its control over any flicker of opposition to government policy.

    But it also reflects a despair at the other alternative on offer – the attitude that politics is best left to the Labour Party’s Westminster professionals who have failed just as badly, not because of a “certain modesty” about supposedly progressive politics, but because of an abandonment of even the most basic tenets of socialism, in favour of sucking up to business, embracing market solutions like PFI, bombing developing countries in the name of ‘peace’ and actively assisting in the development of the conditions that led to the 2008 banking crisis. It’s an attitude summed up in another tweet from Sunny at some ungodly hour this morning – “local organising is fine, but there’s no substitute for Westminster in the UK”. There I obviously have to disagree.

    Equally lazy and deliberately provocative is the assertion that “socialists going around saying the Labour party and the Tories were essentially the same” – presumably meaning those he tweeted – “will be eating their words”. Now personally, I know very few people who would argue that Labour and the Tories are ‘exactly’ the same – that’s just a misleading characterisation of a different argument that says Westminster politics in general has failed because it is completely unwilling to even begin to challenge the power of capitalism’s inevitable injustice towards working class communities. In fact, it’s a variation of the theme we have heard so often: that at least Labour isn’t quite as bad as the Tories and, by the way, there ‘really is no alternative’ so vote for us anyway. All that is left, we are told repeatedly, is to accept that a beauty contest between three former cabinet ministers and a television pundit, all from a party that issued the most dire warnings about what the Tories would do in power and still lost the support of the electorate, is the only political debate in town.

    One final point – the idea that the Tea Party movement’s potency, pragmatism and strategic approach is a model for the left to consider. I agree with the reasons you’ve highlighted about how this isn’t necessarily the full picture. But I’d add another reason. Sunny tweeted this: “hey, I’m all for a UK lefty version of tea party against the cuts. wouldn’t you be?” The answer is no – because the Tea Party’s tactics are based on making people feel afraid, on smears, character assassination and misrepresentation of the facts. That’s hardly a model we’d want to follow – but then again, perhaps some people would.

    Now… I suppose I’m going to have to reword this and post it on Pickled Politics before I’m accused of failing to address his provocation personally…

  9. July 14, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Proportional Representation might actually give you more in-fighting, especially as it might get any wannabe leader to think they can start a new movement, attract loads of voters and destroy the others. To a large extent FPTP forces people into big tents and to work together in order to achieve political goals. So I don’t buy the contention that full PR will help the left.

    Madam Miaow – I wasn’t ascribing any neurosis at all, and apologies if it came across like that. But the point about Ed M is simply this: I feel like many on the socialist left want to find an excuse to dismiss Ed M as viable simply because he didn’t go as far as them on an issue.

    Let’s suppose that I care a lot about Palestine/Israel. Assume that John McDonnell had said a few things about it but not really focused on it as his focus was much more on poverty. Does that mean I’m right to think John M doesn’t care and therefore “not to be trusted”? No, I find that position absurd.

    In 2005 I voted Libdem because of the war. This time, because I wanted electoral reform and I hated the Labour stance on Amnesty/immigration. Does that mean I don’t care enough about the Iraq war just because it wasn’t a top priority for me? This is why I find it difficult to understand why Ed M is being slated on Iraq.

    Dave:
    It’s not pragmatic; there’s no need to strike a balance between principle and the best way to win power.

    But what if there is? the Tea Partyers clearly believe that Sarah Palin represents them way better than say Mitt Romney. But Romney would have more chance of winning against Obama (especially if Republicans swung behind him) than Palin would.

    And it’s likely that TP people will actually make a pragmatic decision and choose the more electable person than someone as hardline as them. That is pragmatism over ideology. Surely you can see that?

    Also – there are tensions on the right too: especially between libertarians/free marketers and the social conservative church-goers. But they hold it together better than the Democrats.

    I think we can go back and forth all night about who is more pragmatic.

    But part of my problem with the left is that while we can all agree that we should have open and frank debate – what annoys me is when people say that someone should not be trusted simply because they’re not as hardline as them.

    In fact you do this with Jon Cruddas all the time. Clearly, he’s more to the left than a lot of people within Labour. But you’ve spent a lot of time attacking him and hate him.

    I would rather that lefties understand that others are placed somewhere different on the scale to them, but can still work together and support each other.

    boilermaker – please don’t compare me to Nick Cohen. It makes you look like twat.

  10. July 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

    @Sunny / Madam Miaow – the problem with Ed M is not that he doesn’t go as far as us (for I count myself as part of the Left which dismisses him) on “an issue” – he doesn’t go as far as us on any issue, and on quite a few of them, goes some distance in the opposite direction. Opposing him therefore is what we call ‘political principle’.

    Continuing our (age-old?) discussion now Sunny, I don’t think you appreciate how I approach politics. And that’s fine, that’s your right – but the reason I dismiss Jon Cruddas is not ‘because [he's] not as hardline’. Sure, in the first instance I’ll support people who share my views. That’s what politics is all about, and it would the more self-righteous members of the liberal Left to remember it, when they’re denouncing us for not compromising enough.

    That’s not the only problem with Cruddas though. The key with Cruddas is the contradiction between where he’s placed himself in the Party (Compass, which has quite a few people significantly to the Left of anyone in the PLP, outside perhaps of McDonnell, Corbyn etc) and where his policies are likely to take the Party should he win through to the leadership. This contradiction does throw up trust issues, as you should easily imagine.

    I can and do work with people placed elsewhere on the scale to me. I’ve supported any number of endeavours by think-wankers I can’t stand; I’ve signed any number of Compass petitions (some of which are still online) and generally when it comes down to Last Leftie Standing, I’ll be a good soldier. Which is why you haven’t read anything from me excoriating Diane Abbott. She’s not my sort of socialist but she’s at least unambiguously a Leftie. The reason I say any of this is that it’s not unique to me.

    There’s another member of this blog, who sits on the LRC national committee, who’s endorsing Ed Miliband in one article, and complimenting Ed Balls in the next. Plenty of the ‘hard’ Left act like this – and John McDonnell himself was both gracious and selfless when it came down to co-operating with Diane Abbott’s campaign, and bowing to the reality that her endorsements wouldn’t transfer to him, despite her promise to bow out if he got more endorsements.

    What I won’t do is support a course that I know leads nowhere in the long-run. Which is why I have never voted Lib-Dem or advocated voting Lib-Dem. I’m not a complete moron (no offence) and hopes for something better to the side, see the Lib-Dems as little more than a reiteration of the same values that Labour and Tory leaderships share. Cruddas as a leader definitely qualifies as a road going nowhere – and tells us so himself, as often as not. Hence my articles usually deal with what he says and does, which is perfectly fair political critique.

    (Re: that bit you added about divisions in the Republican Party, I’ve dealt with that in the article. And on your contention that the TP people will hold it together better than the Left, judging by 2008, that’s unlikely – but if it does happen, it’s because they have the self-confidence bestowed by watching a significant part of the Democratic Party (the blue dogs) sticking two fingers up at a Democratic President and Congress, to the fury of the rest of the Party. So, blame the right people – the political ‘centre’.)

  11. boilermaker
    July 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

    boilermaker – please don’t compare me to Nick Cohen. It makes you look like twat

    I thought it was a rather apt comparison actually, though admittedly I can’t imagine Nick Cohen voting Lib Dem. You twat.

  12. July 14, 2010 at 11:41 am

    “I feel like many on the socialist left want to find an excuse to dismiss Ed M as viable simply because he didn’t go as far as them on an issue.”

    Sunny, again you distort the argument. I and Harpymarx and others have good reason to write off Ed. Loaded words such as “excuse” and “simply” followed by a rather childish dismissal don’t engage with our reasons. If you really want to promote your man I suggest you present those reasons to him and get him to introspect honestly on what he has done. Until then I see no change in his character and how that manifests in his actions.

    Broadly, Ed M, like the other guys, was quiet over Iraq when he was in power, probably the most important issue of his Labour government’s tenure. While he was relatively good at the New Statesman hustings, this raises the question of why he is only talking about it now. The elephant in the room is the issue of career. If he remained silent so as not to rock the boat and send his career off course, then that says something about his character and indicates how he is likely to perform as leader of the party.

    I also thought he was dishonest at the Copenhagen summit where he jumped through hoops for the US agenda when their mendacity over the Denmark Text was about to hit the headlines. Whatever China’s shortcomings in the areas we all know, they have in recent years soared ahead of us in their use and development of Green technology, the knowledge of which should be part of any honest debate around the future of this planet. To be so willing to throw them out of the back of the sleigh to satisfy the wolves is not a good sign that Ed will be a principled leader. I experienced an unpleasant wave of anti-Chinese, not just anti-China, feeling after this, so I am most certainly not impressed. I do not believe he will represent me if he is leader.

    Kevin, you’ve written an interesting comment, much of which I agree with. I would add, though, that Brian Haw’s protest is exactly what you said: symbolic. I regard symbolic protest as an important part of challenging the status quo, even if it is not the main effective thrust. In the absence of a strong anti-war movement beyond the initial burst of energy, Brian at least provides a constant reminder and embarrassment to our leaders of a shameful episode that continues to wreck lives today. That is not to say it is a substitute for a movement, but it is a helpful focus for wider attention.

  13. July 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    @ Madam Miaow

    OK, that’s fair, there is undoubtedly a place for symbolic protest and much to admire about Brian Haw’s tremendous dedication. Although boy can he cranky and aggressive at times – a friend and I dropped in on the Democracy Village recently and got into an argument with a Jamaican tourist who was defending the war in Afghanistan. Brian Haw demanded that we move away and stopped bothering him, as though his long tenure in Parliament Square means he now owns the place!

    I guess my point is that lumping together everyone who believes that Westminster politics has failed to create sustainable, radical change (and that it is Labour’s failures specifically that have led to a Tory government) and then calling them incoherent, fluffy, unfocused hippies, is just lazy and patronising.

    So, by the way, is writing off the ‘anti-party crowd’ and saying they ‘can be ignored’, simply because joining a undemocratic, hierarchical and sectarian Trot group also seems to many like an deeply unattractive option.

  14. July 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    No one is writing off the ‘anti-party crowd'; they’re the ones who are lazy, not us. As is the assertion that the only options are ‘undemocratic, hierarchical and sectarian Trot group[s]‘. There are half a dozen political parties of ‘the Left’ and each has its weaknesses and strengths and still don’t fall into such a category, and you know what else? If they don’t like one of those, they can start their own.

  15. July 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Not being in a party makes an activist lazy?

    You should see my commitments at the moment Dave. A public meeting tonight on police plans to stick its Olympic operations base on protected common land, putting together options for Ian Tomlinson’s family for when a decision is made (or not) to prosecute the police officers who killed him, helping to coordinate a response from a number of organisations to Theresa May’s counter-terrorism review and a workshop for young people soon on stop & search.

    But that’s all bollocks though, isn’t it. There’s no party branch meeting on the list so it must be.

    I think perhaps we’ve wandered off track and that I’m probably to blame. Let’s stick to rubbishing Sunny Hundall’s faith in Ed Milliband…

  16. July 14, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    No but the same sort of characterisations as you made (these being common to those who don’t want to belong to a Party / can’t be bothered to actually investigate the Left parties in their area) are lazy.

    I’m happy to rubbish anyone’s faith in Ed Miliband – but I won’t apologise for finding ridiculous the various justifications I’ve found for not being a member of a political party, from half-baked anarchistic notions that we shouldn’t be challenging for state power to the ideas of the professional pressure group set, I don’t think those reasons are good enough and I do think the argumentation which sustains them is lazy.

    Get on with all the activism you can (I am similarly involved, for the record and not everything is done via my party affiliation) but some of us have to take the wide view – and simply put that view is this; if all these smaller campaigns and programmes can’t be linked up and placed within an analytical framework that gives a good lead on all of them and on the meta-problems which cause them, then ultimately we’re foredoomed to fighting small campaign after small campaign, win some, lose some, but ultimately not changing the dynamic that inspires these problems.

    The only framework we have which can link all these campaigns and give them a lasting expression is a political party.

  17. July 14, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    ” but I won’t apologise for finding ridiculous the various justifications I’ve found for not being a member of a political party,”

    Whoa, there, cowboy.

    After being ripped off for wages while no-one in the groups did anything and the leaders got their salaries, being whacked in the face, having to deal with sexist behaviour, ripped off for skills by leaders who craved fame, told that racism against the Chinese doesn’t count because the axis or racism is black & white, and other charming stuff, all without once ounce of solidarity from so-called comrades, I was an idiot to stick around for as long as I did.

    It may suit you, Dave, but if you are marginalised in society already, the left groups are no home to you.

    You don’t get the class to join you by default or because you have some divine right to their membership. You have to offer something beyond platitudes and should not expect human beings to succumb to treatment that is little different to what capitalism dishes out.

  18. July 14, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Madam Miaow, seriously there are few things that you could tell me that I’ve not heard from elsewhere in the labour movement, across political parties and unions. And yeah, it’s disgraceful, and yeah I have it easy because I’m a white, straight male. But that doesn’t lessen the responsibility on us activists to knit together these campaigns – even if our ultimate goal is an aegis which doesn’t exist yet. That is the position of plenty of the Trot groupuscules for example.

    I don’t expect that the class should join me by default. I do consider it something of a responsibility for self-designated activists to get their hands dirty, and by the time they’ve risen to be part of multiple campaigns, been immersed in a socialist milieu and so on, they should be part of a long term project with wider aspirations than single issue stuff. Invariably that means a political party.

  19. July 14, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Though I agree with Madam Miaow, I’ll first declare that I am with the Judean People’s Front.

    I’m not in any political party (yet) because at the moment they are ALL shit and dead-ends for the working class.

    I am a sectarian though I work with all Left political activists and despise their groups (almost) equally.

    It is actions that matter more than beliefs when it comes to campaigning strategy. Obviously you want people with both but being a working class elitist (I studied at a polytechnic), I’ve yet to find such like minded people, so I settle for unity in action rather than in political opinion.

    Joining a party because they claim to be “socialist” or whatever is intellectually lazy.

  20. July 14, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Dave, yes, we should indeed knit together. But you can’t do this on your own through an act of will. Like others, I’ve gotten my hands dirty and done all you write above but if you are under constant attack and literally being screamed at and assaulted and not being treated as a comrade because you’re the wrong minority or because some leader reckons he owns you, something has to give.

    The left is toxic and destructive to the movement. I would never give these people power over me again. You may find that’s why working class people, who’ve had enough of bosses, steer clear.

  21. July 14, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    @Justin, I disagree that they’re all dead-ends for the working class, and certainly disagree that they’re all shit. Everything that has been achieved by political activism since the days of the People’s flipping Charter has been done under the auspices of groups which aspired to nationwide political representation – either parliamentary or extraparliamentary.

    And I can’t say I’ve met too many people who join any party which claims to be socialist – or the forty-odd socialist parties registered with the electoral commission would all be the same size.

    @MM, what are you defining as Left? I thought you were part of ‘the Left’?

  22. July 14, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Sorry, Dave. I mean, of course, the left groups.

  23. July 14, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Apologies, I wasn’t being pedantic, but with all the denunciations going on around here at the moment I wasn’t sure whether it had been broadened further than I’d imagined.

    I’m not sure who you include and who you exclude from the ‘left groups’. I don’t think anyone can deny that some are qualitatively different from others. E.g. everyone has heard the stories about the WRP.

    If people are advocating building a Party that is free of attraction to such people I’m all for that, and there’s a valid debate to be had over how programme and organisational structure creates an atmosphere where intimidation can reign, then I’m all for that.

    But, leaving the imperfections of left groups to the side, the only way we’ll ever complete our struggle is through mass organisation, and collective decision making. And that means some sort of institution which we might label…a Party.

  24. July 14, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Here’s one I made earlier:

    http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/Politics/Chen.html

    Then there’re the parties in the SA, happy to take someone’s free full-time labour but wouldn’t lift a finger to act like socialists.

    Yes, we need a party, but for the party to attract the working class it has to be deserving of them. Glad you are up for having the debate, Dave. Unfortunately, you are in a minority.

  25. July 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I agree with this (quoted from Sunny’s link in his post)

    ‘If you boil my 6,000 words down to one sentence or idea, it would be that I want people to stop saying things like if only Obama were tougher like FDR and LBJ, we’d have a climate bill by now or a union-friendly card-check bill or we’d have had a public option or any number of other things. That’s an extremely naive point of view and ultimately a kind of toxic one that leads to liberal despair, because it makes progressives think that the only thing preventing their desires from becoming reality is that their leaders are selling them out.’

    I also agree with this (from Dave’s response):

    ‘The Left should celebrate the freedom to criticise and tenacity shown by those investigating the leadership contenders and those others who haven’t run for leader but clearly think of themselves as being political minds worthy of shaping the debate (thus Cruddas, Purnell, etc).

    We should bemoan not some inherent tendency to split but contingent problems with our democratic organisations.’

    Why do I agree with articles written in oppostion?

    I agree because at this point both authors recognise the complexity of the structure-agency debate. What is more important: the politician or the political environment and constraints in which they operate? Why have ALL Labour’s leaders ‘betrayed’ the movement in one way or another (cf my recent post on Ken Coates’ view of Wilson)?

    The left needs a better understanding of structure-agency, so that it can move on from pointless (but not pointed) blame of the agent, and start focusing on what we as agents can do to change the structure.

    I’ll be mega-blogging about this soon.

    Always good debate when Sunny drops in.

  26. July 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    “The left needs a better understanding of structure-agency, so that it can move on from pointless (but not pointed) blame of the agent, and start focusing on what we as agents can do to change the structure.”

    Yes. This.

    The language of betrayal is not helpful, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being betrayed! (cf just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me).

    Paul, you’re absolutely right about all Labour’s leaders betraying the movement in one way or another. In my view the biggest mistake Labour ever made was not the Iraq war or ditching Clause 4 but the Morrisonian doctrine of consolidation. Yet the ’45 government is not the one casual commentators usually have in mind when they talk about Labour selling out.

    It’s structure-agency that explains why I have low expectations of Labour in office, but also why I’m in the Labour Party, both as opposed to any other party and as opposed to not being in any party.

    That said, I don’t take as strident a view as Dave on party political activity. There are plenty of people who are not in parties who do great work & although I think the benefits of being in the Labour Party outstrip the downsides, I recognise there is an extent to which the culture of political parties can deradicalise some people, I recognise autonomous critiques of party structures full stop and I think some non-political party groups do important things that wouldn’t originate from political parties. Of course, people in political parties can be involved in those things too, and some do it well, but everyone has limited time & many of those groups are sustained mainly by people not in political parties.

    I like diversity, and that includes diversity on the left. Unity of action doesn’t necessarily have to mean everyone doing the same thing in the same way, just people pulling in roughly the same direction and trying to get along. I’m a left multiculturalist!

  27. July 14, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    As a ‘self-designated’ activist who does believe in people getting their hands dirty, I thought I’d say that the public meeting I mentioned earlier was bloody brilliant: http://bit.ly/d9iUQQ

    A single issue rather than a part of a long term project, but never mind, a great event nonetheless.

  28. July 14, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    I actually think the quote from Sunny’s article – which is from the Guardian’s American correspondent IIRC – is a poor one. And I’m surprised at you, Paul, applauding it. The criticism “Obama’s not tough enough” or its corollary, “I wish Obama was tougher” begets the questions, “Why isn’t Obama tough enough?” and from this flow logically the queries, “Can we / how can we get someone tougher?” And that’s what all this palaver has basically been about.

    As regards the language of betrayal and the structure/agency debate, no doubt all those acting as they do, at the top of the movement, believe themselves to be acting in the right and hold honest convictions etc. We’re all masters of rationalisation and self-justification. It’s called being human. But that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to let them off all that they’ve done just because they promise to do something else in future – and, to keep this relevant, doesn’t mean they won’t renege on said promise.

    What is missed out above is the fact that a number of the leadership candidates (and others mentioned, such as Cruddas and Purnell) have done things which are just plain wrong. In our rarefied academic debate about the effect of structure, we should be careful not to forgive the unforgiveable. The policies of some of these people wrought a cost on real people, and whether this caused some self-doubt or not, each of those who served in the cabinet went on serving.

    From figures so senior to Labour like David Miliband, it’s not even good enough to say (as junior Left figures have in past Labour cabinets, and the Lib-Dems are saying now) that they thought they could ameliorate the worst by being in office. The reality is that had these figures discovered their consciences before they wanted something from Labour Party members, the whole dog and pony show could have been brought to a halt. Instead we’ve fought two wars, we’ve demonised the poor and played to every Daily Mail caricature of populism.

    Hanging is too good for some of these people.

    It’s true that every Labour government has faced accusations of ‘betrayal’ – and they’ve all been true. At each stage, including the heights of 1945 and the 1970s, the government has always been to the right of the movement, has failed to live up to what was expected of it (and in several cases what it was democratically ordered to do by Labour conference). This implies a structural problem – a great amount of which has been mentioned above. But the question doesn’t end there. Some of the things done by Labour governments are just plain criminal.

    It’s not enough to say that Tony Blair (for example) was a victim of that structural problem, just as we were. Some of the things he ordered were just plain criminal. It’s important that in the debate of structure vs. agency, we don’t descend into determinism.

  29. Jacob Richter
    July 15, 2010 at 12:36 am

    Sunny H :Proportional Representation might actually give you more in-fighting, especially as it might get any wannabe leader to think they can start a new movement, attract loads of voters and destroy the others. To a large extent FPTP forces people into big tents and to work together in order to achieve political goals. So I don’t buy the contention that full PR will help the left.

    A threshold of about 2-3% should prevent any egotistic person from thinking of splitting just to cash in on his political personality. The old PDS, unlike the KPRF, didn’t suffer from splits, and Die Linke has yet to suffer from one.

    FPTP is only suited for two parties.

  30. July 15, 2010 at 2:52 am

    A few points in response:

    1) Kevin says: The implication within Sunny’s argument, that there is nothing of value between Westminster politics or the type of fluffy and incoherent activism that might be characterised by the Democracy Village campaigners, is an incredibly lazy and simplistic one

    This is bollocks. I like the work you do and I’d support it, and have no problem saying that lefties outside political parties can do lots of community organising work. I just said there are Westminster types who don’t connect or think outside the machinery, and there are fluffy types I regularly encounter who don’t think strategically at all.

    2) It’s an attitude summed up in another tweet from Sunny at some ungodly hour this morning – “local organising is fine, but there’s no substitute for Westminster in the UK”. There I obviously have to disagree.

    You can disagree all you like – but not all politics is driven at a local level. And if the left is to become successful there has to be engagement at a national level too. Or do you believe we should ignore Westminster entirely?

    3) Dave: what issues does Ed go in the opposite direction?

    4) and where [Jon Cruddas’ policies are likely to take the Party should he win through to the leadership.

    You’re projecting, and I’m not sure what you’re implying here either or what evidence you have for it.

    5) Madam Miaow you say: If he remained silent so as not to rock the boat and send his career off course, then that says something about his character and indicates how he is likely to perform as leader of the party.

    MM – my response to this became so big that I’ve written it up as a blog post which goes up on PP tomorrow morning.

  31. July 15, 2010 at 3:05 am

    To continue:

    6) MM says: Whatever China’s shortcomings in the areas we all know, they have in recent years soared ahead of us in their use and development of Green technology, the knowledge of which should be part of any honest debate around the future of this planet.

    I’ve heard Ed M make that exact point. I also think it’s dangerous to assume what people have done via the media reports. I read some reports by activists who went to Copenhagen and it was completely different to what the MSM were saying (which are generally quite afraid of Chinese strength).

    7) but I won’t apologise for finding ridiculous the various justifications I’ve found for not being a member of a political party,”

    My view is simply that as long as people are getting involved in activism, and people within or outside of political parties aren’t accusing the others of being sellouts – it’s all fine. Let people get involved how they want to.

    I got involved in politics via environmental activism – where people think the Green party has sold out! I hate the term sell-outs and much prefer Justin’s approach where you accept people are in different spaces and can still work together. And sit around the fire singing khumbaya of course.

    8) Paul says: The left needs a better understanding of structure-agency, so that it can move on from pointless (but not pointed) blame of the agent, and start focusing on what we as agents can do to change the structure.

    bloody spot on. Did you see the article by Eric Alterman in the Nation – it says that the system is stacked against lefties. And he’s right. I want to change the system, but for that we have to work together and focus on changing the structures rather than keep criticising the agencies.

    9) Jacob – good point about 2-3%. I hadn’t thought of that. But still, there are people out there…. besides, De Linke only became successfully after forcing far-left groups to work together. It wasn’t an easy fight.

    10) Accept Dave’s point that some things were beyond reproach. I’ll happily include Tom Harris, Tony Blair, Frank Field etc in that category. I most certainly would not include Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman, John Denham, Alan Johnson (though he’s become right-wing lately) and Ed Miliband (obviously!)

  32. July 15, 2010 at 8:42 am

    ‘I actually think the quote from Sunny’s article – which is from the Guardian’s American correspondent IIRC – is a poor one. And I’m surprised at you, Paul, applauding it.’

    Fighting talk, which I’ve not got time to respond to fully now (will do either later here or in a separate post).

    But briefly…….I’m acknowledging what the original author says as a statement of current reality; I’m not saying that we should accept a structure which makes Obama’s ‘lack of toughness’ inevitable because of the constraints in which he operates.

    You accuse me of a descent into determinism by acknowledging the strength of ‘structure’ evidenced by repeated ‘betrayal’. Actually, I think I’m going the other way, by emphasising the role of the left’s agency in changing the structure.

    This comes back to the old debates we’ve had here. Why did the British left fail in the 1980s? Because the right of the British Labour party failed to support it, or because the Left (of Labour principally) drifted away from its proper mission, seduced by the easy (easier) wins in town halls and ‘community politics’, desirable though some as that as? I think we do ourselves a disservice in the longer term if we spend too much time on blaming others, not ourselves.

    More later.

  33. July 15, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Sunny; in response to several of your points…

    I’ll work up my own post about Ed M when I’ve read yours.

    On Jon Cruddas, cf. every post on this blog where I’ve read or listened to what he said and then made arguments to the effect that he’s not the man to lead the Left.

    On working together, I’m all for working together Sunny – and I don’t normally use phrasing so crassly populist as ‘sellout’. BUT, and this is a big but. Some of the people we get called on to ‘work together’ with are openly hostile to the sort of society we want to create, and to the goals we envision as part of our activism. E.g. how would the campaign to save Vestas have worked with Ed Miliband, who ultimately took the decision (a little ridiculous in light of forgemasters’ and subsequent loans) to let the company close its UK operations?

    Sometimes people masquerading as on our side are the people we’re opposing – and sometimes when they seem to be on our side over one issue, we shouldn’t be lending them credence when we know they’ll turn round and use it against us either on the same issue, making them opportunists, or on something else (cf. the stupid attitude of COML to the Conservative Party).

    Paul; you say we should blame ourselves. And that’s fine. Tomasky doesn’t. He said that blaming ourselves is the problem, as it creates liberal despair. He says that blaming Obama is naive and (I’m reading between the lines here) results in people feeling disconnected from our movement. My response is that he’s talking nonsense, and what makes people feel disconnected is the continuing ability of leaderships to close down their accountability to the movement. And that is an agenda subject to agency. In the UK, it often presents itself as ‘representing constituents, not just activists’ or the ‘national interest’.

  34. July 15, 2010 at 10:33 am

    “6) MM says: Whatever China’s shortcomings in the areas we all know, they have in recent years soared ahead of us in their use and development of Green technology, the knowledge of which should be part of any honest debate around the future of this planet.
    I’ve heard Ed M make that exact point.”

    But, Sunny, he did the opposite when it mattered. As soon as the news of what the US and other rich countries were up to over the Danish Text at the Copenhagen Summit was about to hit the headlines, it was knocked off the front pages with Ed M’s shriek that China and other poor countries had “hijacked” the climate change talks and were “holding the world to ransom”. He completely distorted the debate and defended the US who were demanding an agreement that left them belching out four times the carbon emissions of the Chinese per capita.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/20/ed-miliband-china-copenhagen-summit

    His article is a joke when China is forging ahead with Green technology after polluting itself so badly during its own industrial revolution, something we have failed to do.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/20/copenhagen-climate-change-accord

    It was interesting to see in April, the Indian Environment Minister place responsibility for the collapse of the climate summit on the heads of the Danish Text nations.

    http://madammiaow.blogspot.com/2010/04/chinese-dissident-allowed-limited-media.html

    Ed M did what Blair had done before him and demonstrated to the US that he was a safe pair of hands. The fact that he made his bones with this and his silence over Iraq while he was in power does not fill me hope.

    (BTW, it was making these points that led to me being banned by the Guardian CiF and my comments deleted. So much for freedom of speech.)

  35. paulinlancs
    July 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Dave: By quoting that section from Tomanski I wasn’t trying to suggest that I agreed with what he went on to conclude, which I agree is silly. I was merely agreeing with the starting point.

    I agree wholehartedly that accountability to the movement is an agenda subject to (our) agency. That is the biggest job the Left has, and the biggest job the Labour left has in the coming weeks.

    That is why I’m seeking, in my own little way, to impress on all candidates in this leadership election that the best way to garner support from people like me is to committ to structural change in the party which goes beyond niceties like an elected chair, and allows the movement to hold the leadership to account in the longer term (for example, by way of the reversal of financial flow I have suggested on these and other pages).

    Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, none of the candidate teams seem to be prepared to engage with that issue at the moment (notwithstanding a specific commitment from Ed Balls review the more radical proposals I have sent him).

    There is still time, however, as the candidates are finally getting the hang of the idea that to win party/union support they may need to make specific socialist commitment.

    Of course they mail fail to do so sufficiently, but it is worth trying, I think, but of course that comes back to the question of whether redemption is possible. As i’ve said before, the fact that these people have been senior figures in the LP does not mean they cannot learn to be/do better. They are all young(ish men who have been stuck in the NL tramlines, admittedly of their own volition, but they are also all (I think) intelligent enough to understand that there is a political word beyond those tramlines.

    And I have my own personal journey to reflect on. I am little older than all of them. Five years ago I would have described myself as a moderate, and in 2000 probably a Blairite. I changed my views because I experienced the systematic abuse of the working class, and read enough books to help we work out was going on. Perhaps one or more of the candidates, who are just normal peoplike like me, with my kind of cricital faculty, is currently going through the same process.

    As

  36. July 15, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Dave: E.g. how would the campaign to save Vestas have worked with Ed Miliband, who ultimately took the decision (a little ridiculous in light of forgemasters’ and subsequent loans) to let the company close its UK operations?

    This doesn’t make sense given the situation then. What would you have liked – the government forcing the company not to close? That’s absurd, it was a foreign company anyway. Secondly, he wasn’t given enough money by the Treasury to entice them to stay – they had already decided it was cheaper to make things in mainland Europe.
    What specifically would you have liked him to do?

    MM: He completely distorted the debate and defended the US who were demanding an agreement that left them belching out four times the carbon emissions of the Chinese per capita.

    There are two issues here: firstly while I agree that China is investing a lot more on Green tech (something that Ed M has also been saying), the country has also rebuffed efforts at stopping growth in C02 in the air with a 1990 baseline. Their argument is that they also have to grow and so they have to build the coal stations every week. It’s the same argument with India.

    My view is that while India and China do have to grow – they can’t just pretend that the fact they’re expanding coal spewing capacity massively does not have an impact on others.

    And you can’t blame Ed for not doing enough on the environment while saying he’s being too harsh on China. Both India and China didn’t want a deal that would restrict their ability to build fossil fuel energy capacity. Agreed?

    Basically, developed countries and developing countries have different priorities – fact. I think Ed M fucked up Copenhagen and that is down to his terrible political skills. Same with Obama. But the same applies to China and India. None of these people want a global deal – they just want an excuse to blame the other. I’m sorry but you can’t blame Ed M here and exonerate China’s role in all this.

    It depends on what you’re trying to limit: per capita output or total output of greenhouse gases in the air. India and China are focused on the latter, while USA and UK are focused on the former for obvious reasons. BOTH need to be dealt with – not just one side of the equation.

  37. July 15, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Sometimes people masquerading as on our side are the people we’re opposing

    I’m sorry but I don’t buy this either. I think you’re far too quick to say that the people on ‘our side’ will stab us in the back at the next opportunity. I don’t see how that’s pluralist.

    My piece regarding Ed M and Iraq is here:

    http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/9264

  1. July 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm
  2. July 31, 2010 at 6:48 am

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