Why all seems quiet on the far-left front
The people who attend leftwing summits are still struggling with media relations – and with the notion of working-class Tories
What is happening left of Labour? Follow the regular papers and you might draw a blank. We glance regularly, and anxiously, over our right shoulders. I saw the EDL’s London protest this Monday – it was a little scary. But it’s easy to forget that things were different in the past: the far left, not the far right, has often made the more convincing anti-establishment pitch in periods of crisis. A rising anti-politics tide needn’t only lift the right’s boats.
But today the left seems quieter. To be sure, we feel the ripples of their activity. Journalists-cum-activists such as Laurie Penny and Owen Jonespass messages from one world to the other, translating from the Guardian’s coffee-shop liberalism to the hard left’s heavy-print protests. But as the three (or four?) main parties jostle for the centre-ground, the Bennites seem far away, and quietly abandoned.
The place they have gone to is the grassroots. Their infrequent assemblies are attended by union members, pressure groups, tenants and lone wolves. Earlier this month, the People’s Assembly Against the Austerity gathered in Nottingham for a large meeting. Also in May, different groups met at the Benefit Justice summit in the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, which I attended. Hundreds talked, listened, resolved and then dissolved.
But seemingly, today it’s a place where mainstream journalists don’t, or won’t, follow them. Those journalists’ audiences are missing a lot.
What’s the character of these meetings of the “summit left”? Fabians and revolutionaries sat side-by-side, and all were united in their admirable and unbending anti-racism. Speakers gave animated defences of migrant workers. Scarcely was the word “solidarity” spoken so often, and so earnestly, as it was at the Benefit Justice summit on 11 May.
The summit left, reaching deep into urban communities, clings firmly to principles apparently abandoned by Labour. It’s the defence of the welfare state, if anything, that acts as its core impetus. The bedroom tax, disability payments, council housing – these issues are drawing crowds.
But the hard left summit-goers have serious problems too – problems of image and problems of profounder politics. The hard left’s image suffers because of mutual abandonment: when the Labour party and its media machinery moved right in the 1990s and 2000s, it seems like many on the hard left began to view media work as a rather Blairite activity, characterised by compromises Faustian and politically fatal. Instead the emphasis is on protest and local lobbying. There doesn’t seem to be a systematic attempt to bring arguments, and narratives, to the national press, where they could be heard more widely.
Media aside, there are practical political questions that need answers. Latter-day Trotskys must answer practical questions about Trotskyism; those with less radical programmes must do the same. For example, where will the money come from? How will the rebellious bond market be tamed, or disposed of?
More interestingly, perhaps, the summit left seems to neglect a real chunk of the population: those who aren’t rich, but vote Tory. When theRev Paul Nicolson suggested, at a recent summit, that summit-goers should appeal to Conservative voters for their support in protecting the welfare state, he was met with some deep-set scepticism. This is a serious problem: the left cannot pretend that welfare is only threatened by the Tory stereotypes, Bullingdon-bred and to the manor born. Very few of these creatures really exist. Actually, welfare is threatened by a far broader coalition, including many Tory voters on low incomes, who must be given an explicit answer to the question: why should I pay for your benefits? The postwar consensus has always had answers to that question. We should hear them again.
These problems help explain why the left doesn’t get press coverage. Summit left’s occasionally fantastical worldview must be more constructive, and more realistic, to exert an ideological pull against the flood.
But a large part of media’s radio silence is genuinely out of the left’s hands: there is an idée fixe that, after Thatcher and after the Soviets, the proper place of socialists is in the past. This is wrong. The left’s extreme wing, despite its problems, already offers a far more constructive and optimistic programme than the extreme right’s: it deserves a greater impact than it has on Labour’s policy (because Labour will necessarily be the conduit that renders its ideas politically possible), and on the national political consciousness. To Labour’s continuing fixation with the right, the summit left raises an irreverent middle finger. But today it does so too often inside a closed room, and nobody notices.
Comment: The critique of capitalism (Libertarianism) by the Radical Left does deserve far more attention. The Liberal notions of “racism”, where “oppressed” groups cannot be “racist”, only “oppressing” groups, make only sense within a Radical Left framework. Liberals accept the Libertarian narrative in which the poor and the convicted are lazy, stupid, if not downright evil, but suddenly turn this on its head when it comes to groups. Suddenly being poor and being convicted is proof of being “oppressed”, with all the perks and privileges Cultural “Marxism” grants to them, most notably the unequal standard in judging “racism”, which is, however, fully justified if you understand the axioms of the Radical Left.
@darylrevok – we need a Left with working class people in it and ones that actually work, god forbid. The Left now are 100% middle-class and have never worked. There is nothing worse than the middle-class operatives of the SWP and UAF arriving in a working class estate being overrun with Muslim immigrants, telling the residents who are shit scared of grooming, how they should embrace multiculturalism – before heading back to their parent’s detached houses in the suburbs.
This comment is also very telling, both ways. Anti-immigrant parties are only credible if they strengthen the position of the working class. However, some on the Radical Left, notably Sakai and the Third-Worldists are openly admitting they give up on the non-immigrant working class, or even the immigrant working class in the First World. Honesty in all would be welcomed.