This may seem a tad premature. Signatories to Ken Loach’s appeal are still pouring in, most local groups have only had their first meeting in the past few weeks with some still yet to meet, we don’t even know what to call ourselves yet. But if we don’t start in the ways we mean to go on then the dream of a new party for the Outside Left will turn into the nightmare other efforts turned into within a depressingly short time.
These were either founded by the socialist this, that and the other parties as a lash-up between themselves. Or in a short space of time came to be absolutely dominated by them. But it’s too easy, and lazy politics, to just stick a label on those you disagree with and otherwise all will be comfort and joy on the road to socialism.
What is dominant in a particular version of Left politics is the cult of the activist. That if we all just did more, and there were more of us doing it then capitalism would come crashing down and the new Jerusalem built. Of course I’m not against campaigning, without that our new party won’t amount to very much. But the question that should always be asked is, is our activism the most effective action we could be taking? Thanks to the cult of activism a space for this kind of questioning is rarely provided. Instead a dull routine is stuck with because that’s what has always been done before, so why change? The lack of positive outcomes barely addressed before we’re on to the next issue to campaign about.
In most decent-sized towns there will be a group selling papers, or more accurately standing there and not making much of a sale, to perplexed passers-by. Sure it provides a visible presence but does it repel far more than it attracts? Sometimes such pitches are supplemented by a stall, but except on rare occasions of topicality what do those piles of pamphlets offer to appeal and engage. Public meetings are held where almost everything that will be said could be predicted beforehand. No sense of the unpredictable, the open-ended, the politics of doubt rather than the convictions of certainty.
And every now and then there will be a national campaign, or in the jargon mobilising, to commit to. A frantic round of leaflets and posters, meetings and phone-rounds, to what end? To fill a coach, which if north of Watford will leave at some ungodly early hour in the morning, to speed down the motorway, drop off the occupants to march from London’s Embankment to Hyde Park and then rush off to catch the coach back home. The impact on those taking part more often than not negligible, the effect on public debate almost non-existent. Of course there are exceptions, Chris Nineham’s book and Ian Sinclair‘s offer differing accounts of the two million strong anti-war march in February 2003. Clare Solomon‘s and the collection from Open Democracy Fightback offer likewise contrasting accounts of the 2011 Student tuition fee protests. But these are the once in a generation exception, not the annual rule of gross disappointment such so-called mobilisations mostly amount to.
Our new Left Party I suspect includes a substantial number of us disillusioned and disaffected by the usual way of doing things on the Left. Certainly no previous initiative in recent years has attracted anything like the response that Ken Loach’s appeal has. Now we begin the process of what this might become. But let’s think for a moment what caused this initial spark. A much loved film-maker and his superb film, The Spirit of ‘45. Not a manifesto, not an issue, not a rally in some Central London big hall with the top table of speakers, not a cabal of left wing groups. Even the appeal we’ve all signed up to isn’t much more than a few sentences. What the appeal connected to was a mood of disappointment with how things are and hope in how things could be different. A combination that Ken’s film brilliantly captures on the big screen. Sentiments now locked out of Westminster Bubble politics given for a change a voice and thanks to Left Unity the beginnings of some kind of substance.
So the beginnings are different, and so far, so good. The most effective action now is to find the ways that the 8000 plus signatories can turn signing up into becoming the party we want. Of course many won’t join in this process, the initial sign-up as much as they end up committing to. That’s part and parcel of the era of clicktivism which just like activism has its flaws too. But anything much less than a quarter joining in that process has to be judged a failure and recognised as such. This is our first test of our break with the way others have organised in the past. This means placing the members, our needs, hopes, expectations, emotions absolutely at the core of the organisation. This isn’t about being inward-looking. But it does mean recognising that without a qualitative leap in numbers and means of participation compared to all the previous, and failed, efforts Ken’s appeal and those of us who signed up, will have amounted to not very much. It means not a detailed set of policies at the outset, it means a values-led organisation, values rooted in how we do our politics as much as what our politics are. Paul Mason recently quoted in an article in Soundings the German Social-Democrat Eduard Bernstein ‘the way is everything, the goal nothing’. We might not want to go quite so far down that road but for a renegade Eduard had a point! Being part of Left Unity I hope will mean being in meetings which are a journey of discovery for all of us. Where we don’t know the answers before proceedings have even begun. A meeting that has failed if at some stage not everybody has taken part. A night out which if it hasn’t involved at last one burst of involuntary laughter wasn’t much of a success. Without pleasure why would anybody but the most committed keep coming back for more. We should be a party for the uncommitted every bit as much as for the committed. We know where the latter are coming from, yet we’ll learn far more from the experiences and contributions of the former.
In breaking with pre-existing models of mostly ineffectual activism there won’t be one single replacement model, that’s the point. But we can perhaps start to identify what a new activism might look like.
Firstly the central role of communications. No this isn’t sufficient in itself but the 21st century has in part been characterised by a communications revolution that writers such as Manuel Castells recognised as transforming what it means to be ‘politically active’. Most organisations of the Left are still rushing headlong to catch up with this revolution, terrified by the horizontalism and open-ness it brings with it. more often than not dragging their feet in the process. As a bottom-up party Left Unity is already being influenced by these necessities of change. That process needs to be embraced and accelerated. The possibilities of each local group to develop a twitter feed, facebook page, a website, a youtube channel are clear and present. The role of the party to facilitate, not control, providing the training so that Left Unity at the base becomes characterised by citizen journalism, photography and film-making, able to make instant use of social media as eruptions of protest occur, developing a media presence rooted in localities.
Secondly the crucial importance of language and visual communications. We cannot begin to underestimate how neoliberalism has succeeded in creating a reactionary common-sense. This is key to its success. Yet there exists a great variety of contrary opinions rarely given a voice within the political mainstream. As a party we need to find ways to develop a common-sense understanding of the alternative, in words and images. Not the jargon of leftism that outside the orbit few can make sense of. Nor a politics of shouty slogans either, ‘Fight/Smash/Stop’. OK for life on planet placard but as a language of hope for the everyday, worse than useless. The importance of this language of hope was absolutely evident in The Spirit of ‘45 what would it look like in 2013?
Thirdly as Jim Jepps has pointed out in a most interesting recent blogpost despite the resources at its disposal, which including the trade unions are considerable, the Left in this country lack in large measure any kind of physical or cultural infrastructure. Where are the social and resource centres, the meting halls, the pubs, cafes and restaurants, even the summer festivals we can call our own? Few and far between, and those that do exist are mostly trapped by the history from where they came, incapable of adapting to the new social and cultural terrain. The newish, and small, Left Wing group Counterfire must have surprised many when as one of their first major interventions they set up a cafe, Firebox. It may or may not succeed, for sheer boldness and imagination it certainly deserves to. Not only to survive but to flourish too. By this one act a small group put much larger organisations to shame which haven’t come close to anything of this sort. A chain of Left Unity sandwich bars? Not perhaps what most of us signed up to. But in each locality a serious audit of what opportunities might exist to initiate a meeting point, a social and cultural space, temporary, mobile or pop-up yet sustainable too. Perhaps a mobile coffee stand, fairtrade, with tables and chairs when the weather’s good. Or a big red bus touring the country with the facility to put on a stage, show a film, space on board for a mobile bookshop and cafe, the Left Unity roadshow. Yes it sounds different, even a little crazy. Nothing like we’re used to taken as our starting point because almost everything we’re used to has failed.
Fourthly Locality becomes the absolutely central focus of our activism. How many Left groups today can talk in terms of any kind of ‘local base’. Hardly any. I live close to Brighton, a city with a majority Green council and an outstanding Green MP, Caroline Lucas. Yet even here there is no sense when you’re in Brighton of it being a Green Party stronghold, no public presence. no impact on the physical culture of the place. Of course the Green Party are doing something right, their vote in the city remains strong but have they shifted the cultural identity of Brighton in any obvious way? Our party will start at a much lower level of course, it may be a while before we have any MPs! But a local base, that includes but isn’t restricted to votes in elections, must be our ambition. This will take imagination and daring ambition but surely it should be our vision, and the start with 80+ local groups gives us the beginnings to put this into practice.
Fifthly Practical internationalism. Our internationalism should be shaped as much by learning as giving. The era of looking overseas for a single model of socialist excellence to reproduce for domestic consumption are for most of us long gone. But across Europe, of most immediate relevance to us here, but elsewhere too, there are countless examples we can learn from. Yet the English Left for all its internationalist principles is remarkably isolated from almost all of these in terms of them impacting on our own political practice. A party culture that sees many of us spending a long weekend, a fortnight or all summer long embedded in the life and activities of a local branch of Syriza, Front de Gauche, Die Linke, Left Bloc and others would both enthuse but also transform our own energies and ideas for what we can do here. I can still remember the impact on those who went to Genoa to join the huge protests against the G8 led by the Italian Left. But this should be part of our everyday activism, not once-in-a-lifetimes. A localised internationalism twinning and exchanging between towns and communities across Europe that have far more in common than the Europhobes will ever admit.
What what will be the shape of the party to come? We don’t know. Let’s celebrate that uncertainty, be liberated by it. But one thing we can be sure of. If we simply reproduce the cult of activism of those efforts that went before us, even if in greater numbers, then more of the same will take us backwards not forwards. What a waste.
Mark Perryman’s account of life as a political activist ‘The Revolution is Just A T-shirt Away’ is available as a free download from here