It is often noted that the left has failed to grow as a result of the economic crisis; that despite the crisis of the system, the left has not managed to successfully articulate its own vision and has all too often relied on tactics utilised in the decades gone by. In other words, the left has not ‘caught up’ with changes in society and has as a result been left on the fringes of the debate. This is an attempt to outline some of the most important ways in which our society has changed and come to some conclusions about how the left can re-assert itself.
Several key changes spanning social, ideological and economic spheres have taken place over recent decades. Firstly, and most obviously, there has been a broad and entrenched shift from the post-war economy to a neoliberal economy.
In the 1970s we used to talk of the three big players that ran the country: big politics, big capital and big unions. When the coal miners shut down the country in the 1972 strike, even the Queen had to get the candles out. Reformism meant something real in two senses: electing the Labour party into government and ‘do-it-yourself reformism’ at the workplace where workers knew they had the industrial muscle to take action because a) there was not a significant reserve of labour to replace them b) people didn’t have mortgages to pay because they had council housing and c) the workplace itself composed of hundreds of workers in close proximity raises the possibility of action through increased mutual confidence.
None of that exists anymore in the same way. Instead we live in an era of counter-reforms, were the gains of the post-war era like social housing, a welfare state, NHS, and so on are being decimated, removed all together or privatised. The government is constantly seeking ways to get private companies to do their job and in doing so transferring wealth from the public purse into the hands of a tiny – and extremely rich – elite. The election of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 could have been a time where at least some of the welfare state was secured and neoliberalism pushed back: he had the majority and the mandate after years of Tory rule. Instead Labour went in the opposite direction: they privatised, played a pivotal role in imperialist wars, created a more unequal society and lay the framework for both continued neoliberalism and a political shift which meant that reformism was removed from mainstream discourse almost entirely.
To occupy the space to the left of the mainstream parties requires different thinking and an ability to relate to circumstances as they actually exist – not as we would like to imagine them
Second – the power of the trade-unions has massively weakened as the industries which they relied on for their power have disintegrated. Westminster has built around it an army of lobbyists, business networks and think tanks. Westminster and the City are so tightly linked that the dominance of finance capital has created an uneven economy between the richest parts of London and the south-east and the rest of Britain. There is an unprecentended fall in trust in the central institutions of governance in Britain with less than a quarter of Britons trusting national government, less than a fifth trusting parliament and fewer than 15 per cent having any confidence in the press. Neoliberalism has eroded politics – providing both a challenge and an opportunity for the left.
Where there is economic crisis, there is social crisis. There is a permanent section of unemployed workers, and not just because finance capital requires less labour. New, large scale employers such as call centres and supermarkets have weak (if any) trade-union representation. Work today often has poor conditions and protection, flexible and temporary contracts and, importantly, low pay – and that’s not to mention workfare. Additionally, workplaces are atomised and compartmentalised into smaller units of workers. At the same time corporations have sky rocketing surplus, and the luxury goods industry – expensive cars and so on – is booming.
In the 1970’s the average pay gap between the worker and the boss was one to 30, today it is more than one to 300. The wealth of the top 200 individuals stands at a staggering £318 billion – an eight fold increase since 1989. This is by design. Inequality has led to trillions of pounds in personal debt as to buy goods people have to take more from the bank to offset their stagnant wages. Loans have never been about helping ordinary people, they have been about ensuring an upwards flow of capital.
The decrease in trade union power, the change in the forms of work we are employed in, the political consensus around neoliberalism and the rejection of formal politics by many provide an opening for the left.
What does all this mean? First off, the space for people to be attracted towards left wing ideas is far greater because there is little ‘buy-in’ for working people today in the current system. Masses of people feel they have no stake in society – and why should they feel anything else? Power in the workplace is non-existent for many – 77 per cent of private workplaces have no union representation at all, and when are we ever consulted on anything that goes on politically?
Resistance to the system driven by a lack of trust in formal politics and the realtive decrease in influence of the unions has lead to a rise of protest politics. The number of people who join demonstrations, boycotts, sign petitions and so on – is far higher than in the 1970s whilst trust in political parties is much lower. Interestingly people have held more left wing views in recent years than they did in previous decades as the confluence of economic inequality, lack of political representation and events such as the Iraq war begins lead towards ideological conclusions about the political and economic system.
In short, there is a reason why there has been a rise in social movements and mass protest over the last decade. This is the pattern of visible resistance to neoliberalism. However protest movements alone have limitations. Movements also need to make incursions into the formal political process – and that key element is often missing.
Since all mainstream parties accept the neoliberal agenda, the left can claim to be the only people who have policies to transfer wealth and power from the rich to the poor. We are willing to say capital doesn’t have the best interests of people at heart. That’s very easy to say to most people you might meet in your work or your friendship circles. The difference is transferring that into political power. Politicians are very good at shaking hands and saying one thing to your face, but as soon as they creep back into the corridors of power – especially in Westminster – its another story.
Despite the billions spent over the decades to ensure the protection of wealth for the rich, and regardless of the ideological consensus about neoliberalism there is another unalterable fact: it simply doesn’t work. The economic crisis highlights the failed neoliberal project. They de-regulated, privatised, liberalised, marketised and globalised and yet we are faced with a global economic crisis the scale of which we have not seen since the 1930s. This is not going to go away. If austerity is continued the situation will worsen further for working people. The attacks are ideological. Now they see an opportunity to completely overturn the welfare state. In other words the battle of ideas cannot be ignored, and the left needs to enter the field.
To occupy the space to the left of the mainstream parties requires different thinking and an ability to relate to circumstances as they actually exist – not as we would like to imagine them. To tie the strands of this argument together there are some practical conclusions:
1) We can no longer rely on workplace militancy and the unions as currently constituted. This is not to undermine the centrality of workers organisation: it is precisely the opposite. It is a recognition of what has taken place so that the unions might be strengthened and made more relevant. That means we need to bring together the social movements – the main expression of resistance to neoliberalism – with the unions and strikes. This can radicalise and refresh the unions – as well as rebuild its numbers. Particularly young workers looking at bleaker futures but often in non-union workplaces need to be seen as critical in re-establishing a challenge to the elite.
We need broad campaigns that tie together protest and demonstration with policy and alternatives. We need to utilise professionally not only social media – but the media itself.
2) The dividing line for the left is not revolution versus reform for a very simple reason: there is no mass reformism of the Labour Party. It’s true that the limits to what we can achieve under the capitalist system mean that as well as campaigning for reforms we also need to have a vision for a different kind of society all together. But to pretend to be the militant edge of institutionalised reformism is a fallacy. Instead, those institutions of reform have to be built and re-built.
We need to create infrastructure around which the left can develop strategies that mean we are actually saying something more than a) a slogan or b) capitalism bad – socialism good.
3) Part of this is to take the opportunity of elections more seriously. Elections today, specifically Westminster elections, represent all that has gone wrong with our polity – neoliberal consensus, corruption and privilege. Syriza is an example of the vulnerability of parliament to a left challenge at times of crisis. The left do not have a strategy to relate to the majority of people in elections and do not attempt to compete with the mainstream parties in terms of modern voting software and databases – but why shouldn’t we? Independence can create an opening for an electoral challenge to emerge as part of a multi-party system. Additionally, because the Scottish state does not have the same mass of lobbyists that Westminster does, we could provide an alternative world view from the outset.
4) Democratic participation in society has been hollowed out. We live in a society where we have no say over the key decisions which affect our lives. Whether it is work or war, the people are left out of the discussion. The vast majority are alienated from the political process. Formal politics is boxed in, and often covered up with corruption. The paradox is that the right successfully mobilise in these conditions. Behind the scenes they campaign to ensure privatisation is normalised and that the interests of finance capital tower over everything else. We need to argue in the here and now for extending democracy to communities in a way that not only increases political engagement, but that actually extends their power.
That means we should move away from advocating hyper-centralisation. That does not mean falling into the fashionable but liberal ‘localism’ milieu that often fails to confront the need to challenge the centralism of capital itself. It does mean that participation must be entrenched as deep into society as possible but extended to confront issues of budgetary control, democracy in workplaces and hardwired into the decision making process usually left to the state such as waging war.
5) Goals and principles don’t have to change, but our message does. We can’t be the people who appear to want conflict and instability as if this automatically leads towards socialist conclusions. Successful political movements are based on having more security, more stability and peace. In the first instance we have to articulate clearly that we have an alternative to economic chaos and poverty. But we also have to listen to the immediate concerns of people and be as far as possible an organic part of not only political movements and struggles but of communities as well.