We Lost Because We Weren’t Big Enough…

Here’s the latest long, long analytical essay for open Democracy. It’s basically trying to look at the whole conjunctural situation of the left in the UK and the US, after the defeats of Corbyn and Sanders and under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The title might seem like a tautology, but my editor Adam, who’s a very good judge of these things, liked the phrase and pulled it out from the main text to use, and it certainly captures something at the heart of what this is about.

You should definitely read it all or else you’re lazy and a bad comrade. But if you must have a very short summary…

•The left in the US and the UK has been through a very similar process over the past yew years. We built a significant democratic movement for the first time in decades, we tried to take control of the main party of the ‘left’, we had limited success and eventually were denied any chance to form a government.

•We got beaten by two forces….

•On the one hand, the centrist neoliberal technocrats who have run the Democratic and Labour parties for decades ultimately succeeded in blocking us, because the threat posed to their own jobs and status by the rising Left was of more immediate concern to them than, for example, the threat of planetary destruction if the Left’s programme is not implemented soon.

• This opened the door to the electoral success of a right-wing nationalist project (and kept it open), in each case headed by a figure who is popular basically because they used to be on TV a lot and precisely because they present themselves as fundamentally unserious politicians.

•This leaves two major tasks ahead of us: building class consciousness amongst workers to challenge conservative nativism; disaggregating the social bloc that is led by the (neo)liberal technocratic political class. It’s a serious mistake to see these tasks as mutually exclusive or to prioritise either at the expense of the other.

•The big challenge that we’re likely to face in the coming years will be the attempt by the Right to de-legitimate demands for a Green New Deal (or comparable programme),with working-class citizens (especially white working-class citizens). They’re likely to do this both by pursuing culture-war tactics which will seek to associate any Green project with metropolitan ‘elite’ culture and with liberal cosmopolitanism, and by offering some material concessions (safe jobs, relatively affordable homes etc.) to key constituencies of workers.

There’s also stuff about, like, how to theorise racism. But that’s mostly in passing.

In terms of what all this means pragmatically…err….well, one thing is I think people who make viral videos and those kinds of media should really be thinking about how to persuade financially comfortable gen-x voters that the kind of politicians that they habitually like to vote for (eg. Keir Starmer, Kamala Harris) are NOT going to do anything to fix climate change, pointing out again and again that their predecessors (Blair, Clinton, Obama) had every opportunity to do so and failed, because they were ultimately in hock to capitalist interests. Of course we also need to revive the labour movements and organise workers in the rust belts. But that’s not really my area of expertise.

One thing I will say is that I think a particular problem right at this moment is that to some extent, in both the UK and the US, we’re in a holding pattern, waiting to see if Biden can win and if Starmer can ever actually build up a significant poll leads (as Blair already was doing by this point in his leadership). The resolution of either of these issues doesn’t have any overriding effects on our strategies, but it will make a difference to where some people focus their energies and attention. If these figures can consolidate their positions, then we’ll have to do almost all of work outside the party structures, trying to shift actual public opinion among key constituencies. If they don’t, well, we will still have to do that; but the opportunity to once more make a play for power inside the party structures will be too significant – and the temptation too great – for this not to become a preoccupation for at least large numbers of us, once again.

FWIW, while we will know whether Biden has won or not on one day in November (presumably…maybe not though…), the question of when we will ‘know’ if Starmer has managed to stabilise his position or not is more open. But, all other things being equal, I would expect the Labour membership to start getting very restless if he is still pursuing a totally uninspiring strategy of trying to win back centrist and socially-conservative voters, but hasn’t secured Blair-style massive poll leads, by some time next year.

Anyway, that’s enough…I got really useful feedback on this essay from Alex Williams, Anthony Barnett, Adam Ramsay, Neal Lawson and Clive Lewis. Thanks for that!

Some other recent contributions on left strategy, in the UK at at least, that are definitely worth checking out:

https://medium.com/@paulmasonnews/the-left-the-party-and-the-class-1ca7b6a959e6

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/09/labour-starmerism-movement

https://newsocialist.org.uk/guilty-men-thesis-and-labours-route-power/

Remarks on Brexit

My old friend and comrade from Signs of the Times day, Stefan Howald, asked me to answer some general questions about Brexit for his political blog. The blog is in German and my complete set of answers was translated into German here.

I posted the English version here, but then the excellent George Eaton asked for it to be posted on the New Statesman website.
I elaborated a bit more on the original comments, and George gave it an edit, and here it is.

Notes Towards a Theory of Solidarity (talk from the Goldsmiths teach-out)

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A few weeks ago, when many UK university staff were on strike against a major attack on their pension rights, I was invited to speak at the teach-out organised by the   UCU (University and Colleges Union) branch at Goldsmiths, University of London.

I gave a 20-minute talk from notes that I’d made the previous day. The talk provoked a really interesting discussion, and I promised a couple of people that I would make the notes available once I had had time to write them up. Well, I’ve written them up and they’ve become quite long, but that’s not all that surprising. This is still just notes – it’s not supposed to be a worked-out argument. But here it is in case anyone finds it useful.

Welcome to the age of Platform Politics- explaining the election result and its implications

So just after the election Alex and I did a talk at the Anti-University of East London event on this subject, which will be central to our forthcoming book (among many other things). The video is HERE

A week or two after that I wrote a long essay on the subject and the implications of the election, but I had already promised to write on this subject for Fabian Review, so I produced a short edited version for them which was published here last week. I did an even shorter version for IPPR but I don’t think that’s been posted yet.

The full length version is on open Democracy HERE.

 

Radical Democracy or Retro Social-Democracy – which Corbynism?

Here’s the latest for the Guardian  where I talk about the different ways of understanding what ‘Corbynism’ might mean as a political project.

There were a couple of points that got edited out for space. One is that the first use of the terms ‘Corbynism’ I can remember was by Alberto Toscano, who was using it, years before Corbyn became Labour leader, to designate a sort of highly principled but totally ineffectual (outside of very local contexts) Marxist activism. How things have changed…

The other was my now obligatory reference to John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists, in order to point out that the division between radical decentralisation and centralising social democracy isn’t some kind of split between that hard and soft left, or whatever, but is as much as anything an expression of an ambiguity that always existed within Bennism:  pro workers-control, but anti-PR; naive about the socialist potential of a sovereign parliament and tribal Left Labourism, but scathing about the corruption of the British constitutional institutions in general. I think that ambiguity is still there within Corbynism, rather than being a function of its relationship to anything outside of itself.

Finally it’s worth saying. Really we don’t want ‘Corbynism’ at all, because the best thing about Corbyn is the way he keeps saying that this movement is not about him. We need 21st century socialism, of which the pro-Corybyn political movement can only be one essential component.

Can Labour win back its heartlands? Not by turning blue

This is the piece I had in the Guardian (print edition as well as online) a couple of weeks before the election. It’s basically a short version of the Stuart Hall Foundation essay, an revised version of which will be up on open Democracy soon.

It seems a bit like stating the obvious now, although the issue of how we relate to those constituencies who DID switch from UKIP to the Tories, and who used to vote Labour, who do exist and lost us some key seats, remains a live and crucial question.