Anti politics, Russell Brand, George Galloway, and the need to resurrect the Left Book Club

Left Book ClubThe new political phenomenon of our time is anti-politics, a deep seated revulsion of the existing political class and political process. It is the fruits of a political and economic system that is wedded to big business, the banks, and free market nostrums. That in 2014 the wealthiest five families in the UK own as much wealth as 12.5 million people, the poorest in the country, tells us everything we need to know about the chasm that now exists between the political and economic elite and the mass of the people.

In Scotland the recent referendum on independence allowed this phenomenon of anti politics, which by no means is the same as ‘no’ politics, to be given political expression in a Yes campaign and Yes vote which succeeded in rocking the economic and political establishment. 1.6 million people out of a population of 5.3 million cast a vote to end a 300 year old political union based on a political programme which rather than a departure from the status quo, had status quo stamped all over it. Yet nonetheless the hope placed in a Yes vote as a way of breaking with the ironclad consensus of the mainstream Westminster parties over issues such as war, Trident, the austerity, welfare, and wealth redistribution, has seen the SNP propelled to a position of dominance in Scotland that shows no evidence of ending anytime soon.

The first post referendum opinion poll in Scotland is devastating for Labour. The Ipsos-MORI poll places the SNP 30 points ahead of Labour, up from under 20 percent of the vote at the 2010 general election to 52 percent if the result of this poll were to translate into votes at the next general election in May 2015. It would see the number of SNP seats at Westminster rise from its current 6 to over 50, while Labour would suffer a wipeout, losing all but four of its 41 Scottish seats.

Thus the current Labour leadership contest in Scotland could not be more significant. Of the three candidates standing – Jim Murphy, Neil Findlay, and Sarah Boyack – only Neil Findlay is standing on a platform of wealth redistribution, support for the trade union movement, and investment in public services. In other words a prospectus and vision that conforms to the founding principles of the Labour Party.

Sadly, however, Murphy is most likely to win. He is a polished and experienced politician with a high profile, which will play favourably within the PLP and among many Labour members. With Anas Sarwar announcing his intention to resign as deputy leader, we are looking at the prospect of a Murphy/Boyack leadership team at Holyrood. If so, Labour in Scotland will move from its death bed into its political grave.

South of the border the rise of UKIP has been fuelled by a similar anti politics which has benefited the SNP in Scotland. Immigration and the EU are issues that have played prominently, but underlying both is a hatred of the political class and establishment. Ed Miliband is perceived as a continuation of the status quo rather than a radical alternative. He suffers from a lack of fire or passion, and does not come across as ideologically driven, responsible for him failing to connect with working class voters. Focus groups and political advisers have proved an impediment to Labour’s ability to shake off the baggage of New Labour, and for many working class voters UKIP offers a refreshing change and opportunity to vent their anger with the mainstream. This was evidenced in the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election result, which saw Labour’s majority reduced from 6000 votes in 2010 to just 600 votes, separated from UKIP in second place by just 2 points. Yes, Labour’s total vote increased by 1 percent, but this seat has turned from a safe seat for Labour into an ultra marginal as a consequence of UKIP’s spectacular showing.

Yet when a clear and impassioned left wing alternative to the status quo is presented to the electorate we know there is an appetite for it. George Galloway’s stunning victory in the Bradford West by election in 2012 leaves no doubt of this. Galloway is someone who is routinely pilloried in the press, yet his following on social media is extraordinary for a political figure, especially an MP. On Twitter he is followed by 226k people and on Facebook over 400k.

The emergence of Owen Jones as a recognised mainstream figure is further evidence of the potential traction of left wing politics. Jones’ first book Chavs became a bestseller and the follow, The Establishment, looks set to replicate its success. Now a ubiquitous presence in the media, the writer and commentator has a Twitter following of 225k.

The most recent and controversial example of the popularity of a radical alternative to the mainstream comes in the person of Russell Brand, who has reinvented himself as a political campaigner and voice in support of progressive causes. Brand’s celebrity profile has combined with his radical message to dominate the headlines in recent weeks. His new book, Revolution, in conjunction with his media appearances has succeeded in shaking things up and is a welcome antidote to the Nigel Farage/UKIP bandwagon. Despite being attacked by figures on the left and right, Brand has clearly captured a zeitgeist, revealing an appetite for radical, anti establishment ideas.

I recently wrote an article in support of Brand’s entree into politics which has so far received a staggering response. At time of writing it has received 45k likes at the Huffington Post. George Galloway re-posted it on his Facebook page two days ago, where thus far it has been seen by 2.65 million people and attracted 34k likes. This response is obviously more to do with the inordinately high profiles enjoyed by Russell Brand and George Galloway than the actual article, but nonetheless theirs are profiles inextricably linked to political views in opposition to the mainstream.

In the 1930s the Left Book Club proved that in conditions of economic depression and austerity, and in the face of the emergence and growth of the ultra reactionary menace of fascism in response, the battle of ideas could be fought and won by the left. The idea for the Left Book Club came about in the course of a conversation over lunch between the publisher Victor Gollancz and two leading left wing voices of the time, Stafford Cripps and John Strachey. As Paul Laity tells it in his excellent introduction to the Left Book Club Anthology (Victor Gollancz 2001):

What could be done, Cripps wanted to know, to revitalise and educate the British left? He was considering a new weekly paper, but Gollancz had another idea – a club along the lines of the successful Book Society, which would sell radical books very cheaply. The first advertisement for the Left Book Club appeared only a month later.

The response to the ad was staggering. Two thousand adherents were needed to make the Club work; after only a month, there were more than 6000. By the end of the first year, membership had reached 40,000 and by 1939 it was up to 57,000.

Laity goes on:

With the Labour Party appearing unadventurous and feeble, many socialists looked further to the left. World capitalism was in crisis – economies crashing, governments toppling, empires over-extended – and most British progressives agreed that it had to be replaced. The National Government was believed to be running the country in the interests of big business rather than the people.

Marx’s axiom that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, immediately springs to mind reading Laity’s words.

George Galloway has just announced his intention to resurrect the Left Book Club in order to wage the same battle of ideas in the 21st century. This time round it will be an eBook club and will harness the subversive power of social media to challenge the tired mainstream and breath life back into the idea of politics as a mechanism by which to transform people’s lives.

It is an excellent idea with huge potential. People are desperate for an alternative, which must combine theory and practice if it is to succeed in meeting the challenge of channelling the tide of anti politics in a progressive direction. The power of capital is as without restraint today as it was in the 1930s, when the original Left Book Club was formed. Nationalism in all its forms is on the rise. As such, there is a glaring need to raise class consciousness and the banner of a viable socialist alternative.

The Left eBook Club could not be more necessary.

Scottish Labour leadership contest

Three candidates have declared for the upcoming Scottish Labour leadership contest. Balloting begins on 17 November and the new leader will be declared on 13 December. At time of writing deputy Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has also just resigned, paving the way for one of the two losing candidates to become deputy leader.

The candidates are Jim Murphy MP, Sarah Boyack MSP, and Neil Findlay MSP. Neil Findlay is by far the most progressive of the three. He is a man cut from old Labour cloth, a strong believer in progressive taxation, public ownership, the trade union movement, and social justice. He is currently a list MSP for Lothian and is the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health.

Here is a recent article he wrote for the Morning Star, arguing that Labour in Scotland must be a left wing alternative to the SNP.

Labour must outflank the SNP from the left

by Neil Findlay

Morning Star

As Scotland enters the post-referendum era with a new First Minister in waiting and a political landscape still reverberating from the decisive rejection of independence, the Scottish Labour Party now faces a number of challenges.

While the media focuses on the growth in membership of the SNP and the Greens — not without its challenges — or the creation of yet another new left party (what a novel idea that is), Labour has to respond and respond quickly to the new terrain.

For some the answer lies in the further devolution or independence for the party in Scotland or some other bureaucratic or organisational changes.

Necessary though organisational change is, the most pressing response required is a political one.

And I would argue — following the massive turnout at the referendum — that anyone who thinks that we can take on the SNP from any other position than firmly to their left needs to re-enter this world from cloud cuckoo land.

So, in setting clear red water between Scottish Labour and a Sturgeon-led SNP government, the party should consider the following policy options:

-Committing in principle to a policy of full employment. It is the most basic need of human beings to have the wherewithal to provide for themselves and their family

-Establishing a national house-building programme to build council houses and social housing on a grand scale

-Setting up a living wage unit in the Scottish government that would use grants, procurement and every lever of government to raise the minimum wage to the living wage

-Re-democratise local government, financing services and freeing councils to set their own taxes again and be held to account for doing so — and begin reversing the 40,000 job losses across our councils

-End the social care scandal by making social care a rewarding, fairly paid career and ending the indignity of short-timed care visits — following the best practice in the sector

-Create quality apprenticeships and new college places that set young people up for life — 130,000 places have been lost under the SNP

-An industrial policy that promotes manufacturing and new sustainable jobs

-A wholesale review of our NHS — recruiting enough staff and rewarding them to ensure we have an NHS for the 21st century; ending the increasing spend on the private sector

-Build a charter of workers’ rights with new legislation on the fatal accident inquiries and strict liability, devolved health and safety, new legislation on equalities, the living wage and blacklisting, and a commitment to an inquiry into the miners’ strike

These are policies that will have an impact on people across Scotland — especially those who have been victims of the Tory class war on the poor and who those who have been left behind as the SNP try yet again to be all things to all people.

We should remember that the SNP is vulnerable for that very reason.

It has not protected the NHS. It has failed to use its powers of procurement to enforce the living wage.

It has made no commitments on workers’ rights beyond talk about partnership. It has taken no action on blacklisting. It still sees economic growth in terms of cutting taxes on big business and the super-rich.

Even its most recent policy announcement on a land and buildings transaction tax trails behind that already announced by Labour.

Labour proposes an annual tax on mansions while the SNP will simply impose a tax when properties are sold.

Those on the left should remember this. The SNP is not a social-democratic party. It is a nationalist party that is at the same time populist. It seeks links with the trade union movement — but also with big business. Its economic policy documents show it to be essentially neoliberal, ultimately defending the privileges of the market.

This is the open goal for the Labour Party. Policy is the key to our future success — let’s start to build that radical policy programme now.

Neil Findlay MSP is the Scottish Labour Party’s front-bench spokesperson for health.

The legacy of the miners’ strike

Jon Trickett’s Speech on Coalfield Communities, Tuesday 28th October

This has been an extraordinary debate this afternoon. The wisdom, passion and experience of millions of people have been distilled by Labour Members.

Only three Government Back Benchers spoke, but they gave not a word of contrition. There was not even any body language, to show a sense of guilt, remorse or apology for what was done during those years of the miners’ strike. The passion expressed exemplifies the feelings that still exist in the mining communities.

From time to time, passion leads hon. Members to say things—I am referring to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood). We recognise that there are ongoing investigations and it would be wrong to reference any particular individual. It would be wrong to prejudice those proceedings.

I was a plumber at the time of the strike. I was elected to the council in the middle of the strike in September 1984. I spent part of my time going round pro bono fixing the heating and plumbing systems of striking miners. I was repeatedly stopped by the police, both in the process of my election and going about my lawful business. That exemplifies the experience of many tens of thousands of people in the mining communities during that time.

There is a special dignity for those who work with their hands. The Tories simply do not share that belief. They have a different value system, one based on greed and hierarchy. They believe that the closed circle that runs our country—their spokespeople in the House—were born to rule, and that the rest of us were born to serve. That characterised their attitude during the strike. If hon. Members do not believe me, they can look at the Prime Minister’s comments in Glasgow in 2008, when he said, effectively, that the poor are responsible for their poverty. He should tell the mining communities that they were responsible for their poverty. Hon. Members should look at the next leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, who only last year when talking about inequality said in The Daily Telegraph that some people are too thick to get ahead. He should tell that to the mining communities after their experience.

The miners had a totally different set of values from those of the Tories. The Tories despised their values. Their values were of community, and of mutual support and solidarity. To this very day, there is an elemental sense of equality in mining communities. The miners did not know and never would accept the meaning of the word “deference”, and rightly so. The age of deference should have died long ago, but the Tories hated the idea that working people—any working people, but in this case the miners—should organise themselves around those values of community and solidarity and create the most powerful trade union this country has seen.

The 1984 Cabinet papers reveal the truth, the underhand tactics and even the lies of the Government of that time, both out in the communities and in the House. People talk about miners who continued to work, but they were lied to about the Government’s intentions. That is what happened.

The Government launched a full-scale assault on the mining communities and, in doing so, destroyed the independence of the police force. There were trumped-up charges all over the coalfield communities. Criminal justice was reduced to a political instrument. There is even evidence that members of the armed forces were dressed in police uniforms by the then Government, all this to achieve Tory party political objectives.

But we are not simply speaking today about history. The Tory attitude to the miners and the former mining communities is symbolic of a wider view that they have of working people as a whole. We need only look at the explosion in the use of zero-hours contracts, temporary work and false self-employment to see that the Conservatives have not changed. They are still the same old nasty party.

Once again the Conservatives are turning their back on mining communities. In my constituency, and I guess elsewhere too, the same women who worked in the soup kitchens during the miners’ strike, and their daughters, are now working in the food banks. How can that happen in one of the richest countries of the world in 2014? Nobody would believe it was possible. The Government have failed to understand that if society asks people to work with their hands in the bowels of the earth to help to create the wealth of our country, that society—our country—owes those people a debt of gratitude, which we might describe as a social contract. When mines are closed or industries die, we have a moral duty to look after the people who created the wealth of our country in such difficult circumstances.

The previous Government did much to honour the idea of a social contract. We spent billions of pounds compensating tens of thousands of former miners for miners’ diseases, from which many are still suffering today. In my constituency 12,500 miners or their families went through my office during those Labour years and received damages of over £100 million—in one constituency alone. The Labour Government invested £1.5 billion in coalfield regeneration, creating employment or training for 150,000 people. It was Labour that set up the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which assisted more than 400,000 people in finding jobs, accessing skills, getting education and improving their health.

Although much was done in those 15 years, the job is not finished. There are still high levels of ill health in my constituency and in all the coalfield areas, with 7.4% of people in the Yorkshire coalfield areas suffering ill health, compared with 5.6% nationally. Then, in mining areas with high levels of chronic diseases, we face the insult of GP cuts and hospital closures.

Unemployment is still 40% higher in coalfield areas than the national average.

Deprivation levels in coalfield areas remain at 43%.

Our society—our country—owes a debt to the miners and to all manual workers. Before I hand over to the Minister, I want to ask her four questions. First, will she on behalf of her party finally express some humility and apologise to the miners and the communities which it left devastated? Secondly, will she now authorise the release of all the papers held in the Government archives to find the truth about what happened in the mining communities, and will she authorise an independent inquiry into the events that surrounded the strike?

Thirdly, may we have a clear assurance that if the Government are still minded, even at this late stage, to find state aid to help the three remaining deep mine pits, that aid will not accelerate closure but will allow the pits to continue until the reserves are exhausted? Finally, will the Minister commit the Government to the full-scale ongoing process of regenerating the coalfield areas? Those people put themselves in harm’s way for the health and wealth of our country. Do we not have a responsibility to make sure that those communities are properly remunerated and regenerated in the future?

Jon Trickett MP is Shadow Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party

The International Brigades

On 28 October 1938 the farewell parade of the International Brigades took place in Barcelona. Formed in September 1936 by the Comintern, 35,000 men and women from 50 countries served in all the major battles of the Spanish Civil War. While their motives may have ranged from idealism to ideology, from romanticism to a desire for excitement and adventure, what they had in common was exemplary courage. Thousands never returned.

Addressing them during the parade, Dolores Ibarruri – better known to history as La Pasionara – said:

You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.

We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain — return!

Return to our side for here you will find a homeland — those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship — all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people who today and tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm —

Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!

Britain’s military mission in Afghanistan comes to an end

No matter how you cut it, Britain’s 13 years of military presence in Afghanistan has been an abject failure and utterly futile in terms of its achievements. It has been an intervention characterised by incompetence, poor planning, lack of resources, and wasted lives.

The pictures carried in many of the papers today of the 453 British soldiers who lost their lives makes for harrowing reading. So many young men killed in their prime, their lives thrown away as a result of decisions made by politicians with the morals of the gutter. Many more were maimed, some permanently, and others damaged psychologically.

The families and loved ones of those young men will be feeling particularly raw today, and understandably so. Then there are the thousands of Afghans who lost their lives and who’ve also suffered. There will no trumpets or tributes paid to them.

The words of James Connolly come to mind: “Their crimes would shame all the devils in hell.”

Russell Brand v Evan Davis

The default position of many on the left will be to immediately write-off Russell Brand as naive and self aggrandising. I don’t. I think he’s sincere, passionate, and is stirring things up on behalf of the have nots as few others are.

I picked up his book yesterday and had a leaf through it. I happened upon the section where he waxes on the finer points of yoga. It put me off and I put it back. However I may give it another go after watching this interview on Newsnight.

He is clearly a highly intelligent guy who is committed to the plight of those suffering under austerity and the status quo.

Personally, I would take Russell Brand over John Lydon and Polly Toynbee all day long.

Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956′

Against The Grain - The British Far Left From 1956Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956 is a new edited volume, put together by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, which will be published this month by Manchester University Press. While not attempting to be a comprehensive overview of the far left in Britain over the last 60 years, the book looks to highlight new areas of historical research into these left-wing groups and movements that have often been overlooked by other scholars. The book includes contributions from activists, established academics and up-and-coming scholars, presenting chapters on a wide range of political organisations and the movements that they were involved with.

Although it has a hefty price tag for the hardback edition, the editors are hoping that a paperback edition will be published in 2015-16. A slightly cheaper hardback edition can be bought from here (if you are willing to buy from large corporations).

Below is an edited excerpt from the book’s introduction, giving an overview of the history of the British far left from 1956. The editors hope that it piques the interest of Socialist Unity readers and leads to a fruitful debate about how we look at the history of the far left in Britain. As Mark Perryman wrote about the book for Philosophy Football: “this is one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.”

The editors are also keen to hear of anyone doing research into the British far left, particularly on areas that have been overlooked in this volume. Please send them an email here.


In 1972, Tariq Ali, editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf and leading figure in the International Marxist Group (IMG), wrote in the introduction to his book, The Coming British Revolution:

The only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and despite their many failings, they represent the only way forward1.

At the time, the British left appeared in the ascendancy. And yet, within a short while, the fortunes of the British left began to fall as sharply as they had risen. Certainly, by the end of the 1970s, the far left’s forward march, which had been gathering pace since the political eruptions of 1956 seemed – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – to have ‘halted’2. Thereafter, the British far left continued to debate how best to react to the changes in the political, economic and social landscape that occurred under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour. In so doing, it realigned itself, fractured and evolved as new struggles emerged to test preconceptions and continually thwart the expected ‘breakthrough’. Whatever way you shape it, the revolution did not come around. Nevertheless, the far left played its part in shaping what remains an on-going historical epoch, challenging social mores and providing a dissenting voice within the British body politic.

Outlining the history of the British far left

The year 1956 may be seen as representing ‘year zero’ for the British left.  Prior to this, the CPGB had dominated the political field to the left of the Labour Party. The party had grown out of the unification of several socialist groups in 1920 and gradually built itself as the radical alternative to Labour during the inter-war period. By the end of the Second World War, its membership was over 40,000 and the leftwards shift by the electorate in the 1945 general election gave the Party hope that the transformation of British society towards socialism was imminent. The 1945 election saw the CPGB win two parliamentary seats and was soon followed by 215 communist councillors elected at a municipal level3. Simultaneously, the party began to suffer in the face of the anti-communist hysteria that came with the onset of Cold War. Even then, its promotion of a parliamentary road to socialism and a future Communist-Labour alliance ensured that it maintained a foothold in the British labour movement.

Trotskyism and left-communism developed as two oppositional currents in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the post-war period that British Trotskyism really emerged as an alternative left-wing movement to the CPGB. The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe. By 1956, Gerry Healy’s The Club (soon after the SLL) was the main Trotskyist group in Britain, with the others being relegated to discussion groups or journals in this period.

Such alignments across the British left would change in 1956. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’ that arose around Stalin and admission that crimes had been committed during Stalin’s reign had a major impact on the CPGB. While many party members wanted a discussion over the CPGB’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union, the leadership sought to quash any frank and open debate, particularly amongst the rank and file at branch or district level. Soviet intervention in Hungary later the same year only exacerbated matters, leading to some 8,000 people leaving the CPGB between February 1956 and February 1958.

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CLASS conference

Class (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) was founded with the intention to come up with bold, brave and radical ideas to support the challenges facing working people.

Class is holding its second annual conference on Saturday, 1st November 2014 at TUC Congress House, London, commencing at 10.00am.

Taking place just six months before the 2015 general election, “What Britain Needs” promises to be one of the biggest gatherings of trade unionists and activists in the run-up to the next election, and may be one of our last chances to ensure the voice of working people is heard in the policy arena.

There will be sessions on many of the key issues of interest to trade union activists, particularly public ownership, public services and making work pay and GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny is one of the keynote speakers.

It would be good for as many trade union members and activists as possible to attend the conference and Class have launched a brand new conference website – http://classonline.org.uk/conference2014  and have also launched a campaign on social media. You can find out more on their Facebook page, on Twitter @classthinktank and via the hashtag #classconf14.