The 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 his second book, 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 which are 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.