There is no doubt that Owen Jones’s column in the Independent is an asset for the left, reaching a wide audience. His latest proposal is modest but correctly calibrated I think. After reflecting on the seemingly terminal crisis in the far left group, the SWP, Owen suggests that the era of the Leninist sects is over, and the need for a new networked form of politics is clear:
If we could agree on some key principles, and avoid creating a new battleground for ultra-left sects, we could give the angry and the frustrated a home. We could link together workers facing falling wages while their tax credits are cut; unemployed people demonised by a cynical media and political establishment; crusaders against the mass tax avoidance of the wealthy; sick and disabled people having basic support stripped away; campaigners against crippling cuts to our public services; young people facing a future of debt, joblessness and falling living standards; and trade unions standing their ground in the onslaught against workers’ rights.
Such a network would push real alternatives to the failure of austerity that would have to be listened to; and create political space for policies that otherwise does not exist. Faced with a more courageous, coherent challenge to the Tory project, the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right.
It is easier to discuss such an idea in a newspaper than put it into practice, but it is a mystery that such a network does not already exist. Though fraught with difficulties – never underestimate the ability of the left to miss an opportunity – the appetite is certainly there. Our country’s greatest movement consists of those screaming with exasperation at their TV sets. Time to break the isolation of those who want an alternative to the bleak future currently on offer. The era of the SWP and its kind is over; a new movement is waiting to be born.
Within a few days, over 800 people hit the “strongly agree” button with a further 100 plus agreeing, it was tweeted 360 times and recommended 1700 times of Facebook. The potential is there.
The Internet certainly provides a mechanism for reaching a wide audience, my fellow Socialist Unity blogger, John Wight, has received over 8000 people clicking “like” on his excellent recent article about Tory attacks on the unemployed on Huffington Post. Tens of thousands of people read the debate which took place on Socialist Unity after the scandal of the SWP’s handling of a rape complaint was revealed.
But how do we go beyond the limitations of the Internet? The think tank CLASS is obviously a heavyweight addition to the left’s capacity to generate policy and ideas, backed as it is by UNITE and GMB; but it provides little opportunity for engagement by grassroots activists.
Ideas are not themselves enough unless linked with effective political activism that leads to social change. However, activism requires a shared political project. The political landscape is dominated by the fact that the only credible alternative government in Westminster is Labour; however the Labour Party no longer commands the authority that it used to among social-justice activists. Indeed, the so far inability or reluctance by Labour’s front bench to effectively oppose the austerity narrative, and propose an alternative economic policy for growth is highly problematic. The left in the party needs to have an organisational counterwieght to Progress, which needs a footprint in the PLP and in the shadow cabinet, and of course backing from unions. Those raw ingredients do exist. But it also requires a structure that individual party members can join, and we need to make it actually happen.
The election cannot be ignored, because Labour Party members cannot engage with any political network that will directly lead to electoral challenges to Labour. The paradox though is that Labour is likely to fight the election on a manifesto that will not inspire the activist left.
The important argument to win is that the formation of a Labour government is necessary, and should be campaigned for even by those with no particular alliegance to Labour, because it will provide a much better political context for the left, and also will be more favourable to working people, and the unions.
However, a political campaign by the left for a Labour government need not be limited to the policies of the Labour manifesto. What is needed, as has happened in the past when Labour is in opposition, is bold thinking about what a Labour government could do. How we can recast British society to be more fair, just and sustainable.
What we need is a socialist campaign for a Labour victory.