“We’re gonna have to do more than talk. We’re gonna have to do more than listen. We’re gonna have to do more than learn. We’re gonna have to start practicing and that’s very hard. We’re gonna have to start getting out there with the people and that’s difficult. Sometimes we think we’re better than the people so it’s gonna take a lot of hard work”. – Fred Hampton
In the few days since the election, Boris Johnson’s new government have already begun attacks on left-wing media outlets (and the media more generally), moved to undermine the BDS movement in solidarity with the people of Palestine, and indicated that they intend to pick a fight with stalwart trade unions such as the RMT. The fightback against Johnson and his cabal has to start now, but as we move forward we also have to learn the key lessons from the Brexit referendum, the misdeeds of the continuity Remain campaign and the mistakes of sections of the left.
Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said that her greatest political achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. The New Labour project, like social democratic parties across the developed world, ‘won’ on the electoral plain by abandoning any vision of an alternative to finance-led, neoliberal capitalism, which tossed millions on the scrapheap while hollowing out democracy.
In the wake of the great financial crisis of 2008, the bankruptcy of social democracy in this mould has meant that the right, in general, has triumphed, while the left is almost everywhere floundering. This conjuncture attests to the accuracy of Samir Amin’s observation that in the absence of positive utopias, people will retreat into reactionary ones. The Brexit vote was by no means a simple working-class rebellion against the status quo, at least not in any progressive sense. But it was a clear statement that working class people want an alternative to the status quo.
The historical obligation of the left is to articulate this alternative. In the wake of Brexit this could not be achieved by aligning with Tony Blair, or the charlatan Lib Dems, but unfortunately liberal left commentators, and opportunistic elements within the Labour Party failed to see this. The left, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, should have accepted Brexit as a political fact and begun a socialist offensive to remake British society – to build, as Amin puts it, the world we wish to see.
We failed, collectively to do this, and the recent election result is a consequence of that. To move forward now and build the movement we need to resist the Tory onslaught, it will be necessary to move forward, to pick up the fractured pieces of the left and build around shared beliefs and goals. In this regard three key lessons need to be drawn from the Brexit debate, which in turn provide three key principles that should shape the struggles of the left going forward.
The first is that the left in the Britain, whether in the Labour Party, trade unions, or various groupings on the revolutionary left, is divorced, in key respects, from the working-class communities that it purports to speak for. This is not just Northern working-class communities, but throughout the country. A central tenet of socialist politics, articulated explicitly by Marx, has been that the emancipation of working-class people was, in the first instance, the job of the working class. In various ways many sections of the formal left has lost faith with this basic principle, and by retreating into professionalised politics (whether in political parties/groupings, NGOs, trade unions, media punditry or academia) has lost any meaningful, organic connection with the with working class communities and their daily struggles.
In the era opening before us, it is crucial then that those on the left work assiduously to ensure that their work, ideas and arguments are immersed in the concrete struggles of all working-class people. This will take the form of specific workplace struggles, campaigns for migrant rights, community struggles to defend the NHS, and more. Whatever form the struggle takes, socialists must ensure that their frame of reference is the experience of communities at the coal face, and not the self-referential and self-reinforcing bubble of mainstream politics, parliamentarianism and faux radical media personalities.
A second key principle, which draws on what was best in those who argued for Remain, is that a large number of people are committed to a form of internationalism. The mistake is to identify these positive ideals with the EU, which, as E. P. Thompson long ago noted, has only ever been a truncated form of internationalism. The positive principles implicit in the best elements of the Remain campaign will be central to socialist politics. We must make an uncompromising defence of workers’ rights – including those of migrant workers – together with an unrepentant anti-racism and a genuine internationalism, the core of our politics.
The final key lesson and principle that emerges from the Brexit debate is the centrality of the struggle for democracy. It is easy for the liberal commentariat to blithely dismiss the slogan of ‘taking back control’ as articulated by Eton-educated career politicians. But the purchase of this slogan shows vast sections of the working class want more of a say in the decisions that shape and impact on their lives. People, with varying degrees of consciousness, are rejecting the tyranny of impersonal market forces controlling their lives and demanding a say in what the future looks like. This desire to become active protagonists in shaping the world around them is something socialists must embrace. This is even more reason why the siren call of overturning the referendum result should have been resisted.
The left needs to push for an expansion and proliferation of democracy and participation in every aspect of our shared lives: in local communities, political parties, trade unions and over matters of national policy. In certain respects, the Corbyn phenomenon produced a surge of such democratic, mass involvement within the Labour Party. This, of course, faces a counter-offensive from the representatives of the extreme centre in the Labour Party, and in the mainstream media, including erstwhile supporters. Those focused solely, or primarily, on the politics of parliamentarianism are happy to jettison the green shoots of change that Corbyn represented in favour of a Blair-lite, ‘electable’ candidate.
In the impending leadership election to decide who succeeds Corbyn, it will be crucial that the left of Labour, trade unions and the wider socialist movement focus on the key priorities for the movement going forward, and not on the mundanities of personality, stature and so on. The left should articulate its short-term priorities, draft a set of core principles, and demand that anyone standing to lead the Labour Party signs up those principles – to salvage what gains have been made during the Corbyn moment the focus has to be on substance, and not cosmetics.
Instead of resignedly accepting the logic of the establishment, socialists must make every aspect of people’s lives a realm of politics, struggle and change and must argue for and work towards a fundamental transformation of the post-Brexit landscape. The Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker has articulated the real challenge for socialists in the 21st century – for her:
‘Politics is the art of making the impossible possible, not from some voluntarist urge to change things but because our efforts should be realistically focused on changing the current balance of power so that what appears to be impossible today becomes possible tomorrow.’
For the left in the UK, resignation and melancholy are luxuries we cannot afford. Having plunged us into a major crisis by airing their dirty laundry in public, the right has regrouped and is on the offensive. The sort of Brexit that many fear, is only inevitable if we resign ourselves to it. If, instead, we go on the offensive, then we can take this moment to remake British society. The future is open, how it turns out will depend on the steps we take, and the resolve we show: there are no guarantees, but if we unite and fight, we can win.
Michael Calderbank and Paul O’Connell are members of the LeFT Campaign Working Group. This post draws on an updated extract of an article previously published in Red Pepper.