Does popularity entail populism? What would it mean for the left to be truly popular? Here Jeremy Gilbert offers nine things the left needs to do if progressive ideas are to occupy the mainstream.
1. Break decisively with neoliberalism.
As Jon Trickett has argued, no progressive project today can offer a convincing or coherent narrative which does not accept that the past 30 years have been very bad in many ways, and in ways which did not amount to a set of random accidents.
Neoliberalism has been a thing – a project, a programme – and its purpose was to restore capitalist profitability even at the expense of democracy and social equality. There is no getting away from this.
Most British journalists still treat ‘neoliberalism’ as too long a word for the British public to get their ears around. Find another word for it then. But don’t pretend it hasn’t happened, or that anybody asked for it.
Lurking at the back of New Labour’s narrative was always the tacit acknowledgment that neoliberalism and the history leading up to it had been inevitable and desirable. The implication was always that it had probably been, after all, a good thing that Thatcher beat the miners in 1984. It wasn’t.
Much of what New Labour did was justifiable given how weak a position the left was in at the time. But the fact that the left became that weak was a disaster.
Not even a mildly progressive project will never be taken seriously by the public until it can state this matter clearly, proposing a route out of the resultant mess that marks a clear break with the neoliberal project.
2. Name the enemy.
Whether we call it ‘capitalism’, ‘profit’, ’corporate greed’ or ‘arsehole bankers’, the fact that a distinct set of interests has driven the neoliberal project and continues to benefit from it, however much others may suffer, cannot be finessed.
Radicals take note – Ed Miliband has had a go at this. Give him credit where it’s due. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found a voice in which to say it which doesn’t sound ridiculous. He tried to convince the public that he was awkward but relatable – an ordinary geek. Instead he should have come clean about his own extraordinarily privileged upbringing, and the systemic problems it revealed about Britain. Too late now?
3. Talk about material interests.
We don’t need to oppose neoliberalism, defend the environment, attack corporate power and build up countervailing social forces just because we’re nice and the bankers are nasty. We need to do it because our own material survival ultimately depends on it. They’ll kill us if they have to and pauper us if they can. That’s why we have to stop them. That’s what an effective populist left would be saying today.
4. Rebuild democracy from the ground up.
Not just because that’s a good thing to do, but because nothing else will enable us to realise our interests.
The nice man in Westminster won’t sort it out for us. Representative democracy is dead. It’s not just a bit poorly. It doesn’t just need a nice cup of tea and some voter-registration drives.
It was never very efficient at the best of times, but in the era of highly mobile global capital, it is both too weak and too sluggish to keep up. Socialists around the world are realising that only radical, participatory alternatives to broken representative democracy are actually capable of realising the collective power that people need, to challenge the organisational capacity of cybernetic capital.
5. Reject the Daily Mail narrative about what English people are like.
We’re not inherently conservative, racist, small-state bigots. We’re just not. The evidence is everywhere. Challenge the anti-immigrant, anti-welfare bullshit with some effective common-sense slogans of our own (like, maybe… ‘You can’t run a country on a shoestring’, ‘The Cuts Don’t Work’…you get the idea).
6. Popularise a critique of neoliberal norms.
Reject at every opportunity the implicit claim that being a nasty, selfish, competitive little shit is the natural human condition for anyone who doesn’t work in the City or television. This is exactly what carried the day rhetorically in Scotland with Common Weal’s brilliant slogan: ‘All of Us First’. Be fair – Ed had a go in his ‘Together’ speech. Didn’t work for him: see point 2.
7. Be contemporary.
Let’s look like we belong to the 21st century, and work to connect with emergent forms of radical culture. We may not even know what they are yet, but when they appear, let’s not ignore them like the mainstream left did with rave, with the festival scene of the 80s, with most of the counterculture of the 60s or 70s. Ignoring/attacking them was supposed to make the labour movement mainstream popular with ‘ordinary people’. How did that work out for us?
8. Be strategically pluralist.
‘Creative direct action is the only thing that achieves anything,’ says Russell Brand.
‘Just vote Labour,’ says Labour.
No. No. No.
We got the NHS because the South Wales miners wanted it and they were the best-organised section of the British working class, and because we had a majority Labour government. Without either of them, we’d have got nothing.
9, Build new institutions of knowledge-production.
Capital will not let us have the universities or the broadcast media back any time soon. Projects like Novara are only the beginning. We need a 1000 Novaras, and a new Workers Education Association (or maybe a revival of the old one) for the international 21st century precariat.