The reasons for the widespread despair on the British left are no mystery. The right seems to have rendered itself unassailable through mobilisation of the misnamed ‘culture war’. Ejection from the Labour leadership further compounds the sense of hope dashed and agency lost. The defeats are real, but there is also a route back, and practical work we can get stuck into right now.
In an earlier column, I argued that the ‘culture war’ is really a struggle to define our collective sense of ourselves. Conservatives rally to a collective sense of self that is jingoistic, chauvinistic, hierarchical and exclusionary. The left challenges this with a pluralistic, inclusive, egalitarian and emancipatory politics. Arguments about identity, symbols and language are often important manifestations of the deeper contest over which of these visions of society will prevail.
Of course, the terms of this struggle are rooted in the legacy of the British empire. Empire was the context in which the myth of British national greatness was established, tied to whiteness, and bound through culture to an individual’s understanding of themselves. Empire birthed the soul of British conservatism, at the societal level, defining who was in, and who was out.
These are far from abstract matters, as we learned last December. In casting Jeremy Corbyn and those around him as traitors to the nation, the right was able to stir up a great reservoir of feeling, powerfully alienating large numbers of voters from the Labour party. Turning up on their doorsteps a couple of weeks before polling day with a retail policy offer was like bringing a spreadsheet to a knife fight. Brexit had become a proxy for viscerally held feelings that often had very little to do with economics.
Keir Starmer’s answer to this problem is to side with or surrender to the right on the so-called culture war. This bolsters the very discourse that was mobilised against us last December, cutting directly across truly socialist forms of collective solidarity. Migrants, minorities and the multi-ethnic working class are, once again, written off as acceptable losses in the rush to appease the politics of reaction. This is antithetical both to socialist values and to any attempt to create a broad-based voter coalition.
Progressive political projects, by definition, don’t accept the world as it is. They work to change it. Fortunately for those of us who want to create the conditions in which socialist politics can thrive, that change is already happening. Generations of voters under the age of 40, committed to socially liberal values and deeply dissatisfied with the economic status quo, are emerging as a distinct and powerful political bloc. The right’s culture war is, above all, a fearful, defensive reaction to this tectonic shift.
These generations have not been passively drawn to the left. Often, formally or informally, they are the left. They have responded to their social and economic conditions in proactive ways that have affirmed their political agency. The formidable power of this generational bloc lies in its organic ties with the broad left, rather than merely in its voting patterns.
So there is an alternative to despairing about, or capitulating to, those aspects of British politics that are proving resistant to change. Instead, we can focus on those aspects that are changing, and think strategically about how those processes can be accelerated. Again, a major part of the answer will lie in the development of organic, relational ties with the people we hope to connect with.
I spoke to Momentum’s Deborah Hermanns about how the campaigning group’s new focus on workplace and community organising, and political education, can help develop and expand the emerging new forms of collective solidarity. Hermanns is clear that “there is no shortcut to socialism, and no socialism from above”. The transformation they hope to achieve will take years of careful, committed work, empowering people to drive that change themselves from the ground up.
The current focus on resisting evictions is a good example of this, where Momentum reached out to pre-existing campaigns and offered its support. With its tens of thousands of members, and their growing arsenal of skills and experience, the organisation is well-placed to amplify the voices of community campaigners and help them to build their capacity. In this way, as Hermanns puts it, Momentum will help people develop a concrete, lived experience of “how socialism can work for them in their everyday lives”.
A key goal will be to develop forms of collective solidarity that counteract the exclusionary politics that pit towns against cities and the ‘traditional’ against the multi-ethnic working class. Hermanns identifies the service sector as a particularly promising area for workplace organisation, bringing working people from all backgrounds and parts of the country into forms of collective struggle. Momentum will soon be establishing a trade unionists network to support such efforts, as well as a training school for organising and leadership development.
More broadly, she says, Momentum has a responsibility to counter the right’s framing of class, to commit to anti-racism as a central component of its class politics, and to highlight these issues in all its campaigning. It is refreshing to hear this repudiation of self-defeating attempts to set class politics against anti-racist politics, and the commitment instead to make the two indivisible.
Political education will be another important element. As we all know, the very act of participating in collective struggle is an educational experience in itself. More explicitly, Momentum will be working with The World Transformed to expand the reach of the latter, both to empower activists in their conversations in communities and workplaces, and to make connections beyond the left ecosystem.
In terms of developing a pluralistic, emancipatory collective consciousness, the importance of this specific stream of work cannot be overstated. The demand from the Black Lives Matter movement that Britain confront the history of its empire is something that can be powerfully taken up through innovative, participatory forms of political education. The right fears the ‘erasure’ of its falsified version of history because those myths do so much to sustain its contemporary politics. The left should lend all its weight to driving forward this historical reckoning.
As Hermanns points out, our capacity to pursue this work is now considerable. “The left is far stronger than it was, organisationally and institutionally. The last four years weren’t wasted”. Clearly a great deal of creative thinking is now being put into how those resources can be deployed.
The need to develop an organic presence in workplaces and communities – organising, campaigning and promoting political education – was widely recognised and understood throughout the Corbyn moment. As well as being valuable in and of itself, it complements and amplifies the left’s vital continuing struggles within the Labour party. By helping new forms of collective consciousness and solidarity to develop from the ground up, the obstacles to electoral success for the left can slowly be broken down.
We already know the strategic answer to the right’s ‘culture war’ and our loss of the Labour leadership. If anything, we have talked about it enough. We now need to commit to helping those who are already putting it into practice.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.