How We Win: The Movements

Arguments are won with actions, not words. If socialist ideas are to become reality, we need power, and to generate it, we need movements. The second in the six-part series How We Win.

by James Schneider

15 March 2021

Jon Boyega shouts into a microphone
Bronte Dow / Novara Media

Arguments are won with actions, not just words. If socialist ideas are to become reality, we need social power; and to generate it, we need movements.

Progressive political parties can cohere these movements under a single banner. Corbyn’s Labour did. He was elected leader of the Labour party at a moment of historic weakness for the organised left; forty years of neoliberal assault had shattered the progressive movements that composed it. It is no wonder, then, that under Corbyn, socialists poured much of our energy into Labour.

Rebuilding those movements and constructing new ones will be our task in the coming decade.

Below are five movements into which socialists should throw themselves in the coming months and years to develop popular power, build support for socialist policies and extend meaningful solidarity.

Trade union movement

For 40 years, trade union membership has fallen as inequality has risen. This is not coincidental. There is a reason Thatcher set out to destroy the unions: without them, it is impossible to durably advance the interests of workers.

Trade unions are vital for socialist advance. Within them, workers get better pay and conditions. They also get a national voice to develop campaigns and lobby politicians. Bosses have bodies to influence the state; workers need them too.

Trade union membership has modestly increased in each of the past three years, the best run for four decades. But this is up from a low base, in terms of numbers and militancy.

While membership will most likely only surge around major disputes – as happened in the teachers’ unions during the battle over reopening schools in January – socialists can do a great deal to strengthen our unions outside of these climatic moments.

Only about a third of Labour members are in a trade union, despite it technically being a requirement for party membership. Running a union drive for Labour members and supporters should be an immediate task for the left if we are to halt the leadership’s drift from unions and towards wealthy donors. Fortunately, Momentum has just released a strategy on how to do just this.

Meanwhile, there are vital labour struggles that need our support: Unite’s battles with British Airways and Rolls Royce for tens of thousands of workers’ jobs; the Communication Workers Union standing up for Royal Mail workers; GMB’s action against fire-and-rehire at British Gas. Struggles against multinational corporations, such as that organised by the global Make Amazon Pay coalition, stand alongside those of smaller unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and United Voices of the World.

Socialists should be engaged in as many of these struggles as possible, developing demands that resonate with millions of workers, whether or not Labour’s front bench endorse them.

Finally, a note on union leadership. Several of the most powerful unions in the UK, notably Unite and the CWU, are led from the left. Socialists shouldn’t take this powerbase for granted. General secretary Len McCluskey’s term will end in the next year, and if the union swings right, many of the ideas laid out in this series will be harder to enact. Socialists should be active in their unions and build the organised left within them.

Unemployed workers’ movement

Joining the struggle for better work is the struggle for work itself. Unemployment hasn’t been a central political issue in the UK for some time. The social-democratic policy goal of full employment died forty years ago with the neoliberal turn; official unemployment was below 5% for the five years prior to the pandemic.

But with the Bank of England projecting unemployment levels of 7.75% this year – not even accounting for those who are underemployed or forced out of the labour market altogether – that looks set to change.

Though Unite has a community membership arm that engages with those not in full-time work, and a new Facebook-based organisation was started this year, the unemployed workers’ movement is currently tiny. That’s understandable, but plainly insufficient for the post-pandemic era.

An unemployed workers’ movement would not just campaign for the longer-term goals of full employment, a shorter working week and universal basic income. It could also provide immediate support in the form of mutual aid and cooperatives, and link up with debtors’ unions and the inspirational Disabled People against Cuts activists.

A powerful movement must be built, and quickly. Unite Community, Momentum and others could join forces to create the basic infrastructure, using their lists and platforms to seek out a membership, while trialling and facilitating forms of mutual support and activism, and acting as a powerful political voice for the unemployed.

Renters’ movement

Over the past 25 years, the number of working-age renters in the UK has surged from 9.5 million to over 14.5 million. Tenants pay landlords over £50bn a year in rent, about a third of their combined annual earnings. That’s an enormous upward transfer of wealth.

Housing is a developing class faultline. Millions of workers – particularly young workers – are locked out of the Thatcherite-New Labour bargain of asset-based capitalism. This “new working class” has little reason to support capitalism because it has little realistic chance of ever owning much capital. Housing also expands the site of class struggle: you aren’t just exploited at work but also when you pay rent; your allies are your neighbours as well as your co-workers.

This context might have provided the impetus for the revival of a national tenants’ movement. In its earliest days Momentum had plans to stimulate something similar, but it never came to fruition as the organisation had to focus on defending Corbyn’s fragile leadership from relentless attacks.

Yet now, with the threat of mass evictions – 700,000 tenants could be in arrears in the next 12 months – a powerful movement is coming into its own. Acorn, Living Rent, the London Renters Union and Generation Rent are organising tenants, while Momentum has made eviction resistance one of its national focuses.

These organisations provide avenues for socialists to build power on this vital front, providing immediate support to those who need it while strengthening a key constituency.

The environmental movement

The environmental movement swelled to unprecedented proportions at the end of 2018 and through 2019, forcing climate breakdown into public consciousness. It is a truly global movement, with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future and other groups active in most countries on earth.

But, as with all other movements, the pandemic has forced environmentalists to scale back. Meanwhile, the horizon for political change of all kinds has shrunk, at least in the Anglosphere, with Corbyn replaced by Starmer and Biden defeating Sanders.

The climate emergency is the global justice issue of our age. The task of rescuing the planet is inherently tied to the liberation of the workers, peasants and peoples of the world. But too often in the UK, its importance is lost in top-down and technocratic policy discussions.

Socialists should throw themselves into the environmental movement to develop a concrete and transformational Green New Deal with a just transition for affected workers. It is crucial that any plans reveal the class nature of climate breakdown; if a Green New Deal becomes a state programme for managerial reform, it loses both its transformative potential and popular appeal. Instead, the deal must be posed as a threat to the wealth, power and privileges of the few and a route to better jobs, health and society for the many.

As the pent-up energies of repeated lockdowns are released and the urgency for radical change becomes ever clearer, the environmental movement will return to direct action. While some tactics have been misguided – such as efforts in October 2019 to prevent predominantly working-class east Londoners from commuting – such direct action has, for the most part, turbocharged the environmental movement, and is under serious threat from the Conservatives.

The left should vocally support this movement. When Extinction Rebellion blockaded Murdoch’s printing presses in September 2020, while the critical response from liberals and conservatives was swift and effective, much of the left was nowhere to be seen. When environmentalists return to direct action as the pandemic subsides, socialists should be ready to offer activists their solidarity. When an airport is shut down, a power station picketed, a news site hacked, or SUVs in wealthy urban neighbourhoods have their tires let down, what will we say? What will we do?

Socialists can also focus the environmental movement in its political orientation. There is a tendency among certain environmentalists to think of themselves as “beyond politics”. An injection of majoritarian class politics will help the environmental movement build more durable mass support and focus attention on corporate enemies. An environmental focus will also help socialists. Not only does climate breakdown clarify the need for far-reaching change, it also broadens our horizons, both geographically and temporally.

Antiracist movement

2020’s political bright spot was the Black Lives Matter uprising that spread from Minneapolis across the world. Its effects have already been profound, showing how antiracist struggle is integral to the socialist project, and how antiracism is an emerging common sense among younger generations.

That struggle will need support in the coming years. Mimicking the US American alt-right, the Conservatives and their allies are pushing back against BLM, including by trying to ban it from schools. This new approach to questions of equality was recently announced by the Women and Equalities minister Liz Truss in a significant speech that ended the state’s two-decades-long liberal consensus on these issues.

This openly reactionary cultural turn will be coupled with government policies that aggressively target migrants and minorities. Priti Patel has already announced a “regular drumbeat” of deportations and offshore processing centres, and will continue to stoke fears about refugees crossing the Channel.

Socialists must see this approach for what it is: the age-old tactic of divide and rule. The government will rely heavily on such dirty tricks in the coming decade, as the economic and social fallout from the pandemic intensifies and the ruling class remains bereft of solutions to address the underlying crisis in neoliberalism.

In response, socialists must support the growth of the antiracist movement while relentlessly calling out such migrant-baiting.

Conclusion

After five years spent mostly in the party, our most vital work now is to strengthen these movements, which will be the lifeblood of social change in the coming decade. This isn’t to say we should turn away from state politics and power. Rather, it is to recognise that movements can shift the terrain around politicians, making the impossible possible; that they can close what I have elsewhere called the “gap between the moment’s possibility and the movement’s weakness”, priming us for our next opportunity to create a more equal, democratic and free world in government.

To do that, we will need a party that can enact the demands of movements to secure real power and meaningful change. So even while we shift our political horizons away from Westminster, we still need a plan for the party. Tomorrow’s essay will attempt one.

James Schneider is the communications director of Progressive International, co-founder of Momentum, and a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn.

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