This should be a great time to be a socialist. The inherent instability of capitalism lies exposed more than at any time since the Great Depression. Levels of economic inequality in Britain are unmatched in any industrial nation other than the US. Unemployment figures creep inexorably upwards, threatening to dwarf those from the dark days of the 1980s. Comment pages in the respectable, middle class press worriedly ask whether we are witnessing the end of capitalism or merely its radical transformation.
Yet the response from Britain’s working class has so far been muted at best. French and Italian workers stage general strikes and Greece is rocked by massive protests, but the best Britain’s workers can muster is a small – if impressive – campaign of unofficial action against the use of non-unionised foreign labour to undercut local workers. Leftwing groups organise demonstrations declaring that Britain’s working class won’t pay the price for a crisis caused by the bosses, but by and large these attract only the usual crowd of seasoned protestors. Predictions by the police of a “summer of rage” in 2009 seem more like a transparent plea for more power and resources than a credible assessment of the likelihood of civil disorder.
As a consequence of all this, the Government is under no pressure to propose progressive solutions to the recession. On New Labour’s agenda for this year: further restrictions on the right to claim benefits, the part-privatisation of Royal Mail and an even greater role for the private sector in education and health. Billions of pounds are transferred to the banks from the taxpayer, without any increase in democratic control over the economy.
Why no backlash from the British victims of the recession? Part of the answer lies in a process begun in Britain thirty years ago by Margaret Thatcher. The smashing of union power, privatisation of council housing and deliberate promotion of the financial sector over manufacturing gradually broke down bonds of community and solidarity within working class communities and workplaces. Crime – which doubled under Thatcher as a predictable consequence of her social reforms – replaced empathy with fear in many working class areas of Britain. Thatcher’s famous refrain “There is no such thing as society” seemed like wishful thinking when she said it in 1987. Increasingly, it appears as though her wish has come true. Through its thirty-year onslaught against the values of collectivism and cooperation, neoliberalism has undermined the ability and the willingness of the working class to mount collective resistance.
Labour first failed to oppose Thatcherism, then enthusiastically took up the neoliberal baton under Blair. This denied the working class what had until then been the best method for defending its interests, but also opened up a huge political vacuum. Turnout slumped to 60% as people correctly perceived that all the major parties were organised in the interests of the middle and upper classes. The Left might have been expected to eagerly exploit this vacuum, given its professed desire to lead the workers towards revolution, but they have not. In fact, the left finds itself today with no real roots in working class communities. The far right looks far better placed to capitalise on Labour’s abandonment of its core supporters. How did this happen?
To some extent, the left are victims of the drift towards reactionary politics in British society generally, from which the working class have not been immune. However, the left has conspired in its own demise among the working class. As their representation in organised labour diminished, and following the wave of student rebellions in 1968, many left groups reoriented towards a more reliable market. Opposition to US foreign policy in British universities as well as the accessibility of campuses had long encouraged the left to recruit heavily among students. The harder it became to organise workers, the more tempting the prospect of student recruits became.This preference for the student option has had a number of negative side effects for the left. Groups that have a large student membership inevitably experience a high turnover of members, as graduates enter middle class professions, buy houses and become distanced from the concerns of the left. More damagingly, in chasing students, groups on the left have readjusted their priorities to make themselves appealing to a middle class market. Issues such as the Iraq War, climate change and global justice have become the focus at the expense of issues of more immediate concern to working class people such as crime, housing and education. All of this increases the distance between the left and the working class and leaves the far right able to claim that it alone represents the interests of the majority.
To begin to reclaim the right to speak for the working class, the left must first attempt to build a base in working class communities. This means addressing the immediate concerns of working class people, however unglamorous or unpalatable they might be. For instance: crime is a massive concern for working class people, particularly in cities like London and Liverpool where murders of teenage boys have been widely reported. The left responds by pointing out that the media over-report crime in order to distract attention from the real, underlying social problems. This approach leaves them out of touch with ordinary people, who are more likely to focus on the sheer horror of young men in their communities being killed for no good reason.
To address the issue of crime is not, in itself, reactionary. It is true that crime is in part caused by capitalist exploitation. It is also true that crime has a corrosive effect upon community spirit, increasing fear and suspicion. To argue that crime will only be eradicated once capitalism is abolished offers no solution to communities facing the immediate problem of anti-social behaviour. Where the left can help communities deal with anti-social crime, they will gain credibility and the trust of those communities.
Before any collective working class response to social problems is possible, it is first necessary to revive the community spirit that has sustained struggles for centuries. From the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfasts for Children programmes to the workers’ educational schemes established by the British labour movement, those on the left have long recognised the importance of providing a service to communities. Doing something positive for working class communities, rather than simply preaching to them about the unjust way they are treated, is the first step towards establishing roots in the working class. Community projects bring people together, reinforce solidarity and make people feel positive about the prospects for change.
The basic elements of this strategy are already in place in many parts of the country. Community activists who once would have worked within the Labour Party have established independent local groups committed to putting the needs of their communities centre stage. Dozens of groups have developed since 1997. From football supporters seeking to rescue their local teams, to health workers opposing hospital closures, this growing trend has involved a wide range of activists and ordinary people. Although some groups have put up candidates for local elections, on the whole the movement lacks a coherent political direction. It is also fragmented, with groups in some areas probably unaware of the existence of similar groups nearby. National networks and federations need to be created. Socialists should engage with such networks enthusiastically, but should expect to learn from and work with these groups, rather seek to control them or make them into “fronts” for their own agendas. Trade union activists are also well placed to create links with community groups. Community and trade union activists have already begun to cooperate through campaigns against post office privatisation, health service restructuring and the creation of city academies. These links should be developed further – not least because history has shown that workers’ struggles are most likely to be successful if they enjoy the broad support of communities.
If the left is to create organic links with the working class, its existing organisational structures must be completely overhauled. At the moment, too many groups on the left see their ordinary members as foot soldiers whose job is to propagate the party line. Instead, members should be seen as active participants with ideas and experiences that can help to mould the message and improve the strategy. It is vitally important that grassroots activists feel they have a real influence over their organisations, otherwise the left risks replicating the alienation they rightly criticise when they see it at work in industry, education and mainstream politics. The only way to bring about a participatory, democratic society is through participatory and democratic means.
We must be realistic about the scale of what we have to achieve if we are to build a movement capable of increasing the social, economic and political power of the working class. There is a tendency on the left to assume that working class people are itching for the opportunity to join a revolutionary movement. In fact, detailed analysis of public opinion suggests that the views of the working class at present are closer to the position of the far right than the far left. Immigration, for instance, was thought to be a “more important issue than health or education” by 52% of respondents to a Populus poll in 2006. An Ipsos-MORI study of the 2008 London Mayoral election results found that there was a far greater correlation between voting and ethnicity than there was between voting and class. Even white working class wards went for Boris Johnson more often than Ken Livingstone. In most areas of the country, BNP voters appear to be disproportionately working class. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into inequality found that manual workers were less supportive of the principle of redistribution of wealth than the average.
None of this suggests that the task is hopeless or that we should give up faith in the working class as the agent of social change. Nor should it obscure the fact public opinion is notoriously contradictory and that working class people hold progressive views on a number of other issues. However, these figures do illustrate that the left has a lot to do if it is to rebuild support for its values. Rather than explain away reactionary views as the result of media propaganda, the left should listen carefully and respond intelligently. If we expect working class people to listen to our responses, we must first prove that we are worth listening to. The only way to do this is by pouring our resources into addressing immediate working class interests, establishing links with communities and creating opportunities for democratic participation. If we fail to do this, we have only ourselves to blame for what will surely be further decades of obscurity and frustration.