I’ve never been a big Dylan fan. It’s all a bit nasal and as a child of the CP, I’m still following the line that him going electic was a major set-back for the working class. There’s no denying his poetry though and at a recent meeting, surrounded by activists who were nearly all younger than me, I had some Dylan lyrics ringing in my head. As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, the wheel of the UK ‘left’ is in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s naming, but it might be time to get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand.
I was brought up in the tradition of a labour movement that was hierarchical, patriarchal and mechanical. Political and trade union loyalties were based on workplace, family and geographic allegiances that were often generational and translated into orthodoxies that were good and bad: solidarity, discipline and committment to public services were combined with male-dominated cliques, homophobia and dogmatism. Contrary to the impression created by some current voices of self-righteous indignation, exploitative political-personal-power relationships are nothing new, which is not, of course, to say that they shouldn’t be challenged or changed.
Rejecting ossified practices is the essence of progressive politics, but I have my doubts that the putative reconfiguration of the left is genuinely pointing towards a change of substance rather than style. There is no question that the socio-economic forces that shaped the emergent labour movement have transformed. Without succumbing to the mirage of ‘post-modernism’, the defining black and white image of a flat-capped proletariat cycling out of the factory gate and smoke-stack trade unionism have gone, replaced with a fragmented, suburbanised, casualised workforce that is no less a working class, but may not recognise itself as such.
It is obviously imperative that the UK left responds to such significant social recomposition and does not attempt ro reach the future through the past. In this sense, I welcome the emergence of new left initiatives and the creative energy that the Occupy movement has brought to them, particularly those seeking to avoid wooden hierarchies, but I’ve had several recent experiences that suggest the dangers of fake structurelessness, organisational profusion and policy dilution.
Deciding who does what and with what authority is always difficult, no matter the type of organisation. Power can be exercised in formal and informal ways and it’s more important to recognise this than to chase the holy grail of idealised structure and process. This, however, appears to be one of the objectives of some of the newly formed left alternatives, but the best worded constitution does not ensure genuine democracy. Look at America. Then there’s the question of whether the left needs to be ‘rebranded’. I have some ambivalence on this point. There’s no doubt that the idea of ‘socialism’ has taken a kicking that would embarrass Gerald Ratner , but I’m not sure this means it should be abandoned. That said, I’m also not certain that being a socialist is a pre-requisite for being involved in progressive politics. I consider myself a socialist, but I increasingly wonder if this is more a matter of personal belief than a public article of faith. Over the years, I’ve also come to the conclusion that some of the most genuine socialists aren’t the people who proclaim themselves as such – and vis versa. In terms of presenting an alternative to rabid neo-liberalism or craven social-democracy, what matters is what’s inside the tin, not on the label, but there is an urgency here. With every day that passes, another brick is removed from the pillars of the Welfare State, to be replaced by an unrelenting neoliberalism that the leadership of the Labour Party is still mesmerised by. I am asked to believe, from some quarters, that there’s a cunning plan and that once in power…..Sorry, but I’ve heard it too many times and my belief is further shaken when the chief apostle of hope, Len McCluskey, gives a tacit endorsement to Ed Milliband’s rejection of universal benefits. We need an alternative, but we need it now.