Owen Jones: ‘British politics urgently needs a new force – a movement on the Left to counter capitalism’s crisis’

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Sunday 20 January 2013

If a new, networked movement of the Left could agree on some key principles, and avoid creating another battleground for ultra-left sects, it could give a voice to millions

Capitalism is in crisis, but its  opponents are writhing around in an even bigger mess. The largest far-left organisation in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, is currently imploding in the aftermath of a shocking internal scandal. After a leading figure was accused of raping a member, the party set up a “court” staffed with senior party members, which exonerated him. “Creeping feminism” has been flung around as a political insult. Prominent members, such as authors China Miéville and Richard Seymour, have publicly assailed their party’s leadership. Activists are reported to be in open rebellion at their autocratic leadership, or are simply deserting en masse.

This might all sound parochial, the obscure goings-on out on the fringes of Britain’s marginal revolutionary left. But the SWP has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organisation behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which – almost exactly a decade go – mobilised up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath. Even as they repelled other activists with sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives, they helped drive crucial movements such as Unite Against Fascism, which recently organised a huge demonstration in Walthamstow that humiliated the racist English Defence League. Thousands hungry for an alternative to the disaster of neo-liberalism have entered the SWP’s ranks over the years – many, sadly, to end up burnt out and demoralised.

Urgency 

But the truth is that Britain urgently needs a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity, inflicted on this country without any proper mandate. That doesn’t mean yet another Leninist sect, lacking any semblance of internal democracy, obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago.

The history – and failures – of the radical left are imprinted on my own family, spanning four generations: my relatives had wages docked in the 1926 General Strike and joined failed projects ranging from the Independent Labour Party to the Communists. My parents met in the Trotskyist Militant Tendency in the late 1960s; my father became their South Yorkshire organiser, and striking miners babysat my brothers while he fought (unsuccessfully) for revolution. The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago.

Neither would I argue for yet another party of the left to be built, Leninist or not. Britons are becoming poorer with every passing year; the wealthy elite continues to boom – the increase in the fortunes of the richest 1,000 since 2008 eclipses our annual deficit; and Labour’s leaders are still to offer a genuine alternative to austerity. But parties challenging Labour for the mantle of the left languish, as they have almost always done, in political oblivion. In the by-election in Manchester Central back in November, for example, the catchily titled Trade Union and Socialist Coalition won an embarrassing 220 votes and was even beaten by the Pirate Party. If not now, comrades, then when?

My own view is that, so long as trade unions ensure Labour is linked to millions of supermarket checkout assistants, call centre workers and factory workers, there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people. It is a strategy passionately rejected by others taking on austerity, and I respect that. But it is absurd that – as we live through a Great Reverse of living standards and hard-won rights – the opponents of austerity are scattered and fragmented. Even as their poison drives up debt, poverty and long-term unemployment alike, the High Priests of Austerity remain perversely united.

Ugly forces are more than happy to benefit from a widespread mood of revulsion at the political establishment. Nigel Farage has benefited from a ubiquitous presence on our TV screens – so much for a left-wing conspiracy at Aunty Beeb – but Ukip is thriving too as a collective middle finger stuck up at our rulers. If the left cannot pull itself together half a decade after global capitalism started to totter, the populist right knows a vacuum when it sees one.

What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.

Mystery

But if we could agree on some key principles, and avoid creating a new battleground for ultra-left sects, we could give the angry and the frustrated a home. We could link together workers facing falling wages while their tax credits are cut; unemployed people demonised by a cynical media and political establishment; crusaders against the mass tax avoidance of the wealthy; sick and disabled people having basic support stripped away; campaigners against crippling cuts to our public services; young people facing a future of debt, joblessness and falling living standards; and trade unions standing their ground in the onslaught against workers’ rights.

Such a network would push real alternatives to the failure of austerity that would have to be listened to; and create political space for policies that otherwise does not exist. Faced with a more courageous, coherent challenge to the Tory project, the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right.

It is easier to discuss such an idea in a newspaper than put it into practice, but it is a mystery that such a network does not already exist. Though fraught with difficulties – never underestimate the ability of the left to miss an opportunity – the appetite is certainly there. Our country’s greatest movement consists of those screaming with exasperation at their TV sets. Time to break the isolation of those who want an alternative to the bleak future currently on offer. The era of the SWP and its kind is over; a new movement is waiting to be born. 

Comments
  • Mike Mann January 22, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Yes bring back OLD LABOUR THEN WE HAVE A CHANCE…..

  • alan January 22, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    join up fantastic ,join all blog sites on this matter,bring back unity of people,we are so broken, chatter chatter no protests no action about our our well being i have a mam sisters brothers, gran who will be grilled by dwp, whats up are we all scared british people we are united are we not

  • NoOneIsListening January 22, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    Whilst we admire Owen Jones and agree with his sentiments, the truth is that many of us have completely lost trust in politicians. Our country has been sold out to Europe. Immigration has been allowed to continue uncurbed for a decade. One rarely hears English being spoken in central London these days. There are too many people in this country and the services (NHS, local authorities, infrastructure etc) are under too much pressure because of the sheer numbers of citizens and all their array of problems that authorities are trying to deal with. And for those who might wonder if I am a “racist”, no I am not but if my house was commandeered to take in 100 people, they would just about fit, wall to wall, but no-one would be able to move, they would only be able to use the toilet on a rota basis and it wouldn’t take long for there to be a breakdown of civilised cooperation between the occupants. Multiply that up to the growth in population running into millions that this country has experienced and common sense tells us all that this island does not have infinite resources to cater for the world’s needs. More growth in immigration simply saps resources for those already here. It is the explosion in population that is the real issue for this country (the most common topic of conversation around dining tables up and down the country) apart from the corporate greed and political quest for “growth, and more growth” to satisfy the demands of shareholders. The groups cited in Owen’s article have under this coalition lost any chance of a political champion – Michael Meacher made a supreme effort last week in the House – the reality is that the demonisation of any one belonging to any of those groups is now the order of the day and the wider public just soak it up. The current political spectrum lacks compassion, moral duty or understanding. Everything is driven by corporate greed. The day my disabled son was referred to as an “economic unit” some twenty odd years ago, heralded the onset of only counting the cost whilst losing sight of the value of a caring, mutually supportive society.

  • Christopher January 23, 2013 at 1:48 am

    I like Owen Jones, and I like his ideas, a lot..but won’t Government Infiltrators do whatever to fuck things up??..Could they?? Dare they?? Hopefully not..

    Anyway, I’ve been having various debates on Facebook on and off today, about the bedroom tax amongst other things, and the thing that stands out a mile is everyone to a man/woman is angry, frustrated, and scared..

    They worry were the money is going to come from to pay for this..They worry if they’ll have a home at all if they can’t/won’t pay.. Mothers worry about everything because that’s what makes them so nice..Fathers who live apart from their kids are in fear they will lose contact with them..The list goes on..

    However, and I can understand it, they all seem scared of making a stand, of facing up to these bullies in Government – because lets face it, that’s all they are – for fear that the heavy hand of retribution will reign down on them and leave them with even less than they have now..

    I’m not ashamed to admit I too feel scared..In fact I’m crapping myself about what the future holds, but something has to change soon or we may as well convince ourselves we’re all Lemmings and find the nearest cliff..

  • Earl Bramley-Howard January 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

    The Greens are the real alternative to the corporatist LibLabConDemKips

  • Tam Dean Burn January 23, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I share Owen’s frustration but disagree that another left network or coalition is what’s needed. He ignores the litany of failures there have been like the Socialist Alliance and Respect, beyond Galloway’s one man band. And far from punching above their weight, the SWP have utterly failed to give any sort of revolutionary leadership or input to these and the other initiatives mentioned. The SWP implosion ( if it goes that far) will be another tragic moment for the fight against capitalism but its not inevitable. If the outcome is a party capable of open ideological debate towards a programme fit for the purpose of replacing capitalism with majority ie working class rule, then we can truly see all of us punching way way above our weight.

  • Roy Ratcliffe January 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Although there is much I agree with in the above article, I think it misses a crucial point. The current crisis is a global systemic one in which the economic, financial, political, social and environmental sectors of life are in total decay and close to collapse. Because of this there is no direct political solution which any party (revitalised or not) can fix simply by replacing other parties to govern the current interconnected system. Whilst many pro-capitalists now wish to create a capitalism without its degenerate sides and the Leninist and Trotskyist left wishes to resurrect a bolshevism without its sectarian sides, neither can succeed because both are fundamentally flawed, as your article suggests with regard to the left. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that facing the planet and the human species in the 21st century, is the need to supersede the capitalist mode of production which requires a revolutionary transformation in thinking as well as a revolutionary transformation of how things are produced and distributed and how societies are governed.
    Regards, Roy (www.critical-mass.net)

  • Roy Ratcliffe January 23, 2013 at 11:38 am

    PS. My own take on the nature of the crisis is entitled ‘The five-fold crisis of Capitalism’ and the present situation in Europe is in ‘Austerity: another word for war’, both at http://www.critical-mass.net.

    Roy

  • jeffery davies January 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    but whot can they do if all get up and march its all they affect with their taxes on those who cant afford it but if they did perhaps then they see that we dont like idiots who think it ok to take monies off those who cant afford it while giving vasts rises in their monies for the rich wh owill get 44thousand more for every million they got whislt that amount could keep a few familys for a yr but untill such times we get a kicking jeff3

  • Dave Lucas January 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    The elephant in the room still being ignored across the entire political spectrum is that our pre-industrial era monetary/market economic system itself has become untenable. Advances in mechanisation mean that an increasing proportion of all jobs that used to be done by working and middle classes are now being done more cheaply and efficiently by machines. Human labour is becoming obsolete, and governments after decades of deficit spending are no longer able to afford the continual unemployment benefits and subsidies for those displaced. The debt-based ‘fiat’ currency needs infinite growth to remain in operation, as every year more money must be generated to repay last year’s loans plus interest. Hence the entire economic system is structured as a ponzi scheme – an ever decreasing game of musical chairs that will continue to disenfranchise and impoverish a greater and greater proportion of the population until we finally awaken from our zombie trance and shut down this cancerous machine. Our only option is to transition to an entirely new socio economic system based on collaboration and technical efficiency rather than competition and growth. Visit http://www.thevenusproject.com

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