Left Behind and Left in the Game

I’ve been in the US for nearly eight weeks, but am about to head to Ireland for a quick family reunion.  While at the airport, the news reached me that Ken Loach has been expelled from the Labour Party.  Of course, the immediate reaction is anger that such a decent person and true socialist can be treated like this.  The next two thoughts are a bit trite: the Labour Party doesn’t deserve people like him and the many others who have suffered a similar fate –  and it’s now only a question of how low it can go. 

However, the last couple of months have given me some time and space to reflect a bit on where the UK left is and how it compares with the US left.  The last few years have been dramatic for both, with unexpected successes and perhaps more predictable failures.  But today’s news about Ken has cemented my feeling that the UK left is in a very bad place, while the US version has managed to weather some storms and retain some influence over the political landscape.

It’s only with a distance of 3,000 miles that I can see just how crushing the defeat of Corbynism has been for the UK left.  So many people, me included, invested so much time and hope in the possibility (which I maintain, was realistic) of a socialist prime minister and government that the end was bound to be painful and demoralizing.  For it to happen in the squalid way it did only compounds that. 

Some will say that end was inevitable.  Maybe, but I think some serious tactical errors made the job of reactionary forces easier.  My mind often goes back to one of the founding meetings of Momentum in Tower Hamlets, which I was at.  There was a genuine feeling of optimism and excitement among the 40 or so people attending, perhaps 10 of whom were not Labour Party members. 

It became very quickly apparent that non-Labour Party members were not really welcome, or at best, could only get involved in Momentum activities as conditional, semi-detached associates.  When I think about some of the people marginalised in this way, it amounted to at least 100 years of hard-fought political experience, at local and national levels.  For that to be spurned in the name of an immediate requirement to join the Labour Party was a flagrant waste that had consequences.   

I’ve written before about my own experiences with Momentum over the following years and the sense I had of it as cliquey and lacking political nouse, despite doing some brilliant things that shifted the political dial and helped create a movement that made the most progressive government in my lifetime a possibility.  Unfortunately, too many thought that possibility was a certainty, which led to some of the post-May 2017 misjudgments.    

The US left started its recent resurgence from a different place.  Although the ascendancy of Sanders was as unexpected (and welcome) as that of Corbyn, very few US socialists believed he would become President.  Perhaps this too was an error, given the latent widespread support he had.  But the pessimism was rooted in a realistic assessment of the nature of the Democratic Party and an awareness that the left could have just as much influence outside mainstream parties as within them.  

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is not an exact analogue of Momentum.  But it seems to me the DSA has adopted a better, long-term strategy for how to work within and without establishment party politics.  The DSA has not thrown its lot in with the Democrats and continues to take a “what’s in it for us?” position in supporting, or not, Democrat politicians, policies and platforms. 

Admittedly, the Democratic Party doesn’t have anything like the participative culture of the Labour Party, although that difference could be narrowing!  But even in the last eight weeks, I’ve seen evidence of the DSA and other parts of the US left being able to work in collaborative common purpose with a wide range of forces and so able to influence politics even after its great electoral hope had been doused, at least for the moment.

Ken’s expulsion and the on-going witch-hunt within the Labour Party confirms that the UK left is losing the capacity to decisively influence events even within the traditional labour movement, never mind society at large.  A serious rethink of tactics and strategy is needed that looks beyond the Labour Party and the next set of elections, towards a more broad-based approach to coalition building that combines campaigning on what they call here “kitchen table issues”, with a serious engagement with the existential threat of climate change that could make all of this irrelevant. 

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