Is the Left in Britain Still Alive and Well?
By Zoe Williams / theguardian.com

As mainstream politics moves to the centre, what has happened to the beating heart of the left? Zoe Williams takes a road trip in search of 21st-century socialists.

 Rosie Rogers, political adviser for Greenpeace. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

Rosie Rogers, 28, and I are sitting in a tipi outside her office in Highbury, London. (She works for Greenpeace as a political adviser – of course they have a tipi.) I’m on a quest to find the British left, because it’s become apparent no one quite knows where it has gone, or what it looks like. Far from a beating heart, these days it is made up of many small organisations. “You know the Brownies,” Rogers asks. “You have all those patches? We have so many patches. You have your Reclaim the Power badge, your Focus E15 badge, your UK Feminista badge, your UK Uncut badge. It feels like ‘the left’ isn’t how people identify any more. We don’t say, ‘I’m a lefty, I’m a socialist, I’m a Marxist.’ Sometimes I’m a bit Women’s Institute, sometimes I’ll sign a 38 Degrees petition, sometimes I’ll go on a climate march.”

Quick glossary: Reclaim the Power is a grassroots environmental movement; Focus E15 is the housing protest that started when Newham council in London tried to shunt some single mothers out of a hostel to private rentals 100 miles away (it started tiny, but now has 10,000 supporters); UK Feminista does what it says; UK Uncut, which has a network of 80,000 people, opposes corporate tax avoidance and austerity measures, in whatever way they think will work.

Rogers has been involved with UK Uncut since the start. Her brother has a disability and she can list benefit changes to the closest degree. She shares a house with eight others, even though she’s well paid comparted with her peers, because that’s what people do now. I know she would hate to be portrayed as a poster-girl of the new left: she doesn’t identify as left and she rejects the idea of anybody being more important than anybody else. But still I ask what drives her activism. “When you see Focus E15, they are talking with absolute passion, they’re fighting for their home. Labour robots are fighting for their party, but where is that passion? Maybe it was there 100 years ago. In these movements, we all shag each other, we all hang out. The only time I see my 12 closest friends is at meetings. We’re probably what the labour movement was like a long time ago, but this time it’s participatory, it’s consensus-based, it’s dynamic, it’s fun and it’s got baby change and fuck loads of hummus.”

Every day, something happens in British politics that pushes at the very boundaries of humane behaviour. A London borough has a “crackdown” against homelessness, which involves confiscating the sleeping bags from people who have nothing but a sleeping bag. A peer announces that we can no longer afford to chip in for the coastguard services that save the lives of refugees who would otherwise perish in the Mediterranean. An unemployed man has his benefits withdrawn because he missed his appointment at a jobcentre, being in hospital with his wife while she had a stillborn child. A government minister, presented with some self-evident fact – benefit sanctions cause people to go hungry – blithely rejects it. A mentally ill teenager ends up in a prison cell, for want of a hospital bed. Some kids in Stoke are found rooting for food in a bin. The leader of a political party suggests re-legalising racial discrimination.

And every week, there is a new story about tax avoidance or outrageous corruption, both the main parties involved, both culpable, both apparently supine, even floppy, like rabbits in the jaws of corporate interests. Are they dead, or merely frightened? Just when the right reaches its climax, where is its answering call? It’s like watching Romeo with no Juliet.

So I’ve been looking. I met people in church halls, unions, universities, coffee shops that lefties aren’t supposed to go to (Starbucks, even Shoreditch Grind, the very nidus of scenester privilege), in homes and council flats standing empty, waiting for developers. Is the left still alive and well?

***

Looking for activists is a false start. No one I speak to likes the word “activist”, as Maeve Cohen, from the Post-Crash Economics Society explains to me on the phone: “If you have people who identify as ‘activists’, then everybody else is a non-activist, who can leave the activities to the activists. I think everybody should be active.” What Rogers had described to me – protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, occupations, hummus – I can comprehend all that. The long-game of the Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) is less tangible. They organise economics events open to everyone, where experts of global renown (Martin WolfHa-Joon Chang) sit down with people who paid £4 for a day ticket and came to learn what inflation means.

Cohen was studying economics as an undergraduate in Manchester when she began to realise that the field needed more pluralism: she took a year out to set up PCES, with funding from the New Economics Foundation. The Foundation approaches economics from the same starting point, which is that neo-classical economics is unequal to the task of creating or even describing a system which is fundamentally about people.

“At the moment,” Cohen says, “this one school of thought [ie conventional economics] is represented as though it’s a science. It’s all based on individual agents, working in competitive markets, maximising profits. It values profit maximisation over social welfare, individuals over communities. And it’s just slipped in – people think this is the way it works.”

The obvious way to change that is at the level of the university curriculum, and yet the whole point is, economics has to be open to – not just comprehensible to, also discussable with – people who don’t have a university degree.

“I did this campaign training,” she says, “and the main thing I got out of it was that there is absolutely no point in replacing the status quo of rich, white men with lots of other rich, white men who just think a bit differently. We’ve put a lot of work into diversifying our movement, and making it accessible and getting people involved who might not normally be involved.”

People have to feel as comfortable talking about macro solutions to the housing crisis as they do going to a council meeting about recycling. PCES events operate on a “flat” principle: you could set up your own Post-Crash Economics Society tomorrow. I met two guys who’d formed their own local Positive Money group. They are campaigning for a new form of money creation, one that doesn’t rely on anti-social institutions (banks) extending debt to people buying overpriced houses. I found it absurd – nice, but ridiculous – that two normal people would think they had any hand in the future of money. But if not them, then who? Ninety per cent of MPs don’t even understand how money is created.

***

Dan Lewis, 23, is a youth member of the Communication Workers Union. I first saw him at a panel-based event for young unionists in Congress House, where he was talking about his political awakening, from disempowered call-centre worker to union rep. He does YouTube videos about Ukip which get him death threats, which he laughs at. (He’s very charismatic; even in an era of post-leadership, we’re still allowed to notice that.) I went to see him at home in Litherland, Merseyside, where he lives with his five-year-old daughter, Brooke.

Lewis has decided to stand as a local councillor for the Labour party, despite being unimpressed by all the MPs he’s met (apart from Lisa Nandy), because “the unions made the Labour party. I know it goes back a long time, but I look at it like this. I made Brooke. In 100 years, Brooke will still be my daughter. And the Labour party will still have been made by the unions.”

Dan Lewis, a youth member of the Communication Workers Union. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

Lewis is interested in housing, in university fees, in childcare, in personal debt, in wages, in the social safety net; he’s interested in everything, from a position of acute expertise. “Basically, a lot of unions put a lot of money into educating people as to how the process works. CWU Youth ran a political event in the Mechanics Institute a couple of years ago. The chair at the time, he’s a gay guy. I thought: gay people can’t get into politics, ethnic people can’t get into politics – why is anyone going to listen to a brown man? I didn’t feel that I could even connect with the people who are in politics.”

But, he goes on to tell me, when he realised that issues should be discussed by the people who live them, he realised he had exactly the perspective that is often missing in politicos. When Brooke was first born, Lewis couldn’t claim benefits because they considered him a dependant on his girlfriend’s student loans; but she couldn’t go to college because she was busy having a baby. Also, they couldn’t live on the loans – and the loans, at some point, in theory, have to be paid back. It’s easy to forget, when you’re not young, how the young are being stiffed.

There’s one shortcoming of the union movement: not enough people have a job where they can join a union. It will always be a major strand of progressive activism, but never the entire fabric of it. The pressing issue is how to bring the strands together; which brings us to Compass. It’s not a party; it’s not a pressure group (that’s how it started, but it doesn’t really cover it); it calls itself “a home for those who want to build and be a part of a Good Society”. But what does that actually mean?

For a start, it organises a lot of meetings. I went to one in Banbury, Oxfordshire, which was like a lefty weekend away. There were 150 of us in a rundown hotel, with Britvic, and carpets running up the walls. It was a mixed crowd: academics, campaigners of decades’ standing, quite a prominent Danish politician who’d set up his own party. It felt like a cross between group therapy (it’s “open”, which means you can say what you like and nobody can laugh at you); a team-building exercise (there was an agenda, it wasn’t freeform chatting); and an Occupymeeting (it’s anti-hierarchical; no panels of five people talking while 145 listened).

On the Friday night, I sat next to a young woman who campaigned about food poverty. She thought politics was pointless, and mainstream media was pointless. I’m putting words into her mouth, but it sounded like she thought people over 40 were basically pointless. We’d had our chance to make meaningful change, and we’d blown it.

On Sunday lunchtime, I was in a discussion group called “practical next steps”, talking about making an inventory of unions who had space in their offices for grassroots campaigners. A sociology professor exclaimed: “I’ve been sitting in these meetings for fucking decades! None of this is going to be solved by an inventory of anything.” The cliche of a leftwing meeting is that it’s all hugging and hand-wringing, but clearly that’s just not true any more.

Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, says the political party approach is dead, that it’s all about plurality: “The 20th-century way of being a vanguard, leading the people, doing it for them, to them, is over. New forms of making change happen are going to be more horizontal, networked, relational. It’s the politics of empathy, love and compassion. It’s not the politics of ‘I’m going to fucking kill you’. I’ve spent 30 years of my political life trying to build a bigger army than their army. I don’t want to do that any more.”

Lawson started in the union movement in the 1980s, and went on to write speeches for Gordon Brown (whenever anyone calls him “a former adviser to Gordon Brown”, he squeaks “but he never took my advice!”). And now, he gets people into rooms together – there might be 500, or just 20.

It can be unclear what the point of all these meetings is. Often, half the people attending have been in leftwing politics for years, and the other half are in community action groups and no longer identify as left; it can be difficult, sitting between them, to see how the meeting could ever tip into something bigger. But then you realise, when all these groups know of one another’s existence, when the community organisers meet the academics, when the Spanish activists meet the London ones, swapping ideas and sharing victories, draughty meetings become mass movements. And retrospectively, it starts to become clear what it was all for.

***

It was through Compass that I met Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal, a campaigning group for social and economic equality in Scotland. They, along with other active groups in the yes campaign, such as the Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence, have transformed the political landscape in Scotland. “We completely removed all jargon,” McAlpine told me (we were chatting in Starbucks). “Instead of the phrase ‘social democracy’, we use ‘all of us first’. People understand that. When you say, ‘We’ve had 40 years of me-first politics and we all came second. It’s time for a politics that puts all of us first,’ then everybody gets that.”

There is room for argument (a lot of argument) about what these groups have done – none has become a party. Their supporters who wanted to join a party have migrated to the SNP. This is not their natural home – it’s not long ago that the SNP were known as the Tartan Tories – but the surge is so pronounced (60,000 new members, making it in membership terms the UK’s third largest party) that the new mood is impossible to ignore. But the sense of democratic engagement, possibility, agency, in Scotland is stronger than it’s been in living memory. None of that started with a messiah figure, describing a new Scotland: it all started with a meeting. A hell of a lot of meetings.

McAlpine did 250 packed public meetings during the yes campaign, which was probably easier than it sounds, because he never draws breath. It is quite nerve-racking to listen to him, because so much goes on between the beginning of one sentence and the end. He said he’d never given much thought to the English left, before the campaign – but now he has. “You’re so defeatist. You seem depressed. You sit in meetings and say everything’s impossible because of the rightwing media. But you know the media is rightwing. Work around it.”

This advice sounds irritatingly nebulous, but he’s done something that worked, in a very short time: from the yes campaign, the SNP got this surge in membership, and with it, political ambition. They have to uphold the principles their new members brought with them: vowing not to privatise the NHS, to end Trident, to find alternatives to austerity.

Meanwhile, McAlpine says of Scottish Labour: “Jim Murphy is banning fracking, he’s banning super prisons, renationalising the railways. He is in favour of living wages, all this stuff, because he’s trying to outflank the SNP on the left, while the SNP is trying to outflank him on the left. And I feel a little bit like a Bond villain, saying ‘victory is ours’. Because that’s all we wanted – the pricks fighting each other, saying: ‘Who’s further left?’”

***

My lefty pilgrimage took me to some meetings so old-school it might have been the 1930s: an academic, in the House of Commons, introducing a paper. Jeremy Gilbert, a brilliant thinker and quite tempestuous man, co-wrote Reclaiming Modernity (with Mark Fisher) and launched it in Committee Room 10 last November. One of the premises is that many of the things we accept as “modern life” – rampant free markets, unregulated employers, hyper-surveillance of the public sector, a very powerful landlord class – are actually very old-fashioned. Modernity doesn’t have to be the acceleration of everything that’s bad. But how do you retake for your own side what is conceived of as “modern”? Anyway, a woman stood up and said (I’m paraphrasing): “My sister lives in Sheffield. She’s going to vote Ukip. She’d listen to all this and want to vote Ukip more, just to kick you in the eye.” I remember the violent threat accurately, because I was thinking how hard it would be to kick someone in the eye.

“Look,” Gilbert shouted, “don’t just shout at me.” What I’m talking about, he said, is not the communication stage; this is the thinking stage of the argument. When Thatcher came out and said “there is no alternative”, she didn’t do that from a standing start. She did that on the back of 30 years of neo-liberal thought and argument.

Even though he didn’t specify where we were on a similar 30-year curve (I hope to God nearer the end than the beginning. It might not take 30 years this time, because of the internet), I suddenly understood the point. When there is a broad perception of realism that you don’t like, you can’t just argue against it: you have to build a new realism. It has to mean something. It can’t just be “let’s be nice to one another”. My mother was there (she didn’t go with me, she went with her friends); I asked her what she thought and she said, “I couldn’t really hear it.”

“But they were all shouting.”

“That just makes my hearing aids whistle.”

As well as these 1930s-era platforms, there are House of Cards-style meetings, very small, comprising one rich person and several others of constitutional importance, a Labour lord or MP. I’m never quite sure what those are for: I guess they are to launch a coup, but no coup arrives. I fundamentally believe that when all of this coalesces into a real political force it’s not going to start like this – round a table, with a guest list, and a technocratic idea. It’s not participatory enough. There isn’t enough love in the room.

***

Tina Caballero of the London branch of Spanish political party Podemos. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

Can all this come together, and become something bigger, more concrete than ideas, and more co-ordinated than a set of sympathetic campaigns? The reason I think it can is based partly on Scotland, partly on optimism, and partly on Spain. I’d heard of Podemos, the people’s party, because it’s nearly the largest party in Spain; also, because a speech by its leader, Pablo Iglesias, went round my friends on email at the end of last year. “When you study the successful experiences of transformative movements,” Iglesias said, “you realise the key to success is to achieve a connection between the reality you have diagnosed and what the majority actually feels.” Everybody laughed ruefully about how this was easier said than done.

I didn’t realise Podemos had a London branch – all branches are called circles, or “circulos” – until I met Sirio Canós Donnay at a Compass meeting. She described how much horsepower Podemos had got from, first, their flat structure, the fact that these circles organise themselves; and, second, having an enemy. They point to corrupt politicians and the lobbyists and business people who corrupt them, and give that enemy a name – “la casta”, loosely translated, “the establishment”.

I wanted to interview her, but Podemos has such a flat structure that they told me to interview another circle member, Tina Caballero, 36, instead. So I went along (to a Shoreditch coffee shop) in the spirit of a person who isn’t meeting the person they wanted to meet, and was awed by Caballero.

I think she’s the first person I’ve encountered who can call themselves an eco-feminist and make that sound like a cool, realistic, normal yet exciting thing to be. She does a number of jobs to pay the rent, but is mainly an artist. “Imagine,” she said, “Podemos is one year old, and we’re first in the polls. The way the membership works, it’s completely open. You have to have an ID and a telephone that’s only yours, but apart from that, everyone can participate. If you only want to vote, only vote. If you want to join a circle, you join a circle.” The constitution was built with an ethics document, a governance document, a policy document. Each document was crowd sourced through these circulos.

Caballero echoed everyone I had spoken to on my tour of the UK’s left when she said: “The difference between right and left politics, this division is no longer useful. The only thing it achieves is division and confrontation. It’s used by politicians to manipulate people. It’s based on ideologies that have very little to do with the reality that people live in.” So this party, which didn’t exist a year ago, had no need to fall back on a shorthand, to place themselves on a spectrum that they didn’t believe in. They built it from scratch. In November, it could be the Spanish party of government.

The big misconception about politics is that you have to wait until a party comes along that you like, and then join it. A bigger misconception still is that you have to wait until a leader comes along and then follow him. The party, and the leader, come last: if you’re waiting for the People’s Assembly to become viable, it won’t; not until you become a person, who assembles.

That’s the left. It’s not called the left. You can’t Google it. You can’t do it by mail order. You can’t dip in every five years and go back to sleep. It starts with a meeting, and you have to turn up. “The only thing that matters,” says McAlpine, “is everything you do.”


• Get It Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics, by Zoe Williams, is published by Hutchinson priced £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including free UK mainland p&p, go to bookshop.theguardian.com.

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Is the Left in Britain Still Alive and Well?