How the Left Can Build Its Own Politics
‘Watch the unions; that’s my tip.’ The post-war Labour left MP Ian Mikardo was observing the political consequences of trade unions moving from their previously defensive stance to the shop-floor militancy of the 1960s and 70s. It’s a tip that applies today as we puzzle over what strategies could break through the present dire political impasse.
My hunch is that the industrial self-confidence of the 1970s is still an active memory that informs a new assertion of industrial militancy but with a very different and still open-ended relation to politics. Today’s militancy, driving a rethinking of labour movement politics, was clear at this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala.
The gala, or the ‘Big Meeting’, is an event of enormous prestige in the labour movement calendar. Until recently, every Labour leader would make sure they were there on the balcony of the County Hotel, greeting the procession of banners and brass bands, which to this day sees people marching in their tens of thousands (this year it was 200,000). Yet this nationally significant event is organised by the local Durham Miners Association (DMA), now with other regional trade unions, independently of the TUC or any national union. Sir Keir Starmer did not consider it a priority. Tony Blair also turned it down. Both knew they would have a hostile reception.
Since the mid-1980s and the success of the left, led by ‘the two Daveys’ – Davey Guy and Davey Hopper – in gaining control of the DMA, this local union, with other unions and social movements, has make the gala ‘the most vibrant union gathering in the world’, in the words of Len McCluskey. Both Guy and Hopper sadly passed away in the last 10 years; this year’s Gala was chaired by current DMA chair Stephen Guy.
Refuse to be poor
This year, the huge crowd gave an enthusiastic welcome to speakers entirely consisting of trade union and grassroots community leaders. The speeches broke from the conventional formula of attacks on the Tories and commitment to work for a Labour government. These militant trade unionists opened up a new agenda.
‘Collective action is the way to get change,’ said Claire Williams, northern regional president of Unison. ‘Unison is ready to strike.’ ‘No more political tail wagging the industrial dog,’ declared Sharon Graham, new general secretary of Unite. ‘The trade union movement must be reborn,’ said RMT leader Mick Lynch ‘Refuse to be poor.’ ‘Our flag is independent of any political party,’ he continued. ‘Any politics that is in the way will be kicked over. We will create our own politics.’
Commitments such as these, made with confidence to a supportive crowd, are an indication of a new relationship between the unions and politics, in which they are no longer subordinate to the parliamentary Labour Party. Other speeches further indicated that they are no longer the taken-for-granted partners of the party on wider political issues.
Sheffield postal worker Rohan Kon speaking on behalf of the CWU described how her union worked with Acorn, a community union campaigning on housing, neighbourhood safety and other social and political issues, including voter registration. One of the few non-union speakers was Yvette Williams, from Justice 4 Grenfell and an organiser of the Notting Hill Carnival. She talked about the need ‘seamlessly to come together’.
How we win
How movements, unions, campaigns and left political representatives can come together is the theme of an important new book by James Schneider, co-founder of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn’s ex-head of strategic communications. Our Bloc: How We Win opens a much-needed discussion on strategy, after reflection on the 2019 defeat, in a generous, non-sectarian and open-ended way. ‘Flexibility and openness must be our watchwords,’ he says.
Schneider argues for a federated ‘left bloc’ with a secretariat whose main function would be to co-ordinate, facilitate and share information. This argument starts from the fact that though anti-establishment and socialistic values are widespread in the UK, there is no longer a political party to bring them together under a single banner.
His proposal for a left bloc federated on flexible and open principles (recognising, presumably, the uneven character of any federation of organisations of huge diversity) surely provides one element of the kind of strategy we need. Schneider’s ability to draw critically on his experience is exemplary. But we need also to draw from a wider range of experiences of attempts at transformative change, both locally and nationally.
Schneider talks about the importance of rebuilding confidence, ‘bucketloads of it’. Confidence has been drained over the past 40 years, both by the defeats of the Thatcher years and the destruction of Labour as a party championing working-class needs. But confidence in the possibility to bring about change, to be creators of society rather than consumers, has often been built and rebuilt through local, frequently incomplete, victories independent of Labour. For instance, the Justice for Hillsborough campaign in Liverpool has helped to rebuild the confidence of working-class communities in a city that has been battered for decades. Many of the campaign’s activists have gone on to develop working-class community power around other issues. These are not necessarily the priorities of a nationally federated organisation.
International experiences also indicate deeper strategic needs than federation. Consider the regional political education process that was a foundation of the popular power and self-confidence that led Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez to electoral victory in Colombia. Over more than two decades, a small radical human rights organisation, Nomadesc, worked in south-west Columbia with some of Colombia’s most emblematic trade union and social struggles, which faced concerted offensives by right-wing paramilitaries. Nomadesc encouraged intercultural dialogue, drawing on a range of different knowledge practices – tacit, embodied, ancestral and organic, as well as professional and theoretical. This collaboration had a prefigurative dimension supporting autonomous grassroots alternatives at the same time as engaging with state institutions as one element of a broader political strategy.
The World Transformed itself illustrates the possibility of combining these different elements of a strategy. As one of the most positive continuing legacies of the political self-confidence inspired by Corbyn’s all-too-brief leadership, TWT also provides a purposeful space for two other such legacies: the radical organisations of precarious workers and the independent-minded militancy, so evident at the Durham Gala, of union leaders who have lost all trust in a parliamentary party that destroyed the precious opportunity for a socialist prime minister.
Note: This article was amended on 12 October 2022 to reflect the fact that Stephen Guy chaired this year’s Gala and that Davey Guy has sadly passed away. A previous version of the article claimed that Davey Guy chaired this year’s Gala.