Bridging the gap (1) – Len Arthur
In a recent discussion blog Darren Williams analysed the limits of Welsh Labourism, suggesting a number of forms of political action that could be initiated to start to move beyond these confines. This discussion piece will come at the same problem, drawing upon our earlier discussion relating to the possible ways of understanding the current crisis of capitalism, and how the power of capital can be confronted. Climate change can also be seen as being inextricably connected to these two contextual issues, consequently this discussion relates to and draws upon the experience of the green movement.
Darren’s blog drew upon issues raised by Mark Drakeford’s contribution to our WLG AGM. This current piece has been inspired by the recent contributions of two other Marks (must be an age thing!): Serwotka at a recent Cardiff TUC meeting and Seddon at our last WLG meeting in Swansea. Mark Serwotka made three points. First, he emphasised just how serious and ideologically driven were the Tories’ attacks on welfare, the public sector and trade unions. Second, he argued that the Labour Party should be taking a longer term economic view, being prepared to propose fundamental structural change on how the economy works, consequently leading the attack on the basics of neo-liberalism, not looking for a weak compromise. Third, he argued that the trade union leadership was central to challenging the neo-liberal consensus, but they themselves were in a crisis and were behind the pace. This was his big picture, and he then proceeded to describe the gap between the present state of the movement and what needs to be done. He was in no way pessimistic and provided an example of how the PCS was aiming to mobilise around pay and conditions - now that other unions had neutralised the pensions issue - but also described how the PCS had to retreat on pensions as a consequence, and how mobilising had to start again from a low base.
Mark Seddon argued that despite the worst and most obvious crisis of capitalism for decades, politics were not automatically coming to the left. In fact, it was possible that a populist drift to the right was taking place, as seen in the rise of UKIP. Like Serwotka, Seddon argued that there is a crisis of leadership that was really a crisis of confidence, resulting from the defeats of the trade unions in the 1980s, consequently no real opposition was being offered to the scorched earth policies of the Tories. He described their version of neo-liberalism as ‘market Leninism’ and argued that the Labour Party needed a big idea to challenge this consensus, based upon a massive jobs and investment programme developed with the support of the trade unions and the public sector and, secondly, to ensure that addressing inequality was central to all activities. Working toward this vision would provide the basis of taking power back in the Labour Party as would linking with affiliated unions, such as Unite, to support a recruitment drive. He then specifically outlined an alternative policy agenda, such as a commitment to full employment; a financial transaction tax; relating to the global economy by arguing for a different social and democratic EU; and supporting workers and consumer cooperatives.
Both contributions aimed high, at the essential need to confront neo-liberalism and the power of capitalism; both ackowledged that there is a gap between where we are, and having the power to achieve this alternative vision; what can nevertheless be done, if we have theconfidence and consciousness to go forward with a commitment to action, informed by a clear political narrative; and both had some practical suggestions, as did Darren in his blog. Interestingly, a version of the same issue ignited a recent debate on the Labour Briefing Facebook group which has had 92 contributions. And in the Guardian last Friday, Anna Karpf discussed how she tries to avoid ‘tuning out’ when dealing with a similar gap in relation to the issues of climate change. All these contributions reveal a narrative that needs addressing: both capital and climate change stand exposed like never before; frustration and anger exists and is growing, and in Lenin’s terms, the flammable material is there, along with the possibility of a spark that could set it off: and yet the struggle could be in retreat in the UK.
The problem is fundamentally one of scale between the size of the challenge and our consciousness and confidence in our ability to do anything about it. As Anna Karpf suggests, the gap can seem so daunting, that each comment or exposure just makes people feel more impotent and powerless. Every time we expose the disastrous consequences of the Tories, capitalism, climate change and neo-liberalism in this situation it can have the unintentional consequences of increasing the size of the ‘gap’ : we can become seen as prophets of doom instead of beacons of hope. What can be done?
A classic reformist approach to this problem is to reduce the scale of the challenge. First, as in management babble, emphasise the positive and neutralise the negative, such as the ‘dented shield’ argument: we may have to stop all the arts funding but at least we saved many social workers’ jobs. Second, as argued at a recent WLG meeting by Mark Drakeford, is a form of managing down expectations along the lines that it may be unfortunate, but we have to be realistic and accept that we live in times of austerity. It could be argued that ‘with you in good times and bad’ and now ‘one nation Labour’ is an example of this approach. Third, is the Fabian reformist argument, that it is not possible radically to change or confront power in our society, so let us concentrate on small but hopefully incremental gains – well, at least they might last until the next Tory government blows them away. Fourth, there is the Blairite Progress position: what is wrong with neo-liberalism, we should embrace it so that at least it will be Labour version. There are other variants but the picture is clear: reduce the scale of the problem to action that fits the budget and the realistic social democrat possibilities.
In the first two blog discussion pieces we covered the economic thinking that may support these reformist approaches – basically a ‘muddling through’ or traditional Keynesian perspective. The pieces then went on to explore the overlaps between some Marxist and radical Keynesian approaches and finally, the Marxist approaches that are rooted in the structural contradictions of how capitalism works and the problems of the falling rate of profit. If the latter two approaches are those that you personally find convincing and now need tackling, then the scale of the current ‘gap’ problem remains and cannot be minimised by reformist measures. So, if that is where you are, what can be done to bridge the gap?
People personally faced with the direct consequences of the Tory neo-liberal policies, and not knowing how to fight back, will tend to retreat into individual solutions if at all possible, or perhaps escapism or even just pulling their blankets over their heads. In fact, this is nothing new, as this is the usual daily reaction of most people when faced with adversity. Even when it does not seem possible to retreat any further, retreat still happens. Anyone involved in TU organising will know that individual and collective possibilities always vie for attention. The main task of a TU organiser however, is to continue to provide a collective answer to issues or grievances experienced by members. The task is made much easier if successes can be pointed to as examples of what can be achieved. It is at this level of local scale discourse, sometimes one to one, on which a collective fightback is built but it requires hard, consistent work. The danger is that the populist right can fill the vacuum, if the political leadership minimises the problems and the answers seem complicated; with easy solutions, that scapegoat others and arguments about leaving it to the strongman, the extreme right can easily come to the fore.The collective approach based upon unity and solidarity in action and, in conjunction with politics, provides a way of rebuilding confidence and consciousness and answering the ‘what can be done’ question. So now you’ve got this far - and are probably thoroughly depressed! - you’ll just have to suggest your own answers as part of the discussion and I’ll add my bit next week!