Andy Searson is a teacher, Labour movement activist and working-class thinker based in South Yorkshire.
Class politics is back by necessity. A vicious ideological right wing Tory government, the fallout of a no deal Brexit and with Labour rapidly veering to the right our communities are at risk of a further decade of defunding, cuts to services and mass unemployment.
If we don’t have real community control, we’re not going to have any real socialism. Socialism is just an abstract idea if it’s not tangibly applied to our people’s everyday experiences. It’s about evolving a system and an economic practice of fair-shares equality and fair-shares access. It’s got to happen from the grass-roots up.
Any rebuilding project starts with solid foundations
It is not by chance that the right of the Labour Party disliked and undermined the community organising initiative established by Jeremy Corbyn’s team. It threatens their top-down, machine politics. Well, you can’t rebuild any wall without first building foundations. Here’s another fact, you will never rebuild the red wall from the top down.
We need to concentrate on how we get more community control of economic frameworks that retail and produce services and tangible benefits for our communities. Common sense socialism, everyday socialism or good old fashioned municipal socialism.
The need to find local leaders is paramount. Those who instinctively stand up for their community. These citizens should then be candidates in local elections. People from the grass roots to enable control of the levers of power and finance in order to use them to directly serve in the interests of their community.
Local candidates who have authenticity and are altruistic in their commitment to serve their people without financial or personal gain. Real representation. Rebuilding trust with the voting public is essential so a new generation of authentic, altruistic candidates is essential to achieve that trust.
A genuine voice for the people
We need to develop our own community media to liberate people from the constant barrage of propaganda based on Neo Liberal group think disseminated via the old mainstream media.
With the arrival of easy to access socialised media it makes this possible. Unlike previous generations we have the means by which to communicate easily and frequently with citizens both locally and more widely. It’s mostly free to access and produce. It enables micro channels that feed direct to localised issues. Be it saving a village library, maintenance of historic buildings or sharing concerns about the decimation of local services. The important factor is galvanising support, providing collectivity and organising action for change. Empowering local citizens to become actively engaged in changing and improving their own communal spaces, services and lives.
How do we build the citizen’s movement? The large communal workplaces are long gone and this has caused a major problem for Labour. The political organising andeducation has been decimated by the demolition of mining, steel and manufacturing. These communities historically provided an organising base via trade unionism and mutual struggle. We have to build a new base for the current economy and find the language for a modern age.
There are huge amounts of people already engaged in working for the common good within our communities. Unsung heroes who work tirelessly for no reward other than the feeling that they’ve achieved something positive for someone else. Local food-banks, solicitors offering free advice, advocates giving support and help to hose navigating the DWP benefits system, church groups working with needy families, homeless and downtrodden. Then there are the trade unions and other activists groups.
The sheer number of people volunteering to fill the gaps in our savagely-cut social security system and failing welfare state is huge. Nearly always these people are driven by social conscience not personal gain. They’re unwilling to walk by on the other side whilst they are suffering or people in need. They see value in the idea of working for the ‘common good.’
“A cold grey loveless thing”
The fact that charity on such a scale is now needed isn’t a shining example of the welfare state. As Mhairi Black the young Scottish MP stated in her maiden speech in the Houses of Parliament; She said, “Food banks are not part of the Welfare State. They are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.”
Clement Attlee also espoused how democratic power and the financial levers of that power can be used to the benefit of our fellow citizens. Attlee was himself formed by his experiences with working-class self-organisation in the heart of London’s East End. In 1920 he wrote “we are struck by the amazing charity of the poor to the poor, the readiness with which one poor household will take into their home and support a friend who is out of a job, and the ready response to whip round for a widow left penniless, or for similar cases of misfortune”.
Rebels with a cause
Writing about his time amongst the people of London’s East End, where he worked, Attlee recalls:
I found abundant instances of kindness and much quiet heroism in these mean streets. These people were not poor through their lack of fine qualities. The slums were not filled with the dregs of society. Not only did I have countless lessons in practical economics but there was kindled in me a warmth and affection for these people that has remained with me all my life. From this it was only a step to examining the whole basis of our social and economic system. I soon began to realise the curse of casual labour. I got to know what slum landlordism and sweating meant. I also understood why there were rebels.
It is these ‘rebels’ who we need to elevate. It is these citizens who are driven to act. To defy the odds and use self agency, mutuality and social consciousness to bring about social change for others. It is no good waiting for a messiah or leader to come along. Change needs to happen now. We must become our own agents of change. The rebels, whose agency is borne out of empathy for others, must be future community leaders.
Organisation is key. Campaigns and programs must be established to encourage people to collectivise for the common good and must be based on local issues and need.
Emotional connection is of the utmost importance to build mutuality and connectivity. Citizens will become activists to defend or build things that affect them directly or those they care about. Empathy and emotional investment is key, hence local knowledge of local issues is key.
Real change comes from people power, either via public pressure/protest or via using democratic processes to gain power. This involves political education.
To achieve democratic power, citizen groups must learn to get people to act as voter registrars. They will learn to identify council districts and these voter registrars will get all this information. Where the people are, where the communities are, where your borough and parish council seats are, etc.
Also, the knowledge about the political structure of your community is important. Identify the communicators, future leaders and future possible candidates.
Possible right now
Once power is achieved, what then? Ironically it is Eric Pickles’ Localism Bill that may provide the vehicle for localised emancipation from right wing, self serving entrenched politicians. This allows even a Parish council tax raising powers through the local precept (the Parish Council share of wider Borough Council Tax). It also allows local councils (parish, town or borough) to take back control of services which might currently be achieved through borough councils. It also allows borough councils to reshape council tax bands so those with the broadest shoulders contribute a little more to protect services for all.
This is a possibility right now. The fact that Labour councils aren’t fighting back against savage Tory cuts is sad. It’s not good enough to be a proxy for a hard right Tory government. You are attacking the services and living standards of the very people you expect to vote you into power. This is not true representation.
What if there’s no strategic community organising plan? What if there is no action to rebuild within communities?I can foresee dangers ahead if Labour continues along it’s current direction of travel. The party is at risk of a major split. Over half a million people signed up as active members during the Corbyn leadership on the basis of realising and implementing systemic change. They visualised another kind of Britain was possible.
They wanted a rebalance of power towards the many not the few. To the 99% away from the 1%. It was also a sure sign that a generation was sick of the status quo and business as usual. If that systemic change is no longer viable through the Labour Party then other routes will be found. Half a million indignant people is a very strong foundation on which to build.
Yes: united we can
In Spain Podemos now hold the balance of power in a coalition with the PSOE, Spain’s version of the British Labour Party. They are holding the more centrist/liberal PSOE to account and forcing through populist left policies. Podemos’ support is growing year on year. Why? Because they speak and govern for the many. ‘Los Indignados’ – the indignant!
Podemos’ organising saw a rapid growth in their community circles. Which in turn brought successes in local elections. Their rapid growth and success was brought about through empowering and galvanising the grass roots movements that grew out of the 2008 economic crisis.
Firstly, the Occupy movement which grew globally in opposition to a continuation of neoliberalism. As the establishment parties continued to pursue business as usual, a large movement also began to grow in Spain. Largely made up of the young, the ‘Indignados’ as they became known, joined the demand for systemic change.
After generations and decades of being told this is how things are, there is no alternative, the people were starting to learn that another world and economic system was possible. When they were told it can’t be achieved they replied ‘We Can’ in Spanish ‘Podemos.’ And, a new populist party was born – Podemos. A self empowering movement said if you will not change the system – we will!
Their own description of themselves summarises what they are about perfectly and succinctly:
Podemos was born from the conviction that change is possible and with the certainty that it would not be brought about by other political parties (least of all those which have lead us to the present situation) but rather by people who work or are looking for work on a daily basis and who legitimately demand a more prosperous and just future for themselves and their families.We have a clear idea of what our problems are (unjust and ineffective policies; institutions which are at the service of the few; corruption, inequality…) and what the solutions are – a government for the people which is responsible, reliable, independent and committed to those who wish for a better future.
We have always known that it would be difficult, but we have the support and experience of a great many people. In our country the opportunity for change has opened up. In order to achieve it we need everybody’s help, wherever we are from and whoever we have voted for in the past.
Now is the moment. Yes, we can. Podemos.
Can a break away populist party be formed from the huge, trained and eagerly engaged activist base operating within Corbyn’s Labour be possible? Some may say ‘Yes – We Can.’ It’s already been a proven success in Spain.
Extinction Rebellion: another threat
Another possible threat to Labour is the growth of Extinction Rebellion. This is a movement that has taken hold across the world. The ability to mobilise huge numbers of protestors and activists, especially amongst the young ( hundreds of thousands of teenagers engaged in the recent Climate Strikes in the UK) is a warning shot to any party that is flogging the dead horse of Neo Liberal ‘business as usual.’
Extinction Rebellion’s own demands, as well as environmental action, include ‘Climate Justice’ as well as Citizens’ Assemblies. Why is Extinction Rebellion demanding a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice? A clear explanation can be found on their website. It states:
“Extinction Rebellion believes that part of the problem is the way electoral politics works:
- Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians. Over the last 40 years, this system has proved incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency. Politicians simply can’t see past the next election.
- Members of parliament are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential public reactions and opinion polls. This leaves many of them either unable or unwilling to make the bold changes necessary to address the emergency.”
The winds of change are blowing. No matter how the establishment try and distract us with divisive cultural wars or other divide and rule tactics, change is coming.
The two main UK political parties may be offering green washing or token gestures but that just won’t cut it any more. The zeitgeist is for real change and currently no political party is offering that sizeable shift in the status quo in terms of economic, climate or ecological policy that the many demand. They are all interlinked and to achieve all of the above – huge systemic change is required. A totally new approach to the economy.
As Greta Thunberg said recently at the UN summit:
People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.
Many establishment figures shrugged and dismisses this as youthful exuberance. Well, GretaThunberg is closer to the truth and the current zeitgeist than all of the detached, establishment bubble politicians.
The capitalist class and Neo Liberal politicians are never going to agree to dismantle the system that suits their lifestyle, yet it is necessary to achieve climate and ecological justice. Only Corbyn’s Labour previously offered a brave shift in policy with their Green New Deal which dealt directly with economic and climate justice. This sadly seems to be another casualty of the new leadership.
Extinction Rebellion is building a formidable activist base in every community. Like all political change, it will be forced upon the establishment by people power at local, national and international level. Change will indeed come.
Black Lives really Matter
Finally, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement will be an important catalyst in engaging young people who are often disenfranchised from politics. Having been largely ignored by the political class, many from the BAME community have simply opted out of the political process.
The BLM movement – not ‘moment’ – is not only empowering those previously disenfranchised but is also providing them a platform to organise and actively participate in the change they demand. Local BLM groups are being established all around the UK and coalitions are being built between anti-racist activists and BLM. Community organising and participation is growing substantially even during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The struggle for racial justice shouldn’t be viewed separately from the wider class struggle for systemic economic change. As Bobby Seale, a founding member of the Black Panther Party, knew;
Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ banner declares: ‘Unity is strength’.
The Panther Party’s founders rooted their ideology in socialism and working class emancipation. Seale saw that the struggle for black freedom was part of a universal class struggle. The Black Lives Matter movement have learned a lot from the Panther’s effectiveness in community organising. They’ve also learned valuable lessons from Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement as well as Obama’s 2008 campaigning.
The awful recent comments from Keir Starmer, who described the Black Lives Matter movement as a ‘moment’, confirmed to many that there will not be any radical change coming from the new Labour leadership to address their concerns. This, added to the seeming refusal to act upon clear racist, anti-black behaviour amongst some at the very top of the Labour Party machine revealed in the leaked Labour report, is disheartening.
The new Labour leadership team seems to be heading back towards business as usual. It would seem there is no appetite for the radical change that the majority of people are demanding. The lack of opposition to the Tory catastrophe during the COVID-19 crisis, the move back towards neoliberal economics, the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and the abandonment of the Green New Deal economic plan leaves one wondering where the support for Starmer’s Labour will come from.
Political power means nothing if it is about gaining power to simply be in power! Without the will or commitment for real systemic change, more citizens will become indignant, disenfranchised and without a voice. In those circumstances, people will find their own voices and organise outside the usual main party structures.
That moment may be here sooner than we think – and it will come from the ground up.
Andy Searson from the Red Wall.
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