Not Bright's Blog IV - Lost Left

The author of Harry's Place is the latest guest blogger

As the poisonous dust of the destruction of the World Trade Center began to settle, what seemed to be a new and unfamiliar political landscape began to coalesce before us. Many began to appreciate that the familiar political landmarks of the Left - support for secularism over religious politics, the preference of democracy to tyranny, solidarity with progressives world-wide, a concern for the principles of anti-racism and gender equality - now had rather fuzzy edges.

Over the next few years, principles which once appeared to define what it meant to consider yourself "Left wing" seemed now to be expendable and optional. Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, famously described gay rights as a "shibboleth", and went on to defend its coalition partner in RESPECT and the STWC, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned "Muslim Association of Britain", by comparing attacks on an organisation whose politics were once accurately described by the SWP founder, Tony Cliff, as "clerical fascist" to the Nazi "scapegoating" of "gays, trade unionists, Gypsies, socialists and, above all, Jews". The outrage at the murder of the heroic Iraqi trade unionist, Hadi Saleh, by Baathists was dismissed as a ""hullabaloo" by the SWP's leading intellectual. Over at the Guardian - Britain's leading liberal daily - the Comment editor, Seumus Milne commissioned article after article from Muslim Brotherhood activists, including one urging the creation of a new Caliphate. Ken Livingstone famously embraced the homophobic theocratic Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Qaradawi, and then worked overtime to eviscerate the coalition of minority groups which were deeply worried by Qaradawi's bigotry. When challenged, he compared the theologian who advocated terrorist attacks on civilians to a reformist Pope. The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting - who had previously been best known for her excellent book on the conduct of the Channel Islanders under Nazi occupation - produced a soft-soaping interview of this nasty bigot. At a rally to oppose Israel's campaign against Hizbollah, George Galloway gave a speech in which he explicitly "glorified" Hizbollah, while protesters waved posters bearing the image of Ayatollah Khomeni and posters declaring "We are all Hizbollah".

These are a handful of those events of the last few years which made many of us on the Left ask: "Has the world changed, or have I changed?"

This much is commonplace. You've heard it all before.

What really surprised us wasn't the jettisoning of old allies by key figures and organisations on the far Left - organisations which effectively ran the anti-war movement - and their replacement by new-found friendships with those on the clerical far-right. It was the reaction of many of those who were not aligned with the far left to our expressions of concern over the direction that parts of the progressive left were heading.

In his review of Nick Cohen's new book, "What's Left", the editor of the New Statesman, John Kampfner, illustrates my point nicely. Nick Cohen's analysis of the Left is premised on a fundamental error, he says: it mistakes a part of progressive opinion for the whole. Those who forged alliances with the Islamist far right were a "fringe cult". The bulk of those active in Left politics are no supporters of the Caliphate. It is an error to mistake a small, but visible, part of the coalition which was forged in the wake of 9/11 for the whole. A similar point is made by most of the other critical reviews of Nick's book, including Peter Oborne, who puts the point neatly:

Cohen erects paper tigers. It is easy to turn over the SWP. The key failing of the book is that nowhere does Cohen seriously engage with the mainstream, anti-war left. Cohen's thesis simply does not begin to apply to the decent and honourable left-wing men and women who opposed the war...

In a limited way, they're right. The mainstream anti-war Left was not well represented by George Galloway, Lindsey German or Andrew Murray. My dearest friend joined RESPECT at its inception, and left soon after he began to appreciate the nature of the alliance upon which it was based. The comments boxes of Harry's Place gave space to people who had marched against the war to topple Saddam, and against Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon, who simply felt that they could not link arms with a movement which glorified the vilest of reactionaries, in the name of opposing US foreign policy: and so stopped attending the rallies.

The question which remains is this. How did the British anti-war movement - composed of many "decent and honourable" people who have no truck with fascism of the clerical or secular variety - allow itself to be captured by a fringe cult of Islamists in alliance with revolutionary socialists, who were not so much anti-war, as supporters of the other side? Why was that alliance not challenged at its very inception? What happened to Left solidarity with Iraqi democrats and trade unionists, who are being slaughtered by Baathists and jihadists? Why did the Left not rally around the TUC Aid Iraq Appeal, which demonstrated that it was possible to oppose both US foreign policy, while giving real aid to our beleaguered trade unionist comrades in Iraq?

The answer to that question, I think, is both structural and ideological. Structually, the reason that British Left politics has been dominated, with unwarranted success, by a disproportionately visible red-brown alliance, is that it takes time and effort to organise a national campaign. The SWP is probably the only organisation capable of putting together such a campaign. It made the decision to go into alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, knowing full well what its politics are, No other group was in a position to challenge that decision effectively. Ken Livingstone jumped on the bandwagon, because he is naturally attracted by the glamour of street politics, and the electoral opportunity presented by the chance to play minority communities off against each other. Others tagged along, foolishly, or strategically.

But there is another reason: which Nick Cohen nails in What's Left:

A part of the answer is that it isn't at all clear what it means to be on the left at the moment. I doubt if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left wing than ours would look like and how its economy and government would work (let alone whether a majority of their fellow citizens would want to live there). Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone. Disgraced by the communists' atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable.

It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that 'when a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything', but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.

A bold and self confident Left wing and progressive movement would have sniffed out the alliance with the religious-political far right at the very outset. It would have striven to defend muslims, while fighting against Islamists. It would have put its energies into building alliances with democrats and progressives in the Arab world, and thrown itself into practical solidarity work with those forces. It would have captured the argument back from the likes of Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove, who see the rise of Islamism as a symptom of progressive decadence, and the decline of traditional conservative values.

Perhaps this is unfair. After all, prior to 2001, very few of us had a deep sense of the nature and goals of Islamist politics. When the 9/11 attacks took place, Al Qaeda's obscure quest for a kingdom of perfect divine justice on earth was translated, through reflexive third worldism, into a kind of protest against global capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and the depredation of the environment. Having made that error, it was easy to mistake gradualist Islamist movements - particularly those, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which see no advantage in terrorist attacks on British civilians - as moderates, potential allies, and even (relative) progressives.

Well, we all should know by now that this is not true. What remains to be seen is whether the mainstream Left can regain its momentum, refuse to treat with reactionaries, and recapture the leadership of progressive politics.

That is why it is not to late to ask: What's Left?

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.