It is the season of stale mince pies and predictions. And yet if 2015 should have taught us anything, it is that the predictions of the commentariat should be taken with a freight train load of salt – and not just because it failed to predict the result of the general election. With 2016 barely a week old, junior doctors and student nurses are already taking history into their own hands – with thousands marching in London this Saturday and a national doctors’ strike planned for 3 days over the next month.
In the past few years, there have been two broad moments on the British left, both of them almost entirely unpredicted both by the political mainstream, in which everything changed. The first, on 10 November 2010, was the occupation of Conservative Party headquarters by students angry at the tripling of tuition fees – the beginning of a new generation of anti-austerity protest. The second, on 12 September 2015, was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party – the elevation of at least a decade of social movements and public frustration into the political mainstream, with power potentially only an election away.
As well as dramatically altering the course of the British left, both of these events reflect a broader process at work. In reaction to two Conservative Party election victories, the vast bulk of the politically active population on the left has, contrary to the script many were reading, abandoned the centrism that had come to be regarded as an iron law of politics – and remoulded a version of a socialist politics that many thought an anachronism. This process of polarisation made 2011 a year of high drama: it saw the building of anti-cuts committees in communities all over the country, the occupy movement, and, in terms of numbers participating, the biggest strike since the general strike of 1926.
There is no reason to believe that 2016 will be any different. It will be the first full year of majority Conservative government in exactly 20 years, and that government’s agenda will be brutal. Attacks on doctors’ working conditions are one struggle for 2016; so is the housing crisis, deeper cuts to welfare, a new wave of legislation to privatise universities, and a rising tide of anti-migrant bigotry in around the EU referendum. Far more people’s lives will be affected by austerity in the coming few years than ever before.
In response, the left must channel public sentiment and build a set of social movements that can beat back some of the cuts, and set the scene for a Corbyn victory in 2020. We are used to looking abroad for inspiration – to the vast, grassroots campaigns that build Syriza and give life to the Spanish left. But it is also worth remembering the British left’s own history – the mass labour movement that existed until the 1980s, which, in today’s context of low party membership and participation, would look very formidable indeed.
The anti-austerity movement of 2011 suffered and degenerated largely as a result of a lack of infrastructure, resources and political support from trade unions and the official structures of the labour movement. Morale and mobilisation petered out when all that could be offered was a diminishing number of one day strikes and A to B marches, often without any mainstream political support.
In this respect, things look much more hopeful now than they did then. The BMA’s recent call to arms is a good example of how even a seemingly apolitical union can be pushed to action by a membership under attack. And as well as Corbyn’s election, a gradual shift in many unions – at least at the level of policy – means that Unite is committed to the idea of defying the Trade Union Bill. Across the trade union movement and wider social movements, the fight will now be on to ensure that mobilisation accelerates, rather than being held back, now that Corbyn is Labour leader. The morale and momentum among trade union members, and the creation of a backdrop of resistance, is of vital importance to any strategy to put Corbyn into number 10.
To an extent, a strategy of polarisation is simply unavoidable given the direction of Tory policy – but it can work, too. Under the last majority Conservative government, Thatcher presided over a pioneering vision for society which she articulated openly, and which could be juxtaposed to the supposed chaos of the 1970s. Today’s Tories are going much further in their attacks on the poor, but their ideological posture is that of a technocratic tribute act. Their insistence on the salience of market forces comes at a time when the financial crash has destroyed public faith in them and triggered a wave of popularity for a new ‘outsider’ left across Europe, and when the establishment as a whole has lost much credibility in the public eye.
Until recently, many in Labour’s centre and right had hoped that the rank and file of the left might be persuaded to quietly step back from the brink – but much bigger forces are now at work. Polarisation must be the watch word of 2016. And, unlike in years gone by, the left might well have a pretty good chance of winning at it.