Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Red, Green or Something In-Between?

It is now just over four weeks since I launched the Facebook group Forum for Progressive Action, since which time it has steadily developed into a highly active - and interactive - resource for some 230+ participants. Whilst quality over quantity remains the watchword, not a day passes without useful new contributors being added to the roll.

What has already become clear is that one of the great debates that is developing revolves around the nature of today's left (a convenient generic term with which I do not necessarily myself identify). Specifically, whether the progressive Green/SNP/Plaid vision which made itself known for the first time to so many of the uninitiated in the build-up to the recent general election is the real deal, or whether the future lies in a rallying of the masses to the more "traditional" left.

I say one of the great debates, of course, because this discourse cannot be separated from the question of whether the long-term future for progressive politics lies within or without the Labour Party. This is particularly so right now within the context of the Labour leadership challenge from Jeremy Corbyn. At the very least the sense of resigned inevitability that has accompanied the otherwise apparent consensus that the future of the party lies in an even further shift to the right has been stalled by this event, although Corbyn's equally inevitable rejection by the party through fair means or foul is likely only to emphasise the point when it happens.

One senses a soreness amongst some stalwarts of the socialist tradition towards the "Johnny Come Lately" leftists of the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. Certainly what unites all of these parties is that the wider public knows them best for other things - in the case of the Greens for their environmentalism, and of the SNP and Plaid for their respective advocacy of Scottish and Welsh independence. Whilst these are themes which need not contradict a left-wing political perspective, it is undoubtedly true that they are not necessarily exclusive to same and could equally be embraced by people of a centrist or even right-wing disposition. Thus the fear is that for adherents of what I will hereafter lazily refer to as the new left, progressive politics is merely additional ballast to a worldview formed around other priorities.


The attraction of the new left lies in its potential to turn progressive politics into a mass movement around an identifiable party banner. This has certainly been so in Scotland, where the SNP took 56 out of a total of 59 parliamentary seats on an openly left-of-Labour, anti-austerity platform to which its traditional theme of Scottish independence was successfully subordinated. Whilst the Greens only managed to hold onto their one Westminster seat the party's vote share increased enormously and one senses that it is just a few years of experience and training in the harsh truths of realpolitik away from a real breakthrough.

By contrast the old left has never demonstrated the ability to form a viable party capable of sustaining mass appeal. Certainly when it comes to individual causes it has been able to turn out the bodies - nuclear disarmament, the anti-racist and anti-fascist rallies of the 1970s, the Poll Tax demos and the protests against the invasion of Iraq to name just a few. But politically that opposition to the system has been fragmented between the Labour entryists and exitists, and between the plethora of left groups which themselves exist outside of the Labour Party, and then liberally spread like watered-down butter throughout 650 constituencies around the UK in a way that renders any prospect of political power via the parliamentary road improbable to put it politely. The one party that has managed momentarily to buck the trend, Respect, has been far too focused around one man, in one place and at one time to offer any lasting threat to the established order.

The old left argues, not without some justification, that there are some distinctly unleftish aspects to the wider politics of the new kids on the progressive block. The Greens' desire to protect the Green Belt could be seen as running contrary to the notion of a widespread building program as a remedy to the housing crisis. Scottish and Welsh nationalism is, well, nationalism, which belies the internationalism of classic socialist doctrine.

Add to this the ovine tribalism of that significant section of progressive opinion - if one still accepts it as such - which places organisational allegiance, even to a right-wing and neoliberal party, above ideology or political principle and even in broad terms what is loosely thought of as one movement would seem irreparably divided into three distinct camps.

Under the circumstances the prospects for political unity, in the sense of bringing progressives together under one organisational roof, appear remote. Furthermore, unless the issues of fundamental import which divide progressives can be resolved it is questionable whether such a unity would even be desirable.

What can and must be achieved however is the kind of unity which allows progressive opinion to act in unison whenever a wider interest is served. On the streets, when the occasion demands, this is already happening. Witness last weekend's anti-austerity protests in London and elsewhere.

The task of unaligned progressives is to harness united action around a defined list of points of agreement - areas where all of us see things the same way and from which some mutual benefit may be derived from working together. If nothing else this should be the task for the duration of this parliament.