Architecture of the left: our generation must build to win
I was asked to speak in the youth plenary at Compass conference this weekend. This is roughly what I said.
From the Russian border to the French Atlantic, the historic parties of Europe’s centre left have been smashed. Three years after the collapse of financial capitalism, and the financial capitalists are back in charge. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and we’re on the brink of runaway climate change. I’m only young, but I’m already tired of losing.
To an extent we can blame the triangulation of our failed leaders. But we must also understand that the infrastructure of the left has not been good enough.
To be fair, it’s been hard. From the mid 1970s, we have had structural unemployment. The labour market has been increasingly flexible. Union organising has become a nightmare.
In the United States, some responded to such de-unionisation with community organising inspired by Saul Alinsky.
In the UK, the young people who entered this new 1970s labour market were our baby boom parents. They were the children of the struggles of the sixties and the beneficiaries of a great expansion in higher education. They took advantage of advances in direct mail technologies and built NGOs which reflected the struggles of the new left: Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, the World Development Movement, Greenpeace…
Our generation of organisers faces further struggles. Deregulated labour markets have forced us to work harder. Successes in women’s liberation have near doubled the monetised workforce and shifted the average dinner time from 6pm to 8pm. As we move from city to city to find jobs, most just can’t attend wednesday night meetings. The number and strength of community groups has dropped rapidly.
But we have benefited from another mass expansion of higher education and from new technologies which allow us to challenge power in a whole new set of ways.
And we have started to learn to organise ourselves.
If you are an activist of my age, then you left school as Baghdad was bombed. You marched as a student to make poverty history, and pitched your tent at climate camp. And you graduated into the middle of the financial collapse.
Our interventions have been fleet of foot and media savvy. Plane Stupid, then climate camp, then UK Uncut – these have had an energy to them which has attracted so much more attention than the ageing NGOs our baby boomer parents founded. And they have forced some issues onto the political agenda.
But are they enough? I don’t think so. Because ultimately, the power of these actions has been their ability to communicate ideas through the media.
And the left will never win a debate fought on the playing field of a corporate press. By focussing so much on the media, we have mirrored of Mandleson’s New Labour machine. We have built political organisations without the memberships of millions, which don’t organise communities from house to house, from street to street, from town to town. We have retreated into soundbites and clever spin. And we are good at that. And we shouldn’t stop doing it. But it is not enough.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to depend solely on ten word headlines and clever spin.
When Jimmy Reid led Glasgow’s ship-builders in their work-in, his comrades had long had access to workers education programmes. You still meet old men in Clydeside who did gruelling shifts, then went to their working men’s club to discuss Marx’s Capital by candle light. Where are the workers education programmes of today?
When we fight elections, we know that we must knock on doors. Who is organising the mass canvass against the cuts? Against climate change? Who is running mass activist training programmes? These things are happening a little. But we need to do so much more.
The organisations we have built are a good start. But they are not enough.
And this work is urgent.
The right wing who have taken control in Europe have failed to fix our broken banking system. The speculators who drove housing markets to collapse are now pricing food off people’s tables. The IMF have forced Europe to the brink.
And around the world, people see this too. From Latin America to Southern Africa, governments and people are beginning to reject the doctrines of neo-liberalism. They are refusing IMF loans, and instead supporting each other through tough times.
So if we stand together, if we build the structures in this country which leave the right ideas lying around, and which order them into a viable vision of tomorrow, if we learn the lessons of Alinsky and the lessons of Amnesty, but build something that is our own, then we will have our chance.
Because then, when credit crunch mark two comes along, as surely it will, we can pounce, together. We can build the democratic society our children will deserve. As I see it, that is the mission of our generation. We can only achieve it if we work together.
I look forward to working with you.