Local Interventions and the Long Road to Left Renewal

by Adam Blanden

How can local campaigns and the crisis of the state shape left-wing strategy in Britain?

First published: 20 May, 2015 | Category: Politics, Vision/Strategy

The Stand Up to UKIP strategy: what went right in Thanet?

Nigel Farage narrowly lost out on a seat in Parliament in the general election, and as a result UKIP is in disarray.  Despite  the party capturing over four million votes, conflict and scandal have engulfed the leadership .  It has been widely observed that UKIP straddles two contradictory discourses – one supposedly 'populist', the other very much 'elitist' – each represented by different factions of the party.  Representing the populist faction were Farage and his Tea Party-recruited chief of staff Raheem Kassam.  The other, more traditionally eurosceptic, side was fronted by Patrick O'Flynn, the election campaign director.  The ins and outs of the squabble need not detain us.  The very fact that so many major figures in and around the party were willing to question Farage's actions as leader – among them their sole MP, Douglas Carswell – was testament to the severity of the internal crisis.

Local campaigning in South Thanet was probably the main cause of Farage's defeat.  What made the anti-Farage campaign a success was Thanet Stand Up to Ukip's argument that voters should be unafraid to vote tactically on this occasion simply to block Farage.  Their answer to the question of who to vote for – criticised by myself and many others as overly negative – ended up working wonders.  Many natural Labour supporters switched to Tory at the last moment simply to keep Farage out.  This upset – and it is an upset not only for UKIP but also a national media that has fawned over Farage for months – has shaken the party to its foundations.  As a result of local campaigns, the papered-over cracks in UKIP's 'ideological articulation' have burst wide open.  The party's capacity to dodge scandal – always supremely limited – is surely now at breaking point.

The campaign to prevent Farage from becoming an MP was very much a local effort, with highly context-specific features.  It was in some ways similar to earlier popular campaigns, such as the defeat of the British National Party on the Isle of Dogs council.[1]  An uninterested national Labour Party was, as in the past, circumvented by local anti-racist campaigners.  However, Labour lost in Thanet for multiple reasons.  It was unable to fight a properly strategic local campaign, and it was woefully underfunded.  It also suffered from the same widespread distrust of Labour's economic and immigration 'record' (as it is euphemistically called) that frustrated the national effort.  As such, the fruits of the UKIP defeat fell to the Tories.

Labour looks increasingly like a spent force in its present form.  Here, however, is where national lessons can be learned from South Thanet by left-wing organisations.  The Stand Up to UKIP campaign was successful because, rather than associating itself with mainstream politics, it deliberately positioned itself outside of, and inclusive of, all 'progressive parties' (sometimes the mode of address changed to simply 'all parties', depending on the addressee).  Clearly tactical votes for Tories is objectively damning of the position of the parliamentary left in southern England.  But the crucial lesson is that we can no longer simply stand back and rely upon the Labour Party to fight battles for us. 

In large swathes of the country we are now bereft of political representation of even the most modest, centre-left kind.  The best strategy in such circumstances is not to organise for victories (in the shallow form of electing Labour MPs) but to impose defeats on reactionary forces.  This is an explicitly social 'movementist' strategy, one centred on the idea that in the dark years ahead we lack the political resources for parliamentary victory, but also in the knowledge that social movements are the foundations of political change.    

This approach, with its emphasis on fighting local battles, is necessarily fragmentary.  But it is from these small local struggles that defeats on the forces of reaction can be inflicted.  Moreover, each small defeat of a reactionary or pro-austerity political force comes with the promise of further and deeper mobilisations.  We need to work to convert these small defeats into broader movements, each one further connected and overlapping with other social movements across the country.  Incidentally, this is exactly what the once tiny Scottish National Party achieved in Scotland.  Each small defeat of a Labour or Tory incumbent raised the consciousness of the movement and the nation as a whole.  By the time of the independence referendum, powerful social movements supported the SNP on the 'Yes' side, pushing the entire debate further to the left.   

Postmodern Space and the politics of singularity

The Marxist philosopher and literary critic Fredric Jameson has recently written of the emergence of events in the age of postmodernity, where, in his analysis, 'space predominates over time'[2] and history is reduced to the body, that is, to the merely present moment.  Here time 'sinks to a subordinate feature of space as such.'[3]  Under these conditions, events are very often singular, rendered unrepeatable and non-adaptable precisely because they cannot be successfully reinserted into a broader story.  Instead of being forces of historical progress, postmodern movements like those in Hong Kong or in Egypt come with a strong spatial element, named not after an ideal, but after a particular, geographically bounded space (Tahrir; Syntagma; Tiananmen, and so on).  Yet Jameson is self-confessedly pessimistic about the prospects for political events in this mode: 'Space,' he writes, 'separates as much as it unites.'[4]  The reduction of time to the present and the spatial auspices under which politics now takes place means rebellion appears as a brief howl, before its energies are dissipated.  Again, we might cite the famous 'movements of the squares' as examples of a dissipating energy, an energy that cannot be grafted onto concrete institutional forms.

Experiences in Europe, however, partially contradict Jameson's analysis.  Acting in precisely Jameson's conditions of a predominance of space over time – the 'eurozone' and the European Union being paradigmatic abolishers of historical consciousness in the name of regionalisation (for good or ill) – the Greek Party of the Radical Left, Syriza, fastened onto the emerging social movements and grew rapidly to governing stature.  How was this achieved?  Stathis Kouvelakis, a political theorist and member of the Syriza Central Committee, recently spoke in London about Syriza's rise and its present difficulties.  He described how the small political parties, through their encounter with the social movements, formed a kind of 'aggregate', in which for the first time since the historic defeats of 1989 the left began seriously to unify.  In an interview for Jacobin magazine, Kouvelakis made a similar argument: 'Due to its "movementist" sensibility, [Syriza] has proven concretely and practically able to commit itself to the social movements and collective actions that have take place in Greece in recent years.'  Syriza combines involvement in the social movements with an attachment to the history of Communist and leftist struggle that is widely understood in Greece.

Syriza's success is, of course, not directly reproducible in the British context.  Events in Greece are in a sense as singular as Jameson suggests they should be, whilst Britain is in the midst of its own emergent spatial politics.  The journalist and author Paul Mason wrote during the general election that Britain was being torn into three geographical, social and political clusters: a progressive Scandinavian style Scotland; a depressed, post-industrial North; and a bloated, asset-rich South, and argued that this would now define British politics for a generation.  Looking at an electoral map, Mason's analysis would appear to be vindicated.  Then, of course, there is the looming question of 'Brexit'.  Nevertheless, we should perhaps start trying to understand the social dynamics which have driven Syriza to electoral success at a more general level and also find ways to accept the new situation whilst still seeking to construct social and political alliances not confined purely to the politics of space.  Are there subaltern historical narratives here that can be effectively liberated, as with Alexis Tsipras's placing of roses at the monument to fallen Communists

The crisis of the state and left-wing strategy

The Great Crisis and the Great Recession of 2008, two much discussed and ultimately much mythologised events, were accompanied by Keynesian, Marxist, and even Neoclassical predictions about grand historical turning points.  A widely accepted view of crises as deep spasms of the economy, followed automatically by changing politics and conceptions of everyday life, entered the popular imagination.  It should now be obvious that in much of the world no political crisis followed from the economic crisis.  Neoliberalism was not defeated.  In fact, it was never (save a momentary burst of Keynesian demand stimulus) even challenged.  Nicos Poulantzas,  perhaps the most relevant of the great Marxist strategists for our present situation, wrote towards the end of his life about the multi-layered connections between economic crises and political crises.  Insisting that the two be rendered conceptually distinct, he wrote: 'Economic crisis, then, can translate itself into political crisis.  But this does not imply a chronological concordance.'  The two crises are not simultaneous.  'The political crisis and the crisis of the state,' he went on, 'can come later than the economic crises, that is, wait until it culminates, occur when it is losing its intensity.'[5]

In Britain, the constitutional and geographical crisis, which is necessarily a crisis of the state, is emerging at precisely the end of the special period marked 'economic crisis.'  As the Union fragments under internal social and political pressures, the state is losing what Poulantzas called its 'role of unification-representation.'[6]  We should therefore turn away from the pure critique of austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state.  Although austerity (i.e. 'contractionary expansion' through expenditure cuts and labour market reform) did not cause the stuttering return to growth in Britain, it has defined popular political conceptions of the economy.  Yet the economic crisis has terminated in political chaos for the ruling 'power bloc' (the name Poulantzas gave to those organised as rulers or power-holders through the capitalist state, from capitalists to elements of the petty bourgeoisie and so on).  Spatial fragmentation has come at the expense of the unity of the British state and its politics.  Scotland now feels like a separate country, having informally departed the UK following the Blairite wind down of the postwar settlement.  The legitimating mechanisms of the state – like popular elections and constitutional arrangements – are openly and widely questioned.  The primary goal of small left-wing movements should be to strategically capitalise on this disarray.

Nigel Farage's defeat in South Thanet proves the feasibility of a strategy of imposing local defeats, and the situation in Greece proves that these local victories can result in an aggregative effect, and culminate eventually in parliamentary majorities.  Each local action should ideally result in some defeat of the forces of reaction.  And we should work to make each practical defeat cumulative, which is to say, it should resonate with like-minded groups elsewhere.  This process of building social movements and imposing small defeats on our enemies should be open ended.  It is a way for recomposition to take effect.  If it is to have any chance of success, this strategy cannot ultimately avoid the question of politics – that is, of a national, political articulation in the form of a parliamentary party – but we must allow this to happen organically.  So many rallying cries – exhorting people either to flock to existing parties or to desert them and found new ones – will fall flat.

We need to understand, and in the long-run seize the opportunity of, a crisis of the British state.  The victory of the SNP, the rise of UKIP, and the geographical fragmentation of the United Kingdom all suggest we have entered a new political phase.  This could, with hard work and a bit of luck, be converted into the phase of the political reconstitution of the forces of the left.

Adam Blanden is a blogger and contributor to Dissent Magazine, Red Pepper, and New Left Project, among others.  Follow him @adam_blanden.

[1] An account of this campaign and others can be found in Daniel Trilling's Bloody Nasty People.

[2] Jameson, 'The Aesthetics of Singularity', in New Left Review 92, p.105.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.132.

[5] Poulantzas, The Poulantzas Reader, p.300.

[6] Ibid., p.302.

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