UK Election Roundtable

This is the first roundtable discussion launched by New Left Project, http://newleftproject.org/ as part of our efforts to promote debate and discussion across the left in the UK and beyond. Below you will find seven mini-articles of 200-400 words by writers and activists, in response to the following question:


“Events in recent years have seen the left’s analysis vindicated – in practical and moral terms – on the major questions of the era: from foreign policy to economics to climate change. Yet there is no serious left alternative at the coming elections capable of winning the contest and forming a government. In practical terms, what can we do in the absence of that alternative, in the here and now? And what can be done to build such an alternative for future elections?”


We hope to build upon this so that in the future we can have more discussions and debates in different formats, and including more perspectives from activists of different movements and parties. We hope you enjoy this discussion, however, and please do carry on the debate through the comments section.


Contributors to the discussion:


David Edwards and David Cromwell – Medialens editors
Alex Doherty – New Left Project editor
Priyamvada Gopal – cultural and literary critic
Steve McGiffen – former official of United Left Group in Europe and editor of Spectrezine
Milan Rai – anti-war activist, editor and author
Stuart White – political philosopher
Richard Wilkinson – epidemiologist, social researcher and co-author of The Spirit Level

David Edwards and David Cromwell


A key reason why there is no serious left alternative at the coming elections is that the corporate media system is committed to ensuring that that remains the case. The status quo benefits a tiny elite, the media system is run and operated by the same elite. It is not just that the mainstream media instantly transforms honest dissidents into hate figures, figures of fun, ‘loony lefties’ and the like. It keeps us locked into a dehumanised consumer-producer mindset that makes alternative values, philosophies and goals seem absurd, irrelevant, even dangerous (because destabilising).


The only way to develop a space in which non-corporate, dissident movements can grow is by undermining the authority and prestige of the corporate media – particularly ’liberal’ false friends such as the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent – and by empowering non-corporate media communicating facts and ideas that are so consistently excluded.


How futile it is to pour time and energy into building green, anti-war and human rights movements while ignoring the massive corporate media system that has evolved to render those movements irrelevant. The internet has changed so much – with the input of even tiny resources (by mainstream, and even left, standards), organisations like Democracy Now! Real News and Media Lens could have a serious impact and open a door through which progressive movements and even parties could move and flourish. Change is possible – but this unprecedented opportunity is currently being missed on the left.


David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of the corporate media watchdog, Medialens (http://www.medialens.org). Their most recent book is Newspeak in the 21st Century.


Alex Doherty


The way in which the left chooses to engage in the upcoming election sadly matters rather less than it should. The ability of the radical left (or even more moderate elements) to have a meaningful impact on the political process is minimal. And thirteen years since New Labour came to power no political force has arisen to take the space it vacated. While the last two decades have seen remarkable levels of popular participation in various forms of activism, the left has few victories to point to and remains in a defensive posture with little immediate prospect of making serious gains for a polical, economic and social alternative. It is indicative of the left’s impotence that much of the election debate centres on the question of “lesser evilism”.


Given these realities, the left in my opinion should spend less time launching ill-conceived short termist electoral coalitions and instead focus on the painstaking long-term task of builiding grassroots movements rooted in real living communities. Those movements ought to encompass alternative economic and social institutions that directly improve the lives of their participants and the communities they are embedded within.


In “The Stickiness Problem” activist and writer Michael Albert notes that given the huge numbers who have over the years been drawn into the orbit of the left in the United States it is remarkable how few have become and remained committed activists – and the same is of course true in the UK.


As Albert describes elsewhere,  if we are to have expanding militant movements capable of effecting major change what are needed are organisations that enrich the lives of their participants, provide support to those most in need in society, and that do not denigrate working class taste and manners. He goes on to point out that there are indeed organisations which understand these needs, namely religious fundamentalist organisations which have flourished for two principal reasons – firstly by providing much needed social institutions for the most deprived, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) by providing meaning in people’s lives. In a society governed by a philosophy best described as a sort of chronic hedonism (with all the nihilism and despair attendant upon that philosophy) people thirst to live lives that feel meaningful and worthwhile.  In the UK we do not have the problem of religious fundamentalism (at least for the time being) but the recent rise of the BNP can largely be explained by the abandonment of deindustrialised working class communities by the Labour Party. Desperate and despised, the people in such communities will find help and meaning somewhere – if they cannot find support on the left we should not be suprised if they look for it somewhere (anywhere?) else.


Alex Doherty is a member of the New Left Project editorial team. He has written for Z Magazine, Counterpunch and Dissident Voice. He maintains a blog here. 


Priyamvada Gopal


My fantastical strategy entails owning a major radio and television network, a national newspaper and perhaps a tabloid or two. With so minimal a presence in the vital opinion-shaping world of the media—a surreal world of business supplements and property pullouts where The Observer constitutes a left-leaning paper—any genuinely progressive force reckons with a playing field heavily skewed against it.  Britain needs real alternatives to farcical ‘debates’ where the least compromised emerges as victor and the manufactured illusions of reality show democracy. In these weeks leading up to the election, Britain’s voting public will be asked to exercise not its, but Simon Cowell’s franchise. And who can be blamed for thinking there is more variety to be had on Britain’s Got Talent?


More pragmatically, it is a historic opportunity to tap into the widespread anger and disillusionment with political and economic exploitation that underlies voters’ new interest in the untried and hardly radical ‘outsider’ Lib Dems. The Woman on the Street sees through the gimmickry that underlies the political abuse of terms like ‘People Power’ (‘So they can blame us when it goes wrong,’ one said astutely). Despite the dazzling array of corporatist myths (‘everyone can be fantastically rich’) dangled before them, ordinary folk are not stupid. Even if the grind of daily wage labour makes it easier to plonk ourselves in front of The Secret Millionaire than fight employer and bank for our rights, there’s enough shared moral insight into the depravities of the system to now enable the left to rally and organise in force.


There’s obviously no magic bullet but it is time to recommit to sustained local organising and activism, channelling unrest into real political pressure. It‘s also time to consider the possibilities of something like a Popular Front for our times across left-wing, green and progressive groups. In the 1930s, such formations, in different countries, were mobilised successfully across political allegiances and collars (uniting ‘everybody who’s nobody’, as Paul Robeson sang).  Anti-fascist and anti-imperialist coalitions which coalesced around worker’s rights and civil liberties also reclaimed national identity in the name of justice and tolerance. Cultural activities were an important part of this mobilising but so, of course, were strong unions. Both planks must be in our sights towards forging a left that consistently and credibly (and not selectively, as some left groups have done) acts against all forms of inequality and injustice.


Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. She writes political and cultural comment for the Guardian and is the author of The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration.


Steve McGiffen


I’m an outsider to these elections. Having lived outside the UK for more than fifteen years, I’m no longer permitted to vote. This is a debatable restriction, but one which disenfranchises far more Tories than it does socialists, so I’m not going to complain. In any case, what would I do with my vote if I had one?


The problem is not merely that there are very few socialists running. It isn’t even that those who are can be divided between no-hopers on the one hand and, on the other, those who will support a Prime Minister who endorses an illegal war abroad while conducting a war against the class that created his party at home.


A much bigger problem is that democracy has effectively been abolished. Handing macro-economic policy to an ‘independent’ European Central Bank means that while the British government can still take decisions on a number of important issues it can only do so where revenue implications are slight, and questions of public and private ownership don’t arise.


The powers of the unelected European Commission further undermine democracy, while the Lisbon Treaty means that still more laws can be imposed on the people of any member state through majority voting at the EU Council, or in other words without their consent.


The only way to win democracy back, and thus open the only viable road to socialism, is to rebuild the kind of social movements which won it in the first place. Whoever wins the election, government will be in the hands of the class enemy. That enemy is, more than ever, organised internationally, and to combat it we must also organise internationally. But if the British left is to make a serious contribution to that organisation, it must first go to its own country’s people. Forget fantasies of global revolution, of Internationals Fourth or Fifth, and get out into your communities. Ask people why they’re angry, because they most certainly will be. Treat them with respect. If they raise issues with which you can help, go for it. If they say it’s the bloody immigrants, deal with that, explaining the real reasons why they can’t pay their mortgage, can’t find a job, can’t see any future for themselves or their kids.


This is hard, unglamorous work. No-one out there gives a bugger about 1917 or 1968. There is no glorious past and no glorious future, just the hard reality of a grim now. The working people of Britain have no-one to speak up for them, and most of them have no way of getting anyone to listen when they do it for themselves. It’s the left’s job to change that.


Steve McGiffen has been associated in various capacities with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands since 1999, and though he now lives in France, continues to work as a translator for the party. He is a former official of the United European Left Group in the European Parliament, and edits Spectrezine.


Milan Rai


The analysis of the left is always vindicated (though this raises the question of how we define the authentic ‘left’). What’s happened recently is that millions of people in Western countries have suffered political, moral and economic shocks (most notably the Iraq war of 2003 and the scandal of the financial sector bailouts) that should have made them highly receptive to large-scale left organising and mobilising.


The organising and mobilising that has happened (including the things I’ve tried to do) have been either insufficiently ambitious, or not tuned into the right wavelength.


Aiming to have a ‘left’ political party in a position to form a government is almost certainly the wrong goal to prioritise for the medium-term. What we need to build is a strong coalition of movements able to impose constraints on governments of all colours, and to force big business to halt its socially- and environmentally-destructive practices.


Surely everyone has learned that electing governments with a left-ish manifesto is only the start. By now we all know that ‘reforming’ governments backslide unless there is unremitting pressure from (us) outside, and that serious reform brings enormous pressures from City financiers and others with real power and wealth – pressures that can only be resisted by large-scale social movements prepared for struggle and sacrifice.


We need democratic, open, reflective grassroots organisations and movements that are attractive and inviting, that offer opportunities for constructive work at varying levels of commitment, and that develop their understanding and programmes step-by-step through struggles for meaningful change, rather than by parachuting a text-based theory down from the mountain top.


Building such organisations and movements – eventually on an international (European) level – is an enormous task. I can’t see any alternative, though, if we are going to have more than superficial change in any of the European countries.


Milan Rai is an activist, co-editor of Peace News, and author of War Plan Iraq and Regime Unchanged.


Stuart White


There are, I think, two important steps to the rebirth of a serious left politics in Britain.


The first is electoral reform in the direction of Proportional Representation.  Under the present system, parties seeking a majority in parliament are forced to compete for the swing voters in a small number of competitive constituencies. This has helped to push Labour to the right over the past two decades and, in the process, radically narrow the terms of political debate. PR would put an end to this domination of British politics by a small, relatively right-wing slice of the electorate and would open up discussion to a range of new voices, notably the Greens. It is hard to predict exactly how the party system would evolve following the reform. But it is likely that governments would become coalitions, with groups on the left and centre-left – Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and others – helping to shape and influence these coalitions. Academic research suggests that while it is unusual for parties of the left to rule on their own in PR systems, policy outcomes tend to be more egalitarian in the long-run than in UK-style majoritarian systems because of their repeated access to coalitions.


The second key step is to continue to build a civil society with a radical agenda. Initiatives like Climate Camp and Transition Towns are important here, but so too are organizations like London Citizens. I do not think these initiatives can replace party politics. But they are crucial in shaping the environment within which politicians of all parties operate and govern. It is striking that over the past couple of years, while neo-liberal thinking has suffered a major blow as a result of the financial crisis, none of the mainstream political parties has been able to muster much in the way of a critique of neo-liberalism or a sense of an alternative. But London Citizens has managed to get some radical ideas about reforming finance into public debate.


I am optimistic. There is a real chance that this election will result in a hung parliament. That, in turn, could result in significant reform in the direction of PR. Achieving this should be our short-term objective while we also work to build a constructive, oppositional civil society over the longer-term.


Stuart White is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a member of Demos’s advisory council. He writes about political philosophy and its application, and is the author Equality and The Civic Minimum.


Richard Wilkinson


Although the financial crash showed the flaws in the economic system, that is not the same as a vindication of the left’s view.  Indeed, probably the most important reason why there is no serious left alternative in the coming elections is that there is no clear left analysis.  For at least the last 30 years the left has lacked any clear sense of direction.


What we need is a vision of the future, of where our societies should be going, which is capable of inspiring people.  Unless we can formulate an empirical analysis capable of convincing people that life could be qualitatively better for everyone, we will remain without a sense of direction.  We will not inspire people with talk of a 5 percent more on top tax rates, more generous benefits, or reforming the system of financial regulation, because such policies do not have the potential to change the real quality of life.


Marxism once provided the empirical analysis which held out the promise of a better society and inspired people to commit themselves to the socialist cause.  But we have learned what went wrong with the attempted solutions to old problems. We also face new problems like the challenge of sustainability, and the modern world holds out new possibilities.


We can already see the outlines of the society we should be moving towards.  As well as much greater income equality and the huge social benefits that would bring, we need to democratise our economic institutions.  It is at work that income inequality is first established and where we are most subjected to hierarchy, but employee ownership can change companies from pieces of property into a communities. We need to support all more democratic systems -  mutuals, friendlies, co-ops and employee owned companies.


Achieving sustainability requires innovative, but no-growth, economies. Instead of higher consumption, increases in productivity should be enjoyed as leisure – as more time for friends, family and community.


Lastly, we need to realise the potential of digitisation to expand the range of public goods. We could now make all music, film, pictures, computer programmes, games, and the written word – including everything from fiction to scientific research – free to everyone.  We need only to find a way of paying the producers of these goods without restricting access to their products. Taking this vast area out of the market would reduce inequality and change the nature of citizenship.



Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham Medical School and Honorary Professor at University College London. He is co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Equality if Better for Everyone and is co-founder of The Equality Trust (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk)

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