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The left's recovery must begin in the workplace

IN THE new year, internal Labour Party politics and the culture war everyone denies fighting will be the chief preoccupation of the left.

While politicians and political commentators continue to struggle over the national questions raised by Brexit, the Scottish independence referendum before it, and the recent election defeat, they will try to make sense of it all by continuing to argue in pointless culture war terms about patriotism, progressive or otherwise billed, conceptions of internationalism and so on.

It was, to a degree, a failure by the political class to make the EU referendum result fit into culture war terms and spend the last three years creating the culture war that led so many to obviously foolish positions in the first place.

The referendum result was not an expression of latent British patriotism, nor was a dogged pursuit of EU membership an expression of internationalism.

The failure of the left political and media class to grasp why people voted as they did, and in doing so attribute the worst possible motives to those who voted Leave, has roots that go back a generation or longer.

The last four decades or more of neoliberalism has robbed working class people twice — firstly of the work on which their communities were founded and secondly by robbing them of their labour movement institutions through which they could express their political grievances and assert their political aspirations.

This has also robbed the labour movement, particularly the Labour Party, of the class on which it was founded, the distance created between party and class has led to misunderstanding, mistrust and ultimately near political oblivion.

In 2017 in the aftermath of the EU referendum the TUC passed a general council motion, without irony, to investigate why so many trade unionists voted Leave and “did not understand the politics of their leadership.”

As far back as 2013 I remember attending a conference on the crisis in working-class political representation to hear my then general secretary, the late Bob Crow, speak.

He recalled the siren voices following the labour defeat in ’79 calling for the movement to “hold on” until we get labour back in.

The same voices in ’97 promised all would be better, yet the anti-trade union legislation and the decline in the organised workers’ movement continued.

His message was one familiar to RMT members with our syndicalist history and more recent expulsion from the Labour Party we founded — to rely on parliamentary politics alone is to disarm.

We must not forget for the entire lives of more than a generation of people the Labour Party has not been the primary vehicle for improving working-class life, nor will it likely be for perhaps a decade.

This is why the culture war arguments taken up as enthusiastically by the left as the right which first sharpened divisions between the broadly white majority, post industrial northern towns and the more diverse urban metropolis, with disastrous effect, now threaten to drag the movement down into the culture war rabbit hole with distracting arguments over patriotism and repetition of the last three years of heated but useless nonsense.

Those orientated toward class politics must resist being drawn in. Down the rabbit hole the mainstream left can go without us.

The EU referendum Leave vote, and to a degree the Scottish independence referendum Yes vote, came from a deeply held feeling of political disenfranchisement in neoliberal Britain. People sought to win back a political voice by changing the political state infrastructure they perceived as ignoring them.

Therefore nodding to British patriotism is no shortcut to winning back working-class voters lost to the Labour Party through political disenfranchisement — and hardly desirable in any event.

While it is true there has long been a knee-jerk reaction from much of the left and political class to regard any expression of national pride as code for racist nationalism, making a counter argument in the Guardian, which I regard as the most dishonest newspaper in circulation, is a self-defeating waste of time.

Not least when the political convulsions that have brought the national question into sharp focus are not yet over. Britain itself has never looked so fragile.

This is seen first in the labour movement. While the Yes campaign lost in Scotland, the British labour movement itself was critically, perhaps terminally, divided.

In that context recognising people have a love of their country is enough. Indeed to implement socialism you need a state to do it with, a dose of love is no harm but we must guard against creating a false notion of national unity.

Workers have more in common regardless of nationality than a British labourer has with a “patriot” like Johnson who offers the nation to the highest bidder in the global market.

Political power for the left rests on the strength of industrial organisation. Without the industrial organisation of the working class as the driving force in Labour politics it will, at best, be a middle-class party of liberal reform which will continue to misunderstand and mistrust the mass of the people in this country.

Our most recent electoral lesson and all the confused positions referred to above point to this central reality.

I am reminded of the words of James Connolly who said “without the power of the industrial union behind it the worker enters the state as the victim enters the gullet of the serpent.”

The only course of action that will bear fruit in the long term will be starting from the industries and places in which we work.

The pointless and distracting culture war can be overcome by organising there — where our interests converge as workers.

This is the only course of action that has any prospect for meaningful political power for the left in the future.

The most important work will be building and rebuilding the organised workers’ movement. The trade unions.

Democratising and changing what we have, including a bold reimagining of what the TUC could be, what our movement should be.

This is the long, methodical and difficult work unsuited to much of the modern left which has grown up on a constant feed of radical sounding but contradictory political direction from unaccountable commentators and has found itself too far removed from the working class.

The work falls then on the advanced workers in their own trade union movement to take up the task.

There our interests as workers converge, there is the graveyard of the culture war. Migrant worker in the urban metropolis or subcontractor sacked from an industry now gone from a northern town.

It is where we can organise for class power, industrially now and politically for when our time comes.

It will be a long time before the mainstream left has any power again and by then industrial class organisation should be the leader of it, not the misunderstood junior partner.

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