MIKE DAVIS became editor of the Labour left publication Chartist 40 years ago. Here he reflects on the very different political world of 1974, how the left has been weakened in the intervening years, and the daunting challenges it faces today.
Chartist was a very different political animal when I took over editing in spring 1974. The banner headline on the tabloid talked of building a ‘Joint Command of Revolutionary Organisations’ and preparing for dual power. Bravely, if bonkers, a Soldier’s Charter had been produced to sell amongst troops in Aldershot and Colchester. Miners were striking and hundreds of thousands of workers were protesting against the Industrial Relations Bill. Edward Heath called an election on ‘Who Rules Britain’ and lost to Harold Wilson. Labour formed a close alliance with the trade unions.
This was the high-tide period of the post-war workers’ revolt. The ‘social contract’ with the unions, crafted by Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and Labour ministers, though full of promise, ended in tears. In Eric Hobsbawm’s inimitable words ‘the forward march of labour’ was halted. When Tony Crosland announced ‘the party’s over’ in 1976 he meant the growth of public sector services, but inadvertently predicted the plight of his party. This was capped by Denis Healey’s IMF loan with its adverse social consequences. Eighteen years of Thatcherite Toryism were to follow from 1979.
It is worth reflecting briefly on the changes. There were almost 12 million trade unionists in the early 1970s, now a little more than six million. Manufacturing industry was still relatively strong: mining, steel-making, shipbuilding, car making, aeronautical engineering. Tory deindustrialisation changed all that. We had a change in the nature of British capitalism from traditional manufacturing to services and finance.
Change in the working class – the social formation Marxists have generally seen as the agency for revolution – was significant. White collar, public and private service employees replaced blue collar proletarians. The modern ‘precariat’ was being born. The long hours, low-paid, zero hours contracts, poorly organised, semi-skilled workforce of today was taking shape.
As the traditional working class declined new movements emerged around feminism, black liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, and ecology (prefiguring today’s Green movement). We were part of the left that sought to develop a fresh approach, a rainbow alliance, towards social change. Many on the Trotskyist and Labour left stood against this realignment of social forces.
Still in its infancy in the 1970s, new technology is now a huge factor in social and political life. The advent of personal computers, mobile phones, iPods, iPads and ebooks has transformed how we communicate and learn. It has provided new powers to the state to watch and monitor but it has also democratised information and trading. The pace of change, in this second industrial/technological revolution, is accelerating.
Internationally the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were still the dominant political question in the UK and continued to be so until the end of the century when Iraq and Afghanistan became the new imperial conflict zones. In Vietnam, the Vietcong defeated US imperialism and the Paris peace accords were signed in 1975. That same year Spain saw the death of Franco and a new republic, while in Portugal a revolution against Salazar ushered in a period of democratic reform. Similar developments saw Greece entering a new era. The Cold War continued until the end of the 1980s.
Globalisation became the name of the capitalist game. In 1973 Nixon had ended gold to dollar convertability. The era of Bretton Woods and stable exchange rates was over. Unemployment and hyper inflation, fuelled by currency speculation and Middle East oil price hikes, created huge instability. This drove the project of the European Union. While much of the left had been against the Common Market – ‘the bosses club’ – and campaigned against a yes vote in the referendum, British people voted yes with the urging of all three main parties.
By the late 1970s we recognised the need to work for a more democratic political, social and economic union by a reform process within the EU. A nationalist siege economy was never going to have leverage in the face of global foot-loose multi-national corporations. Further, the capacity to develop a modern, cosmopolitan multicultural society would have been severely weakened if we had taken a ‘Britain alone’ stance. With the Delors’ social Europe initiative, progressive social and environmental changes were emerging. Free movement of capital also meant free movement of labour which had huge positive cultural political implications.
Finally, in the Labour party we were witnessing the development of a new left. Some called it Bennism. In London it also coalesced around Ken Livingstone and a metropolitan cosmopolitanism that embodied a more modern democratic socialist polity.
In and through Labour
Throughout the period, most Chartist supporters have continued to work for change in and through the Labour Party, recognising it as the main party through which trade union and progressive aspirations are likely to be met, at local, national and European levels.
New Labour, with Blair’s wars and neo-liberal economic policies, severely tested this approach for many. While the majority of activists continue to view Chartist as a ginger group in the Labour Party, some supporters prefer working independently through their trade union or political campaigns, and a handful adhere to other radical parties (the Greens, and Plaid).
Throughout this period Chartist has striven to review and reappraise. What theoretical tools can serve the left? What aspects of Marxism are still relevant? What can we learn from anarchist, libertarian ideas? What modern thinkers help explain and tackle the nature of capitalism today? At root we knew the left needed to modernise, to develop new ideas and new ways of working.
With varying degrees of success we have provided a platform for the development of new democratic socialist politics. Socialism, yes, but with an added emphasis on democracy. Democracy in the workplace, in the community/civil society, in the home and, above all, in the state, were our leit motives. Thus, we connected up with our 19th century namesakes and that unfinished business, the British democratic revolution.
We aimed for a socialism not reducable to a command economy. From the early days in challenging Militant’s ‘nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy’, to recognising a role for a regulated private sector, the role of co-operatives, the importance of workers’ control and workplace democracy, we have sought to expand on the democratic end of the twinned concept.
Active citizenship, promoting work within civil society as well as through parliaments and local town halls, remains central to our conception of socialist change. We pioneered a ‘third road’ between revolutionary, Leninist/Trotskyist insurrectionism and parliamentary Fabianism. The concept was high-jacked by the Blairites but the need for a humanist, internationalist, democratic route to socialism, one that combines extra-parliamentary action and engagement with intervention in local, national and supra-national democratic bodies, seems more important than ever.
Socialism has to be an act of self-emancipation. As modern capitalist society has fragmented old working class communities and disrupted extended family life, it has created more home working, atomised the collective drives of earlier capitalism. New technology overlaid with a culture of possessive individualism has produced new kinds of alienation.
In the face of this, and the declining ties of trade union, family, and church, Blue Labour has posited a return to old style family values, an emphasis on personal morality and traditional community ties (with dangerous talk of tougher immigration controls). As David Marquand has argued, this is a problem for the left and one directly addressed by the new right populist parties of the UKIP ilk.
The poet Milton coined the term ‘strenuous liberty’ to convey the idea that people must make an effort, take risks to both sustain and enhance their freedoms and well-being. The alternative of ‘bondage with ease’ is not an option. Occupy, UK Uncut, London Citizens fighting for a living wage, green activists challenging fracking or ecocide, women’s rights campaigners against FGM and rape, migrant rights activists challenging deportations and discrimination, trade unions striking to defend and extend living conditions, jobs and pensions (be it transport workers, teachers, local government staff or civil servants) – all reveal a potential for this strenuous liberty.
But how might we combine it with electoral success, securing government and facilitating progressive change? This is the challenge facing the Labour Party and the wider left.
And so to 2014
As we have argued, the 2008 financial collapse should have been the left’s opportunity. Socialists have long argued capitalism could not work for the people, that it is inherently unstable, generates inequality and conflict and is prone to crisis – despite Gordon Brown’s ‘no more boom and bust’. Thirty years of neo-liberalism had taken its toll on the social democratic Labour left leaving it mired in compromise and unable to argue a convincing alternative to austerity.
Across Europe the parties of the centre right pursued an agenda of welfare and social spending cuts, privatisation, wage restraint and high unemployment. The weaker economies of the Mediterranean were forced to swallow the bitter medicine of huge cuts in living standards in exchange for bank loans, little of which went into infrastructure development or to the people.
Meanwhile, as Thomas Piketty, in Capital for the 21st century, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level, and others have shown, inequality between the rich and poor continues to grow, both within developed capitalist states and between them and the less developed world, creating ongoing instability, conflict and ill-health. A recent conference in London on ‘Inclusive Capitalism’ heard Christine Lagarde, the IMF boss, quote Oxfam research that the richest 85 people, who could fit on a double decker bus, are wealthier than 3.5 billion – yes, billion – people. Governor of Bank of England Mark Carney talked of ‘market fundamentalism’, lessons not learned by the banks over the past six years.
There has been no departure from neo-liberalism, then, but there are indications of splits among the ruling elites. It is reminiscent of Ted Heath’s ‘capitalism with a human face’. Behind the blather, motivating this kind of talk, is an explosive mix of insecurity, atomisation and rage in the UK and across Europe.
So the European elections saw the emergence of nationalist populist and fascist right wing parties. In Britain and France they topped the poll, with UKIP getting 27% and the French Front National 25%. As some wit remarked, if you adopt the polices of the 1930s you get 1930s politics. Yes, it was a protest vote. Yes, it was a low poll – 44% across Europe; only 34% in the UK – so actually UKIP only received 10% of the vote … but that is still 10% too much.
In France, the anti-austerity programme on which Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party triumphed seems to have evaporated in the face of the centre right majority across Europe. But there were some successes for the left. The victory of the radical left Syriza alliance in Greece, with 27% of the poll, the unexpected success of the centre left in Italy, with 40%, small groups in Germany (Die Linke) and Spain (Podamos) scored successes, and there were swings to the Green parties, Sinn Fein and the Labour Party in Britain – all indicating that it is not one-way traffic.
With the Lib Dems’ support imploding and a continuing squeeze on the cost of living from huge cuts in welfare spending, Labour should be scoring higher in the polls. But there has been no clear alternative.
So where does this actually leave the left in Britain? Many question Ed Miliband’s leadership capacity and credentials. He has challenged predatory capitalism and stood up to Murdoch; he has proposed an energy price freeze, local government powers and greater devolution (while being vague on cash), plus a higher minimum wage, an end to the bedroom tax and reform of zero hours contracts. But there is a way to go because the leadership appears to accept the Tory/Lib Dem agenda of deficit reduction as the number one priority rather than progressive taxation, an end to tax evasion and avoidance, and sustainable investment and growth in jobs and training.
The rise of UKIP is a threat to Labour but a greater threat to the Tories. UKIPs flat tax, anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-European ‘little Englandism’, are the limited policies that currently define them. Deputy leader Paul Nuttall is in favour of privatisation of the NHS, Nigel Farage claims to be the heir of Thatcher. At root they stand for a light touch unregulated market capitalism. Miliband’s tactic of soft peddling on UKIP was a mistake. John Cruddas seemed more on the ball on this issue.
Chartist has produced some clear analysis and reform proposals on developments in the European Union. We need to sustain and develop the detail of and agenda for a more democratic federal and social Europe to counter the Tory campaign.
More broadly, this next year will inevitably be dominated by the run-up to the general election and, in September, the independence referendum in Scotland, with massive implications for the break up of Britain. It is vital we use the pages of Chartist to debate key policy areas, analyse and critique Labour’s key ideas and weaknesses, and comment on and analyse international political and economic developments.
This article was written as part of Mike Davis’s editor’s report to the 2014 Chartist AGM held in London on Saturday 14 June. Click here for a report of the meeting.
You can read more about Chartist and Chartist magazine on its website here.
See also, ‘The Work Agenda’ by Rory O’Kelly, the latest Chartist pamphlet.