If Twitter is to be believed the future of the left in the U.K. is in the hands of the 1.4 million members of Unite the Union. Current General Secretary Len McCluskey, a staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and a major figure on the U.K. left stands down shortly and the new General Secretary will be announced on August 26th.
In April 2017 McCluskey had retained his leadership of the union after coming under pressure from both the right in his own union and right wing Labour MPs who felt he had too much influence within the party. McCluskey won 59,067 votes (45.4%), right winger and current hopeful Gerard Coyne won 53,544 (41.5%) and grassroots candidate Ian Allinson took 17,143 (13.1%), on a turnout of just over 12%. For the anti-Corbyn Guardian the result was all about how Coyne came close to beating McCluskey and what this could mean for a Labour leader they wanted gone.
There is no doubt who the right are rooting for. Coyne was their man, and remains so, but the left as ever cannot pick a contender and back them. Oh no, whoever gets the left’s support has to first take on the supporters of other left candidates before getting a run at the prize. The reality is that “the left”, I’ll come to those inverted commas in a moment, are doing a lot of the rights work for them.
So why the inverted commas? In Marxist theory the term reification is used to describe the way in which social relations are treated as real things. “The left” strikes me as a reification in that “the left” is not an entity in its own right it is a shorthand term for a collection of people, organisations and ideas. Of course, the same could be said of the term “the right”. On more than one occasion this week I’ve seen the term “the left” used as a means of blame shifting.
A Twitter user I generally agree with, @MerryMichaelW, tweeted about the gradual selling off of the NHS and asked the question: what has the left ever done about this? In another private conversation on the Telegram app, talking about poverty a contributor made the point that people on “the left” are often middle class and care more about their foreign holidays than people dying on the street. I should say that I don’t particularly subscribe to either of those views, though it is certainly true that left social media, if indeed that itself is not another reification, has a fair number of people who are what sociologists would refer to as middle class.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the election of Unite’s new General Secretary? In some ways probably very little, but the idea that it is “the left” who should unite behind a single candidate suggests that there is an entity called “the left” that was like some sort of organism with a group think mindset always moving in unison. That is clearly untrue and it makes unity far more difficult because whilst people on the left pride themselves on their independent thought when it comes to elections those same people can very often demand that we give up our independence to back the leader or party they believe to be the latest contender for “the great left hope”. As the old joke goes “we are going to discuss this fully and everybody is entitled to their view. Then at the end of that process you’ll all agree with me.” Come to think of it, perhaps that’s not a joke.
The left united?
As far as Unite is concerned initially there were three candidates carrying the left banner. Steve Turner, assistant general secretary for manufacturing, politics and legal chief Howard Beckett, and executive officer for organising and leverage Sharon Graham. On Twitter it was clear that those who had previously been Labour Corbyn supporters were behind Howard Beckett. However, if that was the view of the left it was clear that other sections of “the left” were not in agreement. Socialist Worker, for example, were unequivocal in their support for Sharon Graham, citing her commitment to make Unite a workplace based organisation. The SWP of course were founded by Tony Cliff whose refrain “The power of workers is in the workplace” was used in The Redskins ‘Go Get Organised’. The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, called for Graham and Beckett to get together and agree one candidate, but they did not endorse either. What was clear was that any support for Turner would be equivocal. Their supporters are now tweeting that Turner was never a left candidate and have thrown their weight behind Graham.
The Communist Party of Britain, who broadly speaking use the Morning Star as their outlet, have endorsed Turner. In a short piece on 26th March they “called on all communists, socialists and trade unionists to support Mr Turner.” The problem with Steve Turner is not so much gaining the endorsement of the CP, but rather that he also seems to be the favoured candidate of some who have no left credentials at all. Skwawkbox has been running a campaign for Beckett, much of which was aimed at showing that Turner was ‘friends’ with people who are certainly not friends with anything even remotely left-wing.
So, what happened as most people will now know is that following the nominations result which Turner won, a number of people including Owen Jones and Paul Mason, began a campaign to get the other two candidates to withdraw in favour of Turner. The inevitable result of that campaign was that supporters of Beckett in particular took to social media to condemn Jones, Mason and anybody else who did not back their man. In addition, it became difficult to have a rational conversation about this leadership contest without it becoming increasingly factionalised and intemperate. It was not enough to endorse Beckett, who some people regarded as the heir and successor to Jeremy Corbyn, but it was also necessary to dismiss both Turner and Graham as somehow not truly left wing.
Take me to your leader
In the end, as we now know, Beckett withdrew and endorsed Turner. This creates a bit of a quandary for some on the left because they have just spent the best part of a month insulting Turner in part at least because he wasn’t Beckett. If Beckett was undoubtedly the most left candidate of the left, then Graham must be next. But to endorse Graham would be to ignore entirely what Beckett is proposing.
I should probably say at this point that I am not a Unite member so will not be voting in the election. If I had a vote I would have given it to Beckett. I don’t quite know who I would have shifted to, so I can understand that people are floundering slightly. But, for me, this whole debate is not really about who should lead Unite, as important as that may be, but rather why it is that we seem to end up in these positions where people who agree on Palestine, on anti-austerity, on abolishing the monarchy, on welcoming refugees, on supporting the rights of people regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality etc, who oppose the reintroduction of the death penalty, who get their hands dirty and turn up for demos and rallies, and who agree on virtually everything get themselves in such a lather over those who would be our leaders.
What is it about leadership that is so seductive? I can understand the motivation of those who want to be leaders. That is about power, prestige, sometimes money, often ego, and about a certain arrogance that says others should follow you. But I don’t fully understand why people who have a shrewd understanding of the state of the World, and are students, one way or another, of politics, want so clearly to be led. It suggests to me that so many people on the left of the political spectrum have an almost quasi-religious belief in a messiah. A new prophet who is going to lead us, implausibly it has to be said, to the promised land. It is sometimes as if the past two or three hundred years never happened. As though we have not witnessed sell out after sell out by people who we thought were the real deal, but who then found the illusion of power more persuasive than actually taking on the system.
There have, of course, been outstanding figures: Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn, yes even Jeremy Corbyn, but the truth is so many leaders have disappointed. It would be too cynical to claim that every leader is a sell out waiting to happen. Of course, some people get elected to positions and try to stay true to what got them there in the first place, but so many people who have made their careers on the backs of the hard work and commitment of ordinary people prepared to give up their time and effort, have proved to be at best ineffectual and at worst treacherous. I am not saying that this is true of Howard Beckett, Sharon Graham or Steve Turner, but it has happened so often in the past, that I have to wonder how we keep falling for the same trick.
I know what many people will be thinking and it is precisely this: how can we have a movement with no leaders? What would such a movement look like? Well, I can’t tell you exactly what that movement would look like, but I can tell you what it wouldn’t look like. It would not look like the Labour Party or a bureaucratic trade union. It would not involve endless meetings to decide who to follow. What it would involve is real people having a real say in their own lives, in their own movement. But, more importantly than that. It would involve people trusting themselves to do things for themselves, rather than constantly putting the emphasis on somebody to do it for them. Leaders, my friends, are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.
As I wrote this piece not only did news break that Howard Beckett had removed himself from the fray but news also broke that Labour had received just 622 votes in the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary by-election. The Breakthrough Party, who have hopes of replacing Labour, managed just 197 votes. If Labour is in trouble, which it is, the answer is not yet another party vying for less than 200 votes and humiliating the entire left. Yet. Within 24 hours of Beckett withdrawing some of his supporters launched Ordinary Left which whilst not a political party as such will almost certainly contain a good many people who have that as an aim. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result then the UK left (though I doubt this is confined to the UK, to be honest) are definitely insane. It’s not just that we keep repeating our mistakes, but also that we refuse to learn from them, and moreover, rewrite history to pretend that those mistakes were never made in the first place.
Celebrity Big Politician
In between starting writing this on Friday afternoon and completing it 24 hours later, another name had reappeared. That of George Galloway. In my honest opinion, Galloway’s main preoccupation is George Galloway. I am not entirely sure how George and his ego manage to co-exist, but there is no doubt that he has plenty of supporters or that he does at times say things that at least on the surface suggest he has a broad understanding of what is actually going on in the World. But, is he a man we should all get behind? One important point worth noting about Galloway is he is not a man to ever compromise, apologise or put others feelings before his own belief in his own ability to always be right. This has led him into some strange positions not least that of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother. But, I am not here to assassinate the character of somebody many people admire for his outspoken views. I just tend to feel that if Galloway is the answer, we might well be asking the wrong question. And, it should be noted, that Galloway appears every now and then with the express intention of getting himself a paid political position in whatever forum will take him. Are his politics now dictated by his desperate desire to be part of the political class? Only he knows the answer to that. What I will predict is that if Galloway stands in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election his Workers Party will not achieve anything approaching the 6% attributed to it in a recent poll. The problem, however, is not George Galloway, it is the very system he is determined to ride.
I am not going to repeat here what I said a couple of weeks back about the nature of the capitalist democratic system as being about protecting what many people these days prefer to refer to as “the elite“, but I still maintain that history will show that the possibility of a party to the left of Labour with a socialist agenda breaking through the current system is nigh on impossible. The system is set up to ensure that capitalism can continue, it was never intended to be used to end that system. Does that mean that parties have no place in left-wing politics? Clearly, there are political parties and organisations whose main function is not getting elected but rather in supporting the struggles of ordinary workers. If anything elections represent the lowest form of politics mainly because they are a politics of elitism in that they maintain an illusion that somebody (man or woman) can achieve socialism for us, rather than what should by now be an obvious truth that socialism requires a collective effort in which ordinary people far from asking the question: “what has the left ever done for me?” ask instead “what can I do to ensure that the left can be part of the movement for social change?”
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