Thursday, 13 December 2007

Politics is no fun

The ongoing Continuity Respect/Real Respect split has been really interesting for a lot of reasons. Quite aside from the comedy value, and the incredible self-delusion of some of those involved (I have seen more than one person compare it to the Bolshevik/Menshevik split) what really comes across is people's political priorities, ie what really matters to them.

As lots of people have pointed out, news reports and blog postings about the split are far more popular than those about more mundane issues. People are extremely passionate about the political battle lines of a faction fight in an organisation that has a membership in the low thousands and considerably less council representation than the BNP. The organisation itself (both wings) is clearly obsessed with 'big' political issues (principally the Iraq war) rather than focusing on local issues. That probably explains why they have been unable to break out of their small local strongholds.

To me it reinforces the point that too many people on the Left are principally theorists. They have developed a theoretical understanding that 'the system' needs changing and then go looking for cases that prove it. You can see it too in the way that Trots operate in the unions. For example lots of effort gets put resolutions passed about foreign policy issues that UK-based trade unions have very little influence over. They seem to see unions as a vehicle to achieve political ends. This is an over-simplification, as we all know Trots who are very effective union activists, but their big political agenda never seems to be far away.

This is, in my view, the opposite to the process that led to the formation of unions, and ultimately the Labour Party. In that case genuine, immediate concerns felt by working people led to the creation of unions as a vehicle for self-defence and collective self-interest. In turn the Labour Party was created to given the unions political expression. Modern day Trots, in my view, have it all back to front.

I think this is why they have so little political success. People can almost smell on them the fact that they see individual issues that you may care deeply about as merely a stepping stone to their larger, and more important, political goals. I can't be the only one to have spotted that when SWP people do 'angry' at meetings it just doesn't ring true. It's like they are switching it on.

More broadly I think this type of politics is a cop-out. I think it is actually easier to get stuck into 'big' issues because there is very little practical you can do about them, and what you can do can be enjoyable (rant on a blog, go on a demo etc). I imagine it can be quite fun having a conspiratorial view of history and economic relations, and a revolutionary programme to sort it all out. But it also means that most of the time you don't have to do anything practical. Hence the endless debates about what Trotsky said to a cabbie in 1924 and its implications for Tower Hamlets in 2008. It's more of a parlour game than anything else.

This is by no means limited to Trots. I was really disappointed when I was talking to a Labour councillor who was in his 20s a few years back. He said he didn't like it much because he was more interested in 'national' issues. Then why stand as a local councillor? And I'm not free of this affliction myself. I enjoy talking, writing and thinking about politics. I also like theorising about political strategies to achieve change. And, obviously, I'm interested in how a Left perspective can be developed in the financial system. But I know a lot of this achieves very little, and as such in a way it is more about me deriving pleasure from politics than me being actively 'political'.

But as a paid up member of the reactionary enemies of the working class I occasionally get called upon to deliver Labour leaflets in my local neighbourhood. I don't enjoy this. Where I live most of the houses are split into flats so it involves a lot of going up and down a lot of stairs. And being a total coward I am always worried that someone is going to shout at me or something (though it hasn't happened yet). It's not fun. But I recognise that a) it needs to be done and b) it provides a link between the party and its councillors and the local population. I hope at some point someone has read one of the thousands of leaflets I have delivered and maybe, for example, got one our councillors' numbers off it and called them up. It is a trivial, but practical, political act.

Basically I don't think real politics is very enjoyable. It can be boring, frustrating, demoralising and all the rest of it. In my experience of public policy work for example if you are going to be any good you really need to get into the detail and become a bit of an obsessive. And even then you might not win. But at least it is real. Genuine political activity is a sacrifice that may sometimes be very rewarding. But fun it ain't.


Charlie Marks said...

I've probably said this before, but I really can't understand why you are still in the Labour party. I know that there's no other game in town - but what is honestly achieved by staying? I could understand if you were in Scotland or Wales, where there is a greater social democratic content - but in England? As for developing a left perspective on the financial system, it's not going to be received at all in the LP, is it?

Interesting that you criticise the Trots, but not the Real Respect lot. About this interest in big politics - could it be that since Labour lost all hope of democratic participation and started to act aggresively against the interests of its base, it ceased to be appealing to activists, and hence the halving of membership, the wipeout at local government level, and the loss of Scotland and partial loss of Wales?

On the fascists, they've also suffered a split. Perhaps Labour will follow? I can see the Milburn Tendency hopping into bed with a Clegg-led Liberal party...

Tom P said...

Hi Charlie

I guess it comes down to what you think needs achieving, and who you think is best placed to achieve it.

I see a lot of flaws in capitalism, and the financial system in partcular, but I don't think it needs replacing, not least since the alternatives haven't been too productive in my opinion. I'm happy with incremental change. In addition I think the Labour Party is basically the repository for all the serious history and experience of the labour movement trying to achieve change in the UK. I think it stands where it stands because of what it has learnt in it long and difficult history. In contrast the non-Labour left often seems to me to be fighting battles from decades ago, it doesn't seem to have learnt anything significant from, for example, the post 1979 period.

I only know the financial bit of the world to any serious degree, and in my experience there Labour has tried to act progressively since 1997. There have been numerous reviews of various aspects of the system and there has been some positive change (tho I think they have lost their bottle more than once).

I know from people who work in other policy areas that they see a similar story. Labour has been trying to do progressive things, and there are still definite clear dividing lines between the parties. On this basis I think a Labour split or even defections are unlikely. Although I wouldn't lose any sleep seeing Milburn go as he's exactly the sort of machine politician I despair at.

I think it's quite a volatile time in politics generally. People's political allegiences are nothing like as strong as they used to be. And despite Labour's problems you don't detect a wave of enthusiasm for the Tories, like there was for Labour in the run-up to 1997.

You're right that the reverses at a local level and in Scotland and Wales are serious for Labour. But I'm not sure that they are good news for anyone on the Left since the drop in Labour's vote isn't matching by a surge in votes for others on the Left. In addition the Respect and SSP splits show how hard it is to maintain a left-of-Labour coalition if it is made up of quite different viewpoints, especially those that find ideological compromise impossible.

Like I said in the post, I think the fixation with big issues is why the non-Labour left is generally unsuccessful. I always found it interesting that even when the SSP had several MSPs it struglled to get any local councillors. THat suggests that to date such parties have only won electoral success on protest votes, and are failing to develop real roots in communities they claim to speak on behalf of.

Ho hum.

PS Always nice to have chat even if we aren't on the same page politically.

Charlie Marks said...

I always approach the whole question of capitalism in terms of class an democracy.

The concern of the ruling class when working people demanded the vote was that workers wouldn't respect the wealth of their rulers or their condition as wage slaves.

Do you see nothing wrong with the powerlessness of working people? Nothing odd about the fact Labour is seeking to become, in the words of John Hutton, "the natural party of business"?

Ps: Yes, I also enjoy these chats.

Tom P said...

I don't think working people are powerless. I think they, currently, choose to be not particularly politically active. And that arguably says a lot for what the labour movement has achieved already.

One reason that trade union membership has fallen is because, thinking self-interestedly, people don't see what they get out of it. Workplaces are, in general, better than they used to be (although the re-emergence of some real crap at the bottom end is a problem). And the success of the political bit of the labour movement in legislating for decent workplace standards has therefore arguably reduced the need for unions.

People like you and me might choose to be active because the altruistic impulse of the movement appeals to us. But unions must also deliver something tangible and worthwhile to members to offset the money, and, if they become more active, time they give up to be part of the movement. And research carried out by the TUC seems to show that potential union members don't generally want an organisation that 'fights' the employer. They want a union that helps them get on in work. That means, I think, that unions need to change their pitch a bit.

Regarding Labour's relationship to business I agree it is a difficult one. And i do worry that Labour swallows too much bullshit about alleged the efficiency and dynamism of the private sector. We are currently seeing the brilliance of the City cause potentially serious problems for the economy as a whole. Equally their failure to do anything effective about the stratospheric levels of pay for company directors really annoys me.

I do think if there is an economic downturn there may well be a shift to the Left, because I can't believe that the general population will stoumach Goldman Sachs paying out billions in staff bonuses whilst others are having to title their belts.

Charlie Marks said...

When I say working people are powerless, I mean that we don't have political representation or political power.

As for what workers want out of unions - the fastest growing is the RMT, hardly the business unionism you seem to be endorsing.

Let's face it - there is a clash between the desire for working people to get on in life and the need for capitalists to generate more profits.

Out of interest, who did you back for deputy leader of Labour and what do you think of what the left(ish) candidate, Jon Cruddas, has been saying? Personally, I can't see how Labour can reconnect to less afluent working class people (like myself!) as the word Labour now conjours up images of millionaires, rather than millions of workers, struggling to improve their lot!

Tom P said...

Yeah I know that the RMT has grown but it is still a small union. I think it is successful because the tube and rail networks are somewhere that you can still grab the employer by the bollox quite successfully. But the RMT is also the union that the general public loves to hate because of the frequent disruption it causes.

The RMT might put on a few thousand members, but what about the millions of people who are not joining a union in their workplace, or young peole who have never joined a union? I agree there is an inevitable conflict between management's desire to increase profits and reduce costs, and labour's desire to improve wages. But I genuinely don't think peole aren't joining because the union where they work is not militant enough.

I voted for Cruddas. Would like to see a bit of a re-orientation to the Left within Labour because I think we stil have an opportunity to determine the nature of the political debate in the UK.

Charlie Marks said...

"RMT is also the union that the general public loves to hate because of the frequent disruption it causes"

The capitalist press helps with the hate, donchathink?

About union militantcy - it's going to be of importance to those workers who are not unionised, just as much as those who are. What with warnings were about to see a repeat of the great depression...