Sunday, 20 September 2009

Struggling On - Red Pepper at 15

Fifteen years ago, when the magazine Red Pepper was launched, Britain had a Prime Minister perceived as weak and ineffectual facing constant questions about his leadership, MPs mired in allegations of sleaze and a revitalised opposition that had a new leader and was well ahead in the opinion polls. After years of dominance by one political party, it felt like the end of an era, one that would eventually be interred as soon as the government ran out of time and finally had to call an election.

But any similarities between the Major and Brown governments ends here. The big difference, of course, was that in 1994, the economy was gradually recovering from the recession of 1990 to 1992 and the Labour opposition could pledge to increase public spending on health and education. Now, in the midst of a new recession that seems likely to be far longer and deeper than before, all the Westminster parties are talking only about one thing – cuts in public spending.

If, as expected, the Tories win an election predicted for April 2010, the extent of these cuts may make the current situation seem like little more than the prelude to a new and far more frightening crisis. We face the possibility of both a period of mass unemployment and a government with few ideas about how to generate renewed prosperity and end the recession – other than allowing discredited bankers and investment companies to repeat the mistakes that led us here in the first place.

It’s a gloomy prospect, made more so by the left’s inability at the moment to make alternative ideas and voices heard amidst the clamour for cuts in spending. But as yesterday’s small but fascinating Red Pepper discussion meeting at Conway Hall highlighted, the uncertainty of the main political parties about squaring economic recovery with a growing movement demanding action on climate change, coupled with a real prospect of trade unions in the public sector actively resisting cutbacks, offers an opportunity not simply to react to events but to influence them.

But what kind of influence so are we striving for? One of the problems for much of the radical left has been to massively over-estimate the degree of influence it can hope to have in relation to its modest size. It’s therefore refreshing that Red Pepper, one of the few genuinely non-sectarian and open-minded but inevitably cash-strapped publications of the left, seems completely aware of its limitations. From the discussion I took part in on Saturday, this means providing a platform for campaigns that are invariably local (and are likely to increasingly focus on struggles in local government) and are therefore ignored by the rest of the media. It also means offering ideas and analysis that the corporate press never even considers putting forward.

One example - there has been considerable coverage in liberal papers like the Guardian about the Vestas dispute on the Isle of Wight and what this says about the commitment to ‘green jobs’. But what debate has there been about how these jobs could have been saved? What could be learned by looking again to experience from the past, like the alternative plan devised by shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s (covered in the next issue of Red Pepper)? This is where a hub for radical ideas can potentially become influential and essential reading.

If I have one real concern, it is that if the Tories win, the past has also shown a willingness on the left to take the least creative option of focusing all its energies on influencing and ‘fixing’ the Labour Party – to so very little effect. I’m old enough to remember all that wasted effort in the 1980s, which gave us what? Tony Blair and New Labour. This impulse certainly exists within Red Pepper, especially because of its occasional flirtations with the Labour pressure group 'Compass' and the magazine’s open endorsement of ‘left’ politicians like the police-appeasing populist Ken Livingstone.

I hope this is held in check, because a substantial number of non-aligned activists and campaigners not longer see Labour as a realistic part of the solutions we are striving for. For some, the Greens offer better prospects for change, whilst others are seeking far more radical alternatives or are focusing on campaigning to force local and central government of any party to listen and respond to public pressure.

Dismissing this as a ‘left counter-culture’ that isn’t 'influential' or speaking to a wider audience, a popular refrain from many Labour left-wingers, simply won’t wash any more. Failing to debate and develop vibrant alternatives to the accepted political orthodoxies is one reason why new ideas have often emerged from elsewhere, from outside the mainstream - and why the traditional left has failed to have any influence on events with such depressing regularity in the past.


Loop Ellington entertain at the party in Manor House to celebrate the fortieth birthdays of my friends Debbie and Supriya. It's a shame I had to leave early to cycle home, but at least I just missed last night's almighty downpour.


HarpyMarx said...

"the past has also shown a willingness on the left to take the least creative option of focusing all its energies on influencing and ‘fixing’ the Labour Party – to so very little effect."

To be honest, I don't think there will be much to 'save' or indeed 'fix' when it comes to after the next election re Labour Party. How much of a LP will be left is anyone's guess but they lose on a massive scale.

Who knows what will be left of the PLP. There may be further splits due to various factions and I wouldn’t be surprised if they witch hunt the last bastion of the Labour Left. On a personal level, I will be very amazed if I am still a member of the LP after the election. NL knows it will be one catastrophic defeat and they know it.

I think your report is interesting re strategies. But what I would also say is that we need to organise now as we have had enough warning that a Tory government is on its way, and cuts (like the rest of ‘em) is at the top of the agenda. And I have to say, it does really worry me about what those tossers have in store for us!!!!!!!

Kevin said...

It worries me too what the Tories (who I do think will win the election next year) have in store for us all.

There's a good article called "2014: A Tory dystopia" in Red Pepper at

HarpyMarx said...

Interesting article, insightful as well, much of what is being predicted is what the Tories have been proposing. On welfare reform, they have put forward plans to streamline benefits into two, arguing it would reduce bureaucracy and complexities. Essentially, it isn’t a bad idea in theory BUT with the Tories messing around with the benefits system it will be a very very bad thing as it will be based on their terms. There will be an inevitable sting in the tail if they do reduce benefits into two.

I also think that the Tories want, once and for all, to smash the public sector trade unions. The assault on the public sector with massive stringent cuts is just the starters, and all the bourgeois parties are lining up to attack the welfare state. It is one disgusting feeding frenzy.

Things definitely can only get....worse!!

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