The Left must build progressive alliances. That doesn't mean agreeing on everything
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Allies are wonderful in principle, and, as nations, armies, activists and politicians have discovered across history, often horrible to work with.
But as Churchill said, the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them, and it is good Left Foot Forward and events at this year’s party conferences are providing the space to talk about a new progressive alliance between the parties.
With coherent opposition from Labour to Tory rule looking unlikely for the time being, it may be that learning to co-operate even when tensions are high – whether that’s within the Labour party, or between them and the SNP or the Lib Dems or the Greens – will become a matter of survival.
I’d like to talk about the strategic possibilities that working as an alliance actually provides, and how the fact that we often don’t get along may yet turn into an advantage – a combined-arms tactic for 21st century politics, if we’re clever.
In the new book The Alternative (reviewed here) Zoe Williams talks about ‘horizontal politics’, or the idea that many campaigns at many levels, from the grassroots up, can affect change in a way vertical politics led by party leaders cannot.
It is symptomatic of the recent dearth of genuine grassroots politics that there has come to be such an obsession over the leadership of the Labour party. We have reached the point where we can’t even conceive of a politics that doesn’t start with our party leader being exactly who we want.
But that only matters in a world where those party leaders have the realistic chance of soon getting into power. That is not where we are now. Instead we have a chance to rethink how change happens, and it probably won’t be that Owen Smith or Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron have much to do with it.
What we must do is far harder: take responsibility ourselves, locally and nationally, to campaign for change.
This horizontal politics that Williams suggests trumpets the flexibility of grassroots campaigns: Focus E15 doesn’t have to agree ideologically with Generation Rent to agree that housing is in crisis.
But they can each play to their strengths to reach different audiences, play ‘good cop bad cop’ in the media and provide different aspects of the campaign for view at different times: one day it is single mothers under threat of eviction, the other it is millennial professionals.
The gradual alternating images from different campaigns will gradually create consensus that ‘something must be done’ among middle class swing voters until Tory MPs are clamouring to get on board and policy changes.
The most famous example of this sort of horizontal politics is in different campaigns for Civil Rights in 1960s America. Dr. King provided a comfortable alternative for middle class whites afraid of more radical campaigns, and slowly he became canonised despite starting as a troublemaker.
We must start to think of all radical change in this country as the alternation between different groups reaching out to different audiences.
Williams makes a related and very important point: the system in this country has ‘internal critics’, and the Left is currently not making use of them. Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, recently made a speech excoriating the ‘recovery’ for benefitting the few, not the many.
Martin Wolf and John Kay of the Financial Times have been consistent in their attacks on the flimsy foundations of modern financial capitalism and its inability to meet the country’s basic needs. Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority has supported the Tobin Tax on financial transactions.
Williams, who notes that Turner and Wolf supported the Positive Money campaign, argues that there is a reserve of people working within the current system – white, male, I’m sure ‘neoliberal’ by the standard of many left activists – who don’t fully support it.
The point of harnessing this resource is not that we agree with them on everything. It’s that the force of seeing an establishment figure on television vaguely agreeing with a radical campaign, if we can get over our hangups and invite them to do so, is massive.
We could utilise the image of the ultra-establishment Church of England to take on payday lenders without agreeing with them on gay bishops, and rhetorically it would strike a massive blow.
Left-wingers frequently miss the PR opportunities of the unexpected, partly because they don’t get on very well with unexpected people. That has to stop now. We must become pluralist, and just deal with how emotionally hard that may be.
On grassroots action, we should consider Momentum, which I think is a well-intentioned if misguided attempt to bring the grassroots back into the Labour fold. The reason it is misguided is because it misses that crucial tactical advantage of the unaligned groups – their flexibility.
By staking everything on a Labour-affiliated campaign group, we lose the ability to parry and thrust using groups that don’t have to answer for the Labour leader and will be more adept at getting on with one another.
Elsewhere in Europe insurgent left politicians have come from new parties, which holds out the possibility of coalition-building later – one left party for energetic youthful grassroots engagement, one centre left for sound-looking financial management. Trying to build a Podemos within the established Labour party reduces room for manoeuvre, perhaps fatally.
In short, we must become flexible, diverse, pluralist, but most of all we must become kind. Maybe we won’t kiss a Tory just yet, but we might want to hug a centrist.
We all have something to give, and if we are generous we can each deploy our strengths while another covers our weakness. That is solidarity. It is also strategy.
‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength’ might be another Churchill line, but it is every bit as useful whether said by a Tory or not.
Fred Maynard is a freelance writer and critic. He has worked as a field intern for the Lib Dems.
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