Friday, 16 October 2015

Keep Left

Over the last three weekends, I have taken a tour of the left landscape of England. First a weekend on the south coast at Bournemouth for the Green Party's first conference since its moderate advances at the General Election and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader. The following weekend it was the People's Assembly co-ordinated Anti-Austerity march outside the Conservative conference in Manchester, complete with eggs and pig masks. And last Saturday afternoon, at a smaller gathering in Leeds, a couple of highly insightful lectures on Marxism from Red Flag, a new leftwing grouping in the Labour Party.

There was an underlying theme at all three - change is in the air. As covered here a number of times before, the last few years have seen a gathering ferment of unpredictable change, from the BNP bubble and the rise of UKIP, to Cleggmania, the Green Surge, the remarkable Scottish independence referendum and the backwash that swept away the once unassailable Scottish Labour Party; and now to the rise of Corbyn. These developments are seemingly mirrored elsewhere in the western world - whether on the populist right such as the USA's Trumpism or Greece's Golden Dawn fascists; or on the left by the Hellenic Syriza and Hispanic Podemos or, across the Pond, by the insurgency of socialist Democrat Bernie Sandars as he challenges for the Democrat nomination.

Police outside "1984: the Musical" at the Manchester protest
The Establishment is under assault in a way it hasn't had to handle since the Depression Era. In growing numbers, tens of millions of people are searching for alternatives to the desperate inequality and insipid greed of de-regulated capitalism as it destroys the lives of individuals and communities, turns its own nostrums on their heads and bares it rapacious teeth so nakedly that it threatens to devour our entire habitat within a generation.

And yet, while there is progressive hope as not for sometime, with the stakes so high, the decision-point grows ever sharper. Especially when the so-called centre-ground is actually far to the right of the political graph, the time for compromise is over. If there ever was a chance of some "moderate" resolution to the conflict in our society, a dubious proposition at the best of times, it is long gone as we encounter a sea of existential threats - just this week, the IMF predicted a high chance of  serious recession within 18 months, much deeper and more persistent that the 2008/9 crash. And beyond, with resource depletion accompanied by exponential demand, capitalism's response to the growing range of crises will not be to support people and conserve what we can - rather it will be to seek out ever more obscene forms of money-making.

Where then is the response on the Left? And what is it?

Pigs need justice from the Tories too!
Jeremy Corbyn and the leftwing movement supporting him in the Labour Party launched on a platform of opposing austerity and tackling inequality. Labour under his stewardship and the economics of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell seems set to move towards a more socialist take on solutions to the current crisis and on developing a future society that is fairer and kinder. After years of "Nu-Labour" dissimulation, this is a powerfully refreshing change and one that finally offers real hope of genuine, radical reform of how our society works and what its values are.

Yet, while socialism potentially offers a more responsible use of resources and Corbyn's environmental platform was powerfully akin to the Green Party's own proposals back in May, there remains a commitment to an economy based as much on growth as on egalitarianism. Similarly, while the plans to extend public ownership over railways are welcome, it does not take the capitalist bull by the horns and wrestle down the inherent threat of a system that is not and can never be sustainable.

Still, Greens could carp too much, though so far only a few have done so. Corbyn's slightly bizarre suggestion that some Welsh coalmines might be reopened if carbon-capture technology can be developed to effectively nullify emissions (something pretty much from the realms of sci fi) has been seized upon to denigrate him as some sort of climate change denier.

Karl Marx saw capitalism as a threat to the planet.
Similarly, a handful have growled hostilely at any Labour plans to grow the economy, forgetting that just a few months ago, Greens were arguing for just that, with massive investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport at the core of our manifesto. And for all that Corbyn may have work to do on taming the capitalist monster, Greens are on the whole still committed to some sort of undefined market system, albeit localised and regulated by as yet unclarified means.

Both these strands, of Corbyn's Labour and the Greens, are clearly of the Left. If, in the finest traditions of the Left, there was to be any sinking into tribalism, calling out every policy difference as a fundamental point of departure, it would be a tragedy. The ground would be left open not only for the Tory incumbents to continue their dire project, but also for populists like UKIP to monopolise any pseudo-challenge to the status quo.

Sectarian division over what to the wider electorate can be quite opaque differences is a dangerous tendency. It is sometimes seemingly inherent among progressives who, perhaps because our politics are rooted far more deeply in principle rather than the pragmatism of the right, can struggle to compromise. Often that is not a bad thing and the Greens' role may well be to act as the ecological conscience of the Left as a whole, constantly reminding the materialists of Momentum (the Corbynistas' new grouping) that social justice and environmental sustainability are inevitably and irrevocably co-dependent.

But Corbyn faces a big enough challenge seeing off the Blairite remnants who still occupy most of the Labour Parliamentary benches as well as a number of other key roles. As we have seen by the behaviour of some of them this last week over the Fiscal Charter debate, the Blairite rump is quite happy to trundle into TV studios and bare their "souls" to journalists if they think it will wound the new leader's attempts to transform his party and the wider political landscape. Sniping at him from a platform of verdant moral superiority will do nothing to help foster real change. Greens can assert a confident identity by positively advancing our beliefs without any need to join in the chorus of ill intended media barons and neoliberals keen to stop any effective challenge to the Establishment in its tracks.

The Green Left meeting in Bournemouth took the general view that Greens must work in a genuinely plural way; as indeed Jeremy Corbyn has a track record of doing with Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett, both of whom have welcomed his election and expressed hope for a wider alliance. This will be vital both to infuse the progressive movement with a genuinely green outlook and also, in the event Corbyn fails inside Labour, to ensure there is a viable political machine able to carry on the struggle for a fairer, more egalitarian society. A Green Party with a generous stance towards kindred spirits in the Labour movement might be where Corbyn supporters will feel able to come if their current party turns on them, although possibly the rather meagre scale of the much touted Labour MPs' "revolt" last Tuesday perhaps makes this scenario a little less likely.

A wide movement looking for change outside the Tory Conference
A society based on the twin pillars of social justice and environmental sustainability will be vital for the survival of both people and planet. Ecosocialism, the synthesis of ecology and socialism that is espoused by leftwing activists across several Left parties, provides a sound philosophical basis for this. It is a rationale explored by Green Party International Co-ordinator Dr Derek Wall in his new book, "Economics After Capitalism", which is well worth a read by anyone interested in what sort of longterm society we can and must develop.

And so, as we face a winter of continuing austerity, of further war in the Middle East and the continued dominance of the media by an increasingly unbound Conservative regime, it is vital more than ever that those on the progressive left put relatively small policy differences aside and work together. As the mantra said, it's For the Common Good.
Greens on the march in Manchester