Talking Shop #12 – Autopsy (WTF happened?)

In times of crisis it has always been my instinct to return to the community of organisers who through many, long, and often a bit too drunken, conversations gifted me a political education. I was drawn to anti-capitalist politics from a combination of reading and a strong sense of moral purpose. It was, however, the people I met who had been standing on picket lines before I was born that gave me a direction (not to mention warmth and solidarity). 

These experiences were partly the inspiration behind the New Syndicalist project and ‘Talking Shop’. In our early days of organising it was routine for myself and others now involved in New Syndicalist to meticulously pick apart any successful, (and also many unsuccessful!) campaign, protest or action. We’d strenuously review each decision, our tactical strengths, our failures, always seeking the best way forward. This proved invaluable in nurturing us as young trade unionists & making us better organisers. We were also very aware that in a time of such low trade union membership this space for dialogue, discussion and strategy needed to be shared, developed and grown. It is in this spirit that we approach the current feeling of crisis within the British Left. 

Friday 13th December 2019 felt like a particularly low moment in an already miserable decade of poverty, racism, collapsing public services and a hateful and increasingly violent far-right. And yet we shouldn’t really have been surprised by Labour’s crushing defeat in the polls. Many of the trends that has contributed to a historic political realignment of Labour heartlands to Johnson’s Conservatives we have discussed in great detail on New Syndicalist before. On our episode of Talking Shop on Populism we analysed in great detail the shift towards the Far-right in northern towns like Rotherham. A town that was a longstanding stronghold of Labourism, strong and confident trade unions we argued that a combination of demographic changes, the neglect of successive Labour governments, corruption and the complete disintegration of the local manufacturing economy meant a surge in sympathy for first the British National Party (BNP) and later the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). We speculated then, and the 2017 election results seemed to confirm that, Corbynism would be able to stem the tide. We were wrong. 

At New Syndicalist we have always maintained that there are no easy answers and there are no shortcuts. We have argued again and again that what is needed is patient, long-standing organising work embedded within workplaces and communities. You win people over by being there, being relevant and by fighting every small battle like it’s the hill you are prepared to die on. This means you have to have a vision of social change that goes far beyond the ballot box. It’s not enough to just canvas & tick a box every four years. We already argued that a key blind-spot within the Corbyn project was a vacuum of grassroots action and, as a result, a comparable political shift to the Left within the mainstream trade union movement. Historically this was the social base upon which Labour governments of previous decades had secured their electoral success & consent for their progressive social policies. Over a period of twenty years a combined neoliberal assault – led by Thatcher but consolidated by successive New Labour governments – devastated, neglected & legislated against this constituency. The undoing of Labour’s grip on its northern heartlands has a long & deep legacy that may take decades of work to regain. 

Still the election result did hit home. Quite literally in some cases. Bassetlaw, Don Valley, Penistone, all constituencies that took massive swings towards the Conservative Party, are the places we live and work. They are the homes of our friends, comrades and work mates. What Johnson’s victory means for these same communities is even more terrifying. We already discussed some of the worst outcomes of his brand of disaster capitalism in our Brexit episode. More poverty, more erosion of public services, more racism and an emboldened Far-right. 

All of us, whether Labour Party members or not, had invested time, energy and ultimately hope in a Labour government. We braved bitterly cold weather, early mornings and nights to pound the pavements and knock doors, we rallied members, argued with family members, tweeted, liked and shared and we hoped that the polls were wrong. We did all these things with commitment, passion and self-discipline. We did all these things and still we lost. We lost badly. 

Now it’s time to figure out what we do next. We are still here and we are still fighting – what other choice do we have? Johnson, Trump and their vicious gang, to borrow the words of Durruti, might blast and ruin their own world before they exit history, but we will never despair. The hope that propelled the Corbyn project was real & has been successful in radicalising a generation of socialist activists & trade unionists. Likewise the contradictions at the heart of Johnson’s “Brexit Britain” are bound to be his undoing. He simply cannot satisfy the material desires of working class voters while also keeping happy the billionaires of the establishment who bankroll his party. When it comes down to it he will always favour the latter. Radical change is, therefore, still on the agenda, we just need to fight harder than ever for it. And we will be there everyday, trying to win over hearts & minds. The burden of hope is upon us and we must continue to bear it.

Links to videos discussed in the podcast:

Why we voted Leave: Voices from Northern England

Union member explains to James O’Brien why he voted for Boris Johnson

How Labour lost, and the hope that endures | Anywhere but Westminster

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