Sunday 18 April 2010

Socialist Blogging and the Labour Party

In a recent thread, I said to Modernity that my drop in blogging output has had a lot to do with switching from the Socialist Party to Labour. By the standards of the far left, the SP is a sizeable organisation that punches above its weight, particularly in several trade unions. But compared to the mass parties of mainstream politics, they are tiny and marginalised. And given the ongoing recomposition of the working class, the defeat and decline of the labour movement, and the self-defeating sectarianism of the far left, it could not be otherwise. Nevertheless fighting the (small) corner of the SP via blogging certainly gave me the inspiration and psychological foundation to keep on going.

The mass media is institutionally biased against socialist ideas and politics, and that finds its reflection in blogging too. But nonetheless by virtue of the DIY nature of the medium there is more of a level playing field. It is possible for socialists, and by this I mean *proper* socialists, to build a following over time through excellent writing, thought provoking argument, and sheer bloody mindedness. Rankings from
Wikio's and Total Politics' top 100s, and the Orwell Prize shortlist show it can be done.

Part of this blog's initial appeal was rooted in my being a SP member (three and a half years ago there was hardly a preponderance of SP bloggers), but also in the reflective style of writing I developed. I think it's fair to say readers got a good glimpse of what life was like in the party thanks to the never ending stream of branch meeting, internal events, and SP activism reports. I'd also like to think my blogging showed that contrary to received opinion about life in Trotskyist groupings, I was never one for groupthink and that such cult-like behaviour was not a property of the SP's political tradition or organising practice.

Obviously, as a SP activist wanting to promote the party to other lefts, I had an interest in showing SP life in its best light. But this was not a matter of spinning an unpleasant internal regime. All of my blogging was an accurate reflection of how I experienced life inside. I know about all the scare stories circulating around cyberspace about the machinations and skulduggery found at the centre of the organisation, but I never fell foul of any of it. Perhaps it was because I was a lay member out in the provinces, but nonetheless the relationships between (most) members were genuinely comradely. At branch and regional meetings you'd have a laugh, discuss politics and strategy, and go to the pub and do much the same. I very rarely heard a cross word said about another SP member (I can count on one hand the occasions I did so during my four year membership). True, socialists outside the party's ranks used to get slated but because of their daft, sectarian behaviour or lunatic ways of working, not because they were gay, or overweight, or whatever. In other words, the reflection of SP life this blog projected was an honest portrayal of the calibre and character of the comrades involved.

Because I joined Labour out of
grim necessity rather than genuine enthusiasm, I don't feel the desire to fight Labour's corner by defending its awful record. When there's a massive media apparatus designed to do just that, why should bloggers fall over themselves to be on-message? It's not like we'll swing the election!

But I do think the best place to fight for socialist politics is in the Labour party. Blogging comrades who agree with this position however tend not to write much about party activism. You'd be hard pressed to find more scathing critics of New Labour than
Louise and Dave, but you get little sense of what life inside the party's like. Thing is, doing the whole reflective writing thing that I did with the SP is hardly an advertisement for joining Labour. I put it like this. Some members are still happy to address each other as comrade. But beyond a small minority, there's more than a few who crap on comradely values every time they open their mouths. Mutuality, respect, and solidarity are words uttered for expediency's sake. Discussion about politics is the exception - talk of who hates who, who's been shafted or is in for being fucked over, and who's "mental" is the norm. Casual racism, homophobia and distaste for trade unions aren't uncommon either. And that's before we start talking about shenanigans and stitch-ups.

Blogging reflectively about the SP showed it in its best light. Doing the same for Labour will bring out its worst.

In that case, some might say these are things better left unsaid. I don't think so. What I've seen in the last couple of months puts the worst Trot factionalism firmly in the amateurish shade. The culture of the Labour party is rotten from the constituency level right to the top, which is symptomatic of the neoliberal road travelled and its position as a ladder for local and national political elites. And because their political location is much the same, I doubt the story's any different in the Tories and LibDems. Exposure won't make this go away any more than the MPs' expenses scandal will have banished corruption once and for all from politics. Its well spring bubbles up from Labour being the political expression of the trade union bureaucracies, aspirational layers of the "core vote", parts of the middle class, and capitalists with a conscience. But exposure opens up this culture to scrutiny and challenge, and that is what's needed right now.

So no, I haven't left the SP to become an unpaid spin doctor for Labour. Being a socialist (and a blogger) in the Labour party means building the left, encouraging trade unions to make their affiliation work, promoting socialist ideas, and never sparing the party from criticism, however politically inopportune it may be. That is what I intend to use this limited platform to do.


luna17 said...

Lots of food for thought!

First up, it doesn't surprise me about the internal life of the Labour Party, including the conflicts, factionalism etc. The far left is always characterised as riven with in-fighting and hostility, but I've always thought this caricature is erroneous because it implies mainstream parties are different. In fact the internal Labour culture is often poisonous. On the far left relations tend to be very comradely, though when differences open up it can - as I've experienced - become vicious.

I think that being part of a socialist group can help with motivation to blog - that's definitely true for me - so I understand your waning energy. It's important, though, to keep outward-focused and socially engaged. That hasn't changed for you, and it doesn't make a difference to that engagement whether you're in Labour, Soc Party or nothing at all. So I reckon you have just as much to say as ever!

The internal life of far-left groups is only of much interest to sectarians, who probably aren't your target audience, so there's really nothing lost in that respect. It's interesting, too, that someone like Laurie Penny can write in such a brilliant and dedicated way without any affiliation. It comes from passion and anger and intelligence. And, as you say, there are those inside Labour who write well and engage with serious issues.

One final point: whether in an organisation or not, I think leftie blogging benefits greatly from a connection with activism on some level. Even if not in a left-wing group (or, worse, if you're a Labour member!), it's possible to link blogging output with the world of political activity.

Phil said...

Sounds like you've gone from blogging within the SP and for the party, to blogging within Labour and against the party.

ModernityBlog said...

I'd have to agree with Luna17 on the very nature of political organisations, they are often very similar irrespective of the political colours. I noticed it a few years ago when in proximity to some Labour activists.

Their attitudes didn't seem that different from Far Lefties, mostly sectarian, petty and parochial. I'm not suggesting that is universal, only that was my experience.

Part of it I suspect you could explain in sociological terms (insiders, outsiders)

Equally, the fact that many political activists seem to think that they alone *KNOW* precisely what is wrong with society and how to cure it, those tend to shape how they act and interact with others.

Paxman's political animal is a good read on this theme.

Paul said...

"Blogging comrades who agree with this position however tend not to write much about party activism. You'd be hard pressed to find more scathing critics of New Labour than Louise and Dave, but you get little sense of what life inside the party's like."

I've written plenty about how leftwingers might organise themselves within constituencies parties in a way which builds on previous good practice in doing so, but avoids the previous pitfalls.

Everything I've written is based on my own experience of activism and officership in local parties, and from long discussion with other party activists in the North West, though out of courtesy I tend not to name names.

The problem is not many people are interested, either because they simply don't believe the Labour party has a left future and are not prepared to deal with evidence to suggest that it is and can be, or because (like Compass and to an extent LRC) they believe that just repeating messages about how good it would be for local Lab parties to be leftwing will somehow magically make that happen.

This is not the time for such discussions, however. May 7th, whatever the result, is the right time.

D.B. said...

Keep up the good work, Phil.

Were you out leafletting against the BNP on Saturday? I came down from Boro to Stoke to help with the Hope Not Hate day of action. What little I knew about the politics of Stoke I've learned entirely from this blog, which I mentioned to a friend of mine.

Phil said...

You're right, Alex. As my activism was previously bound up with being a SP member I always had plenty to write about. Now, I'm gradually readjusting to life outside, I'm sure my mojo will pick up once I'm used to it!

Paul, you're right. Athur from Boffy's Blog fame made a lot of sense at the Stoke Compass meeting the other week (I'm not sure whether a report of said meeting will ever see the light of day, but it was interesting!) I agree with you on the strategies of Compass and the LRC, or rather, the lack of them. But as you said, more ink will be spilled on those issues after the general election.

DB, sorry to have missed you! I was out leafleting for Labour on Satday. If you're going to come down for any other days of action, let me know.

Boffy said...


thanks for your kind comments - the tenner is in the post. I think that we are in a similar position to that Marxists found themselves in around 1860 in Britain, or similar to that of the Russians in the late 80's or 90's. Lenin, for example did a lot of work as a lawyer, just helping individuals with legal cases.

an old comrade of mine, Neil Dawson, from burslem central told me a while ago that he had applied the method I have long advocated in respect of anti-racist work at Port Vale. They had begun by putting out material, but built a group of Vale Fans up who took the work on. We need to see oursleves more as facilitators, and advisors, rather than the people who do things for others, which is the traditional LP Parliamentarist view, or indeed as the people who have to be in control of each campaign, which is the traditional Leninist/Trotskyist/Vanguardist view.

However, we can't just set things up, and then cut them adrift. It requires ongoing involvement in order to draw out political lessons for those involved. What marx described as codifying the lessons learned and acting as the memory of the class. Moreover, this shouldn't be seen as just the kind of parachuting into the latest piece of activity/campaign to win members that most of the Left has been guilty of in trying to "Party Build", nor can it be seen as self-sufficient individual campaigns. There has to be "joined up thinking" that connects workers in each of these activities, and that requires a programme and a strategy that we try to elaborate in praxis.

I see the need for building general structures through which workers can organise and co-ordinate such campaigns and activities as vital, separate from the workers Party, but in which the party plays a crucial role. My view is that much of this has to be done geographically, so I see a major role for building first TRA's or similar, and growing these into real Co-operative bodies that own and control estates. That is quite straightforward for Council estates, but it can be done for privately owned estates to as I'll explain in a forthcoming blog.

Such organisation can provide the basis for workers to begin to intervene in/take over increasing areas of life, including intervening in strikes and so on, provided the necessary leadership is given - by leadership I mean advice, not necessarily actual holding of leadership positions.

On past experience this will not only provide the basis for building and renewing the LP, but will undermine the BNP, and provided marxists provide answers which are practical, and immediate solutions to workers problems, and not just propaganda for the revolution or attempts to con workers into struggling for Transitional demands, will automatically win considerable support for the Marxists themselves. That would be Party building without "Party building"