Monday 29 November 2010

Between Protest and Parliament

I can't refrain from commenting on Sayeeda Warsi's letter to Ed Miliband concerning John McDonnell's speech at this weekend's Coalition of Resistance conference. In his contribution, John expressed solidarity with the 15 university occupations and support for students against the ConDems' plans to sink higher education. In other words, he was doing what any decent socialist should be doing. But this was too much for the current chair of the Conservatives.

According to the BBC, Warsi wrote "A member of your party, John McDonnell MP, has been quoted in the press suggesting that he is involved in a 'programme of resistance' which includes the potential incitement of rioting." Actually, Warsi is putting words into John McDonnell's mouth here, and she knows it. But for Warsi and her like any kind of politics taking place outside the rarefied atmosphere of parliamentary constitutionalism is potentially dangerous. You see, it involves people (or, as Tories might see them, 'the mob') getting together and pursuing political objectives independent of their elected representatives. As far as they're concerned, demos, occupations, strikes, protests, rallies and riots are all members of the same species. Tories instinctively sense an essential identity lurking beneath the noisy and colourful stirrings of the dangerous class, and this makes them feel very uneasy indeed. Always and at all times the most timid of protests are only a step away from full-blooded insurrection.

In calling for John McDonnell's head, Ed Miliband should have told Warsi where to get off. If the unelectable fears the ungovernable, that's something she's going to have to learn to deal with. But instead of standing up to this blatant attempt at driving a wedge between Labour and the burgeoning student movement, Ed just rolled over. According to the same report McDonnell "will be spoken to by the opposition whips office". Pitiful.

This episode, which will surely be as forgotten in a few days as this year's
X-Factor Christmas number one will be 12 months hence, says a lot about the contradictions of Ed Miliband's position and Labour as the official parliamentary wing of the labour movement. We've been here before regards Ed and the middle ground and much of it remains the case. The everyday political reality Ed and the leadership inhabit is one conditioned by the received political wisdom of the New Labour years and elite opinion expressed through the media. Pressures from life outside are filtered through opinion polls and focus groups, which are then treated as immovable realities to be adapted to, not changed. So unfavourable coverage of student protests in the press = a belief that most people are opposed to the demos and occupations.

Steps can be made to remedy the situation. The weekend's
announcement of a two year review of the party offers an opportunity for the left to argue for more democracy and therefore restore the linkage function parties are, according to political science scholarship, supposed to perform between supporters and political elites. But this can only go so far. Ed's attempts to play the Westminster game are rooted in the contradictory location of Labour itself, of being the party of the organised working class which has to appeal to the whole nation to win elections, of the repository of working class interests and aspirations while being one of two parties of capitalist governance, of being sustained by extra-parliamentary movements while its high politics are completely focused on parliamentarism, and of simultaneously being a party of labour and capital. How Labour has negotiated this contradiction historically is to play the constitutional game at all costs, even to the extent of hollowing itself out.

Therefore the leadership's capitulation to Warsi's whinging is rooted much deeper than shallow analyses of the "latest betrayal" would have you believe. While it'd be fantastic if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations (in much the same way the NUS leadership has been
shamed into doing), he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour's contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts on the one hand; and the prevarication of politics as usual on the other, he will plump for the latter every time.


Anonymous said...

The problem for Ed is the right wing press put words into people's mouths and paint the left as dangerous subversives who want to depose the rich or some other such class warfare crap. The only parties currently employing class warfare are the tories and there sell out cronies the lib dems.

I am of the left and I dont want any such thing class warfare should be the thing of the past. But we cannot allow these idelogical cuts to go without comment or resistance. Resistance means just that to resist there is no mention of violence or rioting. Resistance does not imply violence and its just right wing rubbish to imply it does.

Boffy said...

The interesting thing has been the capitulation of Aaron Porter, who over the weekend accepted that he has been too weak-kneed in supporting student actions, and occupations. As for Miliband this comes in stark contrast to the commitment to making Labour the biggest Community organisation in the country, because surely that will involve being directly involved in widespread actions outside the normal Parliamentary channels.

As for Warsi, she seem to be off message. I thought that they in particular were in favour of the "Big Society", i.e. ordinary folk coming together and taking action to deal with their immediate problems! Isn't that precisely what a Trade Union, and other such workers organisations are about?

Chris Baldwin said...

McDonnell of course is entirely in the right.

Warsi and her Tory ilk are enemies of freedom.

Phil said...

Jonkarra, I too want class conflict to be a thing of the past. That's why I'm a socialist. But for as long as capitalism remains there will be class struggle, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes you. It cannot be wished away but it can be done away - and that's by prosecuting it on the side of the working class.

Phil said...

I think Dav'es idea of BigSoc is about community cricket events, street parties celebrating the royal wedding, running the tombola at the school fete, bidding for lottery money for Morris dancing troupes, and helping out the deserving poor with food parcels. Real community activism is beyond him because it's not in his - or his class's - interests.

Phil said...

You're dead right, Chris. Labour's stupidity over civil liberties has allowed the right to claim the mantle of freedom. We should never make that mistake again.