Why Labour shouldn’t leave behind “the modern left”

10:55 am - October 18th 2011

by Don Paskini    

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Anthony Painter, writing on LabourList about the Occupy movements, argues that:

It’s time to leave behind the 1% who want to spend their Saturday afternoons in protest after protest, direct action after action, while the right continue to do their worst to our economy and society…

More than anything else the problem with the modern left is that we’ve become very presumptive about what the 99% want. We are very good at nominating ourselves as their moral spokespeople. We know what people really want even if they don’t yet themselves.

Here’s why I don’t think it’s time to leave behind this 1%.

When they put their minds to it, “the modern left” is very good at doing exactly the sort of campaigning which Anthony and I believe is so important, as the following story from the 2010 General Election shows.

I get regular emails from the Labour Representation Committee, which tend to focus on radical conferences, support for strike action, information about building resistance to capitalism and the like (the one I got yesterday was titled “Occupy, Resist and Get Involved”, and includes details of twelve conferences, demos and rallies which are taking place over the next month).

But early in 2010, the main subject of these emails changed.

During the short campaign period of the six weeks before the election, the top performing local Labour Party was not one of those marginal constituencies into which Labour had poured its limited central campaigning resources and professional organisers. Nor was it one of the areas which have got a reputation for pioneering innovative and effective ways of campaigning.

John McDonnell had been elected for Hayes and Harlington, in West London, in 1997. In 1992, he had lost by 2 votes, since which he had expanded his majority up to over 10,500.

In the run up to the last election, the Tories were way ahead in the opinion polls, and Labour’s plans to expand Heathrow meant that significant numbers of his constituents were facing the demolition of their homes, or significantly increased levels of noise and disruption.

In addition, in the 2008 London elections, Boris Johnson had polled more votes than Ken Livingstone in Hayes and Harlington, with nearly 10% of voters backing the BNP.

The call went out to Labour Lefties across the land that John McDonnell was in danger. And so it came to pass that during the six weeks of the election campaign, local activists and John McDonnell fans from across the “modern left” put aside their work demonstrating, conferencing, resisting, occupying and direct actioning, and worked like absolute beasts and spoke to tens of thousands of voters.

The result?

In 2005, Labour won by 10,654. In 2010, after economic crisis, Labour’s collapse in the polls and the decision to demolish hundreds of homes for local people to build the Third Runway, Labour’s majority was…10,824.

The lesson from this story is not that Labour would automatically be successful if it adopted the policy positions of the Labour Representation Committee (the evidence for this case is rather limited).

Instead, it is that rather than “leaving behind” the people who take part in direct action and protest, Labour needs to think about how to try to get them to help out with election campaigning. Some of the people involved in OccupyLSX wouldn’t be interested in this under any circumstances, but even getting one in ten of those who turned up on Saturday could make a big difference.

One of the best places to find people who are prepared to campaign like beasts in the service of securing a Labour victory is amongst those who have strongly held left wing political beliefs and who currently dedicate a lot of time to acting on those beliefs in a variety of causes.

There will be plenty of times when lefties disagree with Labour, and where they disagree on particular campaigns or tactics.

But I believe there is considerable mutual benefit for both Labour people who want to beat the Tories at the next election and for lefties who want to build the 99% movement in keeping in touch, finding opportunities where they agree and working together, and reaching out to the majority of people one doorstep at a time.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Elections2010 ,The Left

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Reader comments

Lol, I’m just waiting for an article replying to Mr Painter to go up on Labour List myself.

Great minds and all that 😉

The 99-1 theme has nothing to do with involvement in activism or political orientation. I’m afraid that’s come from Painter’s imagination. I doubt that anyone involved in the occupations (none that I know, at any rate) seriously believes that they represent the political views or commitments of 99% of people. The empirical claim is that the economic system currently enriches a small minority while failing the vast majority.

The 99% vs 1% theme is a reference to the problem of massive inequality (of wealth, income and political influence), which is a fact, an obvious injustice and a major cause of a series of socio-economic problems, including the current slump. The fact that Painter would prefer to turn the 99-1 theme into a cheap shot at the protestors, rather than engage with the substantive issue they’re raising, betrays, as far as I’m concerned, a pretty lamentable lack of seriousness.

The aim of the protestors is to highlight the issue, force it onto the agenda, and use the 99-1 theme to attract and mobilise broad-based support for the sort of substantive changes that we obviously need, given the dire economic situation. Their arguments resonate with more intelligent members of the political establishment (Stiglitz, Krugman, the FT leader writers, Polly Toynbee, etc), and are likely to resonate with large and increasing numbers amongst the general public. Consider the results of a recent poll:

Question 1 Do you approve or disapprove of the government’s record to date? (per cent)

Approve 30; Disapprove 55; Don’t know 15.

Question 2 Thinking about the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is . . . (per cent)

a) Good for the economy 35; Bad for the economy 49; Don’t know 16.
b) Being done fairly 27; Being done unfairly 59; Don’t know 14.
c) Necessary 57; Unnecessary 31; Don’t know 12.
d) Too deep 47; Too shallow 9; About right 27; Don’t know 17.
e) Being done too quickly 52, Too slowly 8; About right 28; Don’t know 12.
f) Having an impact on my life 68; Not having an impact on my life 23; Don’t know 9.

Question 3 Thinking about the next two or three years, how worried are you that people like you will . . . (per cent)

a) Not have enough money to live comfortably? — Worried 70; Not worried 27; Don’t know 3.
b) Suffer directly from cuts in spending on public services, such as health, education and welfare? — Worried 71; Not worried 26; Don’t know 3.
c) Lose their job/have difficulty finding work? — Worried 64; Not worried 32; Don’t know 4.
d) Lose their home? — Worried 43; Not worried 53; Don’t know 4.


So on the specific issues highlighted by the protests, the public may not be 99% in agreement, but there are large numbers who are concerned about the same things the protestors are concerned about. People’s lives are being affected. Many are suffering. And that is where the protests come from. They are an expression and a product of public discontent and widespread economic pain. That Painter calls them an elite, even in jest, indicates what value we can place of his contribution to this debate.

Clifford Singer wrote a good article a few weeks ago on this. Labour shouldn’t attempt to co-opt social movements, it merely needs to have a greater tolerance and understanding of the role autonomous movements can have in creating the space for labour to actually do things it wants to do. hence a demand for a 60% higher rate income tax enables labour to advocate 50% and be seen to maintain the centre ground.

The fact painter doesn’t understand this suggests lessons have not been learnt, and the old command and control attitude that lost labour scotland, and almost lost them Wales and London, remains. And why it still isn’t fit for purpose.

Well, you just carry on campaigning like that then. Fine by me.

A seat that you’ve got a 10,000 majority in is one in which that sort of beat the streets campaigning is entirely wasted in. Which is why no central resources were allocated to it I assume.

It is certainly true that some people who might more actively support left wing causes are put off by the character of left wing activists. Me, for instance. Others are attracted by it. What matters is how many people of what type there are. That strikes me as an empirical question of great importance to left wing political success, about which we know nothing.

“A seat that you’ve got a 10,000 majority in is one in which that sort of beat the streets campaigning is entirely wasted in. Which is why no central resources were allocated to it I assume.”

Indeed. It’s about learning lessons so that next time the leftie activists are beasting away in the places which will enable Labour to beat the Tories.

Just out of curiousity, what’s the definition of “top performing”?

Not denying that it was a v good result in H&H and no doubt a very good campaign, but I didn’t think it quite had the highest contact rate of the short campaign, nor the best election result. But perhaps you will correct me, I don’t know…

8. Leon Wolfson

Why would I be remotely interested in a party which is, at best, centralist?

“In 2005, Labour won by 10,654. In 2010, after economic crisis, Labour’s collapse in the polls and the decision to demolish hundreds of homes for local people to build the Third Runway, Labour’s majority was…10,824.

The lesson from this story is”
that there were boundary changes between 2005 and 2010:

General Election 2010: Hayes & Harlington[3]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Labour John McDonnell 23,377 54.8 -3.9
Conservative Scott Seaman-Digby 12,553 29.4 +4.2

4.1% swing to the Conservatives.


10. Mike Killingworth

[2] Very interesting numbers, so thankyou David for re-posting them. What caught my eye particularly were these two:

Good for the economy – 35%
Necessary – 57%

In other words, just over one voter in five thinks the cuts are necessary yet not good for the economy. Would anyone care to paint a pen-portrait of such a voter?

@ 10:

“In other words, just over one voter in five thinks the cuts are necessary yet not good for the economy. Would anyone care to paint a pen-portrait of such a voter?”

Maybe they think that cuts are necessary, but that the specific way the govt. is going about it is bad for the economy? Or that they will be bad in the short term but good in the long term?

“4.1% swing to the Conservatives.”

Only if you compare results on different boundaries. UK Polling Report calculated the notional result from 2005 on the current boundaries, and found there was a 1.8% swing. Had that been repeated nationally, Labour would be in government:


“Labour shouldn’t attempt to co-opt social movements”

Agree – but they should try and involve some of the people who take part in social movements because these are good recruits for local campaigning.

Nick – top performing = most contacts in short campaign period, I think – might be wrong but was certainly up there with the best.

“Why would I be remotely interested in a party which is, at best, centralist?”

I think that’s one which requires a separate post to address 🙂

” some of the people who take part in social movements because these are good recruits for local campaigning”

You know I have mixed feelings about this. I tend to think local campaigns work best when the activists don’t have a party political affiliation, for the simple reason the activists are more trusted and embedded in the local area. The fact is people are put off party politics, and as soon as an activist declares a party allegience the conversation is largely over. OTOH local activists who are trusted make for a formiddable electoral machine, which is why they are valuable to all parties. Plus they inform policy making far better than relying on lobbyists. The issue is Labour has spent the past 15 years demonstrating their contempt for such people except at election time, and it will take more than words from either of the millibands to change this – particularly whilst articles like painter still get taken seriously within labour.

15. Leon Wolfson

@13 – No. There’s a simple answer – Nothing at all.

16. paul barker

The Occupy protesters have certainly played a blinder in Media terms – 150 peole getting more publicity than a normal Demo 1,000 times the size. It will only work a few times though, once the idea becomes familiar The Media will lose interest, unless the numbers involved keep growing.

Off topic but has anyone else heard rumours that Labour Membership is falling again ?

17. Leon Wolfson

@16 – I’ve heard rumours of many things, including police brutality. Again. Why don’t you investigate THAT?

When he says that Labour should ‘leave behind’ the sort of people who believe in the power of protest to bring about change he is speaking with the voice of New Labour. It is the siren voice of spin and marketing promising guaranteed success so long as all those awkward principles are thrown overboard on the way back to power.

Traditional party politics is dying slowly from a mixture of public indifference and neglect on the part of paid party officials. Public interest in politics as a means of bringing people together to change their communities is though still very much alive.

The Labour Party needs to get back to being involved in grassroots political activism, sometimes as an instigator of campaigns; sometimes as an honest broker moderating between competing parties with a shared interest. Only by doing so can the party regain a sense of purpose, revive its declining membership and start the long process of reconnecting with the public.

In 1996 at the Labour Party Annual Conference I asked a well known Political Editor from TV what he thought of the Blairite administration? His reply was coy,’Same as you I expect?’, ‘No really what do you think of them,or what do you think the Balirites are in size?’. He replied, ‘They are less than 15 in total?’

And he was correct, the total real support inside the PLP, Parliamentary Labour Party was less than 20 in TB’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’.

The traditional right wing of the Labour Party organise only, and still do, in Westminster and have a few [very few] as key people on the NEC, National Executive Committee and on the Conference Arrangements Committee. Using the mass media to get their message across, if they are in favor?

When John Smith died in 1994, according to Tony Blair, ‘oh within 30 minuets of his death I was being called and asked if I was going to be leader’ [Source BBC Panorama 1996]. Timing is everything; John Smith died in the Barbican at 09:25. And the press were not notified [formally] of his death till 09:45. The deadline to get any article, not on the front page, for the noon editions of the Evening Standard was 10:15. Sarah Baxter, then a BBC political corespondent, ex-New Statesman, had an article in the Noon edition, on page 13 & 14 titled ‘Why Blair should be Leader?’.

Along with the published article the Party, before John Smiths body was cold was to be handed a fait accompli. The Labour Party did not Elect Tony Blair to the Leadership he was selected in advance of John Smiths untimely death. But by who and why? Ask Lord Mandleson that question and see him slither.

By 1996, I, along with many thousands of ‘old labour traditionalists’ and ‘Lefities’ had already left the Party filled with disillusionment or disgusted are where the Party was being taken. But there was growing anti-Tory feeling growing in the Country and New-Labour used that in the mass media to great effect. And so we have the landslide of 1997.

Labour has lost 5 million voters over the last 14 years. Some to the Tories but mostly to the Liberals, till they joined in Coalition in May 2010, and the Liberal have gone from their high of 27% to an average of 9%. labour were at 28%, Tories at 36%, and the Tories still are, but big change is Labour is at 44%.

I saw in the early 80’s how the Militant with it’s arrogant and sectarian ways drove the old Labour Traditionalists towards the right to become their foot soldiers. I was then working at the Militant Center as an unpaid Full timer with hourly contact with their leadership, so I might know a thing or two?

The left and old Labour then were divided so Neil Kinnock previously a Tribunite anti-monarchist anti-House of Lords was pushed further and further to the right of the Party. But did he go their or was he pushed by arrogant and sectarian inward looking left he feared would damage Labour’s Electoral chances? All of the above.

The Labour party has always had a left to use as fodder for activism in election to go on the stump and leaflet. But it did not have the traditional left in 1997 when Blair won.

Today the Political landscape is very different. The left is even more tiny and lacking influence than it was, oh sure it will pick up students and disaffected youth to do what, exhaust a new generation as it drives towards activism?

Over the last 5 years the Labour Party, oh which I am a member again, is moving to the left, not because of a conspiracy or good organisation but because the rank and file want, as do the majority of people, an assertive and Socialistic Labour party. And Socialism is being defined, a new?

Do your own research but if you take all the various left groups in Britain they are less that 15% of Labour’s membership on Facebook? In May 2010, when I rejoined there was less than 84.000 members on Labour’s Facebook, today however over 113.000.The liberals have stayed steady not gained but lost a few thousand. The Tories at 149.000, but not growing as a percentage as fast as labour has?

There are over 800 million on Facebook a growth of over 150 million since the election in 2010. People are not just getting networked for Social reasons but if you know the influence it had on the ‘Arab Uprising’ in January and February it was immense.

The Occupy movement is growing and Yes labour cannot ignore or utilize this independent mass movement of people across the globe that ‘are as mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more’. It is not just Ed Miliband and labour that maybe caught napping but the left as even the LRC is tiny and talks to its self and not the mass of people?

Activities in the labour Party might want or wait for a new John MCDonnell to lead them to so so called left-promised-land but Activists on many other non-left-aligned movements are coming to the fore. They are very critical of the unequal and cruel economic system, but as many pundits on TV and in the mass media point out they ofer no alternative?

That is a positive, they are forming an alternative and it’s still early days, less than forty to be precise. So, lets encourage it contribute and Ed Miliband and with it, try not to lead it but yes invite to activists to oppose the Tory-Liberal agenda? And they will be articulate and active in opposition but if used cynically by Ed Miliband or the traditional labour left they may harm the very thing the World needs?

This is the wrong way round. The Labour Party should be going there to find out what people think. Miliband could go and just listen. I realise that it’s unheard of for a politician to actually listen to what the people think but it would show humility and openness. The occupiers will not serve Labour but Labour could serve them, by which I mean us.

21. Leon Wolfson

@19 – Lots have been lost to “not voting”, too.

I’m not convinced that the Labour party is moving left, either. I need to see more solid evidence of it. I need to see the people like Frank Field dealt with, bluntly.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why Labour shouldn't leave behind "the modern left" http://t.co/hCWbG68f

  2. Janet Graham

    Why Labour shouldn't leave behind "the modern left" http://t.co/hCWbG68f

  3. Don Paskini

    Why Labour shouldn't leave behind "the modern left" http://t.co/hCWbG68f

  4. The LRC

    Thoughtful @donpaskini post on @libcon Why Labour shouldn’t leave behind “the modern left” – ft #LRC + @johnmcdonnellMP http://t.co/l047dRnM

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