Worlds apart: Fight Back! and The Purple Book compared

Two anthologies emanating from the broadly defined British left have wildly different conceptions of progress and democracy. One celebrates protest while the other refuses to stray from the narrow confines of existing political debate.

The Purple Book: Biteback, £9.99, September 2011.

Fight Back!: openDemocracy, Free, February 2011.

These two anthologies are poles apart. Fight Back!, published in February, documents the ‘winter of discontent’, the student protests of 2010-11. The Purple Book, published in September, sets out the ideas of Progress, the New Labour think tank, for the future of the Labour party. Both belong, then, in some nominal or residual sense, to the English Left, but in attitude and tone, the differences are enormous.

Among the contributors to The Purple Book (TPB) there is a preponderance of ex-ministers and ministers-in-waiting, (such as Liam Byrne, Peter Mandelson, Tessa Jowell, Liz Kendall and John Woodcock). Despite a few flashes of radicalism and creativity (Tristram Hunt on mutuals and Steve Reed and Paul Brant on community organising) it is the middle-of-the-road, give-the-swing-voters-what-they-want arguments of Mandelson and Robert Philpot (head of Progress and editor of TPB) that dominates. There is a stress on localism and citizen empowerment, in an effort to reappropriate the ‘big society’, backed up by ritualistic references to Labour’s decentralising heritage; but in the end, this is still much the same old New Labour.

Fight Back! (FB!), on the other hand, is dominated by students, bloggers, activists, journalists – young and not engaged with any of the traditional political parties. The editorial ‘kettle’ were all kettled by the police at some point in November and December of 2010. Again, there are a few others: a Lib Dem peer who rebelled against his party on Higher Education reform (Trevor Smith); the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (Nick Pearce). But the overall tenor is given by Laurie Penny, Guy Aitchison, James Butler; the vigorous and sometimes violent rhythms of the student protests are ever-present. Celebration of the protests’ achievements, and condemnation of mainstream party-politics and its hierarchies, are dominant themes. The buzz and vigour of much of the writing in FB! makes TPB seem a very staid and stodgy collection of policy pieces.

These two political cultures are only in very partial communication with each other. The most powerful comment of TPB on the various campaigns, protests, and occupations that have sprung up over the last year, is to ignore them. It operates almost wholly within the sphere of mainstream politics, responding to the Tory-Liberal successes and the Blue Labour tendency. It does not bother, at least not explicitly, to reject the idea that there might be a growing mood of dissatisfaction in this country and in the world, not just with Labour or New Labour or statism or Toryism, but with capitalism in some more fundamental way. The mainstream political world has managed to ‘keep calm and carry on’ in the face of political upheaval, as the business world did in the face of financial crisis (see Jeremy Gilbert’s analysis in FB!, 204-13). For all the talk of past figures such as Keir Hardie or William Morris, certain fundamentals are taken as read which they would certainly have disputed, and which many protestors and campaigners now would dispute too. For the writers of TPB, some issues are simply not part of the debate. There is a certain sense of anxiety, even, that they should be kept out of the debate: witness Mandelson’s strictures against ‘naive anti-capitalist posturing’ (38) and his insistence that there is ‘no future for us as a party of class’ (43). This is perhaps a very distant echo of the diffuse discontent with capitalism, and of the danger (to Mandelson) of radical influence within the Labour Party under the supposedly ‘left-wing’ leadership of Ed Miliband. The fact that Mandelson still has to make such arguments suggests that there is still some radicalism latent within Labour. But his Whiggish ideology of ‘progress’ assumes that we have got beyond all that. It is under the umbrella of ‘our political heritage’ (262), as a part of the past that, in TPB, we encounter R. H. Tawney (constantly), William Morris and Keir Hardie (briefly), cooperatives and friendly societies, and – the trade unions.

FB!, on the other hand, treats the unions not as relics but as part of a radical tradiition that has persisted: witness the whole section of FB! on ‘The Unions’, and Guy Aitchison’s recognition (314) that the labour movement, with seven million members, is ‘the largest organised force in this country’. FB! also offers some genuine re-exploration of radical history (rather than simply quoting snippets from R. H. Tawney as supposed inspirations for the New New Labour project). In the context of the violence of the student protests and their repression, Daniel Trilling’s recalling of Raymond Williams’ ‘A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy’ (200-1) and the violence of the Parliamentary Reform agitation of 1866, is timely. So is Jeremy Gilbert’s evocation of the tradition of radicalism: ‘The realisation that humans working together can transform their world, and are the source of all meaningful change, is at least as old as the belief that they must be prevented from doing so by wise authority… We should look to this tradition for inspiration and information, even while we seek out genuinely novel routes to changing the world’ (213). There is also definitely a sense that the contributors to FB! address dimensions the writers of TPB cannot. Owen Hatherley attacks the Coalition as ‘philistine’ (119); Peter Johnson speaks of education as ‘a shared adventure in human self-understanding’ (167). There is a strong emphasis on the aesthetics of the protests (Dan Hancox’ ‘This is our riot: POW!’; Adam Harper’s ‘Images of Reality and Student Surrealism’). Such writers demand not only that the world should be well-organised, but that it should be exciting and beautiful – a concern very remote from those the contributors to TPB address. The passion, verve, and stylishness of writers like Hancox or James Butler is in itself a criticism of the clumsy policy-journalistic style of much of TB.

All the same, it has to be said that there are things the student protest movement, and the extra-parliamentary Left in general, could learn, if not from the mainstream, at least from the radical tradition. There are signs of over-dependence in FB! on the aesthetic and rhetorical. Adam Harper recognises this, admitting to a ‘slight nervousness about doing aesthetics – about aestheticising – during a time like this.’ (271) We do have to live in, and deal with, and attempt to change, the world as it is – one of the few places this is recognised in FB! is in Joanna Biggs’ picture (100-6), of the duller work of organising and coordinating that goes on at occupations. TPB, for all its flaws, goes further towards dealing with the boring facts and statistics that represent brute reality – of course, the drudge-work will have been done by interns, but it is done nonetheless, more than in FB!. And this does represent a genuine commitment to political work – despite the assumption, latent in many of the pieces in FB!, that the mainstream Left is composed solely of careerists and time-servers.

In this connection, it is worth noting that the only one of The Purple Book pieces that comes close to the best contributions to FB! in vigour and strength of personal commitment is by Peter Mandelson: Labour’s Lord of Spin, the man who commissioned the Browne Review and thus spawned the fees-and-cuts programme for Higher Education. Two pages of his essay are taken up with simply listing New Labour’s achievements in office. Schools built, crime reduced, wages rising – point after point is piled on, leading up to his statement: ‘This is what a “progressive state” means in practice.... So let’s not fall for the canard that voting doesn’t change anything.’ (34). And the argument, as far as it goes, is undeniable: New Labour was better than Thatcherism, or Cameronism. We should not neglect the scale of the differences, or the real impacts party-politics has on people’s lives: the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which so many students and school pupils came out to defend last winter, was a New Labour initiative. Voting does change some things.

But there are things it does not and in the current political environment cannot change. The habits of the present political elite are too deeply ingrained – as TPB reveals. There is a concerted effort to address ‘localism’ and ‘empowerment’; yet the language used in explaining this is revealing. Local activists are to ‘feel that they are the leaders’ in their ‘relationship’ with the state (Jowell, 184); ‘Citizens must... feel they can exercise control’ (Ivan Lewis, 233). Later on, they are even to be given the opportunity to act as ‘‘shareholders’, active participants and cheerleaders’ (Lewis, 240; my emphasis throughout). One wonders if it is actually power these people are talking of redistributing, or merely the illusion of it. As Patrick Diamond reminds us: ‘Trusting people is risky because people can be wrong’ (TPB, 100). To minimize this risk, it seems, the state will control the conditions of its relationship with people. It is on the basis of a non-controversial identity – as ‘local people’, ‘citizens’, or ‘individuals’ – that people are to be connected with the ‘relational state’. People are to be allowed to have their own ideas on how their bus service is run or what day their bins are collected. But what space is there for people who want to be not just ‘individuals’ or ‘citizens’, but ‘activists’ or even ‘radicals’? What space is there for a larger reassessment of the way we live our lives? It is only non-controversial groups and identities that TPB seems to be interested in connecting with; it steers clear of anything with any distinctiveness, either socialism or radicalism, or indeed the white working-class identities Blue Labour appeals to. Actually ‘giving away power’ seems remarkably difficult to do. The fact is that TPB belongs to, and speaks to, the central Labour Party machine. It talks of localism and discusses how to implement it – from the top.

The contributors to FB! are far better placed to discuss localism and empowerment: they speak from and to a set of grassroots, decentralised campaigns and protests. They are aware of all the problems of centralisation: ‘Within these top-down organisational models the abundant collective knowledge, skills and social networks of “the membership” was neglected often to the detriment of the causes they championed’ (52). Aitchison and Peters are referring here to protest movements such as Stop The War or NGO coalitions such as Make Poverty History, but the argument applies even better to political parties. They go so far as to claim that ‘The necessity for ... hierarchical ‘organisation’... is ... fast being rendered obsolete as a pre-requisite for facilitating large groups of people to act together in a common interest.’ (50) At this point, I think, a note of caution is necessary. Aitchison and Peters effectively allow a condemnation of hierarchy to become a condemnation of organisation itself. This tendency is echoed in celebrations of the autonomy of protests: ‘Freedom to act autonomously empowers individuals and groups. Attempts to manage and control this movement will lead to disillusion and abandonment.’ (Markus Malarkey, 310).

The fear of organisation (seen as the road to ossification or co-optation) is, in its way, as habitual to student protestors as the fear of local empowerment (seen as the road to anarchy) is to New Labour. And if the emphasis on localism and decentralisation in TPB does not really succeed in overcoming New Labour’s fears, it is by no means clear that the emphasis in FB! on the need for continuity and solidarity overcomes those of the student movement. This emphasis is certainly there, in the references to ‘concrete and lasting relationships of support and co-operation’ (Aitchison and Peters, 45), to ‘a coherent alternative [which] the whole movement can unite around’ (Len McCluskey, 238) – above all in Laurie Penny’s caution: ‘our protest movements are atomised and fragmented, and too often we focus on fighting for or against individual reforms.’ (32). But there is a failure to recognise that the uncritical celebration of ‘spontaneity’, of the Protean formlessness of protests, and the fear of anything with a whiff of permanency about it, is a block to cohesion and continuity. The dangers of lack of direction and focus are just as likely to lead to ‘disillusion and abandonment’ as those of excessive ‘control’. Again, the uncritical adoption of the language of freedom, autonomy, individualism, comes dangerously close to the ‘I want’ sloganising exposed by Hatherley: ‘The advertisements for Middlesex courses... illustrate how the neoliberal student is conceived of as a series of demands that are alternately hedonistic and utilitarian,... Headed by “I want to be more employable”, one of them continues: “I want to be the best. I want to do my own thing. I want to excel. I want to go to the gym. I want to study business law. I want to see West End shows. I want business sponsorship.” And with particular bathos: “I want to see what’s possible”.’ (FB!, 119).

Similarly, FB! contributors come close to allowing a condemnation of factionalism to become a condemnation of ideology as such. Aitchison states: ‘one of the wonderful things about the occupations (at least the ones I witnessed) was how they prioritised practice over ideology’ (317). As with ‘spontaneity’, I am not convinced that this is something to be unequivocally celebrated. There is a distinction to be made between ideology as factional dispute and indoctrination, and ideology as constructive debate. We cannot expect a vision of the society we want and how to achieve it to spring spontaneously from the soil of activism: we must make a conscious effort to think through these issues. Cailean Gallagher’s ‘From the Reactive to the Creative’ is one of the few pieces in FB! that explicitly recognises this.

This is not to deny the real passion and imagination shown by most of the writers of FB!, which puts them in a very different league to the contributors to TPB. Such energies have no place in ‘New New’ Labour’s politics, because they pose more fundamental questions about the way we live our lives. In TPB, the really major decisions about the shape of our existence have been taken in advance. Or rather, they are not decisions at all, but inevitable realities we have to accommodate to: politics can offer only ways of ‘managing the change’ (Philpot, 15). Within these narrow confines, the book’s final call for Labour to be once more ‘the author of its own fortunes’ (Philpot, 303) sounds hollow. The ‘Progressive Future’ of The Purple Book resembles the future proposed by the tired liberalism of William Morris’ day: ‘a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap, with ... a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men contented together’ (Morris, How I Became a Socialist, 1894).

The student protests, and along with them the other campaigns that have sprung up in opposition to the cuts, embody a necessary rejection of this dispiriting future, and the beginnings of a wider and stronger vision. But they remain, as yet, fragmented and incoherent, little more than ‘eruptions’ (see Paul Mason, FB!, 295). If New Labour and ‘big society’ Conservatism constitute, at best, what Raymond Williams called a ‘constrained reformism’, under which ‘change is happening, but primarily under the direction and in the terms of the dominant social order itself’, then the rebellion of students and others amounts to what Williams saw as a characteristic response to such reformism, ‘an anarchism: positive in its fierce rejection of domination, repression, and manipulation; negative in its willed neglect of structures, of continuity and of material constraints’ (Culture and Materialism, 203). The overall tenor of TPB suggests that the ‘constrained reformism’ of New Labour is unlikely to alter significantly any time soon – though other tendencies in the Labour Party may prove more fruitful. Whether the motion of rejection represented by the student and other protests will lead to a more coherent vision, a more united movement, remains to be seen: certainly the intelligence and commitment exhibited in the best of the FB! pieces offers grounds for hope. As for any substantial dialogue between the two, the possibility seems, for the present, remote.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Left Review.

About the author

Peter Hill is a D. Phil. student at Oxford University working on Arabic literature. He is an editor of and regular contributor to the Oxford Left Review.