I had the interesting experience of being treated like a well-meaning but fuzzy-headed utopian on Monday night when I spoke at Cambridge Labour party’s AGM about fighting the cuts. I’d been invited to speak by OK regular and local party member Stuart Weir who wanted to expose them to a critical outside voice who’d been involved in the student movement. I hadn’t realised it would be an exclusively Labour meeting until I checked with Stuart before hopping on the train, so I spent the journey jotting down reasons why I think they've been so ineffectual in opposing the Coalition’s blitzkrieg against welfare and public services and my feeling of the mood amongst students towards the party. The meeting was chaired by Anne Campbell, a Blairite ex-MP who lost her seat in 2005 to Lib Dem David Howarth despite voting against the war (it is now represented by Lib Dem Julian Huppert). She was polite throughout, but it’s fair to say she probably isn’t my biggest fan after the blunt appraisal I gave.
My main aim was to challenge the deep strain of complacency that runs through the Labour party, especially the PLP, at the moment encouraged by rising popular discontent at the cuts and the seething animosity towards the Lib Dems for their betrayal. Even many on the left of the party seem to take the view that they can sit back, let Clegg take a battering, and glide back into power in five years time. Whilst vast swathes of social provision are cut, and Cameron threatens to open up all but “the judiciary and security services” to privatisation – a withdrawal of the state which will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse - they urge the movement to slow down and prepare for the “long haul”. Clearly, this attitude has prevented the party from setting out a clear alternative to the cuts and examining its own commitment to a destructive set of neoliberal policies, which the Tories are now seeing to their brutal conclusion.
I suggested that the decline and fall of NUS President Aaron Porter, who gave the welcome news he would not be re-standing that afternoon, provided a salutary lesson for political leaders who are seen to capitulate in the face of cuts, abandoning those they claim to represent. So far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been marked by silence and timidity. As the main parliamentary opposition, I argued, Labour should be articulating popular anger and energy, seeking to connect to extra-parliamentary forces without trying to subdue or control them. Instead, we’ve had finger wagging at the unions and a pathetic suggestion at the height of the winter uprising that Miliband was “tempted” to speak to the students. Although things have improved somewhat with the replacement of the hapless Alan Johnson by Ed Balls, the message appears to still be “We will cut slightly less over a slightly longer time”.
Aside from a few radical voices, including one very supportive woman from the University and College Union, it's fair to say this approach was broadly the one favoured by those I encountered on Monday. It certainly felt novel to take part in an activist meeting where defending free education paid for by progressive taxation marked you out as wildly impractical, a proponent of “unclear policy bandwagons” as one party member later put it to me. I pointed out how students aren’t much impressed by the Labour leadership’s current proposals for a graduate tax and haven’t forgotten it was the last government who set in process the marketisation of higher education, first with tuition fees and then with the Browne review.
I tried to give a sense of what a difficult task they're facing. When I was an undergrad, the big issues people mobilised around were Blair’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the associated human rights abuses of the “war on terror”. For many students becoming politically active today, Labour are the party that inflated the banking bubble and went into the last election promising “cuts deeper than Thatcher”.
The official Labour presence on campuses mostly kept arm’s distance from the radical wing of the student movement though it was possible to spot their banners on demos. At least one 19-year old I know through the UCL occupation, brought with her a history of campaigning within the party but has been radicalised and is now looking for alternative ways of expressing her politics.
The one point I made which really struck a chord in the room was about internal democracy. The experience of organising along participatory lines, I suggested, had been an empowering one for many young people who know they are unlikely to experience the same thing within the stifling routines of party bureaucracies. Clearly this resonated with members of an organisation that has been gutted of democracy at the local and national level in its embrace of “corporate populism”.
During the Q & A that followed, a rather condescending question was put to me by a middle-aged historian. Leaning back in his chair, in a manner intended to convey “I’ve seen and done it all before”, he proposed to give me a “lesson” about the “failure” of 1968. I’ve heard this argument before. It’s one which takes a narrow focus on electoral arithmetic and ignores the huge cultural and social changes brought about by the attack on the old Gaullist order and the civilizing effects this had on French society as a whole. If the comparison is intended as a warning against vanguardist tendencies, that’s one thing, but if it’s an argument for subduing the militancy of the student movement and accepting the discipline of a central party then that’s quite different.
In another surreal exchange, a young smartly-dressed man attempted to convince me that it was backbench MP Chuka Umunna who had been making all of the running on tax avoidance, rather than the direct action of UK Uncut. This rather reflected the differences of understanding within the room as well as some of the tensions within the broader movement.
In many of the debates being had, such as the current discussion of how Labour councils should respond to cuts, it’s possible to detect a clear division between those who see it as the role of the movement to appear respectable, not rock the boat too much and help the Labour party back into power. And those who want to build a mass movement of resistance and defiance that will shift the balance of forces and compel the whole political class to abandon an ideology that would make society pay for the bankers’ crisis. I know which side I’m on.