Home: Analysis

What next for the weakened British left?

After a year of strikes and unrest, we are at a crossroads: society is shifting leftwards, but the left is in disarray

Michael Chessum
11 August 2023, 7.00am

The public is hungry for change. Could the left capitalise on their anger?


openDemocracy via Kristian Buus / Anadolu Agency / Guy Smallman / Ian Forsyth / Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty

For four solid decades, the UK has been run according to an economic orthodoxy that claims to trade equality and sustainability for prosperity and dynamism. The result is that we have neither.

Instead, the UK is on track to be one of the worst-performing major economies in the world this year and has the worst rate of growth in productivity of any G7 country. Privatised infrastructure, an underregulated labour market and our governing class’s addiction to austerity has meant the latest inflationary crisis has torn through British society. Our health system, utilities and public transport are more expensive and worse performing than our European neighbours’. Wages are at 2005 levels, and falling. Three million food parcels were delivered by the Trussell Trust last year, a 50% increase on 2019 and an almost 5,000% increase on 2010.

The job of the left is to turn the social crisis into a political one – to make the rich afraid rather than the poor despondent. On paper, the response has been strong. In the past year, we have seen the UK’s largest wave of industrial unrest so far this century, waking whole sectors – most notably the NHS – after decades of slumber. A series of wider campaigns, from Enough is Enough to the energy bill non-payment campaign Don’t Pay UK, had the potential to mobilise millions. But more than a year on from the RMT strike that marked the beginning of the resistance to the cost of living crisis, the social movements have failed to materialise. Through a mixture of attrition, lost strike ballots, and Rishi Sunak’s “final offer” of around 6% for the public sector, the strike wave is falling back from its high-water mark.

Whatever tools the left needs to break through in the current moment, it evidently does not possess. Our governing class is yawningly out of touch and wracked by crisis, but politics itself is stagnant. The pattern of our age is that hard-right governments enact radical change and the opposition fails to overturn it. Just as Tony Blair affirmed Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, Keir Starmer promises to retain even the most extreme Conservative policies on immigration, protest crackdown and benefit caps. The stasis of our politics seems immune to reason: our rivers are full of sewage, public support for water nationalisation is at 74%, and yet the obvious solution remains taboo. As we enter the most crucial period for mitigating climate collapse, politicians row back on green spending commitments.

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This period of ideological and political stagnation long predates the UK’s precipitous economic decline and has become deeply ingrained, with the Labour Party and much of the left-wing mainstream media impervious to change. Corbynism has come and gone like a tide, leaving little in the way of organisational infrastructure or even collective spaces for political activism. Trade unions and social movements struggle, even in the current context, to find a foothold. In the space of just three years, the left has not just been defeated or pushed back, but utterly marginalised.

Yet the British public is angry with its political class and hungry for change. Economically at least, it leans heavily to the left. Public opinion is now overwhelmingly in favour of public ownership, wealth taxes, and radical action on climate change. There is a new generation of trade union activists and a heavily divided political landscape. The coming period will be unpredictable and should provide fertile ground for left renewal.

Neoliberal over-reach

What we are witnessing is the result of a particularly sharp experience of neoliberalism, which has left behind two contradictory legacies.

The UK’s neoliberal moment went further than in any of our European neighbours, with a stronger and narrower political consensus. While the early 2000s saw the strongest-ever electoral results for the French far left, the formation of the German Left Party and the rise of the Scottish socialist and green parties, Westminster’s electoral system allowed neoliberalism to continue unchallenged. New Labour became its standard-bearers, championing still-deeper privatisation of the NHS.

This virulence of neoliberal policy-making meant that by the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, the UK was more dependent on its banking sector than any other major economy and led the world in financial deregulation. Utilities and most public transport were privatised. Our social housing had been stripped away and rents were unregulated. A war on the power of organised labour gave employers a whip hand over workers. When austerity arrived, the UK was second only to Greece in real-terms wage decline and whole new areas of the state (the Post Office and universities) were sold off or marketised. The current inflationary crisis is the culmination of these policies: the British earn less, pay more and enjoy crumbling infrastructure and public services.

You vote Conservative if you want to protect your assets from the mob; millennials have no assets, and so we are the mob

Now, the zealots of British neoliberalism are liable to become the victims of their own success. In the late 1980s, large-scale privatisation more or less split the country because it promised prosperity for many; in 2023, never-ending Thatcherism and austerity have been unmasked as crap and dysfunctional ways to run a country, having undermined the living standards of all but the very wealthy. Cuts and deregulation have gone so far that public opinion yearns for something else. Politicians and pundits deliver meaningless slogans that have little bearing on the world around them. They lack the ideological tools to turn the situation around on their own, their only serious proposal now being a doom loop of low investment and wage deflation.

Most crucially, the UK’s over-reach of economic orthodoxy and preponderance of the asset economy have produced the conditions for a clearer and more generationally defined shift to the left at a population level than in most countries in the Global North. You vote Conservative if you want to protect your assets from the mob; millennials have no assets, and so we are the mob. In Jeremy Corbyn’s otherwise disastrous election result of 2019, Labour held a more than 30-point lead among the under-30s. There is no British youth vote for the far right (either through the Conservatives or otherwise) as there is for Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternativ für Deutschland in eastern Germany, and Giorgia Meloni in Italy. And those who grew up under Blairism, austerity and Brexit are moving left, not right, as they age. Unless this trend is reversed – and nobody appears focussed on reversing it – the UK is set for a sharp leftwards shift in our national politics.

The left in disarray

The problem is that these leftward-moving voters currently have no political home and little power to effect change. Britain’s extreme experience of neoliberalism has had a correspondingly destructive impact on the left and its institutions, creating a more difficult terrain for radicalisation and disillusionment to find expression.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the trade union movement. With the exception of Belgium and the Nordic countries, union density has been in decline across the Global North for some time – but the UK has been hit harder in qualitative terms. Our labour movement was once among the most militant and organised; now it is shackled by some of the toughest anti-strike laws in Europe. Most glaring is the evaporation of the rank-and-file organisation that once underpinned the British trade union movement’s ability to mobilise. Both of the great industrial campaigns of this century – the pensions dispute of 2011 and today’s pay disputes – have been animated almost entirely from above. Union leaderships turn strikes on (and off) like a tap.

To a great extent, this predicament owes itself to the organisational collapse of the radical left. By a process of industrial defeat and political demoralisation, Britain’s organised socialist groups were reduced to a fraction of their former size between the early 1990s and the financial crash of 2008, before going into an even sharper decline in the 2010s, as Corbynism drew young recruits elsewhere. The explosive growth of the Labour left at this point could have been a moment of long-term rejuvenation, laying down organisational roots and bringing to life social movements and the rank and file of the unions. Instead, it became a shift towards conventional electoralism. While the left projects that took off after Corbyn’s election as Labour leader began as a rebuke to Blairism, many have internalised the centralised and expert-led method of the Third Way.

The starkest embodiment of this phenomenon is Momentum. Founded in 2015, shortly after Corbyn’s win, Momentum was initially a sprawling, often rancorous, network of activists and local groups with their own internal life – but it became a kind of hard-left NGO run by professionals from an office, utilising a large database and a strong social media game with very little real-life presence. This model made for a slick operation around Labour Party elections, but its lack of internal democracy and life meant the legacy of Corbynism was shallow and easily washed away.

A technocratic administration run by Starmer will inevitably become unpopular and sclerotic, and radical alternatives will be in demand

Similarly, against the backdrop of the ongoing cost of living crisis, Enough is Enough has amassed what is probably the British left’s largest-ever email list, but has barely developed beyond organising large-scale rallies with popular speakers. Rather than generating grassroots movements run collectively by activists, the left creates political brands with an army of consumers; rather than seeing social media as a tool for building real-life activity, it sees it as a substitute.

Those who oppose the neoliberal consensus are also the most resistant to organised politics. The left’s political and industrial defeats in the 1980s and 1990s meant that by the time millennials came of age, amid the anti-austerity movement of the early 2010s, they emerged into an activist sphere with historically low levels of organisation. They were a generation without a history; cut off in the moment of their politicisation from the organised traditions of the left.

So while there have been some positive breakthroughs in the past decade – social movements and political projects that have pushed creative and technological boundaries – a lack of political coherence has meant members of my generation have been like moths drawn to the brightest flame. Activists have swung between despondency, liberalism, anarchism, Corbynism and back again. Rather than transforming the Labour Party, they were ingested and excreted by older, institutional forces.

Labour has now been stripped of its formerly radical leadership, which did little to bring lasting change to the party’s structures or top-level personnel. Its current leadership’s driving belief is that because basic social democratic politics were supposedly unelectable in the late 1990s they always will be, that the party can win only if it accepts whatever consensus precedes it. Together, the structural problems and Starmer’s beliefs provide a uniquely stubborn barrier to progressive change and action on the climate crisis. Unlike the US Democrats, there are no open primaries, while dissent is ruthlessly closed down. Unlike in much of continental Europe or in the devolved nations, a lack of proportional representation at Westminster means there is no serious electoral space to Labour’s left.

A crossroads

The contradictions of the current moment could go either way. Britain’s leftward-moving demographics, underpinned by the radicalisation of the under-40s, is not an unstoppable force; the organisational weakness of the left is not an immovable object.

The left does not lack ideas and its ideas do not lack support. But it is stuck: progress is difficult, both industrially and in terms of social mobilisation, with painstaking rebuilding required to overcome the defeats of the past 40 years. Electorally, progress should be within easier reach, but is blocked by the Labour Party’s monopoly on political representation.

The challenge now is to unstick one or both of these fronts – and quickly. A technocratic administration run by Starmer will inevitably become unpopular and sclerotic, and radical alternatives will be in demand. If the left has not got its act together by this point, the far right – as embodied by Suella Braverman’s wing of the Conservative Party – will emerge as an even bigger force in British politics than it already is. The problem is that, with no immediate hope of finding expression through Labour, the left has no viable electoral vehicle. It would be a ludicrous oversimplification to champion proportional representation as a panacea, but it is equally difficult to imagine a route through this blockage without it.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the left that exploded back to life in the 2010s through social movements and new electoral projects must overcome its allergy to organisation. It is no good raising a slogan of ‘build the unions’ or ‘take to the streets’ if one has no conception of who is going to build the unions and how, or what the wider movement’s strategy should be. Only a collective political project, or a set of collective political projects, can provide the basis for this. Crucially, any mass regrouping of the left must be genuinely bottom-up and grounded in a culture of pluralism and internal democracy.

Despite a prevailing sense of gloom and a closing down of possibilities in the political mainstream, the British left is still on the brink of breaking through. To do so, it must organise and learn.

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