Simple, easy steps
Posted by Left Luggage on May 4, 2009
A number of people have been in touch with Left Luggage since we launched to say they agree with our basic analysis that the left needs to orientate itself to address the immediate needs of working class people, but they don’t know where to start.
Of course, it really is not for us to tell people in any detail what issues to take up, what tactics to use, or what forms of organisation to adopt. Clearly such things can only be addressed by those people who are “in the thick of it”. We aim to provide some general strategic insights, to bring to attention good work done by others, and to highlight both the experiences of other groups as well as, in time, reporting on our own efforts.
For the moment we would like to respond in a general way to a couple of responses. The first comes from a reader in a Midlands market town where “political activism is rare at best”. He says:
I now earn a modest wage, and feel as though I am cheating if I refer to myself as working class. But I do agree with equality, and all the rights workers should have.
I also live in an area described as amongst the top 10% most deprived in the country
It is with this back ground, in a work place hostile to my politics, a family to feed, and in a fractured community that I wonder what I can do. How I can “organise”. Some friends are receptive to my ideas, and the points I make to them, but to say they agree fully, or in some cases, grasp it fully would be wrong.
I do my best, but I am so ingrained in to the system that I have very little free time. When I am not at work in the day, and my partner is not at work in the evening, we work on our allotment. I have limited travel, and importantly no experience, no one to learn from.
I try to encourage gardening, cycle use, I advocate a health diet. I talk to people about injustices. But my message falls on deaf ears. My colleges at work for example simply display indifference and apathy.
This reader highlights a number of important points. First is the question of social class. We argue that the left in Britain is dominated by middle class activists, with a large contingent of students. This is partly for reasons of history, but is also an outcome of the priorities of the left: what issues it chooses to address, how it does so, and who it reaches. Its orientation, we have argued, is not towards the needs of working class people. Having said that, of course social class is not a barrier to engaging in positive left activity. Rather, we try to emphasise that groups should involve and be led by working class people, and their agenda should be set by addressing the immediate needs of this class.
The second point is reponses from colleagues and neighbours. We all know how dispiriting such negative reactions can be, and they can certainly make us feel isolated. On the other hand, how many workplaces can truly be said to be “hostile to our politics”? Of course, some causes that you might identify with will figure way out on the frontier of what most people consider normality: take veganism, or shunning motor cars. Other things people will simply disagree with. But there is a large swathe of issues people can be easily won to, especially when they’re connected to working life. For example, it might be that your workmates would be hostile to the recent 10% pay claim by the NUT teachers’ union, feeling instinctively that teachers earn more than them and they have no hope of winning a comparable pay rise. It’s not so difficult to argue that if teachers win a decent rise, it makes it more likely other workers will be in a position to do the same. The point, once again, is to focus on the immediate problems facing our fellow workers – to emphasise your own conditions and pay and the possibility of improving these.
The point about “fractured communities” is an important one. This is a major stumbling block to building working class self-organisation and it is a fact that communities are more atomised and with more anti-social crime than previously. But while presenting a barrier to organising, this also presents a solution. In such a situation the very process of community organising over issues of widespread concern will tend to unite people in new ways, strengthen bonds of solidarity and cooperation, and overcome some of this atomisation. In the long term, hopefully, this could begin to recreate a political culture among ordinary people.
Our reader also mentions that “to say [the people he speaks to] grasps it fully would be wrong”. He also adds at the end of his message:
knowing the message, and acting on it are two very different things. This is where I fail, I feel unable to act, knowing that to do so is to exclude my self from the people I want to reach. To act would be to do so alone, with no support.
This goes back to our core point. If a group is oriented towards the most pressing needs of the people it seeks to represent either in the community or in the workplace, this will not obtain. For example, take the recent campaigns to keep schools open in Glasgow. There is no way organising around such an issue could be “excluding oneself” from working class people – the exact opposite is the case! Clearly the local community rallied around this group of parents because they were addressing an issue of concern to many people in the area. Exactly the same point can be made with regards to union reps fighting for better pay and conditions for their members, or to protect local public services. In all these cases there’s no need for “people to understand it fully”, whatever that means. People understand the council is making cuts to close the council that will have a negative effect on their children, and they want to act collectively to defend their community’s interests. For the moment, that is enough.
This reminds me of another response we had from a comrade in West Yorkshire who is already active in a far-left party. He lives in an area that is in the top 5% of most deprived wards in the country. But at the moment virtually no local people attend the group’s weekly branch meetings, which tend to be held around theoretical discussions or international issues. The group mainly consists of graduates who are new to the area. He said he broadly agrees with our analysis but would not know where to start in terms of community organising.
Being familiar with his area myself, I know there is a massive problem with flytipping and rubbish and the council basically ignores the area, presumably because community advocacy is so low that they can get away with providing a poor service. At the same time, local kids tend to play in the streets because most of the area consists of back-to-back houses without gardens.
So, at least one major problem is starring our friend in the face. What’s more, sorting out this rubbish problem would be a good initial campaign. It would be popular with everyone, it could hold the authorities to account and raise the question of why the area is being neglected, and it could increase the social pressure in the community against fly-tipping. It also lends itself to collective action, and is actually a relatively easy problem to solve. A starting point would be to go door-to-door and ask his neighbours what they feel are the biggest issues that need sorting out. The rubbish issue might not be one of them, but it is certainly a good place to start.
Mounting a campaign about street litter is, on the face of it, about as far away from “revolutionary politics” as you can get. But if we are to be serious about building, in the long term, working class self-organisation on a mass scale, it’s a good a place as any to start.