On 12 January, the People’s Assembly and other groups mounted their response to maybe the biggest parliamentary-political crisis ever in British history.
They called a demonstration in London: “General election now!”
The People’s Assembly is an anti-cuts group run by the Counterfire split from the SWP, but getting active support and resources from Unite and other unions. It has had the skills and the reach to organise big demonstrations — up to 250,000 on a general demonstration against cuts in June 2015.
The 12 January activity was strongly promoted also by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Socialist Party (SP), and Momentum.
Yet it drew only about 2,000 people. There were, relatively speaking, a lot of union branch banners on the protest, but evidently the union branch activists who keep the banners had not been able to get their branch members along.
The SWP was visibly embarrassed about this. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, in Socialist Worker, proposed an answer: instead, Corbyn should organise protests.
“The People’s Assembly march last Saturday could only muster about 5,000 people [it wasn’t 5,000!]... If Corbyn launched a campaign of mass rallies demanding an election, this could help wrest our future away from the Westminster plotters”.
Hold on! Isn’t the SWP’s case for staying outside Labour that we need we need street protests and strikes as well as parliamentary politics, and the SWP can deliver those when Labour can’t? Now Callinicos is saying that the SWP can’t deliver sizeable protests — only Labour can?
What about the political content? What should Corbyn say at those hoped for rallies about Brexit, the issue which may bring the government down?
According to Callinicos, “Corbyn offered a way forward in his speech in Wakefield”.
So May’s deal, ending free movement, modified by a customs union, plus “a close relationship” with the Single Market — that is “the socialist alternative”?
Callinicos praised Corbyn for saying that working-class people in Tottenham and Mansfield face similar problems. And working-class people in Poland and Romania and France? Do they have such different problems that the answer is to erect barriers in the Channel and pursue reforms in one country behind those barriers?
If one worker blames “Brussels” and “immigrants”, and another worker blames capitalism for social problems, can they usefully unite by splitting the difference? By going for a bit of migrant exclusion plus a bit of anticapitalism, rather than arguing out the issues?
The 12 January protest was feeble because its organisers offered silence and evasion on the issue causing the political crisis.
And for another reason too. Historically, activist left movements have been able to mobilise sizeable protests even on off-key slogans, so long as they have some general vigour.
Lots of leftish people think the left is steaming ahead today because the Labour right has accepted Corbyn as Labour leader for now, and Labour is doing not too badly in the polls. The increase in Labour Party paper membership is holding up, more or less, and some more leftish policies were adopted by Labour in 2017.
But actually left activist vigour is down. Active participation, and real political discussion, in local Labour Parties, is stagnant or declining, though still much better than under Blair.
The Labour left seems strong through Momentum having 40,000 members, but Momentum functions largely as an onlinevoting electoral machine, not as a movement with political life.
Strikes, union membership, and union branch attendances are stagnant or falling. The university campuses are quieter than ever. Street demonstrations, other than the huge 20 October 2018 anti-Brexit
protest from which the activist left other than Workers’ Liberty was absent, are smaller than before 2015.
The RS21 group epitomises the trend. When it split from the SWP five years ago it had maybe twice as members as Workers’ Liberty. It had many skilled former central SWP organisers and writers.
It had a ready made large catchment among the large number of exSWPers still wanting to be active but in a more civilised way than the SWP; and RS21 was more civilised.
Now it is invisible. It has stopped publishing its magazine. It has published on its website a leaflet (following the “ignore Brexit, Corbyn has the answer” line) which RS21 says was for the 12 January demonstration, but the leaflet certainly wasn’t distributed enough that any of us on the protest noticed it.
RS21’s website lists its local groups, but with descriptions like “not meeting at present”,
“meeting monthly”, or at best meeting fortnightly.
Yet under the layer of “returners” from the 1980s, politically eroded over the decades so that they find the Morning Star acceptable, under the small groups of younger people focused on getting jobs in the Labour machine or in NGOs — under those layers which so often dominate local Labour Parties, there really are millions of young people who want to be left-wing.
At present those young people find few and weak Young Labour groups or student Labour clubs, and a weak presence on the streets and the campuses of any activist left which has something to say on Brexit and something to say about general politics beyond “Corbyn has the answer, hope he wins the next election”. No wonder they find it difficult to get into activity.
Our job is to help them. The Brexit crisis gives us an extraordinary chance to do that by getting onto the streets, and out to our colleagues at work and on campus.