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Today's political realities must be the left’s priority

Regardless of what politicians say does or does not come up ‘on the doorstep,’ our movement needs to engage in real, practical and mass agitation that’s rooted in working people’s lives, argues KEVIN OVENDEN

“IT’S not coming up on the doorstep” is one of those politicians’ lines that tells us that they would rather be struck by lightning than be asked that question.

In my experience it antagonises the audience twice. First, most people know that most MPs are on their doorstep only at election time. The most common refrain on the actual doorstep is “Oh, so you’ve turned up — must be an election on?”

Second, most people do not like being told by supposedly important talking heads what their true concerns are or what they are allowed to say about them.

The gap between claims about what is “on the doorstep” and what is probably on people’s minds, as far as we can tell from them expressing their views themselves, is most extreme in the party conference season.

Labour is still a mass party, despite losing an estimated 120,000 members, and with trade union affiliation. Thus it reflected both reality and the flight from it at its conference.

Keir Starmer’s very long soliloquy expressed the contrast. Much was said about the speech on Wednesday. Less so by Friday. There’ll be nothing come Monday.

So let’s not dwell. I do, however, want to make this point. At the start was some faint recognition of the social crisis hitting working-class people. 

A last-minute addition was to reference the chaos at petrol stations. It was all more understated than a Japanese Noh play. Starmer could read Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and make it sound like your shopping list.

Soon we were on to thin futurology. Yes, we all get that it is less about slide rules and log tables, and more about coding and gene editing. Still, the visionary stuff was sub-Tony-Blair 1994, who was sub-Harold-Wilson 1964.

The most discordant note must surely have been this. A perfunctory acknowledgement that many will not be able to pay their gas bill this winter, then ponderous praise for a future of hydrogen planes. (It was very unwise for the speechwriter to give Starmer a long section in which the word robot was repeated a dozen times.)

The chasm between boilerplate rhetoric about shiny new things tomorrow and the realities of life today could not be wider.

It is not clear whether even on the left of the movement there is sufficient grasp of the calamity that is coming like a freight train at working people. In days.

Much of the working class — that is of the big majority of the 30-million-strong labour force, their dependants, the unemployed and most pensioners — face a shock hit to their living standards this autumn into winter probably greater than any since the 1930s.

Six million people in receipt of universal credit are losing £90 a month. The furlough scheme that covered 80 per cent of employees’ wages comes to an end. 

The Bank of England is nervous that the flagging recovery from the depths of the pandemic slump means there is no certainty that employers will be able to take back the over one million people still on the scheme. 

That is even as in other areas there are labour shortages on account of low pay, slave conditions and no planning to develop the needed skills. 

The energy supply crisis means gas bills increasing by 12 per cent — £139 a year — from next month. A further 14 per cent rise is predicted from next April. 

It is worse for poorer households on the punitive rates of prepay meters. April is also when the rise in National Insurance contributions of 1.5 percentage points comes in.

Nugatory sick pay for many workers means an invidious choice for them and a disincentive overall to take the necessary steps to prevent Covid transmission.

A report this week suggested 100,000 private renters might not be able to pay their landlord come Christmas.

Business groups this weekend are warning that the recovery in Britain from the worst slump (and worst handling of Covid) of the big G7 countries has stalled. They predict an “autumn storm” of merging economic problems.

The supply chain crisis is exacerbated by the Tories’ xenophobic and corporations-first Brexit, but it results from far deeper problems. 

There is a shortage across Europe of 400,000 HGV drivers. There is no seventh cavalry coming from there. Why should they when the British government offers them atrocious rights for the privilege of just 12 weeks’ work?

Inflation is back. As with so many other issues it is now highly politicised thanks to the state having to play a bigger role during Covid. 

Economists disagree over whether it will be a short-term spike or longer. Already there is talk of “stagflation” — another echo of the 1970s with its soaring prices but falling growth. 

Ultra-low interest rates have kept the economy afloat for a decade. Debts suddenly become unpayable if interest rates rise — for governments as well as households. Boris Johnson’s government is agonising over it and is divided on finding a policy in response. Many ordinary households face just the agony.

One thing is clear. Despite some areas of employment seeing wage increases, working people as a whole are being screwed by a combination of rising prices and a faltering recovery.

For all the Tory government paying lip-service to employers raising wages, it is presiding over the scandal of fire and rehire in one industry after another as brutal methods are deployed to cut wages and conditions. 

It may yet have to lift the pay freeze in parts of the public sector. But the Treasury is flatly opposed and the insulting “rise” for the nurses shows what they would like to get away with.

So, fabled doorsteps aside, it is likely that vast numbers of people feel fantastically worried about their own circumstances. 

From ensuring the kids have enough to eat to keeping warm and holding onto a job. That is so whether or not the fuel and food supply problems will be patched up or worsen. Put aside the supply of pigs in blankets at the supermarket this Christmas. Millions will not be able to afford what is on the shelves.

The Tory government thus comes across as tolerated — for now — but unloved.

Similar applies to Starmer and his Labour operation. Beneath the modestly undulating opinion polls is one thing for sure. There is no great voter attachment to either of the potential parties for heading a Westminster government.

Should the “winter of discontent” that is a media talking point today turn into an actual surge of social struggle tomorrow, it may well be that Labour rises in the opinion polls. But it will not be because Starmer informed us in a speech that the word loom is an old English variant for tool. 

The polling and thus potential electoral fate of Labour in the near term is largely independent of the official party and more a product of the degree of popular confrontation with the Tories. Near term could mean a general election in 12 months’ time.

The horizon for so many people is not even next year, it is next month. That is why the big argument over the direction of the labour movement cannot be focused upon a policy agenda for a government that may not happen in an election that has not been called in putative circumstances of tomorrow, not the in the realities of today.

There is thus a growing discussion on the left about how to organise and where. Many tens of thousands of socialists have left the Labour Party under the cosh of the Starmer machine. And many tens of thousands say they will stay. While the right won big at the conference, they did not win everything. 

Starmer can ignore his party’s support for a £15-an-hour minimum wage and for Palestinian rights. The votes, however, will help people fighting to make those things a reality. 

That is only if real, practical and mass agitation and struggle take place for them. It was those struggles, incidentally, that Starmer was implicitly disparaging when he contrasted “slogans” to supposed real change. “Votes for Women”?

How socialists organise, where and to what end has been a critical question since the birth of the modern working-class movement.

Surely now the overriding aim is to bring the left and the social struggles against the Tories together to have direct, mass effect and to beat Johnson’s government, which has already executed more U-turns than a stunt driver.

On that basis may take place most usefully the big discussions about building an alternative to Starmerism (if it deserves an ism). 

The discussion will mean little if it is not arising from and directly with the struggle of the mum next month who is thankful the kids are warm at school while she daren’t put the heating on at home.

Or someone told they have to reapply for their job on worse conditions. Or more people going hungry, feeling humiliated that they are at something called a foodbank. 

On a big historic scale, the left grew and changed the world by combining the struggles of those people, working-class people, with a militant politics for fundamental change. 

That is the issue today as people unite in protest at the Tory Party conference and as many more hope the kids’ breakfast cereal is discounted this week.


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