The Left needs solidarity now more than ever

Jonty Leibowitz
Jonty Leibowitz  /  2 Comments

Ed fought Nicola. Nicola fought Nigel. Nigel fought Ed. Natalie fought everyone. Dave and Nick stayed in and pirated Game of Thrones. 

Last night, the messiest General Election in a generation got even messier. With the governing parties sitting at home, it was left to five opposition parties to scrap over the ‘Better Plan’ that they keep telling us about. What was interesting, though, was not the farcical sham that Nigel ‘Clarkson’ Farage exposed himself as, but the fault-lines it opened and the tensions it displayed on the British left.

“Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!”

‘Solidarity Forever’ is perhaps the most celebrated anthem of the left. Written by Ralph Chaplin during a miners’ strike in 1914, it has become a rousing symbol of the global left with its clarion-call for a spirit of comradeship, unity and togetherness. Its most famous recording is by Pete Seeger, the man who more than anyone else epitomises the power protest music has in the folklore of the left. It is a tune for the barricades, a tune for the cause, a tune for justice. 

But what does Solidarity mean in Britain in 2015? As the most bitterly fought and confusing General Election in generation grips the country, the bonds of solidarity seem weaker than ever; everywhere we look, we find disunity instead of unity. Political movements which once seemed so united have fractured into bitter factions, symbolic of a whole country disunited. Even the most sacred symbol of solidarity we have - the three hundred old union between England, Wales and Scotland - seems irrevocably ruptured. 

The most threatening and confusing fracture of all lies deep within the movement which claims to have a monopoly on the word solidarity itself: the British Labour Party. In Scotland the SNP have exploded generations of unity on the left of British politics, and in England and Wales the Greens and Plaid Cymru are threatening, although unlikely, to do the same. As the parties launch into a war of attrition, one thing seems clear: a battle has begun for the soul of the British left.


A picture is worth a thousand words

Deeply held feelings on all sides lie at the heart of this battle. The SNP and fellow anti-Labour forces on the left feel a deep sense of abandonment; they argue that the Labour Party forfeited its right to lead the left when it led the nation into a war with Iraq, when it began to privatise the NHS, or even when it began to accept terrible levels of inequality under the New Labour governments. In a different way, this sense of being ‘abandoned’ by the Labour Party lies at the heart of the rise of Ukip; millions of working class voters in England are telling us that they feel like the Labour Party “doesn’t speak for people like me anymore”, and that they feel let down by the party of their parents and grandparents. 

On the other side, Labour feels a countering sense of abandonment, but in the other direction; they feel like that at the precise moment when solidarity on the left is necessary (the closest election in a generation), they have been stabbed in the back by people who used to be their comrades and allies; the Greens, the SNP and even the swathes of ex-Labour UKIP voters. To the Labour supporters and activists, this sense of betrayal by their own allies is even more painful to swallow than coming across a Tory; to be ‘stabbed in the back’ (to borrow a phrase currently doing the rounds) by one of their own is even worse. 

So as the left fights amongst itself, who is right and who is wrong? Well, the answer is in many ways both. When those who have deserted the Labour Party argue that the party has ‘abandoned’ their traditional communities and base, they surely have a point: no true ‘Labour Movement’ worthy of its name should have led a country into an illegal war, or been as comfortable with inequality as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were. 

But at the same time, Labour people are also right when they point to the fact that the Labour Party has the difficulty of actually having to govern, and that they need to strike a balance between visionary idealism and the strain of office. They are also right in claiming that the disunity on the left only serves our enemies; the Tories could well get back into government on the back of the SNP denying Labour the seats they need in Scotland. 

There are also some deeper issues here: the Greens argue that the idea of a homogenous leftwing movement rooted in traditionally union-based politics is out of touch with the modern left, into which Green issues, identity politics and modern multiculturalism demand to be treated not simply as accessories to the wider movement, but as core tenets. We see the tremors of this debate every week; whether it’s the Greens’ annoyance at Labour carting out ‘Green issues’, or the SNP’s hostility towards Labour over that immigration mug, and Labour’s response that they need to represent all views, not just what’s acceptable to the left’s ideal. 

So with both sides right and wrong in many ways, where should one who wants to see truly progressive politics win vote on the 7th May? Both sides need to come out of denial; Labour cannot simply say ‘we are the only ones who can win so we deserve to’, whilst the SNP and Greens cannot deny that their presence may give the Tories victory. 

To answer this question, I think we need to go back to Pete Seeger and his call for ‘Solidarity’. We live in an age where division is triumphing over unity, and the consequences are that we feel more alone and isolated than ever before. The call of ‘Solidarity’ is one for unity when it matters most; to appreciate that we all have different ideas, but that at crucial moments, we’re bound by a common tether: the cause of social and economic justice. 

For this reason, the best vote on the 7th May is for Labour. Yes, Labour has made mistakes and let people down, and yes, it has a long way to go to gain people’s trust back. But the fatal flaw of the SNP, the Greens and their allies is to believe that the answer to disunity is more disunity; what true believer in the ‘common good’ can want to turn socialist against socialist, to split up the Union, and to allow our enemies in through the back door? 

Labour is not perfect, and the left must continue its thriving culture of internal debate. But when a country faces the challenges we do - millions unemployed, millions at the foodbanks, and millions going without the decent right to healthcare - the answer must be the the call of Pete Seeger’s banjo that has brought us together for generations; Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!

  • Jugurtha

    “Last night’s leaders’ debate showed that the British Left is as disunified as it’s ever likely to be.”

    So if I it’s as low as it’s ever likely to be, it can only get better, no? Always darkest before the dawn etc. So what are you moaning about?

  • NO

    Labour lost the election because they failed to offer a radical alternative to capitalism - when both parties support keeping the private property system, is it any wonder the voters thought ‘what’s the difference?’ and went with the incumbent as the default option? It’s hard to say the ‘Left’ should unite when that category includes far-right Blairites as well as those who actually have a shred of decency and compassion about them. Why the hell should we compromise with our oppressors and with the class traitors?