This is my take on why only cooperation and federalism and democratic, participatory community development can begin to heal the divisions that exist in our communities. For me, the Labour party have lost any connection to its roots, so we need to radically renew the idea of working-class movements by ending the elite electoral machines that never listen and that reproduce the very conditions of our oppression that they claim to oppose.
A CHARTER FOR RENEWED COOPERATION?
2019 was a rollercoaster. Ultimately, Brexit won. What that means isn’t entirely clear yet, but it is certain to be as crushing to many “Leavers” as it will be unbearable for many “Remainers”. Brexit won the General Election this year: the deceptively simple drone of “GET BREXIT DONE!” drew in people with its siren song; the accompanying “offer” of better social conditions quickly melted away and will undoubtedly continue to fade away next year.
The “Brexit Election” has changed the face of the UK in many ways and I will not rehearse them all here because many people much better placed to explain why that happened have already written reams about them. I want to briefly focus on my take on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the North East of England – my home. I will then turn to outline what I think needs to change culturally, socially and politically in the North East and perhaps across the England, if not the other nations that make up the UK. I see this as both a terrible time and a time of great potential for radical change. Radical utopianism always flourishes in dystopian moments. This is a dystopian moment. My key argument here is that it is also a time when we can rebuild our senses of communities, revive collectivism, redefine local cultures, develop cooperative systems of being, living and working together, rekindle a spirit of “ethical socialism”, begin to think about what taking back control of our own communities and neighbourhoods might mean and what it might look and feel like. This process of course straddles cultures, social structures, class, politics and economics. And, I argue, this process of collective reawakening is something that is a million miles away from the mechanisms that drive Brexit and the political machinery of every political party in the UK today – and that most certainly includes Labour.
I have spent years working in working-class communities across the North of England as a community artist and I have spent the last year campaigning for Labour across the North East in towns and villages and parts of cities that were once staunch Labour constituencies before becoming (in many cases) margins and then transforming into Tory voting areas in this year’s elections. For a thorough analysis of what happened in the North East that is close to my thinking, I recommend the recent work of Alex Niven like this pre-election article which gave vivid warnings to Labour that the central machine systematically failed to understand or take seriously and this post-election article about grassroots activism and regional devolution.
Firstly, it is interesting to note that most of the cities in the North East remain (like many across England and Wales) Labour strongholds of varying sorts. The areas that voted Tory (disavowing the age-old tradition of voting Labour) are primarily post-industrial towns and villages, many of which are now semi-rural. The people there say they voted for the Tories to get out of Europe, to stop immigration, to make a point against crap Labour MPs who aren’t even from the area, because they couldn’t trust Corbyn. Many say they’ll vote Labour again once Brexit is “done”. But this isn’t the real issue.
Everywhere I work and campaign I hear the same complaint over and over again. I’ve heard this complaint for years and years and years and it’s been getting louder and louder, year on year. People say that no one listens to them, that they don’t get what they want, that things are done to them, that they’re ignored. They mean that governments and MPs don’t listen, that councils and councillors don’t listen, that the police don’t listen, that some community groups don’t listen.
I admit that, whilst I listen to people and hear their deepest concerns and fears and understand these things during my work, I did not consider these issues anywhere near enough in my political campaigning. I was swept up in political machines: in the Labour electoral machine and the Momentum electoral machine. I have always known Labour was a part of the UK parliamentary system and that its own ways of functioning mirrored my of the systems of oppression it claims to seek to change. I was hopeful about Momentum becoming a “people-powered” movement that was inclusive and embodied participatory democracy, but it was not and is not. I have always been suspicious of these institutions (and all institutions) but I put this to one side in the hope that we could change things if we won an election on a socialist manifesto first. I was wrong.
The Labour party and Momentum are, just like almost every element of civic and civil society and every level of government nowadays, massively disconnected from working-class people – from everyday life. In many ways, no matter how hard I try, I am massively disconnected from working-class people and everyday life.
WE DO NOT SEE.
WE DO NOT LISTEN ANYWHERE NEAR ENOUGH!
So, it is clear for me that the hopeful, caring society I believe is possible must be built from genuinely grassroots community action and genuinely inclusive community development. We must start to reconnect with our neighbours – no matter what their class, background, race, culture, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. This is about reconciliation and understanding. It’s about disagreements and arguments and agreements and democratic decisions made by people for people with help and support to make sure that what people want is what people get. It’s about understanding that the impossible is possible, but only if we trust people to make the changes they want and need so desperately themselves. This means, for example, listening to racists and xenophobes and respecting their right to free speech and challenging them vigorously. But, most of all, it’s about working together across divisions collectively to achieve things that people in local communities want – things they need. The government doesn’t know what’s best, local authorities do not know what’s best, third sector organisations don’t know what’s best, institutions of all types don’t know what’s best – people know what’s best for them locally. We must learn to trust people and we must invest in what they need.
So, what does this look like and what does it mean for the future of the Labour party?
We need to return to our roots as community members. This means recognising that communities are often struggling with divisions imposed upon them by those who do not understand the consequences of what they have done. The people comprising these communities know fine well what has been done to them and they know who has done it to them too! They remember. They know that politicians from central and local governments and their agents have – irrespective of political party – decided what was best for them without bothering to ask what people wanted or needed. Labour have long been involved in this too. Just look at the consequences of Atlee’s Town and Country Planning Act (1947). Look, for example, at how it led to Durham County Council designating well over 100 pit villages as “Category D” so they could demolish mining communities and force community members to move to New Towns and find new jobs. You see, working-class people have always been moved about like pawns by those in power. From feudal life to the theft of the commons and enclosure of the land which forced communities to move to towns and cities to work in factories and mills and shipyards and pits with no rights or care about people’s wellbeing, to the post-industrial move to create a zero-hours, precarious workforce dogged by constant threat of homelessness, social cleansing and borderline poverty, those in power have never listened to us; never cared about us! We are and always were Factory Fodder and Cannon Fodder and now, increasingly, Big Data Fodder.
And Labour has been part of our oppression as well as our hope for a better life, for dignity, for more equitable ways of living and being together as humans. In many ways, Labour has alienated itself from the people who formed it and who the party was supposed to be fighting for for a very long time. The Conservatives are careful not to alienate their core vote and their supporters whilst reaching out to others. Labour are not.
The Labour Party is absolutely in an existential crisis right now and, for me, this is an irresolvable crisis. It cannot and should not survive in its present or past form. Likewise, the much more recent movement, Momentum. These electoral machines do not represent the Labour movement and do not represent working-class people. Or perhaps, they do, like all forms of representative democracy, CLAIM to represent people, whilst actually reinforcing the oppressive systems that exploit the majority of people. And, that’s my point: when the Labour movement left its roots behind and became an electoral machine with the sole (and honourable) intent of securing election victories within a parliamentary democracy underpinned by a powerful monarchy, it became something that would always end up alienating the very people who founded the movement.
The only solution for me, then, is to go back to the roots of the Labour movement: to the Independent Labour Party; to the social movements in the mill towns and pit villages and steel towns across the North, the Midlands, the South West of England, and Wales, Scotland, etc.; to the Chartists, the radical liberals, the socialists, the cooperative movements, the non-conformists, the Luddites, the Diggers, Levellers, etc., etc. We can learn much from our histories and our pasts. We can learn much about how the men and women who came before us fought and died for the rights that our now being stripped away from us, and about how the rights we have today were often only seen as a stepping stone towards a much more equitable and socially just society of the sort that has never been experienced.
I think that we must reconnect with the collectiveness that made and, to varying degrees still makes, our communities capable of doing what they need to do with support from the state and others. I think we must work of collectivism and cooperativism at hyperlocal levels, then build coalitions and alliances that span all forms of what can be considered elements of the Labour movement alongside greens and liberals and others. We need a political movement for radical change that starts from our homes, our communities, our hearts, our shared humanity, our sense of society. This is a long revolution – a revolution of everyday life. Our political system is unsuitable for a genuinely local and inclusive society that starts at home and exists in our localities before extending to alliances that build regions and nations that genuinely work for and by the people that make them what they are and what they want them to be. This type of radically cooperative localism will take time and will need supporting.
But let’s start by ending the pointless meetings and dropping the crap bureaucratic protocol and getting out on the streets working with people of all political perspectives and backgrounds helping them make what they want into realities. Let’s set up new cooperatives. Let’s help foodbanks. Let’s tidy parks. Let’s campaign against unfairness in our neighbouring communities. Let’s understand what people want to happen and help them make it happen.
This is only the start and I do not have answers because I have not listened to enough people. No one has. We need to try to build locally and collectively together and see where that takes us before we can consider how our local needs and desires may or may not coalesce with those of our neighbours, of other communities in our towns and cities, our regions and our nations. Only then can we have a truly democratic movement of movements that is, like it once was, by and for working-class people and those who truly support collective action for equitable and fair everyday life. For me, collectivism, cooperativism, coalition-building and supporting our communities to develop their ways are our only hopes. That can be driven by a federal Britain that puts its regions and nations first as independent entities that can work together to decide how we work together in the future. We need to represent ourselves by being ourselves, then working out what we share in common with others and how we differ from others.
We need a charter for a renewed cooperation. That can only be developed together with everyone involved. But I believe that only by building from our homes and localities then our areas and regions then our nations can we truly understand that our futures can be bright and equitable and radically different from the terribly undemocratic UK we are part of today – a future that is cooperative and green and fair and driven by everyone, not just the elites of the right or the left.