One of the most encouraging political developments of recent years has been the growth of pluralism on the left; different parties and groups slowly learning to collaborate with one another without merging or losing their identity. This is the ‘campsite’ model beloved of Neal Lawson and Compass, consciously modelling itself as a more open, less top-down alternative to the ‘big tent’ of the Blair years, where any voices dissenting from the party line were swiftly stifled or marginalised by the New Labour ringmasters. This process didn’t begin with Labour’s election loss last May, but it’s pretty clear it’s been a catalyst – there’s very little which helps foment an alliance as fast as shared adversity and a common enemy, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s pledge of support to the student movement and the Coalition of Resistance in December being perhaps the clearest illustration of this trend. It wasn’t a state of total unity – the old disagreements and tensions didn’t go away, and every now and then bubbled to the surface – but for the most part there seemed to be a tacit understanding that there were more important things to focus on than factionalism.
This Saturday, however, marked the point at which the strain finally became too much for this uneasy alliance. Despite universal agreement from everyone from yoghurt-weaving Guardianistas to dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyites on the importance of attending the March for the Alternative, there’s been a noticeable spike in backbiting and recrimination between various stripes of lefty in the aftermath. Even if you don’t bother to click on either of those two links, you could probably hazard a pretty good guess as to the epithets being flung around: the Black Blocers who caused property damage in the West End are ‘louts’ who undermined the actions of the peaceful majority and only care about making a scene, while commentators who supported the main march and criticised the window-smashing are bourgeois milquetoast dilettantes who find anything more militant than the much-maligned ‘march from A to B’ too scary and radical to get involved with. Added to that, of course, there’s the extra complication of UKUncut, whose Fortnum and Mason’s occupation has caused further splits in lefty opinion, as some who opposed the Black Bloc’s vandalism supported UKUncut’s non-violent action.
If you’ve read much political commentary before, you’re probably expecting this to be the point where I make an impassioned plea for us all to stop this terrible infighting and remember who the real enemy is. But to do so in this instance would be a mistake. The disagreements about the events on Saturday aren’t just about tactics; they’re also about objectives. That being the case, and contrary to what some have argued, a broad united front actually isn’t desirable for anyone here. Labour and the TUC are trying to win over mainstream opinion, and if they don’t condemn kicking in the windows of Santander and paint-bombing The Ritz, the rightwing press will demonise and marginalise them as crazy radicals. Since they’re trying to build support among large swathes of people who aren’t particularly politically engaged and who could easily be driven away by footage like this, that’s clearly something they want to avoid. Equally, though, there’s not much reason why anyone sympathetic to the Black Bloc would want support for their actions from the assorted soft lefties in Hyde Park – given that the hammers-and-paint-bombs brigade are presumably revolutionary anarchists, why would they want the endorsement of a bunch of reformist social democrats? Surely Ed Miliband, Brendan Barber et al are all complicit in upholding the capitalist status quo, as far as they’re concerned? Assuming they have at least some vague awareness of the likely media and popular reaction to TV footage of smashing stuff up and letting off fireworks, they’re pretty clearly not trying to win over wavering moderates to their cause, so why the shock and outrage when some of those moderates take to the airwaves or the web to criticise them?
If it were possible for the movement to remain cohesive and appeal to mainstream public opinion without losing its radical edge, then there wouldn’t be a problem, but the simple fact is that it’s not. UKUncut have probably been better than anyone at walking this tightrope in recent months, but in trying not to disagree with anyone, all their spokesperson achieved was to come across as evasive and unconvincing on Newsnight last night (see 6:04 onwards in this video):
Of course, in many ways it would be lovely if we could all agree on what the anti-cuts/anti-government protests are trying to achieve and all work together all the time, but given the existence of such massive differences of opinion, a faux-unity where everyone pretends these fundamental disagreements don’t exist is neither attainable nor desirable. I’m not arguing that hard and soft left can’t ever work together again; of course we can, and absolutely should; the fact that it’s not possible on this occasion doesn’t mean it can never be again. It’s just that pluralism can only go so far, and what happened on Saturday went beyond that.