Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top


by Sunny
4th January, 2011 at 8:42 pm    

There’s a somewhat long-winded debate going on amongst lefties across blogs about the merits of ‘democratically organised versus new-social-order decentralised’ action. In other words, do we let a few people take the lead, in a democratic fashion, or do we let the anarchic system prevail where anyone can use social networks to pimp out their actions. I caricature of course, but I don’t have time to write 2000 words on the subject.

So I’ll be brief. Not long after I launched Liberal Conspiracy I was on the hunt for more women bloggers. I spotted Laurie Penny a mile off and invited her to join us (she didn’t get the email and later approached me but the point stands). Laurie, if slightly on the verbose side, was eloquent, passionate and a firebrand. Perfect for leftie-blogging, and her posts on LC always caught on fire.

My aim wasn’t to dictate what people said or even have some form of democratic accountability: it was only to build a platform where people’s writing could shine and where campaigns could be run, from a left-perspective. When she wrote controversial blog-posts attacking other lefties I resolutely defended her right to challenge existing orthodoxies. I wasn’t interested in creating a circle-jerk where new ideas challenging the old ones couldn’t bubble through. And I’d defend the right of writers to be controversial. She has since become very popular, and I’m glad LC played a part in making that happen.

Point is: the way blogging works itself is unlike previous left-wing structures. It’s anarchic, the barriers to entry are very low and it’s relatively easy for talent to become noticed. (sure, there are old-skool brand names like Nick Robinson and Tom Watson MP who command audiences because of their institutional backgrounds. But it doesn’t go for everyone). So if you’re going to organise in this space then expect most of those same characteristics to inject themselves. Arguing against that is futile. UKuncut has grown quickly because of its anarchic nature and a ‘democratic committee’ would simply destroy it. And then a bunch of other activists will come by and start their own group along the same lines.

So there are two broad points to make: I’m perfectly happy with talented, articulate and hard-working people to rise to the top and set some direction. If others want to follow them because they trust them, that’s good for the movement as a whole because you constantly have a churn of new people and ideas. Organising by committee wouldn’t work here.

Secondly, all this discussion is fairly moot. We’re not talking about organising for government here (which has to be democratic because of the scale) but simply a bunch of activists getting together. I wish people paid more attention to what the path to over-throwing the government is – not just what sort of structure is needed to get there and what they’d do once they got there. (this is all very libertarian in that sense: people who know their principles and what type of society they’d like – but no map on how to get there).

Challenging the government also involves the parliamentary process and finding ways to influence existing structures outside just demonstrations and strikes. There is very little discussion about this, as Owen Jones (to a small extent) and Tom Miller (to a large extent) also point out.

(blog post written in a hurry, am writing a longer article on this, so apologies for the caricatures).

Addendum: It would be remiss of me to point out that there are also plenty of other talented bloggers who have risen from obscurity to make a name for themselves: Adam Bienkov, Tim Ireland, Anton Vowl, Cath Elliottand many more – in their own ways (by writing well, digging into local politics and more).

Naadir Jeewa has a good post on the sociology behind protest movements


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  1. sunny hundal

    Blogged: : Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top http://bit.ly/fo80Uz


  2. Stephen Lintott

    RT @sunny_hundal Blogged: : Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top http://bit.ly/fo80Uz


  3. Louise Hazan

    RT @sunny_hundal: Blogged: : Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top http://bit.ly/fo80Uz


  4. graunwatch

    RT @sunny_hundal: Blogged: : Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top http://bit.ly/fo80Uz


  5. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: Leftie action: let the cream rise to the top: There’s a somewhat long-winded debate going on amongst le… http://bit.ly/hsnjfS




  1. Beatrice Bray — on 4th January, 2011 at 9:00 pm  

    There is a wellspring of talent within the disablity community. A good many cut their teeth on different forms of social media but are now looking for platforms which allow for more meaningful debate not to say integration with the mainstream.

    I do not see how policy areas such as welfare reform can succeed without the target groups being involved in the creation and management of policy but that is not going to be enough for many. We would just like to be involved in the subjects that interest us no matter what they are. We do not want to be ghettoised.

  2. Naadir Jeewa — on 5th January, 2011 at 1:08 am  

    Rather than pass judgement on whether or not the student movement should have leaders, I’ve put a little piece together on the sociology of social movements.

    In summary, the student protest movement has a lot in common with older post-68 new social movements, and actually does have leadership. Secondly, the movement requires a mix of organisational forms that perform different kinds of collective action – one of these includes a bureaucratic NUS that can effectively lobby government using its institutional legitimacy.

  3. damon — on 5th January, 2011 at 4:17 pm  

    That was a great thread by Laurie Penny about Julie Bindel. I hadn’t seen it before. :)
    I don’t btw though, fully understand what the point of this new protest movement actually is in all cases.
    Anti-cuts and the student issue I understand, but some of the environmental stuff I really don’t get.
    Not the issues of climate change itself, but the activism around it with the groups who climb up on the roof of the Houses of Parliament and have protests at airports. I don’t think we need them any more as the whole world is quite aware of the issue, and just because someone wants to protest at an airport (or block a motorway in the rush hour – why not, it’s the same thing) doesn’t mean that you are obliged to think of these actions as positive.
    I don’t: while I would support others like the mass cycle rallys that would converge on London on friday evenings I remember. I quite liked those.

    Is the idea of supporting ALL these movements that are ”concerned” about issues, because that it’s not so much that doing stunts and flashmobs actually changes anything, but that it brings about change one person at a time by making people connect with social issues?

    So for example, even though I’m not a fan of the some of the Climate Camp agenda, such movements starting up in places like Russia, India, Brazil and China (and Pakistan of course) could only be a good thing, because all the people getting involved would be changing their societies in a small way just by showng some passion about social issues and coming together. And that if you care about the environment, you are bound to care about other things too?

  4. Tim Hardy — on 5th January, 2011 at 8:32 pm  

    Wow! I have to second what @3 damon says: Laurie Penny’s piece on gender-identity, gay rights, transphobia and feminism is amazing. I’m very glad you linked to that.

    @Sunny

    “Challenging the government also involves the parliamentary process and finding ways to influence existing structures outside just demonstrations and strikes.”

    I very much hope this is a major theme in discussions on Saturday at the netrootsuk event.

    Looking forward to the longer piece.

  5. Waterloo Sunset — on 5th January, 2011 at 11:56 pm  

    There’s two separate issues here.

    The first is the nature of leadership and what (if any) kind of leadership we need. And I’m broadly in agreement with you I think. The ‘leadership of ideas’ is the only truly democratic form of leadership. It avoids formal hierarchies in favour of following people who have ideas good enough to be worth following.

    And I agree with you about challenging orthodoxies. No sacred cows. Everything must be up for debate and argument. From the nature of the last century left to the debate about whether property damage is justified to the effects of middle class domination of much of the left to the utility of working within the traditional parliamentary process.

    Whether Laurie Penny is a good example of that process is far more open to debate. I see very little evidence that this is a case of someone where “others want to follow them because they trust them”. Instead, her current prominence as an unofficial spokesperson for the movement seems to stem largely from a) her promotion by the ex SWPers of Counterfire (which shines a certain light on her on/off feud with the other side of that split) and b) her access to mainstream media channels, the New Statesman and the Guardian specifically.

    And the latter is far more of a case of someone who has managed to “command audiences because of their institutional backgrounds”. To be fair, part of it is that she’s a damn good writer, which is obviously to her credit. But she’s also an Oxbridge graduate, which is hardly breaking the general pattern of access to the channels of power.

    And I don’t see that as any less problematic than the SWP trying to hijack movements. It’s a position she has gained because of her privilege, not despite it.

    Of course, feel free to write this off as sour grapes. Because I’m currently studying journalism at university. And when I graduate, unlike Laurie, there’s no way my family can afford for me to go down the unpaid internship route into employment. That, by itself, is a good indication of why I’m a bit dubious about the current situation with Laurie, despite having absolutely no issues with most of what she writes or her as a person.

  6. Shamit — on 6th January, 2011 at 12:36 am  

    Excellent point Waterloo Sunset.

    Laurie Penny writes some good articles but many including the one about students seeking David Miliband as the leader of the protests are hyperbole and would not attract anyone but the typical Guardian and NS readers.

    The point is not about Laurie – neither is Seumus Milne much talented or George Monbiot but they still write for the guardian and there are many others.

    ***************************

    It is not only media – its also politics. If you go and get a real job and make a mark in something besides sucking up to other people as special advisers then most likely you do not have a future in the Labour party. Or you could be a union hack.

    Tories do better and so do Lib Dems – in fact the more you look at it seems regular people have very little chance to succeed in Left politics – but we do a good job of pushing out some of the best ones with ideas such as James Purnell.

  7. Boyo — on 7th January, 2011 at 10:14 am  

    What the Left needs are new ideas, but insider-politics will not deliver them because the Labour Party (for example) is dominated by the very class that seeks to maintain its position.

    Here’s an example – ok, let’s admit we can’t think of an alternative to capitalism at the moment, but what we can do is ensure the majority have the best opportunity. We’ll therefore:

    - Ban private education (while possibly maintaining the institutions themselves for open 100 competition)
    - Abolish private health (turning the institutions over to the state)

    Two radical policies that would transform the prospects of the people, genuinely transforming society (although principally only on par with the likes of Germany or Sweden where such things don’t exist anyway).

    It would be popular with the majority too, if properly marketed, and redefine the Labour movement as a dynamic party of the people.

    But it won’t happen because it would threaten the class interest of the people who pull the strings.

  8. Ben — on 7th January, 2011 at 5:03 pm  

    @ Boyo

    Firstly i think you’ll find there is private health in germany and even public insurance is an insurance based system, as opposed to an NHS free at the point of use model.

    Secondly both these demands are just more reformism, perfectly in line with social liberal values of equality of opportunity. While I think they’d be an improvement where’s it really heading?

    and he’s the important question how can a movement that intends to use state power to acheive its results avoid replicating the oppression that everyother state centered project has created?

  9. Boyo — on 7th January, 2011 at 10:29 pm  

    I’m not sure what you mean by oppression. Being deprived of equal opportunities is oppressive, surely?

    Until someone comes up with a genuine alternative to capitalism, I guess the answer is – heading in the right direction?

  10. Sunny — on 8th January, 2011 at 1:11 am  

    And when I graduate, unlike Laurie, there’s no way my family can afford for me to go down the unpaid internship route into employment.

    Except, if you’ve been reading Laurie for as long as I have, you’ll know about her money hardships.

  11. Shamit — on 8th January, 2011 at 1:24 am  

    Most people aspire more money and to have a better quality of life and try to do the best for their children and ensure that they have a better life than they themselves have.

    The very basic ethos of the radical left goes against these human beliefs – the reason why New Labour or Bill Clinton’s third way captured the imagination of the public was due to the fact that it presented a vision of a more equal opportunity society while accepting basic ethos and values of humanity.

    Most people do not like bankers or their bonuses but people have a real problem with politicians who have not earned their positions – whatever you say about Blair or Thatcher – they were not party appartichiks such as Ed Miliband or David Cameron or Nick Clegg.

    Within the labour party, how many top position holders have any real life experience – none other than Sadiq Khan and too some extent Alan Johnson.

    Writing position papers and stabbing people in the back may be great qualities for party officials but in general the public take a dim view of those.

    So, unless we make politics more accessible – more open to people from all backgrounds then you have a problem – the Tories have brought in a lot of new Members of parliament who actually have done other things – so do many of the Lib dems but when it comes to the Labour party – the party hacks usually get the nod.

    What has Ed Miliband or Ed Balls or Yuvette Cooper done besides being special advisers to Brown and use the Brown coat tails to becoming Ministers to Cabinet Ministers – and none of their cabinet records are great. None has pushed any legislation or made significant marks on departments they have run. But they are the leaders – so does cream really rise to the top in the labour party?

    One has to wonder

  12. Boyo — on 8th January, 2011 at 6:34 pm  

    “Writing position papers and stabbing people in the back may be great qualities for party officials but in general the public take a dim view of those.”

    BOTH Millibands, for that matter.

    I know I keep banging this drum, but as someone from a working class background I genuinely feel these people are too “clever” for their own good – they will always find a way to support their own interests and shaft the people they’re supposedly there to support. Sorry – even Attlee managed to scupper the efforts to get private schooling scrapped. Sure, he picks up the laurels, but how much of that was down to the real working class people in his party?

  13. Boyo — on 8th January, 2011 at 6:35 pm  

    And I don’t mean being working class is the only qualification, but unless you have actually experienced it, how can you really know? This is what was always wrong about fees for uni, incidentally. Something Blair and Brown never truly understood.

  14. J — on 9th January, 2011 at 9:54 pm  

    There are very good reasons why people talk a lot about the structures required to achieve their goals. It’s because so many attempts to create change, ranging from the Russian revolution to the rise of the German Green Party, through to our Stop the War Coalition, have had worthy goals but have then been utterly undermined by the structures they used to achieve those goals.

    If people are talking a lot about it now, it’s because it hasn’t been talked enough about in the past, and that’s e.g. why we don’t have any political parties you wouldn’t want to spit at. As traditional top-down hierarchies they are bound to be subverted by those at the top and captured by interest groups. In the short term you can make them nicer, in the long run they’ll always let you down.

  15. hari maliya — on 27th January, 2011 at 6:06 pm  

    hi dear

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