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Rebuilding the Red Bases

To popularise the hope of a better future, socialists must once again become a meaningful part of working-class communities.

As I write, the Left is heading into 2020 with a profound sense of demoralisation. Our offer of a different direction for the country was decisively rejected. Seats that had voted Labour for generations turned their backs on us out of a sense of betrayal over our refusal to respect a democratic mandate from the 2016 referendum.

Among our members, this demoralisation has been further intensified by the inertia of the Christmas period, and a leadership election campaign which has seen several sections of the Left fragment. Honest reflection has been hard to find. From the impotent posturing of going ‘back to the streets’ to the comedic bluster of senior Labour figures like Sadiq Khan asserting that ‘the public were right’ in electing Boris Johnson, contrasting wings of the party are similar in their levels of indulgence and their refusals to confront the difficult reality ahead.

Thankfully, not all offerings can be characterised this way. In an engaging Guardian piece, Labour MP Alex Sobel urged Labour to rebuild a culture of ‘visible, practical, and helpful grassroots action’ in local areas. Referencing the largely-vanished unemployed centres that trade unionists established in areas where community livelihoods were being stolen by Thatcherism, Sobel advocates establishing Labour advice ‘hubs’ that can advocate for people struggling with benefits or housing issues, or can sort out a cooked meal for those who are struggling to afford one.

A similar article by Labour student activist Ansh Bhatnagar urges Labour members to attempt to rebuild a sense of collectivism in areas ‘eroded’ by ‘the rugged individualism that comes from capitalism and Tory ideology.’ In Bhatnagar’s eyes, this revival of communal belonging is necessary for Labour to overcome its own isolation — in his words, ‘people will trust their neighbours more than the newspapers if we start talking to each other again.’

For all sorts of reasons, pieces such as those by Sobel and Bhatnagar should be welcomed more broadly on the left — not just because they are thoughtful and ambitious, or because they move beyond the binaries of ‘electoral respectability’ and ‘strike, occupy, resist’, but that they are guided by an understanding that if the Left wants to win, it should be of service to the people it aims to represent.

We have forgotten that our movement was once interested in its capacity to run things its own way, and to provide for our people when the rest of society would not. When the British labour movement was founded, those committed to the transformation of society recognised the need to engage and develop a socialist presence in all walks of life. There was once a range of socialist pubs, clubs, associations, musical groups, sports facilities, and so on, that gave Labour’s internal culture a vivacity.

These institutions offered a presence in social life that could allow socialists to gain respect for their ideas in their communities. They suggested that, given the opportunity, the people who provided them with many of the best aspects of their life could also do something with the reins of state power. In weavers’ terraces in Yorkshire and Lancashire, pit villages in Scotland and South Wales, and the docklands areas of London and Liverpool, socialists attempted to build a society within a society that would display the movement’s seriousness to disinterested or apathetic friends, workmates, and neighbours.

The Old New Worlds

In the years before the First World War, a portrait of Karl Marx would look down on young cotton workers in Burnley as they danced every Saturday night at St James Hall, a building in the town centre that doubled as a family tobacconist and a social institute for the Burnley branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). 

As an early Marxist political party with a solid support base among the town’s cotton workers, the SDF’s founder H.M. Hyndman came within 400 votes of winning its parliamentary seat in 1906. Twelve years later, Dan Irving — a local socialist organiser — became Burnley’s first Labour MP. 

In the neighbouring mill town of Nelson was the Clarion House. After first creating a socialist institute in the town, local cotton workers who were mostly Independent Labour Party (ILP) members gained enough support to justify expanding their operations and building something more than a meeting hall. 

In 1907, the Nelson Weavers Association lent the workers around £350 to purchase a piece of land, and a three-day ‘Grand Socialist Bazaar’ raised the then-astronomical sum of £850 (approximately £102,500 in today’s terms). A foundational stone dedicated to the socialist pioneers of Nelson was laid in front of 600 local people. The building was finished by volunteer labour in 1912, with two ILP stained-glass windows installed – and the phrase ‘Socialism – Our Hope’ inscribed above the door.

In the Clarion House, workers could read literature, eat healthy meals, enjoy the air of the Lancashire mountains, and socialise with people from every walk of life and every part of the country.‘Clarion Vans’ travelled from town to town offering soup to unemployed workers and aiding local socialists in popularising their visions. In the coming years, socialist clubhouses taking the Clarion name spread throughout the country, and became the focal point for early socialist and feminist cultural activities.

Though party-building and electoral fights were a significant part of socialist considerations, a broader cultural richness was constantly encouraged. In a society moulded to exclude working-class people from sharing life’s most beautiful aspects, socialists wanted to offer the tools to help people develop themselves and reach their fullest potential. Across Britain’s industrial heartlands, tens of thousands of people were given the opportunity to attend quality concerts and socials on the cheap, while red football teams, rambling clubs, and musical groups blossomed, and a rich and varied array of educational programmes and discussion groups could be found. 

It was a movement that sought to support workers from the cradle to the grave. The Socialist Sunday Schools, which began in 1892 and continued well into the era when Labour became a party of government, taught infants the ‘Socialist Ten Commandments.’ These included missives such as ‘honour good men and women, be courteous to all, bow down to none’ and ‘remember that all good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.’

In death, too, the movement could be found. When the pioneering Salford socialist William Horrocks passed away in 1919, the local socialist club of Hyndman Hall raised funds to buy his gravestone — and send a worker to a labour college in his honour. At Horrocks’ funeral, hundreds of workers sang socialist hymns behind the red flag on their way through Salford to Weaste Cemetery, comrades until the moment of final departure.

Normalising Socialism

With the exception of Salford, which is still represented by Rebecca Long-Bailey and Barbara Keeley, the red bases mentioned in this piece are now represented by Tories. It is comforting for some to deride people living in these areas as inherently Tory, often due to the (relatively) high levels of home ownership. But these are places where people rely on the NHS, have a staunch tradition of Labour politics, and are subject to deplorable levels of inequality. 

Others believe that Labour must adopt policies that are socially far to the right of where we currently stand to win back our lost seats, on everything from foreign affairs to migration. But these areas were naming streets after the likes of Vladimir Lenin and the slavery abolitionist E. D. Morel long before London would have ever considered it.

This collectivist, progressive legacy was never tapped into or engaged with by Corbynism, which failed to develop roots in these communities, let alone tackle the lack of political drive in far too many Labour councils or help to rebuild a meaningful trade union movement. Even initiatives such as the Community Organising Unit, which attempted to channel the anger that showed itself in June 2016, was rendered useless in many areas by the distance people felt from the national party as a whole.

In so many former industrial areas, people feel isolated from their neighbours, let alone the corridors of Westminster. Our urgent task is to begin rebuilding a socialist infrastructure that can change this. Socialists should be the people who run the pubs you want to go into; who chip in together to help run the boxing clubs and the swimming pools; who give the cancer sufferers’ support group a free space at their local hall, and operate the mobile video libraries for the elderly. Austerity has destroyed much of these communal facilities in most of the country. Socialists could do far worse than spending their time attempting to fill that vacuum.

This feels like untenable activity to much of the existing left, which has created a broadly unattractive internal culture shaped by repeated and sustained periods of defeat. In far too many left-wing circles, a dictatorship of the political anoraks and the permanently available exists, uneasy with left-wing activity that involves too many outside of the comfortable ecology of the ‘activist community’, and the coded language that few outside of a circle understand. 

The development of Manchester Momentum provides an example of this. After an unprecedented annual general meeting of the organisation in 2016, hundreds of Momentum members in Manchester turned out to vote out the previous committee. It was widely seen as a bumbling carve-up of pre-existing left cliques that dedicated little energy to engaging members who joined over Corbyn. Following the vote, a dispirited former committee member — a well-known member of a Trotskyist sect — sent an embittered e-mail to the newly elected activists, scorning them for their ‘use of a politically inactive membership.’

‘We found it so telling,’ a former Manchester Momentum committee member told me, ‘that even though people turned out to a political event on Halloween, one of the biggest nights out of the year, some of the former committee were angry that people they hadn’t met before wanted to be involved in their thing.’ A rejection of this sort of attitude is what propelled Manchester Momentum to create the repertoire of events that have seen them achieve a degree of national recognition. 

This includes Unsociable Hours, an afternoon film screening which intends to reach people who ‘felt alienated from the regular culture of Labour — long, evening meetings.’ This includes the young workers in Manchester’s burgeoning service economy, who work in the evenings and struggle to engage in the old formal structures, as well as young mothers and the long-term unemployed who find themselves struggling to find things to do during the daytime. 

This sort of positive work is being done elsewhere too. In a recent article in Tribune, Laura McAlpine describes Harlow Labour’s efforts to ‘revive the spirit of ambition for working-class life’, organising foodbank collections and ‘makeovers’ of neglected hospital gardens, as well as arranging bingo nights, gigs, and political education events. They have also secured a building which will be used as a socialist venue for all ‘social initiatives benefitting the community.’ In the former mining areas of Durham — once nationally derided as ‘Little Moscows’ — numerous socialist food and clothing banks are in operation to provide the community with things like meals and dresses for children’s school proms. 

Playing Chess

While the Left failed in Britain, better news comes from Spain, where a unity government between the social-democratic PSOE and the radical left Unidas Podemos has taken power. 

Alberto Garzón, who ignored the grimaces of the Spanish King during his swearing-in as Spain’s first Communist minister since the Second Republic, pointed a way forward for the Left across Europe in Tribune last year. Believing that ‘to concentrate solely on the institutional realm is like trying to play chess with most of your pieces missing’, he said:

We have to regroup — accumulating forces beyond the institutions. Like the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century, we need to construct parallel institutions. The Left needs to be present in all spaces where socialisation takes place. This includes television and social media but also sports clubs, bars, neighbourhood associations and, of course, unions.

So much work has to be done to realise this, but it is possible. It is worth being unsentimental about our urgent tasks — that no mass mobilisation during an election campaign can be a sustainable replacement for a much smaller group of local people who are of relevance to working people’s lives over a period of years and decades. 

In the past, we appealed to people on the basis of their own life development and meeting their social needs and desires. We grafted to attempt to make those feelings a reality. We demonstrated that we could do something better in the here and now to creating a counterweight to the misery of the world around us, and through offering even the slightest things, we could challenge the dominant values of capitalist society and offer the prospect of a new world. 

The slurs and allegations against our early movement were far more aggressive than the ire that Jeremy Corbyn was met with in the past five years, and they rattled not only from the millionaire newspaper monopolies but the guardians of heaven at the pulpits. Yet against this, we grew and grew, and this groundwork became the springboard to the victories the movement would enjoy later on when we were able to achieve state power.

Once, millions believed that socialism was the future. In our current state of unravelling, we could do worse than regaining that form of associational power our movement once had to take socialism out of the margins and into ordinary people’s lives. If we are to win elections, and to really begin on the road to a fundamentally different society, we need to admit that we aren’t making enough dents in working people’s lives. 

It’s time we cracked what Mark Fisher identified as ‘the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act.’ If we do act, the possibilities might be endless.