What kind of unity?

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In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, 1,000 people met in central London to discuss “post-Brexit alliance building”. The idea — that the only chance to defeat the Tories is to form a “progressive alliance” between Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP — has become increasingly popular. It was also discussed at the Momentum festival that coincided with Labour Party conference in Liverpool, and is heavily referenced in a Momentum-edited edition of the magazine Red Pepper.

In some ways this is welcome. It reflects a profound desire at the base of society for unity against the Tories, and for concerted opposition to their plans to continue austerity, racism and war. Its precise form and content is not agreed upon, but for Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP it would be a “pre-election pact” held together by “a commitment to proportional representation” to stop “Tories…using post-Brexit turmoil to further shape the economy in their interests.”

The idea that the Liberal Democrats represent any sort of progress will antagonise many activists — the Lib Dems were active participants in the Tories’ crimes under the coalition government of 2010 to 2015, betraying the high hopes placed in them by many young voters.
But some of the arguments put by proponents of the idea also need to be examined.

Kenny MacAskill, formerly an SNP representative in the Scottish parliament, argues in Red Pepper that, “It’s hard to see any winner other than the Tories unless exceptional action is taken… Labour on its own will struggle to form a majority with limited Scottish representation.” This is a common argument. Throughout the Scottish referendum, Yes campaigners were told that Scotland leaving the UK would abandon England to Tory misery forever. However, only two Labour governments since the Second World War have relied on Scottish MPs for their majority.

Simon Thorpe and Gabriel Bristow, again in Red Pepper, write that, “It is highly unlikely that Labour can win by itself in 2020 under any leader.” While it is true that Labour is performing miserably in the polls — no doubt driven by the disgraceful betrayal of the Labour right post-Brexit — it would be a mistake to dismiss Labour’s chances altogether.

This strategy is partly a product of the pressure of electoralism. If you need votes to win, seeking an electoral pact with others, moderating your message if necessary can seem the obvious thing to do. But where would this leave the hundreds of thousands who have joined, and the many more enthused by, Corbyn’s Labour? For them it is his radical break with mainstream politics, not his adherence to it, that is exciting.

The desire for unity that has made the “progressive alliance” so popular is a positive thing, but is it the right kind of unity? The ballot box is passive, people cast their votes alone and in secret, and then return home to be barraged by the right wing media and politicians spreading lies and hate.

Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper and another proponent of the “progressive alliance” says that “such an alliance can’t be concerned with electoral politics alone” as it would succumb “to the ‘parliamentarism’ that exudes from…the Palace of Westminster.”
This is an interesting proposition — but could the Lib Dems become a party of popular mobilisation? I doubt it.

And with Corbyn’s Labour abandoning challenging Trident it is clear that the Parliamentary Labour Party and trade union leaders can discipline the vision of a movement that is shaped by the pursuit of power at Westminster. Imagine what pressure would come from MPs from parties further to the right.

Instead of seeking moderation and electoral unity Corbyn should call for a radical platform that confronts the austerity agenda and the market forces it serves, defends and extends the rights of refugees and migrants, seeks action over climate change, and so on.
It is through strikes and protests that people get the confidence to reject the ideas pushed down our throats by our rulers. Collective action on the streets and in workplaces will challenge the lies in the media, and give people confidence that we can confront the market.