The danger of low horizons: a reply to Owen Jones

Luke Cooper replies to Owen Jones’ call for left unity

Owen Jones’ contribution to the debate on the future of the left is timely. He rightly bemoans the divisions and infighting that plague the left. Taking his cue from the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party – a collapse that hurts us all, adding further grist to the mill of those that condemn the left as dead – he calls for a new radical movement, a broad church uniting the many shades of activist-ideologue and crucially ‘those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated’. Owen is right to lament the divisions that have stalked the anti-cuts movement, and he’s right also to put the blame firmly on the sect-building left. If we are honest, in our heart of hearts, I doubt few amongst us could disagree.

Not for the first time, Owen highlights the shocking reality that the xenophobic, racist, reactionaries of UKIP are tapping into anger that the left should be seizing. But this exposes the fault lines in Owen’s argument: a tendency to suggest a political alternative is needed, only to then assert trenchantly that it’s not possible. UKIP are a political party that contest elections and offer hope of far-reaching political change. It’s a grim future of a parochial, inward looking and immigrant-hating Britain, still bedevilled with economic crisis, but without any of the tolerance, the solidarity and experience of other cultures to mitigate and offset it. This is a bleak dystopia, but it doesn’t shirk from offering ‘real change’.

And here’s the rub. Tories and Lib Dem cuts decimate our communities. Labour offers no alternative. Things polarise – the mass of the electorate look for answers. But where’s the united party of the radical left? Answer: nowhere to be seen.

Beware “M2PL”

Owen holds out the hope that a mass movement might be able to reach such a size and scope that it forces Labour to the left. He is quick to highlight the electoral failure of the left-of-Labour parties to make his case. But he doesn’t appraise his own call for a Movement-To-Pressure-Labour (M2PL) to the same kind of critical scrutiny. Labour has been marching right for decades. Its parliamentary party is stuffed with Progress-backed neoliberals that promote so-called “credibility Labour” and a majority of Labour MPs supported the pro-war David Miliband in the leadership election. They have criticised Ed Miliband for being too left, despite his attacks on striking trade unionists and courting of immigrant-baiting “Blue Labour”. Ten years ago when a million people marched against the war, Labour went ahead and did it anyway. They show little responsiveness to even the most timid of demands put forward by the labour movement.

There is no evidence Labour’s leadership would budge an inch politically in the face of even the most dynamic, far-reaching and radical mass movement. The fact is M2PL is a doomed strategy from the start. Short of a revolutionary crisis in Britain, this ship is “not for turning”.

And it’s not true that the left-of-Labour vote is the pitiful failure Owen suggests. I loathe his politics, but George Galloway won in Bradford on a clear anti-austerity platform. It showed what is possible if the belief is there that a left candidate offers a credible alternative.

Sell outs

And it’s not like Labour haven’t had the chance. In the last few years we’ve seen a mass student movement, the biggest public sector walkouts in a generation and a series of big demonstrations. Despite the splits and divisions on the radical left, people have struck and protested in large numbers. Labour has had every opportunity to change course, to stand alongside those fighting the cuts and give a real lead.

But they haven’t. M2PL only encouraged their gallop to “credibility Labour”.

That’s why we need to take care of bemoaning the state of the movement and draw out the lessons from when it’s been at its best.

We have active anti-cuts groups. Library occupations. Big NHS demonstrations. Plans for more national strikes. And activists plotting new rounds of direct action. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture, but we need to be more precise about where the problems lie and what their causes are.

It’s not just a divided and sect-ridden left – small and isolated, the organised socialist left doesn’t have the influence it should have in this crisis. Yes, the Socialist Workers Party punches ‘above its weight’, as Owen says, but it certainly doesn’t lead Britain’s labour movement. That’s why we have to look at the record of our trade union leaders too.  They have led large set pieces actions, but when they had the chance to deliver a real blow to the government on pensions – when over a million came out and there was a feeling of real hope – they called off the strikes having won nothing.


There is an obvious connection between the way that Labour is insulated from the strategy of M2PL and the calling off of the pensions strikes.

It’s the problem of bureaucracy and top-down control. Our union movement exists in a state of managed decline. Leaders get embedded in the bureaucracy on vast salaries when members often can’t make ends meet. Office brings not only prestige but also comfort. Conservatism sets in and sustaining the bureaucracy becomes an end in itself. This reality exists x2 for the Labour Party.

These are strong and powerful bureaucracies that stand above a largely passive and alienated membership who don’t feel they have power over their unions. The unions and Labour are imbued from top to bottom with Capitalist Realism: the widespread belief there is no alternative capitalism. They have failed to inspire hope that fundamental change is possible, and are firmly part of the “status quo order” we need to criticise and challenge.

But we can find the means to confront this bureaucracy from our activist experience.

It’s the new spirit of grassroots organisation and campaigning.

The new generation of activists abhor bureaucracy and undemocratic control. They share a deep desire not to repeat the authoritarianism of the last century and to organise in a participatory way. Our movement has been at its best when it has built vibrant grassroots campaigns, but, with the notable exception of Jerry Hicks’ campaign in Unite, it’s been less good at translating this model of organising into the trade union movement.

There are two different but crucial constituencies that the we need to think about. Firstly, there are the protestors and activists, the workplace trade union organisers, the socialists, the autonomists, the anticapitalists, who lack a coherent united political project. Secondly, there are the millions of working people – many of whom have never come on a demonstration and most of whom will vote with gritted teeth for Labour in the election – who could be won to an alternative. They could be won, if the alternative was there, if it was credible, if it was united, and if it wasn’t ridden by the usual divisions and  infighting.

Two stages

Aspiration for direct democracy, for autonomy and bottom-up organising won’t go away. And organisations on the radical left that can’t respond to it and persist with bureaucratic regimes will move from crisis to crisis under this pressure. It’s this backlash against authoritarian politics which makes the new movements exciting. It expresses a wider sensibility that means large bureaucratised organisations like the Labour Party and the union tops, lack positive arguments for how they organise and what they are trying to achieve. Their size, influence and bureaucracy becomes the raison d’etre for their existence. They suffer from a total absence of vision, a complete lack of a living imagination for radical change.

What does all this mean for building an anticapitalist alternative?

Owen doesn’t appraise these problems that directly affect his argument. Labour won’t budge. M2PL is doomed. And the trade union leaders – also tied to Labour – have been all too willing to sell the struggle short. Grassroots organisation has brought a new layer of activists into politics, but they are disparate and unorganised, without a common political voice, and won’t join the sect left, let alone the Labour Party.

There are millions that can be won to an alternative, but they don’t believe the left offers it at the moment.

In order to get there, first the left outside of the Labour Party need to regroup. They need to reach out to activists from Occupy to UK Uncut too, and form a coherent political challenge. Most of all, it will have to be thoroughly democratic and participatory or it will go nowhere.

The second stage has to be reaching out to the millions and instilling belief that a credible alternative exists on the left. In times of crisis such as these it will follow easily enough if we build organisations that recognise we can agree to disagree on some things but not let those fault lines obstruct unity.

This might all sound too critical. But to be clear, I accept large parts of Owen’s argument. Now more than ever we should get together and organise a huge anti-cuts festival, debating out alternatives, building links that can deliver action at a local and national level, encouraging unity in extraordinary diversity. Greens or Labour, anarchist or Leninist, unaligned or once-apathetic, there is no reason why we can’t build a social movement that puts down real roots. And it’s perfectly possible to do all this without it being ruined by the sect-building left.

Having lamented it I should finally add, the great thing about M2PL is that I don’t have to agree with the strategy to support the immediate goals: a united, grassroots movement. And more to the point, building a united movement – of protests, strikes, occupations, and resistance in all its forms – will provide the debates, the experiments in new forms of organisation, the testing of arguments, that are all so crucial to the renewal of a healthy left.

We certainly need one. So it’s about time we had the imagination to get out of the rut.



  1. Maciej Zurowski
    January 21, 2013 at 2:18 pm · Reply

    I still struggle to find answers to the most basic questions:

    1. The reason why social movements, single-issue campaigns, anti-war protests, anti-cuts fronts etc change very little or nothing at all is because they don’t have any power. UK 2003: one million people protest against the war. According to various surveys, the majority of the population opposes it. But the war goes ahead. Why? Because we don’t have any power, and the other side does.

    What is your strategy for working class power and working class control of society? Esp. given that you are explicitly willing to include petty-bourgeois tendencies such as the Greens in your conglomerate of diversity.

    2. Jo Freeman writes,

    A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can so easily be established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.
    (‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’)

    What are your ideas how to establish accountability, counteract informal power structures, and prevent back-room decisionmaking? Seeing as your group is made up of human beings hailing from an unequal society, it inevitably does not consist of equals – right?

    • January 26, 2013 at 5:51 am · Reply

      I wrote something that sort of addresses point 1, which is really critical: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=706

      Re: including petty-bourgeois forces. The reality is there’s no such thing as a “pure” proletarian party, so we should just forget about that dream. Every mass workers’ party in world history has had petty-bourgeois tendencies (not necessarily factions or wings) because the working class doesn’t exist in a vacuum from other classes. If you could elaborate on what you mean (or what your objection is to incorporating such elements into a party formation), that would help clarify things,

    • August 29, 2013 at 6:26 pm · Reply

      Although coming from a critical theoretical perspective, the question of an alternative politics is something we regularly discuss as group: http://www.heathwoodpress.com.

      I recommend you take a look, especially with regards to your point around ‘the tyranny of structuralness’ and the implicit future of totalitarianism represented by many political groups presently operating on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

      In truth, if ‘change’ is to be formulated it cannot be perceived simply as an economic or political process. It requires a many sided transformation.

  2. Luke Cooper
    January 21, 2013 at 6:08 pm · Reply

    Hi Maciej,

    Thanks for your comments.

    1. Yes, I agree we need to put the question of political power on the agenda. That’s why a political party is necessary, one that is contesting elections and giving hope to that fundamental change is necessary. In the development of that party, there will be those (like me) who think we need to dismantle capitalist sites of power altogether, and those who will advocate working within them and moderating them.

    2. Yes, I agree structure is necessary. In the ACI we are organise as a network of local groups that put forward representatives to a national coordination and are recallable by their local groups. We debate politics and strategy open on the website and encourage transparency.

    Any new political organisation emerging in Britain today – the possibility of regrouping a healthy section of the left outside of the Labour Party – will need to have grassroots democratic and participatory forms of local organisation at its fore. As well as clear lines of accountability for leaders, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of Galloway and Respect (where the party has no control over unaccountable parliamentary leaders and the like).

    Best wishes,


  3. January 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm · Reply

    Reading this, as reading the Owen Jones article, it did seem to me that there is a failure to reflect on the lessons to be learned from past movements. Though like Jones, you call for a grass roots movement of socialists, there is little recognition that these networks have been built before, attained some modest success, only later to fall away.
    What about, for example, the Coalition of Resistance, Trade Union Socialist Coalition, Respect, Socialist Alliance, Globalise Resistance…
    Instead of the endless reshuffling of ‘realignment’, do we not have to ask whether the central ideology of welfare socialism has any strong appeal that will carry it beyond the fringe? How long can socialists keep calling for the same basic movement, until they start to think about what is not appealing to people?

  4. David -
    January 21, 2013 at 8:41 pm · Reply

    The left has a tendency to ignore the Greens. I never quite no why. I think its the age old stereotype of green Vs socialist stereotype.

    This is because as a party we are de-centralised. Some local parties push the green agenda, whilst others push social justice and the green agenda. Whilst no group is perfect; I do recommend reading our national policies. What we all should ensure is that within any group we have influence, is that we prevent those who simply want to grab ‘power’ etc.

    We get no money from millionaires, trade unions or paper sales. Our members fund the party. We were the only party with a fully funded alternative in the 2010 election. Factchecked by channel 4 and it added up. A vote for labour, lib dem or tory MPs was a vote for local cuts. The greens do not yet have a majority on a local council anywhere even on the oft debated Brighton administration.

    And many of our members such as me are involved in groups outside the party. In polar opposite to many groups we work with campaigns and do not try to take over. I do believe that not everything can be done through a political party but many of our members tend to be involved in many groups and campaigns.

  5. Simon Hardy
    January 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm · Reply

    It seems unlikely that Labour can be radically won to a new direction – if the massive stop the war movement couldn’t do it then I can’t really see how it can happen. The party would have to be rejuvenated internally to such a degree that it would be unrecognisable from its present state. As I said to Owen Jones at a public debate a few years ago – you are more likely to get a Bolshevik revolution in Britain than a Labour Party captured for the socialist cause.

    Dave: Some of the Greens might make up part of a new progressive party in Brtain, but after the lamentable disaster of the Green council in Brighton and the party’s failure to account for it or even properly debate it at their conference I fear that a lot of people just see the same problems befalling your party as befell the Liberal Democrats – radical and principled in opposition, prepared to sell out when in power. We need better.

  6. Joseph Healy
    January 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm · Reply

    Touche Simon. That is the dilemma in which we find ourselves.

  7. David -
    January 24, 2013 at 8:03 pm · Reply

    Indeed it has almost split the party. There are both advantages and disadvantages of a devolved/federal party structure. Brighton do at least mention ‘illegal budgets’ in their leaflets and one councillor has not voted on any budget. We perhaps are too polite: http://www.brightonhovegreens.org/news/caroline-lucas-and-green-councillors-take-cuts-protest-to-downing-street.html

    And Jason Kitkat said:

    “All progressives in the city should be seeking to oust Conservative MPs in 2015. This will only be achievable locally, and nationally, through a broader electoral effort than just the Labour party. Greens, Trade Unionists, disaffected LibDems and more all have a role to play in ensuring progressive MPs are elected. Labour’s announcement yesterday was very ‘old politics’ and does the city no service in trying to reject the coalition’s policies. I hope other political leaders locally will join with me in seeking a progressive majority for the city in the 2015 elections, and avoid reverting to party tribalism.”

    A significant proportion of the party is now pushing for Brighton to organize a genuine anti cuts conference. It would only take a few cities to set an anti cuts budgets and then it genuinely could damage the government. But one alone might be a sacrificial lamb.

    But if the cuts keep going will Brighton be forced to martyr itself? or would this initiate a sweeping movement? Especially as Labour and Tories passed a freeze tax in 2012 depriving the greens of less options (of course they probably did just to limit the greens unless they genuinely want more council service cuts).

    We certainly are anti nuclear, pro nhs, reducing councillor allowances are principled. Indeed the easiest way to annoy a green is tell them they are unethical.

    There is the labour website called: councillors against the cuts. Would anyone be interested in a non labour/green version? And would would you support a Brighton anti cuts conference?

  8. David -
    January 24, 2013 at 8:04 pm · Reply

    (excuse the mistakes, I’ve had a busy day)

    • Luke Cooper
      January 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm · Reply

      Hi Dave,

      On the last point you raised, it seems logical for Green Party councillors who are against local cuts to unite with Labour Party anti-cuts councillors in a single campaign?

      Do you think there is scope for doing that?



  9. January 26, 2013 at 5:28 am · Reply

    I’m glad this was written. thenorthstar.info will be republishing an article making the opposite case by A Very Public Sociologist and I look forward to having some debate.

    Questions that this piece did not address that I think are pretty important:

    1. What is the strategy for engaging Labour’s rank-and-file, the grassroots leftists/union members given that LP is, according to what I read here, a dead end?

    2. How do we engineer splits within the LP? SYRIZA and most mass left parties/formations (like Left Front in France) emerged out of splits from existing parties.

    3. Is George Galloway’s success enough to build one’s left-of-Labour strategy on?

    4. What about the experience of the SSP? What can be learned from it?

    5. Do you/we run for office as part of the left-of-Labour strategy?

    6. Is the LP still a workers’ party? Do workers still feel it belongs to them (rightly or wrongly)?

    7. Does it make sense to try to start yet another left-of-Labour party/formation/alliance in the next five years?

    8. What would have to change to make Jones’ strategy viable (or less unviable), short of proletarian revolution?

    As you can tell, I am more sympathetic to Jones than comrade Cooper on this question at this point, although I do not have a hard, fixed position (yet). Jones is arguing for an inside-outside approach, a network that includes elements of the Labour Party but is not limited to the confines of the party while Cooper seems (correct me if I’m wrong) to be arguing for an outside strategy.

    Yes, Labour is pushing neoliberalism. Yes, it has right-wing bureaucrats leading it. Yes, it sells out every struggle it can. Yes, its leaders will resist change. But what is obsolete for us as revolutionaries is not obsolete for the masses, as Lenin was fond of saying. Millions of people vote for Labour. Tens of thousands(?) campaign for it. I don’t think the direct action-centered forget-about-Labour perspective does much about Labour’s continued mass support.

    • Luke Cooper
      January 30, 2013 at 11:24 am · Reply

      These are good and important questions – don’t have a chance to reply now, but will in the not too distant future. Cheers, Luke

  10. Harry Blackwell
    January 28, 2013 at 7:12 am · Reply

    @Pham Binh.

    There is not really any such thing as an ‘inside-outside’ approach to the British Labour Party. It’s not like the USA where you can be a registered voter for one party and vote for another without penalty.

    Collusion and cooperation by Labour Party members with those on the left standing in elections against Labour have been greeted over the years by proscriptions, summary expulsion and purges. The Socialist League of Stafford Cripps decided to disband in 1937 due to being proscribed for a joint campaign with the ‘outside’ ILP and CPGB. The official excuse for George Galloway’s expulsion in 2003 was his message of support for a successful ‘outside’ Socialist Alliance Against the War councillor who defeated Labour, not his anti war campaigning. The most Labour-loyal of the one-time ‘inside’ groups, the Militant Tendency, suffered a mass purge in Liverpool when they stood as an ‘outside’ candidate in the Walton by-election in 1991 that eventually led to their complete exit. You cannot support a left-wing candidate against Labour in one election and then just pop up back inside the Labour Party immediately afterward;. It’s hypocrisy by the Party of course, as former Tories and SDP members like Shaun Woodward and Andrew Adonis can reappear as prominent members five minutes later, and people like Frank Field, who support voting against Labour from the right are tolerated, but support for a left wing candidate means long term exclusion from the Party.

    Let’s be clear when it comes to elections, if you decide to be ‘inside’ the Labour Party you voluntarily accept a significant ban on working closely with those on the ‘outside’ . That doesn’t mean that collaboration in campaigns is not possible and in that context Owen Jones’ contribution can be welcomed, but any involvement of election issues is prevented if you stay inside the Party. Whatever we think of George Galloway, his by-election victory in Bradford, shows that there is a significant section of Labour voters prepared to look for an alternative. The same thing applies to some aspects of the Green vote, though they seem to be throwing away their left wing credentials in Brighton. The rise of parties like SYRIZA, Bloco, FdG, Enhedslisten and Die Linke shows that that an anti-austerity electorate exists on a wider European scale. This is important given that the biggest national election in Britain before the next election are the European Elections in 2014.

  11. Ken
    January 31, 2013 at 12:53 am · Reply

    I got to the rant about UKIP an pretty much gave up. I cannot prove that the author of this piece is a Trotskyist, but he certainly writes as if he has.

    If you believe, as I do, that the EU is a capitalist club, then you will remember with pride that it was Hugh Gaitskell with his 1,000 years of history speech that started the left’s opposition to the whole idea. You will recall that it was the Tories who took us in and Thatcher who signed up to the single market bollocks. You will also recall that Labour is the only major party that has ever had withdrawal in its manifesto. Finally, you will know that the Morning Star is the only daily paper that has consistently opposed the whole nightmare.

    UKIP is a very small party of just 20,000 people, but it is slowly changing ideologically as more and more former Labour and Communist people find a congenial home there. The point I make to people is that if they want to repair the damage that has been done to our economy and country since the late 1970s, they cannot do it from within the EU as the rules do not allow a government to renationalise.

    If you are serious about making a change to our country then you might want to consider giving UKIP a punt – or even joining us.

    Moderator note: edited to remove derogatory remark about mental health.

  12. Luke Cooper
    January 31, 2013 at 10:32 am · Reply

    UKIP is not a single-issue party focused on Europe, but a right wing and deeply reactionary populist party that should be kept on the fringes of British politics. To compare it to the anti-EU position held to this day by Tony Benn and the Morning Star is an act of total dishonesty.

    These are some of the key things people considering voting for UKIP need to know.

    UKIP stand for:

    * A massive redistribution of wealth from working people to the rich with a single flat rate of tax of 31 per cent – so the very richest pay the same proportion of income as the very poorest.

    * Cuts to the public sector far exceeding that massive offensive pushed through by the Con-Dem government, proposing to return public spending to 1997 levels within 5 years.

    * The immediate repeal of the Human Rights Act and British withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights, which safeguards precious freedoms like the right to assembly, free speech, freedom of religion, outlawing torture, a fair trial, etc.

    * Total opposition to same-sex marriage:

    * An end to all immigration into Britain for at least five years.

    * A massive, entirely racist, attack on those with ‘permanent leave to remain’ status, denying them any social security benefits even though they work here and pay taxes like everyone else, and forcing them sign a humiliating ‘undertaking of residence’ to ‘respect our laws’ or ‘face deportation’ – in effect treating them as potential criminals because they don’t happen to have British citizenship.

    * The full-scale Americanisation of the British criminal justice system with a series of policies directly copied from the country with one of the world’s biggest prison populations. These include: the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ and ‘life means life’, and doubling of the British prison population that they cost conservatively at 2bn pounds lifted from our schools and hospital budgets (which they propose slashing – in line with cuts policy above).

    Sources –






  13. Ken
    January 31, 2013 at 2:59 pm · Reply

    For the record, that first sentence is not as I wrote it so the grammatical errors are down to whatever idiot thought that he would make a fine sub-editor. He is mistaken by the way… Now, either leave my words as I write them or do not publish my thoughts. The choice is yours.

    Moderator reply: the grammatical error was already in there. Only the reference to mental illness was removed.

  14. Ken
    January 31, 2013 at 4:59 pm · Reply

    I am afraid that is not true, but there is nothing that I can do to prove it.

    If you think that the average bloke on an estate really gives a stuff about gay marriage then you are living in a fantasy world. The fact that one of you thought fit to bring this non-issue up shows just how little you know about the people that you try, but fail, to speak for.

    I should also point out that every time some Trot shouts about racist immigration controls he plays into the hands of the capitalists as they are the ones who benefit from the cheap labour and that reserve army of the unemployed. I might add that such people only serve to discredit socialism in the eyes of the working class with such nonsense. As Denver Walker pointed out in “Quite Right Mr Trotsky,” the disease known as Trotskyism only serves to hinder the forward march of socialism.

    Right, since you have refused to agree not to censor my posts I shall leave you to chat to your like-minded fellows on your little wanky website. The May elections are coming up sooner then we think and I shall be knocking on doors trying to get people out to give a two-fingered gesture of contempt to the ruling parties and their single ideology.

    Who knows? We might even win a seat or two, which is more than can be said for the infantile left, isn’t it? Why not join us?

    Thank you for your time – bye bye.

    • Luke Cooper
      January 31, 2013 at 10:09 pm · Reply

      You haven’t responded to any of the main points I made. If you think the “average bloke” (good to see you reaching out to women voters) on the estate is going to back even bigger cuts to public spending and a massive redistribution of wealth to the rich from working people, then you are “living in a fantasy world”. A June 2012 You Gov poll showed 71 per cent of people support gay marriage. You and your party are hopelessly out of touch.

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