On his blog the other day Dave Osler linked to an interesting interview he did with Tommy Sheridan back in 1993. Well, when I say interesting I actually mean a bit surreal. And when I say surreal I mean it shows how people on the left (not Dave Osler, he’s brilliant) have been making crappy predictions for years and years and years. And years.
I’ll leave aside the discussion about Tommy Sheridan in 2012 and all the baggage he now has courtesy of some misguided visits to sex clubs that he then lied about. He is a silly Billy, and his chums in the Scottish Socialist Party (as was) were even sillier for elevating the man to the status of a demi-god. It’s a shame as the SSP were starting to make some electoral headway but more importantly were starting to change the terms of the debate and rattle the political establishment the party’s juvenile obsession with Scottish independence excepted. Instead the field has been left clear for the SNP, who talk left but don’t really act it (well not that often anyway).
The interview, which is nearly 20 years old, actually struck a bit of a chord with me as it made a few assumptions that many on the left, regardless of whether they are of the soft or hard variety, make now. But particularly the hard. The scoundrels.
It seems like we are forever on the cusp of something big happening. A new upsurge. A mass radicalisation. A huge economic catastrophe that will make people realise that socialism is the only solution. It’s all just round the corner. And when we get round that corner and it doesn’t actually happen? Well then, it’s around the next corner. And so the cycle goes on and on. Predictions are made and when they turn out to be rubbish they get quickly forgotten and replaced with a new set of equally implausible ones. And no one ever appears to reflect on the fact that the originals were rubbish and the next lot are hardly likely to any more realistic or accurate.
Now a big increase in the support for the left and their ideas would be lovely. I’d be like a dog with two dicks if that happened. I really would. I’d also assume, rightly, that this blog had played a huge role in changing millions of minds. I’m humble like that.
But anyway, modesty aside, back to the section of the article that tickled me pink. If you are unaware of it Sheridan was a member of Militant Labour after they got kicked out of the Labour Party all those years ago.
So could we soon be seeing Militant MPs? “Absolutely. The only seat where we stood under the banner of Militant Labour in the last election was my own in Pollok . From a prison cell we managed to take 20 per cent of the vote, and 6,287 people voted for us. We beat the Tories, the Liberals, the Scottish National Party and we reduced a Labour majority of 18,000 to only 8,000.” Sheridan can even foresee Militant overtaking the Labour Party: “There’s nothing ruled out.
Our short-term aims and objectives are not to replace Labour as the major opposition force in Parliament because that would be obviously unrealistic.
“But tumultuous events are going to develop as the Tories and their boss friends begin to squeeze the working class harder, and produce the Philippines of Europe in Britain. Militant Labour will be involved in those events, and through them will build a mass organisation.
“The Philippines of Europe in Britain”? “Build a mass organisation”? Although I suppose he is humble enough to make it clear that Militant Labour wouldn’t “replace Labour as the major opposition force in Parliament”. Glad to see a bit of realism in evidence……….
I’m all for aiming high but this is nonsense. But more importantly it was nonsense 20 years ago. My recollection of the time is of course very hazy, being still a wee nipper, but I’m pretty sure that Sheridan’s version of events didn’t seem likely to anyone but the most blinkered.
Of course it is easy to sneer at people’s words after the event. We all say things and make predictions that turn out to be nonsense with the benefit of hindsight. And in Sheridan’s case in 1993 the victory over the hated poll tax was still fresh in the memory.
But there is a pattern here. The example I’m citing isn’t isolated. Left-wing publications and figures are making predictions like this all the time.
Even the likes of Polly Toynbee use a variant of the argument, with her articles stating that cuts haven’t even begun to bite yet, and when they do people will turn on them violently.
I wish that were such optimism was well-founded but I’m not so sure. I think the left has to start from the assumption that it faces a huge task to start to significantly change the terms of the debate and begin a fight-back against the government’s ideological agenda. We aren’t in a revolutionary situation. Or a pre-revolutionary one. Or a pre-pre-revolutionary one. Union density isn’t increasing. Labour’s poll lead is largely down to the sheer incompetence and shit-headedness of the this government (it certainly isn’t an endorsement of an alternative set of policies to austerity because Labour doesn’t have one) The left is numerically weak, and arguably feeble, inside and outside the Labour Party. The student left isn’t anything like as strong in previous generations. The ideas of solidarity and equality are completely discredited, unless of course I’m hallucinating whenever I watch the TV, read a paper or talk to most of the people around me at work or on the streets.
Being honest about where we are is the first step to the left appreciating what we can do to change it. Optimism needs to be married to a realistic appraisal of where the left and its ideas are right now.