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What Will 2016 Hold for Radical Politics in Britain?

From street movements to Labour in the Corbyn era, the most exciting developments are yet to come.

John McDonnell in October. Photo by Michael Segalov

We live waiting for the other shoe to drop. We live with a Conservative government having ridden out a financial crisis which a former European Council President described as but "a few millimetres" from collapse, and on the back of it successfully reshaped the British state. The activists fired up by huge cuts and the angry wave of protests that sprung up in response have gone on to see attempts to defend against them break against an apparently immovable government. Yet, with oil prices plummeting, a major Chinese slowdown, an unreformed financial sector and an anaemic British recovery, we go in to 2016 wondering when, rather than if, a new economic crisis will hit. These two factors – a triumphalist austerity government and looming global crisis – set the co-ordinates for radical politics in the coming year.


The most obvious shift in national politics in 2015 has been the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is one of the few Labour MPs whom activists outside the Party could rely on to join picket lines or demonstrations, and for whom many possess a sneaking fondness (his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is another.) The campaign attracted many who had abandoned the party under Blair and after Iraq: socialists, trade unionists, as well as young people who'd occupied shops with UKUncut, protested climate change or student fees, and had been feeling the itch for something bigger. The transformation of his campaign group into Momentum, which brings together these new affiliates with parts of the old Labour left who'd weathered the long Blairite winter, has not only spooked the party's right wing but set itself a major task: to create a mass, democratic political movement across the country.

Will it work? Corbyn and McDonnell have had a bumpy ride of it so far, from a press agog at a democratic socialist who actually believes what he says, a parliamentary party furious at the same, and their own unforced errors – such as John McDonnell making an awkward joke about Chairman Mao's economic policy over the dispatch box, almost unbelievably oblivious to the political stupidity of making the Tories' "Labour are old fashion left-wing dictators" jibes for them.

For the time being, Corbyn's huge electoral mandate and the charisma-free mediocrities dreaming of deposing him mean he's safe in post: bad memories of the SDP split of the 80s, which handed previously safe Labour seats to Tories and Liberals, will stay the hand of MPs tempted to flee. But the sense among Momentum-affiliated activists that the parliamentary party have daggers up their sleeves, waiting to pounce, might prove its greatest weakness – to become too involved in the machine politics of Labour, often vicious and unaccountable, will sap too much energy for it to fulfil its actual task. One new Momentum activist, having followed a political trajectory from the climate movement through Occupy, told me: "I don't necessarily trust Labour or have much hope in it… but it can operate on a national scale we just haven't in the past five years. It might be rotten from within, but I think it's worth a shot." This attitude, an experimental engagement with mainstream political forms which might be able to get things done, is common among Momentum's activists. Its real challenge in 2016 will not only come in London's mayoral elections, nor in defending itself against those who see it as a cuckoo in the nest, but in rolling out its pitch to other activists and independent left-wingers. Many of them will currently be wary of Labour's frequent political conservatism, lack of internal democracy and history of capitulating to big business, both in local and national government. Without serious strategy, spirit to fight and retaining openness to street movements, it may prove a busted flush. And it is from the street movements – always livelier and more inventive than soporific party meetings – the most exciting developments look set to come. One of the most exciting groups to emerge on the radical left in 2015 was Sisters Uncut. Comprised of women taking direct action in defence of domestic violence services, their dramatic actions have been combined with a politics emphasising a culture of mutual support, solidarity and self-care, a reviving blast of fresh air in a left still dominated by stale machismo and internecine squabbling.


Alongside two other new groups that organise against racial oppression – Black Dissidents and London Latinxs – they led a stunning migrant solidarity action at St. Pancras in the autumn, blockading the gates to the Eurostar and soaking the floor in fake blood. Demanding an end to migrant deaths at borders and crossings as well as racist policies of containment, similar such actions are likely to be even more necessary in 2016, as a predicted 3 million refugees make the crossing to Europe.

Photo: Chris Bethell for VICE

The next year is likely to see mainstream political conversation deal increasingly with the UK's forthcoming referendum on EU membership and Europe more generally. With former EDL leader Tommy Robinson's return to racist organising, opening a UK franchise of German Islamophobes Pegida, and the mainstream right getting worked up about terrorists smuggling themselves through Europe as refugees, the probability is that the vote will be treated by many as a popular referendum on immigration. While we can expect anti-migrant demonstrations to be met by reliable anti-fascist groups, the wider cultural picture doesn't look too rosy: the kind of sympathy for refugees that saw thousands turn out for a rally in September has been tempered by both government scaremongering about hordes of parasitic migrants and press warnings about British resources cut to breaking point.

But the refugee crisis throughout Europe is the major political question of our period, and one which calls for concerted action across all the political organisations of the left: from myth-busters and popular arguments, to street demonstrations, pickets and demands for full political rights for refugees and asylum seekers. Organisations like Calais Migrant Solidarity do excellent work directly in the camps, but 2016 will require a far greater effort to defeat the wave of anti-migrant fever slowly enveloping Europe. Alongside these new organisations and the new challenges 2016 will present, it's worth mentioning the ongoing efforts of "base" or "grassroots" unions organising cleaners, hotel workers or hospitality workers. In highly precarious and exploitative industries, these organisations have achieved a great deal by their willingness to return to the very basics of union organisation – a willingness to down tools and make a nuisance of themselves until a wrong is righted. Brighton Solidarity Federation's Hospitality Workers Network, in an industry which relies on high turnover and often intensely exploited migrant labour, has seen successes against high-end restaurants and large fast-food franchise chains – and in an industry often thought impossible to unionise. In addition, the remarkable work of housing groups like Focus E15, Save Cressingham Gardens and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth provide a useful pattern for future action: direct action, combined with a dogged determination to hold local and national government to their obligations and promises. Particularly in the capital, but beyond it as well, housing is an issue that illustrates a stark and widening inequality, and one which is at the centre of long-term political prospects in the UK. Housing takes us back to the wider question of the UK's economy: vastly inflated property prices are the steroid on which the country depends. A long-standing conflict between simple rights to dignity and freedom in housing and the speculative potential in private housing, though long deferred, will be at the centre of any future financial crisis experienced in the UK. Such a conflict will raise not only questions about what our ruling parties have been doing for the past decades. Repossessions and unpayable rents will raise the question: why should housing, an obvious social need, be a commodity at all, with which the already rich can line their pockets further?


As a prerequisite of basic existence, housing touches all of the campaigns and issues I've mentioned – from newly arrived refugees, to women seeking refuge from violence, to those on poverty wages and beyond, safe, secure and affordable housing is essential. As with other essentials – we might mention food poverty or fuel poverty – it can provide a way of thinking about the common economic and political features of all our different struggles, and how things might change for the better. With housing, this is especially blatant.

Across the spectrum of campaigns, groups and actions blossoming on the left beyond and outside parliament, I think it is possible to see a political movement beginning to ask itself serious questions not just about the functioning of capitalism – the left has always been good at that – but about the strategy needed to survive its next crisis. Bankers and financial traders have a saying: never let a good crisis go to waste. It's clear many of the veterans of the last one have learned that lesson, too.


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