The left’s generation crisis: How can we grow without seeds?

Now they’re definitively out of the driving seat at Westminster many of the usual left pundits are having (another) Damascene conversion to a long term project of “rebuilding class power” at the grassroots — but who’s going to do it?

The day after the election I wrote an article about the failure of many social democrats to take on board that there are no shortcuts to directly rebuilding trust in the socialist left after decades of decline. As far as hot takes go it wasn’t too controversial and many left groups have since been coming out with something thematically similar, from Salvage‘s meandering to the Morning Star‘s usual, but as ever such dashed-off efforts aren’t the whole story.

Without turning this into yet another “what I, am self-declared expert, fink went wrong” piece, there are some interlocking factors which jump out of the election just gone that need a bit more consideration when answering that short but obscenely difficult key question we’re all raising: How do we rebuild sustainable class power?

First I’m going to pick out a couple of key stats and maps which have been doing the rounds, albeit in an overshadowed form as people chunter on about Brexit and Corbyn. Number one is to do with age:

And number two is the classic geographical voting map:

Both of these confirm things that we sort of already know, that the left vote (more broadly we can assume this correlates to some extent with the presence of left activism, left-leaning populations etc), is skewing dramatically younger and more urban. It’s a vastly more direct correlation than any other factor including Brexit, which saw Labour lose votes in both Leave and Remain areas, and is only really matched by the level of media-fueled disdain towards Corbyn which was heard by election door-steppers nationwide.

But why are these things connected?

Urban gravity

I grew up in the countryside, in a village which had pretty much nothing in it. No school, no Post Office, no pub — not much to keep a youngster occupied. For anything past the usual roaming around mud tracks or staying in playing video games I had to head to the nearest small town or more likely, take the extra hop over to the county town where such luxuries as clubs, cinemas and suchlike were all bundled up. Most of the houses in this dormitory village were expensive, heavily implied a need for car ownership and did not come with anything approaching prospects for a workable local job.

That’s all pretty normal in today’s countryside, where a combination of the rise of the motorcar and the automation of farming has conspired to make local jobs (and the community amenities they fuel) rarer and homes more expensive — colonised by the mobile middle classes. Colin Ward was writing about it in the 1980s.

What did I therefore do when I got old enough? I got a job in the county town and moved. And when finding work in a limited and declining local industry proved difficult there, I got offered a job in London.

So here I now live. A countryside boy who hates the noise, filth and aggression of the urban meatgrinder but has spent his most active years organising, essentially, in a bit of Britain which couldn’t be more stereotypically Left City if it tried. What am I not doing? Why committing to the long-haul task of bringing back visible socialism to “True Blue rural England” or the “crumbling Red Wall” of course.

Variations on that theme take place up and down the country every day, part of an ongoing movement of British youth out of declining or “weak” areas into stronger ones which have more to offer in terms of culture and opportunities — those who can, and those who have been economically displaced. In the other direction moves a smaller number, disproportionately those who have in some way “made it” (or inherited “it”) and therefore have different material interests to when they left 20 years ago.

This phenomenon has of course been going on for so long that it’s essentially a cliche. But the acceleration and culmination of the process through the ongoing effects of four decades of neoliberal capitalism enacting a sort of energy and asset drain from poor competitor regions to rich ones is not, having more impact on the ghettoisation of left influence than is commonly acknowledged. A blunt expression of this can be seen in a 2018 study [pdf] of age distribution between rural and urban populations, published by the government last month:

What we can see here is a big bite taken out of the standing rural population particularly between the ages of 20 and 45, the precise age range in which Labour (or “the left”) has an absolutely dominant position. The average age of big city dwellers is 37, in large towns it’s 39, while in rural towns its 44 and in villages a whopping 46. On top of that, what’s not factored in is the difference between “winning” cities like London (average age 36.5) and “losing” cities like Mansfield or Sunderland, where average ages have been rising and which this time around lost large numbers of Labour voters. Mansfield in particular was Labour from 1923-2015 before going Tory, and returned swivel-eyed public school MP Ben Bradley this year with 64% of the vote.

Once you take out known retirement spots, the list of aging towns looks a lot like a list of the bricks which have tumbled out of that “red wall” pundits have been talking about. Barnsley, Wakefield, Doncaster. The writers at Salvage identify this as the British “rust belt” (because apparently we’re forever doomed to be a US tribute act) but it’s essentially a list of cities which used to be reliant on particular industries and have been in a state of slow collapse in the wake of neoliberal hegemony.

Wakefield, Mansfield and Barnsley were big in coal and textiles, both industries which were blasted out of the way by class war tactics and the introduction of cheaper production from elsewhere. They and many other cities like them have been experiencing the worst of the youth drain for better prospects. Hope is in short supply and the main visible left presence in this cycle of decline has been the Labour Party itself, for decades the region’s sole comptroller, reliably enacting the anti-working class policies of national governments with either excuses or grumbling depending on whether Labour or Tories held Westminster.

What’s that mean for us?

In the short to medium term these trends are big trouble for electoral politics (it doesn’t suggest an easy rebuild for the “red wall”) and not a terribly happy situation for the left generally. It means that across much of the country a long-term issue of meetings being filled primarily with older folks, or of trades council meetings being represented by retired people doing their best to keep a flame alive, is set to continue or simply end, taking what little organisation remains with it. The loss of support networks, training and physical assets, especially spaces, can only get worse as the last generation of militants who remember how we organised and won in the 1970s — the youngest are now in their sixties and often still running buildings — retire and start to die off.

We can see this statistically in the trade unions [pdf], where 39% of members are aged 50 or older and a full 77% are over 35 — numbers which worsen considerably if you take into account geographic spread and the unions’ reliance on public sector membership. There is a yawning generation gap there between radical grey-hairs who provide most of the running in county towns and youth (often reinventing wheels) in the cities, which is set to worsen and hit crisis point in the next decade or so. It was already a problem when I started getting active back in the early 2000s — one survey of trade unionism in my county at the time for example returned “N/A” for the early-20s set — and finding situations where a critical mass of militant grassroots culture and expertise can be passed on organically now is difficult outside of a few holdouts like the RMT.

Speaking directly to the various pundits calling for socialism to rebuild itself, what’s highlighted here is the serious problem we have in terms of getting anything going outside what certain fools keep insisting is the liberal coffee-drinking urban scene (but which is in fact mostly a precarious, under-resourced, heavily-exploited demographic with a veneer of urbanity amid some social liberalism that spends most of its income on tiny expensive housing because what other realistic option is there). Much of the youth, the new workers of late neoliberalism, the new generation of left activists, are stuck doing a circuit of nooks and crannies in the cities and aren’t available to learn from or breathe new life into the battered left of marginalised British towns and villages. Those who are still there have been left outgunned and suffer from being continually looked over, other than in election periods where their mobilisation is demanded.

So a major question drops in behind the question of how we rebuild trust in socialists — how do we deal with the effects of a stuttering, partial mass migration of workers amid this ongoing neoliberal reshaping of the ground we walk upon? It’s not an insurmountable, but thinking about and reacting to this situation requires more than a trite call for hard work from people who mostly, let’s be honest, are not going to be committing their next five years to salting class struggle on the beach at Jaywick.

~Rr


Pic: TUC march by Joshua Hayes