How to be unpopular

August 14, 2009

At the moment a lot of what the Left stands for and speaks out at is popular.  We are swimming with the tide when we denounce free market neoliberalism, the war in Afghanistan, defend the NHS from Tory attacks, and laugh at David Cameron squirming in his tetchy defence of his party’s position on the NHS.

Whether this is doing us any good, in terms of our ideas spreading and being taken up, is debatable.  The Vestas occupation was a spontaneous act by the workforce, and even when you consider the disputes that the Left has played a key role in, such as Visteon and Lindsey, the general reaction to job cuts and reduction of hours has been grudging acceptance.

In times when we are looking to use the fact that much of what we are saying (like workers control of banks) doesn’t sound outlandish or strange, should we take the risk and voice opinions that are likely to be viewed as extreme or weird?  If not now, then when?  When there is no audience for socialist ideas?

I have to say, this is a problematic one, do we go for the ‘radical honesty’ of the CPGB, or the avoidance of certain issues like drugs and assisted suicide like many other Left organisations?  I think neither, though I don’t pretend to offer a real solution, more a series of thoughts that hopefully people will react to and develop.

I think the problem with the CPGB’s approach is that they put forward positions, such as the right to bear arms, that are fairly abstract and are not the sort of thing that most people talk about.  As it happens, I broadly agree with them on the right to bear arms, as I don’t believe that a State monopoly of arms is desirable, and I don’t believe that guns kill people, rather the other determinants and causes of crime working through individuals.

To raise the point is foolish though, as being the correct thing to say doesn’t mean you should go about saying it – water has the formula H2O, but it would be a little odd to devote countless articles in a newspaper (or the Weekly Worker, whichever applies) to the fact, as it is largely irrelevant when there are so many things to talk about – workplace democracy, getting the private sector out of the NHS, scrapping Trident etc., where we can be correct, relevant, and link them to other arguments.

If I was asked about my position on the right to bear arms, I would state my position truthfully, regardless of the views of who I’m talking to.  In a country where probably the majority of workers support strict control on guns, to do otherwise would be opportunistic yet unproductive, as it would mean missing an opportunity to discuss the nature of the State,  and the real causes of crime.

Drugs is another one, and this is where the major Left parties keep quiet.  Now, I don’t know whether this is because their position is to maintain the status quo or to legalise the purchase and consumption of currently illegal drugs, perhaps through licensed shops in the same way as alcohol.  For some it may be the former, perhaps because of effects of the sale and taking of drugs on individuals and communities.  If it’s the latter, a position I hold, why are they keeping quiet?

I think it is because the perception is that it would be very unpopular if they advocated legalisation.  It may be, but it can be presented as a means of undermining organised crime, decriminalising casual users who cause no harm, raising taxes, reducing harm by guaranteeing purity and dosage, and treating drug addicts as a health problem rather than a criminal one will go some way to helping them, and reducing their need to commit crimes to fund their habit.   It would also really annoy Daily Mail readers, always near the top of the ‘Pros’ column.  The case can be made quite easily, particularly to young people.

Taking a risk in advocating something that might be unpopular, but which you can persuade people to support it is likely to further improve the Left’s image as detached fully from the hypocrisy and stale consensus of mainstream politics.

The secret I think lies in being relevant, not getting ahead of yourself, and having the courage of your convictions to put forward a position that won’t be immediately popular.  Workers will not put up with airy-fairy ideas that sound as if they were cooked up at 1 in the morning in a student house with a suspicious smell and enough empty pizza boxes to block out the light from the street.  If we are going to put forward an unpopular position we need to gather all the evidence and examples we can to put forward the case, and put forward practical suggestions that could be implemented tomorrow.

By coming out with unpopular ideas we could well improve our image as straight talkers, change ideas about particular issues and open up opportunities to discuss deeper issues underlying them.   As with most things it’s about getting the balance right, regularly talking to other workers so you don’t get distracted by unimportant matters, and being honest.  And not being afraid of getting it wrong, so long as we’re prepared to admit it when we do.

That might be a little difficult for the likes of the SWP, of course.  If George Washington had been a member of the SWP, when confronted by his father over the felled cherry tree with an axe in his hand, he would have denied that there was a cherry tree there, then claimed it had always been lying like that, then would have angrily denounced his father for distracting from the urgent need to defeat the fascists.

It’s no wonder they are in the state that they are in, when they can’t even acknowledge certain home truths themselves, let alone be honest with the rest of the Left or the wider working class.