The old Left, The new Left, Billy Bragg and practical activism
There was an interesting moment in the Leftfield tent at Glastonbury this year, the ‘beating heart of the festival’ where they mix music with political talks and generally have a good time while pushing a solid message.
Billy Bragg curates the whole thing, and he was on stage and talking about the sad passing of anti-nuclear activist Crispin Aubrey, someone who had been heavily involved in the festival since the very start. It went something like this:
“He was a huge campaigner against the proliferation of nuclear armaments around the world”
Huge cheers from the crowd.
“And he campaigned against the expansion of nuclear power in the UK”
A few people cheer. Mostly an awkward silence.
In the UK right now, there’s a new Left. But they’re a Left born out of practicality, rather that principal. We know nuclear power isn’t great, but we also know that the previous generations ignored renewables while gorging themselves on coal and oil, and that it’s now just too late for a renewables-only approach. Or a nuclear-only approach. We’re quite aware that we’re screwed unless we get both of them sorted pretty sharpish. That’s the only feasible option on the table. In our hearts we’d love to run the country on solar and wind but we’ve yet to see a concrete, workable proposal on how that can be done with the timescale we have right now.
And so this week the privatisation of the Royal Mail has been in the news. Here is the Billy Hayes article being bandied about by the likes of Billy Bragg and the rest of the old Left.
Standfirst: “Privatising Royal Mail will destroy a cherished institution. The Labour party must commit to renationalise it”
First paragraph: “So the government is pressing ahead with flogging off our national assets. This time it’s Royal Mail, one of the country’s oldest and most cherished institutions, and which a Sunday Times poll last weekend showed 70% of the public don’t want privatised. What a disgraceful betrayal of the British public.”
You can read the rest if you want but short of small mention of working conditions, it’s more of a same. It’s philosophical, ideological arguments with no talk of the actual practical implications. And ideologically, I’m on board. I’d rather our infrastructure be owned by us than by the government. Practically, I just don’t care. We’re of a generation that sees posting letters as an anachronistic luxury. We’re of a generation who find it hilarious that the Royal Mail are struggling when they insist on delivery to every house in the country six days a week. Because if something is urgent we call, text or email someone. If important documents need sending, we use Special Delivery which needs to be taken to the post office, paid a fiver for, and uses mostly different infrastructure anyway. If regular first class post was dropped to three times a week, we wouldn’t notice. If it was reduced to once a week, we wouldn’t mind. And before anyone tells me we have to protect the poorest in society, you can get a cheap mobile phone for less than a book of 12 first class stamps.
And yes, some of the older generation still like to send letters and it’d be nice to keep doing that. But at some point the postal service, as it is right now, really did move from necessity to luxury. We’d rather have it than not, but there are far more important things to worry about. And when you look around the internet you find the likes of Laurie Penny quiet on the issue, while angry people call up Radio 2 phone-ins to complain about it.
Yet it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the media and the press are all over this Royal Mail privatisation story. Yet they were eerily quiet about the backdoor privatisation of the NHS. Apparently the right of everyone to send and receive letters is more important than the right of everyone to be treated for deadly illnesses.
Back at Glastonbury Billy Bragg is complaining. Apparently people keep asking him “why aren’t there as many political bands as there were in the 60s and 80s?” and apparently the answer is, “It’s people first. If young people go out there and start marching then people will start writing songs about what you’re aspiring to. It doesn’t work the other way around. Martin Luther King didn’t march on Washington because Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A Changin’, it’s the other way around.”
It’s a cute soundbite, but shows how out of touch the Old Left really are. In the 60s and the 80s marching was very much the only platform, the only way to make a noise and get heard. There’s not as much of that as there used to be, but now there’s the internet. Activism is no longer limited geography and physical possibility. There are 100s of leftist blogs that have a huge audience and are a great platform for our views. I genuinely don’t think that left wing activism has ever been so strong in our history. But the likes of Bragg don’t get that. We’re not marching, so it must be in decline. We’re making our points with social media because we can’t be bothered to march.
He doesn’t get it. Most of them don’t. We’re doing things different, better, to how they did things and they don’t understand that. They want to save the Royal Mail, not for practical reasons, but because it’s a British Institution. They want us to march, not tweet, because it creates a greater spectacle, not because it reaches more people. They want to achieve the same things they’ve always wanted to achieve despite the world moving on without them
And if you’re of Bragg’s generation, that’s an easy thing to do. You get to campaign against nuclear power from an idealistic standpoint because by the time the oil runs out, you’ll be dead. Meanwhile our generation are staring down the barrel of a gun, worrying less about creating some wonderful utopian society and more about just ensuring we have any sort of fair and workable society in fifty years’ time.
We don’t have the luxury of their ideology. We’re the realists of the Left. And we’re trying to make sure our generation isn’t utterly fucked.