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Moderation Won’t Cut It

Establishment commentators are calling for Labour to abandon transformational politics at the moment we can least afford it, argues Zarah Sultana.

Here are two stories about me, both true.

In the first story, my granddad was a foundry worker in Tipton who put down roots in the West Midlands. He had a secure union job, but I grew up in a bitterly changed region. As a teenager I saw the foundry laying off workers, and blaming cut-price competition from China and India. The streets where I lived were once proud places, heartlands of production and community. By the time I came along, a senior police officer had said my school would produce only gang members. 

I worked retail jobs to get through university and then left with £50,000 of debt. Not long ago, university had been free; gradually, steadily, everything seemed to be getting tougher. Austerity after 2008 only exacerbated the work done by decades of deindustrialisation, emaciating schools and hospitals as jobs drained away. British capitalism is fickle: using, abusing, and discarding working people as it pleases.

Twenty-nine of thirty voting areas in the West Midlands voted for Brexit, and countless politicians missed the point. After years of a consensus that rejected the possibility of economic transformation, this was the opportunity of a lifetime to register dissatisfaction with distant and complacent power. Chickens came home to roost. New Labour did enormous good, from Sure Start to the minimum wage, but Tony Blair also said his job was to ‘build on’ Thatcher’s work. So many of our deepest challenges in places like the West Midlands predate David Cameron’s time in office. Of course, much beauty and goodness endures here. But I’m angry, so in the caricatures of Britain’s culture wars I might look like a Leave voter.  

In the second story, my grandad arrived in Britain from Kashmir, seeking opportunities and a part in Britain’s post-war rebuilding effort. He soon faced racism, and was cast as an outsider. It was a cruel irony; he had journeyed from the Empire to the metropole to continue the tough work that made Britain rich. ‘We are here,’ as the anti-racist writer and activist A. Sivanandan put it, ‘because you were there.’ 

I was seven years old on 11 September 2001. I learned what it meant to be Muslim in Britain under the shadow of the War on Terror, with its illegal wars abroad and attacks on civil liberties at home. I saw a Labour government refuse to stand up for asylum seekers, then watched a Tory prime minister refer to immigrants as a ‘swarm’. 

Hardly any politicians had the courage to demand something as basic as shutting down the degrading detention centres where Britain housed thousands of refugees and migrants. This is an open and connected world only for the rich; capital flows freely across borders while the global working class is harassed and punished whenever it runs, from poverty or persecution. I’m angry, so in the caricatures of Britain’s culture wars I might look like a Remain voter.

These look like two different stories — the Brummie kid who wants jobs and community again, and the Muslim girl worried about Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism — because we have let our politics be dominated by the wrong divides. The economics of abandonment and the politics of racial bitterness are really just two sides of the same disaster capitalist coin. Labour should oppose this binary. 

Two truths have been lost. Firstly: that the working class whose sweat and intellect made Britain a global power always came in many hues. Secondly: that the full fruits of our labour were never ours. Workers all have that in common. 

Rediscovering these truths means embracing clear anti-racist class politics. I don’t mean the politics that speaks of working-class people as a peculiarity, a collective mass to patronise.  I mean the politics that champions us against a system built not to serve us but to exploit us. I mean the politics that was visible so briefly after the Grenfell fire, when a community with origins all over the globe was left to die because their lives were seen as cheap, and millions responded with outrage. That is the truth of climate change too; those who get rich trashing the planet will build walls high enough to protect themselves while the global poor will bear the costs.

Anti-racist class politics is the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, and learning from the last four years we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Labour didn’t lose because our policies were too radical. Instead, Brexit undermined our electoral coalition and left us tied-up in parliamentary manoeuvres — making us seem like just another establishment party. Our narrative wasn’t clear enough, and our messaging wasn’t sharp enough. But the irony now is that endless commentators are calling for Labour to abandon transformational politics at the moment we can least afford it.

The scale of the climate crisis means moderation won’t cut it. The only answers are radical. Socialists across borders will need to link up to campaign for an international Green New Deal. It will tax the super-rich and take on polluting profiteers who wreak havoc from Brazil to Bangladesh. It will create new, green industries that will save our communities while saving our planet too. None of it will be possible without confronting the existing order, where 100 companies are responsible for 70 per cent of global pollution. Our lives are threatened by their pursuit of profit. 

Call it ‘taking back control’ if you like — taking control away from the billionaires and winning it for workers in every corner of the planet. This means being clear that our allies are the dispossessed everywhere, and our enemies arrive by limousine not dinghy, with green politics as a new class politics for our age. 

My generation grew up being told there was no alternative to cuts and declining opportunities. That was miserable enough. Now that dismal economic model is putting our planet in peril.

We can be the generation that rises to this existential challenge. We can end the cycle of capitalist destruction. As our planet burns, we must make good on the promise of an old socialist hymn: We will bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.