The Left and the Margins

The Left is haunted by the prospect of becoming a subculture divorced from mass politics – but the history of our movement shows that marginal spaces play a critical role in liberating society.

Rock Against Racism emerged in the 1970s in response to growing support for the National Front. (Credit: Getty Images)

If you’re involved in the ‘scenes’ around leftwing politics or alternative subcultures, and you come from one of the industrial towns and cities of the south coast—let’s say the Medway towns, Portsmouth, or Southampton—you’ll have a complicated relationship to Brighton. You’ll undoubtedly have been there, whether it’s to go to a gig or a social centre, to a conference, or just to visit a record shop, and you’ll have found first a sense of freedom that you didn’t have at home.

You’ll have found that there’s no chance in the centre of Brighton you’ll get shouted at or chased for any visible signs of difference – something that was a statistical likelihood on an average weekend in the towns mentioned above when I was growing up in the 1990s.

That sense of freedom and acceptance is exhilarating at first; I know people who moved there because of it, and Brightonians are rightly proud of it. But you always know that you’re in a bubble, an enclave from the rest of non-metropolitan southern England, and this gives that freedom a certain unreality. My brother lived there for a couple of years, and caught this in his one-word description of the place – ‘toytown’.

This makes it a good place to consider the role that subcultures and alternative scenes play on the left. They can at first be invigorating and freeing things to experience, but for the most part they are clubs, not movements. If you’re working class and/or black you’ll often find that especially acutely – the awareness as you enter the scene that it has an elaborate series of codes and rules which nobody has told you, but which you somehow must have known already (the story ‘Crossings’ in Juliet Jacques’ Variations describes a hair-raising example of this in the city’s queer scene).

Commenting on the basic unreality of a given scene will not win you many friends. Nor will pointing out facts like—for instance—that the Green Party, stronger here than anywhere else, have been known not to bother canvassing Brighton’s few but visually prominent council estates. So what is the relationship between subculture and the left, and how should we relate to the occasional demand that the left be more ‘normal’?

First things first, the left simply can’t solely be a subculture if it aims at power, by definition. We aim to change the entire economic and social system in this country and worldwide, and we aim to convince the majority of the population of the need for this. You can’t do that if you’re a club, or a scene. A little less interest in being cool at all times wouldn’t go amiss, too; as one wag on Twitter correctly pointed out in reference to the reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Tax the Rich’ dress, a mass movement is going to involve a lot of cringe, so we better get used to it.

It would also be useful to retire the fallacy that having interesting cultural tastes might make you politically or in any other way interesting – think here of Keir Starmer’s hilarious Desert Island Discs, which combined the cool music he actually listens to, like Orange Juice or Northern Soul, and the charity and football records his focus group tells him he should pretend to like to be more in touch with the ordinary, naff little people (could we also remember the fact David Evans once played bass and sang in a very minor post-punk group?).

But that doesn’t mean that subcultures and alternative cultures haven’t had an important role for the left – on the contrary. As Tribune has constantly pointed out, the ‘world of labour’ always had a cultural element, creating its own institutes, clubs, and institutions as an alternative to the values of mainstream society, long before the idea of a counter-culture became associated with middle class radicals.

From the early revolutionary years of the USSR to 1968 to the 1980s to the present day, subcultures have at their best been an incubator for new freedoms and new ideas, both collective and individual, which then go on to find much more widespread acceptance. The organised left has always been at its worst and most reactionary when it has rejected these in order not to scare an imagined socially conservative ordinary ‘voter’.

The classic example here might be the ‘loony left’ of the 1980s, organised around local authorities in London, Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere. Non-metropolitan ‘voters’, noted the Labour leadership around Neil Kinnock, were either unaware or unworried by the economic agenda of these radical councils, but were repelled by their closeness to social movements, and their vigorous support of LGBT, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist movements; accordingly, Kinnock hung them out to dry.

Yet at almost every step of the way, the ‘loony left’ were proven correct in their own culture war, and their apparently unpopular—even ‘lunatic’—positions such as opposition to Section 28, support of equalising the age of consent, support for the ANC, and support for dialogue with Irish Republicans, to name a few, all became consensus politics and in some cases law under New Labour. To use an obvious contemporary example, the same argument should be made about the left and the fight for transgender rights in 2021. However inconvenient solidarity with that battle may apparently be now, we know very well how those who stand in its way will be seen in a decade or two’s time.

So there has to be a way to establish friendly links between subcultures and a mainstream mass movement for power. The 1980s left actually has plenty of still inspiring examples of doing so. The free festivals and musical events of the Greater London Council drew on the way Rock Against Racism had brought the undoubtedly subcultural (and undoubtedly political) scenes around punk, roots reggae, and 2-tone under a wider political umbrella, using it to create microcosms of convivial solidarity.

Around the same time, during the 1984-85 strike, the young communists of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners ignored the notion that people in pit villages were ‘socially conservative’, and gave the National Union of Mineworkers their uncritical support. The NUM itself, only a few years earlier, had went much further than the mainstream of the trade union movement in support of the south Asian women striking at Grunwick’s in West London.

What these movements all did was not so much to refuse a ‘culture war’ as such, but to refuse fighting on their opponents’ terms, which set up a divide between ‘ordinary decent people’ and sundry deviants and loonies. Actually, their actions proved, that divide was porous, much more easily breached than many might think. The means of breaching it is one of those simple things so hard to achieve: solidarity.