What matters is winning and holding political power. For the left, that is not quite the same easy proposition as it is for the right. To be on the left is to want to assert social justice and challenge exploitation from whatever quarter. To support a growing social movement with militancy on the streets, however offputting it might be to many swing voters, surely advances the cause more than the graft, self-discipline, compromises and laser focus needed to win a British general election. Too often, a factional vision of the utopian best has been the enemy of the feasible good.
It is certainly true that passionate social movements that attract the left can be powerful forces for change – think environmentalism. Their strength is their focus that can lay the foundations for subsequent change. But you can’t build a political party and broad-based coalition around single issues.
Worse, street campaigns, rallies, political strikes and marches aimed at achieving broader “socialist” gains have rarely ended in success – if the yardstick is winning elections and a chance to advance the progressive cause. Thus, over the 1970s and mid-1980s, lefttrade union activism resulted in one of the greatest setbacks to working-class interests in any advanced industrial country.
First, Labour’s attempt to create industrial democracy with workers on boards as a better way to improve industrial relations than legislation to diminish union power was killed. Opposition to the third year of Labour’s social contract followed in the winter of discontent. That set up 18 years of Tory government, with Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers losing an unwinnable strike to create the political space for another wave of anti-union legislation.
The UK labour market is now the most deregulated in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, shot through with abuse and areas of chronic exploitation. A position of strength was thrown away in 10 years, albeit against a determined and guileful opponent, and a many millions-strong precariat created.
The open question is whether another emergent position of political strength is about to be squandered in a parallel way. As matters stand, up to 2 million people will not be able to pay October’s fuel bills, while those who can pay will be plunged into fuel poverty – about two-thirds of all households by January, on some estimates. In one poll, two-thirds of parents fear they will not be able to pay for essentials for their children this winter. Insecurity, intensely squeezed living standards and fears of destitution stalk the country.
Two fledgling online movements have emerged in response. One is the Enough is Enough campaign, demanding a wealth tax, sweeping nationalisation, a hike in universal credit, slashed energy bills and a £15-an-hour living wage, which, trying to capture a mood, it intends to back with days of action, rallies and strikes. But Enough Is Enough is more a shadow left party than a focused, single-issue social movement and its inevitable trajectory on past performance risks factionalising the left, posing party-management headaches for the Starmer leadership and potentially jeopardising a winnable general election.
More intriguing is the Don’t Pay UK campaign, modelled on the one successful social movement since the war – the late-1980s campaign against the poll tax that led to its withdrawal and the fall of Margaret Thatcher. As many as 17 million people refused to pay this regressive universal levy, which Thatcher wanted to roll out in one big bang – abandoning the guile and caution that had framed her earlier policy programme – to replace progressive domestic rates based on property values. The rank unfairness prompted demonstrations and a potential mass campaign of disobedience. The government caved.
Don’t Pay, modelling its campaign on the anti-poll tax campaign, wants by 1 October a million signatories who will simultaneously cancel direct debits to energy companies on the day the £3,600 price cap kicks in. This is civil disobedience in the cause of decisive action on fuel bills and if a million act simultaneously it would offer protection in numbers. The obvious concern is that energy companies will either cut people off – unlikely – or insist on installing more expensive pre-payment meters, although again the bad publicity may deter them. A greater deterrent is the unseen hand of credit rating agencies downgrading people’s status, making borrowing more expensive, though there is potential, if uncertain, protection if millions are in the same boat. In any case, in circumstances such as these, for many what is the worth of an unsullied credit rating?
With approximately 140,000 signatories, Don’t Pay is growing too slowly to meet the million-petitioner target by 1 October, but its potency is beginning to attract attention. All will depend on prime minister Liz Truss’s response – assuming she wins the Tory leadership. The auguries are that she shares all the very rightwing prejudices and impatience of Thatcher’s latter years but none of her earlier guile and political craft, which could result in shock and awe rightwing policy programme. If Truss does stick to her campaign promises, regressive tax cuts will form a significant part of the mooted energy relief package and wider help will be neither sufficiently generous nor well targeted. On top, she is considering a bonfire of the remnants of labour market regulation, while in energy policy spurning cheap renewables and opting for further reliance on expensive, carbon-intensive fossil fuels. She may please her right, but the wider criticism will be intense.
If so, Don’t Pay will get the boost it needs to attract a million signatories and the opportunity to inflict a potential poll tax-style reverse on the prime minister. It may even force the separation of the gas price from energy tariffs. Equally, it will be obvious to all that winning the next general election has become the paramount aim and that feasible good is better than any utopian best. But if Enough Is Enough thus loses momentum, it might yet force some necessary hardening in some of Labour’s policy stances. Truss’s destiny may be to save the left from itself – and turn hitherto unsuccessful social movements into sources of strength.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist