Rethinking the relationship between party and movements

Ben Wray argues that a clear distinction between movement and party, and a respect for the different pace of politics and ultimate objectives of each, is essential if both are to succeed.

What are ‘movements’? In lieu of a commonly held definition, I’ll venture to provide my own: citizens standing up against exploitation and oppression and for political change by combining together on the street, in communities and in workplaces in a distinct, conscious continuum of action. ‘Distinct’ in the sense that it is identifiable in its own right from more formal political formations like parties and NGOs, and ‘conscious’ in that those involved are aware that they are part of something bigger than the sum of its parts. Given this definition, movements will always be essential to any process of systemic change because they provide the energy which creates the possibility of a rupture with the status quo. Unfortunately, sometimes this knowledge can be a curse for leftists because it’s raised to a level of sublime faith in the power of movements to change the world.

The history of movements should have taught us by now that whilst they open up great possibilities for transformation, they all at some stage in their cycle fracture and dissipate on account of the very contradictions which make them so powerful in the first place. The contradictions are obvious: people combine together in large numbers usually because they have a shared aim, but they continue to have different ideological and political perspectives about the world. As far as any organisation exists in movements, it is by its very nature loose and temporary, having incorporated a large number of people in a short space of time. The movement is held together as long as there is a clear trajectory towards achievement of those shared aims, but when that trajectory becomes unclear or when some limited concessions are achieved, movements can quickly run out of steam. The energy with which movements rise cannot be sustained indefinitely and only through the achievement of regular successes on our side and regular mistakes on their side can it continue to renew itself for any prolonged period of time.


The student movement of 2010/11

An obvious example of this is the student movement that kicked off against the coalition government’s move to raise the cap on tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 in November 2010. Despite achieving a number of minor reverses, the movement was unable to prevent the government’s bill passing largely intact by a small minority of 21 amidst a significant parliamentary rebellion. The energy created by hundreds of thousands of young people taking action against the measures was deflated and the movement quickly fractured. The next significant action after the major 9 December demonstration against the bill was on 30 January 2011. Whilst the stated purpose was to reverse the decision, it was quite clear that the leadership of the movement had already turned their attention elsewhere, such that the protests were marked by the left of the movement shouting at National Union of Students (NUS) leadership, and NUS calling the left of the movement ‘splitters’.

The residue of this movement has taken on a variety of forms, some activists having joined the Greens, others becoming active in Palestine solidarity groups, joining feminist networks, signing up to Labour or the SNP, continuing work through official student union structures or joining the ISG in Scotland. Many more remain between such organisations or have fallen out of political activity altogether. Yet nothing that came out of the student movement in Scotland or in the rest of UK could claim to have been able to have bottled the energy of the student movement and directed it towards an effective, long-term challenge to capitalism. I may be biased, but in my view the most effective initiative that could be said to have emerged out of the student movement is the Radical Independence Campaign, which is not student-led at all, but was initiated and is to an extent led by activists who cut their teeth on the student movement of 2010/11.

On 10 November students occupied 30 Milbank, campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party

On 10 November students occupied 30 Millbank, campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party

The point is this – a left party needs movements and movements need a left party but we haven’t got the relationship between the two correct as of yet. On the one hand we place too much emphasis on the transformative potential of movements when we should be aware from experience of their in-built contradictions. On the other hand we do little to provide effective frameworks of organisation that can both support movements on the up and accommodate the movement’s activists on the way back down. The tendency is to scramble for leadership on the up and when the movement fragments bring as many people with your part of the leadership on the down, which leaves most activists disorientated and demoralised.


Supporting movements

What do I mean by supporting movements? First, it should be understood in distinction to a scramble for leadership. That is not to say members of a party shouldn’t try to exercise leadership within a movement where strategic or tactical re-orientation is necessary, but that any party which attempts primarily and by default to seize control of any given movement will jeopardise that movement’s success as well as inevitably weakening its own credibility.

The role of a party should be to support a movement’s development first by trying to win political support for its cause in wider society. This is important and is often ignored. Movements can quickly believe they are the centre of the universe when most of society doesn’t know what they’re arguing for and how it relates to their lives. This is why there is often a tendency for ultra-leftism to emerge in movements – the energy of the movement radicalises those involved more and more, but this energy has little relation to how effective the movement is in winning broader political support. Generally the most important aspect of winning support in wider society will be orienting activity toward parliament: whilst most elected members will inevitably condemn movements for their radicalism, socialists can use parliament as a platform to highlight the real aims and goals of the movement to wider society. The tendency is for left parties to obsess about convincing those involved in movements of their case, rather than trying to influence and shape the broader societal debate about the movement. We should emphasise the latter over the former because it is what will actually help the movement achieve its aims.

The second part of supporting the movement is to provide practical solidarity. This can come in many forms such as connecting students with trade-unionists, raising funds and organising rallies, but the point is that the party should use its resources and networks to help the movement achieve a victory. In this the left has a better record.

The final aspect is that the party should have an honest political analysis of what needs to be done for the movement to achieve its objectives over the long-term. This shouldn’t be presented in a preachy, partisan manner which presumes the necessity of membership of a given organisation. It should be done rather in a practical and political way – most people involved in movements are aiming for systemic changes to society and therefore explaining a broader strategy for achieving that is not an insult as long as it comes across as a genuine effort to achieve political goals not just a partisan attempt to promote one’s party interests.

When he visited Scotland for the first RIC conference, Benoit Renaud of Quebec Solidaire – the Quebec left party that has representatives in parliament – described in similar terms to those developed above the way in which their party supported the huge Québécois student movement. This support was both political and practical – while many of the student leaders were members of Quebec Solidaire, the party itself focused on its role in spreading the message beyond students, providing practical solidarity and explaining the political implications of the movement. Quebec Solidaire members handed out tens of thousands of broadsheets and newspapers and when the movement dissipated after the government was defeated, they were respected for their role in supporting it.

Québec Solidaire played a key role in the success of the Québécois student movement

Québec Solidaire played a key role in the success of the Québécois student movement


Engaging with movements on their own terms

There is an important distinction I am making here between a party that tries to be the movement and ties all of its purpose to the success of the movement, and one that accepts it has separate end goals to the movement but tries to support it politically to achieve success on its own terms. The pace of politics for an electoral party and a movement are entirely different; if you try to crudely build the former through the latter it’s likely the trajectory of both will take the same path. But if you maintain the wider aims and policies of the party and try to help the movement achieve success on its own terms then the party can be respected for its role and be genuinely useful in building a movement that can achieve its stated objective. If a serious electoral party of the left had existed in Scotland when the student movement was at its height, it would be a natural home for many of the activists afterwards. A clear distinction between movement and party – and the different pace of politics and stated objectives of both – can make it much more likely for both to grow strong.


Earlier instalments of the ‘What sort of left party do we need’ series may be found here:


The case for an electoral party

The case for training and expertise

The case for tolerant democratic discipline

The case for politics, not just beliefs 

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