Socialism With a Northern Accent – Review

Paul Salveson subtitles his book ‘Radical traditions for modern times’, which immediately raises a question as to whether practical proposals for social organisation from more more than a century ago can be considered relevant to the present, over and above a need to engage in new thinking.

But first let me praise Paul’s work in recovering in loving and passion-filled detail what he calls the ‘lost traditions’ of the radical, socialist and labour movements of Northern England. Strangely enough for myself it was more a case of a reminder and a great deal more detail. I was already aware of the traditions of mutuality and solidarity, of the links to the Primitive Methodists and Congregationalists, of the Clarion Cycling Clubs and the whole plethora of communal organisations that were particularly strong across the north of England from the mid-nineteenth century into the first half of the twentieth century. That says much about the quality of history education I received back in the 50s and 60s at grammar school and university. This recovery of both the detail and the culture of these traditions is the strongest part of the book. Buy it and read it for this, if for no other reason. It is an entertaining and informative survey of grassroots socialism and a celebration of what it once meant to be working-class. Whether that can be recovered or whether we have to build something new from scratch is another issue.

However, I think there are several critical faults in the substantial argument of the book. Right from the start in his Introduction, Paul is addressing a broad constituency within the Labour Party and returns to this argument at the end of the book. It is as if this was a minority report from within the ranks of the Party for the benefit of those already members or who are at least consistent supporters. The argument is weaker for those who have become fundamentally detached from the Labour Party as a result of its cultural and political shift since the 1970s and particularly during the Blair-Brown years. Having one of that latter government’s chief cheer leaders provide the Foreword does the book a dis-service in that respect. It is weaker still in that it fails to reach out in a convincing way to either the older ‘far left’ Marxists, anarchists and syndicalists, or to the new emerging movement that has, to all intents and purposes, separated itself from both the mainstream left wing parties as well as the more marginal socialist and green organisations.

The appeal to localism does not bear critical scrutiny. Salveson claims that ‘despite an increasingly global economy and media, people still doggedly identify with their region, their locality, their community’. This may be a fashionable mantra among the political chattering classes, and it may feel that way in parts of the Colne Valley, but there is precious little evidence beyond a suspicious attitude towards London and the Home Counties. It is made worse by the cynical espousal of some of the concepts of ‘ethical socialism’ by the Coalition Government (‘The Big Society’) and the sudden adoption by the Labour Party of ‘co-operative’ ideas as a means by which to out-source precarious local services as a false option to cuts. That these two falsehoods are intrinsically linked is too obvious by far.

Translating this unsupported belief into a demand for yet another layer of government at a time when interest in all levels of political administration from the European, through the national, regional, local and parish, is in steady decline, has to be regarded as nonsense. John Prescott’s attempt to foist a regional government on the North East met with refusal by a majority from a minority who could be bothered to vote in a referendum and this was due as much to generalised lack of public interest than any failure to campaign.

There is a genuine argument to be had about the relevance of the kind of socialist ideas rediscovered by this book. There are points of convergence between ethical socialism and the kind of new thinking that is prevalent in movements such as the Social Forums, Uncut, Occupy X and the various attempts to forge a new anti-capitalist alliance among the present generation of radical activists. There is a thirst for a non-sectarian, libertarian, communally-based re-think of how we can do politics in the 21st century.

It is a tragedy that Paul Salveson has narrowed down the ideas and principles of ‘ethical socialism’ to an electoral strategy for the Labour Party and then hitched them, through the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, to the wagon of a campaign for a northern regional government. We do not need more politicians playing politics and seeking to rule over us – at both national and local level most of them are a pretty uninspiring shower. We need inspiration for ordinary people to take direct charge over their own lives, workplaces and communities and to seize power from the one per cent (or perhaps ten per cent, if we include the so-called ‘co-ordinator’ class). Most of us are sick to death of the uninspiring mediocrities who profess to ‘represent’ us but spend most of their time ignoring us and following their own agenda[1].

Sadly, this book misses the point. It starts from nostalgia (justifiable, for my goodness, wouldn’t we all wish that there was such a vibrant popular socialist and labour culture today!), links itself to a perceived crisis of legitimacy in the Labour Party, and tries to invent a solution to the latter dilemma. It does not start from the real movement of working people or from their real and pressing concerns. Sorry – this is just another cul-de-sac.

As politics this book is a waste of some fine history. But read it all the same.

[Paul Salveson, Socialism with a Northern Accent: Radical traditions for modern times, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2012]


[1] I will happily exclude Paul Salveson himself from this calumny, as also a few others, like Mike Lavalette in Preston, who seem motivated by something more than self-aggrandisement.

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