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Gary Younge
Comrades, we're back

As the miners returned to work the despondency of having attached myself to a lost and noble cause set in. Advising against despair, older activists convinced me that this was little more than the periodic bump and grind of the class struggle. We were now moving into a "downturn", they explained, when the right would make ideological headway and the left would be on the defensive. But as sure as the sun would rise in the east, they insisted, things would improve. Confidence to resist attacks on living standards, working conditions, discrimination, low pay and no pay would return. There would, they asserted confidently, be an "upturn".

Waiting for the upturn, over the past 16 years, has felt like being cast as one of Beckett's tramps waiting for Godot. Unsure of when it would turn up or what it would look like even if it did, there was little to do but hope. There were, of course, isolated events to savour, like the repeal of the poll tax, Nelson Mandela's release and Livingstone's victory in London. But each one promised more than it could possibly have delivered - the swallows were sighted, but the summer never came.

Until now that is. For there is a fragile but discernible sense that the tide is beginning to turn. Gradually, unevenly and erratically comes anecdotal and empirical evidence of a mood swing. An indignant, stroppy strain of political optimism which suggests that resistance is worthwhile, change is possible and alternatives desirable. The upturn is here.

I am all too well aware that this may be the wishful thinking of a believer whose dream has been too long deferred. At first glance the omens are not brilliant. Under the most rightwing Labour government ever, industrial action remains incredibly low not just in comparison with our past but also with almost every other country.

So why the optimism? Firstly because campaigning is producing results. Pensioners received this year's increase through protest, not patronage. The same is true of students in Scotland and tuition fees. And while the number of days lost through strike action dropped between 1998 and 1999, the number of ballots on industrial action doubled. Of those on strike action, 95% showed majorities in favour; of those on action short of a strike, the figure was 91%. In nine out of ten cases, according to the Trade Unions Trends survey, they won all or some of their demands. Part of this is undoubtedly down to a booming economy. But the upshot is that it elevates protest from the kneejerk moral response of a minority to a practical means of improving the lot of the many. When people win or see others win they gain in confidence and the likelihood is that they will fight again.

It is also producing results at the polls, where a persistent voice has emerged to the left of Labour. After the Scottish Socialist party saved its deposit in the Falkirk West byelection John Curtice, the deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, wrote: "What is notable is that this is the fifth byelection in a row in which a candidate standing under a socialist label has passed the 5% threshold. It is easily the best record for the far left in postwar Britain."

Anecdotally, it feels as though, after years of struggling to get people to even sign petitions and attending meetings that could have been held in a broom cupboard, the left is no longer just talking to itself. Last month more than 1,000 people turned up in central London to a meeting about an obscure but pernicious trade agreement, the General Agreement on Trade in Services, with more left outside pleading to come in. Reclaim the Streets activists bringing the City to a standstill; local meetings to support asylum seekers of several hundred strong; large anti-racist meetings in Bristol - these are snapshots of recent times that contribute to a bigger picture.

The vista is hazy. A mood is, by its nature, undefinable and unquantifiable. But it is also pervasive. We are not talking barricades in the streets here. But from the growing self-assertion of black and Asian communities following the Lawrence report to a commonsense view, born from bitter experience, that the railways were a privatisation too far, this shift to the left will be widespread, substantial and stubborn.

Paradoxically, the left have Labour to thank for some of this. While it is the government they are usually fighting, it is partly because there is a Labour government that they have a chance of winning. There was never any point trying to appeal to the Tories' better nature because they never had one. But there are expectations that come with Labour - equality, fairness, social responsibility - which no amount of rebranding can dispel. With an election due this is a point both the left and Labour would do well to remember. Claiming that there is no significant difference between New Labour and the Tories is a convenient refrain - it is also untrue and unhelpful. Claiming that the left is insignificant makes a good soundbite - but it will not motivate the base Labour needs to maintain a decent majority.

Unlike previous upturns, this new wave of militancy will neither be union-led nor necessarily reflected in any substantial way within the Labour party. Labour has neutralised its internal levers of democracy. The quarter of a century or so since the last upturn has left a generation with only an abstract notion of what trade unions are for and a transformed workplace of part-timers, teleworkers and contract casuals who are non-unionised.

The days of gauging leftwing opinion by charting resolutions to conferences are over. Unlike the last one in the 70s, this new phase will not have the century-old traditions of the Labour and trade union movement, but nor will it have the bureaucracy and conservatism that come with them. With new technologies and less structure it will move faster and with more volatility. It will be more female and less white, but also economically more privileged.

Its emergence will present opportunities for the left but also massive challenges. At the first sign of summer some will be tempted to bask in the sun only to get burned from over-exposure. The upturn may be here. But now they have to work out what kept it away so long and what we can do to make sure it stays.

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