Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Leftovers #9

Posted by Left Luggage on June 3, 2009

As we reported previously, the entry of No2EU into the political arena has ignited a lively debate on the Left. One positive result of the establishment of the union-backed electoral platform is the way it has raised the question of what the Left’s approach to the European Union should be. Last week, the debate reached the pages of Red Pepper, where European Union expert Leigh Phillips explained in great detail why “it’s hard to claim the EU is a continental-scale democracy”. On the record low turnout expected for this week’s European elections, she writes:

East and west, this is clearly not the apathy of the contented. Rather, it is the rational decision of those who may have little knowledge of the snakes-and-ladders hierarchy of the European institutions – but sense that however they vote, it will make little difference.

As a Brussels journalist, I can confirm that their hunch is mostly correct. The real power in the EU lies not with elected MEPs, but with a clatch of committeemen, civil servants and diplomats.

Phillips goes on to cite an estimate that the European Parliament has a substantive say in only 15% of EU legislation, with the unelected European Commission accounting for 70%.

Given these claims, it is perhaps surprising that Phillips argues against “the blinkered defence of national sovereignty” she attributes to No2EU, advocating instead “another version of European politics, one that is internationalist and democratic, not intergovernmental and technocratic.” The reader is not enlightened as to what that might mean in concrete terms.

Dave Osler makes a similar case for the “democratisation” of the EU, and argues that arguments for withdrawal from the EU risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater:

Of course there is much that is reactionary about the EU, not least its constitutionally entrenched neoliberalism and a pervasive Fortress Europe mentality. But it has progressive aspects as well.

In today’s Europe, it is inconceivable that France and Germany could go to war. And that is a good thing. The 2004 enlargement marks the definitive end of the cold war division of the continent, and is another step towards a united democratic Europe.

No2EU’s late and much maligned efforts aside, the absence of any credible Left challenge in the UK at these elections is a cause of much dismay for socialists around the “blogosphere”. Vengeance And Fashion laments the lack of a serious Left alternative and makes a number of suggestions on what an effective electoral vehicle should be like. His second suggestion echoes points we have made ourselves:

Launch and build the party openly and democratically.  The PCS seems to be doing the right thing, embarking on a wide ranging discussion and consultation with members.  This stands in stark contrast with the undemocratic foisting of No2EU onto RMT members by the leadership.  The launch conference for the party should be after a period of discussions and meetings at a local level, with interested parties but also ordinary members of the public.  A similar method was used in the launching of the New Anticapitalist Party in France.

Five years ago, this is exactly how Respect billed itself: as a coalition of activists from social movements and trade unions that would articulate progressive policies on issues important to ordinary people. In the eyes of many on the Left, the Party was in reality an undemocratic stitch-up between the Socialist Workers’ Party and the personality cult around George Galloway MP. The two factions have now split, but the arm associated with Galloway last week announced its intention to present a Left wing solution to the current political crisis at the next General Election:

The case of electoral reform has never been stronger than it is today. Unless and until MPs truly fear the wrath of their electors then the room for sleaze and incompetence remains. The case for a proportional voting system is now overwhelming. Respect will be adding our voices to this call over the coming months. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use this political crisis to extract real change from our discredited leaders. But if progressive forces are to have an impact on the current situation then we also need to raise our game for the General Election – an election which must be called by summer 2010

It was against this background that the National Council of Respect met on Saturday 23 rd May. After a wide-ranging debate we resolved to attempt a much larger electoral challenge than previously planned. We would like to stand candidates in many more seats, where MPs have been found to have their betrayed the trust of the electorate.

The attempt to capitalise on the mood for reform engendered by the expenses scandal makes sense, but Respect will need more than a single issue campaign against corruption to build long term support. As we and others have consistently argued, any successful Left party will have to engage with the most basic and immediate social problems facing working class communities.

The absence of what David Osler calls a “hard left” electoral challenge has lead some to advocate the Green Party as the best Left alternative. The Guardian’s John Harris joined the chorus last week, while acknowledging the Greens’ middle class “hair shirt” mentality. (Incidentally, the latter phrase is clearly borrowed from a comment on our own post on the Greens…)

The indefatigable Peter Tatchell is a probably a good thing for democracy, but his role as a Green parliamentary candidate denotes a strand of left politics that will surely only appeal to the most pious urban liberals. Neither should we cut less ideological Greens any unnecessary slack: on one occasion, their more thrusting elements have proved so keen to tear up traditional orthodoxies that they’ve gone into coalition with the Tories (on Leeds city council, between 2004 and 2007).

But here’s the case I keep hearing from my Green-voting friends. Look at the basics of their platform – not just the core stuff about sustainability, but policies covering such Westminster taboos as a living wage and thoroughgoing reform of the banks. When it comes to their more unreconstructed elements, better any number of raffia-weaving zealots than politicians pledged to the largescale maintenance of both a busted political system and an equally threadbare economic credo.

Away from elections, a debate about industrial militancy and the state of working class political culture is underway between academic Gregor Gall and The Commune’s Chris Kane. Like others, Left Luggage has contrasted the relatively low level of industrial and political radicalism in Britain with the situation in many European countries. Just this week, we featured a report quoting the CEO of a recruitment company who expressed gratitude about the passivity of the British workforce compared to their European equivalents. Nevertheless, there are important exceptions to this trend and some have seized upon these as proof of a rising tide of militancy. Citing as evidence the Visteon occupations and the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes, Kane argues that a real and significant upsurge in resistance is taking place.

These past months of revived activity and assertiveness by workers have been remarkable: it is clear evidence that there is an alternative to simply accepting the recession. It offers the possibility of gathering together the forces of the labour movement to challenge the employers’ offensive now underway. The choice facing the working class could not have been posed more starkly than when Wales TUC general secretary Martin Mansfield called on the congress to “drive forward partnership working” with employers, a new wave of unofficial strikes were breaking out down the road at Milford Haven in South Wales spreading to Vale of Glamorgan and a string of other sites.

Kane argues that “communists” should help harness this mood by assisting in the development of democratic rank and file networks that challenge the conservative union bureaucracy.

Gall urges caution, arguing that we cannot generalise from the limited examples of construction workers and the Visteon occupiers to the rest of the workforce. He identifies two main features that distinguish these groups of workers from most others: their ability to easily halt or slow production and so force concessions from their employers, and the collective political culture and spirit of solidarity that exists between them.

Kane responds by accusing Gall of defeatism, and claims that one has to go back to 1986 to find actions comparable with the Visteon occupations. Somewhat hopefully, he argues that “historical experience shows the left again and again being taken by surprise by workers’ action from below, pushing ahead of its own low expectations.”

There was certainly one glimmer of hope last week, as workers at the Linamar plant in Swansea voted overwhelmingly for strike action to defend their union rep, Rob Williams’, who was seemingly sacked for supporting the Visteon occupations.

Finally, Joe Thorne at the Commune penned an insightful piece about crime last week that made suggestions similar to some of our own. The writer stresses the role of economic inequality in creating the environment for crime to flourish, but acknowledges that an ultra liberal approach to crime leaves the Left out of touch. Crucially, he also emphasises the importance of communities themselves dealing with crime.

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