Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Leftovers #11

Posted by Left Luggage on June 21, 2009

Before this month’s European elections, the No2EU platform had been both written off as an undemocratic, nationalist stitch up and vaunted as laying the promising foundations for a new workers’ party. All of this became rather academic once the results came in and No2EU joined the long list of far left contenders to have received a derisory vote in national elections.

Gregor Gall produced a detailed analysis last week of the reasons for No2EU’s failure. In his view, these include the low level of understanding in Britain about the EU’s neoliberal role, the fact that No2EU chose to target the EU rather than the New Labour government, the absence of a British referendum on the EU (which would have polarised views and created an opportunity for anti-EU arguments) and the way the platform’s name was phrased to obscure any “class message”.

Given all this, there is a danger that, instead of advancing the struggle against new Labour and neoliberalism, No2EU actually sets it back.

A disappointing vote for a left-of-Labour project can dent the willingness of other forces to get involved in creating a united and progressive radical front because people’s confidence in the viability of such a project has been undermined.

As we reported previously, the disappointing performance of No2EU and the success of the BNP have lead to renewed calls for “unity” on the Left. Respect’s Salma Yaqoob has shown interest in a coalition with the Greens, while the Socialist Workers’ Party issued an “open letter to the Left” indicating the Party’s willingness to resurrect a Socialist Alliance-style initiative.

The debate (such as it is) on how to go about constructing an alliance has so far been narrow in scope, but there does seem to be some evidence of a divergence between those like Yaqoob, who aim to align themselves with liberal “progressives” and those who seek a coalition of the “hard Left”. (There does not so far appear to be much awareness of the need to address broader questions such as the way the Left is organised, its priorities and the best strategies for building support.)

Liberal pressure group Compass hosted a conference addressed by New Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, Green MEP Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Adam Price and Respect’s Salma Yaqoob, among others. A Green socialist wrote a report of the event for the Socialist Unity blog, in which he commented appreciatively on the “non-sectarian“ nature of the conference but also made some criticisms:

It seemed to me that there were two great limitations apparent at the conference. First was the almost total lack of involvement by the trade unions, apart from UCU and PCS. The second was the very narrow electoral perspective of virtually everyone on the day, as though political activity is restricted solely to political parties (plus NGOs for some) during and in preparation for elections.

Only Adam Price (who actually talked about workers control and said that inherited wealth is morally unacceptable!) and to an extent, Salma [Yaqoob], said much about political activity as part of the daily life of working people, although Caroline [Lucas] did make reference to the need for a new politics in both her speeches.

From reading the report of the conference, it seems that one of the few concrete areas of agreement was over the need for a joint campaign for electoral reform. While urgently needed, electoral reform on its own would merely be an attempt to restore legitimacy to a badly tarnished political system. Labour-linked think tank the IPPR’s proposals for “Citizens’ Assemblies” to reconnect the public with the political class can be seen in a similar light.

The gathering at the Compass conference nevertheless suggests that closer links may develop between liberal groups to the Left of Labour, and even that those on the Left of the Labour Party might join forces with such groups. Labour leftwinger John McDonnell served notice last week that leftwing Labour MPs might stand in the next General Election as “change candidates”, on some sort of mini manifesto to the Left of New Labour’s. Such candidates would not, however, be entirely independent of the Labour Party, as McDonnell’s concluding passage makes clear:

Of course, they will be standing as Labour candidates but binding together as a slate of candidates committed within Labour to advocating a change programme, setting out the policy programme they will be advocating as a group and supporting in parliament if elected. Only in this way can we demonstrate to the supporters that want to come home to Labour that there is the hope and prospect of change.

The strategy of standing “change candidates”, then, seems like the latest attempt from the Labour Left to lobby their Party leadership to take a more progressive direction. In a polemical leaflet distributed at the Compass conference, The Commune made clear their attitude to this approach:

This week the Times described Gordon Brown’s administration as ‘a government of the living dead’. This was perhaps an over-estimation of the Labour Party’s remaining life. There is no ‘left revival’ in the Labour Party, just Keynesian rhetoric by the same people who presided over a decade and more of neo-liberalised social democracy. There is no democracy in the Labour Party, just conspiracy and deal-braking. There is nothing to be gained by ploughing funds into the party: members of affiliated unions should demand that it stop.

Following the SWP’s open letter published after the Euro elections catastrophe, it seems that even the limited goal of cobbling together a loose-knit coalition of existing small socialist groups is encountering problems. According to a report from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Party would prefer to pursue their links with the RMT rather than get involved in another far-left alliance, while the Communist Party of Britain insists that the Peoples’ Charter is the best basis for a Left campaign.

Labour member Dave Osler’s angle is that the SWP’s track record of trying to control and co-opt previous “unity” initiatives will not encourage others on the Left to take its invitation seriously. In a vitriolic passage, he writes:

The SWP’s call for unity stands exposed for the cynical manoeuvre it was surely designed to be. Sod principled unity with other far left forces; all the letter signifies is a crass attempt to gatecrash the No2EU roadshow, which now seems set to mount some sort of intervention at the next general election.

For the benefit of any SWPers reading this, the fact is that your organisation’s tactics over the last decade have pissed off the wider left to the extent that it will take a political generation before its main constituents will be ready to work in formal alliance with you again.

Sure, you can write off Bob Crow as a trade union bureaucrat. But the reason his doesn’t want you guys on board is entirely understandable. This is the price you pay for the multiple car crashes you have presided over in the last ten years, while still arrogantly incapable of admitting error.

New blogger Stargrave is one of the few to go beyond criticisms of specific groups and instead attempt to identify the problems that apply to Left parties and sects generally. Having argued that it is misguided to put any faith in trade union bureaucrats as fighters for the interests of the working class, Stargrave suggests it would be equally foolish to hold out any hope of salvation delivered by Trotskyist groups, who he claims are equally distant from ordinary working class people:

The cadre-based “revolutionary socialist” organisations in some cases resemble alternative religions for their members. It is there in the way that sacred texts by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or even the minor guru of that particular sect is quoted as a substitute for original thought, or consulted in moments of doubt or uncertainty. This is not to underestimate the appeal of alternative religions – everyone has a need for security, for belonging – for something to fill the empty spaces in lives made miserable by capitalism or prejudice. Rigid and hierarchical belief systems give a feeling of safety and security to the insecure and remove the need for the labour and personal exposure entailed by independent thought.

The leadership of Trotskyist sects are a different matter. Some of them have been in power in their little empires, unchallenged by few apart from those soon to depart the organisation for many years. Some of the groups have had the same leading groups of people in charge, elected on a slate, for 20 or 30 years. For the “failed Mandarins”, the social failures and petty megalomaniacs who have often led these groups their privileged positions have been routes to personal-egotistical, and sometimes economic or sexual self-aggrandisement that would have escaped them in most other walks of life.

The solution, then? To build local and national networks that “defend, build and extend independent, direct democratic workplace and community organisation”.

The First Post also addressed some deeper problems that contribute towards the irrelevance of the Left to the lives of working class people. The Left, claims writer Neil Clark, has too often prioritised the defence of liberal social values at the expense of genuinely socialist policies. It has emphasised “middle class issues and preoccupations – civil liberties, identity politics and human rights” rather than “economic leftism”, leaving it out of touch with those it aims to represent.

As if to prove the point, Labour Left Forum carries a piece on the elections that prescribes the following solution to Labour’s current malaise:

The party needs to become as radically liberal as the public mood, and throw off its hard-won reputation for being curmudgeonly and authoritarian by restoring a shedload of lost rights and finding a way to capture the national imagination by going further.

Judging by recent research we reported on, suggestions that the British public is “radically liberal” are extremely wide of the mark. On economic issues, however, there should be a huge opening in the market for leftwing ideas.

Finally, we came across a video clip that readers might like to reflect upon. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News interviewed SWP national organiser and leading Unite Against Fascism member Martin Smith about the victory of the BNP in the European elections. Clearly for UAF the failure of Plan A (attempted vilification of the BNP as “Nazis”, calls for state sanctions against the Party and insistence that the BNP are not a “respectable, mainstream” party) has lead them to embrace the strategy of… more of the same. We’ll leave readers to decide for themselves what potential BNP voters might make of Smith’s arguments that all parties except the BNP are entitled to freedom of speech, and that the Party supports Adolph Hitler and the murder of six million Jews.

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