Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Interesting insights from Mark Steel

Posted by Left Luggage on June 23, 2009

Interviews with lefty celebrities aren’t normally the kind of thing that interests Left Luggage. The Third Estate’s interview with comedian and former Socialist Workers’ Party member Mark Steel, however, contains a couple of insights relating to Left strategy and the structure and organisation of the SWP.

His disgust at the SWP’s behaviour over the Respect split and the Party’s treatment of then executive committee member Linda Smith is palpable. The most venom and bitterness is reserved for the SWP’s “Open letter to the Left“:

“I don’t think anyone will take the blindest bit of notice,” Steel says and it’s hard not to miss the sense of bitterness in his voice now. “It’s hilarious! You can’t go round trashing everything and everybody and then… you know, it was awful, really, really awful. It was particularly awful for longstanding SWP members, because you’d think, what the hell are we doing?”

We’re not the kind of blog to delight in “sectarian” attacks on particular parties or groups, but there is a serious point to be made about how groups on the Left relate to one another. Anyone who has had substantial experience of leftwing politics will be depressingly familiar with the Machiavellian tactics of groups who put their own recruitment before the needs of alliances, coalitions or campaigns.

The more important points Steel makes relate to broader questions of Left strategy. Several times, Steel makes the point that the only way to win support and trust is to be seen to make a difference on the immediate issues that concern people most:

“Whether something succeeds or not is not just a matter of whether it has a figurehead that gets on the news and so on, although that is very helpful, but it’s about getting a group of people in every area who seem to be doing things.” It seems an obvious starting point and Steel is quick to point out that it’s nothing new. “Going back to the English Civil War, that’s how agitation groups managed to get some sort of hearing. It’s not just being on the radio and saying things that people like.”

Of course, the state of the Left would be more depressing than even I imagined if the only successes it could tout were almost four centuries ago. Steel’s more recent inspirations can be found in the Scottish Socialist Party. “The SSP managed to get to a point where it could get 7% of the vote across the whole of Scotland,” he says. “That’s because Tommy Sheridan and his colleagues were known through the 90s, not just because they campaigned over the poll tax, but also when people who refused to pay had bailiffs coming round, the SSP organised people in the area to defend that person’s property.” It was a tactic, Steel argues, that was very successful both in the short-term and in the long-term. “In the short-term it meant people’s armchairs weren’t dragged out by the bailiffs. In the long-term it meant the poll tax was defeated.” Steel notes that they won themselves an immense amount of credibility over that. People trusted them.

These “obvious” lessons urgently need to be learned by the Left today, who for the most part neglect community campaigns on bread and butter issues like crime, housing and litter.

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