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Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

Community engagement II: ultra-local political work

Posted by Left Luggage on July 29, 2009

We’ve previously mentioned the work of Pleasley Hill People’s Network, a group set up near Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire, which aims to build organisation and political involvement in a small area of this former mining community.

There’s now a podcast of an interview with Mark Jones, who initiated the group, online here and it is interesting to hear of the challenges this group has faced setting up, the issues it is attempting to tackle, and how it plans to go about this.

Mark mentions the lack of any form of self-organisation in the area previously, a situation replicated in many areas of the country and one that the Left could be focusing on addressing. We wish Mark and the group much success. The long-term political dividends of this kind of work – if initiated on a wide scale – should be obvious.

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Posted in Community, Strategy | 5 Comments »

Community engagement I: playing the long game

Posted by Left Luggage on July 29, 2009

As our post yesterday examining the most recent and prospective developments with the No2EU initiative argued, the bulk of the Left seems intent on forever chasing electoral cycles in hastily-formed platforms rather than engagning in the hard-work of building self-organisation in working class communities.

It’s a curious strategy considering how ineffective it has shown itself to be in lifting the Left from the margins politically or bridging the gulf with the vast majority of working class people. Yet it is still pursued. The reasons for this failure to take questions of strategy seriously are not immediately obvious, but there seems to be a fundamental distinction between those who view political work as a matter of “intervening” and those who view “building” as the key task. This is something we hope to explore in another post soon.

One thing that’s clear is that “building” takes as it starting point what has been described as “the politics of everyday life”: political work that does not necessarily take on an explicitly political form, but is interested in winning trust, building political culture, community, and organisation. In other words, tasks that are totally appropriate for a defensive posture that recognises the current state of play. This is long, hard work. But we on Left Luggage have argued consistently that it is the only way forward. A comment on yesterday’s post summed this up well, arguing that to build working class politics it is really only “the long game or nothing”:

the left might accept that you cannot parachute into working class areas and expect instant credibility, particularly if the comrades you are sending in are people who have actually don’t have a clue about life in these areas.

Perfectly timed for this discussion is news of the Independent Working Class Association’s under-12s football tournament held in Oxford. The event sounds like a fantastic day, with about 250 people turning up including coaches from Swansea and London. It is just one of many forms of community engagement the IWCA has initiated in the city:

The IWCA in Oxford has, in its short history, managed to organise events such as a Saturday morning Children’s Cinema Club, a SATs booster course for school children and numerous community away-days — on top of it’s many political activities.

The article also points out that even until quite recently the Labour Party itself had established social and cultural links in working class communities:

But even as recently as the mid-1990’s, Labour still had social and cultural links with working class communities in places such as Oxford through it’s Labour social clubs and their affiliated sporting associations.

Such forms of organisation once formed part of the bedrock of the labour movement but they have withered and died in most places. There are important lessons for the Left, which for far too long has eschewed such everyday activity in favour of “interventions” that do nothing to establish deep roots or organisation in working class communities.

Posted in Community, Strategy | 1 Comment »

Electoral project risks repeating past errors

Posted by Left Luggage on July 28, 2009

no2eu 2.0Not much has been heard of the No2EU initiative since its disastrous result in the European elections. But obviously there has been much activity behind the scenes, as blogger A Very Public Sociologist reports. Apparently at a recent national steering committee meeting it was decided to press ahead with the formation of a new platform with the core of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party of England and Wales, the RMT and possibly some other unions:

In the immediate term the steering committee appointed a working group that will report back in September. Its remit is to come up with an alternative name and a basic programmatic document that can be added to later. In addition, another union besides the RMT will be present at the September meeting and committee members will be talking to the leaderships of a further four unions about their participation.

According to the report, there seem to be some good things coming out of this initiative. One of those is the mooted discussions with four more unions about participation in the platform. If that were to occur, it would no doubt mark a significant moment in terms of the historic political/economic division of labour within the labour movement. Also, there seems to be some hints of recognition of making links with localised campaigns and small community-oriented parties:

Dave [Nellist, Socialist Party councillor in Coventry] also said he would like to see the coalition sit down with localised defenders of public services who already have some representation – people like Wigan’s Community Action Party and the Socialist Peoples Party in Barrow. But they’re only going to come on board any sort of left formation if they feel they have a say in its development.

As has been argued on Left Luggage, the number of community action groups has swelled enormously in the last ten years – charting the decline of the Labour Party as an organisation with a grassroots presence – and although many campaigns are formally apolitical, they articulate many of the values and ideas the Left should be championing.
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Posted in Elections, New workers' party, Strategy | 1 Comment »

Gramsci and the tasks for the Left

Posted by Left Luggage on July 25, 2009

Antonio GramsciThe Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is one of the most abused and also most useful of Marxist thinkers. His theories of ideology and hegemony are particularly vital tools for the Left today.

But they have also been appropriated and often stripped of their class content by the liberal academy which seem to forget Gramsci was a founder member and later leader of the communist party in Italy and that this was the context of his thought. In the 1970s and 1980s the so-called “Eurocommunists” used Gramsci to justify a retreat from social struggle. His work was latterly taken up by academics involved in “discourse analysis” who, although they found regrettable the “economistic residue” of privileging the role of class in his analysis, nevertheless took up his ideas now stripped of this archaic content.

This could happen partly due to the mystifying nature of his most important work, The Prison Notebooks, written in a coded style while his was imprisoned by Mussolini, but it is also due to the power of his thought. Yet precisely because Gramsci in his notebooks written between 1929 and 1935 is reflecting on a period of utter defeat for the Left, with the triumph of fascism and the destruction of the communist party, he is useful for us today. Clearly we are not in a period of defeat in any way comparable to the moment in which Gramsci was writing. But nevertheless, the Left in Britain finds itself at low ebb historically, with its political forces small, its influence low, and its ideas marginalized.

On Left Luggage we try to avoid straying into too theoretical territory, trying to stick to straightforward analysis, strategic questions and “common sense”. Therefore, we will only summarize a selection of key points that can be found in Gramsci’s thought, focusing on what we might effectively call counterhegemony i.e. the most urgent task from the Left’s point of view today.
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Posted in Class, Socialism, Strategy | 1 Comment »

The radicalism of action, not words

Posted by Left Luggage on July 20, 2009

We’ve argued previously that the Left needs to tackle such thorny issues as anti-social behaviour, crime, and morality if it is to launch itself from the political wilderness to centre stage. Blogger Vengeance and Fashion took up these issues in an excellent post that furthered this debate. Generalising from the case of teacher Peter Harvey, who was charged with the attempted murder of one of his pupils, the writer goes on to discuss problems of behaviour in the classroom and how this relates to wider changes in society.

He relates his analysis to the Independent Working Class Association’s identification of a “lumpen attitude”, highlighted in a previous piece on Left Luggage, that is ultimately counter to working class values and destructive to communities. The writer correctly argues that the Left as a whole needs to recognise such attitudes and behaviour as something that needs to be countered:

It doesn’t do the left any good to pretend that the attitudes of a significant section of the school population stink.  The constant invokation of ‘rights’ and selfish disregard for anyone else (be they other pupils or teachers) is prevalent in many classrooms.  As is the baiting of teachers, who have little real power over pupils.[…]

The lumpen attitude, as identified by the IWCA, of ‘venal and brazen opportunism’ and the decline of working class ideals, is undoubtedly as a result of the atomisation and decline in traditional working class organisations and institutions. This has in turn led to a decline in the working class values identified in the quote above, to which I would add the spirit of self and collective improvement. This does seem to have been a significant factor behind the escalation of problems in the classroom over the last 30 years.

Much of the Left might find fault with this analysis, given the strong tendency to romanticise an idealised “working class” while largely remaining distanced from it. Even if such a heretical notion were permitted, the solutions offered would not doubt be along the lines of: “Unless we abolish capitalism…”, merely reinforcing the Left’s impotence as regards practical politics in the here and now. V&A attempts to bridge this gap by suggesting a “twin-track approach”:
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Posted in Education, Morality, Strategy, Youth | Leave a Comment »

Lessons learned from anti-war organising

Posted by Left Luggage on July 19, 2009

An interesting post at the Socialist Unity blog last week asked what happened to the anti-war movement that developed to oppose the war in Iraq and brought up to a couple of million people on to the streets. The post has been produced as the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan mounts and dominates the agendas of the media and politicians.

A first point to note is that the post’s author Andy Newman doesn’t quite fix on what precisely he is discussing, shifting from assessing the “anti-war movement” to an “appraisal of the Stop the War Coalition”, to “the Stop the War movement”. These are not synonymous; almost anyone involved in activism around the Iraq war will recognise these mean different things; many people I know from local groups truly resented the STWC for its centralism, its lack of democracy, and its London-centric nature.

Nevertheless, the thrust of Newman’s argument is precisely the structural problems of the STWC, largely its non-demoncratic nature and the dominance of the SWP, meant that local groups split into either those that operated as “SWP fronts” and followed the line decided by STWC centrally, or they became less political local coalitions that – because of the non-democratic nature of the STWC, largely ignored its edicts:

The result was that the Stop the War Coalition became a relatively ossified national organisation, that often viewed the local groups as being suspiciously off message (the local groups tended to be more politically conservative, but imaginative in practice than the national leadership). This also meant that the debate that needed to be held about strategy never happened.

This is a pretty fair outline and serves to highlight how non-democratic organisations like the STWC (whose annual “conference” is almost entirely a parade of Left celebrity speeches and the election of the national officers by a single-slate system) are hindered operationally by their very structure. Rather than centralisation making decision-making more effective, it actually hinders it, especially in a context without the disciplinary mechanisms to ensure “centralism”.
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Posted in Anti-war movement, Community, Strategy | 3 Comments »

Accounting for culture in class analysis

Posted by Left Luggage on July 18, 2009

It seems one of our recent posts about the social class composition of the Left has come in for some criticism in the blogosphere. One blogger who linked to our piece this week reveals his inclusion of us in the round-up “led to some criticism in [his] inbox for [his] endorsement of that kind of class analysis”. It is a pity these comments were confined to private emails as we very much welcome constructive (in the sense of comradely) discussion and criticism on all the articles on Left Luggage.

In the post in question we tried to delineate two definitions of class, one based on a structural economic analysis (a broad definition) an one based on social or cultural criteria (a narrow definition). The point seems obvious to us. However, we can understand that many on the Left will recoil at such an argument. I had a debate recently with a friend who argued university lecturers were very bit as working class as factory workers. True in one sense, as we admitted. Yet to be blinded to the very obvious differences between these two groups of workers is to be blinded by one’s own ideology.

At its heart this is a strategic point. It is obvious that those on the Left are constantly having to make decisions about what issues to take up, what tactics to adopt, who they attempt to reach and how. Much of this is automatic and, one might say, unconscious; poeple do what is “common sense”. Equally, much of this, particularly in the far-left parties, takes the form of commands from above. Regardless, the point still stands.

Obviously there are an infinite number of possible options facing Left activists in making these decisions. Even more obvious is the fact that some actions (and slogans, arguments, issues etc.) will resonate more with ordinary people than others, some will be better at mobilising, some will be more effective in their goals etc.

Our argument is essentially culture plays a central role in defining what is “common sense”  to different people. It would not be unfair to say that the Left pretty much has its own subculture that is reproduced by its members. It is also true to say that the social class demographic of the Left as a whole is not representative of either the population at large nor working class people.

If one takes account of culture and how ideas about what seems “natural” are formed, it becomes clear that an economic account of class is too crude a tool; even if the university lecturer and the factory worker have a similar position in the relations of production, this does not mean their ideas, experiences, culture etc. will be identical. Such an understanding, while valuable, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of social class and the role this plays in making choices. This affects the Left all the way down the line strategically.

Blogger Vengeance and Fashion makes the point well that the Left needs to engage the working class where it is, rather than where we wish it would be. He is referring the “ultra-Left” groups and the tendency to prioritise theory over action, and also the danger of action for action’s sake. But the point applies equally to the Left’s attitude towards “intervening” in struggles with its own ideas of the important issues facing working class people, rather than attempting the long hard task of understanding and building from where things stand:

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.

Criticisms, comments and stinging ripostes are, as always, very welcome.

Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 9 Comments »

Leftovers #13 – Debating anti-fascist strategy

Posted by Left Luggage on July 11, 2009

The debate about the lessons to be learned from the British National Party’s (BNP) victories in the European elections continues to loom large on the Left. We recently provided an analysis of trends and problems within mainstream anti-fascism, and others have been adding to the discussion. Unfortunately many are continuing to argue for the same ineffective strategies that have failed to halt the BNP’s rise up to now. Here’s a summary of what’s being said.

“Electoral fronts are not enough”

First up is Kofi Kyerewaa writing at The Commune on the notion of “no platform”. No doubt the tack of the article was inspired by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) action outside the Palace of Westminster that saw BNP leader Nick Griffin’s press conference curtailed under a hail of eggs, placards and chants of “Nazi scum, off our streets”, along with the potential prosecution of the party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Kyerewaa places the origin of “no platform” with National Union of Students’ policy of the early 1990s, a point those with a history in the militant anti-fascist movement might resist. He argues strongly that the Left should oppose attempts to encourage forms of state action against the BNP:

Electoral victories for the BNP shows that it isn’t working. Such adherence to the principle of being willing to physically fight but not ideologically fight the BNP is absurd when they are close to controlling councils and have elected members of the European Parliament. The BNP are not going to be banned. Neither should we clamour for it: fascist ideas are not defeated by state diktat.

Though the idea that the Left as a whole is currently willing to “physically fight” the far-right is rather odd (and it would be a ridiculous strategy if it were the case), we must take the point that we need to combat the far-right ideologically and in practice. At present although the Left is willing to do the former (contra what Kyerewaa suggests) the problem is that the Left is stymied by its strategies and priorities. Ideology is inherently related to action and it is on both fronts that the Left is weak. Kyerewaa ably stresses this point, and proposes some attractive solutions that have long been avoided:

When socialists are campaigning on bread and butter issues like council housing or unemployment, working class people are dealt out rhetoric and propagandistic activity rather than mutual aid and support. The hard-left’s love-hate affair with the Labour Party has crippled it in acting independently on delivering social solutions. The BNP have been growing steadily in councillors, a prelude of bigger electoral gains, because they canvass through door-knocking much more than the radical left. Electoral fronts are not enough: we need a political project that is long-term in thinking and is relentless in building a constituency in communities and not just in remote trade union bureaucrats’ offices. […]
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Posted in Anti-fascism, Strategy, Working class | 2 Comments »

Leading the fight back?

Posted by Left Luggage on July 10, 2009

In the first of what we hope will be a series of profiles and interviews with groups and activists, we interviewed Ben Robinson of Youth Fight for Jobs about the campaign’s aims and tactics, as well as the challenges it will face. Ben is writing here in a personal capacity, and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of YFfJ as a whole.

Please tell us the main aims of Youth Fight for Jobs and how it is seeking to achieve those aims?

The Youth Fight for Jobs campaign was launched in January 2009. As we saw it, youth unemployment was set to continue rising, with the situation of mass youth unemployment becoming the norm for a whole number of years. Not only that, but the main parliamentary parties were still committed to an agenda of privatising and attacks on the working class. Education privatisation and a lack of decent services were also set to be a feature of young peoples future. After a general election university fees will almost certainly be raised, cutting out many working class youth from education. So the campaign was launched, not only to combat youth unemployment, but also to fight for a future for young people. So the headline aims of the campaign are for the right to a decent job with a living wage, for apprenticeships with jobs at the end, and against university fees. There is also a broader set of demands that appear on the website and on the leaflets.

Those aims can only be achieved through mass action of young people and workers. Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems will not introduce these measures if just asked for it. It will be a question of building a mass movement in order to make it clear that this is what the majority of people want. I think the example of the French youth movement against the CPE is the best recent example of how that strategy can win victories, but also the anti-poll tax campaign in the early nineties, the school student strikes in the mid eighties in Britain, but also in france and spain. These show very clearly that it is possible to fight and to win.

YFfJ seems to be a campaign with very ambitious goals. What would constitute a success for the campaign?

This campaign is going to be around as long as mass youth unemployment is! I think there are a number of battles which will take place over specific issues. In September, many universities and colleges face savage cuts in their budgets, with whole courses going in a lot of cases. In addition, tens of thousands of young people will be excluded from university because of a government miscalculation. In January, the government are introducing compulsory working for some unemployed young people – there will have to be a battle to ensure that young people are not used to drive down workers wages and conditions. There is clearly going to be a massive battle over pay in the public sector. I’ve already mentioned the prospect of university fees going up as well. I think that activists from the campaign will be involved in all of these struggles, and clearly a victory on any of them would be a success. Local groups are getting together and forming demands locally for the campaign on the question of youth unemployment and lack of opportunities in those areas as well. But those examples are defending young people and workers from attacks on our present conditions. The stated aim of the campaign is to win a decent future for young people, and we will fight until we achieve it.

There is also a question over whether capitalism can achieve our demands. From the point of view of those in power, the vastly wealthy ruling class, unemployment is good as competition for jobs can help drive down wages. The recent news that ‘bonuses are back’ shows just how little the rich have had to pay for the present crisis. But for a programme of socially useful job creation, to end unemployment and provide decent jobs and education for young people, and the population as a whole, would take a massive struggle. I think that some of the demands can be won under capitalism. After all, the NHS and other reforms were won on the basis of a mass movement. But I also think that there’s a fundamental divide in society between the interests of the tiny rich elite and of the mass of the population. If capitalism cannot afford to implement and maintain a decent future for young people, I think young people can’t afford capitalism.

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Posted in Class, Interviews / features, Recession, Strategy, Workers' struggles | 6 Comments »

Breaking the vicious circle of irrelevance

Posted by Left Luggage on July 8, 2009

Regular readers of Left Luggage will know we regularly distinguish between working and middle class people in many of our analytical pieces. We largely take this distinction for granted and also stress its significance, unlike much of the Left which favours a more widely encompassing notion of working class.

To an extent we agree with this economically-based definition of class, which stresses workers’ place in the structure of the economy as being the crucial variant that both provides the material interest in and the strategic location for an overthrow of existing social relations. On the other hand, if we confine ourselves to an economic definition of class we exclude important elements of power and culture without which we can easily become strategically hamstrung.

We have argued previously that the Left in Britain is currently dominated by middle class people. What do we mean by this, why is is significant, and how?

One measure of the social class of the British Left would be to examine the social and occupational backgrounds of activists. Dealing with generalities is unavoidable here, but we would argue it is patently the case that middle class people (on this definition) predominate. While many on the Left baulk at the measure, the standard sociological grading of class – using the ABC1 C2DE system – provides a useful measure. It is obvious that for much of the Left, sets B and C1 are vastly over-represented. It is impossible not to generalise, but think of teachers, administrators in the public sector, university lecturers, and students from parents in such occupations. This is purely anecdotal, and many people may disagree. But studies have also shown that so-called “new social movements”, issue-based campaigns such as peace and environmental movements, are dominated by socially middle class people.

Why is this significant? Well, if we acknowledge there is more to people’s ideas and ideologies than simply their relationship to the means of production, we have to start to take account of culture as an important variable. On a simple level, the point is obvious: people with different life experiences will have a different conception of the world, different assumptions and expectations about what is normal, desirable, or possible. We would recognise this intuitively when comparing, say, someone educated at a public school with wealthy parents with someone from a comprehensive school with working class parents. But we fail to recognise less glaring differences between middle class and working class people. So social class creates gaps that are perfectly bridgeable, but nonetheless need to be recognised.
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Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 5 Comments »

Where now for anti-fascism?

Posted by Left Luggage on July 5, 2009

Following the initial attempts by mainstream anti-fascists to spin the European election results, are there any indications that lessons have been learned from BNP’s victory?

There are differences in the strategic approaches of Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism, but in the past, mainstream anti-BNP campaigns have shared a number of features. What are these features, and are they still intact following the Euro elections?

1) “Denying them the respectability they crave.”

This element of the strategy is aimed at those who might be tempted to vote BNP – presumably those on low incomes, who hold hardline anti-immigration views and who are disenchanted with establishment politics. The goal is to put off potential BNP voters by creating the impression that the Party is “beyond the pale” of what is respectable. Elements of this strategy include emphasising the “Nazi” pedigree of certain BNP leaders, listing BNP members’ criminal convictions and arguing that they’re somehow trying to “take advantage” of the democratic process in order to undermine it. To the degree this tactic is successful, it has the useful side effect of legitimising arguments for legal restrictions on the BNP. If they are not a “normal” political party, there is no reason to extend to them the rights enjoyed by other parties. This argument for legal restrictions is often referred to as the “No Platform” argument (although militant anti-fascists might protest that “no platform” means something quite different).

In the case of UAF, all three elements of this strategy appear to have survivived the Euro election car crash in tact, judging from the interview SWP and UAF leader Martin Smith gave to Channel 4 News. Searchlight, however, seems to have abandoned this strategy on the grounds that the BNP has already achieved respectablity. The organisation’s founder, Nick Lowles, admitted:

We also have to accept that the political landscape has shifted. Searchlight comes from a proud tradition of No Platform, a belief that fascism should not be allowed to air its politics of hate publicly. We have always opposed legitimising fascism through public debate and where fascists try to incite hatred within communities through provocative marches and actions, we have backed mobilisations against them.

While I still adhere to this in principle I also believe that we have to accept a new reality. Firstly the BNP has MEPs and whether we like it or not Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons will appear more regularly on television. No platform agreements between political parties were already breaking down before the election, with only Labour holding to them, and this process is likely to quicken now.

Although Searchlight seem to have quietly shelved “No Platform”, there is no sign that UAF will do the same. The group’s main constituent organisation – the Socialist Workers’ Party – hinted at its intentions with a passage in its open letter to the Left:

The Nazis’ success will encourage those within the BNP urging a “return to the streets”.

This would mean marches targeting multiracial areas and increased racist attacks. We need to be ready to mobilise to stop that occurring.

The BNP’s “real aim” (so the SWP story goes) is not to win elections, but to use street violence to foment racial tension. Therefore, it should be treated as a Nazi criminal conspiracy rather than a political party. Tactics appropriate for dealing with a rival party (refuting your opponent’s arguments and trying to convince people of your own worldview and arguments) are pointless because they do nothing to stop the BNP achieving its real aims. Instead, our focus should be on the street-level activities of the far right. Its public marches should be robustly countered with “shows of force” that will demoralise the fascists. A glance at UAF’s “events” page shows how the group’s activities revolve almost entirely around demonstrations and rallies.

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Posted in Anti-fascism, Strategy | 10 Comments »

Leftovers #12 – Left (dis)unity and more on the equality debate

Posted by Left Luggage on June 29, 2009

Can the various Left parties, sects and groupuscules unite around a basic socialist programme in time for the General Election next year? Are they at all likely to attract electoral support if they do?

Judging by the responses to the Socialist Workers’ Party’s open letter to the Left, the first question is unlikely to be answered in the affirmative.

Unlike the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty – who responded immediately by requesting talks with the SWP over the creation of a Left coalition – the Socialist Party probably feels it is in a position of strength vis-a-vis other Left groups at the moment. As one of the players in No2EU, the SP has formed links with the RMT, and hopes to be part of an platform involving Crow’s union at the next General Election. On the industrial front, the SP plays a central role in the National Shops Stewards Network, which held a sucessful conference at the weekend. Leading shop stewards in the high profile union victories at Enfield,  Swansea and Lindsey were all SP members.

Confidence shines through in the SP’s reply, but so does its distaste for the SWP’s previous conduct. The first section of the reply is spent addressing the SWP’s failure to acknowledge the formation of No2EU (mentioned only twice in Socialist Worker). “To try to ignore the existence of an initiative as significant as No2EU undermines your stated aim of opening a discussion on creating an electoral alternative for the general election”, it says, before concluding:

Unfortunately, we believe that your brushing aside of No2EU is an indication that your methods have not changed. You claim that: “Unity is not a luxury. It is a necessity” but as a party you have never been prepared to countenance working together with others in an honest and open fashion unless you hold the reins; hence your wrecking of the Socialist Alliance and your splitting from Respect. Far from playing a positive role, your approach has actually complicated and delayed steps towards a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales.

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Posted in Elections, Ideology, Leftovers, New workers' party, Strategy | 2 Comments »

Inequality and the battle of ideas

Posted by Left Luggage on June 25, 2009

Tuesday’s report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on public attitudes to inequality shed some light on the state of the battle of ideas that is underway between Right and Left.

The headline findings might be taken to support the suggestion that there is negligible support for the world view and policy proposals of the Left. This was certainly the conclusion of the Guardian, which chose to concentrate on the fact that 69% of respondents said they believed that there were plenty of opportunities for economic advancement, for those willing to take them. Other findings that many on the Left might find depressing include the widespread assumption that benefit claimants will not go on to make a positive contribution to society (p25) and the fatalistic attitude that inequalities are “inevitable in a market economy” (p47).

All of this underlines the challenges faced by the Left in attempting to convince the public of their position. David Osler made this point in a post on the JRF report:

All of this represents a major problem for any left that is actually interested in expanding it base. Capitalism – and the inequality it creates – continue to enjoy moral legitimacy in the eyes of an overwhelming majority.

While the unfolding recession has generated popular outrage aimed against those at the apex of the banking system, clearly general purpose ‘tax the rich’ fat cat-bashing will most of the time have little purchase.

I’m not suggesting any retreat whatsoever from the underlying principles involved. No socialism worthy of the name can be anything but redistributive in nature. But we need to come up with a more effective way of selling the message to the public, and sooner rather than later at that.

If we look at the report in a little more detail, however, we might find more reasons to be hopeful than either The Guardian or Osler. It is certainly true that the report found high levels of support for the concept of “fair inequality” – that differences in wealth were justified as long as those who had more deserved their wealth. There was only minority support, the report found, for “abstract notions of equality” (p43).

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Posted in Class, Ideology, Morality, Socialism, Strategy | 2 Comments »

Positive steps

Posted by Left Luggage on June 24, 2009

A few months ago, we received an email from a reader seeking some advice on how to become politically active. His workplace was not unionised and he felt he lacked roots in the working class community where he lived. His neighbours seemed so disengaged from politics, and the challenge of changing this situation so huge, that our reader despaired.

We replied that we were certainly no experts on organising, but that in our experience the best way to win support, trust and confidence was to tackle the most pressing problems people face. Often these issues do not at first sight appear political, but addressing them can force local councils and other agencies to be accountable to the communities they claim to serve. Crucially, they also increase people’s faith in collective action as a way of improving the social environment.

Our reader got back to us recently with the good news that he had helped set up a community advocacy group in his town. Pleasley Hill Plight has been busy since its foundation a month ago. They have already distributed a newsletter and are planning a range of activities including a community clear-up, a bike race for kids and a campaign to lobby the Council over its regeneration plans.

The founding post on the group’s website makes its stance clear:

As I walk around this area, I do see a community of people. People whose children play together. People who donate to each other, and people who share their skills and their labour when their neighbours need a hand. Yes there are divisions in our own community. But when we stop and think, we are united by so much. When I walk out my door, people are friendly, and talkative. What is lacking in Pleasley Hill is not community, but organisation. It is organisation that has brought about change for communities throughout history. It is organisation that makes authority listen. And it is organisation that has freed people throughout history.

An organised community has the strength to hold its council to account. The ability to enact change through pressure. And it has the power, if it so chooses to reject the authority of the council, and take control of its own future.

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Posted in Socialism, Strategy | 5 Comments »

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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Lindsey and the Left’s priorities

Posted by Left Luggage on June 22, 2009

For those who follow such matters, the dispute over the sackings of 647 workers at the Lindsay Oil Refinery escalated today when more than 3,000 workers at construction sites elsewhere in the country walked out in solidarity. Many of these sites had already come out either last week or earlier this year, but we also see in the Lindsey dispute how crucial is the tactic of the flying picket, which is being used by workers at the refinery. In a remarkable showing, according to the BBC, the walkouts included:

• 900 contract workers at Sellafield in Cumbria
• 400 workers at two LNG plants in west Wales – South Hook and Dragon
• 200 contractors at Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales
• 200 contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire
• Workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire
• Contract maintenance workers at the Shell Stanlow Refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire
• 60 contract maintenance workers at Didcot A power station in Oxfordshire
• More than 1,000 workers at the Ensus biofuel site in Wilton, Teesside

The dispute centres upon the laying off of 51 contract workers who had been at the forefront of unofficial walkouts at the Linconshire refinery in January and February this year that spread throughout the country. The redundancies came as 61 other jobs were handed out to other workers. This led to hundreds of construction workers at the site walking out to defend their sacked colleagues. After a week of wildcat strikes throughout the country,energy giant Total on Friday sacked the entire striking workforce and gave them until 5pm today to reapply for their jobs. A BBC news reporter described the protest at Lindsey this morning:

The first wave of workers marched for nearly a mile from a neighbouring refinery. Police had to close the road as hundreds of protestors paraded through the centre of this industrial estate. As they gathered in the company car park, union officials called for unity – for a show of defiance.

The workers responded. Led by Phil Whitehurst from the GMB, they queued to set their dismissal letters alight. Dozens of them threw the papers into a blazing dustbin to cheers from the crowd. As the bucket smouldered behind us, I asked some of them if they were really prepared to put their principles before their job. The answer was always a resounding yes. I asked again, would they be re applying for their jobs. No, they said resolutely. Some even sounded disgusted at the suggestion.

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Posted in News, Strategy, Unions, Workers' struggles | 2 Comments »

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.)
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