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.
Posted in New workers' party, Strategy | Leave a Comment »
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.
Posted in News, Strategy, Unions, Workers' struggles | 2 Comments »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 18, 2009
Although they have hardly been picked up in the left blogosphere, and have barely got a mention in the mainstream media, wildcat strikes have hit the UK’s construction industry once again in recent days. The dispute is focussed on the Lindsey Oil Refinery site, the centre of the nationwide unofficial walkouts in February this year which became synonymous with the “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan and were criticised by much of the left.
The latest round of action began on June 11, after 51 workers at subcontracting company Shaw UK were made redundant without proper consultation while another company on site, RBC, had recruited 61 workers. Apparently, workers at Shaw UK were at the forefront of the wildcat action earlier this year. Workers say “most of the 51 redundancies were stewards, activists or union members.”
While the British left’s focus is on events on the streets of Tehran, there have been solidarity walkouts at industrial sites across the country, including at Drax and Eggborough power stations in North Yorkshire, at the Fiddler’s Ferry power station at Widnes in Cheshire, at Ratcliffe power station in Nottinghamshire, at the BOC oxygen plant at Scunthorpe, at BP’s Saltend refinery near Hull, and at Aberthaw in south Wales.
Around 1,200 contract workers at the Lindsey refinery, owned by Total, struck this week over the redundancies. The latest news is that bosses have sacked 900 workers for taking unofficial industrial action. Following the redundancies which appear to have been an attempt to force out trade unionists, this move must be seen as an effort to blunt the tool of the solidarity walkouts for good. They have undoubtedly been costly for Total and the subcontractors and with these sackings they clearly to kill them off.
The scale of the walkouts, mostly in solidarity and at risk to workers in other sites, has been hugely impressive and the left’s coolness towards them has been remarkable. Both the GMB and Unite unions are looking into the possibility of a national ballot of construction workers and leaked documents show planning is underway by the Engineering Construction Industry Association to undermine the ballot.
In that light, the sackings take on even greater significance. The stakes have been raised considerably and the response from workers at Lindsey and at sites across the country over the coming days will have a major impact on the balance of forces in the industry and the future of solidarity strikes in general.
Posted in News, Unions, Workers' struggles | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 13, 2009
There have been a number of attempts to downplay the scale of the British National Party’s success in the Euro elections last week. One of the main arguments which has been put forward is that while the BNP won two Euro seats, it’s number of votes actually dropped, proving that people are not turning to the far-right.
There’s a possiblity here of reading the results for the narrative we hope find, rather than facing the true extent of the challenge for the Left and the shape of likely developments to come. It’s correct we need to avoid hysteria, but at the same time we need good analysis to form effective strategies. Despite the risk of engaging in amateur psephology, and the danger of getting some of our calculations wrong, we want to try to break down some of the figures to find out if BNP support is static or if the party is still on the march. So, let’s look at the two seats where the BNP won.
First, the North West. In 2004, the BNP won 134,958 votes (6.4%) out of 2,115,163 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 132,094 votes (8%) out of 1,651,825. So here we have a 1.6% increase in vote percentage but a slight drop in support of 2,864 votes between the two elections. However, this must be set against a decline in turnout of more than 21%! In this context, the BNP’s total number of votes dropped about 2%.
Second, Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2004, the BNP won 126,538 votes (8%) out of 1,573,201 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 120,139 votes (9.8%) out of 1,226,180. Here we have a similar picture. The BNP’s share of the vote is up 1.8% but its absolute number of votes is down by 6,399. But again the turnout fell by more than 22% while the BNP’s total number of votes fell by just over 5%. -Keep reading>
Posted in Anti-fascism, Class, European Union | 3 Comments »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 12, 2009
It has been a busy week in the Left blogosphere with the Euro elections, the meltdown of Labour and the BNP’s victory. Plenty of questions have been thrown up, but most central is the need for the Left to get its house in order and begin rebuilding. This was addressed in a call by the Socialist Workers Party for a new left-wing political initiative to combat the BNP and to resist cuts to services and jobs in the next few years as the Government begins to introduce measures to cut national debt. Although there are some problems with this letter, it’s worth highlighting three important points that the SWP recognises:
Those who campaigned against the BNP in the elections know that when they said to people, “Don’t vote Nazi” they were often then asked who people should vote for. […]
The European election results demonstrate that the left of Labour vote was small, fragmented and dispersed. […]
The SWP is all too aware of the differences and difficulties involved in constructing such an alternative. We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.
Many people will immediately cite the experience of both the Socialist Alliance and Respect – the Unity Coalition as evidence of the immpossibility of such a union being formed. Clearly the severe problems these organisations encountered were not unconnected to the groups involved and their modes of operation. Louis Proyect makes the point well in a post on Socialist Unity, arguing that another “united front” style formation with different “tendencies” coexisting, or contending, would be disastrous. Instead he suggests the Left should leave aside questions of socialist dogma, become more democratic, and begin to address the immediate problems facing the working class:
Posted in Anti-fascism, Labour Party, Leftovers, New workers' party, Strategy | 5 Comments »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 9, 2009
As predicted, the British National Party picked up its first seats in the European Parliament yesterday. With 6.2% of the vote, they won more than five times as much support as the best placed Left challenger. No2EU performed disasterously, and suffered the humiliation of getting 20,000 fewer votes than Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. Bob Crow’s platform barely managed 1% of the vote.
Add to this another strong showing from UKIP and the surprise success of the English Democrats (who won the Doncaster mayoral election and polled at over 2% in the Euros), and this was a very bad election for the British Left. The combined UKIP, BNP and English Democrat vote was 25%, compared to just under 11% for the Greens, No2EU and the SLP.
There are, however, no limits to the capacity of liberals for denial over the failure of the campaign against the BNP. Both Andy Newman and Respect Party Leader Salma Yaqoob in part blame No2EU for taking votes from the Greens in the North West. Others, such as Searchlight’s Sonia Gable, chose to concentrate on the fact that the numerical vote for the BNP fell. Perhaps most ludicrously, blogger Sunny Hundal argues on The Guardian‘s site that the BNP’s success is actually a good thing because it allows us to “expose them in a different way”. He reassures us at the end of his piece:
Most people have enough contact with someone of an ethnic minority to know how stupid racism is. That personal knowledge will always override whatever the BNP says.
All of this is rather like pointing to the fact that 700 people survived the sinking of the Titanic while ignoring the 1,500 that drowned. -Keep reading>
Posted in Anti-fascism, Elections, Strategy | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 4, 2009
Well, the votes for the Euro elections are in. Apparently we will learn of the results on Sunday. In the meantime, and away from the latest in the macabre spectacle from the living dead of Britain’s political classes, we came across this interesting report by the University of Manchester on support for the far-right.
What’s remarkable about this survey is the size of the sample: close to 200,000 people were interviewed by polling company Ipsos Mori. So it can be considered fairly reflective of attitudes among the British population. Apparently the study showed widespread support for many British National Party policies among the population, including “the re-imposition of the death penalty, a total halt to migration and large expansions in police powers.” However, the study found that the BNP suffers from an “image problem” insofar as when many people learn of a connection to the party, they immediately become more hostile to a policy. One of the researchers, Dr Rob Ford said:
The data shows that many Britons are in favour of the sort of draconian measures regularly proposed by the BNP, such as a complete halt to migration, the denial of benefits to migrants and even repatriation of settled migrants. It suggests the BNP could appeal to an electorate far larger than it currently wins over – perhaps as many as 15-20 per cent of voters. […]
Most British voters hold very negative views about the BNP, and one recent survey suggested that British voters become more reluctant to endorse a policy when they become aware of a BNP connection.
This would seem to give some support to the advocates of anti-fascist strategies that focus on “exposing the BNP” or “unmasking them as Nazis” etc., contrary to the approach we have advocated. Yet this was not the most significant part of the findings, because the research shows that even with this so-called “image problem” the BNP is theoretically capable of building support among as much as a fifth of the electorate in the future. Clearly to prevent the far-right reaching this level of support, we require other strategies such as filling the political vacuum left by Labour’s desertion of the working class. -Keep reading>
Posted in Anti-fascism, Strategy, Working class | 5 Comments »
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. -Keep reading>
Posted in Elections, European Union, Leftovers, New workers' party, Workers' struggles | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Left Luggage on June 2, 2009
A survey published yesterday shows just how deep and extensive the attacks on workers’ pay and conditions have been so far during the recession. The figures should also draw our attention to the lack of resistance, apart from a few notable examples, to these attempts to make workers pay the cost of the crisis.
The study, commissioned by the Keep Britain Working website (founded by the boss of recruitment company Reed and supported by the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry) shows that more than a quarter of workers in Britain have suffered a pay cut, and many others have experienced further cuts in their conditions:
Over the past nine months, 27 per cent of UK workers have had their pay cut, 24 per cent have had their hours reduced and 24 per cent have lost benefits, according to the survey.
It found that 37 per cent had experienced only one of these changes, while another 12 per cent had experienced two of them and a further 5 per cent all three.
Two in five workers had been given extra responsibilities, while a fifth had seen the nature of their role within their organisation change. Two per cent had been offered a semi-paid sabbatical and 6 per cent an unpaid sabbatical since the recession began.
With unemployment having so far risen as fast as during the 1980s recession, and faster than that of the 1990s, the Office for National Statistics predicts the number out of work will reach 3 million – 10% of the working population – by the end of the year.
Understandably, the survey finds that 54% of workers are more pessimistic about the job market than a month ago. But Keep Britain Working finds reason to cheer because workers are “making common cause” with bosses. The campaign’s James Reed, chief executive officer of Reed recruitment group, says:
British workers are increasingly pessimistic about job prospects in the immediate future. But – and in contrast to parts of continental Europe – workers appear overall to be making common cause with their managers to help keep people working.
The contrast with Europe, where workers have shown less “flexibility” and greater resistance, should lead to some difficult questions about the Left in Britain and the chronic condition in which we find ourselves. Of course, radicalism is by no means an inevitable outcome of recession; in fact the opposite is often true as workers are made fearful for their jobs. Nevertheless, it is the job of the Left to promote resistance and it is a sign of our weakness that there has been so little thus far and that bosses can salute our “flexibility” in losing jobs and working longer for less pay.
Posted in Recession, Unions, Workers' struggles | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Left Luggage on May 27, 2009
In this week’s Leftovers, we feature the latest developments around the RMT-backed No2EU platform, strategic differences around combatting the BNP, as well as some analysis on trade union militancy, the latest unofficial walkouts, and student occupations.
Plenty has been written about the forthcoming European elections on June 4, though much of it either regarding the failings of No2EU or the possibility of the BNP winning seats.
First, regarding No2EU, an interview with the platform’s Dave Hill (also of Socialist Resistance, which garnered a mention on Left Luggage last week) on Liam MacUaid’s blog has some interesting points and deals with some of the biggest questions that have been raised about No2EU. (It is from the Weekly Worker, however, so does contain some utterly barmy questions.) Regarding the platform’s attitude towards British capitalism and the accusation of Left nationalism, he says:
in my view the enemy is capitalism, based in both the European Union and in Britain. They are the same. What I have been arguing for in the meetings I’ve been involved in is workers’ internationalism with no illusions in the sanctity of British capital. We’re a movement seeking to replace capitalism with socialism – and I’m not just talking about neoliberalism, which is simply the current version of the class war from above.
Regarding immigration and the “no borders” position:
My view is that this is not a time to have completely open borders. On the other hand, I think that the current controls are racist and that people who are in this country should be treated with full human rights and have full workers’ rights. The conditions under which many refugees and asylum-seekers live are horrendous.
He also suggests the platform should become something more permanent rather than disbanding on June 5, as is its stated intention. He also advocated the idea of a “workers’ MP on a workers’ wage”, which is an advance on No2EU’s intention of not taking up seats in the European parliament if elected.
Posted in Anti-fascism, Elections, European Union, Leftovers, Unions, Workers' struggles | 1 Comment »
Posted by Left Luggage on May 25, 2009
As the MPs expenses scandal rumbles on, it is interesting to note that the harshest criticisms in moralistic terms have come from the Right, especially the press. This is not too surprising as “moral issues” issues are generally seen as the preserve of the Right, with the Left generally preferring structural socio-structural over agent-focussed explanations.
In the US this trend is much more well developed than here in the UK. Republicans use the language of right and wrong consistently, for example in the “culture wars” around Bush’s election. There are totemic issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control, but GOP members also used the language of morality in its campaign to abolish inheritance tax in 2001, a change that would have only affected a tiny number of the wealthiest in society. In his book, Death by A Thousand Cuts, Michael Gratz chronicles how the Democrats responded to this proposal with an appeal to self interest – “most of you don’t pay it and, besides, we need the money” – thus making the party seem like the defenders of a corrupt status quo. They didn’t try to argue the moral position of their own: that inheritance is deeply undemocratic and anti-meritocratic.
There is certainly a resistance to talking explicitly about morality from liberals and the Left. Partly this is justified insofar as we have an understandable distaste for the right-wing tendency to reduce everything to individual moral questions, blame social problems on individual failings, and obscure structural injustices. But our reluctance to address issues of morality leaves the field open for the Right (and the Christian Right in the US) to position itself as the defender of moral values against an out-of-touch liberal elite.
A case study in how the Left should not address issues of morality came recently from Jeremy Seabrook in a Guardian article which argued the MPs expenses scandal told us more about ourselves, as a society that has lost its moral compass:
There are, perhaps, no innocent bystanders, yet many are ready to cast the first stone at the crooked and self-serving. Perhaps, after all, our MPs represent us more than we care to admit. This is why the indignation of the unforgiving media and the vengefulness of the public have reached such a paroxysm.
While reintroducing the question of morality, Seabrook shunts out any structural analysis of society in favour of emphasising individual failures and individual solutions. In a sense, it is similar to the phenomenon of -Keep reading>
Posted in Crime, Environmentalism, Morality, Strategy | 2 Comments »