A time to be bold


Philip Kane comments on the crisis on the UK left and a debate going on in the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition and more specifically the Independent Socialist Network – originally posted on his blog The New Life

[I should point out that this article is written and published in an individual capacity, and is not an official position of Socialist Resistance.]

I have to start out by making it clear that I am not a member of the Independent Socialist Network within the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).  In fact, I am not even a member of TUSC, if only because the organisation to which I do belong, Socialist Resistance, is at present merely an applicant under consideration for affiliation, and only independent socialists can join the ISN.  And then they can be members of TUSC.  Because TUSC does not have individual members, just affiliated organisations.

If that first paragraph seems rather perplexing to some, well, that’s because it is.  TUSC lays some claim to being the core of a new mass party of the Left, but its way of organising remains obtuse at best.  It’s a necessary disclaimer though, because to some extent I could be regarded as responding here to an internal debate, not within TUSC as a whole, but within the ISN.  And I am responding as an outsider.

Some ISN members seem to be arguing that the established structure of TUSC is no longer adequate, that it doesn’t fit with the situation we’re all in on the Left in Britain, that maybe, just maybe, certain affiliate organisations on the TUSC steering committee are more interested in recruiting to themselves while using TUSC as a handy fig leaf at election times, instead of heeding a growing demand for something better, something genuinely committed to being a party that represents working-class people.

Others are more hesitant and, it seems, want to commit the ISN to remaining within TUSC in the longer term.  In particular, here, I want to take up some of the issues raised by Pete Morton, who puts exactly that perspective in a recent article (at http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=1965).  Independents have thrown so much effort into TUSC, says Pete, that it would be dreadfully premature to pull out now, there is still much to be gained from staying put in spite of the many flaws in the Coalition, and so on.

Now then, a central reason why I want to take Pete up on this is that he’s an activist in my own local area, the Medway Towns.  I’ve known him for some years, and I know he’s a good, committed socialist with his heart in exactly the right place.  But in this case, he is wrong.

One of the reasons I think he is wrong is down to an apparent mismatch between the political situation nationally, and the local context from which Pete is writing.

Nationally, we are seeing a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the idea of a new party on the Left, a wave that has risen from the impact of the new Ken Loach film, The Spirit of ’45, from Ken’s public call for such a party or movement, and from the atmosphere of debate that has developed around those phenomena.  Comrades in Socialist Resistance are reporting audiences in the hundreds at screenings of the film, spontaneous applause breaking out at the end…and a virtual absence of the two main Left organisations involved in TUSC.  Ken’s recent interview in the Evening Standard, in which he called for a “UKIP of the Left”, was presumably read by upwards of two million people and will have resonated with many of them.  The call for a mass party is not just contained in the theoretical musings of a Trotskyist handful; it is now a matter of common public discourse.

On the other hand, what Pete will be experiencing at a local level, especially from within TUSC, will look somewhat at odds with that mood.

The organised Left, in Medway, has shrivelled.  There are a small number of Socialist Party members.  There are an even smaller number of people in the Socialist Workers’ Party, and by all accounts their numbers have become significantly fewer as a direct consequence of the SWP’s current and unfolding crisis.  There are two members of the Independent Socialist Network.  And oh yes, there’s me.  That’s about it.  Most of these comrades huddle together from the cold outside world, in the small circle of Medway Against the Cuts, and that in itself is dominated by – in fact, almost exclusively consists of – those same members of the established Left.  More recently, Pete and his ISN comrade have started trying to organise a local TUSC branch.  This has been quite a brave move, not least because it’s quite clear that the other component parts of TUSC are not interested in the slightest.  The attempt seems to have reached a full stop pretty much as soon as it began.

So far, so bad.  In such apparently unfavourable circumstances, it’s hardly a big surprise that Pete doesn’t want to simply jettison TUSC and all the accumulated labour that has gone into building that coalition thus far.

Let’s look, as dispassionately as possible, at what that consists of at this moment.  The two relatively small (in real terms, tiny) Left groupings involved are not going to build TUSC as any kind of party formation with its own internal life, and that’s conclusively that.  The fact that one of those groupings is now mired in a deep crisis, and is rapidly turning itself into the Left’s equivalent of a rather sleazy uncle that everyone tries to avoid at family gatherings, doesn’t help TUSC’s prospects in the slightest.  There is only one trade union, again relatively small, committed to full participation.  As an electoral front that pops up for a round of electioneering then vanishes again, TUSC has not fared well, however some may try to massage the statistics.  The ship is not sailing.

On the other hand, outside TUSC, the desire for a new mass party of the Left, and the potential for realignment of the Left as integral to the process of creating that party, is probably stronger than for many, many years.  Even in Medway.  There is a substantial pool of people in the area who consider themselves to be socialists, swirling around without an organisation, without a focus for their anger and their energy, who are not in the slightest enthused by the limited scope of TUSC or by an anti-cuts group that has fallen almost moribund.  The question that comes from those people, again and again, is simply this: How do we organise and fight back?

They need an answer, one that is democratic and principled, one that arises from and expresses the actual needs and voices of working-class people.

If that’s the case in Medway, then it is also the case up and down the country.  What fits the political situation is no longer a cautious alliance of the established Left.  There is a time for caution in politics, but there is also a time for boldness, even for taking a risk.  This is precisely one of those junctures where we need to be bold.

I’ve written this very quickly, and I’m well aware that if I had taken more time I could have marshalled my arguments more carefully, put in some figures to back up various points, probably written better, and so on.  But I felt it was more important to make the point right now, however badly, because the membership of the ISN, in TUSC, may be on the verge of making some decisive choices; choices that could take ISN members like Pete into the heart of a gathering Left unity project, or leave them out on its periphery.  And I know where I’d rather see them.


5 responses to “A time to be bold”

  1. Stuart Inman says:

    it is hard not to agree with you Philip, if people are left out of the conversation that shapes the result in a way that can only be narrower. As we are talking about a socialism that is broad-based and pluralistic then even people who are not that likely to join a new party need to have their say and, if they are sufficiently open, and the debate is sufficiently intelligent and inclusive, then maybe some will change their minds. Although I disagree with the Greens claim that they are the opposition and that we should get behind them, I want them to have their say too, so how much more would I want different aspects of the Left to at least get involved in discussions and hopefully add to the spectrum of views that can make a new party.

    • david tandey says:

      I dont believe a real socialist party in the uk is possible, it has been tried before and has failed with no agreements and the masses have been brainwashed into believing Capitalism is the best there is
      but i suppose as the man say’s we just gotta keep banging our heads against the wall. Anyone got any anadin.

  2. john r says:

    I thought that politics was increasingly characterised by apathy and a massive rightwards shift, then i stated to go on Facebook, it may be online and not ideal, but there is a ferment going on there, not yet of ideas, but real palpable anger especially on the bedroom tax and against Duncan Smith and Cameron. Demos across the UK are being called left right and centre, ofetn by people who have never even attended one before, it feels like the Poll Tax period. The danger is this anger could be harnessed by the far right and certainly Ukip(who are very active there), I think the left such as it is should play a role in this ferment but absolutely not attempt its usual role of trying to control/shape it, though in this case, they would find that very hard to achieve..

    • Jacqui says:

      Hello Phil.

      I read your post with interest and although I broadly disagree with the points you raise, I think it stimulates an interesting discussion which goes beyond the question of left unity and gives us a chance to get to the real nitty gritty of the situation facing the workers movement in Britain.

      Objectively, in the face of Tory administered austerity in the wake of one of the most unpopular labour governments in history, you could argue that this is the lefts great oppotunity, and why arent we taking it??? Bold steps are required etc etc. On the other hand, based on my perspective from the shop floor in the NHS, yes, cuts, privatisation and the strain on living standards are making people angry. However, the stark thing is the lack of confidence in being able to do anything about it, either on micro or macro level. Recent attacks on Agenda for Change are a case in point. When i suggested to my colleagues that we present a petition to our UNISON officials, rejecting their proposals, everyone was like YES LET ME SIGN IT, but when it come to does anyone wanna come along and present it to the officials and make it clear we are not in favour of accepting attacks on our national agreement everyone was like “oh its so good we have someone like you to fight for us”. The issue of proxy-consciousness is a major challenge for socialists, both on the industrial and the electoral plane.

      Comrades on the left, both in Medway and nationally are working under an extremely difficult situation. After years of defeats, the chronic lack of confidence of workers in their own ability to struggle means that even when a lead is given, it is not necessarily automatic that it will be taken up. Amongst the young generation of workers, of which I am one, this is perhaps even more pronounced, as we have seen our parents generation go through a series of defeats. Its perhaps notable that I myself only developed a trade union consciousness after my dad was involved in a victorious strike in JobCentre Plus.

      So the left is under huge pressure. I know from my day to day existance, we are having to juggle mutliple prioritites, community campaigns (like the bedroom tax, which the left in Medway has correctly taken up), our jobs, which in this day an age are not clock-in-clock-out-work-your-contractual-hours-affairs, and yes, building our own organisations. Socialists, who have drawn the conclusion that a revolutionary party is necessary for a socialist transformation of society, and have found a party which it has general political agreement with, should make no apologies for building and arguing for the view of their organisation. To not do so would negate the purpose of being in a party in the first place. Trade union work is perhaps the most significant, as the struggle to develop a new workers party goes hand in hand with wrestling our unions out of the hands of the pro-labour beauracracies…not just for the effect that a transformation of the union leaderships would have on rank and file involvement, but also on the question of the unions political funds.

      Phillip, I understand your frustration, but those of us currently involved in TUSC, as independent socialists or members of affliate organiations are taking a long term view. We dont have such delusions of gradure as to call TUSC the new workers party. As the name suggests, it is a coalition of trade unionists and socialists. It could develop into a more permenant formation with flesh. On the other hand, it could play a role working with others both inside the trade unions and around “the left” in developing a broader formation with socialist policies, with the active support of the most militant trade unions. Lets see. We shouldnt forget that TUSC is the first time that a trade union nationally has officially supported a party challenging Labour in a century!!!!

      One thing is certain though Phil. The comrades, both within the SP and outside of it are working very hard under a high pressure, contradictory objective situation. To characterise the left in Medway as you have is perhaps a little unfair…what about the local trade unionists who contribute to the workers movement in a variety of ways, but dont happen to be members of the SP, SWP or the ISN? Its not easy, but it is most definately up to you whether or not you get your hands dirty and get involved. TUSC in Medway has always had a bit of an open door policy, I remember 3 days before the nominations deadline in the last Medway Council elections, a UNITE activist who had only come into contact with TUSC a few weeks beforehand decided to stand as our 5th local candidate, with no hidden agenda from the SOcialist PArty to recruit her!!!

      There are KCC elections coming up. We are standing Chas Berry (Socialist Party and NAPO) in Gravesend and Mike Rolfe (POA and unalligned) on the Island. We wont tell you to go away Phil, sniffy blogposts aside ;-) If you want to get involved, get involved!

  3. Oliver Mars says:

    I agree pretty much with Jacqui in her post. TUSC was never created to be THE New Mass Worker’s Party, it is simply a coalition to give a stronger Left alternative on the ballot paper (stronger as in stronger then SP, ISN and the unionists running for elections individually).
    Everyone on the Left wants a NMWP, without a doubt…maybe not the Sparts but who knows.
    But on what basis is a NMWP being created/discussed? NMWPs can only form correctly under the right conditions, out of struggle and a mass of the working class. It cannot merely be made up of existing socialists, activists or ex-labour members. I’m a member of the CWI, and if you look at what our comrades are doing in South African, we can all see what the steps to making creating a NMWP can look like. Thousands and thousands of miners, sold out by the ANc and their unions, formed their own organizations, our small section helped steer and organize their struggle to fightback, radicalizing the workers’, politicizing them, showing them that the ANC is not a party in their interest. And what do we have today?
    The Worker’s and Socialist Party (WASP), made up of existing activists AND large layers of the working class, with respect and sympathy amongst other layers, and is in the embryonic stages of becoming a NMWP. Now I am not saying at all that NMWP can only come about when the CWI are involved or leading it, not by any means. But Left Unity hasn’t really explained how it is the correct time to do this, how it’s forming on mass-struggle, bringing in people from the general working class, aside from I say again, being built upon already existing activists, socialist, and ex-labour?
    This NEEDS to be outlined in your material.
    Many calls for NMWP and uniting the left have come and failed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. And every time it has fractured the Left further. It needs to be done correctly this time.

    Solidarity :)

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