A UKIP of the Left? – by Bob Whitehead

blogI am not sure who coined the phrase “a UKIP of the Left” as something that is urgently required, but whoever it was, they got it dead right. The voting on Thursday may have been predominantly rural rather than urban, but the absence of a serious left challenge allowed the xenophobes to cash in on the protest vote, in a big way. Labour was, of course, an unappetising choice, wedded as it is to continuing the austerity if elected in 2015. But the left, whether in the shape of TUSC, or the less radical Green Party, were just not in the big picture.

The results of the elections will mean a strong pull to the right on the mainstream parties, and make the anti-austerity struggle more difficult; we cannot dismiss these results as incidental.

In 2014, there will be local elections, this time featuring the urban areas, including Birmingham. We cannot allow the right wing parties a clear run at the ballot box this time. The preparations for a substantial electoral challenge by the Left must begin now.

As has been made clear on many occasions, elections are not counter-posed to social struggles, movements or industrial struggles, they are an essential complement. The left throughout Europe combine mass work with electoral work; why should we be different and bury our heads in the syndicalist sand?

In the 2012 local elections in Birmingham, there was a Green Party candidate in each ward, despite no work being done on the ground. There was a Socialist Labour Party candidate in Handsworth Wood, a TUSC candidate in Acocks Green and CATC stood in Bournville and Kings Norton. Sadly, there was no sign of Respect, despite its enormous influence in several areas a few years ago.

For next year, that will just not be good enough. The ideal scenario would be a widespread challenge across Birmingham, with a substantial number of candidates standing under a common name. But the big question is how to get there?

Well, next weekend there are two opportunities coming our way. The first is the national meeting of Left Unity in London on Saturday. Already two delegates have been elected to go down, and CATC will elect two more at its meeting this Wednesday. The second is the first meeting of the Birmingham anti-cuts Federation on Sunday (1.30pm in the Boardroom, at the Conservatoire, BCU).

At first sight, it seems that the Left Unity vision is close to the practice of CATC; a clear anti-austerity position, a membership structure, a democratic culture and opposition to top-down politics. Let us hope that this proto-broad party of the left is up to the challenge. While good work has been done by local anti-cuts groups around the country, including electoral interventions, they are no substitute for a nationally-recognised brand, as Respect was in its heyday.

It was agreed, by an overwhelming majority at the large anti-cuts conference on March 16th, to set up the Federation on a delegate basis. It was also agreed that it would attempt to coordinate a cross Birmingham electoral challenge in 2014 (although that is not a condition for affiliation).

Time may be short, but we need all anti-cuts/anti-austerity/liberation groups to make a big effort to send delegates along next Sunday. Let us get the whole of the Birmingham Left represented in one room. The main focus will be building social movements and protests and learning to work together. But it must also carry out its mandate and start coordinating election work for next year.

What sort of politics should be put before the electorate in Birmingham? The positions of CATC could be summarised as; a resolute no to austerity, public not private, welfare not warfare and no to discrimination. That list should broad enough to bring in most people, but would be open to negotiation with others of course. There could be a stronger focus on the environment, for example by focussing on a cheap, if not free-at-the-point-of-use, public transport system.

Then there would need to be policies calling for a renewal and flowering of local democracy; something that has increasingly been gutted over many years with the onslaught of capitalist neo-liberalism. Citizens, service users and staff should have ownership and democratic control of local services; education, health, housing, social services, transport and utilities. A participatory budget process could be pioneered, such as the very successful examples in Brazil in the 1990s.

Concretely, the Ward Committees could be given real powers, as opposed to the inaccessible District Committees. Modern communication technology could be used to aid the process of citizen empowerment; not just as observers, but as debaters and deciders.

A new party of the left in the city would be engaged in a constant dialogue with its constituency; its interactions would be two-way and not one-way. People need to be given information and ownership at every level.

It would stand up to the xenophobia, discrimination, bigotry and racism being pursued by the right. Services for all should be its watch-words; house the homeless, educate the children, feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the disabled and elderly, no questions asked.

Such principles could be integrated into a vision for a Birmingham of the future, away from the business-led priorities of the present, with its inevitable consequence of poverty and vast inequalities.

Maybe something like this will come out of the Left Unity project on a national scale; let us work for that. But in the meantime, the new Federation can play its part locally, and in that process it will be guaranteed full support from Communities against the Cuts.


14 comments

14 responses to “A UKIP of the Left? – by Bob Whitehead”

  1. Jonno says:

    Can someone clarify this?, L/U groups can send two delegates, but also any anti-cuts groups/networks can send delegates, when was that decided? Again, it not good being critical, etc but the anti-cuts groups are largely shells in most cities now, mainly run by the SWP, Does this mean we will have similar situations as in the past where SWP members would claim to be independent members of their various front groups: UAF, RTW, etc so they could more delegates and begin to exert influence, an example, ‘journalists against the war’ was mostly SWP but would send delegates to STWC meetings.I am also very wary of steering committee’s etc, which can be packed over time using these strategies, and I really hope L/U will decide on individual membership.

    democracy first!

  2. Jonno says:

    really need an edit button!

  3. Bazza says:

    LU could be a success and attract working people by doing one thing COMMUNICATING IN SIMPLE LANGUAGE.
    I just read my groups opening statement and rewrote it simply so we are not writing for each other and it could be understood by my family, by my neighbours, by my work colleagues, on local estates, on the high street. I’ve been reading the posts here and there are some doom merchants who forecast what the future may hold but I want to build a democratic socialist society and hopefully Earth WITHOUT HARMING ONE HAIR ON ONE HEAD. It is exciting having ideas but not all the answers and we will work out the solutions with working people TOGETHER! Yours in love and peace!

  4. Ben McCall says:

    Sorry Bob I disagree.

    See the debate Local Elections: Prospects for the left (posted on 15 April, currently on page 5) particularly the pieces by Jeremy Tayor and me.

    We are building a long term, significant movement/party, not a knee jerk anti-this, that or t’other. To rush at this will be a huge mistake. Elections are not the only way to work or campaign against the things we all oppose – or in favour of what we support. In fact, they can be a comforting (!?!) substitute for other more creative and effective ways of affecting politics and achieving change.

    I’m not arguing against LU standing in elections – and with Jeremy’s caveats in the above, we should stand sooner but this will be the exception rather than the rule in the short term.

    We have recently had an elected Mayor election in Doncaster, with a pitiful turnout of 28%. Many of the people who are not voting are exactly the people who we should be trying to work with in the next period of the development of LU (around 80% of the population here, if we count younger teenagers – who should be a priority for us).

    By the way, yes we can learn a lot from Brazil’s experience, not least of all a differentiation between the ‘popular’ and ‘populist’ – and the benefits of a long term strategy, in a much more hostile/urgent context than the UK. The left needs to be careful it does not do a left-wing alternative to Labour’s Hazel Blears et al’s shameless and cringe-worthy use of participatory budgeting, or ‘community kitties’ as she (with complete lack of irony) renamed it.

  5. Rob Marsden says:

    Just to clear up a couple of possible misconceptions.

    Jonno, Communities Against The Cuts is not an anti-cuts group or network. It is a small but very active and visible registered political party mainly in south west Birmingham. In relation to what it has done and is doing, Left Unity is playing catch-up.
    Like other cities, Birimingham really should have LU groups in the different areas. Consider the CATC people to be delegates from the Strchley, Cotteridge and Kings Norton area.

    Ben, again CATC has been putting in the leg-work. Elections are not its main focus but it does fight them (and it does this in a serious way). At the moment, I understanding it is campaigning hard around the bedroom tax- local work on the estates- knocking doors, leafletting, calling residents meetings on the estates.

    I’m not a member of it but I am an admirer!!

  6. Tom says:

    Left Unity has to stand in elections, working with TUSC, and I am amazed so many want to downplay the importance of this.
    Non-aggression pact in the electoral field between these two organisation is essential in short term, with fusion of the logical conclusion, and asap.
    Left Unity can bring to the table a vigorous membership component, while TUSC gifts the two most important socialist groups, as well as one important trade union. Left Unity and TUSC can provide the critical mass able to give other trade unions an alternative political voice to that of Ed Miliband’s One Nation Blairism.
    Without a left pole of attraction, Ed Miliband’s inability to inspire anyone, in addition to his contempt for all extra-parliamentary resistance to capitalist austerity, will only allow the mass media to fan the flames of David Cameron and Nigel Farage’s scapegoating.
    Left Unity and TUSC together can shift the political center of gravity.
    Regardless of what the Bernstein revisionist tendency of Left Unity thinks or the syndicalist tendency desire, it is not a question of extra-parliamentary action on the one hand or standing in elections on the other.
    Left Unity has to recognise that the broadcast media provides the context within which our class approach every question of the day. If socialists can secure decent votes, we then win the right to regular representation in the mass media. That in turn lets us expose the lies and the glaring contradictions in all the propaganda vomited into our living rooms by the supporters of capitalism.
    That allows our class, atomised at home after a hard days work, to wake up to the fact that they are not quit as alone as the mass media wants them to think they are. There is, in other words, a dialectical relationship between getting votes, earning representation in the television studios, then winning the ear, the hearts and minds of our class, thereby helping them make a further step in the right direction.
    Thanks to Left Unity winning votes, we can indirectly help ever growing sections of our class realise why they have to offer at least passive support to those minorities engaging in extra-parliamentary action – or, better still, participating themselves.
    In the absence of such representation in the broadcast media, our class will despair. In their desperation, the most desperate section of our class will offer a vote that will be interpreted by Ed Miliband as a vote of confidence in his smears against the trade unions for refusing to embrace cuts in wages, conditions, etc, in the so-called national interest.
    UKIP will, in such circumstances, inevitably grow as will the Tory right on the basis of xenophobia, Islamophobia, attacks on so-called benefits cheats, the homeless and others driven to crime to keep their heads above water, and taking, and selling, hard drugs to escape a nasty reality.

    • jq mark says:

      if you see unity with tusc as so important then why set up a new group in the first place?

  7. Peter Burrows says:

    Having 80+ groups already up & meeting & begining to discuss how best to move forward can only be a positive .All groups are i am sure realistic enough to realise that many are in the process of formulating how best to address issues pertaining to their local areas & how best to engage with the local people & community groups etc .
    Such a process is not implemented overnight ,it takes time to get recognition,trust & the fact your in it for the long haul over to people /organisations .

    LU is not going to get credability or trust ,both have to be earnt by how you conduct yourselves as people & as a organisation .

    Building blocks do not just appear they happen over time ,the good thing is with 80+ groups begining that process ,in communities up & down the country the trust & credability process has begun .

    I believe if the networking at grassroots level gets underway ,all other factors relating to building a movement will naturally flow from the bottom up ,allowing regional/national themes/policies to trickle upwards ,which i believe is a healthy departure from so many organisations who develop a top down approach to people ,which breeds unhealthy powerbases & lack empowerment .

    Getting things structured correctly is more important than anything at the moment. If we run before we can walk ,political graveyards are full of well intentioned organisations who though well meaning fell by the wayside going to fast to quick .

    The process has began ,lets learn from the past ,to ensure LU can develop a lasting future .

    Peter……………

  8. TheHardestWalk says:

    *A few points of critique*

    Bob writes:

    “As has been made clear on many occasions, elections are not counter-posed to social struggles, movements or industrial struggles, they are an essential complement. The left throughout Europe combine mass work with electoral work; why should we be different and bury our heads in the syndicalist sand?”

    Later he writes:

    “Then there would need to be policies calling for a renewal and flowering of local democracy; something that has increasingly been gutted over many years with the onslaught of capitalist neo-liberalism. Citizens, service users and staff should have ownership and democratic control of local services; education, health, housing, social services, transport and utilities. A participatory budget process could be pioneered, such as the very successful examples in Brazil in the 1990s.”

    Taken together, what we see here is a fetishisation of “organisational” models and a complete failure to address the problem of organisation concretely.

    With regards the first quotation, Bob makes a valid point that participation in parliamentary politics can complement social movements and workplace struggles. But, he does so in order to justify strategically orientating Left Unity towards a) street protests; b) participation in local and national elections. He thus evacuates completely the necessity of asking a question that is essential to the schemes he dreams up, e.g. in the second quotation. This question is: how do we organise people as workers in the workplace?

    To break down the logic a little further: Bob first says that participating in electoral processes is the complement of workplace organising. Having asserted this concilatory middle-ground between imagined “radicals” and “common sense” camps, he then uses it to prove that it is right for LU to participate in electoral processes. What is pushed aside in the course of the argument is workplace organising.

    The truth is, Bob only summoned “industrial struggles” at all in order to lend a “revolutionary” air to proposals that are not merely “reformist” (whatever that means in this context), but are in fact completely abstract and useless. For the whole plan as outlined by Bob hinges on the idea that people will spontaneously read and agree with his utopian plans; subsequently run as councillors, MPs, &c.; be bouyed to power on a wave of public disgruntlement (just as UKIP have been…???) and from there will be free to legislate as they please, redesigning the nation in their image.

    So much for theory – i.e. that thing evacuated way back, when the “common sense” gang managed to collectively assert that all communications must take television advertising as their model, that things must always be what they appear to be, and that anything which does not present itself as straightforward is suspect.

    • Ben McCall says:

      THW, may I call you that for short?

      I think you are confusing the concept of ‘common sense’ with the “common sense” often talked about by reactionaries and those supporting the status quo.

      To clarify, I and others use this term in a Gramscian sense (Antonio Gramsci – for those that don’t know about him, he’s got a lot to offer, even though restricted in his movements somewhat in his lifetime by Italian fascism – look him up): the ruling class rules by a mixture of coercion and consent (Gramsci and others have called this ‘hegemony’). Part of winning consent is by dominating the intellectual, psychological and other spheres (the culture) until the majority of people think of the dominant ideas and ideology as ‘common sense’; so part of the socialist / counter-hegemonic struggle is to counter the dominant interpretation of ‘common sense’ with counter-ideas/arguments/practice (eg. that co-operation is better than competition).

      Hegemony/dominance is always contested and has to be constantly maintained, which is very difficult for a ruling class to do, leading to periodic crises like the one we are experiencing now.

      Even if you are “revolutionary” (in the Leninist sense of “an infantile disorder”) enough to only believe in a frontal assault on the ruling class and that other, subtler/cultural forms of struggle are feeble and for pinko-pansies, the people doing the assault would still have had to be won over to ideas so radically different to the dominant ones, they will risk what they have in the existing society to take part. So I can’t really see the room for a critique of promoting a different version of ‘common sense’. Perhaps you could enlighten us?

      • TheHardestWalk says:

        @Ben: Thanks for your Gramsci 101 course.

        Let me clarify: the confusion of ‘common sense’ (ideology) with ‘common sense’ (what is reasonable) is not MY confusion. The confusion belongs to those who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient, and ridicule as ‘infantile’ any attempt to produce a theory if said theory contains words like ‘capitalism’, ‘class’, ‘exploitation’.

        You yourself may need to return to Gramsci. You reduce his theory of hegemony to a post-Marxist idea that ‘cultural struggle’ is sufficient in itself, and a precondition of workplace struggle. This is clearly inadequate: how are these ideas to achieve hegemony whilst LU has no broad, organic relation to the popular classes? The first question is: How is it to develop this organic relation? This returns us once again to the central question of how we organise workers as workers in the workplace.

        Please don’t use phrases like ‘feeble […] pinko-pansies’; I find them even more offensive when the implicit homophobic slur is falsely attributed to me.

  9. Ben McCall says:

    There is no reply button to a reply …? Anyway:

    THW: “the popular classes” – oh dear. LU members (I am willing to bet, pending the survey Mark P has called for) almost all have to work to live “by hand or by brain” (hopefully both, this was always a bit insulting to manual workers). Many are members of unions and workplaces, communities, struggles, etc. = the working class.

    Citing Gramsci obviously means I subscribe to the terms you use. However, I do not use these as either little idols on my political shrine, or sticks to beat others who do not use them – in a macho style typical of many left sects, eg. “…are in fact completely abstract and useless”.

    Neither do I think that any form of struggle is “sufficient in itself”, but I do not treat the workplace as ‘central’, which has been both proved insufficient by history and the practice of struggle by many people on the left and others.

    My whole point was that elections are only one form of struggle and they should be the culmination of building a mass movement, not an obsession which could easily become an obstacle to progress of other forms and a more profound influence – for example, in changing the hegemonic ‘common sense’.

    What concrete/organic struggles have you actually and ‘in fact’ been involved in, anon THW? By the sound of it, not many; but if so – have they led to any gains or benefits for real people?

  10. David Kirk says:

    The article puts the need for left unity entirely the wrong way round. it argues we need a political brand to stand under so we need a name, organisation and warmed over social democratic policies to present to the massed who are apparently just waiting for a new Respect to vote for.
    The truth is our class, the working class are taking a battering. the official leadership of the labour movement, the union leadership and the leadership of the labour party are unwilling and unable to do anything to fight back. We need left unity to intervene in our movement to fight for Socialism and a combative rank and file led fight to defeat austerity. Whether or not to stand and upon what programme should flow from the lefts fundamental purpose to agitate,educate and organise.
    Finally a broad and inclusive programme is not a strategy that works to win votes. if socialists are going to stand with no hope of winning they should use this as a platform for propagandising for socialism not just positioning ourselves vaguely to the left of Labour and the Greens. Also when Socialists or Communists stand as themselves they often do better then when trying to pretend to be social democrats. Even if they don’t, 300 votes for socialism seems much better then 350 votes against cuts.

  11. Nick Long says:

    The work comrades are doing under the local party approach of Communities Against Cuts in Burmingham , seems to mirror in many respects the approch we have adopted in Lewisham. We have formed in Lewisham People Before Profit, a broad local anti cuts political party. We have not labelled ourselves a socialist party but our actions, campaigns demonstrate we a party of the left. We were on London’s May Day March, we have joined pick lines of workers in dispute, taken direct action to occupy council property to stop it being sold off. We recently gained 23% in one of our target wards in Deptford. I would suggest Left Unity adopts a similar approach, of taking a broad left radical anti cuts, anti privatisation agenda. Adopting a hard Marxist politics and language will confine us to the piss poor votes of 1-2% of TUSC


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