Left unity is the motherhood-and-apple-pie of socialists. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption is that if only the left could crack the unity problem – the Rubik’s Cube of political intervention – then anything is possible, up to and including the relevance that has long eluded most of the left for many years.
As a result, there is from time to time a modest flutter around the issue, and this is one of those times. The reasons for this renewed interest in Left Unity include the reasonable and the nonsensical. In the former category comes the agonising but inescapable fact that, five years into an enormous capitalist crisis, the left in Britain has made negligible political impact. This is allied to a widespread and understandable disgust at Labour’s record during its 13 years in government until 2010, and at its continued hesitancy in moving away from New Labour positions, most obviously in relation to issues like welfare and privatisation, on which the old Blairite positioning still predominates. There is an argument that Labour no longer represents the broad progressive coalition that it once did to at least a limited extent, having become both less democratic and more bourgeois over the last generation. That is not an argument that should be dismissed.
Among the bad reasons we would have to place all the over-excitement generated by the incremental implosion of the Socialist Workers Party, a group with small and shrinking influence on the course of events whose recent travails have surely by-passed most of the world at large. Nevertheless, whether it is grappling with New Labour or picking up the pieces of the SWP, left unity is now presented as the answer.
Here it will be argued that this project – not so much “left unity” per se, but founding yet another new Left Party to fight elections – is founded on a flawed analysis, is misguided, and, to whatever extent it makes progress, in any case irrelevant to the actual political situation and what the left should be focussing on. A more fruitful course of action for socialists will be suggested. Our “text” is the most recent proposal advanced by the founders of the Left Unity website, Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson, by Nick Wrack of the “independent socialist network” and by the film director Ken Loach – their founding document and various articles written in support of their proposal. These are far from the least capable comrades to embark on this road, and for that reason – as well as the fact that theirs is the variation on “left unity” presently on the table – it is worth unpacking their proposals.
The idea that the time is now ripe for socialists to prioritise another unity project, leading to the creation of a new party to the left of Labour, rests on three connected propositions. First, that the experience of New Labour has vacated a considerable political space on the left which no-one is filling and that many voters feel deprived of any party expressing their views and values in society in general or on election day in particular. Second, there is a European-wide revival of such a left, which Britain is missing out on – we should not, in the words of the Left Unity draft statement, “remain outside… the political developments in Europe and beyond.” Finally, the continuing economic crisis demands a fresh, and united, left response since existing political responses have been inadequate.
We should consider each of these in turn, bearing in mind that together they form a political package. Before doing so, we need only note two things. First that the proposal is, for the launch of a new political party, a modest one: There is no grand vision, or call for revolution, or even broad realignment. Essentially, it is about bringing together those people who want more done to challenge austerity and feel politically homeless at present. Second, there is no explicit recognition of the fact that several such Left electoral parties already exist in Britain today – Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the Socialist Labour Party on the electoral side of things; with Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland, as well as a variety of other far left parties, and not forgetting the Green Party which many people would certainly regard as “left”. So this is not a call for an occupation of presently empty territory.
It is beyond dispute that the main working-class political parties internationally have moved well to the right over the last generation. The mass social-democratic parties have embraced neo-liberalism, and none more luridly than the Labour Party in Britain, to the extent that classical social democracy could be said to scarcely exist as a major political force. Communist Parties have disappeared or been reduced to the margins (with a few exceptions) and, in the case of many of the former ruling parties, openly converted to social-democracy and, hence, variants of neo-liberalism.
All this is true, but it only of itself creates “political space” if one takes an entirely mechanical view of politics, in which opinion is ranged on a left-to-right spectrum in more-or-less non-variable quantities and in which, therefore, a shift to the right by a large party must automatically leave a compensating space to the left unrepresented. Clearly, this is a perspective which could only hold true if nothing else were changing in the world, if classes were not rising, falling, recomposing and decomposing; if ideological propositions were not being tested, adopted and discarded by the masses in the light of their experience; if capitalist society were an endless assembly line which might break down but never develop or mutate.
In relation to Britain, this misjudgement was first given a public viewing courtesy of the Socialist Labour Party, which assumed that Tony Blair’s abandonment of Clause Four would mean masses of socialists, their Party snatched from them, would flock to the old standard. All the SLP proved was that even the greatest working-class leaders, in whose number Arthur Scargill should surely be counted, can mistake their own views for being the mood of the masses, which at the time would have regarded any Labour government as a relief, and were living through a “post-socialist”/”end of history” phase.
Nearly twenty years later, the same show is being played, to an even thinner audience, by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which fails to attract more than the smallest number of either to its standard, never mind appeal to the class itself. Its existence is predicated on the belief that such is the disgust with New Labour, even in opposition, that the working-class will rally to stentorian champions of a sort of Old Labour-Plus. No amount of raspberries blown by the voters have shaken this belief so far, and perhaps they never will, since those who argue the case for an electoral alternative have adequately immured themselves behind arguments through which reality cannot penetrate. Essentially, the masses are being offered what they need, and if they are rejecting it, it can only be for some contingent reason or other.
If that sounds too harsh, read the rationalisations for poor election results offered by, say, the Socialist Party throughout its post-Militant years. If they fail to breakthrough (in spite of, naturally, tremendous electoral campaigns) when Labour is in office, it is because at the last moment working-class voters are seized by an unexpected determination not to let the Tories back in. When results do not improve under a Tory or Tory-led government, it is because the same voters believe their interests are served by voting to get the Tories out and hence vote Labour. Clearly, the beauty of this argument is it covers all contingencies, and can be used on each isolated occasion until one considers the slightly longer duree and joins the dots.
It is not that comrades do not reflect on these experiences and analyse them (although the present project is definitely light on self-reflection), it is that they draw the wrong conclusions. This was expressed by Ken Loach at a meeting recently. He announced that “we all bear the scars of previous attempts” and must learn the lessons of past abortive efforts. Of these there were two, apparently – don’t let a single group dominate, and beware charismatic leaders.
So far, so good for the new Left Unity campaign it could be said (although inevitably some far-left fragments are already sniffing around the project). But Loach’s warnings seem perverse. Any party needs committed activists, and the idea of “left unity” seems to presuppose bringing together people who are at present likely to be in existing organisations. And charismatic leaders are generally a political asset, although not the be-all and end-all. The problem is that where left initiatives have had any charismatic leaders, they have only had one, which is clearly a position fraught with difficulties. Having several would be very helpful for drawing masses of people to its side, as well as averting any tendency towards a monopoly of political authority. Respect with George Galloway has fallen short of an electoral breakthrough on a significant scale, but Respect without Galloway would not detain anyone’s attention for a minute.
However, it is true that neither the adhesion of existing groups, nor charismatic leaders, nor even the leadership of a trade union the size of RMT (in the case of TUSC), impart any significant social ballast to an electoral initiative. That point seems incontestable in the light of experience, and it cannot be overcome by rallying calls, appeals to goodwill, nor even the online adhesion of thousands of the well-meaning. The Left Party has a fine mass leader among its protagonists in Kate Hudson, rightly highly-regarded. But the reluctance of the NUM to follow Arthur Scargill into the Socialist Labour Party in 1995 or subsequently – not to mention the long experience of Communist Party members whose overwhelming support from workers in the factories evaporated when they stood in local or parliamentary elections – shows that having such individuals in membership, or even leadership, is not sufficient to turn base political material into electoral gold.
Social weight – deep roots in society – is the missing element which has sunk every previous initiative of its kind (SLP, Socialist Alliance, SSP, Respect, TUSC) generally sooner rather than later, and which Left Unity does not address. The fact is that despite these varied appeals over the last twenty-odd years to desert Labour at the ballot box, the masses and their organisations have not moved, and have held true to their previous engagements, even with a diminished enthusiasm reflected in an increasing rate of electoral abstention.
Actual political space does not necessarily continue to exist simply because it was once clearly populated. It is brought into being by factors quite other than the wishes of potential occupiers of it. And it is always in flux. It is determined above all by the emergence or disappearance of classes as and other social formations as political actors. Its scope and duration can be shaped by purposeful intervention, but it cannot be invented by propaganda. For example, the war against Iraq launched by a Labour government and the vast scale of the mass movement against it clearly opened up a “political space” which Respect was temporarily and partially able to fill more successfully than any other left electoral initiative (although the Liberal Democrats were the major beneficiary overall), electing an MP and several councillors in east London and Birmingham. However, even Respect did not endure as a serious electoral force outside, presently, Bradford. To state the obvious, Respect would not have come into being without the mass anti-war movement, and no comparable movement exists today. It could further be argued that the anti-war movement created a “space” which was itself not capable of being filled, absent the durable support of any actual class-based organisations which could underpin an electoral intervention once the immediate war crisis receded.
Political space is ultimately generated by social weight, the sort of thing that comes from the adhesion of mass organisations or mass movements rooted in important social classes. Social weight does not step into a declared political space by kind external invitation from its self-anointed gate-keepers. Electorally, the space to the left of Labour is presently filled by…the Labour Party. The elephant in the Left Unity parlour is the fact that many people whose views are to the left of the Labour leadership still vote for the Labour Party. That was true when the Labour leader was Tony Blair, and it is also true when it is Ed Miliband, about whom people on the left generally feel a good deal more comfortable, his having apologised for the Iraq war and moved on in some measure from the bewitched-by-bankers economic strategy of Brown. The obvious question is: if that “space” could not be filled by a left alternative under the most ideal circumstances imaginable – a widely reviled war-mongering Labour government under a discredited leader – why on earth should it be expected to do any better today, when those circumstances no longer apply, when most people on the left see the enemy as the Tory-led government, and view the possibility of a Miliband-led Labour government with moderate optimism?
Naturally, that does not exhaust a discussion about the Labour Party today – but that is the discussion that is needed. It would encompass a realistic assessment as to the roots sunk by the “New Labour” clique in the Party, the extent to which the changes wrought by Blair and Brown are irreversible, or to what extent they were contingent on the neo-liberal “Edwardian summer” which ended in 2008; the remaining importance of trade union involvement in the Party, and the possibilities of their influence being extended and deepened; the direction of the Miliband leadership and so on. These are not just questions for debate, they are questions of the class struggle today. One can certainly argue a view that the Labour Party on its own will never secure a socialist society; likewise one can certainly argue that the Blair-Brown government was a government of imperialism and the City of London. It is another thing to simply seek to bypass or ignore a Party which is evidently the only alternative government to the Con-Dems at present, which retains the affiliation of the main working-class organisations in Britain today, which includes more socialists than all those grouped in the parties further to the left aggregated, which controls (with variable results) many local authorities, and whose level of electoral support runs at perhaps forty times that of the further-left. To in effect dismiss all that with the observation (quoting the Loach/Hudson/Achcar article on the Guardian website) that “its achievements are in the past” is scarcely serious. All achievements of which we can be certain are in the past, and no achievements in the future will be secured by ruminating on electoral fantasies as opposed to addressing the difficult tasks of the present.
As already noted, much of the case for a new Left Party seems to rest on the observation that we are in the midst of a continent-wide economic crisis which is leading to similar parties existing and prospering elsewhere. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with learning from abroad and, indeed, an international perspective is not an add-on but a starting point for socialist politics. However, the envious gaze cast at the left in other European countries needs to be tempered with realism. What is there to be envious of?
First of all, there is the generic nature of these parties. One must generalise, acknowledging that not all points apply to all European left parties with equal force. The euro-Left parties stand to the left of contemporary social democracy in advocating more radical measures, in varying degrees, to tackle the economic crisis. They are, on the other hand, constitutional and electoral parties – they do not aim at revolution. Their measure is electoral support which they seek to secure through advocating pro-welfare and egalitarian policies which broadly mitigate the effects of the slump on the working-class. Their ultimate aim may be a socialist society (although this is not always clear), but it is to be attained primarily by parliamentary means. Broadly they disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. To some extent, they could be described as “two-and-a-half parties” in the manner of the left parties which positioned themselves between the second and third internationals, between revolution and counter-revolution within the workers’ movement after World War One, before speedily retreating back to the embrace of social democracy.
The present-day two-and-a-half parties make no claim, as the centrists of 1919-21 did, to stand for revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They are explicitly reformist. Their attraction as a new left model derives from the absence of a revolutionary international and major revolutionary parties in almost all European countries. Two-and-a-half looks sweet when there is no Three. But that does not make it necessarily the answer to the crisis of working-class political representation. In practice (with the exception of the Greek situation, which will be considered shortly) the summit of the ambitions of the Left parties Europe-wide at present is to secure enough parliamentary seats to be considered a coalition partner in a government which would be dominated by the “old” social democratic parties, perhaps with the addition of Greens, or of centre-ground bourgeois parties. As the Left Unity Draft Statement accurately notes, these parties challenge “the capitulation of social democracy to neo-liberalism”. Implicit in this formulation is the demand – make social democracy social-democratic again! The spirit of 2013 is to be the “spirit of 45” indeed.
That project is most advanced in the catastrophic situation pertaining in Greece, where Syriza, originally an amalgam of left factions of varying ideological provenance, has effectively displaced PASOK as the main party of the left (also apparently securing votes from the communist KKE). The scale of the economic calamity in Greece, of a different order (so far) to almost anywhere else, and the fact of PASOK’s deep and corrupt implication in the management of it, have conditioned this development. Syriza has not merely won over many voters from mainstream social-democracy, it has also acquired chunks of the erstwhile PASOK apparatus, as the latter party crumbles. Syriza secured a huge increase in its votes in the two general elections of 2012, but in neither did it secure anything like the support won by PASOK in its prime, and in neither did it secure enough parliamentary seats, even if those won by Democratic Left and the KKE were added, to form a government. Nor does it begin to match the influence of the KKE (or PASOK for that matter) in the trade union movement in Greece.
It is possible that Syriza could do better next time the opinion of Greek voters is sought (which may not be for three years). Indeed, under Greek electoral procedures, if Syriza were to secure the greatest share of the vote in a future election it would possibly be able to govern in its own right. Then the essential contradiction in its politics – opposition to austerity while supporting Greece’s continued membership of the EU and the single currency will move centre-stage. There is limited value in speculating as to what may happen then, beyond noting the studied ambiguity of Tsipras, the Syriza leader, as to whether he stands for socialism or a “non-austerity” capitalism. The KKE says that the situation in Greece demands a “systemic rupture” – that is the overthrow of capitalism and an exit from its imperialist international alliances. That sounds far from unreasonable, since Greece is a country in which the decomposition of capitalism and its conventional methods of rule are most advanced, but that is not to say it is actually possible with the present correlation of forces. If politics ultimately polarises between Syriza and the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, which is no more than a possibility but which cannot be dismissed, it should not be assumed that the entire Greek and European bourgeoisie will line up behind the fascists.
At any event, what does this mean for the British left (beyond the obvious necessity of solidarity with Greek working people in their struggle)? Some will be enthused at the prospect of British Eurocommunists, Trotskyists and Maoists joining together in a similar common electoral front. Others would rather spend a week at the dentists. An obvious conclusion is that the British working-class will support a British Syriza when they regard the British Labour Party in the same way as the Greek working-class regards PASOK. That is far from where we are at present.
Beyond Greece, what is the record of these parties of the European left? It would be wearisome to examine every European country in turn, so I will limit the review to the three largest, most decisive states in the EU, which are that respect are most comparable to Britain. A reality check is in order.
In France, despite the optimism attending the powerful presidential candidacy of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left Front polls less than half of the vote secured a generation or so ago by the PCF, on whose shrunken but tenacious local electoral base it still largely rests. And of course Melenchon himself was convincingly beaten for a parliamentary seat in an industrial constituency by the leader of France’s far right, a sober indication that the left’s hegemony over the working-class vote in France cannot be taken for granted. The Left Front scarcely appears to be exercising a big influence over President Hollande’s administration. The PCF has recently decided to abandon the hammer-and-sickle from its membership cards, no doubt in pursuit of more votes. And the once-feted Nouvelle Partie Anticapitaliste has shrivelled to near-vanishing point.
In Italy, Rifondazione Communista, much celebrated throughout the euro-left a decade ago, has disappeared from the lower house of parliament (a process triggered by its embrace of the NATO Afghan occupation) and the left – in a country where the Italian Communist Party secured more than thirty per cent of the vote less than thirty years ago – has disappeared from parliament. The left’s franchise is now divided between the tired post-social democratic Democrats (notably lacking a charismatic leader) and the MS5 movement of Pepe Grillo.
As for Germany Die Linke rests, for electoral purposes, mainly on the legacy of the former SED in the eastern part of the country. Its main hope (government it clearly not on the cards) seems to be to keep ahead of the five per cent threshold which determines representation in the Bundestag, and the largest threat to that modest ambition is a new Party of Pirates. It has been riven by divisions in recent years, in part consequential of its ambivalent role in local and state government.
On the basis of this short summary, we can say that the euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece, that it polls less in general than when it was explicitly Communist in times gone by, and that it risks being outflanked both by the far right and by a gallimaufry of clowns and “pirates” whose advance signifies the contemporary decay of both bourgeois politics and of the labour movement. And all these are parties which have arisen on the basis of either the influence of a pre-existing mass Communist party, or a serious split in social-democracy, or a prolonged regroupment of far-left organisations, or some combination of all three. None have arisen as a consequence of a Facebook appeal, so if the new Left Party succeeds, it will certainly represent a sociological first.
If this all seems a bit post-modern, it is because it is, and it strikes to the consideration at the heart of the contemporary situation and, indeed, the speculations about “political space”. That is the decline of the working-class movement in Europe along almost every axis over the last generation, to the point where its constitution on a new basis is the only question which need really detain anyone serious about creating an alternative to capitalism which exists anywhere outside blogs and leaflets alone. This is both at the core of a critique of the existing left, unity initiatives included, and the heart of a positive programme of work for socialists.
In this space, we can address this in relation to the situation in Britain alone, for the most part, although the problem is clearly international. A full survey of the world situation is beyond our scope here, and setting out tasks for the left in overcoming this common problem in each particular country would be of very limited value. We should only note that the differences over the last century – mass Communist parties (France/Italy/Greece); a socialist regime over part of the country introduced via the entirely unforeseen medium of cataclysmic military defeat (Germany); partisan and resistance struggles (Italy/France/Greece); a crushed revolution (Germany); civil war (Greece); fascist dictatorship (Italy/Germany/Greece) divided trade union movements (France/Italy/Greece); the lack of a full-throated Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal offensive (all four) – mean that any perspective overly-based on events in those countries is likely to be flawed. It is an error to take the Brussels assumption of a very high degree of pan-European political homogeneity at its own valuation.
“Why should Britain go without?” a blog comment on the Socialist Unity website asked, debating this issue. If the appropriate reply is not “go without what exactly?” then it must be because Britain has also “gone without” so many of the phenomena listed above, from a divided TUC to partisan warfare. This is not meant in any spirit of self-satisfied isolation. The traditions of the British labour movement are in many respects worse than those in the countries listed. That can be debated, but they are unarguably enormously different.
Part two of this article can also be found on the Left Unity website
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Fri 26 Nov, 12.30
NHS – SOS
NHS workers are taking to Westminster Bridge to reject the 3% pay offer.
European Forum 2021
The 5th annual European Forum is a unique space where the left, greens and progressives can come together and share their struggles.
4-5 Dec, 11.00-16.00
Left Unity Annual Conference
Left Unity’s annual conference will take place online again this year. Open to members and observers.
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.