Thoughts on a positive Left/Labour dynamic

left unityPeter Hill responds to Ed Rooksby’s recent article on this website.

Rooksby outlines three possible models for left-wing organization in Britain, which are emerging, he argues, in ’embryonic form’. The first is the ‘networked movement of the Left’ called for by Owen Jones, ‘which would encompass activists from both within and outside the Labour Party’; the second is the idea of the ‘People’s Assembly’; the third is ‘the Left Unity model’: ‘the embryonic form of a new broad church party of the left’.

Rooskby presents these as more or less alternative strategies, and recommends the ‘Left Unity model’ (a separate party) as against the ‘Owen Jones model’ of a network extending into the Labour Party. He admits that the second model (the People’s Assembly) could work as a kind of second string to the Left Unity model, but presents the network model and the Left Unity model as very much opposed. But I don’t think that these two options are necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, some combination of the two may well arise whether Left Unity intends it to or not. If Left Unity succeeds in mounting a firm challenge to Labour from the Left (and most crucially an electoral challenge, given that votes are the bottom line for the current Labour Party) then Labour will have to respond. Of course it might decide to become even more firmly centrist and effectively kill off what remains of the Labour Left. But more likely is that Labour would respond by opening up space for leftist initiatives within the party. That might take some of the wind out of Left Unity’s sails but would mean more scope for the Labour Left, as well as, perhaps, a close but fraught relationship between them and members of Left Unity.

This might take a while to develop, especially if Left Unity mainly gets off the ground by attracting Labour Party members away from Labour. And certainly a lot of the interest in Left Unity now seems to be based on a desire precisely to break out of the Labour Party’s grip. But despite this I wonder if, over time, we might not see something like the dynamic that existed between the old Communist Party and the Labour Left from about the 1920s through to the 1960s. Edward Thompson has an interesting description of this in his ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (Socialist Register 1965). As he saw it, the Communist influence on Labourism was both profound and deeply ambiguous. ‘In one sense, Communism has been present, since 1917, as the opposite pole to orthodox right-wing Labourism.’ But: ‘In another sense, Communism has been throughout the alter ego of the Labour and trade union Left.’ There were thus ‘peculiarly close – although not always cordial – relations’ between the Labour Left and the Communist Party, as ‘the Labour and more especially the trade union Left has over long periods operated from ideological and, to some extent, organizational bases outside the Labour Party altogether.’ These bases were those ‘maintained by the Communist Party: in its press; in its trade union and shop-floor militants; and from time to time in very much broader popular-front organizations.

If Left Unity can get to a similar position to the old CP in terms of organizational success, and if this provokes a greater openness to left-wing thinking within the Labour Party, as it is likely to, then such a situation might arise again. In other words, there would be a separate party (Rooksby’s ‘Left Unity model’) acting as a base for networks which extended across a much wider left and into the Labour Party (the ‘Owen Jones model’). Many of the those now considering getting involved with Left Unity have some past or present connection to the Labour Party; and even if they join a rival organisation, those links are not likely to be entirely severed.

Particularly if Labour were to create more space for its own Left in an attempt to deflect the Left Unity challenge, there would be a great deal of common ground between the Labour Left and Left Unity. Their members would find themselves in close contact in union meetings, in shared campaigns and initiatives, on municipal councils, and so on. Left Unity might possess, like the old CP, the intellectual and cultural capital to provide the Labour Left with some elements of a socialist ideology: left-leaning Labour members reading Left Unity or Left Unity-linked blogs and publications rather than the staider Labour Party productions; and getting involved in campaigns run largely by Left Unity people. We might then see Left Unity, like the old CP, exercising an influence far beyond its numbers over Labour Party members, by similar means: press and websites, contact between militants and wider campaigns. There would also be the same kind of ambiguity about the relationship, for Left Unity would also still be acting as a separate political party mounting an explicit challenge to Labour.

This is of course speculation, and it’s early days to be thinking about it while the Left Unity movement is still in the process of formation. But we should perhaps be considering, even now, what kind of relationship between Left Unity and Labour would be likely, or desirable. Is a degree of influence on and connection with the Labour Left important – or should Left Unity hold out for greater independence? Would keeping those channels with Labour open be a healthy thing, connecting Left Unity to a wider movement and ensuring it remained relevant? Or would it just serve to drag it back into orbit around a basically non-socialist Labour Party? What is the best line to take, between the dangers of isolation and factionalism on the one hand, and those of absorption into orthodox politics on the other? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but these are questions the Left Unity movement will have to confront at some point.


19 responses to “Thoughts on a positive Left/Labour dynamic”

  1. Dave O says:

    Say what you like about the old CPGB – and there is plenty to say, from a democratic socialist perspective – but much of its clout with the old Labour left flowed from the prestige of the Stalinist USSR and its absolute ideological cohesion.

    I rather doubt that if Left Unity ever does get off the ground, it would enjoy either of those ‘advantages’.

    • Edmund Potts says:

      I have to admit I wasn’t even born when the CPGB was around, but from everything I’ve read it sounds like they didn’t have anything even approaching “absolute ideological cohesion” – at least not in the 80s! Factions, splits, rival groups in control of different publications, and finally a parting of the ways with differing approaches to the fate of the party post- cold war. Was there a time when this was not the case?

      • mikecareywigan says:

        There were always differences but while the Comintern still existed, and while Communist parties were still expected to follow the party line emanating from Moscow, open differences were minor (and if you disagreed with the party line you were likely to be pressed into ‘self-criticism’…)

  2. Dave K says:

    We definitely do not want to recreate the relationship between the old CP and the Labour Party. The CP essentially acted as a group pressurising Labour to become a little more left putting forward reflationary Keynesian programmes which did not really built up an independent anti-capitalist consciousness. Worse still in the trade unions while organising and defending workers interests in many strikes and day to day struggles it regularly stood with trade union bureaucracy against more radical shop stewards movements (a good reference to read up on this is Alan Thornett’s book Militant Years on the car works at Cowley. It also consistently used anti-democratic and bureacratic methods to stifle debate and prevent a more radical movement emerging. If you like it shows how easy it is for good activists and class fighter to end up adapting to the Labour Party and Trade union apparatuses. I am sure other older comrades can give readers a lot more analysis and evidence on this. So yes we definitely need Left Unity to reach out to Owen Jones and the labour party activists but it must be based on the independent self-organisation of working people whether in the trade unions, social and political movements and campaigns. The lesson from younger people in Occupy or UK cut is precisely a huge wariness towards their political activity being appropriated by apparatuses who ultimately want to limit the transitional or anti-capitalist nature of their struggles. I suggest better models are the Bloco (Left Bloc) in Portugal or Syrizia – both of which consciously broke with the old CP frameworks.

  3. Ed Rooksby says:

    Hi Peter
    Thanks for this very interesting response to my article. I suppose I would say that you’re right that the matter of the possible/probable relationship between Labour (particularly the Labour Left)and Left Unity, should the latter develop into a significant force is something we need to give a lot of thought to and is likely to throw up difficulties. I suppose it’s not unlikely that LU might simply be drawn into the orbit of a renewed Labour Left if Labour is pushed to open up space for Left thinking within in in response to pressure from LU. This, it strikes me, would be a big problem and is likely to function effectively as a way of blunting and containing the impact of LU as an independent force on the left. So you’ve right we need to give a lot more thought to these matters.

  4. Mike Scott says:

    Hi folks – I have to say that unless people are (finally) prepared to leave the various failed left parties and groups behind and come to a new one with a genuine desire to work together, the whole thing will be another waste of time.
    I’m sure everyone knows how many attempts to do this in the past have foundered because too many of those involved only really wanted to recruit for their group or argue endlessly about how many Marxists can dance on a pinhead.
    Then, of course, there’s the need to move beyond the usual suspects – me included – and reach out to community/green/women’s/student/etc groups in a genuinely inclusive and non-patronising way. At some risk of stating the obvious, the reason this has never worked before, is because no-one has actually tried to do this.

    Cheers, Mike Scott

    • Sheila Mosley says:

      This works for me. I’m not from any Party, and I am hearing from others like me who want to look forward rather than relive the fracturing and jockeying for position of the past.

      I don’t want to try to work out what label fits for me, except socialist. There are many people who could be empowered as well as the workers; and I hope we can use regular language when we talk to each other.


      • Mark S says:

        Absolutely agree. It is critical that there is a single unified voice determined to make a difference. Ready to debate what Marxism should look like in the 21century and totally opposed to old dogma, division and self promoting factionalism.
        I’ve believed in a Marxist analysis for almost thirty years, but never joined a political party other than a brief spell with Labour years ago.
        There has to be a credible voice against capitalism which can overcome the almost total reaction in this country that any mention of socialism is to yearn for 70s trade unionism.
        We need vision, leadership and unity. Anyone who wants to make this screwed up world a fairer place for working people, with opportunities for all on a world wide scale, come on board.

        At the moment capitalist hegemony is almost absolute. We cannot hope to attack it unless we are united and progressive and determined.

      • Zetharagon says:

        I am not from any party either, but interested in Left Unity because it seems to fit my beliefs. I am sick of all the different factions, they haven’t achieved anything. While each is discussing/arguing over names, history and details, the tories just keep on harming the vulnerable. I want one party NOW and for those like me who do not know the language or history of socialism, Left Unity speaks directly to me.

      • Martha Kenyon says:

        Well said everyone. I am also not from any political party before, and it was the inclusivity and openness to discussion combined with commitment to values of equality/social justice that attracted me to left unity. Even though, like Zetharagon, ‘I don’t know the history and language of socialism’, I feel welcome.

  5. John Penney says:

    The Labour Party today is a pure capitalist party. It is no longer ideologically connected to any socialisrt objectives. it simply functions to provide a platform and career for Labour politicians. It is unreformable from the Left.

    all that Owen Jones’ “Networked Movement of the Left” would do (and I firmly believe FULLY IS INTENDED TO DO) is to maintain the complete illusion that the modern Labour Party can be a vehicle for opposition to neoliberalism and austerity, and encourage people to keep voting for it, despite ins unending betrayals. It can’t, as any examination of actual Labour governments from Harold Wilson onwards clearly shows, but particualarly the firmly neoliberal party of today.

    We must waste no more time on the Left pursuing the illusion of “Left Advance” via Labour, or of “pressuring the Labour Party or government to the Left” . The UK today desperately needs a new radical Left socialist party, committed to fighting for the majority on a very broad radical agenda, and uncluttered by all the usual Far Left sectarianism and irrelevant “Leninist” obsessions.

    The Left Unity Model is the only format of movement that can have a hope of building a coherent , non-talking shop,mass opposition to the capitalist offensive, and eventually also fighting the Parliamentary electoral struggle for socialism too

  6. Matt M says:

    I feel it is not useful to portray such a positive relationship between the CP and Labour Left. The CP, throughout its existence, held back working-class organisation from below (there are great examples in this book on Cowley car workers by Thornett listed above). The CP only pushed for more Keynesian, popular frontist kind of action from and with the labour left (the Raphael Samuel book – Lost world of British Communism is great on this).
    Plus, the prestige of the CP with the Labour left depended largely on that of the USSR, and partly on their base within the industrial working class. The CP had a collective identity, history, and political program, whereas LeftUnity, I dont believe, is being created out of any new theoretical innovations, but just a feeling of despair at Labours rightism. EP Thomspon, the CP/LabourLeft, and the ‘New Left’ didnt create a mass movement capable of fundamentally transforming society, and failed in their predictions and strategy, due to key contradictions in their approach. For these reasons I am not sure focusing on these as a model is the best tactics.

    I personally support calls for a ‘new party’, but with a maintaining of key criticisms. Will the party just revert to ‘old labourism’, electoralism, and opportunism, or will it stand on a principled basis of socialism from below, led by workingclass self-organisation and militancy? rather than parliamentary arithmetic or ‘pressure’ on the left still within labour, both of which, history proves, will not bring about socialism, or fundamental social transformation. I dont have much hope a ‘new party’ (if the current discussions within LeftUnity are anything to go by) will do this, though i think it would benefit the left generally, and the fight against austerity, if it were too come about, but only as a transitional stage towards a new conjuncture.

  7. Justamug says:

    If the left want to start a popular movement then there is going to have to be a lot less talking and a lot more doing. Left Unity could set up a charitable arm whose purpose is to go out into communities and help them. Given the cuts there are going to be a lot of people who need practical help which might range from DIY jobs, cleaning, parenting support, legal advice, counselling, yard clean ups. You name it. There will be people out there who have absolutely no money for anything other than food and heat. These people will still need walls painting, draughts excluding, fences fixed. We should not forget that Labour came out of the trade union movement. The trade union movement provided people with practical help and education. Left Unity should aspire to do the same. Talking at people and arguing is what politicians do.

    • Mike Scott says:

      I think that’s spot on! The main reason left parties have been so unsuccessful in the past is because they’ve been seen to be arguing over people’s heads rather than doing anything positive. The reality is that people in trouble need help, not ideology – the Syriza model seems to offer something here: broad-based, non-sectarian, organising to feed people and defend communities against the neo-Nazis. And it’s actually working!


  8. Zetharagon says:

    Left Unity as one party to go up against the Conservatives is something I can understand and gives me hope for the first time. I can see myself voting for Left Unity.

  9. Ben says:

    While we definitely should be open to working with the Labour left, and open to socialists leaving Labour and joining us, at the same time we should not be treating them with kid gloves. The whole point of having a left political project is for the working class to have a voice in politics, and to be able to defend itself as well as push for policies and eventually a society which benefits it. It is not about trying to avoid upsetting the Labout party, or gently nudging it to the left. We should be quite clear: the Labour party is no longer worthy of the name. We should say to Labour members: what is more important to you, the working class, or the Labour Party? So absolutely, Left Unity MUST be fully independent, unequivocally socialist, and ALWAYS with the working class. It must NOT be merely a pressure group vainly trying to drag Labour to the left.

  10. Peter Burrows says:

    I am inspired by the concept of Left Unity as a home for a broad church of left wing radicals .People must be careful not to run before you can politically walk. Many well put together articles tell us all what we DONT want to be ,there must be a thinking on what Left Unity wants to be ,its values,beliefs,its vision a coherent thought through structure on a road map of where it wants to get to & how it will achieve getting there . Let others worry about reacting to Left Unity & not vice versa . An appeal to many on the left will be showing a maturity & political strength not to be factionalised by this group or that faction ,but a clear focused determination to form a party that represents the voiceless the politically ignored from all genders .faiths /sections of the community who feel/believe that politics (as its presented ) by the establishment parties its not relevant to them have both a political party that not only will listen ,but one that is prepared to work with them & for them ,has the political structure in place on the ground locally then nationally to represent working people in 2013 & beyond .All thats been said only happens if EVERYONE makes it so ,via politcal will & hardwork .

  11. Ally MacGregor says:

    Initially I was quite excited at the prospect of a ‘left’ project such as “Left Unity”. I had the idea that it was a genuine new way forward. Thoughts of devolved power to the individual, the flow of ideas going up from the floor to the ceiling pervaded me. I welcome the opportunity to talk about a new left party, but reading some of the comments within this site makes me again nervous. Why are we talking of rebuilding the Labour Party? Why are we seemingly content to construct something like the old Labour Party. Why are we not looking to completely replace the old dogmatic blind alleys that we have led down over the years with a shiny new road. Why are we not attempting to create something bright, progressive and workable, controlled by ordinary people for ordinary people?
    This a very real opportunity, Capitalism is currently floundering on the ropes of time whilst at the moment we (the left) are floundering in the vacuum of despair… Let’s get going, let’s reach out to everyone that wants progress, let’s open our organisation out to the individual and convince her/him that if we want to p-reserve our individuality then we must work collectively….


  12. Mike Scott says:

    Please see my comments under the “Scratched Record Syndrome” on this website (it’s a bit confusing that there are so many overlapping places to make comments!) We need to look forward, not back and not get into arguments about who did what in the past: if LU works, it really won’t matter.

    One of the biggest problems we’ve had in trying to revitalise the left is that people haven’t been willing to let the past go and want to endlessly rehash old arguments. It’s definitely time to move on and if people are prepared to do that, it isn’t important where they came from!


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