Sophie Katz looks at past attempts in setting up left of Labour alternatives and considers what the left in Britain should do today.
The first time that the issue of replacing the LP with another mass party came up as a strategy (actually the first time the main thesis of the British Road to Socialism was ever confronted by the radical left) was in the second half of the 1980s as part of an obscure debate inside a declining organisation which had itself been a faction of the effectively dissolving International Marxist Group. It was the central idea of a document called ‘Our Strategy.’ At that stage ‘Our Strategy’ did not conquer even the attenuated majority available at the conference. It did however create a commanding idea and, ten years later, patient organisation in support of the strategy laid the basis for the formation of Britain’s first attempt to create a new mass party of the working class since the 1920s.Scargill announced to a small meeting in a North London Hotel that he was going to found the Socialist Labour Party.
Since that event there have been many versions of new parties and many versions of what went wrong with them. The latest review is to be found in an article by Will McMahon on the Left Unity site, which calls on Left Unity to set up a common electoral front with, among others, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (the Socialist Party plus its friends in the RMT.) Will has a standard list of the weaknesses of all the previous attempts. Respect was too SWP then too Galloway. The SLP was too Scargill, etc. He goes on to paint a picture of all the ‘fragments’ of the left and to suggest that if they all got together then they would be bigger than the sum of their parts. And not having a charismatic leader should help.
Unfortunately the Marxists have once again refused (forgotten?) to apply their own Marxism to a study of their own landscape. So before moving on it is necessary to clear the debris that has accumulated around the discussion of previous radical left parties. The British left has a deep faith in the vacuum theory of history. You can see it in the astoundingly tenacious idea that if the social democratic/bureaucratic leaderships were just prevented from their regular betrayal, then revolutionary action could burst forth from the base. It has been applied, with a vengeance, to Social Democracy and the British Labour Party. Social Democracy has moved to the right (we will come back to this) and the space it has left behind – the vacuum – will draw the radical left into the old Social Democrat’s position. The connection between the SD leaders and the workers has been severed by history (or via the denunciations of this or that left group) and a reconnection to the workers’ ‘true’ representatives is now open. From those sort of assumptions we get to more modern schemas about the emergence, in the rest of Western Europe, of new left parties who represent this process already. And if they can do it, why can’t we?
How should we look at these ideas? In the first place we see through the eyes of the working class as we study of the whole of class society. ‘No interests separate and apart’ etc. Western capitalism has transformed the western working class utterly in the last quarter century. There is no space here to examine this in detail, but suffice it to say that the working class in the west has been socially decomposed – first through a huge domestic class offensive and then through the consequences of the weakening of the traditional western imperialist powers and their re-concentration of capital through semi –detached centres of finance capital. This was both caused by class war and simultaneously became itself the basis for the destruction of western social democracy (as a political force which historically balanced itself between its mass working class support on the one hand and on the other – through its bureaucracy and leadership – provided political support to native ruling classes).
The social and economic basis for Social Democracy’s role – a mass organised working class movement and a world dominated by the power of western imperialism – has dissolved on both fronts. It is in the recognition of the totality of the political, economic and social process that wisdom lays. It is true that Scargill ruined any chance that the SLP might have had. For a start he blew up his own constitution at the founding conference. But the SLP’s creation was firmly premised on the understanding that there continued to be – even by the early 1990s – a well embedded political current inside the working class movement – the Benn / Scargill current. The paradox was that Scargill was able to ruin his own party precisely because that current had actually ceased to exist by 1995 and could therefore play no role in countering Scargill’s shenanigans.
Respect based itself on the huge anti-war mobilisation but discovered that huge mobilisations do not necessarily gel into broader political currents in society, or inside the remains of the workers’ movement, despite Salma Yaqoob and George Galloway. Consequently it fractured and then became prey for the latest sectarian turn of the SWP. It too scattered to pieces. Then we come to ‘once as tragedy…’ with the Socialist Party’s campaign for a new mass workers party (which in due course they would presumably enter.) It has not gone beyond its own megaphones. Undoubtedly rooted in the heads of SP organisers and a few friends of the SP inside the RMT, it exists nowhere else in British society. (It would be an injustice here to bring in a quick summary of Scottish developments and although the Scottish Socialist Party has failed, it has been a much richer experience and deserves very serious attention in its own right.)
The latest effort to set up a new party is the current call for a Left Unity party. Left Unity is a serious attempt to echo the western European experience where successful radical left formations have emerged, or re-emerged in the case of Izquierda Unida, as a result of the battle against austerity. Syrizia is the beacon for Left Unity as it rightly studied by the left for its remarkable and vital progress. It is also not an accident that Left Unity has made a significant part of its appeal the defence of what was the time of British social democracy’s greatest triumph – the spirit of ‘45. The message is simple and coherent; we must combine the appeal of the greatest days of the now unreformable British Labour Party with the new political advances of the radical left in Europe.
But neither of these albeit potent experiences have any significant base in most of Britain and neither can capture the actual experience of the actually existing working class – let alone navigate through new international social and political totality as it is expressed. Leaving aside for a moment the romance of the ‘45ers, radical left parties in western Europe are not at all a product of a shift to the right by traditional social democracy, rather new lefts have been regrouped – at least in large part – by the previous communist party tradition, which is now in ruins.
The western European context includes direct experience of Nazi rule and the tremendous sacrifice and victories of the old USSR, a divided Germany, Paris ’68, Milan ’69 Portugal and Spain ’74 – 76, the colonels’ coup in Greece etc. The communist tradition ran deep and the workers’ movements were less defeated; both crucial differences with the British experience. A far left, based at least in part on those experiences and on the opportunities afforded by the decay of the mass communist parties, have been able to crystallise a genuine working class based current which has allowed it to play a greater role than has been available to equivalent forces in the UK.
So where is the left today in the UK and what should it do? A new strategic insight is required, a new political construct. The working class in the UK has been socially decomposed and, in reaction, is politically recomposing. In Northern Ireland, where social decomposition is least developed in the current generation, the nationalist working class remains, in the main, grouped around Sinn Fein. In Scotland an historic battle of negation wages between the Scottish LP and the SNP as to who is the real opposite to Southern England’s (although not London’s) Tory majority. In England UKIP provides a growing political identity for numbers of white working class people. Additionally, the more active wing of the trade union movement are giving a political lead to a definite current of working class opinion partly reflected in the recent Peoples Assembly – although their ability to reach wider layers inside the working class is reduced by the degree to which the (overwhelming majority) of non unionised workers are now persuaded to see unionised labour as the defence of special interests.
A huge number of working class people, perhaps a third, are without any political identity at all even in terms of voting (although broadly critical of the political system.) And general membership of the main UK political parties has been in steep decline over recent decades. Only about one per cent of the electorate is currently a member of one of the main parties, compared with an estimated 3.8% in 1983. The UK has one of the lowest rates of party membership in Europe. At the end of 2011, Labour had 193,300 members. (In the early 1950s, Labour membership reached a peak of 1 million.) The LP vote is dissolving – at the moment into inertia or to the right. So far resistance to austerity has not yet taken on a national face of protest let alone any political expression despite continued polling showing majority opposition to cuts.
Meanwhile the British capitalist system is fragile. The social decomposition and political recomposition of the working class away from the LP is not a sign of the great strength of the system, neither in its coalition politics nor in its city based economics. With its totally unbalanced and internationally over-exposed and vulnerable position, the UK is one of the weakest links in the international capitalist chain. What therefore are the overarching political objectives for our disaggregated working class movement in the next period? The social decomposition and political recomposition of the UK working class is a complex and contradictory process. It is in this context that the strategic goal of the replacement of the LP by a new mass worker’s party is now a rootless and redundant perspective in current conditions.
As an objective, the formation of a new mass party of labour albeit with a radical programme is the attempt to paint a dying phenomenon with the colours of the future. The political recomposition of the working class – the actual process – is ineluctably underway. Unlike Scargill’s and the SP’s vision of a new LP but with a class struggle or a revolutionary leadership, the actually existing working class have moved beyond either the idea of inside/outside reform of Labour or its substantive replacement. And there is little purpose in insisting that we all rerun history until we get it right. The actual LP is dying because the conditions for its existence inside both the capitalist class and the working class are ebbing away.
Today a new type of political regroupment is already emerging shaped by modern conditions and it is that process that the left must grasp. Historically speaking the atomization of the working class is not new. The Chartists brought together handloom weavers working in their cottages with families who worked open cast mines, with small workshop employees and their ‘masters’, indeed all the flotsam and jetsam that were being created by the friction between industrialising towns and the surrounding countryside. The Chartists brought them together around a proposal for political revolution. And that is the strategic necessity today.
Our political system (including its previously social democratic component) no longer promises to secure or even to pretend to serve working class interests. And it is politics and no longer the social and economic glue of great factories, rows of terraces, of mines and steelworks that can recompose the working class. (Of course large units of production will continue to play a disproportionate role at decisive moment in any class struggle – consider London Transport.) The change in union membership already reflects some of these realities. Unions are more white collar and public sector, female and BME.
The key elements of political regroupment required today are summarized in two objectives that are already taking shape and that the left needs to make central to their concerns. At the general political level it is answering the question of who can represent anti-austerity. This is the question of who will be the political defence of what is or what has been, of what was won by previous generations of the working class. Everyone has had a lesson in the power of globalization and the banks. Everyone understands that the social and economic conditions can only be secured politically.
The second objective is equally decisive. It is the question of whom or what can politically represent the need for a new system of society – starting with a new political system. Austerity in the west shows that the great historic gains (albeit made under a social democratic banner) are not safe (least of all with the social democrats!) The defence of what is, is tied, inexorably, to the creation of something new. Both of these working class political objectives ache for resolution as the billionaires scatter our lives and as our existing political system is creaking and groaning in its terminal illness and the decay of its corruption.
Organisational objectives must serve political strategy. The Peoples Assembly and others are committed to build a mass, national movement against austerity. This kaleidoscopic movement’s policy requires its own political representation. Not representation from somebody from outside who just states they oppose this or that part of austerity; but from people from inside the actual movement, and who are part of its debates and its collective actions. It does not matter if they want to stand for the Labour Party or under another banner. Some of the most convincing supporters of the anti-austerity movement claim to also support Labour. But all the anti-austerity movement’s representatives must support its adopted principles. Otherwise they are not representing the movement but something else.
Anti-austerity must be a real choice not a partial, or ‘depending on’ option for working class people in the coming election. As we collapse towards the coming general election this argument will be unavoidable. Our goal in the next election is to promote all candidates who sign up to anti-austerity. We will want them to have as their first priority getting rid of austerity policies and to form a bloc in Parliament with that purpose. That is the working class interest in the next election.
It is as significant a moment in the recreation of the working class ‘for itself’ as the original working men who first stood for parliament because their class was not represented in politics, both before and during the creation of the Labour Representation Committee at the end of the 19th century. Is this, in practice, the left’s version of UKIP? UKIP’s stated aim is to regroup the existing right currently supporting the Tories. They present two means of achieving that regroupment. First they are establishing their own base across disaffected middle class and working class white Britons with the EU standing in for the inimical influence in the UK of all ‘foreigners’. And second they are feeling their way towards a bloc to support elements in the City who wish to safeguard their privileged position in world finance against new European rules.
This is all very dangerous but the left would be mistaken to attempt a regroupment with or to have the main strategy of putting pressure on elements of the Labour Party. A big vote for anti-austerity candidates would certainly worry the Labour leadership. But it is not its fundamental purpose – any more that it is the main purpose of a national anti-austerity mass movement.
Our goal is to make a new thing; to create a new platform in society so that a new class may stand on its own solid ground. It will start small. Everything starts small. It will not form a government. That does not matter. It has not mattered for some decades. What does matter is that we form the beginning of real representation. In the first instance in defence of what has been won and what is. Simultaneously the left needs to take steps to answer the second question. If the first question is how to defend, through politics, what has been and what is. It must now also attend to the creation what will be.
The mass social democratic phase of working class politics is over in this country and it will not return even in a revolutionary guise. (It is the basic reason why the trade unions that are still central to the fight must disentangle themselves from the Labour Party and face their own political independence.) LP mass politics does not relate to the new totality, to actual working class conditions or, most importantly from the point of view of the second question, to the crisis of our civilization. It is now time to reconstruct the goal of a new type of society.
The terrible ideological hangover produced by the collapse of the USSR has melted away in the minds of the people of the globe, if not from its effects in history. Thousands of young people, even in Britain, already think our world is a terrible place. They experience foreign wars as wars against them. They denounce the corruption and hypocrisy they see around them. As national populations displace from their national origins; as the first world intermingles socially with what was the third world then global conditions more and more effect the political outlooks of the immigrant family, the young people and especially the indigenous populations.
The moral, economic and pre-eminently political question arises today, now, in the Mosques, among students, among the new poor. Why is our world like this? Why is our society so unfair? How can we survive? At some phase in the future this questioning of our society will combine with the movement to improve or even hold onto the day-to-day necessities of life. For now they show a different aspect, a different face of the struggle and yet organising for both aspects, for both faces, answers the question of how the working class movement can be successfully politically recomposed.
It is the political recomposition of the working class that will supersede and overcome its social decomposition. And for those that are worried that the foregoing might have over-balanced optimism of the will with too much pessimism of the intellect, the bleakness of the current landscape only serves to make the view clearer!
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.
Sun 1 May, 12:00
May Day rally
Rallies across the country, join one near you.
Wed 4 May, 19:00
Jeremy Gilbert & Marina Prentoulis talk
‘Is another Europe possible or is democratic politics doomed to perpetual impotence?’
Calder Bookshop, London.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 020 7620 2900
Sun 8 May, 12:00
Going Backwards on Climate Change
Join the march to say no more backtracking on climate issues.
Tues 17 May, 19:00
Psychology, Europe and Beyond | Ian Parker
Continuing the series of talks on Europe at Calder Bookshop, London.
Email: email@example.com Tel: 020 7620 2900
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.