The current conjuncture in Britain on the left: toward left unity

austerity isnt workingFor the first time in a long period the conditions for the emergence of a broad left coalition of forces in the UK capable of attracting large-scale support seem ripe, says Ed Rooksby. These conditions have been generated and shaped, in my view, by four major interconnected political and economic developments. These developments themselves comprise a series of intertwining factors, some of which are best conceptualised as ‘structural’ and some of which pertain to a more subjective sense of possibility among people on the left.

The first and most obvious of these is economic crisis and austerity. This has posed in very immediate terms the question of how best to defend jobs, living conditions and the reforms and concessions in relation to healthcare, education and welfare won in struggle decades ago and which are now being stripped back in a determined assault. But it has also posed the question, again in immediate terms, of whether or not our current economic system is, in fact, compatible, over any prolonged and sustained period, with decent welfare provision and conditions of life and work for the majority – whether or not recession and government attempts to roll back social reforms won in previous phases are predictable, cyclical features of capitalism. However you answer this second question you are forced to confront further questions: how best to push back capital’s war of attrition against welfare (which has been a feature of international capitalism for the last 35 years or so – austerity is simply the intensification under conditions of acute crisis of longer term tendencies) and impose some sort of renewed post-war social democratic settlement, or how best to go beyond capitalism itself and build a more democratic, humane and sustainable alternative.  The crisis and austerity that is, confronts us with fundamental and pressing questions in relation to organisation and strategy. It is in this context that the idea of the construction of a new organisation of the left has been put firmly on the political agenda.

The second development is closely meshed with the first and is that it has become painfully apparent to many of the Labour Party’s erstwhile supporters and activists that Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity (let alone for the implementation of a counter-offensive against capital). Of course, many socialists will never have had much faith in Labour’s capacity for seriously and radically advancing the interests of working people – especially in the context of economic crisis when capital’s demands for wage repression and ‘labour discipline’ for example become much more pressing on states. But recent developments have shaken the faith of many more people who previously were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt, or to hope that it might be reformed and won to a more left-wing perspective from within. Ed Miliband’s rapid dash to the right on issues like immigration after his victory in the Labour leadership election of 2010 as the putative candidate of the left (those horrified ‘Red Ed’ references in the tabloid press seem absurd, indeed, quaint now in retrospect) was a big disappointment to many of the party’s activists and supporters. More recently, we’ve seen and heard Ed Balls say that Labour would be ‘ruthless’ in power about cutting public spending and Jon Cruddas’s claim on Newsnight that ‘food banks are here to stay’ even under a Labour government – indeed that the emergence of food banks across the country is a ‘positive development’. Add to this the grotesque spectacle in the past few days of the Labour front bench refusing to oppose government proposals for removing the right to strike for Home Office employees and, further, party leaders putting pressure on Labour MPs to abstain in a vote on a crucial ‘workfare’ bill and it must be obvious to all but the most blind that Labour is just a lost cause for the left. There has, I think, over the last few weeks and months been a pronounced acceleration of a longer term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base and, correspondingly, a growing willingness among many of them to countenance the prospect of leaving Labour to join a new organisation – in particular, the Left Unity initiative.

syriza flagsThe third major factor shaping this new political conjuncture in the UK is an external one – the international influence and prestige of Syriza (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the Front de Gauche). The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and to win such support very rapidly. More than this Syriza have shown that it is possible, not just to build up and organise a mass movement of resistance to austerity, but also to challenge seriously for power.  Of course the specific economic and political conditions of Britain and Greece are very different – most obviously the crisis is much more acute in the latter – and so we cannot think that Syriza provides a ready-made organisational/strategic model which we can somehow transplant wholesale into the UK. Nevertheless it does provide us with useful lessons and guidelines. Perhaps the most important dimension of the Syriza phenomenon, however, is its morale-raising effect. Socialists across Europe are looking at Syriza and, for the first time in a very long time, are thinking, ‘My God, we really can challenge for power and we really can win!’ The psychological impact of this should not be underestimated.

The Syriza effect interacts with and strengthens the second development mentioned above – the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony – further contributing to the sense among many of its erstwhile supporters and activists that that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also contributed a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings. Not least Syriza has convinced many radicals used to working in small, relatively isolated groups that in fact the reformist and revolutionary left can work together effectively in a common organisation which is characterised by democracy, pluralism and a culture in which it is accepted that not all political differences can, will or need to be resolved into a common ‘line’ in order for the coalition to operate successfully:  the kind of organisational structure/culture that Simon Hardy has described in terms of ‘dynamic tension’.  The Syriza effect, then, has encouraged a broad range of people on the left to start thinking seriously and with confidence about building new alliances, and, moreover, to act on this sense of possibility.

There is a fourth development which closely interacts with the third. This is the recent partial implosion of the SWP. Whatever you think of recent events in that party (and I’m in no position to comment knowledgeably on them, so I won’t try) the SWP bust-up has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the radical left, loosened the SWP’s erstwhile hegemony over that terrain and thus put things substantially in flux. I would certainly be against taking a sectarian or hostile approach to SWP members (and there is, I think, some danger of this at the moment) but I also think it’s true that the recent splitting and weakening of the SWP has had at least one positive effect in that it has opened up a new space for realignment among radical left forces and the left more widely. In the context of, and in interaction with, the Syriza effect discussed above this has created a very promising and exciting situation for building a new, broad coalition.

These then are, in my view, the main developments that, in intersection and interaction, constitute a new conjuncture on the UK left – one in which a significant and lasting realignment of forces has become a definite and realistic possibility. The conjuncture poses big questions for us all. The main one, of course, is the question of the organisational form that a new coordination of forces should take. This question can only be resolved finally in practice and part of the very process of realignment will be to experiment with forms of organisation and coordination – a settled structure can’t be imposed at the outset, but must be allowed to emerge more or less organically.

Nevertheless, three broad models so far seem to have emerged, at least in embryonic form. These are by no means entirely mutually exclusive models – but they do have important differences of emphasis which would take the emerging movement off on divergent trajectories of development should any of them become dominant.

The first of these is what we might call the ‘Owen Jones model’. In a recent article Owen made the entirely welcome and valuable call for a new ‘networked movement of the Left’ which would encompass activists from both within and outside the Labour Party. Owen is quite clear however that he does not favour the establishment of ‘yet another party of the Left’ and argues that the main task of the networked movement would be to put pressure on the Labour Party in order to force it to the left. While I believe that the general strategy of building a mass movement in order to push sympathetic political representatives in parliament and government to the left and in order to hold them to their promises is right (or that at least it should form part of a wider strategy on the part of the radical left) I do not believe that it’s at all feasible to centre such a strategy on the Labour Party. It should be entirely clear to all observers by now that the central core of Labour is thoroughly impervious to socialist ideas – and in fact that it always has been. The Labour right has a permanent stranglehold on the party and indeed, more than this, the party is structurally embedded in the capitalist status quo. The idea that the party can be won or forced very far to the left – let alone to the extent that it might seriously challenge core capitalist interests – is simply wishful thinking. Sadly many talented socialist activists over the years have thrown themselves into a war of position within the party seeking to win it to the left only to be lost forever within the party’s labyrinthine bureaucratic committee structures never to be seen again (and this is indeed what these structures are designed to do – contain, exhaust, demoralise and absorb the Labour left).

The second model is the ‘People’s Assembly’ currently supported by a range of left figures such as Mark Steel and Tony Benn, and in which the driving force seems to be a previous splinter group from the SWP – Counterfire. While, again, this is a very welcome development and there is no reason not to support it wholeheartedly, I am slightly sceptical about this project and would not want to see this approach form the centrepiece, as it were, of a new organisational model. The main problem here is that I think we need a firmer structure – we need a party form (like that of Syriza). If we are serious about changing society for the better then we need to be serious about taking power too – and for this we need to be organised into a party structure. There is no reason, as I’ll argue below, why this party should not (like Syriza) take a relatively decentralised, pluralistic form – but we do need some sort of central coordination in order to be effective.

The third model – and the one I think is most promising – is the Left Unity model. Left Unity (there’s a statement its rationale here and some ideas about basic principles here) sees itself as the embryonic form of a new broad church party of the left. It models itself in relation to Syriza and to other successful groupings like the Front de Gauche. It seeks to provide a unifying, coordinating structure within which relative disparate groups and elements on the left can work together and pool their resources. It is precisely the sort of thing that we need. Already the most open and outward looking radical socialist groups such as Socialist Resistance and the ACI, together with the new International Socialist Network – all of these groups themselves relatively pluralistic works in progress – have pledged their support. But, more than this, the most encouraging thing about Left Unity is that, with the help of Ken Loach’s recent appeal, it seems to be pulling in traditional Labour supporters alienated by the party’s inexorable drift to the right. Winning over a sizeable chunk of Labour’s constituency of activists and supporters has long been the Holy Grail of the radical left and Left Unity seems, so far, to be pulling this off – there is a long way to go here, but it’s certainly made a promising start.

Of course, an alliance of revolutionaries, reformists and ‘left reformists’ within a federal type party structure raises all sorts of organisational and strategic dilemmas and potential problems – but what possible sort organisation doesn’t raise its own difficulties? Not the least of these is that it will have to confront the classic (and in my view inevitable) dilemma of socialist strategy – the reform/revolution problem. Certainly a party which aims to transform society fundamentally and which also commits itself to a political strategy that would involve, if it was successful, actually taking part in, or even forming, a government faces the problem of whether it is possible to use state power to help effect a transition to socialism or whether such an approach would, inevitably, saddle it with the responsibility of managing capitalism in capitalism’s interests.

Of course this is not an immediate problem in the UK – though it certainly is for Syriza in Greece. Nevertheless if Left Unity continues to develop we will need to give some serious thought to big strategic matters. I hope to contribute some thoughts in relation to the big strategic picture in a later article on this site.

 Ed Rooksby is a lecturer and also contributes to The Guardian’s Comment is Free







10 responses to “The current conjuncture in Britain on the left: toward left unity”

  1. Peter Hill says:

    I don’t think that the first model (Owen Jones’s network) and the third model (a new party) are necessarily mutually exclusive. 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 the Left Unity-ists.

    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 grip of Labour. 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 60s. Edward Thompson has an interesting description of this (in ‘Peculiarities of the English’, Socialist Register 1965): ‘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 have been maintained by the Communist Party…’. In other words, there was a separate party (the Left Unity model) acting as a base for networks which extended across a much wider left and into the Labour Party (the Jones model).

    I’m not saying this is bound to happen but I suspect it’s on the cards – assuming, of course, that Left Unity can get to a similar position to the old CP in terms of organizational success. It’s early days to be thinking about this of course, but we should perhaps be thinking, even now, about whether that kind of thing would be desirable. Is a degree of influence on and connection with the Labour Left important – or should Left Unity hold out for more independence? Would keeping those channels with Labour open be a healthy thing, connecting Left Unity to a wider movement? Or would it just serve to drag it back into orbit around a basically non-socialist Labour Party? I don’t pretend to have the answers but these are questions the Left Unity movement will probably have to confront at some point.

    • Ed Rooksby says:


      Thanks very much for your comments. One of things I probably should have said a bit more about was the relationship with Labour. I think you’re right by the way that there’s no necessary conflict with the Owen Jones model in the sense that LU and Labour leftists can and should work together. However, I think the clear intention of LU is to seek to provide an alternative to Labour not to seek to push it to the left (although the latter would be a welcome side-effect perhaps).

      On your suggestion about the way things might work out – yes, perhaps. But I still think that the Labour Left is really hamstrung and I just can’t see it winning the party (when has it ever done this?). It might grow in strength and confidence as an effect of a rising tide of the left more generally, that’s true – and it’s true this might put a spanner in the works for the third model/strategy I outline. But then, again, surely those who think the third model is the right one have to act on it and see what happens?

  2. Neil says:

    I completely agree that we need a new left party as part of an overall strategy of resistance and development of a neo-socialist economic and political paradigm. However, I am uncomfortable with the idea of any parliamentary party being the primary strategic focus of such a strategy for two main reasons. Firstly, a party-focused approach which appears to be suggested in model 3 would find it very difficult in my view to reach and create a sufficiently large mass base to win parliamentary control or even have decisive influence on larger parties. Secondly, although parliamentary control is necessary to achieve power, it is insufficient to do so. In short, in order to mobilise and conscientize a mass base and challenge the extremely powerful forces of reaction and co-option that would be unleashed on such a project requires a broad, large extra-parliamentary movement which is supportive of a new left party but relatively autonomous.

    • Neil says:

      Sorry – a third main reason too: we have a crisis of representative democracy not only of the Labour Party – the latter is just a specific instance of something much larger and more fundamental; it seems unclear how exactly we could revitalise democracy, however I would argue that developing participatory democracy from the bottom up in institutions of civil society and the economy is an essential step in radically changing our old exhausted, corrupt model of representative democracy.

      • Ed Rooksby says:


        Thanks. Actually I totally agree. Perhaps something that doesn’t come over very well in the article is that I think that the emphasis should be on mass mobilisation rather than simple electoralism (and certainly not an exclusively electoralist strategy where everything is subordinated to getting people elected to parliament). The two – mass mobilisation, building grassroots campaigns, demonstrations, strikes etc on the one hand and campaigning in elections should go hand in hand, each conditioning the other but with emphasis on the former. (This is how I see the Syriza/Front de Gauche strategy).

  3. Chris says:

    Two more elements to the conjuncture of which you write.
    The first is the environmental crisis. I gather that you in Britain are knee deep in snow drifts, shivering as privatised utilities make hay of your misery and watching as thousands of lambs die in the hill country.
    Climate change is real, threatening and easily understood by anyone dealing with it. It is a very simple issue: either capitalism or the biosphere. You cannot have both.

    The second is the imperialist war against muslims. It is a shocking commentary on much of the “left” that it has been at best indifferent, at worst complicit in campaigns such as that around the last Iranian election, Libya, Syria, Mali and Burma. Imperialism will not go away and any mass party will have to confront it in a way that Labour always failed to do. As is often the case George Galloway sees this far more clearly than a left which remains infected by Tony Cliff’s one big idea, enunciated during the Korean war. But that is another story.

  4. John Penney says:

    A really good succinct outline by Ed Rooksby, of the key factors now in play , from the deepening capitalist crisis, to the utter political bankrupcy of the Labour Party as a vehicle for resistance and radical, progressive, change, to the approaching final collapse of the old “Revolutionery Left” (ie. Trot) parties ; making the attempt to launch a new mass-based radical socialist party in the UK not only desirable, but for the first time in generations, actually a possibility !

    As some of the posts here, and elsewhere on the blogosphere, make clear, there are obviously hordes of old Trots, old Stalinists, old Labourite reformists, eager to fish in a new political pond to “sell their ideological baggage” to any new emerging potentially large radical Left grouping. No problem with that, as long as the inevitable attempts to “write the party programme” to meet their particular favourite historical model or interpretation doesn’t get in the way of actually fighting the austerity offensive and drive away that vital human component of any potentially large new radical socialist movement, ie, people who haven’t been involved in “party” organisational forms before. Without being able to attract massive numbers of this grouping its just the same old faces arguing in a political vacuum.

  5. Eleanor Firman says:

    couldn’t see any reference to women here or comments by women so wondered what that might signify?

    • John Penney says:

      Only that a bloke wasn’t presuming to sum up the key issues facing women in this article ?
      The only significance is perhaps that you chose not to add a useful comment about the issue of women, as you could have, but instead to stand aside with an empty, negative, comment. Participation is always better than heckling from the sidelines Eleanor. It’s a completely open forum. What do YOU , as a woman, and presumeably a socialist, think a new radical Left movement should prioritise on the Womens Issue ?

  6. Patrick Black says:

    I would just like to add a number of points in addition to what has already been said…….Left unity has been a long long time in coming and the urgent NEED for such a party grows by the day.Whether it will successfully develop as an effective and radical Broad Left political party with mass support base remains to be seen but at the moment it presents the Left with a rare and not to be squandered vital opportunity for growth, renewal and relevance to a large number of people.In a word it needs to be able to provide HOPE with a practical VISION.

    What is clear is that first and foremost there is a massive political crisis in this country. Millions of people no longer vote, 4 million people have taken their vote away from Labour and over 200 thousand people left New Labour since 1997.

    As the present ‘cash for questions’ scandal of MP’s and Peers of the bloody realm as political lobbyists for their own and big business interests reveals once again, on top of many previous such similar scandals(it was ever thus) such as MP’s expenses scandal, MP’s voting for MP’s wage rises, many people feel sickened by the present ‘macho’ political system which is deeply corrupt and wholly unrepresentative.

    In my view Left unity needs to seriously rethink and engage people on the question of radical popular democracy, community politics and genuine political representation in a way The Left has rarely done before, both within itself and at a national, regional and local level of government.It needs to have properly accountable representatives in both councils chambers and ‘parliament’ to radically and effectively challenge and provide viable democratic socialist alternatives to the neo liberal cuts and austerity consensus, as well as expose the archaic and corrupt nature of the present ailing and failing political system and regime and it’s equally rotten and undemocratic structures.

    The SWP and The Socialist party continue to slug it out in the land of the never never and both appear tired, dated and are in no sense are gaining support and growing from the present period of crisis and Austerity. Dream on!

    The complete failure of The Labour movement,The trade union movement,The Labour party and The Left to organise a mass demonstration, never mind mass opposition to the on going privatisation of the NHS is a damning indictment of the whole movement and fully reveals both it’s political and organisational weakness and in the case of The Labour party and much of the trade union movement leadership areas it’s outright complicity. This Left unity needs to urgently address and fight for a national health service which is publically owned and democratic.

    Similarly, the present widespread ignorance(by much of the Left) of climate change and chaos,the global eco crisis has to be addressed by Left Unity.We simply cant sit around waiting or even working for the so called revolutionary Left to come to power in a revolutionary situation inorder for capitalism and climate change to be fully addressed. We need an effective political vehicle now which can build support and come to address the issue from a position of power and strength, winning broad support for creating climate jobs,developing alternative sources of energy, a popular integrated publicly owned transport system which provides a concrete transition away from the present parlous state and impasse.

    Just as the Scottish Socialist party was able to gain greater support and relevance once in the Scottish parliament until it’s deeply regrettable bust partly led to the present facturing of the Left in Scotalnd, so Left unity has to think and develop with care, properly learning the mistakes and errors of past attempts at Left unity.

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