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European election: British left discusses urgent need for left unity

`If this debacle doesn’t wake up the British left, absolutely nothing will'

[See also ``European election: `An alarm is ringing' -- time `to build the broadest possible left unity'''.]

By Phil Hearse

June 8, 2009 -- Marxsite -- The outcome of the county council and European parliament elections means that the British left -- the left to the left of New Labour -- has to wake up and break out of its dire sectarian, bureaucratic and factional mindsets. Nothing is more shameful than the lack of of united left slate, around a minimal set of demands in the interets of the working class, in these elections. The near absence of the left from the electoral field was one important reason -- though far from the only one -- that such a large number of the protest votes against the main parties went to the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the fascist British National Party (BNP). It is shameful that the left abandons so much of the electoral field to the far right because of nothing more than hardened, bone-headed, factional idiocy -- topped off by bureaucratic exclusions and anathemas.

There was of course the No2EU slate (more on No2EU here), supported by the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and Socialist Party and promoted by Bob Crow and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). This made some impact, but not much -- around about 1% in most places. It's very unfortunate name gave rise to wrong impressions and in its headline -- although not of course its policies -- seemed indistinguishable from the UKIP. But more than this, the No2EU was a temporary lash-up, a new name and not something easily recognisable and established, as a real political party or long-term electoral front has to be.

In London the Socialist Labour Party (sole proprieter A. Scargill) got 17,000 votes, nearly as many as No2EU. Scargill is playing the role of a spoiler and disrupter of real left progress in elections by using big money at his disposition to continually stand a party that does not in reality exist. But why did the ``SLP'' get this vote -- because of the name, Socialist Labour Party.

In the absence of a credible united left slate, the field is not just open to the right, but many of the left's core voters vote for the Greens as the least bad credible alternative. Everyone but the left and the working class benefits from what Sheumas Milne described last week in his Guardian column as 'a prostrate left'.

In his recent article replying to Francois Sabado and Panos Garganas, British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Alex Callinicos strikes a realistic note:

"I also express my disagreements in some humility: the disastrous recent experiences of the radical left in Britain do not exactly set up any of the participants in these catastrophes to preach to their comrades elsewhere in Europe.''

Quite so: these disasters are the experience of the Socialist Alliance, Respect and the split in the Scottish Socialist Party. I will not dwell here on the role played by the SWP in each of these disasters: that is something that has to be put behind us. The SWP was not uniquely responsible for these disasters either. The problem is that they have led to a scepticism and disillusionment among many people who went through these experiences.

The legacy of the failure of these projects is that starting again to build something unified on the left that can seriously intervene in elections will be a difficult job. But there is no option but to attempt it, and rapidly before the general election. If the UKIP coming second to the Tories in England and Wales and the election of two BNP Euro MPs doesn't wake up the British left, nothing will.

Fairy stories

In the face of events like these there is a temptation to take refuge in fairy stories, and myth number one is that we are on the verge of a huge industrial upsurge that will dwarf elections in its importance. We are not. Elections of course are not the final arbiters of the political outcome of social struggles, but they play an enormous role in modern bourgeois democracies. Without solid electoral intervention the left fights with one hand behind its back.

It would also be quite wrong to take a quietist and resigned attitude, noting that more or less every kind of left has done badly in Europe and mostly (though not in France) the far right has done well. It's true that it's mainly the right who have gained from the appalling crisis of pro-neoliberal social democracy. That is something that is not inevitable, nor is it irreversible, but the left has to analyse its basis and social meaning. In the next couple of weeks we shall post a further article here on the reasons for the success of the right and hard right. For the moment we should note that the push to the right will not be prevented by abandoning the electoral field of battle.

A further temptation would be to think that the rise of the hard right could be thwarted by anti-fascist mobilisations and a repeat of the 1970s Anti-Nazi League. Anti-fascist mobilisation will continue to be important, but in the long term only an alternative that can appeal to significant section of disilusioned working class voters can prevent the rise of the right.

Pitfalls and obstacles

Left sectarianism is not the only problem that has to be fought to build a united electoral front. Exclusions and anathemas, especially coming from sections of the trade union leaderships, are also a major problem. Hostility towards the SWP has reached irrational levels, especially among former revolutionary leftists who now try to act as advisors to left bureaucrats. The SWP has in may ways itself to blame for its bad reputation; it has alientated plenty of people by high-handed and undemocratic practices. This is a problem that will not be easily overcome. But the SWP in England and Wales is easily the most important part of the far left and in the medium term the construction of a new left alliance must engage them. This problem shows that the issue of democracy is not a secondary consideration but a sine quo non of successful alliances.

Right now the leadership of every part of the left-of-Labour left has to stop and think. Calculations on the basis of a ``small capital'' basis, eagerly counting the number of new recruits and papers sold, hopelessly fails to meet the situation. Left leaders have to start talking to one another, irrespective of past conflicts and prejudices. The left has many activists and immense resources of talent, experience and political capacity. But being stuck in the narcissistic bunker of narrow minds and narrow organisations won't make any impression on the national political map.

Of course the left faces an almost total ban on publicity in the national media, and indeed the right-wing domination of the media more generally. But we start from where we are, not from where we would like to be. We are much further behind where we ought to be in building a united left alternative. We now have to rapidly build a new Alliance for Socialism.

It'll be the first name on any ballot paper.

[Phil Hearse writes for the British socialist newspaper Socialist Respect.]


No2EU calls for unity to defeat the BNP

No2EU: Yes to Democracy coalition convener Bob Crow has called for urgent discussions involving socialist organisations, campaigns and trade unions to build a concerted response following the election of two fascists from the BNP to the European Parliament.

No2EU was the first progessive EU-critical coalition to stand in Britain in any election and it gained 153,236 votes despite an almost complete media blackout.

The combined vote in Thursday's poll for No2EU, the Socialist Labour Party and some of the smaller left parties stacks up to nearly a third of a million votes -- just over 2% of the total. In Scotland, the combined left vote was close to 4%.

Meanwhile, the Labour share of the vote has dropped by a massive 31%, the Lib Dems by over 7% and the Tories, despite all the hype, have only managed a tiny increase in share with turnout collapsing to just over 30%.

Bob Crow said today:

"There is no question that the BNP have benefitted from the collapse of the establishment political parties and from media coverage that has pumped them up like celebrities on `I'm a Nazi -- Get Me Out of Here.'

"Sections of the press, which have deliberately ignored anti-establishment parties from the left, need to take a long, hard look at the way the blanket coverage they have given to the fascists from the BNP has contributed to their success.

"But it's the collapse of public support for the three main parties - each of which is pro-business, pro-EU and supportive of the anti-union laws -- which has created the conditions for the scapegoat-politics of the BNP to thrive.

"The fascists support in former mining communities like Barnsley is shocking and throws down a massive challenge to the Labour and Trade Union movement.

"Along with our colleagues from the SLP and other left groups we won nearly a third of a million votes. From No2EU we won over 150,000 supporters from a standing start in the teeth of a media blackout. That gives us a solid platform to build from.

"We now need urgent discussions with political parties, campaigns and our colleagues in other unions like the CWU to develop a political and industrial response to this crisis.

"I also want to pay tribute to our colleagues from the Hope Not Hate campaign. There is no doubt that without their tireless efforts the BNP would have won even more seats," he said.


An open letter to the left from the Socialist Workers Party: it’s time to create a socialist alternative

June 10, 2009 -- Socialist Worker -- Labour’s vote collapsed to a historic low in last week’s elections as the right made gains. The Tories under David Cameron are now set to win the next general election.

The British National Party (BNP) secured two seats in the European parliament. Never before have fascists achieved such a success in Britain. The result has sent a shockwave across the labour and anti-fascist movements, and the left.

The meltdown of the Labour vote and the civil war engulfing the party poses a question—where do we go from here?

The fascists pose a threat to working class organisations, black, Asian and other residents of this country—who BNP führer Nick Griffin dubs “alien”— our civil liberties and much else. History teaches us that fascism can be fought and stopped, but only if we unite to resist it.

The SWP firmly believes that the first priority is to build even greater unity and resistance to the fascists over the coming months and years. The BNP believes it has created the momentum for it to achieve a breakthrough. We have to break its momentum.

The success of the anti-Nazi festival in Stoke and the numbers of people who joined in anti-fascist campaigning shows the basis is there for a powerful movement against the Nazis.

The Nazis’ success will encourage those within the BNP urging a “return to the streets”. This would mean marches targeting multiracial areas and increased racist attacks. We need to be ready to mobilise to stop that occurring.

Griffin predicted a “perfect storm” would secure the BNP’s success. The first part of that storm he identified was the impact of the recession. The BNP’s policies of scapegoating migrants, black and Asian people will divide working people and make it easier to drive through sackings, and attacks on services and pensions.

Unity is not a luxury. It is a necessity. If we do not stand together we will pay the price for a crisis we did not cause.

The second lesson from the European elections is that we need a united fightback to save jobs and services.

If Cameron is elected he will attempt to drive through policies of austerity at the expense of the vast majority of the British people. But the Tories’ vote fell last week and they are nervous about pushing through attacks. Shadow chancellor George Osborne told business leaders, “After three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the war.” We need to prepare for battle.

But there is a third and vital issue facing the left and the wider working class. The crisis that has engulfed Westminster benefited the BNP.

The revelations of corruption, which cabinet members were involved in, were too much for many Labour voters, who could not bring themselves to vote for the party. One answer to the problem is to say that we should swallow everything New Labour has done and back it to keep David Cameron, and the BNP, out.

Yet it would take a miracle for Gordon Brown to be elected back into Downing Street. The danger is that by simply clinging on we would be pulled down with the wreckage of New Labour.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, has asked how, come the general election, can we ask working people to cast a ballot for ministers like Pat McFadden.

McFadden is pushing through the privatisation of the post office. Serwotka proposes that trade unions should stand candidates. Those who campaigned against the BNP in the elections know that when they said to people, “Don’t vote Nazi” they were often then asked who people should vote for.

The fact that there is no single, united left alternative to Labour means there was no clear answer available. The European election results demonstrate that the left of Labour vote was small, fragmented and dispersed. The Greens did not make significant gains either. The mass of Labour voters simply did not vote. We cannot afford a repeat of that.

The SWP is all too aware of the differences and difficulties involved in constructing such an alternative. We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative. But we do believe we have to urgently start a debate and begin planning to come together to offer such an alternative at the next election, with the awareness that Gordon Brown might not survive his full term. One simple step would be to convene a conference of all those committed to presenting candidates representing working class interests at the next election.

The SWP is prepared to help initiate such a gathering and to commit its forces to such a project. We look forward to your response.

Yours fraternally,

Socialist Workers Party


Respect: BNP victory shows the need for broad left to work together

Statement on the European election results by councillor Salma Yaqoob, Respect party leader

June 8, 2009 -- Respect -- The historic scale of Labour’s defeat at the ballot box is evidence of the deep betrayal felt by those who once voted Labour in the hope of a fairer society. The depth of disillusionment with the mainstream parties is underlined by the shocking breakthrough made by the BNP.

Labour is wholly to blame for its own crisis and has to take a large share of the responsibility for creating the conditions in which the far right is growing.

Labour loosened the rules that gave licence to greedy bankers to gamble away our jobs and homes. Labour failed to protect our public services from wasteful and costly privatisation. Labour has overseen growing inequality and a chronic shortage of affordable housing. And Labour failed to tackle the scandal of MP’s expenses.

Labour’s failure to deliver for its core support has helped the BNP win votes in deprived white working-class communities. Labour’s determination not to be outflanked by the Tories on questions of race and immigration has created fertile ground for racist arguments to win support. Too many BNP arguments have been legitimised by a political consensus that treats asylum seekers and immigrants as a criminal threat. The BNP has fed on the growth in Islamophobia, egged on by a barrage of racist coverage in national newspapers. Political ground was conceded to the BNP, and they have occupied it to devastating effect.

Labour has betrayed the hopes of millions of people who believe in a fairer and more equal society and those who believe in an ethical foreign policy based on peace and justice. These election results are a warning of the potential scale of the drift to the right.

This right-wing threat cannot be confronted by conceding the argument in advance. There is every practical and political reason for tackling the recession by extending state intervention, piling investment into a massive programme of house building, taxing the richest to support the big majority of the population through this recession. But a recent survey showed that more than half the working population have seen a cut in pay, reductions in hours or a loss of employment benefits since the recession began. While bankers and shareholders have been bailed out, millions of workers are paying for the economic crisis through lower pay, longer hours or unemployment. The Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP are all competing with each other on who will push through the most ruthless cuts to public spending.

Giving ground to a right-wing consensus will not undercut the growth of right wing parties. It will only encourage them. It is now critical that the broadest swathes of the left and progressive opinion in this country work together to lever the political agenda in the opposite direction.

We need an alternative to failed free-market dogma.

We need an alternative to an electoral system that disenfranchises the millions of people who don’t vote for the winning party and consigns whole geographical areas to be taken for granted. And we need a reassertion of a politics embedded in principles of peace, social justice, equality and anti-racism.

The broad left must work together, irrespective of party affiliation, to maximise the impact of the progressive vote at the next general election.

I am proud of the contributions that Respect members made by supporting Green candidates in the West Midlands and North West. In the North West, with BNP leader Nick Griffin on the brink of a breakthrough, the choice was surely clear. For those who would not give their vote to Labour, the Green candidate – Peter Cranie – was more than a credible alternative. A left-wing Green candidate, with a principled record of opposition to racism, deserved our support.

The results are in, and Peter Cranie was less than 5000 votes away from stopping Nick Griffin’s election. Yet almost 50,000 votes were cast for the Socialist Labour Party and No2EU. Together they amounted to just 3% of the vote – nowhere near enough to make a positive impact. The plain fact is that had even a minority of that left-wing vote gone to the Greens we would not be waking up to the fact that the North West is sending a fascist to the European parliament.

If nothing else, these results should spark a renewed and more energetic discussion about bringing the broad left together around a common agenda for progressive change. I will be speaking at the very timely Compass conference next weekend, and I look forward to discussing these and other issues with Labour and Green supporters.

I do not believe that the British public have become hostile to basic progressive policies on the responsibility of the state in providing decent housing, protecting jobs, and regulating the economy. But the retreat of Labour from even a modest social democratic alternative has led to a lack of connection in the public mind between the effects of the recession and the neo-liberal policies responsible for it.

The manner in which Labour has vacated the traditional ground of the left has served to weaken any convincing notion of a political alternative to neoliberalism. This has created a dangerous vacuum which is in danger of being filled by hate fuelled simplicities of the far right. The challenge for the left is to renew itself and reassert some basic socialist critiques and solutions into mainstream political debate.

Respect will be doing everything we can to contribute to the renewal of a progressive and left-wing politics. But we need to broaden our challenge to the failed parties. There will be many who want to see the values of peace, civil liberties and social justice represented at the ballot box, and in a fairly elected parliament. I encourage them to put themselves forward for consideration as candidates at the next general election.

We need each other and this country badly needs a political alternative of the left.

It is not beyond our ability to create this alternative. There are lessons we can draw from the anti-war movement. In a hostile climate and against formidable obstacles, a clear message, delivered with determination and organisational verve, was able to influence, shape and organise public opposition to war. We need a similar ambition to ideologically and practically build resistance to neoliberalism and racism.

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