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Britain: Encouraging left regroupment/left unity initiatives

Ken Loach has called for a new left party in Britain.

March 25, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In the recent period a number of left unity/left regroupment initiatives have been launched on Britain's far left. They include the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, Left Unity and radical film director Ken Loach's call for a new left party in Britain.

Another important development has been the formation of the International Socialist Network out the hundreds of revolutionary socialists who have resigned from the Socialist Workers Party during its recent crisis.

And in June 2013 a People's Assembly Against Austerity organised by the Coalition of Resistance is to be held, already having gathered the support of more than 1600 activists from all sections of the left.

Below are a number articles from the British left that introduce and survey some of these developments.

Is the left coming together ... ?

March 7, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- Since Socialist Resistance #72 was published last month, with its front page headline asking whether the left was falling apart or coming apart, there has been a spate of encouraging signs (see links below).

On February 28, socialist filmmaker Ken Loach made a major call on the BBC Question Time, broadcast live from the Eastleigh by-election in front of millions of watching viewers, for a new party of the left, able to put the radical socialist agenda forward in a way that UKIP have done on the right.

The same night, the third meeting of the Left Unity group, in which Socialist Resistance has participated since its foundation by Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, was held in London. On March 6, the Anti Capitalist Initiative held a joint meeting with Red Pepper magazine on “What should radical political organisation look like?”, the videos of which have been posted today on the internet. Among others contributing, former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker, makes a powerful case for a very different kind of organisation to the "top-down" style preferred by many of Britain’s left-wing parties other than Socialist Resistance.

On March 7, Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network published a major article on the lessons of TUSC’s results in the Eastleigh by-election and what sort of Party-type socialist organisation we need.

It is clear that there is a growing convergence of ideas from some key people about the need for left unity and the creation of a new socialist organisation. This is a convergence that Socialist Resistance welcomes and will play a full part in. The information from these various events deserves to be shared and studied widely. It is to be hoped that these discussions will continue over the coming weeks and months and may offset some of the damage that is likely to be done if, as has been widely anticipated, the Socialist Workers Party continues to come apart at the seams.

Socialist Resistance #72

http://socialistresistance.org/4734/new-socialist-resistance-out-now-5

Ken Loach on BBC Question Time (n.b. Ken speaks 9:00 minutes in)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01r1twc/Question_Time_28_02_2013/ n.b. this link is time-limited)

Report on third meeting of Left Unity

http://leftunity.org/left-unity-meeting-three/

Videos of ACI/Red Pepper/IOPS meeting

http://anticapitalists.org/2013/03/07/videos-what-should-radical-political-organisation-look-like-today/

Nick Wrack on "Let’s get this Party started"

http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=1938

Let's get some good out of this

March 16, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- The comrades who have resigned due to the Socialist Workers Party’s handling of claims of rape and sexual harassment against prominent activists acted in accordance with their sense of revolutionary socialist integrity. As some of them say in their statement of resignation:

The organisation’s tradition of fighting women’s oppression has been seriously undermined by the handling of a number of rape and sexual harassment allegations by the Disputes Committee and the Central Committee and the crisis of democracy and accountability in the party this has laid bare.

They are to be congratulated for taking their commitment to women’s liberation and intolerance of sexual violence so seriously. It is always difficult for dedicated socialists to walk away from an organisation to which they have devoted large amounts of time and energy. It means breaking friendships and working relationships built up over years of activity in the class struggle but sometimes it is necessary.

It is good that they very quickly announced that they intend to remain as active, organised socialists in the International Socialist Network and that they will be discussing theory and politics as well as organising events. The risk after a traumatising event like this is that people draw very negative conclusions about the possibilities of building healthy, pluralistic and democratic socialist organisations and retreat into inactivity. Offering a new perspective is the way that this can be avoided.

Some comrades, who are deeply unhappy with their leadership’s handling of claims of sexual violence made by young women in the organisation, have decided to continue a struggle inside it. We respect their decision to do so as it is based on a deep knowledge of the SWP and a serious assessment of the possibilities. While we share the concerns expressed by those who opposed the leadership, we accept that those who have supported it have done so because they are satisfied with its handling of the internal enquiries and subsequent decisions. We acknowledge that they are dedicated socialists with whom we will continue to work in many areas of class struggle.

However the reputation of the SWP has been grievously damaged by the perception that senior cadre receive no meaningful sanction when women say that serious wrong has been done to them. This view is shared across the entire radical left outside the SWP, among many trade union activists and the feminist movement. We leave it to those who remain in the organisation to work out how they will address this problem. They must accept that the relationships they have with other forces will now be different and all will be looking for strong signals in public that a meaningful reappraisal of how sexual violence is dealt with has taken place.

Two priorities

Socialist Resistance has argued for a long time that there are two things the radical left has to address and we would very much like those comrades leaving the SWP as individuals, networks or organisations to be part of both processes.

The first is a process of realignment of the revolutionary left. We should be aiming to reduce the number of groups on the far left. To people new to politics and existing activists the shades of difference between many left organisations are difficult to grasp. It is much more important to combine a reassessment of past practice with the development of a new perspective.

The second task is preparing the ground for a left alternative to Labour. Ken Loach is currently agitating fiercely around this issue. Socialist Resistance along with others is taking part in the Left Unity project as we think it is giving socialists who are concerned by the lack of working-class political representation an opportunity to work together. Although we are aware that it is a very small step in that direction we think that it is important that a framework is in place and relationships of trust are built. We also collaborating with the Independent Socialist Network and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and we strongly hope that the International Socialist Network chooses to become a factor in unifying the left.

This will necessarily involve a period of discussion and reflection. If the comrades are looking to work with other Marxists to help build a new revolutionary organisation in Britain and to contribute to offering working people an alternative to Labour we will be willing partners in such a project.

Can there be a new left party? Ken Loach – and 8000 people – hope so

March 19, 2013 -- Red Pepper -- Film director Ken Loach has called for the creation of a new party of the left in Britain. Kate Hudson explains why she is supporting the call.

Austerity is wreaking economic catastrophe on the people of Cyprus, but Britain's Conservative Party Chancellor of the Exchequer [treasurer] George Osborne is still following the same disastrous policies. This week's budget comes as no surprise -- yet another £2.5 billion in cuts. He's digging us even further into an economic hole, and ordinary people are paying the price. The virulence of the government's economic attacks knows no bounds: Atos, workfare, the bedroom tax -- punitive policies against the most vulnerable in society.

Where can we turn politically? Who is on our side, to fight for an alternative? In the past we expected the Labour Party to stand for us, and with us, but no longer.

Workfare? Today Labour abstained on the vote and now the government can work over a quarter of a million jobseekers. Bedroom tax? Will a Labour government repeal it?

We need policies that reject Tory cuts, regenerate the economy and improve the lives of ordinary people. We are not getting this from Labour.

There is no doubt that Labour's past achievements have been remarkable -- the welfare state, the National Health Service; a redistributive economy making unprecedented levels of health and happiness possible. But such achievements are in the past. Now Labour embraces cuts and privatisation and is dismantling its own great work. Labour has failed us. Nothing shows the contrast more clearly than Ken Loach's new film, The Spirit of '45.

Now Ken is calling on people to join the discussion on forming a new party of the left. The working class cannot remain without political representation, without defence, when all its victories and advances are being destroyed. Over 8000 people [as of April 20] have signed up to Ken's appeal within three days of its launch. Please support it urgently.

Ken Loach's appeal is at leftunity.org/appeal

Ken Loach: 'The British left needs to start again … we need a new party'

March 4, 2013 -- Open Democracy, via Socialist Resistance -- Ken Loach is a socialist and a filmmaker who has never hidden his politics and always sought to grapple in his work with very real problems faced by working people and their everyday life experiences. In this respect he is unique.

* * *

Ken Loach’s new film, Spirit of ’45, is an impassioned account of the unity that built the post-war welfare state, contrasted with the dismantling we are witnessing today. Oliver Huitson talks to him about the film, welfare, Thatcher, the unions and the modern Labour Party. Can we recapture the spirit?

Production of the film was announced very shortly after the passing of the Health and Social Care Act, in March 2012. To what extent did the passage of the National Health Service reforms influence your decision to make the film? Was it more a response to the general attacks on the welfare state since 2010?

Ken Loach: Obviously the Health and Social Care Act is just one rung on a downward ladder. The idea of making a record of the spirit after the war is something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. I had the chance to do this documentary and I thought this is the moment to try and do it. The other thing was that people who have sharp memories of it are… we need to capture them while they’re still here. So there’s an urgency from that point of view. But also the biggest reason was that the economic system we have is so manifestly failing on every front. And the more it fails the more its proponents push it and try and prop it up with ever more desperate results. I thought it was time we remembered what happened after ‘45 and try and learn from it. It’s been written out of history because it’s in none of the main parties’ interest to remember it. Of course the Tories don’t want to remember it, nor the Liberals, and the Labour party certainly don’t because they are vehement free marketers themselves.

Have you been surprised in that regard, in terms of what’s happened post-2008, in the sense that many expected a sort of reversal of neoliberal trends of the last 30 years – have you been surprised that they’ve gone into overdrive rather than reverse?

No, not at all because the more desperate people get the more they go to the [extreme] of their essential ideology. Labour even doing what they did in ‘45 were still social democrats and social democrats believe capitalism is progressive and they just have to manage it, rather better than the Tories. So the more desperate times get, the more they are prepared to sacrifice the social wage and social benefit in order to keep capitalism propped up. And Tories don’t care because that’s their agenda anyway. Labour and {its parliamentary leader Ed] Miliband, with his idea of benign capitalism, so misunderstands the nature of the system that you wonder where he’s been living. It’s certainly not how he was brought up. If there’s one thing he would have learnt from home, it’s that capitalism is based on class conflict not class collaboration.

Let’s come back to the modern Labour Party later. Obviously in terms of the legislative creation of the welfare state, you cover it a lot in the film, but what was the spirit of those years?

It was one of working together. The experience of the war was that clearly the armed forces were organised by the state, not private armies going off to fight. There wasn’t, like we have now, private contractors going off to do the work of the military; they were armies of the state. Some of the industries were taken over because they couldn’t be run by private companies, they were so inefficient, like the mines had to be taken over. And clearly the sacrifice and the bombing and the home front as well as the soldiers brought people together, people just had to be good neighbours, so that engendered a feeling of collectivity, of solidarity, so that was one element.

Another element was the depression and mass unemployment of the 1930s, the conflict of the 20s, the rise of fascism and the dictators, and a general feeling that in order to solve the problems of the peace, why shouldn’t we use the ways we solved the problems of the war, which was working together? And it was a matter of commonsense, not a question of ideology. We’ve been working like this for six years, with good results, this is how we should continue to work together to build people’s homes and look after them and establish the industries again.

There was a long history of advances within the labour movement, but do you think without the war the creation of the welfare state would have been possible?

The Spirit of '45

The Spirit of ’45.

I think war was the catalyst. I think then, like now, there was a feeling of resentment, of desperation, but the 1930s were a very quiet period. The general strike was well before, in 1926, and the big coal strikes were right at the beginning of the 1920s. So in the 1920s there was industrial struggle, in the 1930s unemployment settled down to 2.5 million to 3 million. That was a very quiet period, and it needed, with hindsight, you could say it needed that terrible jolt, and what a terrible thing that was, but without that jolt it’s difficult to see what would have shaken people out of the despair of the 1930s, to get organised, and elect a Labour government with elements of a socialist program. It wasn’t a socialist program but it had elements of a socialist program.

In the film you covered the creation of the welfare state and then we sort of jump to 1979, Conservative Prime Minsiter Margaret Thatcher, privatisations – how in your mind was Thatcher able to not just win the election in ‘79 but a further two elections on a platform of reversing many of the gains made post-war?

Well, the long Tory government of the 1950s, and the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t regenerate the idea of common ownership, they didn’t establish any industrial democracy. They stayed as state organisations where they were run as private corporations, where there was still conflict between the management and the workforce. They didn’t regenerate, they didn’t invest properly, so the concept fell into decay and the industries themselves fell into decay; they were ripe to be taken over. And Thatcher of course pursued that by refusing to invest so everybody got fed up with the notion and she could then present privatisation as a remedy, and I think that was quite a conscious decision.

Why did the Tories get elected? Because Labour failed as social democrats. I guess the world economy was against them, but that’s through what some of us would call the inherent conflicts in the system itself, inherent contradictions; capitalism goes through these cycles. It was failing, and the Labour Party still tried to prop up capitalism like they have done ever since, and they paid the penalty.

Thatcher could come in as a new broom, as finding a solution to the tired old nationalised industries, attacking the trade unions because the Labour Party had bore the brunt of working with the trade unions but being in conflict with them. And the Tory press of course, we should never underestimate that, and Thatcher could come in as a new broom. But she still had to defeat the unions, and some of us would argue that the privatisations happened because the unions were defeated and the miners were beaten into the ground with police trunctions.

If we go back to welfare for a moment, you’ve talked elsewhere of the impact on community life and families over the last few decades. If we look at welfare provision of housing, for example, is there a sense in which welfare itself has removed elements of community and weakened them by transferring what would have been done by local community ties to an impersonal state?

Well, there’s a lot of assumptions in that… but where to begin unpicking them. The fact that it’s done collectively, for which you might say the state, it isn’t necessarily impersonal – it can be impersonal... The most potent democratic way is for housing, and the whole location or area, to be planned through the municipality and the council; done with direct labour, as direct democratic participation; done with good architects and good planners, where housing is planned, green spaces are planned, schools, hospitals, and most particularly work. Because to find ways for people to live well, work and employment has got to be part of the picture. And you can’t plan that if you’re just trying to tempt private business. So the whole idea of planning will fall down if you can’t plan employment, and that means common ownership in the end, and I think it’s foundered on that point.

So now we have a situation where we’re desperately trying to build houses in the south-east, but some of the areas in the north where industry drained away we have empty houses, and the market economy can’t solve that. So the state can be impersonal but it just depends how you organise it. Big business is always impersonal because they’re accounting to shareholders – not local people.

The film itself is openly polemical. What do you think of the response of popular culture to the financial crash and austerity in general, where this sort of polemic seems quite rare?

Difficult to say, I’m not sure what popular culture is. There’s a culture that’s developed through the new media, which can be quite subversive and critical, a product of the austerity cuts and the rest. But inevitably that’s like a fireworks display, it won’t lead to a coherent movement with a coherent program, but its nevertheless an inevitable response. I think the popular media in terms of the mainstream press and broadcasting is as you would expect, it’s very favourable to the government. It promotes divisions among working people, it finds scapegoats, benefit claimants are demonised, unlike the tax evaders who float in and out but on the subject of permanent attack, anyone claiming benefits is made to feel guilty. There’s a huge attack on immigrants, which is traditional, they always have to find scapegoats when the economy is crashing. It’s never the people that caused the crash, or are benefiting from it, it’s the people who are poorest off, so there’s no surprise there.

The danger of course is it’s a breeding ground for fascism. There’s mass unemployment, targeted scapegoats, no representation for the left politically. We have no representation, not in a political movement, not in broadcasting, not in the press… The articulate left barely exists and yet there’s a huge groundswell of anger about what’s happened, but its not focused in a political movement, and kept out of focus by the mainstream media

And finally, on that point, if we talk about the Labour Party as it exists today, is there any hope for a reformed Labourp arty or has the time come for a mass democratic organisation beyond the Labour Party?

We’ve been talking about reforming the Labour Party for a century haven’t we? Since Ramsay MacDonald walked away from the general strike… And the 1945 government was a blip really, in the Labour Party’s achievement, but I can’t see the Labour Party developing a socialist leadership. I can’t see it. I’ve been on the fringes of politics for 50 years and this is what people have said at every point, and the Labour Party has moved consistently to the right in its leadership.

I think the key role is played by the trade unions. If the unions said we’re going to do what we did a century ago, we’re going to found a party to represent the interests of labour, and we will only support candidates who will support policies of the left then we could start again. But we need a new movement and a new party. And it needs all the people on the left of the Labour Party who’ve spent their life complaining about it to get out and start a new one, with the unions.

It needs the unions because they have resources. If Unite, Unison, GMB, said we’ve had enough… But they’re like dogs, the more you kick them the more they creep back to master. And they actually need to wake up and say this is not going to happen, we’re not going to reclaim the Labour Party. I mean the last [Labour] leadership election the left didn’t even have a candidate, this was after decades of people saying reclaim the Labour Party – couldn’t even get a candidate because it had been purged by Labour leader Tony Blair and his gang. The unions have got to cut the ties, start again, with everyone on the left, with all the campaigns, the NHS campaign, the housing campaign, the community services campaigns – everybody. And let’s begin again, and then we could really move.

The Spirit of ’45 opened in British cinemas on March 15, 2013.

People’s Assembly can challenge our suffocating political consensus

500,000 marched on 26th March last year

By Owen Jones

March 24, 2013 -- Coalition of Resistance -- The cartel of modern politics is only ever disrupted from the right. Now, with the help of like-minded others, I will be touring the country to set up a left-wing movement.

Sometimes it seems as though British politics is one grand cartel, or a gentleman’s agreement, if you like. Certain questions will not be asked; opposition often amounts to quibbling over the finer details or nuances of a policy, or the competence of its delivery.

Austerity is a given, though its speed and scale may be queried; all agree on selling chunks of our public services to private sector vultures, though the extent may be challenged; the fact our workers have some of the worst rights in the Western world, that large corporations sitting on a cash pile worth £750bn are expected to pay less and less, that our banks are bailed out with the public’s dosh but are not under our control – none of this is seriously questioned.

If this cartel is ever disrupted, it is from the right. Ukip has surged in part because of a widespread sense that the political establishment are all in it together, to coin a phrase. Hard-right pressure groups like the Taxpayers Alliance out-flank the Conservatives, and in doing so drive the nation’s political conversation ever rightwards.

Anti-austerity movement

With the help of supposed newspaper reporters – in reality, often thinly veiled Government propagandists – the Tories have ruthlessly redirected growing anger at ever-tumbling living standards towards our neighbours: people thrown out of work, people who still have intact pensions, disabled people suspected of inventing their conditions for benefits, and so on. The latest target are immigrants. New arrivals will be barred from joining council housing waiting lists – which most are stuck on for years as it is – for up to five years. We have a scandalous shortage of council housing. Up to five million people languish on waiting lists. But the fault lies squarely with both the Tories and New Labour for selling off stock and failing to replace it. Convenient, then, to conjure up the spectre of the scrounging foreigner instead.

Well, the great British political cartel now faces a new challenge. On Tuesday, I’ll be helping to launch the People’s Assembly with Green MP Caroline Lucas, my fellow Independent columnist Mark Steel, disability rights campaigner Francesca Martinez, Labour MP Katy Clark, and leading trade unionists. The aim of the Assembly is to unite all opponents of the horror show being inflicted on this country. On June 22, there will be a 3500-strong meeting at Westminster Central Hall, but in the meantime, I and others will be touring the country, encouraging local groups to be set up in every town and city.

Here’s the rationale for the Assembly. It is unacceptable that – five years on from the near-collapse of the global financial system – there is no broad anti-austerity movement. In a week’s time, the British poor will face the biggest organised mugging in generations, with the bedroom tax, cuts to working people’s tax credits, council tax benefit, housing benefit, and so on. Each year, the average Briton is poorer than the last. “Now is the period when the cost is being paid,” said Mervyn King, and that was two years ago. “I’m surprised the real anger hasn’t been greater than it has.”

There’s actually plenty of anger out there, but there’s something else missing. It was the US politician Harvey Milk who said: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone but, without it, life is not worth living.” Anger without hope tends to amount to despair, frustration and resignation – and that is what has to change.

Hope for change

Inevitably, such an initiative will have to plough through a fair amount of cynicism from both left and right. Put “left” into a sentence including “piss-up” and “brewery”, and few would disagree. But this isn’t going to fall into the trap of being a recruitment exercise for some obscure sect with newspapers to flog. It’s being driven by a formidable coalition of unions such as Unite, Unison and PCS, representing millions of workers in both the private and public sector; Labour activists and the Green Party; campaigners for disabled people, and for tax justice; BME people; and people frankly who are just stranded and without a political home. It’s not the 867th attempt to set up yet another doomed left-wing party, but a movement that will nonetheless fill a chasm in British politics.

This has implications for the Labour leadership, of course. It’s not as if there haven’t been any other determined attempts to challenge austerity: like huge strikes by teachers, health workers, bin collectors and other public-sector workers; two huge TUC-organised demonstrations against austerity; and the efforts of campaigners, such as tax avoidance crusaders UK Uncut. But there has been no sustained, permanent movement to take on the whole austerity consensus. Most pressure on Labour’s leaders comes from the right. But the appetite for a far more confident, courageous voice of opposition to the Tories’ ideological hijacking of the financial crisis exists. It will now be satisfied.

The Tories have counted on opposition being too fragmented to withstand their shock-and-awe offensive. But in doing so they have inadvertently created a potentially formidable coalition. There may be no end in sight for Britain’s depressing icy winter, but it’s springtime for opposition to the nightmare of austerity. The People’s Assembly offers the one thing missing from British politics: hope.

Support for the People's Assembly

This is a call to all those millions of people in Britain who face an impoverished and uncertain year as their wages, jobs, conditions and welfare provision come under renewed attack by the government. With some 80% of austerity measures still to come, and with the government lengthening the time they expect cuts to last, we are calling a People’s Assembly Against Austerity to bring together campaigns against cuts and privatisation with trade unionists in a movement for social justice. We aim to develop a strategy for resistance to mobilise millions of people against the Con Dem government.

The assembly will provide a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament. A People’s Assembly can play a key role in ensuring that this uncaring government faces a movement of opposition broad enough and powerful enough to generate successful co-ordinated action, including strike action. The assembly will be ready to support co-ordinated industrial action and national demonstrations against austerity, if possible synchronising with mobilisations across Europe. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity will meet at Central Hall, Westminster, on June 22.

Register HERE for the People's Assembly.

Tony Benn President, Coalition of Resistance

Len McCluskey General secretary, Unite the Union
Mark Serwotka General secretary, PCS
Christine Blower General secretary, NUT
Michelle Stanistreet General secretary, NUJ
Manuel Cortez General secretary, TSSA
Billy Hayes General secretary, CWU
Bob Crow General secretary, RMT
Mick Whelan General secretary, Aslef
Kevin Courtney Deputy general secretary, NUT
Paul Mackney Former general secretary Natfhe (now UCU)
Vicky Baars NUS union development
Kevin Donnelly Trade Union Council JCC

Caroline Lucas MP
Katy Clark MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP
John McDonnell MP
Murad Qureshi London assembly member
Dawn Butler Former Labour minister for young citizens and youth engagement

Tariq Ali Author
John Pilger Journalist
Ken Loach Filmmaker
Owen Jones Writer
James Meadway Senior economist, New Economics Foundation

Mark Steel Comedian
Lee Hall Playwright
Roger Lloyd Pack Actor
Josie Long Comedian
Iain Banks Author
Arthur Smith Comedian
Roy Bailey Folk singer
Francesca Martinez Comedian
Richard Wilson Actor

Dot Gibson National Pensioners Convention Keep our NHS Public
Merry Cross Disabled People Against the Cuts
John Hendy QC Co-chair, People’s Charter
John Hilary Director, War on Want
Sam Fairbairn National secretary, Coalition of Resistance
Imran Khan Solicitor, co-chair, People’s Charter
Rachael Newton People’s Charter
Romayne Phoenix Chair, Coalition of Resistance
Zita Holbourne Co-chair, Black activists rising against the cuts
Clare Solomon Vice-chair, Coalition of Resistance
Andrew Burgin Vice-chair, Coalition of Resistance
Colin Hampton Co-ordinator, National Unemployed Workers Centres Combine
Anita Wright Secretary, National Association of Women
Joginder Bains Association of Indian Women
Shang Gahonia Indian Workers Association
Carolyn Jones Director, Institute of Employment Rights

Lindsey German Convenor, Stop the War Coalition
Kate Hudson General secretary, CND
Bruce Kent Peace campaigner

John Rees Counterfire editorial board
Natalie Bennett Leader of the Green Party England and Wales
Fred Leplat Socialist Resistance
Robert Griffiths General secretary, Communist Party of Britain
Bill Greenshields Chair, Communist Party of Britain
Richard Bagley Editor, Morning Star

 

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

By Ed Rooksby

March 25, 2013 -- Left Unity -- For 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. 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 flags

The 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 UK Guardian’s Comment is Free.]

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