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Left regroupment: issues and prospects

The left in Britain has been better at coming apart than coming together in the last year. Gregor Gall, a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, examines the prospects for left regroupment in Britain and Scotland, and looks to Europe to see if there are lessons to learn.

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The radical left unity projects in Scotland (the Scottish Socialist Party -- SSP) and England (Respect) made small but significant electoral breakthroughs between 2003 and 2005. Both recognised the importance for the radical left of contesting neoliberalism in a meaningful way in the electoral arena, where most of what passes for ``politics'' goes on. Of course, this was not their only focus -– indeed, the basis of making some electoral advance was predicated on strength in communities, campaigns and workplaces and high public recognition and visibility. After the implosion, the fratricide and the traumatic times, the vital issue of radical left regroupment is beginning to re-emerge in new and different ways in both Scotland and England. Both processes are taking place within the overall context of the objective conditions of hegemonic neoliberalism, continuing imperialism and the decomposition of social democracy demanding that the idea of a radical left unity projects is not jettisoned for reasons of any short-term difficulties.

A wider regroupment

For the radical left in Scotland and England, the issue of regroupment is not just about discussing whether there is any basis for the organisational re-unification. The SSP and Solidarity [the split from the SSP led by former SSP parliamentarian Tommy Sheridan] or Respect Renewal and Respect (the SWP version) albeit, there is in my view, a role for these discussions in terms of individuals from both organisations being able to work with each other inside new, future left unity projects...

With the key outward-looking change in the orientation of the Labour left and its Communist Party of Britain outriders (through the Labour Representation Committee), the development of a radical left critique amongst environmentalists (linking the crisis of the environment with capitalism), the continued prevalence of activists within community and anti-poverty groups, and the existence of thousands of former radical left activists and the many that might become radical left activists, there is now the prospect of a much wider left regroupment than has hitherto been the case.

For example, Respect Renewal may be able to form an alliance with the RMT union for the Greater London Assembly elections in May this year and the left in Scotland needs to consider having a single candidate for the 2009 European elections because of the nature of the electoral arithmetic and constituency involved.

So this kind of regroupment is not about uniting the far left as the SSP and Socialist Alliance [in England] attempted to do. It is a stage moved on from this, recognising the weakness of what these projects attempted to do in a situation where the left is now collectively weaker and needs to desperately expand out of its historical ghettos.

So when regroupment is being discussed, it is important to understand it can take three basic forms. First, genuine working together and cooperation with different strands of left opinion and currents of left thought in broad-based campaigns on poverty, racism, peace, environment and women's rights (whatever their origin) and organisations (like unions, tenants' groups), where there is more than just token involvement or support from different left organisations and groups. Rather, priority should be given to having properly organised and resourced participation in these campaigns, where members of different left organisations work to further the interests of the campaign in non-factional ways. For instance, more non-Labour Party affiliated unions now have political funds for campaigning with and are looking for allies to do this with. Obvious cases are the RMT, FBU and now PCS and possibly the NUT. The premise is that stronger campaigns and class organisations will provide a more fertile basis for the left to operate in. In particular, those non-aligned or independent-minded activists would be more receptive to the arguments of the radical left where these groups operate in constructive ways. (And, moreover, this form of radical left unity should be seen as being pre-figurative for the two higher forms of unity.)

Second, electoral alliances in the plethora of representative bodies that now exist (and of which some are subject to proportional representation) like parliaments/assemblies and local councils, as well as in other organisations like unions. Again, this form could be seen to be pre-figurative of subsequent full(er) fusion. Whilst the majority of citizens may not be aware of what takes place within campaigns and class organisations, they are aware, to a greater degree, of what goes on within the electoral arena. Presenting a united left face and position is vital to make a credible pitch for the allegiance and support of the ``ordinary'' citizens -– those who are not active or that ``political''. When the prize of elected representation (that allows a platform for the radical left to speak to the mass of citizens) is at stake, minor differences must be put in perspective in order to allow the broad critique and demands to be put across. Finally, where there is a prospect of gaining some elected officials, discussions need to sort out the distribution of these across the participants involved and the means for holding elected members accountable.

Third, there is the organisational fusion of new and existing forces and groups. The basis of collective working together in the party organisations must be that of overwhelming consensus on the grand political questions of our age, whereby this forms the bedrock of a common ideology for radical left unity, from which questions of how to operate are secondary and subject to fraternal discussion and debate. This has often been described as the ``80:20 equation'', where the 20% of disagreement is not allowed to get in the way of agreement and action on the 80% of issues where there is common ground and consensus. Consequently, to facilitate agreement (the 80%) and fraternal discussion (on the 20%), radical left projects must be characterised by pluralism, openness and relative broadness, with some degree of interim internal autonomy to the pre-merger constituent parts.

Unity should not be made a fetish for its own sake. Unity that is poorly conceived and constructed will not last or be effective. Disagreements must be allowed to be aired and debated but it behoves those on the radical left to engage with each in ways that makes dialogue and cooperation possible for the historical reason that as the radical left has invariably been weaker than the forces it opposes (of the right, centre, neoliberalism and capitalism), a premium is put on unity of its small forces. Therefore, to be a credible option for a growing body of disillusioned and progressive opinion, unity and cooperation amongst itself are vital. Uniting the radical left together is not just about making one new alliance or organisation the sum of its constituent parts so that it is not divided, important though that is. Rather, it is about making the new organisation more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, unity can help prefigure growth of members and influence through pooling resources, pushing in the same direction, working to common priorities and being more credible to wider social movements and the like.

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The wider context of radical left unity projects in Europe is that the social justice movement (with its important anti-capitalism or anti-capitalist globalisation components) that emanated from the ``Battle of Seattle'' of 1999 and immediately before is no longer the movement it once was. It no longer has the form or focus of before, with some of that being the product of it engaging in what could be described as ``political tourism'' -– the endless round of demonstrations and social forums. Something similar can be said about the current state of the anti-war/anti-imperialism movement. To me this re-emphasises the importance of the party as agency, particularly in the need to help create, organise and coordinate resistance on the much broader and therefore more difficult terrain of fighting neoliberalism in workplaces and communities.

A party for socialists

Clearly, the tenor of what I'm arguing is that socialists working with other socialists and the wider radical left still need to be organised in a party because of the requirement of an organisational form to pursue their politics with, and this is broadly conceived of in terms of the way the SSP has operated in the past as a party rather than network or alliance within which pluralism operates. This means that the party has a need to promote itself, recruit, organise interventions and have its own newspaper and publication, but do so in a way where promoting the party does not mean that this has to be done in a direct way. What I mean here is that members can win respect and admiration for and from the campaigning work they do and this is as good a recruiting and mobilising tool as any. Any political party is a vanguard party in the sense that it is the organised expression of a set of ideas and policies that the majority of people in a society do not hold. The job of the political party is then to lead and reflect, and balance the tension [between] the two in its attempt to gain ground for its ideas. Consequently, in discussions we should be mindful of conflating ``vanguardism'' per se with the self-style practice of far-left parties of the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist nature.

The basic approach of a party operation has taken on a more important meaning not just in the light of discussion about left regroupment but because there is a detectable trend of opinion within the SSP at the moment that is heading in the direction of ``throwing the baby out with the bathwater'' because of the demoralisation and reduced involvement of members that is evident. In the discussion of ``what next for the SSP?'' after the split of 2006 and the electoral wipe-out of 2007, and cohering around the debate on party structures in the form of the party commission, some are advocating a much looser structure of networks, no newspaper, no leadership role for the national executive, de-prioritising branches and the like. The conclusion to this drift would be to see the fragmentation and demobilisation of a previously (relatively) coherent organisation.

On the other hand, the direct implication of what I've argued above is that there is no contemporary role for a far-left type of internal party regime based on leadership domination through democratic centralism, intolerance of dissent, sectarianism –- the stressing of differences over agreements with others -- and extremely high levels of cadre activity.

So, who then is the unity and regroupment to be amongst? In the instance of common working together, all on the left, aligned and not, should be included. In the instance of the electoral alliances, all left forces who take the electoral arena seriously should be included -– thus, the CWI and SWP, for to not include them (and given their current electoral orientations) would be self-defeating for a united left electoral alliance. However, when it comes to the third type of unity and regroupment, the likes of the CWI and SWP do not figure in my thinking because they have their own specific party-building projects which are either incompatible in practice with broader radical left parties or these organisations become an unnecessary weight -– a diversion, irritant etc. -– to building and advancing these broader parties. The reason for this exclusion is also attributable to the democratic centralist nature of organisations where the centralism dominates over the democratic and which fundamentally cannot deal with dissent and difference within their own ranks. Organisations of this kind -– particularly where they have sufficient numbers to carry this out -– show that they do not have the same aims and objectives as the broad party of the radical left. The salient point here is not really that the aims and objectives are different but that they are too different and lacking in commonality and being complimentary enough. This is most keenly seen in how the members of these organisations view how the issues of reform and revolution relate to each other, where the traditional far left raises maximum demands in an ``impossible-ist'' manner. That said it is interesting to note that in two of the most successful left unity projects in Europe –- Germany and Greece -- far left organisations like these have been allowed to participate. Maybe this is more to do with a function of their very small size in these countries.

What I want to do in the remainder of this article is look in some detail at three successful left unity projects (Germany, Greece and Portugal). Before moving to do that, and following my survey of radical left unity projects in thirteen continental Europe countries (see Scottish Left Review, January-February 2008 issue (http://slrp.co.uk)), it is clear that not all radical and far-left groups and parties are involved in these projects. Indeed, the communist parties with sizeable numbers of elected representatives still exist in Portugal, France, Italy and Greece outside radical left unity projects and here both radical left unity projects and sizeable communist parties exist alongside a plethora of other assorted leftists groups.

Germany

The important development of Die Linke, fusing together the former Party of Democratic Socialism, a breakaway section from the Social Democrats (SPD) and various far-left groups is a very important development. It is amply analysed elsewhere (Victor Grossman, Scottish Left Review, January-February 2008 [http://slrp.co.uk], Christophe Spehr, Red Pepper August/September 2007 and Christoph Jünke, ``A New Formation with Potential Pitfalls: The New German Linkspartei'', the Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 15/3, 2007). Suffice to note it has been borne out of a severe crisis of the left and social democracy in a context of rising struggles against neoliberalism, the active role of public figures like former SPD finance minister ``red'' Oskar Lafontaine has been significant, and it has the support of sections of two major unions -– the engineering union IG Metal and the public sector union ver.di -– and is approaching 90,000 members. The party took two over two years to form and this process has had its severe ups and downs. In 2005, its predecessor gained 8.7% in federal parliament with 54 seats and it has had recent successes in gaining members in the Bremen (8.4%, seven MPs), Hesse (5.1%, six MPs), Lower Saxony (7.1%, 11 MPs) and Hamburg (6.4%, eight MPs) state parliaments, and forcing the Social Democrats to the left in policy and actions (and without losing sufficient votes to prevent Die Linke gaining elected members).

Greece

The Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology is commonly known as Synaspismos or SYN. Until 2003, it was called the Coalition of the Left and Progress and is overwhelmingly the major component of the parliamentary Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). According to one observer (Yiannis Kokosalakis, Emancipation and Liberation, No. 15, Autumn 2007), the politics of SYRIZA are pretty much the politics of SYN.

SYN emerged initially as an electoral coalition in the late 1980s, with two communist parties (both which had either left or been expelled from the original communist party, the KKE) being its largest constituents, and securing over 10% of the vote in parliamentary elections and a substantial number of MPs. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coalition moved to become a party in 1991. Electoral fortunes were mixed in the early to mid-1990s but parliamentary representation was secured (10 MPs in 1996 on 5% vote, two MEPs in 1999 on 5% vote). In elections in 2000, SYN was supported by left ecologists, gaining just over 3% of the vote and six MPs. In parliamentary elections of 2004, SYN together with several smaller left and left ecologists parties formed SYRIZA alliance, gaining 3.4% of the vote. SYRIZA comprises 10 organisations which include various far-left groups, but critically a large breakaway from PASOK, the social democratic-cum-Labour party.

The alliance with the smaller parties was formed again at the end of 2005, providing a firm basis the 14 MPs gained on a 5% vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, which makes SYN the fourth biggest party. It is important to recognise that Greece uses proportional representation election systems, and that meanwhile the Greek Communist Party (KKE), with some 10,000 members, gained 8.1% giving it 22 MPs. According to Yiannis Kokosalakis (Emancipation and Liberation, No. 15, Autumn 2007), the KKE has refused to cooperate with the wider left, i.e. SYN and SYRIZA.

In addition to its MPs, SYN also has many councillors, being the third biggest party in local government, and a sizable, semi-autonomous youth wing. SYN aspires to be an ``umbrella'', where people of varying left ideological and theoretical backgrounds can find a natural home. Therefore, SYN members are encouraged to form and participate in internal platforms which mount open discussions and publish magazines, but may not work against party policy. These platforms are invited to put forward theses on party policy and strategy at triennial congresses.

SYRIZA's genesis arose in a forum of the radical left in 2001 called the Space of Left Dialogue and Common Action, which in turn led to an electoral alliance for the 2002 local elections, and provided the basis for its formal establishment in 2004. However after the 2004 election, the smaller parties accused SYN of not honouring an agreement to have one of its MPs resign so a member of one of the smaller parties could take the seat. This crisis led SYN to run independently from the rest of the Coalition for the 2004 European elections but later in that year SYN returned to SYRIZA.

By 2007, several new radical left and green organisations joined SYRIZA, helping it secure its breakthrough. Again, according to Yiannis Kokosalakis, SYN has made the error of downplaying socialist and class-struggle politics given that the KKE has shown there is a large opening for this type of politics. This compares to a much healthier assessment of SYN from its one of its (Trotskyist) officer bearers (see Socialist Resistance, No. 48, October 2007).

Portugal

Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda -- LB) was founded in 1999 from a number of far-left parties from Maoist, Trotskyist and communist backgrounds. All of these parties had stood in elections and became currents within the LB. Initially developed as a coalition, the LB has since become a party while its constituent components have maintained their existence and some levels of autonomy, leading to a loose structure. This structure may also provide an umbrella for other interested socialist organisations. In 1999, the LB polled 2% in the parliamentary election with this rising to 3% in 2002. These results were generally better than the collective results of its predecessor components. In 2005, the LB achieved a breakthrough with 6.5% and eight MPs. It also has one MEP and many local councillors, making it Portugal's fifth biggest party. The LB's presidential candidate in 2006 received 288,224 votes (5%). With support from students and unions in particular, the LB is becoming to be seen as a credible left alternative to the older, more established Communist Party and the more centre-left Socialist Party because it has become a pole of attraction for many involved in various social movements. The BL proposed Portugal's first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament with the support of the socialist party.

Portugal is unusual in that it has another radical left unity project, the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (UDC), consisting of the Communist Party, the Ecologist Party and Democratic Intervention. The coalition was formed in 1987 to run in the simultaneous national and European parliamentary elections, and in every election since these parties have stood together as the UDC, even though the Communist Party is the major element within it. Tensions are minimised by the sharing out of lead candidatures. Since 1987, the UDC has had in: the national parliament between 12 and 31 MPs (8% to 12% vote); local government in excess of 200 councillors (11% to 13% vote); and the European parliament two to four MEPs (9% to 14% vote).

Conclusion

What can we learn from these three successful instances? The most obvious points are that facilitating the moving away of sections of people from the social democratic parties is critical as is winning significant union support. This may then lead new and existing non-aligned people to look at the projects as being credible and worthwhile. When they join and become involved, these projects achieve some kind of critical mass and lift off as they cease to be amalgams of what their constituent parts were (like the SSP achieved between 1999-2003 in a small way). Nonetheless, other than in Greece, there has been a lack of engagement with green/ecologist parties, organisations and milieus. What may be different is that in all three countries, large communist parties existed providing a more ingrained left culture.

[Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author of The Political Economy of Scotland – Red Scotland? Radical Scotland (University of Wales Press, 2005). He lives in Edinburgh. This article first appeared in Frontline, volume 2, issue 6, March 2008.]

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Frontline to be independent journal

Frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

http://www.redflag.org.uk/frontline/Mar08/editorial.html 

A Much Needed Alternative

The Scottish Socialist Party has had a tough year. However the party is in better health than some of its opponents might have hoped. Whilst there are still some challenging times ahead, the party can be proud of the way in which it has held together and weathered the storm. The root of this strength lies in the principles which the party stands for, principles of socialism, equality and integrity.

The need for a party like the SSP has not gone away. There is little doubt that the left in Scotland will bring forth new challenges to the warmongers and neo-liberals both in government and opposition.

Neo-liberals

The Scottish National Party government has enacted individual populist measures, sometimes watered down versions of bills previously brought forward by the SSP such as free school meals. However the heart of their economic policy is neo-liberal and stands in defence of the free market and international capitalism.

Former Royal Bank of Scotland economist Alex Salmond defends the profits of his former employers and the right of the bloated financial sector in Scotland to make unlimited profits. Despite the worldwide financial crisis caused by the sub-prime mortgages crash, the RBS made profits of £10.3 billion in 2007 and continued to swallow up rival banks worldwide such as the Dutch bank ABN-Amro.

The SNP government has been supportive of the bid by millionaire tycoon Donald Trump to create a golf resort in Aberdeenshire, despite the initial concerns of local councillors and the potential environmental damage that could be caused. SNP councillors in Edinburgh, with only one exception, voted to back the ‘Caltongate’ proposals which would destroy the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town in the Canongate and see local people lose their homes so that hotels and apartments for the rich could be built.

Meanwhile the Labour Party in Scotland seems to be mired in crisis and sleaze. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Wendy Alexander and her dodgy leadership campaign donations, it is clear that the politics of New Labour are certainly corrupt. Not content with war-mongering and enacting privatisation and attack after attack on public services, Gordon Brown made a point of backing the employer’s side in the recent postal workers dispute and posed for pictures with the great enemy of working people, Margaret Thatcher.

Despite the weakness of the left, the need for a force to take on those in power and stand up for working people has not diminished. The SSP can still play a key role in that process both in its own right and also as part of any future anti-capitalist formation. The end of March will see the party beginning a review of some of its structures with a special conference in Glasgow.

Frontline Proposals

One proposal that has come from the SSP commission on party structures deals with the position of Frontline. Frontline has a somewhat unique history. This journal was originally a publication of the International Socialist Movement, who were a platform with in the SSP. The ISM took the decision to disband in 2006 however Frontline carried on. We described ourselves as “an independent Marxist journal produced in support of the SSP”. Frontline has always been supportive of the SSP whilst providing an independent space to debate key issues facing the party.

The commission has asked Frontline to clarify its role within the party. Three options have been put forward. The first option was to become a platform within the party, the second was to become completely independent of the party and remove reference to it in the masthead. The third option was to become an official journal of the party.

These proposals have been discussed by the Frontline editorial board. The option to become a platform was not supported by anyone. Whilst there was some support for becoming an official SSP journal, a substantial majority favoured retaining the independence of Frontline.

This does not reflect any ambivalence amongst the editorial board towards the SSP. Indeed, many of those who supported independence are among the most tireless and dedicated supporters of the party. Rather it was felt that it was important to maintain an independent space out with the party structures where comrades could discuss and debate contentious issues.

Additionally it was recognized that becoming an official party journal would mean that the SSP would also have a responsibility to put resources both physical and financial into producing and selling Frontline. At the current time in all likelihood the party needs to focus on supporting the Scottish Socialist Voice and building up party branches.

Frontline therefore proposes to maintain its independent status. We remain open to all those who want to write for or sell the journal. Our editorial board and editor are elected and will continue to be democratically accountable. Please get in touch if you want to help out.

Platforms

We also felt that it was important to have a publication with a specifically Marxist perspective. Whilst the SSP has no problem with Marxist ideas it has a broader outlook, which is fitting for a party founded on the principles of socialist unity and regroupment.

We note that there are proposals at the forthcoming conference which would place restrictions on platforms within the party. Clearly this reflects a feeling within the party that platforms which felt no loyalty to the SSP, specifically the ‘CWI Scotland’ and Socialist Workers Platform’s, contributed greatly to the split in the party.

However whilst we need to learn lessons, we also need to make sure that we do not lose the original spirit and ideals which brought the SSP together. The party needs to remain a tolerant and democratic body. The right of individual party members to come together in groups to put forward a particular viewpoint is one which we should defend.

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