Britain: Building left unity out of the wreckage

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Anti-war protesters in London, 2003.

The Socialist Resistance national committee adopted this document, by Liam Mac Uaid, on January 9, 2010, to outline its balance sheet of the last decade’s attempts at the resolving the crisis of working-class representation in Britain.

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January 9, 2010 -- Socialist Resistance -- The workers’ movement in Britain has faced a crisis of working-class representation since the rise of New Labour in the mid-1990s and it has been becoming more acute ever since. This backdrop put left unity at the centre of the political agenda. The rise of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA) were the first organisational expressions of this necessary process. A critical look at the last decade is essential if we are not to make the same mistakes – those who do not learn from history are pretty likely to make the same ones all over again.

Ten years the depressing reality is that the left, other than the Green Party, is weaker and left unity further away than at any time during that period. And there is little sign that this is about to change.

A comparison between the left’s electoral challenges in 2001 and 2010 is as enlightening as it is depressing. In the 2001 general election voters in 98 constituencies in England had the opportunity to vote for an alternative to New Labour. On average the Socialist Alliance (SA) won only 1.6% of the vote but there were exceptions. Dave Nellist won 7.5% of the vote in Coventry North East, in St Helens South Neil Thompson won 6.9%, Cecilia Prosper won 4.6% in Hackney South and in the 2002 mayoral election in Hackney, Paul Foot won 12.7% of the vote beating both the Greens and Lib Dems.

The Socialist Alliance incorporated much of the far left including the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Resistance’s predecessor organisation, the International Socialist Group, as well as a small but significant number of former Labour Party members and independently minded socialists. They shared a common understanding that the rightward move of Labour was politically weakening the working class and that a political response was necessary to this. Contesting elections was one aspect of building this response. The smattering of reasonably good results was impressive for an organisation on its first electoral outing. They demonstrated that well-rooted candidates with the local left united behind their campaigns could attract working-class support. What was not shared by many of the participants was an understanding that creating a broad organisation with bases in working-class communities had to be a long-term project.


A watershed moment in the life of the Socialist Alliance was the decision of the Socialist Party to leave it at its December 2001 conference. The SP's reason for this was a SA conference decision to adopt a constitution based on one member one vote, arguing that it would take away “all rights from individual members and minority organisations because the SWP are currently able to mobilise enough people to outvote all other forces in the SA.”[i] This pessimistic view was predicated on an assumption that the Socialist Alliance would not grow beyond its strength at that point and a judgement that the Socialist Party was destined to be in a permanent minority. More significantly – and this is a recurring phenomenon – it was taken for granted that on entering a broader formation any Marxist current had to guarantee that its members always voted the same way, even over the most trivial tactical details. The Socialist Party was not willing to put itself into what it saw as a subordinate position to the SWP inside the Socialist Alliance and so went on to establish the Campaign for A New Workers Party (CNWP). To use their phrase describing the SA after their departure, this is “little more than an electoral front for their organisation”.[ii] It provides a focus for propaganda activity but is in no way distinguishable from a wholly owned Socialist Party campaign despite occasional engagements with it by some on the far left.

The second major watershed in the life of the Socialist Alliance was the mobilisation against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001. Rather than use the enormous demonstrations and vast amount of grassroots activity to strengthen the SA, the SWP took them as opportunities to recruit to itself, even to the extent of calling the inaugural meeting of the Stop the War Coalition in its own name rather than use the Socialist Alliance as a potential unifier. As a consequence the larger, broader organisation had the smaller profile at antiwar events and a real opportunity was missed to connect the antiwar movement with the developing Socialist Alliance.

But the wars brought new people into politics. Whereas the SA had been comprised predominantly of experienced activists, the establishment of Respect brought them into contact with groups and individuals who disliked New Labour and violently opposed its wars. In east London, Birmingham and parts of the north-west the left had its first real chance to connect with local Muslim communities. The high-water mark of this approach was the election of George Galloway and a group of councillors in Tower Hamlets following election campaigns which combined both a vocal opposition to the imperialist wars and, just as importantly, resistance to the transfer of council housing stock.

For the first time in decades a left of Labour alternative had succeeded in overcoming the barriers imposed by the anti-democratic voting system and managed to win a modest number of elected representatives. What followed was an explicit refusal to learn either from the experience of similar parties in Europe or the Labour Party. Decision making was the prerogative of a small group while simultaneously trying to provide leadership to the Stop the War Coalition, Respect and the SWP. In the absence of its own political traditions and a cadre of independent leaders Respect as one priority among many was left to limp along subject to the political needs of a small group of its leaders.

It was this assessment of the organisation’s weakness which prompted George Galloway to criticise the way in which it was being run. As he pointed out at the time of the European elections it had little money in the bank and was failing to recruit. The debate around this issue resulted in the SWP leaving the Socialist Alliance to establish the short lived Left Alternative and Left List projects, which failed to gain much traction as projects for creating a political home for activists and voters.

The 2009 European elections saw the emergence of No2EU which had active support from the Socialist Party and a section of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union politically aligned to its leader Bob Crow. It described itself as “a coalition of trade unionists, political parties and campaigning groups which have come together to defend democracy here and across the European Union”. Despite that unpromising label its election program took a firm position in support of workers’ rights, opposition to the wars and neo-liberalism. On that basis it was supported by Socialist Resistance. Its vote was predictably small given that it was an unknown coalition contesting an election for the first time but it was significant because it had the backing of a section of the most militant union in the country.


At the time of writing it is not clear if a successor to No2EU will contest the general election. Some of its component parts, or the “core group”, have been discussing whether another left coalition can be put together to stand candidates. There is nothing to indicate that this will be done any differently from the way in which decisions about policy, organisation and tactics were done in No2EU when they were negotiated by a closed circle of invitees. Nevertheless as Socialist Resistance’s position is to support electoral challenges by credible socialist and ecosocialist candidates to New Labour we have sought to get involved in this project.

Socialist Resistance has tried to engage in a meaningful way with all the attempts to create an alternative to New Labour. Our strategic assessment is that the principal task for Marxists at the moment is to build a credible class-struggle party which can gain the support of millions of workers, youth and the oppressed. It is simply impossible for any existing left organisation to do this by itself.

There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are more important than others. The level of working-class militancy in Britain is at an historically low ebb. Predictions that the economic crisis would see a wave of strikes and occupations have been confounded by the fear and uncertainty which are the most common responses to job losses and pay cuts. All three major parties are contesting the election with slightly different austerity programs and not even Labour’s trade union base is complaining. Yet it is abstentionist to say that broader political alternatives are impossible without a rise in the level of the class struggle. George Galloway’s success; the election of Michael Lavallette; Gerry Hicks’ support in the Unite union all show that there is an audience receptive to radical socialist ideas and the existence of a broad party which expresses them is itself a modest factor in changing the political situation.

International experiences

Long-term commitment to building an alternative is indispensable. In 1999, Portugal's Left Bloc won 2.4% in the legislative elections, even with the advantage of proportional representation. In 2009 it won 16 MPs and the votes of 550,000 people. You can’t do this without patient construction work, building roots in unions and communities and winning a national profile as the voice of opposition to capitalism.

The internal life of the broad party is critical. The Left Bloc, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in Turkey have strongly pluralistic internal cultures. Freedom to dissent is an elementary right of any member or group of members. Without space to explore contrasting ideas a new organisation cannot develop its own political culture and is in the thrall of the dominant organised current. Neither the SP nor the SWP have drawn this lesson from these other European experiences.

Respect suffered greatly from this problem. Using a practice borrowed from the internal life of the SWP, dissident voices were not simply argued against but had to be “hammered”, an ugly and unnecessary procedure since all the SWP members in the hall would be certain to vote the same way. Its most recent conference illustrated that this is a habit that some in Respect still find attractive despite all the evidence that it is simply the most effective way to assert bureaucratic control and actively alienates the critically minded militants the party should be trying to recruit.


Two major challenges face the British working class in the near future. The first is the austerity packages which the major parties are promising over the next five years. Wages, pensions, jobs and social services will all be targeted for deep cuts. Propaganda groups of a few hundred or a thousand activists are incapable of providing fighting leadership of the necessary breadth and depth at a national level. This requires attempting to crystallise the broad political vanguard at the highest level of political development possible.

Economic crises are inherently transitory. Climate change is going to seriously and adversely affect the way billions of the planet’s workers and poor live if the solutions proposed by its rulers at Copenhagen are allowed to stand. Yet developing a program of demands and action to meet the meet the needs of the majority are at best an afterthought for most socialist organisations in Britain today. If we are looking for where the next major anti-capitalist radicalisation might come from one source is likely to be the tens of thousands of people who took to London’s streets in December 2009 demanding action.

As well as action they will need leadership and a political framework to harness their militancy. Creating the leadership and the organisation that will provide these is not without its risks but there are a number of positive and negative experiences we can draw on.

[Liam Mac Uaid is editor of Socialist Resistance. He also has his own blog.]