Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Far Left in the 2010s

Over the last three years I've written retrospectives of the British far left's fortunes over a given year (here's 2006, 2007, and 2008) and without exception they make grim reading. 2009 has at least been a little better, though the cynics among us may ask how things could have got any worse.

It seems to me the far left has entered a new period of flux these last couple of years, which is an episode in a wider shift in the distribution of allegiances on the left outside of Labour since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. With the passing of the USSR and a firm decline in the depth and influence of the labour movement in Britain (which counted the old 'official' CPGB among its casualties), you had two parallel tendencies at work in the political evolution of the far left.

There was the retreat of traditional labourist politics (compounded by the Tory victory in the 1992 general election) before the unashamed neoliberalism of New Labour. This alienated small but significant layers of trade unionists and socialists and opened a political space to Labour's left and introduced a new regroupment dynamic that wasn't present prior to Blair. We all know what happened next - first came the Socialist Labour Party, then the parallel developments of the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, and the Scottish Socialist Party north of the border. And later the SA was wound up in favour of Respect. While all these have either failed or undergone serious setbacks, the regroupment dynamic has persisted throughout the 00s.

The second tendency was the decline of Militant/Socialist Party and the growth of the SWP, which (with the exception of Scotland) made them the hegemonic centre of the British far left. To underline this, whatever their shortcomings as
de facto leaders of the SA, the alliance never had the potential of developing into something else without the input of the SWP's resources or numbers of activists. The same was true of Respect in the initial phase of its development. Plus the SWP can justly take a large dollop of credit for getting the Stop the War Coalition off the ground and helping build sentiment against the Iraq war into the largest mass movement Britain has seen since the Poll Tax.

For a number of reasons this situation has changed. The hegemony enjoyed by the SWP has been challenged on a number of fronts because of its own ill-judged actions, and the growing influence of rival socialists. First of all is the notorious row in Respect, which placed the SWP on one side and the bulk of non-SWP members on the other. According to the SWP they were victims of a witch-hunt and were being driven out of Respect. The position of their opponents, led by George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob was that the SWP had too much power concentrated in its hands, and there was a fear Respect came second to the SWP’s strategic priorities. This led to an unseemly public split, culminating in the two factions standing against each other at the 2008 London Assembly elections. One major consequence for the SWP was severe damage inflicted on its reputation in labour movement circles while Respect came away looking like the injured party.

Then there was the Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcat strike and related disputes in January-February this year. The dispute involved the employment of Portuguese workers at the expense of locals and was in contravention of existing collective agreements between Total and Unite. The slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ was prominent on the picket line and was heavily rotated by the media. The SP, having a member on the strike committee, intervened and was able to steer the strike toward internationalist demands. In so doing it accumulated much political capital on the far left and the labour movement. However the SWP’s stance focused on the ‘BJ4BW’ slogan and was very critical of the strike, refusing to offer it even conditional support. The victory of the wildcat action helped cement the SP's reputation as a resurgent and serious alternative to the SWP, particularly in industrial politics.

Lindsey directly led to a major realignment in far left electoral politics later in the year. In March the No2EU platform, comprising the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the Communist Party and the SP announced its intention to stand candidates in June’s European elections. Senior RMT officials in alliance with the CP initiated this body – the SP was later invited to participate after the name and much of the platform had been decided. What was significant was the sponsors' refusal to approach the SWP, which in the previous period would have been unthinkable. The stated reason for not doing so was their position on Lindsey strikes. Overall, No2EU performed poorly in the elections (153,236 votes – 1.01 per cent) but it did prove a national campaign could be mounted by the far left independently of the SWP. And so far the SWP have remained outside the 'son-of-No2EU' talks to field allied left candidates in the 2010 general election.

And so the hegemony the SWP enjoyed on the far left for around 15 years is being eclipsed industrially, in terms of regroupment and (relatedly) when it comes to election contests. The far left enters the next decade very much as it entered the 00s - fragmented, but engaged in a number of (painfully slow) unity projects. The main difference being that the balance of forces between the key actors are more leveled out, which means no one can dictate the terms of rapprochement (if it will ever happen) to the others.

There are still reasons to be optimistic despite the setbacks and failures of the last decade. The economic crisis and the recession have changed the terms of political reference have entirely. Keynesianism and nationalisation have re-entered mainstream political discourse and finance is no longer held up as the hegemonic model of capital accumulation in the Anglophone world. A tentative revival of interest in Marx is also evident in the commentariat and leftwing academia, and the 's' word - socialism - has re-entered everyday political language. None of this has led to an appreciable increase in the influence of British Trotskyism, but the shifting centre of political gravity could yet prove fruitful for socialist politics - especially as it continues to force groups of workers into action in defence of their jobs and working conditions. The actions of the entire far left from the second Lindsey dispute onwards have been exemplary in delivering solidarity and mobilising support, and are well placed to intervene in future.

But a major obstacle is the possible exhaustion of the tendency toward regroupment. On the one hand there is the wider process of political fragmentation in mainstream politics. This has primarily benefited the "main" minor parties so far - UKIP, Greens and the BNP (as well as the nationalists in Wales and Scotland) - and shows no sign of being reversed any time soon. However, if the far left want to be part of this mix the window of opportunity could be fast closing. The apparent rediscovery of weak social democratic policies by Labour (what rightwing bloggers and the press have illiterately dubbed "class war" politics) and likely electoral defeat create problems for the project to build a new left alternative - especially as the prospect of opposition will firm up trade union support for "their" party. Should Labour lose and tack to the left, where's the space for a far left narrative premised on Labour's abandonment of its core support?

So it's a bit of a mixed bag as we enter the new decade. The main forces of the far left are more finely balanced. There are several ongoing unity projects of varying size and scope. And, as a whole, the main players (particularly the SP and SWP) are very well placed to intervene in whatever industrial disputes are thrown up. But the uncertainty over the political space to the left of Labour places a question mark on the future viability of a sustained and united leftwing challenge at the ballot box, and with it the dynamic towards regroupment. Though it's difficult to tell at this stage, it is very possible the 2010s could see the far left retreat to 'ourselves alone'-style party building - partly because of "objective" circumstances, but equally due to our inability to put the poison of sectarianism behind us.


Derek Wall said...

The left are stronger in the Green Party of England and Wales than any other Green Party in Europe, ecosocialists are pretty strong in Respect.

Likewise there is an emerging extra parliamentary climate justice movement, something to think about perhaps?

Phil BC said...

Hmmm, yes, I am a touch guilty of conceptualising political opportunities for the far left too tightly. My bad. Stuff like climate change and other forms of environmental politics are likely to assume a greater pertinence as the decade wears on. Can the far left play a part in this? Undoubtedly. But to what extent? It depends on the other struggles and campaigning work it's involved in.

Luna17 said...

I think that's a largely accurate, as well as extremely well-informed and perceptive, overall assessment. It's useful to take a step back in this way and see the bigger map of how the radical left in this country is looking (and changing). I disagree almost entirely with your view of the Lindsey dispute, but in other ways I think this is fair.

The SWP has indeed lost a hegemonic role. A crucial factor in this is the party's problems - and the same applies to the wider Left - in developing a serious response to the crisis of the system since around September 2008. This contrasts with the dynamic and effective role played by the party in the formation and development of Stop the War. The crisis is the greatest test for all of us.

Derek correctly flags up the politics of the environment. One of the vital things for the organised left is to be actively involved in social movements, including the climate movement. I'm afraid the participation of the main left groups in Copenhagen (and the protests in London that co-incided with the summit) was fairly poor. A turn to 'Party first' approaches (selling your paper, having your own meetings) at the expense of broader campaigns will be a disservice to everyone.

Dave Riley said...

You are also narrowly proscribed within the shores of England and ignore any offshore developments.

Taking a leaf from Derek -- Copenhagen was a startling Rosa Luxembourg moment buoyed up by the protestors and the role of Chavez and Morales which clearly took the ideological initiative into the direction of socialism -- or as Derek prefers, eco-socialism.

This significance also underscores the continuing role of the Latin American insurgency -- something the SP either ignores a or polemicizes against. That millions of people are in motion with socialism on their lips, is excuse enough for the SP to lecture to them and insist that they are doing it all wrong.

Allied to that is the push in 2010 for the formation of a 5th International -- no longer based around programatic shibboleths and London offices but for the first time in decades, on mass organisations. This in itself can have a regroupment momentum but sadly not from among those who seek to ignore it.

Maybe a little humility is in order...?

It seems to me that the far left in GB may indeed suffer miserably in the year ahead for the reasons you cite -- failure to unite. If the Tories win the next poll, and the BNP consolidates its support base, there will be a wave of demoralisation and a lot of anguish and abuse leveled at both the SP and the SWP if no unity package is clubbed together. In those circumstances it will be toward the Green Party than many will turn.

James? said...

This piece was very interesting and i enjoyed reading it. My own feeling is that the rest of the movement would look better on both the swp and sp if they stopped trying to be the revolotionairy section of a reformist or trades union party and set up a united trotskyist or far-left party that took elections seriously. far-right have been disciplined enough to stick together in one group with a catchy name for a sustained period of time. The far-left would win council seats at least if it were to do the same. peace

JimPage said...

Firstly, Happy Hogmanay to you all.

I have posted this elsewhere in a reflective mood of where the BNP were 10 years ago today. Maybe a lesson in there for the left somewhere....

Today is 31st December 1999 and Nick Griffin looks out from his Llanerfyl home at what purports to be the political party he inherited from John Tyndall a few months before

Best council election result in 1999 16% in a Sandwell ward - 12% in Dudley-everything else about 5%. 600 members nationwide in no more that 20 functioning branches- less than half of thee active. Stone age propoganda. No media publicity. Many organisers and most of middle management resigned in last few months in support of Tyndall. 1% nationwide in the last euro elections. 1 Parish Councillor. Antifascists able to run rings around them everywhere they appear.

And a Weyman Bennett confortabel enought to say "the war has been won and it`s us that won it"

Gregor said...

Got a bit lost in the course of reading this, but I am curious about the picture. Isn't the red star with hammer and sickle a sign of tyranny and oppression?

I'm all for nationalised industries, but it's precisely because I dislike the violence and brutality of the neo-cons that seeing stuff like this makes me uneasy.

Paul said...

No Labour party entryism even considered then?

Phil BC said...

Re: Lindsey, I think more is made of the difference between the SP and SWP than is probably the case. Contrary to what critics of the SP (and the strike) say, far from ignoring the BJ4BW slogan it was taken on and the strike successfully steered away from nationalist politics. I think this confirms the SP's analysis that, fundamentally, the dispute wasn't a chauvinist one. However, despite big problems in the SWP's analysis I'm sure had its comrades been in the positions the SP members were they would have acted pretty much in the same way - at least I hope they would have!

But yes, a retrenchment of sectarianism would be very bad news - but it's not beyond the realms of possibility, sadly.

Phil BC said...

Dave mate, I haven't a clue what you're talking about. In our branch meetings, cadre schools, conferences and what have you it's reiterated that Latin America has become the crucible of global revolution. I've lost count of the internal reports we've had of the CWI putting resources into building its sections on the continent - the last I recall concerned fusion talks with a couple of groups where the CWI does not have a section.

If by polemicising you mean failing to uncritically tail Chavismo and Morales, then the CWI is guilty as charged. Of course there are rich lessons to be drawn from what's happening, but there are whole hosts of difficulties too. I don't think CWI comrades in Venezuela and Bolivia will be doing anyone any favours if they merely become left cheerleaders, like our friends in the IMT. If Trotskyism is the theory and practice of socialist revolution, then trying to build a movement for socialism means relating to things critically and not glossing over problems and shortcomings.

As for the Fifth International, well ... I'll believe it when I see it.

Phil BC said...

Hi there George. Re: the hammer and sickle, the symbol represents the alliance of the peasants and workers who made the Russian revolution. Then for obvious reasons it became associated with Marxism and communism.

However, while I recognise for some it symbolises dictatorship, for others it does not. As the USSR recedes ever further into the past the iconography has taken on a life of its own and has found its way into the popular culture of the West. These days plenty of (mainly young) people can be seen wearing shirts with CCCP (i.e. USSR), red stars, hammers and sickles, etc. emblazoned on their chests. For them if it symbolises anything it's not dictatorship but kitsch radicalism. Under these circumstances where the association with dictatorship has been eroded, there is a possibility the hammer and sickle and be reclaimed by the far left - assuming they want to.

As far as my organisation goes, we make do with this logo on the left of the screen, and this one (also on the left) for our international organisation.

Phil BC said...

Paul, a good Marxist should keep every option open ...

Laban said...

Shouldn't you mention the 700-pound gorilla in the room and its effect on left politics - namely continuing mass immigration ?

As Jon Cruddas pointed out three years back, the govt "tacitly used immigration to help forge the preferred flexible North American labour market. Especially in London, legal and illegal immigration has been central in replenishing the stock of cheap labour across the public and private services, construction and civil engineering."

Immigrant labour "is the axis for the domestic agenda of the Government".

Adam Smith looked at labour demand and wages 200-odd years back :

"The workers’ best friends, Smith surmises, are rising national income and capital growth, because they bid up wages. A landlord with surplus revenue will hire more servants. A weaver or a shoemaker with surplus capital will hire assistants. In other words, the demand for labour rises when – and only when – national wealth rises. The ‘liberal reward of labour’ depends entirely on economic growth."

That scenario supposes a fixed (in the short term, anyway) supply of labour. What if our landlord, weaver or shoemaker could import an almost unlimited number of low-paid servants and assistants ? What if, on top of that, their low pay was topped up by government through a tax credit system - a system originally designed to take low-paid Britons out of poverty ?

If the wages are low enough there's no reason why even in a system of economic stasis or recession our landlord shouldn't hire more servants. There's also nothing to stop him sacking the servants he has and replacing them more cheaply from the almost unlimited pool of new labour.

What was stopping it in Adam Smith's day was the cost of transport, the absence of a government pledged to abolish child poverty (aka "subsidise an employers low wages from tax receipts") and the fact that the locals just wouldn't wear it. A load of foreigners coming in and taking our jobs ? No way !

Now transport's cheap, there's that lovely subsidy, and above all the moral and political objections to undercutting "our own people" (a phrase which immediately brands the utterer with the indelible scar of racism) have been totally marginalised and discredited. The trades unions, which instinctively understood the objections to cheap 'scab' (non-unionised) labour, now welcome the undercutting of an entire working class.

This has led to an interesting situation for the UK working class of whatever colour. I walked down New Malden High Street (leafy South London) last week.

Average price for a 3-bed semi in the estate agents - somewhere over £300K.

Average wage being offered in the job agency window - £8 per hour.

We're looking at Early Victorian Britain all over again - but without the morality and without the rising trades unions. And then people wonder why the situation described by Jim Page has changed so dramatically.

Interesting times.

Prinkipo Exile said...

"so far the SWP have remained outside the 'son-of-No2EU' talks to field allied left candidates in the 2010 general election"

Really? Were they invited? I understood they did have a meeting scheduled with the SP but it never happened.

And were Respect ever invited? Was ANYONE else ever invited?

Anyway it looks like Son-of-No2EU will collapse now that the RMT have pulled out.

The SP and AGS already had a pre-existing electoral alliance anyway (the "Socialist Green Unity Coalition", though it was never a registered electoral name and its website has disappeared now).

So really all you've got now is the SP and a few mates trying to do an election deal with a bunch of ageing stalinists from the CPB, and maybe the SWP desperate for any fig leaf willing to do a deal over standing a couple of candidates in the general election.

For an organisation that used to boast about having three MPs, and with a serious national figure like Dave Nellist, this is very little to show from your throwing your rattle out of the pram in the SA and all the secret diplomacy of the last few months.

The reality comrades is that the only left wing game in town in terms of serious electoral prospects is Respect. Isn't it time for the SP to stop pussyfooting around and sit down to a serious discussion with Respect about where we go from here?

Laban said...

"the only left wing game in town in terms of serious electoral prospects is Respect"

That's because Respect have got what other far-left parties ain't got. Voters.