Thursday 2 January 2014

The Far Left's Prospects in 2014

On paper the far left agree on many things: the exploitative character of capitalism. The primacy of the working class. The unity of democracy and socialism. The inescapable necessity of revolution. The pro-imperialism of the AWL. And yet it remains as divided as ever. The regroupment projects of the last 20 years have, at best, come to nothing. At worst they have given rise to new animosities - especially north of the border. It's not a matter of piss-poor leadership and dismal routinism, though that has a role to play. The far left is in a structural bind. Neoliberalism is (un)dead but its radical corollary, individuated identity politics, goes from strength-to-strength. It is a cultural-political dominant the parties of the far left have adapted to. With a strong emphasis on party branding and fetishism of ultra-correct positioning, you might say such an adaptation was nigh-on inevitable. Taken in the round, this along with the far left's shrivelling trade union roots, the continued erosion of the very idea of an independent working class culture, and the deliberate cultivation of insecurity and anomie by the most backward, sectional class war government in living memory is not terrain conducive to revolutionary socialist organisation.

Yet when the odds are stacked against you, windows of opportunity remain. Now Labour is openly (and finally) talking about varieties of capitalism and the necessity of embracing another model based on industrial state activism, curbing markets, and more planning, only but the most blinkered would see this as Blair/Brown neoliberalism by other means. Labour is groping its way back to social democracy. But some on the left are not satisfied. A post-2015 Labour government will still cut, its priority is managing British capitalism, it won't bring socialism. This then is a political space on the party's left flank that Labour cannot fill. Nor is it big enough for the Socialist Party's Labour mk II, but room there is a small left formation that could make a reasonable grab for the anti-politics vote. There will also be those turned off by Labour's message, especially if it continues to be wonky and determined to parrot the Tories on immigration and social security. Social media has also proven to be a great leveller. With increased access to alternative sources of information and a press in terminal decline, the traditional conservative message pumped out by the media counts for less with each passing year. The circumstances are far from benign, but is the far left in fit shape to take advantage?

There's no denying that 2013 was the worst year in the SWP's history. And justly so. Yet as their winter conference declared there was "nothing to see here" and another slew of experienced, long-term cadre upped sticks, I bet the leadership, the tedious triumvirate of Callinicos, Kimber and Leather went into the Christmas break relieved the crisis was over. Lost members, lost standing, lost plots - none of it mattered. The core party organisation emerged reduced but intact. The internal divisions are done, all that matters now is building the party anew.

In the past, the SWP has responded to reverses with voluntarism and boosterism. Remember when it substituted itself for Respect after it fell out with Galloway and practically all its other "unity" coalition allies? I have no doubt circulars have gone out from HQ expecting full timers to meet ambitious sales and recruitment targets. Where there's a lack, there's a dogmatic belief that activity alone can plug the gap. Unfortunately for them a hiding to nothing awaits. The SWP is going to find many of its trade union activist friends aren't interested any more. They will find it more difficult to recruit in universities. The rest of the labour movement aren't likely to go anywhere near UAF, LMHR and whatever their anti-cuts/right-to-work front group is called these days. And all it takes is a few minutes with an internet search for recruits to turn up the unpalatable character of their new organisation. Without any political strategy beyond the institutional demands of the SWP as an apparatus, it is difficult to see how it can fill any political space. If only there was an electoral alliance it could buddy up with.

Well, of course, there is. The SWP affiliates to the Socialist Party's Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Before we get there, the Socialist Party haven't had the best year either. Conspicuously quiet during the SWP's "difficulties", the SP has also been party to serious assault-related allegations regarding a senior member from Wales and a London Underground militant. But unlike the SWP, it is my understanding the police have looked into these matters and no charges have been brought. Obviously, as with Our Martin I have no opinion about the veracity of the allegations, yet any hint of obstructive behaviour on the part of party apparatuses is (understandably) damaging. In addition, the SP suffered a small but telling raft of resignations in a debate about a detail of Marx's analysis of crisis. If a party cannot hope to have a grown up, public debate about the falling rate of profit how can it expect to manage the tensions within the working class as we leap into the new society? Apart from that, the SP have plodded on plodding. Conference, Socialism 2013 and NSSN were successes, of course. And so was TUSC.

According to a Facebook knockabout with Stoke SP's organiser, over the last four years TUSC has stood approximately 600 candidates and won over 100,000 votes. Who's that supposed to impress? In truth every sitting councillor who's stood as TUSC have lost their seats, TUSC contested less than 10% of all of 2013's by-elections, performs worse than the fragmenting BNP and were beaten twice by Elvis Loves Pets. Still, one mustn't underestimate the importance of putting down a marker. By choosing to fight elections it must be judged in electoral terms, and the returns it has been getting are unlikely to trouble anyone committed to the labour movement's political wing. On paper TUSC could fill that left space. But it is not a party, it is an off-on electoral front that is less than the sum of its parts. And while the SP pretend the coalition has some significance because the RMT executive maintains a bureaucratic relationship with it, most RMT members have never heard of it.

Does poor performance, TUSC's loose character, and the lack of recognition among its single trade union affiliate caused pause for thought? Nope. TUSC are pledging to stand over 600 candidates in May's local elections. That works out as virtually the SP's entire active membership. However, in a completely ridiculous move the RMT and SP are dusting off No2EU again for the European elections, which are happening on the same day. If I was a small left party wanting to make as big a splash as possible, splitting my meagre ticket would be something to avoid. Still, No2EU can't perform worse than last time, can it?

I fully expect this time the SP and SWP will be in the same boat. The SP waxing lyrical about its upcoming challenge to Labour (lest we forget it's the main enemy of the labour movement), and the SWP pretending the lasting legacy of 2013 has been overcome. But what of the rest of the left? I've already talked through the prospects for Left Unity. It has much greater potential to fill the left niche than TUSC because it is an organisation for itself, like normal political parties are. It has also become the de facto go to for disaffected SWP refugees. This offers LU an advantage - it has acquired a layer of readymade activists who are not afraid of political hard graft. But how many SWP bad habits have they brought over in their baggage train? And could they cohere as a powerful group-within-a-group? The fissiparous International Socialist Network of Richard Seymour-led suggests not in either case, if their work in LU so far is anything to go by.

More importantly than internal matters, if LU wants to challenge Labour it has to start thinking about elections. It might select a few areas to work hard between now and 2015, perhaps standing as local candidates this year; or it might try and meet TUSC by spreading itself thin and/or coming to some kind of seat sharing arrangement. I very much doubt it'll have anything to do with No2EU's 1970s nostalgia fest.

What of Scotland? The split and acrimony of 2006 casts long shadows across the Scottish far left. Tommy Sheridan's vanity vehicle has either scattered or been absorbed by TUSC's Scottish department. They can be counted to stand as No2EU just as they did in 2009, scrapping the Scottish Socialist Party for tenths of percentage points. The SSP is still around, but is a shadow of its 2003 glory days. But it has LU's advantage. Unlike Solidarity, which was an alliance of convenience between the SWP, SP and Tommy, the SSP post-2006 was and is a "normal" party beholden to none but itself. Unsurprisingly given the wringer it was put through, the SSP does occasionally resemble a survivors' group and it does stand in elections. It campaigns as a collective on issues like the bedroom tax and the independence referendum too, something neither LU or TUSC have so far done. So still, despite its much-reduced circumstances, the SSP remains something of a model for the far left to emulate. That said, it's not really going anywhere. Its impact on the referendum is marginal. The vote it can expect at the European elections will be derisory, and the chances of it hooking up with "Brit" left organisations are zilch.

In short, no one can expect breakthroughs in 2014. No TUSC councillors will be elected in May. The SSP will not reap any political capital from the referendum, regardless of the way the vote swings. And LU will spend most of its time talking to itself. It's another year on the treadmill for most and, if they're lucky, not too many will hop off to do something more worthwhile. In the mean time the rest of the labour movement will be concentrating its resources on the crunch election of 2015, and pushing the party further in the social democratic direction it has started to head down. What comrades in or involved with the organisations above have to ask is this. How are the immediate interests of working people best served? And what would be the best use of your energies and time?

Photo credit


Anonymous said...

“Labour is groping its way back to social democracy.”

Hmmm. Let’s see. Labour (including New Labour) has a long record of playing with leftish-sounding policy ideas while in opposition. Tonic for the troops, and all that. Remember all that Will Hutton-stakeholding talk in the mid-1990s? The Guardianistas and Westminster policy-wonks loved it. Even some unions thought there was cause for optimism. But it didn’t last long once Brown, Balls and Red Ed found themselves in the Treasury. So forgive me a degree of scepticism on that point.

More importantly, I cannot see what is distinctively social democratic about Chuka Ummuna’s declaration that Labour is now the party of small business. There is nothing inherently social democratic about using public resources to effectively subsidise small business – which is what the banking proposals boil down to.

If access to such subsidies was tied to promoting some form of industrial collectivism (a feature of many social democratic governments until the 1980s) that would be different. But as you and I both know very well, the last thing Ummuna has on his mind is promoting trade unionism among small businesses – notorious for their vicious anti-unionism, low pay, discrimination, and non-compliance with decent employment practices.

Of course, a concern with the quality of work and rights of workers is so old-hat in the whizz-bang, Jetsons-world of globalised techno-capitalism so beloved by Labour policy technocrats. But some of us still think it is important. But I’m sure Ummuna, and his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet, are all reliably on-message.

When I did academic research into the recruitment and training practices of businesses in the UK about 10 years ago, most of which were small in employment terms, their priorities included keeping unions out, and making a point of not recruiting known union activists in case that led to pro-union sentiment among their employees.

They also complained about full employment in their local labour markets because that meant they had to pay higher wages and it was more difficult to sack people.

Their attitude to training (a central part of Labour’s high-skill vision of industrial modernisation) was appalling. In short: we will train only if we absolutely have to.

The problem with training, they said, is that people then expect higher wages. And we can’t have that. It also means workers might find it easier to leave and get better jobs elsewhere. Low skills mean low expectations, low pay and low mobility. If workers want better skills they can pay for it themselves and do it in their own time.

You want a high-skill industrial revolution? Not on our time.

The Blair/Brown governments, to their credit, did consider the possibility of compelling employers to train more. But the CBI made it very clear that government compulsion had no role to play in this area. Employers decide, workers obey and government stays out. And that was that.

Now, if Labour’s emerging social democratic vision includes compelling skill-formation, then great. That would be a real break with three decades of voluntarism. But I am not aware of any such commitment by the Shadow Cabinet. And I doubt that the business people that Labour have let drive their industrial policy development have compulsion as one of their priorities.

So Labour is making a virtue of its alliance with small businesses. I wonder if they will welcome Labour’s re-discovery of social democracy and the policy consequences. If not, and if their priorities do actually shape what a future Labour government does in practice (which Ummuna suggests they will), what kind of social democracy can we expect? Pretty thin I suspect. Certainly not a social democracy that even Anthony Crossland, in all his technocratic optimism, would recognise as such.

The prospects for the far left in the coming years are likely to be pretty bleak. But so are the prospects for those who have suspended their critical faculties in the desperate search for a Labour Party they can believe in.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps not surprisingly at this stage in the electoral cycle NL is reluctant to make all but the most minimal commitments in its future manifesto. The central point is that Balls is likely to stick to the Lib/Con spending plans but as you say in a government budget of£billions there is some wriggle room.
On labour markets the stress will be on training. While small business incentives may well figure in Labours programme as Mike Anon suggests the Business Department budget at around £16.5 Billion on an overall government budget of £720 Billion is small (2.3%) and a lot of it ring fenced in universities. This is not to belittle the ideological strings that go with small business development but supply side economics is what they really want.
The EU elections in May will be interesting in terms of both mainstream electoral politics and the far left. No2EU as you rightly say may well be unable to fight an effective campaign as TUSC in local elections as well as the EU elections. No2EU is a wider coalition and at the moment I don’t think we know what the main partners will make of the SWP debacle. For those on the left who have reservations about tailing Little England politics it is likely that Labour will be the only option available unless their policy changes.
The Seymour ISN made a promising start but has since turned its back on working class politics. Talks with SR about merger appear to have slowed. ACI has largely dissolved itself at national level. It remains to be seen what happens to the current SWP split both for the SWP rump and the opposionists – joining LU would be logical for the latter.


Andrew Walton said...

If you are committed, as you claim to be, to rebuilding socialism within the Labour Party, or at least reclaiming it for social democracy, then why are you attacking the far left? Surely the best outcome for those trying to reclaim the Labour Party from within (I wish you the best of luck, you will need it) would be the growth of a new, mass party to the left of Labour? As UKIP have pushed the Tories to the right, TUSC would push Labour to the left. TUSC is not the finished article, but it is standing around 600 candidates in May - the largest left-wing challenge to Labour since 1945.

Phil said...

Come now Andrew. There is a difference between 'TUSC is standing around 600 candidates' and 'TUSC aspires to stand 600 candidates'.

My problem with TUSC is quite simple. First, it is contributing to the political fragmentation of the labour movement which, in my opinion, is something that should be resisted. It is why I also opposed Left Unity, though I recognise that comrades like yourself obviously disagree.

But secondly, in its own terms, TUSC is a road to nowhere. It's an on-off electoral front that doesn't even allow for individual membership. It is and will forever be subordinate to the party-building project of the SP. Its potential is stymied. And that is why, in my opinion and despite its obvious problems, if you're an independent socialist who absolutely refuses to join Labour and wants to do more than bury themselves in trade union or community work, LU is the better bet.