Tuesday 7 January 2020

The Far Left in the 2020s

Taking a break from weightier matters, it's time we turned to one of this blog's more niche interests: how will Britain's band of self-described revolutionaries and assorted extra-Labour left projects fare in the decade ahead? Before we look to the future, it's necessary to reflect on the past. And, well, what can you say. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates what has happened by comparing the spread of the far left's collective general election challenge from 2015 with the meagre numbers mustered in December. Never commanding reasonable votes (with the notable exception of People Before Profit in Belfast), the campaigning collapse has mirrored a political and organisational collapse across the far left. Labour's election of Jeremy Corbyn is some of the story, sure, but is not the last word on what has happened.

Writing at the turn of the last decade, I suggested the far left, and by this meaning principally the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, were well placed to intervene in workplace struggles (particularly the SP, fresh from the role it played in a number of significant disputes back then) and wider campaigns. This was while the space to Labour's left was likely to contract, therefore putting question marks over the viability of electoral vehicles of convenience. However, what could not be foreseen was how the SWP's reputation, already pretty low among anyone who has spent more than five minutes around the labour movement, would be thoroughly trashed. Months into the new decade the SWP turfed out that section of the then leadership who had previously made the running with regards to Respect and Stop the War, who then went on to form Counterfire. Much more seriously, in early 2013 it emerged the SWP had tried dealing with a rape complaint against a central committee member. Surprise, surprise, the case against was heard by a cadre of his mates and long-term comrades and they let him off. If that wasn't bad enough, the crisis was compounded by no small amount of arse covering and, in one particularly despicable case, the harassment of a complainant by SWP members.

They suffered a drip drip of splits as the leadership regrouped around the defence of their handling of the fiasco and, needless to say, the SWP were very badly damaged the point of becoming pariahs. Working under much reduced circumstances, the SWP nevertheless reverted to type and tried to make themselves indispensable as an infrastructure for mobilising street politics. They achieved this best first as a front outfit against UKIP, and latterly as Stand Up to Racism, which still operates as a means of organising conferences and organising demonstrations. And, sadly, one Jeremy Corbyn was never put off.

While the SWP suffered its meltdown, in relative terms the SP flourished. Free from hints of scandal (though the same could not be said for some of its international affiliates), the usual rounds of campaigning, trade union activism, paper selling, and electoral outings via the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition saw it continue its recovery trajectory since the doldrums of the late 90s and early 00s. Nothing it did was overtly spectacular, not being as showy as the SWP. It trudged along the revolutionary treadmill, pausing to wheel out the ridiculous No2EU vehicle for the 2014 EU elections, before hunkering down for more plodding up until and beyond the 2015 general election. That's when things started going wrong.

For the best part of 25 years until that point, the SP's big shtick was that Labour was no longer a workers' party and therefore needed replacing. If you were of a leftish persuasion and all you knew of Labour was Tony Blair, it was a compelling position and seemed ever truer as his years in government wore on. This was the key reason why I joined the SP in 2006, and coming to the conclusion this was utterly wrong was why I left and joined Labour in early 2010. During Ed Miliband's tenure, the SP could just about keep up the pretence it was a straight party of capital thanks to the nonsense triangulation and fidelity to neoliberal nostrums. Then Jeremy Corbyn emerged and drew hundreds of thousands to the party. And what did the SP do? Rather than account for the complete collapse of their central shibboleth, they pretended Corbynism was the confirmation of their perspectives. What it represented was the creation of the new workers' party they had campaigned for all along that just so happened to be, um, coalescing in the Labour Party. This was stretching credulity too far for many loyal activists, and in dribs and drabs they drifted away and ended up in Labour. Meanwhile, the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn ensured the conveyor belt of freshers fairs didn't deliver new recruits in anything like the same number as previously. And as the SP stagnated, the fissures started opening up. The crisis first manifested in the PCS, previously the grandest constellation in the SP firmament, where fallings outs with Mark Serwotka and internal strife led to a split and the utter annihilation of their position in a union they once dominated. And then last year, rather than being held to account for a decade of getting it wrong the leadership basically expelled the entirety of its international organisation, the Committee for a Workers' International, as well as most of the SP's young activist base.

Therefore at the start of 2020, the two standard bearers of Trotskyist politics in Britain are respectively reviled, or in disarray. So bad things are it fell to the weirdest and most appalling micro groups to fly the banner in the election just gone. Things then do not look good for either the SP or SWP, the new outfit formed by ex-SP members, nor the rest. Could the 20s then be the decade that sees the far left go even more subterranean?

There are two ways the far left restore their collective strength to how they were 10 years ago. And they're both dependent on what happens in the Labour Party. Whether Rebecca Long-Bailey or Keir Starmer wins the overlong leadership contest, there is going to be some slippage. The cross over between left wing conspiracy theory and anti-Israel obsessive Twitter will be annoyed their chosen one, Ian Lavery, has wisely decided not to stand, and will now be looking for a home. Obviously if Starmer wins it is hard to believe he won't make moves against the left, try and restore the right's pre-eminence, and work to snuff out the movement to democratise the party. And under those circumstances the trickle of stans and sociopaths would open out into a flood of thousands of activists. And Labour's loss might be the far left's gain.

Except there is a new kid on the block all ready to receive. Noticed only by a few, from the ashes of another humiliating election defeat another organisation was born. Following his drubbing in West Bromwich East, Tom Watson's old seat, George Galloway announced the creation of the Workers Party of Britain. Modelled on the view the British working class is patriotic but economically radical, it is suffused with the strident anti-imperialism and pro-Putin politics of its best known figure. Also intriguingly, the new party is committed to "defend the achievements of the USSR, China, Cuba etc." Which comes as no surprise when you see Joti Brar's name attached to the project, and a proud link to everyone's favourite Stalinist sect, the prolier-than-thou Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Normally, no one would rate the chances of a party whose members carry huge portraits of Stalin on May Day demonstrations unironically, but these are strange times. It could prove to be a pole of attraction for those who find Labour's new leadership too metro, insufficiently critical of Tel Aviv and, of course, too beholden to social liberalism. However, given Galloway's reputation as a saluter of dictators and fondness for Russian foreign policy it's difficult to see how much of the "patriotic working class" this outfit can appeal to in electoral terms. As a pro-Brexit red UKIP by design, headway beyond a gullible few is unlikely.

Nevertheless, there are things we cannot see. Former Labourites looking for a new home is a cert, but the specifics of the struggles and upheavals coming down the road can only be guessed at. Opportunities there will be for the far left to rebuild. And so while there are few reasons for the left in general to be cheery, things are looking up for our revolutionary brethren. After all, they could hardly be worse.


Anonymous said...

Effective politics is partly about timing - and Galloway's new party/fan club is very badly timed.

While many on the Labour left have been demoralised by the election defeat, there are still enough battles to be fought about the legacy and future influence of Corbynism to keep socialists inside Labour and focused on fighting the right. Few will conclude now is the time to leave the Labour Party battlefield in favour of yet another new left party headed by someone with an ego so large it makes Jess Phillips appear modest.


Dipper said...

a niche interest is going to become even more niche. The foundations of left-wing politics are being slowly but surely eroded.

Underneath all the froth about Brexit, the EU etc the world is slowly changing. look at https://ourworldindata.org. The number of people needed to produce the material goods and food essential to what we would call a basic material living is going down, so there are fewer workers doing critical jobs. More people are living in cities, the population is getting older, and before the end of the century will likely start to decrease in total number. More people are living in cities, hence living in shared space using public transport and common facilities.

So lots to consider, but the UK left are just playing a local power game on a pitch that is getting steadily eroded. What does it even mean to be left wing in a world with fewer essential workers?

Phil said...

Not a word about the CPB? For shame! And what about Socialist Appeal, Red Flag*, Revo**, FRFI***, Soc Res, the Rossites, old uncle Matgamna and all? Come to that, what's happened to RS21 and Counterfire and Bambery's thing in Scotland and that splinter that Richard Seymour was in and that other one that consisted mainly of Nick Wrack? OK, never mind the last two.

*appears to be all that's left of Workers' Power these days
**unless this lot are still going, which is uncertain
***amazingly, this lot *are* still going

Anonymous said...


The "left" is not, and never has been, solely defined by old-fashioned manual workers. Indeed you mention cities, now the heartland of left wing support in this country. How many are "critical workers"?

Dipper said...

Clive Lewis. That's the man. Cannot begin to tell you how much me and my fellow tories are rooting for Clive Lewis.

John (is a very common name) said...


Why do you bother? Do you think anyone on the left is going to take your advice, either directly or in the form of reverse psychology?

Dipper Knows Best said...

@ John (is a very common name)

I just thought you might be interested in what your political opponents think. but apparently not so. Navel gazing, listening to your own echo-chamber, and infighting has been hugely successful for you. Feel free to continue.

Anonymous said...

Where is the actual evidence that a Starmer leadership would take the course speculated on in this piece? Not confusing him with Phillips are we?? ;)

Anonymous said...

I do wish you would desist from calling the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) the Socialist Party or SP.