Saturday, 27 June 2020

What is the Point of a New Left Party?

Seeing as Keir Starmer is gearing up for a confrontation with the left following Rebecca Long-Bailey's sacking and despite what's in the best interests of the Labour Party, debate in and outside of the party has started thinking aloud about a new one. This would be a complete waste of time, whether the objective is to replace Labour with a mass socialist party or something modest like a 'left UKIP', an organisation of limited electoral appeal but viable enough to keep Labour from straying too far from left wing policies. As a wise voice points out, "If you spent the TIG years laughing at how they were going to lose their seats because the name recognition lies with Labour and not individual MPs how do you square that with the desire to have left Labour MPs break away now?" Quite. Let's think this through.

Anyone serious about either projects must reckon with history. The old, official Communist Party failed miserably in elections, only getting three MPs elected under its name in its 70-year history and, at most, a couple of hundred councillors. It was able to build significant influence in several trade unions but this withered as trade unionism changed and went into decline. The Independent Labour Party, which disaffiliated from Labour in 1931, had three MPs elected in 1945 and gained another the following year in a by-election, but they were all swept away in 1950. Militant was later to have success in the 1980s with three MPs, but these were only elected because they were Labour candidates. The Scottish Socialist Party had six MSPs elected in 2003 off the back of the anti-war movement, but that was thanks to the list PR system used to elect half of Holyrood's members. In 2007 these gains evaporated. And lastly George Galloway was able to get himself elected in 2005 and in the 2012 Bradford by-election as Respect's sole MP. This is your lot - it's gone from bad to worse since.

A question of the electoral system? Well, yes. But not the whole story. When you look at the left alternatives and formations of the last 25 years, whatever potential they had were hobbled by infighting and sectarianism. The Socialist Labour Party was strangled at birth by Arthur Scargill's failure to, first, reach an accommodation with Militant Labour (as the Socialist Party then called itself) to break the mould of sectarian politics, and then a subsequent witch hunt against anyone not to his liking. The Socialist Alliance was destroyed by the little Lenin syndrome of each of its two main participants, as was the case with Respect and latterly, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. This was forbidden from developing any life of its own by its principal sponsor, the SP. Indeed, the two largest Trotskyist organisations on the British left have undergone profound crises of their own - the SWP has its grotesque culture of leader worship to blame, one which saw it embroiled in covering up rape and sexual assault. And the Socialist Party preferred implosion to an honest accounting of, to everyone else, its obvious fallibility. Left Unity, an attempt to cobble something together in the early years of the decade sans the SP and SWP failed thanks to the double whammy of unseriousness and playground trottery. Last of all, the Scottish Socialist Party ekes out an existence doing nothing in particular - Tommy Sheridan's bitter legacy continues to cast its shadow.

Because these failed doesn't mean new initiatives are predetermined to follow their path, right? The issue all these organisations share was a failure to build a mass base. The CPGB, SSP, and Respect were able to acquire some aspects of one but this did not reproduce itself as a stable constituency, nor were these organisations sufficiently rooted to the point where they could shape their base. Leadership matters, of course, but the propensity for sectarian and unaccountable petty elites to emerge grows the more insulated they are from wider struggles. Take the British far left as a case in point: the bulk of their activism is not around workplace struggles, campaigns or what not, but the reproduction of their organisations themselves through petitions and paper sales - which tends to reinforce their distance from the class they aspire to lead as opposed to merging with it. This makes building a sustainable base difficult because this work is always prioritised. If they want to begin breaking out of this ghetto, a fundamental rethink and reorientation of their politics is required - something the far left as a collective have avoided since the CPGB's foundation.

Then we have competitors. I don't believe Keir Starmer or his people understand the composition of Labour's base, its dynamics and movements, nor its trajectory. The Labour Together report doesn't change that, despite the diplomatic nice words said in its direction by the leader's office. As Keir pivots to the right and the base starts fraying, there's an opportunity to intersect with activists and voters left high and dry. Indeed, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats (if they have any sense) are well-placed to scoop them up. They have activists, a proven (modest) record of electoral success, and are superficially attuned to the concerns of a chunk of Labour's new core vote. The SNP shows what happens when Labour loses sight of where its base is. How can a new left party that doesn't even exist and enjoys zero name recognition offer credible answers and be considered a good punt for the extra-Labour curious? Look at the state of the latest new left party, George Galloway's Workers' Party. Consciously a "patriotic" party that attempts to combine Brexity nationalism with Putin apologetics, and an undisguised (and unironic) admiration for Joe Stalin and all his works, it makes you wonder who it could possibly appeal to - apart from aged tankies nostalgic for the time before. It's embarrassing, frankly.

Let's park these issues to one side and consider the strongest argument from history in favour of a new workers/new left party: first past the post has locked all small parties out of parliamentary representation, but this was the case when Labour was founded. And yet Labour came to replace the Liberals as an electorally viable party of government in spite of the high bar of entry. True, true. But how did this happen? It involved alliances of convenience with the Liberals in certain seats and, oh yes, the small matter of a rising labour movement locked out of mainstream political representation. In the 2020s the situation is completely different. Trade unions aren't barred from political entry - most of them are satisfied (at the moment) with Keir Starmer nor is there much grumbling among the now growing membership about him. And besides, the contemporary work force is highly individuated: true, we have a rising cohort of the new working class, but their institutional expression was found in Corbynism. With its dissolution, its attachment to Labour is much more conditional. Good news for a new party, then? Well, no. Because it is more diffuse and harder to organise, even with the coronavirus crisis set on polarising the UK's political economy further. Its less conscious and confident sections are more likely to lapse into despondency and abstention than get angry and organised. We saw it happen last December, and it can happen again. In short, the conditions for a new party for the replacement of Labour are simply not there.

How about a left UKIP instead, effectively an electoral pressure group for socialism? Assuming it manages to avoid all the pitfalls outlined above, how does it move from a standing start to something that makes for sweaty palms in the leader's office? It's difficult to see how. UKIP's success tapped into a consolidating (but declining cohort) of voters largely organised by the hard right press, and tapped into widespread cultural currents of racism, Empire nostalgia, and British exceptionalism. Every five years it also had a set of elections it could easily dominate as a repository of protest voting. Its threat pushed Dave and the Tories to promise the referendum and, well, here we are. What opportunities are available for a left alternative to make a nuisance of itself? Local council by-elections? Elections for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London? Favourable press coverage? Considering the extra-Labour left's record of strategic ineptitude when it's not busy fighting among itself, the chances of navigating choppier political waters and reaching the golden isle range from nil to Davey Jones's locker.

Last of all, what is a new party for? You can look at the existing Labour left and answer this question easily: pushing socialist policies, building an infrastructure for political education and empowerment, drawing more people into politics, holding Labour's leadership to account. Success isn't guaranteed and it's never a bed of roses, but it exists, has a mass influence, and tens of thousands of activists. It's a serious endeavour and one that could retake control of Labour's National Executive Committee this summer. Some might think it's a waste of time, the right have won the leadership so why bother, but being part of this movement doesn't preclude doing things outside the party. Nothing is stopping anyone giving up dull party meetings and getting stuck into workplace or community activism, for example, and many thousands are going to do just that. It is not the be-all and end-all. Compared to this, what might a new party have to offer? Judging by snippets of conversation here and the odd polemic there, those arguing for one desire a space of the like-minded where they aren't sabotaged by their own side and feel it would be a better use of their time. That's fair enough, but let's not kid ourselves here. This is a project for building a social club or, at best, a sect no different from everything that has gone before.

If people want to leave Labour, fine. It's up to them. It is nevertheless better if comrades stay, even if, for totally understandable reasons, they choose not to actively participate and concentrate their energies elsewhere. This is simply a basic fact of the political situation we find ourselves in, this is our reality. A new party at best is an irrelevance, and at worst a means for disorganising the left further.

15 comments:

James said...

Correction: there were never the TIG "years" plural. Otherwise, great piece.

Shai Masot said...

Stay in Labour. Vote in internal elections and support socialist candidates. Don't vote Labour or for anyone else in external elections. Don't knock on doors or stuff envelopes. Starmer won't be able to attract enough Gammons through his reflex UKIP-lite dog whistling to make up the numbers he needs for victory.

We nned an organised national vote strike.

Phil said...

Indeed, James. As Cat herself said in response to exactly the same - this is online speak.

Dave K said...

Great article Phil. Some point to Europe and the parties of the European Left - that's what Left Unity wanted to replicate. Left reformist / left populist electoralist parties. Podemos, Die Linke, the red green alliance etc. I suppose the SSP also fitted this mould.
But for all the potential radical programme fundamentally their aim is less radical then Labour. At least Labour left want to win a majority to implement their programme. Their model is the Attlee government..
Parties of the European Left whilst formally to the left model is forming coalitions with greens, liberals and centerists as well as the old social democratic parties to get through some policies. Its the same problem with the green's. On paper they have some policies to the left of Labour on things like trident and democratisation. However these are never going to be their red lines for a coalition agreement.

Matt Wardman said...

Have we been here before?

Jim Denham said...

I am so fed up of whinging Corbynites on social media: its all just performative posturing and petty bourgeois self-indulgence. “Getting close to burning my party card” ... “Labour has lost the working class” ... “We need a proper socialist party with people like Chris Williamson” (aagh!)

Can someone tell these people to get some backbone.
The soft-left in de facto alliance with the right won the leadership election and they are under no pressure to be nice. It’s called class struggle for a reason.

Nell said...

Good arguments, but I'm not inspired to remain in the party. The opposite in fact. I was inspired in 2015. I was inspired by the feeling of belonging to a party with a 21st centry vision that put people before profit and I was glad to get involved. It felt like a political movement that could tackle the looming problems that face us all (climate change, and a failing capitalist system). Now it feels like some limp English lettuce of a party. Been mulling leaving since Starmer was elected and the deed is now done. But I don't see any virtue or moral superiority in staying or going. Those who stay will need to put some energy into figuring out how the party works though, going to CLP meetings, getting on committees etc. I have other political obligations, and if I had stayed, I would simply be a number, to be used to justify actions that I probably wouldn't agree with.

Blissex said...

I like this post, as it is fairly realistic, especially in the idea that a centre-centreleft party without a specific regional base and a social movement patiently sustaining it until breakthrough behind it is not going to make it with FPTP. The original Labour party survived because its support was heavily concentrated in industrial areas, and it was sustained long-term by the trade unions.

But as to this comment:

«Good arguments, but I'm not inspired to remain in the party. [...] I have other political obligations, and if I had stayed, I would simply be a number, to be used to justify actions that I probably wouldn't agree with.»

Well our blogger does not just say "stay in the party", but "stay in the part and fight for the Labour wing of Labour". Being a passive member will indeed give the appearance of greater popularity to liberal/thatcherite policies. But it could still be worthwhile: the subs from passive member make even liberal/thatcherite leaders more independent of their sponsors, and anyhow members do get occasionally to vote for or against liberal/thatcherite candidates and policies.

The end goal of the Mandelson Tendency and their sponsors is "TINA", that is only for liberal/whig and conservative/tory interests to be represented electorally, offering a range of thatcherite programmes, from soft to ultra thatcherism, and in this perspective the only role of non-thatcherite Labour members and voters is to be so afraid of some ultra-thatcherite party winning that they will vote for Labour as the softer-thatcherite lesser evil.

Many non-thatcherites I know argue that since "the context" is extremely hostile to non-thatcherite politics and the leaders who propose them, the only realistic option is to vote for a Labour leader that is a softer form of thatcherite to keep the ultra-thatcherites from doing more damage. I guess the large majority of Labour members who voted for K Starmer had that argument in mind. I guess that D Adams was right when he wrote allegorically in one of his novels:

«"On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
"I did," said Ford. "It is."
"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't people get rid of the lizards?"
"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."
»

Boffy said...

"I was inspired by the feeling of belonging to a party with a 21st centry vision that put people before profit and I was glad to get involved. It felt like a political movement that could tackle the looming problems that face us all (climate change, and a failing capitalist system). Now it feels like some limp English lettuce of a party."

this sums up the mentality of the lazy petty-bourgeois. "Oh look, for 30 years I was happy to let other socialists do the hard work in the LP trying to turn it into something better, whilst I just stood aside and criticised, and moaned, not connecting why it was that if I wanted something better It required me to get off my arse and do something, whilst fantasising about some other better alternative appearing out of the blue that I could hitch my wagon to."

Then when all of that hard work of actual socialists in the LP paid off, and Corbyn got elected, I was happy to leech off their hard work, and join in. Now when things hit a rough patch, sod having to do any work myself to try to improve things, its much easier to bugger off and just complain that there is nothing worth me giving my support to.

Anonymous said...

funny reading all you petit-bourgeois bandying around the term as an insult as if you're just about to storm the Winter Palace. Could there be anything more petit-bourgeois?

Jim Denham said...

"could there be anything more petty-bourgeois?" Yes! Blaeting about how unfair it all is and we're going to stamp our little feet and stomp out of the Labour Party to devote ourselves to allotments and jam-making.

Boffy said...

""could there be anything more petty-bourgeois?" Yes! Blaeting about how unfair it all is and we're going to stamp our little feet and stomp out of the Labour Party to devote ourselves to allotments and jam-making."

Of course, its only a few years ago that the AWL itself did precisely that, declaring that the LP was a stinking corpse, and standing its own candidates in the General Election. Of course, those candidates got fewer votes than the cranks who were openly standing as such, and much fewer than a Labour candidate normally gets in a Town or Parish Council election.

Petty-bourgeois in glass houses have little room to throw stones.

Andre Surkis said...

I absolutely agree that anyone who is serious about both projects should take history into account. In general, I am amazed how Communists find their supporters. What are they hoping for. Of course it is very unfortunate that you write that a new party at best is an irrelevance, and at worst a means for disorganising the left further. I would like the appearance of new parties to give an impetus to positive prospects.

Boffy said...

" I would like the appearance of new parties to give an impetus to positive prospects."

I would like Father Xmas to bring me a Lamborghini for Xmas, but I know it won't happen. Marxists base themselves on a materialist analysis, and the lessons it provides not pious wishes of how the world might be.

Jim said...

Leaving the party achieves nothing beyond satisfying the frustration we all feel at the rightwards movement we are witnessing.
Leaving the party and starting something else happening might achieve something but it's not the 'leaving the party' bit that would achieve anything, it would be the 'something else'.
So why not stay in the party (ie retain your vote for the times when you can use it to get a leftist in whatever role comes up) and do the 'something else' as well?