Monday 31 December 2007

Left in Pieces: 2007

By all accounts 2006 was a bad year for the left. Organisations outside of the Labour party were moving forward at a snail's pace, if moving at all. The SWP, SP, and ultra left more or less stood still, and Respect was going nowhere fast. The Tommy Sheridan libel trial saw the Scottish Socialist Party split into two mutually antagonistic and warring camps. The bulk of trade unions were still wedded to New Labour and were prepared to sacrifice their members interests on the altar of Gordon Brown's impending coronation, and all this was overshadowed by the growing influence and support of the BNP. The only things worth being cheerful about was the advance of the organised left in the Greens, and the coalescing of the Labour left around the John McDonnell leadership campaign

It would be difficult to pull off a worse 12 months, but when it comes to gloomy forecasts the British left are past masters in exceeding expectations. The main left story is the split between the SWP and practically everyone else in Respect. I don't see any reason to rehearse the whole sorry episode when I've already commented on it here and here, and so has pretty much everyone on the left. What is depressing is the split is far from played out. Maximum left unity is always desirable in my opinion, but you have to recognise it's an empty abstraction if comrades of the same organisation cannot unite around common political objectives. And so it is with Respect. Leaving aside the issue of who orchestrated what, both components need to sit down to negotiate the practicalities of the split so they can move forward. From what I can tell, the Renewal faction around Galloway want to do this, but the SWP leadership does not. This may appear as childishness of the pettiest kind, but I suspect the central committee will not make a decision until the SWP has held its annual conference early in the new year. As the leaked conference bulletins show, the stereotype of SWP members as unthinking trotbots is an unfair generalisation, but whether the CC will be held to account for their behaviour remains to be seen. Until this situation is resolved, I cannot see either faction going anywhere fast.  

On the subject of splits, if anything 2007 was a worse year for the left in Scotland than 2006, and that's saying something! It wasn't enough for the SSP and Solidarity representation at Holyrood to be wiped out, oh no, the whole Sheridan business has to be gone through again now he has been charged with perjury. A lot of the damage may have already been done, but this next round of recriminations will discredit the Scottish left even further. And if that wasn't enough, internal documents show the SWP aren't happy in their home in Solidarity and will probably wind down their commitment to it over the course of 2008. One cannot forget the defection of Solidarity's sole councillor, Ruth Black, to the Labour party, either. It's been disappointing to see comrades shouting 'traitor!' True, she may have been opportunistically inclined, but comrades need to ask themselves if there was anything about the organisation that drove her away. We in Stoke SP did the same after our former Labour councillors had a brief stay in our branch. So, things aren't looking to healthy in Solidarity at the moment but I predict it will still be around this time next year, regardless of what happens to Sheridan.

For the SP, I suppose you can say it had a 'business as usual' year. We lost one councillor in Coventry, but aside from that we carried on as normal, there were no spectacular gains or serious reverses, and there's no indication the SP will be affected by the splits in the left elsewhere in 2008. One possible bone of contention will be the CNWP. After the last conference there have been a number of public meetings called in its name up and down the country, but as far as I know local CNWP groups are a bit thin on the ground. In our own experience we did try and run with it, but the time demanded by the simmering local and then national postal strikes has made it very difficult to combine the two, especially when all that exists of the CNWP is a declaration, a website, and a steering committee. If the CNWP is used as a vehicle to participate in the various elections then it may develop real legs. If not its development will remain stunted. 

One of the few reasons to remain cheerful resides in the Labour party(!) The John4Leader campaign was never going to be successful because of the grip the neoliberal right have on the party apparatus, but what it did do was shake the left out of its torpor and give it a degree of political coordination it was lacking. Now you tend to see many of the same faces active in the Labour Representation Committee, which, at its recent conference, committed it to public campaigning in its own name. The LRC now has a bit of momentum behind it, and could possibly attract many people who've dropped out of activity back into labour movement politics, provided of course it makes good its commitment.

2007 wasn't a bad year for the ultra left either. The launching of HOPOI indicates to me that at least some comrades are groping toward a politics that engages with the consciousness of the working class as it stands now, rather than where they would like it to be. What effect this will have on comrades such as the cpgb, who are used to engaging with other lefts rather than the class, will be interesting. 

This year also saw more stirrings of our class, though unsurprisingly the action it has taken has been defensive in character. As we move into the new year we have disputes sparking up in Virgin and BAA, and also the surreal prospect of the police marching against a pay cap. It would be a joke of history if they act as a catalyst for other workers' struggles, especially as Brown has pledged 2008 will be the year he "sorts out" (i.e. runs down/privatises) public services. The government can also expect a nasty headache from the economy, if the credit crunch begins to bite. There will also be pressure to act on the environment, and the SNP-run administration in Scotland is a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. Given the state of our movement though, I can't say with confidence we'll benefit from any of these.

The one bit of unqualified good news is the split in the BNP. If you thought the left had the final word on splitting, the fascists have shown us how to do it in style: threats to pregnant women, breaking and entering, stealing, tapping phone conversations. It shows us we still have a lot to learn! While we should take heart from their difficulties, one should not be complacent. The passive support the BNP has been feeding off is still out there and most of that base will be happy to turn out for them in May. The split has given the left a breathing space to offer a positive socialist alternative to their hate-filled authoritarianism: it hasn't let us off the hook.

Finally, if 2007 was anything it was the year political blogging came into its own across the spectrum. The "independent" Tory blogger, Guido Fawkes, has stirred up enough crap swilling around Westminster to get on Newsnight, and the other darling of Tory blogging, Iain Dale, has managed to secure odd commentary spots here and there on TV. The split in the BNP has been partly driven by a network of dissident blogs, and the Renewal/SWP schism is probably the first split in British left history to have played itself out on the blogs. There was plenty of internet fallout from the SSP split in 2006, but that primarily reflected interchanges and manoeuvres in real life. In 2007, it was information broken by Socialist Unity, Liam MacUaid, and Respect Supporters that found their echo outside of cyberspace. Unfortunately, where the left is concerned, though the power of the blogs has grown and we now have a relatively dynamic and diverse range of sites, leftyblogland has proven to be as susceptible to schisms and fallings out, as the so-called War of Kylie's Arse testifies. In 2008 it is virtually certain new blogs will crop up and new people will be reading what we have to say, so its important we don't get bogged down in inter-blog disputes among ourselves. Our blogs act as a window on the left. It would be foolish to openly display our movement at its most ugly.

2007 was bad, but because of SWP/Respect and SSP/Solidarity, chances are things will get worse before they get better. But the LRC, the stability of the SP, the move by some ultra lefts away from posture politics, and the movement of our class could mean by this time next year I'll have many more positive things to say.


Louisefeminista said...

To sum up in three 'ickle words: we are screwed.

Phil said...

Don't you think that's an overly optimistic forecast? ;)

I don't think things are as bad as all that. It's very easy to despair at the state of the left, but with a bit of ambition, a serious attitude to its work, and a concern for the people we claim to represent we could go places.

Yours, full of new year's optimism ...

Dave Riley said...

2004 -2005 was a bummer period here in Australia. The worst I reckon. Now chesting and.breasting into 2008 it looks very nice indeed.

I'm very optimistic as I suggest.

The trick is to take in the really big picture and look for nuance and dynamic that matters.

The major ask is this, I think: can the broad party tactic gain enough traction to prove in practice that it is the way forward? I think "narrow partying" has reached its use by date -- but the other option is still crawling and hesitant. Look at Scotland...and here in Australia. I am convinced we can prove that the pudding is worth the eating.

As this relates to the SP -- CWI --I am wondering whether it can rise to the challenge in the way the SWP can not.

If it can't -=- embrace that openess and broad orientation -- then it will be a pity.

It may be kosher to call for broad and new labour parties -- but it takes true grit to actually get out there and try and do it.

So I'm on the side of Respect Renewal -- dogs breakfast though it may be.

Phil said...

I think the SP can, but it won't be easy. As with any organisation you'll have comrades supportive of working in a broader formation, and those who are a lot more sceptical. Locally in sunny old Stoke, there isn't much of a left outside of Labour (nor is there inside Labour come to think of it) apart from the SP, so round these parts if a broad formation comes into being, it will be our existing apparatus that would form its backbone. That's not boasting, it's a simple statement of fact. Other areas will be different: some branches regularly work with other lefts while others do their own thing (campaigning priorities for the most part are decided at the local level). We'll have to wait and see.

Re: Renewal, I think they are most likely to do well, not least if it plays a role in cohering a broad left challenge. But the divorce needs to happen ASAP.

Louisefeminista said...

Phil: When I said we are screwed it wasn't the left I was refering to but the whole global economy.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

On the cnwp - i think there's lots of support for the idea, it's more that a lot of people don't want to do the doing of it by themselves. We won the support of local postal workers to the programme in the declaration, but there's little action on top of that as we seem to be the most active group around here (and we haven't been active here all that long either). Apart from us there is a peace group, anti-nuclear group (see interview on blog) and welsh language activists, but they tend to focus on specific things.

When I left Huddersfield things were much more promising there, and still appear to be so, although we do constitute the backbone of even that grouping. The London mayoral elections could be key, but the one thing i don't want to happen is for people to be pretenious about how big an organisation the cnwp has become etc and force too much rigidity onto it without the involvement of a mass of people in the process. It has to be in the spirit of engaging other groupings and most importantly the class at large, or at least the active layers.

Anonymous said...

Phil writes: Locally in sunny old Stoke, there isn't much of a left outside of Labour (nor is there inside Labour come to think of it) apart from the SP, so round these parts if a broad formation comes into being, it will be our existing apparatus that would form its backbone.

And I can see nothing wrong with that. Thats' been the experience here in Australia. These things don't proceed willing nilly without 'backbone'.

Theres' this false attitude that to warrant the expense of cadre and such the 'broad party' projects have to be massive surges of aggregation and regroupment. Instead they are a dynamic extension of what the far left has done before but with greater consideration as to access and ownership by 'others' not in our 'culture'. It's a learning curve.

This is why the Alliance here has prospered so well in regional centres -- theres' not the dead hand of sectarianism and competing groupuscules to obscure the good oil on tap.

If you wait for that special moment when the planets are just so BEFORE you move into broad party mode then I'm sure you would have already missed the height of any surge. This was the misnomer with the Scottish Militant experience as the Poll Tax and Sheridan aspects obscured the underlying process.

If there is a political niche then there is a niche and waiting for it to enliven itself somehow is only self fulfilling.

Granted you don't do this 'alone' -- a kickstart is warranted -- broader than yourselves. You need a regroupment initiator. But at some stage you have to take on the guts to proceed and risk the consequences.

IF over the next few years we here or Respect Renewal there or the New Zealanders or the SSPers can prove in practice that this is a viable political tactic then you are behind in the polls.

Personally I fear for the future of the "Old Left" (the 'narrow party' left )because it is so constrained by its shibboleths and schemas. I also think it is too reliant on propaganda and not enough on the doing.

The SP here polemicises against the SA but its all pretty much talk-- especially coming from an outfit so small relative to the SA's spread and membership depth and influence. They're trying to do a Dublin -- but to be frank I see some limitations in that scenario esp because it's an exercise in localism.

But once there's a kickstart its' no good pretending that that has not happened. Later there will be many forms and stages -- but like Marx's old mole, once the process enters the mass it because something of a material force regardless of its ups and downs.

To not see that is a recipe for entering the historical dustbin.

Anonymous said...

I actually support a new worker's party but it would have to be that - however the sad truth is I would never join anything (for a very long time) that the CWI or SWP were part of as they cannot be trusted and are controlling egotists. I used to think individuals were alright even friends badly sadly experience has proven me wrong on that one.

I don't know what the future of the left looks like but the economy and the planet's future looks fecked so we really need to get are thhinking hats on - though some people will have to take their tin foil hats off first.

I suppose we just need to plod on until a "big idea" comes along and brings the left, activists and workers with new conscience together - but can't think what it'll look like. Anyway all the best for the 2008 - I think it will be another bumpy ride but my thing is defeating Moutngrange in Edinburgh - check out