Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sectarianism on the March

Every so often the state of the far left makes you wonder why you bother.

First we have the Glasgow North East by-election. I think everyone's seen the breakdown of the results by now. If not, there's
plenty of comment at Socialist Unity. Needless to say, a contest where you have three socialist candidates scrapping for micro percentages doesn't suggest socialist politics is a serious business. It makes us look like morons intent on a farcical repeat of a Monty Python sketch. But when the supposedly best-known politician in Scotland manages less than a thousand votes and is beaten by the Tories AND the BNP in a solidly working class constituency, there's nothing to laugh about.

It is very easy to condemn Solidarity, the SSP and SLP for criminal stupidity. But exasperation and criticism is not going to make them change their ways. Leaving aside the SLP, whose sole
raison d'etre is to stand spoiler candidates (and therefore deserved their miserable 47 votes), Scottish socialist politics remain poisoned by the Sheridan case, and are likely to remain so whether he goes down for perjury or not. Still, it says everything about the maturity of our movement when the actions of one of its "names" can piss years of hard work up the wall.

But whoever you agree with in this bitter dispute, at least there are real, substantive reasons why the Scottish far left cannot unite. The same cannot be said for
Respect, whose conference took place yesterday. According to this report from Derek Wall, apparently "... George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, Ger Francis and a number of other members made a very big deal of supporting the Green Party in various different ways ...". So Respect are all sweetness and light when it comes to the Greens. But what about the rest of the far left, and in particular the (painfully) slow development of the so-called son of No2EU? The report continues
What i found really interesting was an emergency motion put forward by various members (in particular a former member of the SWP who shall remain nameless) to support the son of No2EU. Galloway absolutely hammered No2EU and in particular for standing against Peter Cranie in the North West (indeed he even began shaking with anger) and refused to entertain any talk of coalition with the son of No2EU. The emergency motion was defeated by 79-34 votes to be discussed at conference, however a very similar motion was debated. Ger Francis was very scathing of those who supported No2EU and there were a fair few cat calls between the two sides of the debate. [My emphasis]
And the reasoning? Well, there isn't any. Kremlinologists can speculate - perhaps they still blame No2EU for letting the BNP in (which is obviously untrue). Maybe Galloway and co are labouring under the delusion they have name recognition outside of parts of London and Birmingham? Perhaps the Gorgeous One is quite accustomed to being a big fish in a very small pond and doesn't want to share it with other names. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it looks like Respect is heading down a narrow sectarian path. An inspiring example for us all.

Last but not least the SWP expelled one of its longstanding activists on Tyneside yesterday. Alex Snowden was expelled for "factionalising" against the retreat into "party building". Alex was a supporter of John Rees who, for all his faults, favoured turning the SWP outwards. Coincidentally he was suspended just as Rees's 'Left Platform' was launched (the only time the SWP permits factions is in a three month period prior to conference). You can read Alex's critique of his treatment and the course the leadership has embarked upon
here. Considering how wrenching the experience must be he is remarkably free of rancour.

What does this say about the SWP? Well, not much. With its reputation already in tatters thanks to the shenanigans of the last two years, Alex's expulsion and its suspension of other dissenters will only act as a massive 'keep away' sign. Another stupid own goal.

With the retrenchment of sectarianism, it seems the majority of the far left are content with trudging along the road to irrelevance. What a shambles.


Derek Wall said...

I have been working hard to encourage more cooperation between Respect and Greens. This is bearing some fruit in some places.

I am also encouraging people to go and support Dave Nellist at the General Election, send me details of how people can do practical election work and I will post them.

Chris said...

While ever there is more than one party on the left, the whole political movement is a waste of space.

Until we have one party that sees beyond the current system and towards a collective cooperative system the political movement is doomed.

Until that point I would advise people to vote Labour.

TGR Worzel said...

Loved this post Phil. I'll have you all voting Looney before long, it seems to be rubbing off...!

Seriously though, you do have a point.

As did Monty Python with their parodies...

Anonymous said...

I'd agree with your comments about the ludicrous situation of standing 3 Socialist Candidates.
But I think you studiously avoided the issue of Labour winning the seat quite easily.


Dave Riley said...

The irony of the British far left is that despite its great traditions, its rich socialist culture and the depth of its committed activist layer it can drag itself into a political cul de sac. But before you start handing out the razor blades I doubt that things are especially better off shore in regard to shambolic sectarianism.

While I have my hesitancies about Respect as a political package -- with star domination and a loose electoralism -- I think turning away from the tribes of the far left has its own logic.

Unfortunately what can drive it is a contemporary anti party -- and even anti communist -- sentiment that, unfortunately, the main parties of the left seem to have encouraged by their actions over the past few years.

If anything the divisions are consolidating rather than dissolving. (Esp when you consider that the last time the SP and SWP united to work together was splitting the SSP).Within this mess no one seems to be talking directly about what can and cannot be achieved at the present time .

I don't agree necessarily with all it has to say but the position advanced by the Irish Socialist Party -- Left co-operation the building of a new mass party of the working class -- is the clearest statement of POV that I've seen.Across the Irish Sea, the English left orgs seem on the whole dedicated to obscurantism on the issue.

There is if anything a sham debate manufactured for the consumption of the troops with no real unity commitment being advanced .

In political terms the Irish SP gets down to tin tacks of what seems to be at stake.I may not agree with all their formulations but respect their frankness.The complication being that in England, the SP seems to have its own patented unity manoevre whose politics runs contrary to the imperatives its Irish sister org lays down.

Or am I wrong?

Phil said...

Without first hand knowledge of the constituency, it's difficult to call the character of the Labour vote. Of the small turnout, who voted? Was it habitual Labour voters? Folk who see nothing better? People who wanted to make their opposition to the Tories known? It's probably all of these. And I doubt the (allegedly) 500 strong canvassing team Labour drafted in on polling day would have done them much harm.

The far left need to recognise that working class folk who still turn out to vote are more likely to vote Labour, regardless of how shitty the government is. From this two possibilities flow.

1) Return to the Labour party.

2) Stop pissing around and get serious about presenting a united left in elections so Labour faces a decent and credible challenge.

As agonisingly slow it is, the son-of-no2eu process is the only game in town for the latter at present.

Jim Jepps said...

For the record, as a Green Party member who's done a fair amount of statistical analysis on the Euro elections, I'm absolutely convinced that No2EU did not let Griffin in by depriving Peter Cranie of the seat.

Much as I would like to scapegoat someone for such a distressing result there is no evidence to say that No2EU attracted a significant number of 'Green votes'. Not even the 0.3% extra votes we needed.

The accusations are understandable, but don't have any basis in the evidence.

skidmarx said...

Thank God the Socialist Party are entirely free of the curse of sectarianism.

Anonymous said...

This sort of stuff is really depressing.

If this is the trajectory the leadership of Respect are determined on following I can't see Respect existing as an independent political organisation in a year's time.

If it fails to retain parliamentary representation it will collapse with various fragments going different directions politically and if it wins seats it sounds like it will aim to dissolve itself into a wider 'progressive' alliance or even collapse back into the Labour Party (something I don’t think Galloway would be particularly opposed to).


I think it may have something to do with Glasgow North East being one of the strongest Labour areas in the country and a seat they've held for 74 years.

It should also be pointed out that the total number of Labour votes in the recent by-election is the lowest Labour vote recorded in this constituency (roughly speaking since this is it largely covers the same boundaries as the old Glasgow Springburn seat) since 1918 and around 10,000 votes less than the average Labour vote in this seat in the 80's and 90's.

Anonymous said...

JimJay, the point is that No2EU not standing would have altered the political dynamic in the NW election. For example, if Bob Crow had travelled up, done a photo op with Peter Cranie and called on trade unionists to vote for a pro-working class, anti-war, anti-racist Green such as Cranie Nick Griffin would not have been elected. Instead everyone who doesn't espouse narrow far-left politics with precious little mass base was seen as an enemy of socialism and opposed. This had tragic consequences in the North West, worse because it could have been averted had No2EU been responsible about the need to defeat the BNP.

Jim Jepps said...

Without in anyway wanting to be rude to comrade Crow - in the big scheme of things who is he?

Endorsements from various figures were very welcome and Crow's would had been a splendid addition but I simply don't see the evidence to say that when Crow speaks 'dynamics' change.

To clarify - if No2EU had backed the Greens in the NW it would have been a jolly nice thing. But it's a leap to think that this would have made the difference we needed to keep Griffin out.

I really don't find it helpful to single out leftwing anti-fascists for letting the BNP in when there is a wider collective responsibilty.

Moving forwards we'll all need to work together where we can and stay friendly and mature about it when we can't.

Anonymous said...

'With the retrenchment of sectarianism, it seems the majority of the far left are content with trudging along the road to irrelevance. What a shambles.'

I couldn't put it better myself.

Anonymous said...

nationofduncan, if you'd have heard the vitriol that Galloway reserved yesterday - or indeed any occasion he opens his mouth - towards Labour I doubt you'd believe he'd want Respect to 'dissolve into Labour', even if fuch a thing was politically possible, which it isn't.

Phil said...

I agree with Jim. In the scheme of things having two trade union general secretaries talking to the far left is a big deal. When the class struggle picks up that will assume more significance. But now, outside of London, how many people know of Bob Crow? I would say many more know the celebrities and political figures who fell over themselves to call an anti-BNP in the European elections, and yet ... we are where we are.

Anonymous said...

Phil, it's unfair for you to highlight the fact that Respect won't go into a coalition with the new party, as evidence of sectarianism.

Look, as much as I support the possibility for getting a new left party together, Respect cannot give up its brand name. It has massive resonance among communities ignored by the left and attacked by the state. So while coalitions might be great, the fact is that Respect MUST stand under its own name.

Surely that's just common sense? The Electoral Commission won't allow a part called, say, "Respect - workers coalition" and "RMT - workers coalition". There can be no (new) duplication of party names or slogans. It's just not allowed.

So, there will be lots of local support, but the national organisation has to throw everything into getting its own candidates elected.

It's not sectarian - indeed, everyone in Respect has been at pains to say they wish the new venture well.

ModernityBlog said...


Top notch analysis on Scotland, but surely that's the way it was (almost) predicted to go?

Politics encourage a degree of egomania and cultism, which is reflected in Tommy's silly actions and those that follow him.

Sometimes (and I am sure that I'll live to regret this statement) I think the British Left would be better in taking a tip or 2 from the Greens on organisational attitudes, working together and method, but sadly inveterate Leninism makes a lot on the Left look down on the Greens.

That is despite the fact that the Greens have been politically successful, in numerous ways, and the British Left are still languishing on the fringes.

Again, if there were less egos and a bit more common purpose then I'm sure the British left could do so much better, well when you think about it, it couldn't be much worse could it?

PS: What about planning for the General Election ? After all we all know it's coming ?

HarpyMarx said...

Interesting analysis Phil, but what of the Labour Left, it is left out of the equation?

And I trust that groups outside the LP won't be standing against leftie anti-war Labour MPs like John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Katy Clark.... and so on? As the Socialist Party stood against John and also Neil Gerrard in Walthamstow, at the 2001 general election.

Now that was ultra-left, sectarian and a huge mistake. I never understood why that happened.
Sorry if I sound grouchy (a close relative to harpy) but I found it unbelievable at the time even as a Socialist Alliance member.

Phil said...

The difference is Skidders is the SP has not expelled anyone for yonks, and when it last happened they had every chance to circulate their views, explain themselves etc. It seems suspension and expulsion is the first weapon the SWP reaches for when someone "violates" party discipline.

As for sectarianism, of course there are sectarians in the party as there are in any left group. But the key difference is if it does manifest it's pretty low-level stuff - the SP isn't in the habit of wrecking organisations and campaigns for sectarian advantage.

Phil said...

Anonymous, I have no problems with Respect standing under its own name - I didn't even realise that was under dispute. What I do have an issue with is a) Galloway's ill-informed condemnation of No2EU - clearly he hasn't a clue what he's going on about and b) his outright refusal to even countenance talks.

Re: the Labour left, Louise, I didn't include them in the above post because the LRC and Compass aren't displaying the stupidities I criticise. And yes, I agree with you on Gerard and McDonnell especially - one of the daftest decisions a SP branch has ever made IMHO.

luna17 said...

Broadly speaking, I think you're right to place my own expulsion from the SWP in this context. There is currently a retreat from what we refer to as united front work in the SWP, with a far sharper focus on old-fashioned 'party building'. One of the problems is that building the party is meaningless if it has less influence in the wider world. Some humility is needed: an organisation of several thousand (maybe a thousand or so of whom are active politically) is small. It can only make an impact through uniting with others in broader formations.

There is currently pessimism in the ranks about the party's capacity to do this, in particular over the recession. There's also paranoia about involvement in wider campaigns acting as a 'pull to the right', so much better to buckle down and just sell our papers.

A local SWP member has posted a comment on my blog, claiming the district has 'trebled' in size, branch meetings now have more than 20 people attending (far higher than before), and there are bigger paper sales. This is fantasy politics - the party is in fact stagnating at best - but even if it was true, so what? Are any new people involved in anything other than turning up to SWP meetings and selling Socialist Worker? Of course not.

ModernityBlog said...


A few thousands? Even with those 100,000s at anti-war demo exposed to the SWP?

It seems rather low, when you think about it.

I'll bet that the SWP were a few 1000s in 1992 and overall haven't much advanced their membership total in 20 years, 3-5 K max.

If you keep doing something for 20 years and don't get much result then there are some serious questions that need asking.

skidmarx said...

Phil BC - not knowing the details of Lunagate I don't know whether it is an example of sectarianism. Comrades expelled can appeal to conference,and if they've done enough to warrant expulsion, I don't see that saying "we do things a bit differently in the SP, so they must be wrong" is an unsectarian approach, but we all seem to have our own dictionary.
I'm not impressed by the comment above saying A local SWP member has posted a comment on my blog, claiming the district has 'trebled' in size, branch meetings now have more than 20 people attending (far higher than before), and there are bigger paper sales. This is fantasy politics - the party is in fact stagnating at best - but even if it was true, so what?
denying the truth of the comment but with a fallback position in case it's correct. I'm not surprised his ex-comrades find him disingenuous.

As to Respect, I told you them Klingons were nogoodniks.

luna17 said...

The claim about party growth by a local member is unequivocally nonsense. That is beyond doubt. I was really making 2 distinct points. Firstly, routine inflating of figures is part of the wider crisis in the party's internal culture. It is vital we tell the truth to ourselves in order to have an accurate assessment of any situation. Nobody should distort reality in order to score points.

Secondly, I'm suggesting that growth in branch meeting attendances counts for little in itself. It is essential that members are directed into doing something useful. The most cautious and conservative tend to be those who stick to their party routine - meetings and sales - without being involved in anything else, lacking much of a connection with others.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but the idea that SWP members are currently 'in retreat from what we refer to as united front work' is utter bollocks, as is the idea that there is 'pessimism in the ranks'. SWP members where I live had spent a lot of time on UAF, are maintaining their activity in STW and are very upbeat about what we've achieved around the postal workers. We've also had the biggest, and youngest, rally for about 4 or 5 years (I'm not sure how many tbh). Fact is Alex, the more I read your comments the more I think good riddance. Nowt personal but that's the way it is.
Also, the idea that Alex's expulsion is part of a general crack-down on dissidents in the SWP is nonsense. the left faction has got 60 signed up supporters, its meetings are advertised in party notes, its literature in the internal bulletins. I don't know the details of Alex's expulsion but it's not about some imaginary crack-down.

swp member

ModernityBlog said...

"is part of a general crack-down on dissidents in the SWP is nonsense."

If that is the case, then why was closed down?

It was probably *the* best SWP web site.

Phil said...

Counterfire remains a total mystery to me. It was completely innocuous. Was it because the comrades involved were engaging in activity independent of the CC? I guess we'll never know the real answer.

skidmarx said...

I'd agree that the routine inflation of figures is a bad thing,whether it's happening in this case I don't know. As to Phil BC's point about Counterfire, maybe if you keep asking we'll find out eventually.

Anonymous said...

and over on irish indymedia it appears the swp leadership in dublin has expelled virtually everyone in belfast

TT said...

I know it's usual to bash the Scottish left but in the recent by-election we did try at left unity. Solidarity held back from announcing their candidate because it was hoped that a compromise left candidate could be agreed based on the local trade unions. SLP said no (no surprise there) and SSP also said no as it looked too "No2EU"-ish for their liking (bigger surprise and a disapointment despite them also refusing to be involved in No2EU).

What else should we have done? Said "alright, you don't want to discuss a shared candidate, you don't want to compromise and you don't want to accept anything that isn't just the usual SSP thing... well in that case then of course we wont stand a candidate and will unquestionably add our support to yours!"
I mean, come on!

Jim Jepps said...

TT: which course do you think advances the cause of left unity further?

After this election do you think Solidarity standing has enhanced it's reputation and made future cooperation with it more likely - or, if you had unilaterally not stood and supported one of the other candidates, would that have given you better bargaining power when it comes to the General Election next year because you'd demonstrated a willingness to stand aside here?

I'm not singling you out for criticism here there is, of course, a collective responsibility, but you asked the question and I think it's one that's worth answering.

Do you really think there would have been no value in not standing this time. I'd have thought Sheridan actively campaigning on the doorstep for one of the other candidates would have been a very powerful trump card, far more powerful than another lost deposit...

Phil said...

Everyone knows how poisonous things are on the Scottish left, so how do we overcome this state of play?

I like Jim's idea but I think it would have been extremely unlikely in present circumstances. Perhaps the best way to avoid clashes like this in future is to get representative from each side in a room (preferably reps who were not at the forefront of the split) and divvy up constituencies in the next election. Surely that's not beyond the ken of Scottish comrades?

Jim Jepps said...

Oh I agree! It's more than unlikely, but it's worth pointing out that the fact someone didn't cooperate with you is not actually a good reason to stand against them (even if you'd get a higher vote!).

As I say though it shouldn't all be laid at the door of Solidarity.

It does seem a given to me that the SSP and Solidarity at least should let each other know where there top targets are and avoid spoiling operations... we'll see though.

TT said...

Jim Jay said...
"Do you really think there would have been no value in not standing this time. I'd have thought Sheridan actively campaigning on the doorstep for one of the other candidates would have been a very powerful trump card, far more powerful than another lost deposit..."

That depends on the area. In some areas of Scotland SSP and Solidarity have informaly agreed local alliances not to stand against each other.

The problem is that in areas like Glasgow and Edinburgh SSP are actively going around saying that Solidarity are finished and that once Sheridan is in jail everything will return to normal and SSP will be the party of choice for everyone on the left in Scotland. (see Colin Fox's comments at RMT crisis of working class representation for a mild version of this). If Solidarity do not stand this is seen as evidence that we're finished and used against us, especially in big profile elections like the recent by-election. So we stand, get the most left votes, and get called secterian.
As I see it we have a Mexican stand-off situation and it wont end unless both sides are prepared to stand down at the same time...

TT said...

Sorry... to answer one point...

"After this election do you think Solidarity standing has enhanced it's reputation and made future cooperation with it more likely"

To be completely honest...

with the SSP our reputation is unchanged and as said in previous post looks unlikely to change in Central Belt.

with the trade unionists who were prepared to support (or in one case, stand as) a compromise candidate our standing has grown considerably and made future cooperation much more likely.

The future of left-wing politics is more than just lashing together the current left groups so I'm happy to see the reputation boost with working class activists. It's also helped by the desirory vote the SSP and SLP got. If they'd refused the compromise idea and got a decent vote people could understand it but to stand and get nothing makes people wonder if they're mad.

Sorry, I know that's not the 'correct' answer but it's the truth.

And whilst I'm dealing with unfashionable truths would a by-election result where a socialist candidate beat the Lib-Dems be seen as negatively if it had occured in England? Or would comrades be happy that they'd beaten a mainstream party?

I know, I know, we should have beat the BNP as well and almost did isn't good enough.

ModernityBlog said...


What I'm going to suggest might seem ludicrous, and probably hasn't been heard in British politics the decades, if ever.

Should there be a situation where potentially three Socialist candidates are standing and unity cannot be agreed, your party should stand aside and state:

"We could have fought this battle/the election but that would have been divisive and petty, so instead were standing aside and suggesting that voters pick the next Socialist candidate...." or something similar

It would be terribly difficult, politically tortuous, but also it would be highly principled.

To pass up an opportunity, for the sake of your principles and the wider issue of Left unity, would have reflected well on your party.

But we both know that will never happen, with the competing egos and petty politics that take precedence.

Just a thought.

skidmarx said...

It's ludicrous, because it imagines that such an action would have had any effect, and TT has already pointed out that Solidarity had already bent over backwards to get the SSP on board, which is still hoping the problem will go away with Sheridan's incarceration.

Jim Jepps said...

TT "Sorry, I know that's not the 'correct' answer but it's the truth."

I've got no dog in this race so the truth is the right answer as far as I'm concerned.

I agree that a credible left is not simply the product of a lash up between left parties but I'd be more cautious about the idea that you've gained credibility with working class activists off the back of one guy saying nice things and a lost deposit.

TT "And whilst I'm dealing with unfashionable truths would a by-election result where a socialist candidate beat the Lib-Dems be seen as negatively if it had occured in England? Or would comrades be happy that they'd beaten a mainstream party?"

The result was a humiliation for the Lib Dems. For them coming sixth was a real blow. I can be happy about that.

You still lost your deposit in a solidly working class constituency with the most well known socialist in Scotland as your candidate - beating a party that clearly does not exist in the constituency isn't going to impress anyone no matter which side of the border they are on.

If it helps I don't think you were humiliated with this result, it just doesn't represent anything politically significant enough to bother the history books with.

Anyway, all power to your elbow and I wish the left in Scotland, in all its various forms, all the best.

Dave Riley said...

I've had a few chats with leading SSP figures and I can see that the Tommy Sheridan issue is such a complication -- it also gets caught up with the role London based parties played in the SSP -- in the split and thereafter.

What concerns me, in terms of any possibility of resolution,aside from a few festering issues, is the partnership between Galloway and Sheridan during this by election campaign. Given what may be occurring within Respect and what has been Galloway's long term hostility to the SSP -- I'm seeing that maybe there is a lot more at stake here than one Big Brother graduate doing another a favour.

For the moment the disputation may indeed be about each party signaling that it is indeed surviving AOK, but until such time as one or the other blinks and vacates the field in deference to the other, not much is going to happen in way of resolution. Jim's absolutely correct. And while in this poll Solidarity may have bested the SSP ( by utilizing the media pull and the name identity of Sheridan and Galloway -- no one has suggested that different politics was at stake nor that one party ran a tardy campaign) I don't see that as a long term formula for success if Solidarity has to always rely on the Sheridan card.

Solidarity knows that it could not have pulled those same results if it stood some other candidate -- and Sheridan had to prove he was still a political player, still the anti poll tax hero, despite his court case challenges; or the fact that he lived the other side of town.

Dave Riley said...

Just on the challenge of transcending sectarianism on the march, here's a fly in the ointment for those who keep their own counsel: Chavez' announces Fifth International plan at international left conference in Caracas' I assume the CWI will pass on the invitation but Alan Woods will embrace the option. The Socialist Alliance also had representatives there.

Mark Victorystooge said...

I think he travels light ideologically. The figure from the past he most reminds me of is Sukarno, who was also anti-imperialist but rather eclectic and hard to pin down.

Respect Conference - A shift to the right. said...