Saturday 30 November 2013

Whither Left Unity?

Today saw the launch of Britain's newest political party. Left Unity is officially alive. Since Ken Loach called for a left alternative to Labour back in March, there has been a tortuous road to today's official start, as the cpgb's coverage and comment has demonstrated in anything but gripping detail. Yet 10,000 Facebook likes, 1,000 paid up members, and a founding conference later, the new party is with us. The closing speaker remarked Saturday 30th November *could* be a historic day. Is this boosterism for the troops, the usual left hype that attends these sorts of events; or, *gasp*, could Left Unity be a real contender?

Let's be blunt. Unity initiatives on the far left have a chequered history. It got to the point of absurdity when the two main Trotskyist outfits - the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party - had their own unity/recomposition projects. Off the top of my head, since 1996 we've had the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, Forward Wales, Respect, The United Socialist Party, Socialist Green Unity Coalition, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Solidarity, Left List, No2EU, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. This does not count fringe-of-the-fringe projects like Republican Communist Network, Campaign for a Marxist Party, and Anti-Capitalist Initiative. There's probably more I've missed. The point is all at best were still born or worst fractured, ironically leaving the constituent parts at a further remove than was the case at the outset.

If the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, the odds are stacked against Left Unity breaking the sectarian mould. That said, there is something slightly different about LU that gives them an edge over these failing and failed projects.

The cpgb argues that if the revolutionary left practiced democratic centralism Bolshevik-style, i.e. open factions, open platforms, open debate and discussion, but unity in action, then the intractability of far left sectarianism would be resolved. Remember what I said about latter day Leninists unwilling to use Marxism to look at themselves? Sectarianism exists not because everyone bar the cpgb have misread Lenin's writings, but because they negatively express the outlook of the petty apparatuses/bureaucracies each far left organisation possesses, the material imperative to compete against revolutionary Others in a small but crowded marketplace, the strategic orientations to the different milieux they target, and the need to main discrete party identities. Sectarianism is deeply rooted in the far left's conditions of existence, and is reproduced unreflexively in a party's outlook. One can easily pay lip service to overcoming sectarianism, while obliviously reproducing that sectarianism. Hence self-decribed Leninist organisations share slight variations on a 'party-first' theme that structures their activity. This is why "unity" between different parties ostensibly standing for exactly the same thing has always come undone, and is never likely to be superseded.

LU is immediately at an advantage because it avoids this. The SWP aren't interested, not that anyone would have anything to do with this increasingly depraved cult anyway. And the SP think their self-important TUSC front is a significant step toward a mk II Labour Party. If only the misleaders of the working class and Elvis could be shoved aside. LU therefore can't be turned on and off at will by unaccountable cliques of ultra-correct revolutionary leaders. Smaller Trot outfits like Workers Power are in, and will no doubt make a pain of themselves in the LU branches they live in, but they are very much a minority - even in a membership as low as 1,000.

Neither is LU beholden to a Galloway-like figurehead. Ken Loach might make films lefties hold dear, but a man with the populist touch he isn't. And to be fair he has not sought such a position. He has used his platform to cohere a regroupment process that has led to today. He does not claim to be the leader. He has no wish to stamp the new party with the semi-Trot politics he holds. Despite the grumbles of the cpgb and the various tiny platforms recognised prior to conference, LU appears to break fundamentally with two key drivers that have wrecked unity projects of the past.

Well, perhaps not fundamentally. From casually observing LU's comments section on occasion, and seeing who gets named in Weekly Worker reports, there's more than a few folk involved who've been through the sorry experience of unities past. Most are veterans of the left, of activists without an abode to call their own. And had either the SWP or SP been involved, I'd have bet my bottom dollar that many would not have touched LU with someone else's. The second point regarding sectarianism is that LU is now a proper "player". It might have the ambition to reach out to the great mass of working people, but along the way it will have to compete with the Trots who are doing the same. Especially the SP's TUSC, who despite mustering tiny of handfuls of votes think they're The Most Significant Thing Ever because Bob Crow every year convinces RMT conference to endorse them. It will mean clashes in council and parliamentary votes, and perhaps a jostling for position on future demonstrations.

Nevertheless, as tenuous a bureaucratic relationship the SP's TUSC has with the RMT, on paper it does have that labour movement link. What of LU? Among its members are union activists, branch secretaries and so on. Yet, as the SP might argue, they represent no one but themselves. The party is a coming together of atomised lefties and micro-Trots. But then again, unlike TUSC, LU exists for itself. There is a possibility, however remote, that it could become something other than it is. That will never be the case with the SP's electoral vehicle.

Ah, prospects. Ruminating on the prospects of a 'left UKIP' earlier this year, I then argued there is some political space to the left of Labour. It is much tighter than was the case during the Blair/Brown years, but a constituency of pissed off ex-Labour voters and leftish anti-politics types does exist. Typically this manifests itself in the 1-2% you can expect to vote for far left candidates at election time. And as the Greens, BNP, and UKIP have shown, if you can sort out unity among your milieu you can face outward instead of inward. There's a few more percentage points to be grabbed and theoretically LU could build up a presence equal to the Greens.

This is only if it plays its cards right, and at present the new party holds only dud hands. To make its mark it has to exhaustively contest as many elections as it can, but unlike TUSC LU has to work them consistently to build up a base. To build its profile it has to work systematically in the labour movement and the procession of protest movements that come and go. To be fair (again? What's up with me?) there is no suggestion from what I've seen that they anticipate nothing but a slog.

But the single biggest thing, the challenge I think LU will find insurmountable is, as always, Labour. Only the most blinkered pretend the party is fundamentally the same beast as it was in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. It might be more complex than the rigid schemas of the far left allow, but Labour has shifted back to social democratic politics. It has cottoned on that living standards are being hammered and, as a result, the party is the only one addressing those concerns. When the two main parties find themselves on opposite sides on the bedroom tax, NHS privatisation, house building, energy prices, apprenticeships, economic strategy, care for the elderly, breaking up the banks, and workplace rights, it's obvious who should form the next government. And while LU is something looking to become something else, so is Labour. Who, for instance, is going to listen to LU when Labour has a realistic chance of putting its policies into practice? Who will be tempted to support LU when it will be massively squeezed by the next election's high stakes?

Ultimately, while LU has got the potential to be much better than its various Trotty forerunners, as far as its prospects go the most it can ever hope for is minor party status. And I don't think it will ever come close to UKIP levels of support. If so, then what is the point?


Merseymike said...

None. Join Labour.

Anonymous said...

hi, two comments on this. 1, i do think there is a point in minor party status but the only group you mentioned who acheived this was the scottish socialists and they were unable to maintain it, respect acheived a local party status in birmingham and east london only. 2, to be a party you have to represent a layer in society labour represents the unions and the greens the social movements i just not sure what left unity will represent they in reality are going to have to try and appeal to the social movements as the unions are just not up for grabs.

Boffy said...

It reminds me of "Borgen". I've been watching the latest sries, and I was amused by the idea of a Party being created solely on the basis of the egos of a handful of elected politicians, without any agreed political stance or outlook, which then resulted in a load of disenchanted individuals signing up to be members even though they ranged from the Far Right to Far Left, and who, therefore, had to be sloughed off as soon as any minimal attempt to define what the Part stood for began.

No Party can be created like that. Even UKIP has a central core position of opposition to the EU and Immigration etc. The SDP was never really a Party, and havinga chieved the aim of splitting the Labour Vote disappeared up its own backside, literally, into the Liberals.

The Tories arose as the Party of the Landlord Class and the Liberals of the industrial bourgeoisie, and Labour as the Party of the Big industrial bourgeoisie, as the representative of bourgeois social democracy dependent on the votes of workers.

Parties can only act as the organised voice of classes, when those classes have something approaching a coherent world outlook. The arrival at that position is a dialectical process involving the material condition of the workers changing, causing them to develop such ideas, and in turn using those ideas to establish trades unions, co-operatives etc. to change their material condition further.

But, its only when the class itself establishes its own party as part of that process that it has any chance of success. The sects view of Socialism is an elitist one in which Socialism is something that they do to and for the workers, rather than something the workers do for themselves.

Its not surprising the sects think they can simply create a new party by the efforts of a few hundred petit-bourgeois dillettantes on behalf of the workers, but which the vast majority of workers will never know even existed.

Southpawpunch said...

The big difference is that Left Unity (for worse) is it's own creature.

The Socialist Alliance, for example (of which I was a member) was led by the Trot groups and had a an uneasy relationship with the former Left Labour figures it attracted (e.g. Liz Davies, once on the LP's NEC) but it (oddly?) adopted the politics of those in the minority, like Davies - but they fell out and the SWP pulled the plug.

That can't happen now as types like Liz Davies (who chaired the conference yesterday) are running the show - with no Trots with influence who can disrupt the body by walking away (and the lack of Trot control is a bad thing).

I was there yesterday. There was perhaps 500 present (about 40% of the total membership) and there was a pretty comradely atmosphere throughout with none of the bad grace, warfare or walkouts that I might have expected.

The typical person was 50 year ex-Trot man who had moved rightwards since his days in the SWP. There was an overrepresentation of people late 40s and up, but with fair few in their teens and 20s (and not much else), very few black people or disabled people and women being perhaps a third of those present.

There was a welcome number of people who did appear to have not been in any organisation and many who came from a general anti-cuts, 'Save the hospital' type background in provincial England.

Groups-wise there was about 20 from the WW (CPGB) and lesser numbers from Workers Power, AWL and Socialist Resistance with a fair part of the conference in support of the Socialist Platform (which includes Nick Wrack.)

My general view is that the (dull, but necessary) constitutional stuff generally went the right way towards more democracy whereas the politics went the way of those more to the right e.g. the adoption of the Left Party Platform.

I thought Richard Brenner (from Workers Power) was on the ball when he moved rejection of the final construction because it commits Left Unity to a mixed economy (and more).

He was right but the majority was very clearly with the LPP. And as the party was started in this democratic way, despite this politics, I will be sticking with Left Unity and helping to build the party. I urge other socialists to join.

Anonymous said...

Long live the People's Front of Judea!

Best wishes

Chris said...

Joining Labour equates to giving up on transforming society. It directly says we must relinquish control of our lives and let the 'natural' processes lead us.

Left Unity is an example of trying to break the programming of people who act like automons. The reason all these experiments fail is that people are so under the control of system. The only way to bring about transformation is to break with the system. New Labour represent the system, represent the continued control of the system over the people.

Those leftists who join New Labour may comfort themselves with relative electoral success but they delude themselves if they think they are contributing to anything but the continuation of the status quo. Those who belive in the staus quo should rejoice in NEw Labour.

Daily life: Austerity, rising energy prices, lower wages, reduced working rights, explosion of food banks, the erosion of the safety net, all provide a chance to break free from the apron stings. But who will speak for this huge class of people?

Really, in this period not fighting for a leftist party is an historic dereliction of duty.

Alex Dawson said...

A new left party which registered even some limited electoral success (as opposed to laughable failure as currently) would be very good for everyone.

As the experience of DIe Linke in Germany shows, a left pressure on the political discourse as a whole is generally a Good Thing.

If we had a solid left alternative stealing the march on Labour, it would force Labour leftwards to cover its position. It would also provide an alternative to the fake "anti establishment" UKIP vote.

For anyone on the left in the Labour Party or outside, it would be a welcome development.

The trouble is it never, ever happens.

Adam Marks said...

I really wouldn't put too much stall in Labour's renewed social democracy. That said there is not the supposed 'vacuum on the left', at least not as theorised by some for the past, ooh, twenty years. The inauspicious timing of LU's formation is it's biggest weakness. It's biggest advantage is it's not a federal lash up. Like you say it exists for itself.

I fell LU will prosper, if that's the right word, by 1) having realistic stated (and understood aims), no boosterism 2) popularising key labour movement ideas (and the struggles associated with them) that Labour is less likely to promote, providing left-wingers with an accommodating home.

Alex said...

I'm not at all sure the experience in either France or Germany supports the idea.

Die Linke are nice but I can't think of anything they've actually achieved, except for splitting the vote. While they have existed in their current form, the SPD has functioned as probably the political party that's most committed to the current setup of the European Union. Rather than a nice rainbow of lovely, they've got a SPD and a Green party that basically compete to be Merkel's coalition partner, and a Left party that does...something or other. They gave Klaus Wowereit a hand in Berlin but that's very much a local thing.

In France, the FdG again sounds fun, but I'm struggling to see what if anything it's achieving that a gauche plurielle coalition wouldn't do better.

What you seem to get is a rather weaker and more centrist Socialist party, and a Left party that's too small and too weird to achieve anything. The only one of these projects that has really broken through to mass support is SYRIZA, and I think we can put that down to the very specific situation in Greece. Also, it had to eat PASOK to do it.

It may be no coincidence that out of the big five European social democratic parties, the PS/SPD/PSOE/Labour/Italian Democrats, Labour is the only one that doesn't look hopelessly piss weak and the only one that isn't actually committed to further austerity.

I think the idea of having a further-left party to drag Labour leftwards is actually a story about the US, which doesn't actually have a major party of the left, the Democrats not actually being a socialist or social democratic party.

Alex Dawson said...

A new left party might not drag Labour leftwards, but it's about the political discourse and breaking the narrative.

The fact of the matter is, England is in the grip of an extreme far right narrative in the form of: "Immigrants are about to turn up in January and destroy the country because the bastards in Europe are forcing us to have them and they drag down our wages and rise the house prices and theres not enough jobs and houses because the foreigners get them first and take all the jobs etc etc etc...Oh and Labour spent everything on foreigners and thats why we're in debt."

That's what the majority of people in this country believe, and it's reinforced by the entire mainstream political class and the "anti establishment" alternatives in UKIP. The Greens scratch the surface a little in the trendier more socially progressive areas, but it's a small social base. Labour are restricted to debating in a framework cleverly set by the ruling class to ensure the blame is shifted well, well away from the actual cause of economic misery.

A new left force, in some guise, would help break the spell England is under. That's why it needs to be welcomed.