Saturday 29 March 2014

Left Unity and the Labour Movement

Activists gathering in Manchester today for Left Unity's national conference sat down to a welcome lesson in the positive power of celebrity. It took a single tweet from superstar revolutionary Russell Brand for LU to put on 200 new members in the space of 24 hours. Not since Labour's members' page crashed with the signing of the Coalition Agreement has a party been so swamped. It's a nice boost for a project that, to be honest, hasn't done a great deal since November. Yes, there are lots of terribly important documents to endorse and we've just emerged from the winter months, but politics doesn't stand still and electoral contests (63, all told) have been and gone.

Let me get the tedious exclaimer in. The Labour Party is habitually, structurally caught between perceived principle and perceived expediency. It triangulates and capitulates on some issues, and tries to lead public opinion on others. For the amnesiacs out there this didn't begin with Blair. Labour has always done so. Furthermore Labour is less a "(bourgeois) workers' party" of Leninist providence and more a proletarian party, embracing everyone dependent on selling their labour power for a living - be they the salt-of-the-earth or the nice professional with a nice salary. Labour refracts the sectional interests and differential advantages of its base, which explains why Labourism as a set of ideas is notoriously pragmatic, cautious, and compromised. Yet the party has the potential to be more than this precisely because it thrusts these disparate proletarians together. The labour movement has many strands to it, but only by drawing them together in a single party can the potential for general interests and socialist politics come to the fore. For that reason the place for every socialist is in the Labour Party, and that includes pub bore revolutionaries and ultra-left headbangers.

But I'm not naive. There's little chance of anyone coming away from LU's conference with a burning desire to ditch a party that hasn't yet launched from the starting blocks. This isn't just a matter of lefty impatience with the "uselessness" of Labourism, but more a importantly a symptom of disaggregating pressures on the labour movement itself. In the post-war institutional set-up, labour radicalism found a home primarily on Labour's left or in the Communist Party. Ignore the demonology of the CPGB and its small size, it was itself a key pillar in the institutional arrangements mediating employer/employee relations from workplace to trade union leadership level. Trotskyism, if you like, was the "outside" to this institutionalised radicalism - but even then it was firmly oriented to workplaces. It had to engage with and contribute to the compromised unity of the labour movement to propagate their politics.

I'm not going to recapitulate the history of the last 30 years, but needless to say the industrial and political regulation of labour by labour is a thing of the past. Its absence might have something to do with the obsessive and aggressive popular valuation of people in terms of whether they work or not. The labour movement and Labour Party have certainly moved with the neoliberal times, variously accepting, adapting and promoting it. For the radical outside of Trotskyism, the loss of the institutional pond from which it fished threw it into a tailspin. Parties have vanished, split, declined. Most have substituted themselves for the movement, leading to annoying instances of revolutionary identity politics. Whatever their fates, they all reject the accommodation Labour and the labour movement have made with consensus politics. They're not the solution, they're the problem.

Am I indulging a self-important constituency that represents no one but themselves? No. Revolutionary and radical politics are results of real movements in society. Revolutionary socialism never took off in Britain because the workers' movement here was, for the most part, politically integrated early into what you might call capitalist realism. In Europe and further afield in colonial/ex-colonial countries Marxism was officially adopted by countless mass movements. Unsurprisingly, as liberal democracy has spread and labour movements institutionalised (often times by a spell in power by (ex)revolutionaries) so the radical bite has weakened, and the constituency shrunk. But even in Britain, that constituency still exists.

This begs two questions. Election results tend to report back one or two per cent support for left political alternatives to Labour. A small amount to be sure, but can that constituency grow? The second is whether Left Unity can adequately mobilise it.

Predictions in politics are a fraught enterprise. You either don't do it because reality can show you up as wanting, or do it so frequently that eventually you can claim clairvoyant kudos. Osborne was predicting economic growth well before it turned up. Peter Taaffe was forecasting cataclysmic crises of capital every year prior to 2008. I digress. The composition of constituencies are forever changing. They slip, slide, shrink and grow almost as if by themselves. One can imagine that if socialist ideas were better known, if trade unions expanded, if inequality and oligarchy became hotter political issues (which, ironically, is exactly what Ed Miliband is working toward) then the core extra-Labour left constituency might be expected to grow. But this is not going to happen over night, and certainly not while anti-political establishment populism is monopolised by an ex-city pint-drinking demagogue.

However, I've previously observed that voting constituencies are far from unified blocs. And even Namibian termites know that is especially true of populist formations such as UKIP. There is undoubtedly an element, a floating anti-establishment voter if you like, currently plugging UKIP that might find their head turned by a left party peddling left populism. Anecdotally, I found that to be true here in Stoke when I participated in SP election campaigns featuring a BNP opponent.

Can LU be that force? Possibly. It exists for itself and is not beholden to a sect putting its revolutionary treadmill front and centre. But it needs to work out what it's for. Is it merely marking time between now and 2015? Is it prepping Russell Brand for a challenge against Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam? Are local elections and by-elections going to be contested? Or are more Facebook debates, talk of union fractions and occasional CIF articles from dear old Ken the dish of the day?

Then there is the second set of questions. What is LU for? Is it a prelude to a farcical reforging of a revolutionary socialist party out of its times? For the likes of the cpgb, Workers' Power etc., it is. Is LU a pressure group to move politics leftwards, just as UKIP and the BNP are/were successful in pulling discourse to the right? If so, how can it do that when these two parties were beneficiaries of consistent and orchestrated efforts between establishment politicians and media? Is LU a "recomposition" project, drawing together dispersed lefties and new generations of campaigning radicals married to a serious labour movement orientation? And, above all, how will it negotiate its relationship to Labour? Is it indifferent to whether 2015 gives us a Labour or Tory government? Will it be standing in mainly safe Labour seats or upping the ante and contesting marginals? And lastly does LU hope to supplant Labour a la TUSC (good luck with that one), or set on a permanent existence as a leftwing "major" minor party alongside the Greens?

These aren't questions I'm going to reply to. It's not my project. But LU needs to clarify them sooner rather than later, because how it answers them might have repercussions beyond its present small size.

Image credit


Peterson, the man with no name said...

The key difference between right and left in Britain at the moment is that the Left hates the Tories far more viscerally than the Right hates Labour.

There are quite a few people on the Right (including some within the Conservative party) who are prepared to put up with Labour winning the next election if that's the only way to drag the Tories back to what they see as sanity. And you can see their point. On the issues they care most about (Europe, immigration) there is little practical difference between Labour and the Tories - the rhetoric may be different, but this never translates into policy. And, though they feel forced to denounce Ed Miliband as a crypto-Marxist for form's sake, they know that a Labour government isn't going to abolish the monarchy, nationalise iron and steel or reintroduce the 83% tax rate.

The Left has spent the last 30 years fighting mostly defensive battles - a strategy that depends on remaining permanently in power if it is to have even partial success. In contrast, the Right - having controlled the political debate for the last 30 years even though it was out of power for nearly half that time - is able to look beyond the next election. Which is why they keep winning even when they lose.

So there's no chance of Left Unity having any impact in 2015, as the Left will once again be fixated on Getting the Tories Out. It will take another disappointing Labour government to provide a real opening - though even then, one must never underestimate the ability of Labour supporters to delude themselves about how Next Time it will be Different.

As for the comment that "the place for every socialist is in the Labour party", this socialist can only reply that the Labour party doesn't need me (Tony Blair made that very clear). So why should I be so low as to need it?

Simon Reynolds said...

Peterson, the man with no name said...

Good comment to a great post. But...

It's difficult to know what this means:

" must never underestimate the ability of Labour supporters to delude themselves about how Next Time it will be Different."

1) What is *your* estimate of the ability of Labour supporters to delude themselves about how Next Time it will be Different?

2) On what scale are you measuring that ability -- 1 to 10, or low, medium, high, or some other measure. And for what percentage of Labour supporters -- all of them, or somewhere in the range 0% to 100% of the total (where in that range, with error estimates)?

3) How are you measuring the level of delusion? "Next Time" -- say 2015 -- will clearly be "Different" from 1997 in some ways -- no Blair and Brown, for example?

4) Are you sure that *your* estimate of Labour supporters' ability to delude themselves is not an underestimate or an overestimate?

5) Does that statement carry any meaning at all? One must never underestimate the time it takes to boil an egg (or the egg will not be boiled how you would like it) -- so what?

6) It's often (almost always?) not easy to estimate things -- just saying "one must never underestimate" is an order almost impossible to fulfil.