Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Uniting the Left

It has become obvious, in recent weeks, that any progress with electoral left unity will be tentative, uneven, dotted with false starts. A major national project is, as I see it, off the agenda entirely. There are numerous factors behind this, including the history of distrust and political differences between different strands of the radical left. It is also a consequence, though, of the broader political context.

Compare with the founding of Respect in January 2004. The same disillusionment with New Labour, and mainstream politics, is there. The same democratic deficit, the gulf between official politics and the aspirations and ideas of the people, remains. But there's no escaping the important difference, which is the lack of a mass movement on the scale of the anti-war movement from which Respect emerged. Respect was formed out of co-operation and unity in mobilising against the war in Iraq, a movement which tapped into a whole range of other, related, issues.

Whatever partial struggles take place now, there isn't the basis for a national electoral organisation in the same way. This shouldn't, however, be cause for despair - it merely means a re-thinking of expectations, time frame and approach. The simple truth is that it's the local and ad hoc alliances which will matter in the coming months, not grand schemes involving open letters, conferences and the involvement of national union leaders. In the longer term these localised initiatives have potential to become something more.

One hopeful example is the Newcastle meeting above. Around 50 socialists, some belonging to groups like the SWP but a great many of them non-aligned, attended the first meeting on left unity in July. This is a follow-up open organising meeting, designed to see if anything firmer, more practical, can be developed. It isn't solely about elections, but concerned with bringing leftwingers locally into greater co-operation on a number of issues, from Stop the War to Vestas solidarity to campaigning against privatisation of the Metro transport system.

It probably helps that July's launch was initiated by a small number of non-aligned socialists. It isn't driven by any particular organisation - something that, in the current climate of the left, can kill an initiative before it gets going - but is connected to real campaigns in which people already work together.

I'm aware of positive developments in Preston and Wigan too - and I'm sure there are other areas where something similar is happening. The campaign for Tom Woodcock in Cambridge earlier in the year - rooted in local campaigns, mobilising everyone who wanted to help regardless of 'affiliation' - offers a useful model, as do the campaigns in Ireland under the 'People before Profit' banner.

Uniting the Left
Thursday 3 September, 7pm
St John's Church Hall, Newcastle


  1. National Trade Union leaders will, with some honorable exceptions, continue to adopt their slavish adherence to Labour, like dogs that enjoy being kicked.

    This will continue until they come under huge pressure from their members to put together a better political alternative.

    That pressure is building - even the UNISON leadership is complaining loudly about 'feeding the hand that bites them' (heard that somewhere before!) in the latest copy of the members magazine.

    As with any struggle, if we waited for the Trade Union leaders, it would never start. The new mass workers party will come from activists from the rank and file, getting involved in precisely the 'local and ad-hoc alliances', and also organising themselves nationally.

    They will only stay in these alliances if they feel they are democratic, that they are able to voice ideas and criticism, and they feel the rules are loose enough for them to freely express their own political viewpoint as part of the movement, rather than being required to adopt someone else's 'line' and stifle their own independent thought.

  2. The Open Letter initiative has in fact been very important in signalling an openess to the very developments being discussed here. I see no opposition between the two. Interestingly Dave Nellist suggested in Wigan that negotiations were in progress between the forces represented at that meeting at national level.

  3. I've thought about this post a little further.

    It shows a big about-turn from the times when we were told it was imperative for the left to go all out and stand in enough constituencies to get a Party Political Broadcast on the BBC.

    Now the situation has changed so much that we're told it is only possible for small local ad hoc alliances to exist. It seems that either the water is boiling hot or it is freezing cold.

    The explanation given for this is the absence of a mass movement.

    What about the impact of the credit crunch and growing mass unemployment on the consciousness of a whole layer of workers?

    What about the massive public anger at the MP's expenses scandal?

    The argument you are making seems to be one that parties emerge as an unconscious byproduct of mass movements, rather than being the conscious constructions of a layer of activists who are focussing on what is neccessary to prepare for FUTURE struggles.

    A leadership uses perspectives to think about what is trying to happen in the future, and the tasks neccessary to bring it into the present. It does more than simply react to events and moods, as doing this leads to strategic zigzagging that becomes ever wilder.

    This is why building a new worker's party is so important and so urgent. We must consciously prepare for the mass movements of tomorrow by laying the foundations of a genuine alternative to the establishment parties.

  4. Ultimately, it is about making an assessment of the situation and working out what is possible, then pursuing it. The objective limits here are pretty obvious: the collapse of Respect combined with on-going tensions between particular left-wing forces (notably SWP and Socialist Party) means formal left unity is distant. It's also simply NOT the case that there's a mass movement comparable to the anti-war movement of 2003 which can be a springboard.

    There's still no sign of leftwing Labour MPs making a break from their party. Nor is there any significant change in the attitude of traditionally Labour-supporting unions. There's no point pretending these things aren't relevant.

    At the same time the public mood is, on almost all issues, significantly to the left of the mainstream parties, and there's widespread anger at things like the bankers raking in bonuses while unemployment rises. There's consequently a gulf between the desperate need for a left wing electoral alternative and the ability of the left to provide it. In these circumstances we need to discuss how best to proceed, and map out what we realistically CAN do.

  5. I think you've hit on it with your description of the 'gulf between the desperate need for a left wing electoral alternative, and the ability of the left to provide it'.

    This is not anywhere near as much about 'objective' limits, as it is about our own 'subjective' limits. We know the need is there, but are limiting ourselves, rather than laying out clearly before our class what we can see is so neccessary.