There is currently some discussion about the prospects for left-wing electoral parties or candidates, whether it is the new Left Unity initiative or established formations like the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) or Respect. This is clearly influenced by widespread disillusionment with Labour, partly due to its record in office for 13 years but also because of the party leadership's lukewarm opposition to Tory austerity policies and the role of Labour councils in implementing cuts.
So, what are the conditions for the growth of new left-of-Labour electoral parties? It's worth considering the broader European context here, as the last decade has provided numerous examples of left-wing electoral initiatives in the political space opened up by social democracy's capitulation to neo-liberal orthodoxies. This wider experience – in countries like Greece, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and Holland as well as in the UK - can be distilled into several key elements which provide the conditions for new left-wing parties being a plausible endeavour, not just a fanciful idea.
I'd suggest the following features contribute to such a favourable context:
A crisis of established social democracy. In other words, a country's Labour Party has disillusioned its supporters by imposing cuts and privatisation while in office. It is the adoption of neoliberalism by European left-of-centre parties, especially from the mid-1990s onwards (typified by Blair's 'Third Way', but far more widespread), that provides the broader political context for the rise of newer left-wing formations in recent years.
Fractures in social democracy. The crisis of trust in the traditional labour parties leads to breakaways by left-wingers, either in those parties themselves or the trade unions linked to them. For example the basis of Die Linke, Germany's Left Party, was an alliance between those in the east from an official Communist background and those in the west who broke to the left from the SPD because of its neoliberal policies.
Mass movements or mass struggles. Extra-parliamentary struggles can give impetus to new electoral challenges on the left. This country's Stop the War movement was the practical context that shaped the formation of Respect, especially the involvement of Muslim anti-war activists in alliance with the radical left, when it was launched in January 2004. The most advanced example is of course Syriza, the growth of which is organically connected to the mass strikes and mass protests in Greece.
A significant layer of activists. For the left to take advantage of new opportunities, it must have activists who can deliver - or it will simply be marginalised. An obvious example is France's Fronte de Gauche, which is dominated by the French Communist Party, an organisation that claims 70,000 subs-paying members (i.e. several times the membership of the entire UK organised radical left combined).
On a smaller scale, though, recall that the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect were both made possible, in the previous decade, by decent-sized socialist organisations investing time in building them. At a more localised level the same was possible in Bradford last spring, when a great many new activists emerged to get George Galloway elected, but Respect has been completely incapable of generalising this elsewhere.
An electoral system that is favourable to minor parties. Our 'first past the post' system is a major barrier to minor parties. Many European countries (including Greece) have systems that provide better opportunities for small parties to actually get people elected, which in turn takes them to a higher level of public awareness, provides a certain political credibility and motivates activists to keep on campaigning.
In the UK it is the European elections, London Assembly elections and Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections that offer the best scope for breakthroughs. Recall that the SSP became a credible force because of the Scottish Parliament's PR system - first with Tommy Sheridan's election in 1999, then in 2003 with a raft of MSPs. When Respect was founded, the hope was to get representation in the European Parliament and London Assembly in June 2004, but it was a setback when this didn't happen.
An existing electoral vacuum. This is not an absolute precondition - look at how Syriza has flourished despite competition from the Communist KKE and the radical-left Antarsya (although even here remember that Syriza’s call for a left-wing coalition government lifted its support last year). But it helps a new left-wing party's chances if there are not already a number of left-wing alternatives on offer to voters. A range of options on the left not only splits the vote, but also generates cynicism among voters (and many potential activists) about the left's inability to unite.
What, then, are the prospects today? Let's work through the above points in turn.
A crisis of established social democracy. The long crisis of social democracy - specifically Labourism - continues. There is no decisive shift leftwards in the Labour Party. A period of sustained capitalist crisis underpins Labour's 'reformism without reforms': if it was in office today it would not be very different from the current Tory-led government, unless it was willing to break the whole logic of austerity entirely (and it's clearly not willing to do so). It is technocratic and managerial, operating in narrow political boundaries.
However, that doesn't mean we are in a similar position to when Respect was launched in 2004. Labour lost millions of votes in the 2001 general election (compared to its 1997 high) as turnout fell. Its membership had declined substantially from the 400,000 members it claimed when Blair took office. It was a Labour government which was imposing unpopular policies, and joining in the US-led war in Iraq, so there was anger and deep disappointment with Labour.
Today's situation, in which Labour is offering feeble opposition to a Tory-led government, is not the same. Opinion polls indicate a voting share of over 40% (after taking under 30% of votes in 2010) and party membership has at least slightly increased. Labour is not the primary source of working class anger. In fact it serves as a repository for a great deal of the anti-Tory, anti-cuts feeling. However eroded its social base, it still has one inside the working class and it is still has strong links with large trade unions. It still benefits from revulsion at a rabidly right-wing government.
Fractures in social democracy. A striking feature today is the lack of any break with Labourism to the left. No MPs show any sign of resigning the Labour whip. If even the most left-wing MPs, like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, didn't resign over Iraq they are unlikely to do so now. Very few local councillors have taken a stand against Labour councils implementing Tory cuts to local services.
Unite, a key trade union backer for Labour, wants to push the party leftwards, especially by getting more left candidates selected for the 2015 general election. This does not suggest a union that is ready to disaffiliate and instead help build a new left party. Something similar applies to a number of other Labour-affiliated unions, while non-affiliated unions like PCS and NUT have a political role but show little inclination to have a party political role.
Mass movements or mass struggles. The existence of a mass anti-cuts movement is a more favourable condition today. The flourishing of campaigning activity and the bringing together of activists could potentially lay the basis for a new left-wing party.
But even here there's a question of timing. The priority for now is to build a united, co-ordinated national movement, especially through the People's Assembly Against Austerity on 22 June. We're not there yet. Once we have built such a co-ordinated movement, and crucially won some victories against the government, then entering the electoral arena may become more of a pressing issue (notwithstanding the other reservations I am outlining).
A significant layer of activists. A major difficulty today is the absence of a large layer of left-wing activists who can build rooted local groups in every area. I don't believe there is any short cut here - and of course thousands of names on a statement are not the same as groups of activists meeting regularly in local areas.
The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party still have modestly respectable numbers of active members, but even they get derisory votes under the TUSC banner. Respect has only a few local pockets of support. The groupings involved in Left Unity are dedicated and active but small.
An electoral system that is favourable to minor parties. The 2015 general election will be hopelessly hostile territory for the left. Local elections will be little better, except in perhaps a small handful areas where there are specific favourable conditions (even then it's highly unlikely that candidates would actually get elected).
Next year's European elections will be better because they use a version of PR, but any left-wing challenges will be thinly spread rather than being able to concentrate resources and will suffer from the lack of an established profile or toehold in mainstream politics. Respect was unsuccessful in the June 2004 European elections in much more favourable circumstances than TUSC, Respect or any other left-wing platform will have in 2014.
An existing electoral vacuum. There is a pretty crowded field. The Greens are highly contradictory, but nonetheless occupy some of the available space on the left. Any new initiative, like Left Unity, also has to contend with the prior existence of TUSC and Respect, neither of which are likely to roll over for a new kid on the block. And if anyone thinks that these various elements will simply unite in a single new party then they really haven't been paying attention.
What overall conclusions can be taken from the above? It should be obvious that past UK successes - several SSP candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the election of George Galloway as a Respect MP followed by a batch of east London councillors in 2006 - are not easily replicated. It would also be naïve to imagine that breakthroughs on the continent can be readily emulated here.
We also need to recall that initial breakthroughs, here and elsewhere, have in most cases not been sustained or built upon. In fact a number of electoral formations have declined or even collapsed, as the wider circumstances have changed or as difficult-to-balance political tensions have ultimately become irreconcilable. This doesn't mean that nothing can be done in the electoral field, but expectations need to realistic.
Then there is the question of what our priorities on the left ought to be. The primary locus of struggle is clearly extra-parliamentary activity, especially in the form of street protests and principally oriented on the struggle against austerity. This includes a great deal of trade union activity - although strike levels have been low, unions have played a major role in mobilising anti-cuts feeling on the streets - but also protests by a wide range of groups encompassing all sorts of issues, from the bedroom tax to the NHS, from workfare to library closures.
There has been a fragmented and localised quality to most anti-cuts campaigning. The People’s Assembly in June offers the hope of utilising the energy and dynamism in much of this campaigning and channelling it into a more co-ordinated assault on the government, developing a unified and coherent movement that combines the myriad campaigns and organisations.
Such working class unity in action is surely the central priority for the left today. This has the capacity to confront – urgently confront – the Tory assault on working class living standards, welfare and public services, mobilising popular opposition on the streets and hopefully, increasingly, through workplace action too.
Standing candidates in elections may have a place, but it is hardly the most pressing priority. There is no reason to believe it is now - or will, between now and spring 2015, become - a central priority. The streets are where we are strongest and can have greatest impact.
This doesn’t mean pursuing blind activity or downplaying politics: indeed the People’s Assembly process provides a chance to unite activity and politics on a sustained, on-going basis. It is through this process that we can unite and renew the left, drawing in new layers of activists and supporters, making left-wing politics relevant through meaningful mass activity against the cuts.