Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The radical left and the ballot box

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.

Future directions

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.



  1. Hi Alex

    I have a lot of time for Counterfire. The 'Firebox' initiative one of the most imaginative on the Left for some considerable time. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas was similarly excellent. And for a relatively small grouo to launch first the Coalition of Resistance and now the Peoples Assebly against Austerity, highly impressive.

    But this latest post, presumably reflective of Counterfire's thinking, is somewhat myopic.

    The Peoples Assembly is a good initiative but there is absolutely no certainty it will lead to the kind of broad and popular anti-cuts movement rooted in localities you describe and aspire to. We haven't got very far towards this objective in the past 3 years so why now?

    You counterpose this to the Left Unity initiative. The key difference this time round may well prove to be the lack of involvement of the SWP, SP and various othe hroups of this ilk. At the most generous the falure of Respect and the Socialist Alliance could be put down to the over dominance of these groups and their unwllingness to let eiterh the SA or
    Respect to grow as an independent party, instead seeing them as potential rivals, and hence the need to control.

    Now the Left Unity iniative, jut like the Peoples Assembly, may fail to fulfil its potentia. But 7000 signatories with 70 local groups is quite an astonishing start. o far reaching out way beyond the pre-existing left. And if this translates into anything resembling a sustainable party with local presence and a decent shot at elections this will be some breakthrough, with or without the organised left involved.

    So abandon the myopic world view. The Peoples Assembly may lead to sometying, it may not. The Left Unity initiative may lead to something, it may not. Assuming at the outset that one is somehow more important at the expense of the other does nobody, including Counterfire, any favours.

    Mark P

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. To clarify, though, this post isn't primarily concerned with Left Unity - or any different initiative/organisation - but the conditions which shape prospects for LU or Respect or TUSC or anything else. Ken Loach's appeal is certainly a trigger for engaging with the subject, but not the main focus here.

      On the specific issue of Left Unity: my analysis above implies that its evolution will in fact have little to do with any subjective decisions it makes, but is limited by the constraints of our age. For example, there's a by-election in South Shields coming up. Will there be a Left Unity candidate? If not, why not? If so, what vote will they get? The point is that actually contesting elections is tough and hostile terrain for the radical left. It's one thing to get thousands of names in support. Getting an even respectable vote in a real election is harder. That is the real test for Left Unity and I don't, at present, see any reason why it will do any better than TUSC.

      We have different assessments of Respect, of course. I think that the involvement of lots of SWP members was a crucial element in how it made breakthroughs. Without that layer of activists it has, since 2007 and Bradford aside, suffered greatly in its ability to mount serious campaigns. Numbers matter. Just ask the Left Front in France or Syriza in Greece (not a huge party, but it's in a country of 11 million people not 60 million).

      It's true that the People's Assembly may not lead to the movement we need. But what it aims for is exactly what we need (which I don't think can be said of Left Unity). And it is our best chance - probably our only remaining chance - to make this happen. There are grounds for hope in the breadth of the coalition which is getting behind it - crucially involving the unions in something initiated from the left more fully than anything before - and in the widespread enthusiasm for it, e.g. 900+ registrations already in.

      Finally, a reminder about time frame. The cuts are hurting now - and they're getting worse. We need victories in the short and medium term - scrapping the bedroom tax, for example, would damage the government and boost all of us. It might just turn the tide, but only if there's a stronger and more co-ordinated national movement to build on it. There is, by contrast, no reason to think that anything on the electoral front can have anything resembling the same effect. It is in 2015, if (as is likely) a Labour government is elected and fails to break from Tory austerity, that left-of-Labour electoral challenges become relevant.

  2. Thanks Alex. Good to have a dialogue.

    If course it is perfectly possible to back both initiatives and have a critical perspective towards both too.

    I fear both have their limitations.

    On 'Left Unity'. An electoral initiative means winning votes and quite quickly winning seats. Without either it becomes doomed and support will fade away quickly. The immediate prospects are bleak but the European Elections, GLA elections and possibly well targeted council seats could change that. Our gravest weakness on the Left has been that the electoral chalenge to the mainstream has been most successful from the outside right, first the BNP and now UKiP. Whether Left Unity can achieve that will promarily be down to the fast growing network of local groups and whjo they can draw in.

    On the 'People's Assembly'. The aim is 3000 I believe? Thats an impressive gathering but the question woll remain wht it can be translated into. And if it is not about challenging Lib-Dem electorally how woll that challenge, opposition, be posed. An 'event' is all well, and very good but its the process that remains key, so far about from the breadth of trade unions backing it theres no sign of how the Assembly wll connect to a broad, popular and localised movement.

    On Respect and the SWP. I wasn't scoring points. I was simply pointing out that part of Respect's failure was to reach out to a big enough activist base beyond the SWP. It is entirely natural that in Respect many in the SWP would continue to put their group first and not filly commit to building Respect as an independent party. Still, this is old history.

    You want to prioritise the Assembly for the reasons given. No problem with that. The key however though remains a narrative and culture which will see a mass movement emerge. I suggest that on the 'cuts' this is a far, far harder task that the Iraq War, so how?

    Matk P

    1. I've written on the People's Assembly (see the immediately preceding post on this blog) and refer to it as a process rather than simply an event. The 22nd June is envisaged as a springboard for action, not merely an end in itself. In the long term the real test will of course be what action it delivers. In Newcastle we have initiated a very good, on-going process which links the national framework with a range of local campaigns and groups. I expect this to be still stronger coming out of 22 June. Will it happen elsewhere? That is up for grabs.

      The thing about Respect is that our interpretation of it does matter to our predictions for Left Unity, doesn't it? If, like me, you think that we struggled to consistently and actively involve the broad layers we'd have ideally liked because of objective conditions, not because of SWP subjective failings, then the outlook is poor. But if you think that the SWP being a large component of Respect was a big part of the problem then naturally you think the SWP's absence will be beneficial to Left Unity. I think such a view - currently a widespread one, for sure - is dangerously naïve, as it fails to grasp the value of a core of committed socialist activists who will consistently work at something.

      As for your final point... I agree it's not as simple as Iraq. I think, however, that such a narrative is increasingly emerging. In this respect the Tories are actually making our job a little easier by launching several attacks on welfare simultaneously. We are able to link those attacks and point out that they're united by making the poor pay while the rich get a tax cut. There's a growing and sharpening sense of Them and Us. In this context we also need to be articulating clear alternative demands, which I hope will be a priority in the Assembly itself.

  3. Thanks Alex. A decent dialogue.

    On the People's Assembly the issue of how it connects to a broader movement needs to be hard-wired int the initiative from the start. Without that its not much more than a biggish conference of the like-minded. If that connectiin is made then a process may well evolve, great! But the questiin remains wjhat is its purpose? Occupy and UK Uncut work because of their essential simplicity. Is the idea primarily to shift public opinion on the case for austerity? That seems to me the key task, and one whch Labour is pretty useless at.

    On Respect, and now the Left Unity initiative. I suspect we are not in such disagreement. All I am saying is that for any initiative of this kind to work it needs to both reach out beyond those already involved in the orgaised left and place those at the core of its future. Of course experienced activists, members of an organisation or not, have much to contribute but if they are dominant then the initiative has failed.

    Mark P

    1. Yes, I agree entirely about how the PA connecting to the broader and local movements must be fundamental from the start. That is certainly Counterfire's take on it, though with this being such a broad and diverse coalition there may be competing ideas about its nature and direction.

      Occupy and UK Uncut have worked up to a point - and done a great deal of good - but I think their limitations are obvious: tied to very specific tactics they can only go so far, and they struggle to connect the small activist minority to the mass organisations of the working class (notably the unions). The potential of the PA - as process not just event - is greater because of its scope both in terms of WHO is involved and WHAT tactics can be used.

      Finally, what you say about Left Unity in your 2nd paragraph here is precisely true, also, for the PA. Established left-wing activists have a crucial role to play, but the hopeful thing is that so many people way beyond that milieu are signing up. The biggest challenge will be to facilitate those people organising locally beyond 22 June, within a national co-ordinating framework. I'm confident we can do it in the Newcastle area, precisely because we've got a core of radical-left activists committed to broader coalition building. In areas where we don't have that, we really are entering unpredictable territory.

  4. I think CF have a good grasp of what class conscious and active working people can do in the present situation. Unifying anti-cuts activism at a local and national level - linking unions and community groups at a national and local level - is a more realistic goal than yet another attempt to form a new political party.

    Comrades I know in the SP describe the Left Unity project as an attempt to recreate the Socialist Alliance, which a number of experienced activists in their party, and other Trotskyist groups, view as a positive project. But I think the same dynamic which tore SA apart could happen quite easily if Left Unity fails to attract funding from one of the unions formerly affiliated to Labour.

    The only way that TUSC or whatever Left Unity formation will have any success is if the Pasokification of Labour takes place after 2015 - in other words, if a Labour government is elected on a wave of hope which the leadership of its parliamentary party is unwilling to meet. Only then will more Labour voters be more inclined to seek an alternative. And that's not a desirable outcome for our class. Anti-Labour electoralism at the present time is just a distraction.

    1. Thanks James. Again, the question of time frame is vital here. What is the next step? We need - as a broad, united (as far as possible) movement - to respond in combative fashion to current attacks on us. This month is seeing the biggest and most consequential set of cuts thus far.

      So this means getting on the streets, forging stronger coalitions in action, developing co-ordination. We need a mass movement that mobilises in the here and now against severe attacks from government. The People's Assembly, if combined with further developing the existing protests, e.g. over the bedroom tax, answers the need that currently exists. New electoral formations really don't address that. After May 2015 it will be different, but until then...